Wars within, and how to forestall them

Today, the greatest disruption to the lives of people in Western democracies can come not from wars waged against other nations but from the wars within.

Brexit and the ongoing Trump versus Clinton battle are two examples. They have exposed deep divides and cynical disillusion among citizens of two leading democracies, and these wars within are warping the trajectories their countries were on.

Might the same happen to Singapore?

In June last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong identified as "our most fundamental challenge" in the very long term, that is 50 years hence, the work of preventing the break-up of Singapore society into "warring clans". Speaking at the Ho Rih Hwa Leadership in Asia Public Lecture, he also identified economic growth as the big challenge in the short term, meaning the next 10 years, and raising the birth rate as the key challenge in the medium term of the next 25 years.

That is good news of sorts. It indicates that by the Government's own assessment, Singapore is not likely to suffer serious disruption from internal division until many years from now.

What forces could splinter society here? The fault lines include the old ones of race and religion, or new ones over issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Society could also split along the lines of rich versus poor, or due to the pull of external forces from religious extremism or big powers in the region. Those were the threats cited by PM Lee, who said: "To keep Singapore special to maintain that sense that I am a Singaporean, I am proud of it and I want to uphold it, to feel a duty and a responsibility not only to your fellow citizens today but to the next generation, to feel one united people and not warring clans, I think in a very long term that is our most fundamental challenge."

In the Fast Forward series, political journalist Charissa Yong examined another possible fault line - that between the young and the old as the baby-boomer generation, who number some 900,000, near retirement age. By 2030, seniors like them could account for up to one in four voters - making for a sizeable bloc.

Other countries have seen their politics split by diverging interests of the young and the old, with Britain the most recent high-profile example. The most common source of tension is public spending, with the old seeking to protect their pensions and other old-age benefits and the young resenting the taxes levied on them to pay for seniors' support.

Where Singapore differs from the West is in not having entrenched benefits for baby boomers at the expense of the young, says National University of Singapore political scientist Reuben Wong.

If anything, Singapore's pioneer generation of political leaders did the opposite. They were almost obsessive about saving for the future and salted away years of Budget surpluses to build up the national reserves. Today, Singapore is reaping the rewards of that stockpile as the investment returns from the reserves help to fund government spending, including on healthcare where expenditure is rising fast as society ages.

Yet the question remains: Will each generation clamour for more benefits for its members? Will baby boomers, for instance, lobby the Government for medical subsidies as generous as those under the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package? Will the younger generation expect more and more financial support in return for having babies?

Such demands would add pressure on the Government to spend more, even as the revenue outlook tightens with slowing gross domestic product growth and lower investment returns from the reserves. Managing people's expectations will be a key challenge. To keep the balance, it is important that "no one group feels it is being taken advantage of by another", says Dr Gillian Koh, deputy director of research at the Institute of Policy Studies. However, a serious strain on public finances or some long-term economic shock could put social and political resilience to the test, she warns.

Another recent development is the opening up of fresh fissures over moral and cultural issues, as the culture wars of the West take on local form. A sharp divide has formed, for instance, over LGBT issues. In one camp are those whose stand is informed by deeply held religious beliefs; in the opposing camp are people who hold fast to principles of equality and freedom of choice. The room for compromise is thus limited.

Strong feelings were stirred up in June when the Ministry of Home Affairs moved to ban foreign sponsorship of the annual Pink Dot rally in support of the LGBT community. Verbal clashes online and competing calls for support are becoming more regular.

Against this backdrop, the Institute of Policy Studies' recent study on the New Singaporean Pluralism is timely as an attempt to tease out the "principles and practices of governance that may help maintain the civility of our shared political space", to quote the study's co-investigator Johannis Bin Abdul Aziz.

The study involved closed-door focus group discussions and interviews with prominent public advocates on all sides of the issues of LGBT rights and the "sanctity of life" or euthanasia debate. The investigators found that face-to-face meetings and the telling of stories helped to humanise each side to the other. There was a suggestion for civil and democratic values to be taught in schools so young people learn how to engage civilly online and honestly negotiate democratic practices such as debate and lobbying for support.

In a commentary for this newspaper, Dr Johannis wrote that the study's aim is to help reaffirm - against a background of irreducible pluralism - "a unity of purpose where a unity of views is impossible".

Such efforts are welcome and necessary to forestall future wars within.

Lydia Lim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'Wars within, and how to forestall them'. Print Edition | Subscribe