A Singaporean's worry about Brexit, Trump and bubbles

Both Mr Donald Trump's election as US President and Brexit happened far away from Singapore, but they trouble me because they exposed divisions hidden to me and many of my peers - and I'm afraid similar divisions may exist here.

Brexit, the British referendum on the European Union, occurred while I was still studying in London. Not unlike Singapore, London is a capital that prides itself on being a global city. And Britain's decision on June 23 last year to leave the EU devastated me for two reasons.

First, multiculturalism and an openness to immigration form a core part of my identity. They were why I chose to study in London, why I exercised my right as a Commonwealth citizen to vote in the referendum, and why it felt like the vote to reject the EU was an implicit rejection of me by a country I had grown to love.

I was not alone. Many non-British people - including my Singaporean peers - felt likewise and in the weeks after the result, they admitted they no longer felt welcome.

Second, realising that the beliefs which formed a key part of my identity placed me in the minority stunned me.

What scared me about Brexit and Mr Trump's victory was how distant and enclosed within their own bubbles those on opposing sides of the two events had become, and how unaware they were of each other, except as stereotype and caricature.

I now realise that was due to a phenomenon known as "filter bubbles", which results in the misguided belief that one's opinion reflects reality. It also explains the shock of so many politicians, academics and professionals in London when Britain kicked the EU in the shins.

For London is a bubble. It is huge with more than eight million people, and to its inhabitants it sometimes feels like the centre of the world. But it is still just a bubble, and it popped with a whimper one sad day last June.

Less than five months later, I watched with a morbid sense of deja vu as America voted for Mr Trump in the presidential election, and saw how starkly differences in race, class and geography were reflected in the poll results.

What scared me about Brexit and Mr Trump's victory was how distant and enclosed within their own bubbles those on opposing sides of the two events had become, and how unaware they were of each other, except as stereotype and caricature.

To the Hillary Clinton camp, rural Americans who supported Mr Trump were "dumb conservatives". Across the Atlantic, Brexit supporters labelled city-dwelling Londoners as "out-of-touch elites".

We have already talked a lot about the political and economic effects of these two events on Singapore. But I am concerned for another reason: I worry that the divisions we saw exposed in the United States and the United Kingdom might have parallels here, and in ways that we are only beginning to realise.

I must state first that I know how fortunate I am to be a Singaporean at this point in history. Our achievements are the envy of many worldwide, and we have moved far from the days of violence and open conflict in society. But issues remain.

Take race. To Singaporeans in my age bracket, the racial riots of 1964 erupted two generations ago and are the stuff of history books. We are now a proud multi-ethnic society which celebrates our cultural mix, and for that I am grateful.

But in the past few years news articles and social media posts have exposed the racist practices of landlords who refuse to rent their property to Indians or mainland Chinese, and of parents who reject tutors based on their race. These show that tensions still exist.

Last year, a study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and Channel NewsAsia polled about 2,000 Singapore residents on their views on racial issues. It found that around half of those polled harboured negative stereotypes of others based on ethnicity.

Although a separate 2013 study by IPS and OnePeople.sg on a similar theme encouragingly showed that the vast majority of Chinese respondents were comfortable with having non-Chinese close friends, it also revealed that more than half of Singaporeans did not have a close friend of another race. That survey polled more than 4,000 Singapore residents.

The term "Chinese privilege" refers to the advantages Chinese people automatically accrue as part of the majority. The concept has been championed by people such as social activist Sangeetha Thanapal, playwright Alfian Sa'at and academic Adeline Koh. And in recent years, discussions on this have grown more frequent and heated.

I feel we need to talk about race more openly, a point Minister of State for Education Janil Puthucheary made last year. But the conversation must not be bogged down by rage.

That is not the only societal crack that has become more visible. Economic issues, such as income inequality, will continue to be a source of strain. Just after Brexit, National University of Singapore political scientist Reuben Wong warned that Singapore's social mobility - while relatively high - is declining.

Another fault line is the public's attitude towards homosexuality. The growth of Pink Dot, an annual event to advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) cause, sparked a backlash led by more conservative voices. And the controversy over this matter is far from over.

Speaking in the weeks after Mr Trump became US President, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore needed to avoid the deep divisions that marked American and British societies. I feel that to do that, society as a whole needs to acknowledge that these divisions exist, and that we must work to heal them.

Looking at Britain and the US now, it is hard not to despair. Not at their politics or their economies, but at how the gaps between opposing groups have become so stark that dreams of a united society seem to be just that - a dream.

Singapore is neither Britain nor the US, and our challenges are vastly different from theirs. But what Brexit and Mr Trump taught me was that I had stayed for far too long within my own little bubble.

Now that I am back home just after SG50, I am worried by the bubbles I see around me. By reaching out to those I see as my opposites, I pray I can break through mine.

I hope my actions - in their own small way - will help unite us for the next 50 years.

•#opinionoftheday is a new column by younger writers in the newsroom on issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 05, 2017, with the headline 'A Singaporean's worry about Brexit, Trump and bubbles'. Print Edition | Subscribe