Political upsets of Brexit, Trump stem from long-term changes: DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Jan 7, 2016, that the political upsets of Brexit and Trump stem from long-term changes within society.
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Jan 7, 2016, that the political upsets of Brexit and Trump stem from long-term changes within society.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Mr Tharman was speaking at a conference held by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on Jan 7, 2016.
Mr Tharman was speaking at a conference held by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on Jan 7, 2016.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - The political upsets of Brexit and Mr Donald Trump's election in America may have seemed shocking, but in fact stem from changes within societies that have been going on for decades, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Saturday (Jan 7).

He highlighted four trends: stagnant wages, declining social mobility, the sense of togetherness in society eroding, and politics and the media becoming more polarised.

"The game has been changing in much more disquieting ways in the more advanced world," he said.

"The only surprise is how long it's taken for those underlying domestic changes in society to be reflected in politics," he told an audience of 350 at a foreign affairs conference titled "Has the game changed?".

At the conference by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the audience and international affairs experts from around the world discussed global power shifts and issues, such as the incoming Trump administration and the rise of Asia.

The events of last year may have created a mood of despondency about the future of globalisation and international cooperation.

But domestic policies are the key to addressing the gloomy underlying trends, argued Mr Tharman.

"The real challenge is not about globalisation. The real challenge is in domestic policy responses," he said in his speech at the end of the three-day conference by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

"There are countries where you don't get the same trends played out although globalisation happens in the same way," added Mr Tharman.

He cited Sweden and Singapore, where wages of middle-income workers have risen by more than in other advanced economies.

In contrast, the wages of lower and middle class workers in America and parts of Europe, Britain and Japan have stagnated.

In America in 1970, 90 per cent of 30-year-olds had real incomes that were more than what their parents had at the same age.

Today, the figure is only half. This affects people's sense of hope for the future, said Mr Tharman.

The second trend he highlighted was a general decline in social mobility seen across all mature societies.

It is now a stubborn fact and "people know that their chances of moving up in life are less than they used to be if they start off at the bottom".

Third, people no longer think of themselves and their society in terms of "we" but in terms of "us versus them", said Mr Tharman, citing rich-poor and rural-urban divisions.

This is complicated by how sectarian strife in one part of the world can go global, and exacerbate these domestic fissues that have been evolving for some time, he argued.

Fourth, politics is increasingly polarised, reinforced by how social media algorithms filter "news" in ways that reinforce people's bias.

Mr Tharman offered four ways to tackle these issues.

One, pay attention to cities that have been left behind.

This can be done through city leadership, federal support, and close collaboration between universities, community colleges, training institutions and employers, as well as a school system that gives people hope early in life.

Two, help people regenerate their careers throughout their lives, through skills training.

Said Mr Tharman: "You need redistribution, but it's not at the heart of the matter. It doesn't give hope.

"Regeneration is what brings hope because you allow individuals, communities and cities to rise through their own abilities."

Three, neighbourhood and urban planning must discourage segregation and encourage people to mix.

This will enable communities to do well together and a mood of optimism to pervade, said Mr Tharman.

Lastly, rebuild the politics of the centre by bringing honesty and the tendency to look to the long term back into politics.

Mr Tharman described a long drift towards "short-termism in politics", reflected in US politicians' brazen neglect of key issues such as healthcare and pensions.

Neither the left nor the right has found it pays to be truthful about issues and offer solutions that give people confidence that tomorrow's generation will be better off, he said.

Advocating a better way, Mr Tharman called for honest politics that tells it like it is, but offers hope and real solutions to the young.

"There is nothing inevitable about the drift towards populism. We have to regenerate politics of the centre. It can be done," he said.