Thinking Aloud

Dangers of divisive politics: The alarming rise of leaders spouting hate speech

To ensure extreme parties don't gain traction in S'pore, it's vital that people do not feel alienated

As Americans go to the polls this Tuesday in a landmark election that is being closely watched the world over, Singapore's Parliament will be debating constitutional amendments on the elected presidency.

A year ago, many would have ruled out the prospect of a bitterly fought battle for the White House between Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump. But here we are.

As several elections elsewhere around the world have shown, the possibility of major upsets cannot be ruled out in a year when disruption sums up not just changes to the economy, but in politics and society too.

Particularly disconcerting is the destructive nature of such electoral contests, where not only have personal attacks become common, but also where in many instances, candidates play on race and religion to stoke fears and win votes.

Mr Trump has openly and repeatedly made inflammatory remarks against Mexicans and Muslims. His hate speech and xenophobia are not out of place among a growing number of far-right parties across Europe that have seen their support grow in recent years, with worrying consequences.

In Austria, the presidential candidate of the far-right Freedom Party, Mr Norbert Hofer, may well be voted in next month. In France, National Front candidate Marine Le Pen is widely expected to make it to the second round of next year's presidential election. And in Germany, the Alternative for Germany is set to be the first right-wing party to enter Parliament since the Nazis.

Some observers have attributed support for such parties, which have moved from the fringe to the mainstream with alarming speed, to economic anxieties and anger at what they see as liberal immigration into their countries.

But many note that underlying, and often intertwined with, these sentiments is a significant degree of resentment and animosity towards minority groups.

This is not helped by minority communities in the societies being isolated from the mainstream, with discrimination reinforcing a vicious circle of suspicion and resentment.

Party leaders have opportunistically tapped into these instincts.

Researchers at the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the United States note that Mr Trump's candidacy has legitimised the ideals of extremist groups and emboldened them.

Appeals to similar base instincts in South and South-east Asia, never far from the surface, have been making a comeback too.

Ultra-nationalists in India have rallied and held prayers for Mr Trump's victory.

In Jakarta, groups opposed to Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is known as Ahok and up for re-election in a three-way contest in February, have held up banners that say "ganyang Cina" (crush the Chinese) - a reference to Ahok's ethnicity.

Last Friday, around 100,000 joined a protest march led by hardliners who accuse him of blasphemy.

While such chauvinist sentiments have not reared their head here for some time, they have been stoked in the past and there is no guarantee they will not resurface.

On the one hand, Singapore has built up norms that reinforce the importance of racial harmony, religious tolerance, and give and take. Laws that penalise seditious comment, including attempts to sow discord against a particular racial or religious group, have moderated public discourse on the issue of race and religion somewhat - including online.

Group representation constituencies have also ensured that minorities are represented in Parliament, and created a playing field where political parties do not appeal overtly to race because they have to field a multiracial slate of candidates.

On the other hand, as examples from America, Europe and elsewhere in Asia show, race remains a raw fault line that can be easily exploited in politics. And some individuals with deplorable views have no qualms about taking advantage of these divisions to gain power.

Could such views gain traction politically here? Might we one day see our own Trump or Le Pen, changes to the eligibility criteria for the presidency notwithstanding?

That possibility cannot be ruled out. And given the rate at which fringe parties have seen their support rise in European elections, such views could gain traction fast.

How do we avoid this outcome?

Asked for his take on the rise of right-wing parties at a recent dialogue at the Singapore Institute of Technology, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the parties that have emerged "are a response to very difficult problems which the political system is unable to solve and which political leaders cannot persuade their people that (they) just have to accept".

"People lose confidence in the system, they lose confidence in their traditional political leaders and parties," he said. "These are not actually groups with solutions, these are groups which are really protesting."

He added: "Trump reflects the same sort of view in America. His focus is not to provide an analytical solution to a complicated problem. (It) is to make a simple message that will resonate with the ground who are already very angry - and work them up so they vote for him."

If Singapore is to ensure extreme parties do not gain traction, it must ensure that grounds for discontent and disillusionment towards the political system are managed consistently - and assiduously.

Income inequality is tipped to widen in the years ahead, and those in the middle might feel disgruntled if their incomes stagnate.

This means that as the country enters a new phase of slower growth, it will have to keep a close eye on economic anxieties and ensure that people do not feel a sense of anger or dislocation, or that they and their children are deprived of opportunities to do better in life.

Various agencies have stepped up efforts to give workersskills they need to take on new jobs. The social safety net has been expanded.

But the broad majority of workers - across all communities - must continue to feel they are able to do well, and have a fair shot here as a safeguard against the sense of alienation and being left out that feeds support for candidates like Mr Trump.

At the same time, Singapore's elected presidency - which the changes to the Constitution will further refine - can act as a stabiliser.

One significant change involves a provision to ensure that the main races are represented in the office of the president from time to time. This is an important reminder of our multiracialism and how sacrosanct it is.

As the Constitutional Commission reviewing the presidency noted in its report, the commission "considers it vital that ethnic minorities must neither be perceived nor must they perceive themselves as being unable to access the highest office in the land".

It also said: "The commission agrees emphatically that a race-blind society is the only legitimate aspiration for Singapore; but there is a pressing need to ensure that no ethnic group is shut out of the presidency even as progress is made towards that ideal, lest the office of president loses its vitality as a symbol of the nation's unity.

"Singapore cannot yet be considered a post-racial society: This is a reality that must be faced, even if it is one that is not to be endorsed."

The surge of extreme parties elsewhere shows the divides that pose the greatest risk to society are not just along economic lines, but also those of race, religion and culture.

In a recent essay in The New Yorker on why Mr Trump's support remains strong, writer John Cassidy notes his supporters evoke a lost "place of plentiful jobs, rising living standards, conservative social values, fewer immigrants and minorities who knew their place. To a large extent, this lost America is a myth".

Like many others, he is concerned that the ethnic divides the campaign has unleashed will not go away. It may well see more receptive listeners of future Trumps.

Singapore cannot rule out similar fissures here amid disruptions to the economy and disruptions to our society. This makes it all the more important that we build and improve safeguards against destructive tendencies which, if left unchecked, will lead us down the path of division.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Alarming rise of leaders spouting hate speech '. Print Edition | Subscribe