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Elite rule under attack in US and elsewhere

I do not usually follow closely the United States presidential race at this early stage when the two main parties have still to decide on their nominations.

But this year has been different.

That's because of two candidates who have set the debates alight and made the contest for the top job uncomfortable for the established contestants.

Mr Donald Trump has made the most headlines and, with his recent wins in the primaries, looks like the person to beat on the Republican ticket.

But the other sensation of the race, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, has also been blazing the campaign trail because of what he is saying that is rotten in his country.

Mrs Clinton is as pro-establishment as you will find among the presidential candidates, and there she was saying that Mr Joe Average was being ripped off by Mr Big Corporation. Election rhetoric to win votes? Maybe, but I think there is something deeper at work, not just in the US but elsewhere too.

By itself, this isn't unusual - lots of other candidates in the past have staked their claims to put right what they feel has gone wrong.

President Barack Obama went big on it in 2008, putting change at the centre of his agenda.

But Mr Sanders is unlike all the others because he wants to bring down two giant pillars of the American establishment - its political institutions and the finance industry represented by Wall Street.

And, unlike previous candidates, his message has some resonance with people outside the US because they, too, face the same issues.

So, what is he saying?

This is the gist:

Politics in the US is corrupt because it is controlled by the wealthy who contribute large sums of money to their favoured candidates.

They do this through what are called Super PACs (political-action committees) to which they can contribute unlimited amounts of money to their causes to fund television and newspaper advertisements.

In this campaign, the top Super PAC candidate was Governor Jeb Bush of Florida with contributions of more than US$103 million (S$145 million).

Hence, Mr Sanders asserts, the government no longer represents ordinary people but a handful of the super wealthy.

But his sharpest attack is aimed at big business: He says they have rigged the economy to benefit themselves.

An example: The US government bailed out banks after the 2008 meltdown following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, spending billions of taxpayers' money.

Now that these financial institutions are back on their feet, they continue to enrich themselves, paying hundreds of millions in bonuses to their executives and carrying on with the same excesses that led to the collapse in the first place.

In the meantime, in the real economy, wages have stagnated and middle-class families struggle to make ends meet

"All the new income and new wealth that has been created has gone to the top 1 per cent... We see kids being arrested for marijuana and going to prison with a criminal record, while executives at Wall Street who break the law pay billions of dollars in settlements but get no prosecution, no criminal record," he claimed during a recent debate.

It is tempting to dismiss this as the rant of an extreme socialist of the Democratic Party, which traditionally has been against big business and for blue-collar workers.

That's what I thought when watching a video of that debate.

But when he had finished and it was the turn of his Democratic rival, Mrs Hillary Clinton, to respond, she surprised many when she nodded her head and said: "Yes, the economy is rigged in favour of those at the top... Americans have not had a raise (in wages) in the last 15 years."

Mrs Clinton is as pro-establishment as you will find among the presidential candidates, and there she was saying that Mr Joe Average was being ripped off by Mr Big Corporation.

Election rhetoric to win votes?

Maybe, but I think there is something deeper at work, not just in the US but elsewhere too.

It has been evident now for some time that income gaps are widening in many countries and the rich have done much better than ordinary people whose wages have largely stagnated.

Earlier this year, the British charity group Oxfam reported that the top 1 per cent in the world now own more wealth than the rest of the 99 per cent.

But despite the occasional protest, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, there hasn't been strong enough public outrage to provoke real change, whether in America or elsewhere.

In a democracy, the only way for citizens to do so is through the ballot box with a leader who they believe can make it happen.

Is it possible Mr Sanders can successfully tap this groundswell of unhappiness?

Going by how well he is doing against Mrs Clinton, despite her proven strengths and track record, he might well be on to something.

Even among young women, his message appears to be more compelling than the prospect of voting in the first woman US president.

Of course, these are early days in the campaign and there will be further twists and turns in the story.

Is any of this relevant to Singapore?

I believe it is.

The ruling People's Action Party, too, has had to fend off criticism during the 2011 General Election that it had become detached from the ground, failing to address issues faced by people in public transport, housing and immigration.

Critics attacked it for being elitist.

To its credit, the Government responded after the election results showed the extent of public unhappiness.

It dealt with many of those policy issues and shifted its ideological position to do more for the lower-income, providing greater retirement and social security benefits and better healthcare coverage.

These initiatives led to the stunning election victory in 2015.

But those same issues are still very much alive here, as they are elsewhere.

Mr Sanders might not win the Democratic nomination, let alone become president.

But if the issues he raised are not dealt with, you can be sure there will be future candidates who will take up the same cudgels.

The reality is that globalisation will continue to cause low-end wages to remain depressed and high-end salaries to move up.

For Singapore, it means the Government's work is far from done and it has to press on with efforts to narrow the gap, or face another electoral backlash.

But it now has to do this and tackle the economic challenges of slow growth amid stagnating productivity and competitiveness.

Can it grow the economy and redistribute at the same time?

It's the ultimate challenge for any government.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Elite rule under attack in US and elsewhere'. Print Edition | Subscribe