Populist politics: Lessons for Singapore

4 takeaways for Singapore from Trump win

Rodrigo Duterte, Brexit and now Donald Trump. The recent American presidential election is but the latest example of the politics of disruption, or populist politics fuelled by anger against the establishment and a rejection of an economic system that has left many behind.

The wave has played out in elections with a majority of voters defying expectations of the elite by voting for political outsiders as in the United States and the Philippines, or going for previously unthinkable options, as in the British referendum that led to voters backing their country exiting the European Union.

The shock events have prompted soul-searching among many, but as Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam put it in an interview with the Financial Times last month: "It's not that democracy is a bad system.

But we've got to focus on quality - quality of debate, quality of the electoral process and quality of accountability on the part of the elected government." Insight looks at the lessons that Singapore can draw for its own democracy and political institutions.

1. Be ready to work with any administration

British Prime Minister Theresa May was the 10th world leader US President-elect Donald Trump spoke to over the phone, raising fears over US-Britain relations. PHOTO: REUTERS

Nine months ago, British parliamentarians held a three-hour debate in Westminster on whether to ban Mr Donald Trump from the United Kingdom.

  • How do we avoid going in that same direction?

    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked for his thoughts on the rise of populist governments and the implications for Singapore at a dialogue at the Singapore Institute of Technology on Oct 24. This is an edited excerpt from his response:

    People thought the end of the Cold War meant they had won, and there was nothing to be solved in human society. The communists had failed, central planning had failed, liberal democracy, Western-style, is the answer for every country, and free markets - also extremely Western-style - are the solution for every economy. And it turned out not to be so.

    If you look at the Middle East, it's a mess. If you look at Europe, the extreme parties which have emerged, right-wing and left-wing, are a response to its very difficult problems which the political system is unable to solve. So people lose confidence in the system, they lose confidence in their traditional political leaders and parties, and vote for the extreme left, extreme right.

    So you have Mr Nigel Farage (leader of the UK Independence Party), the far-right Alternative for Germany party, Ms Marine Le Pen (president of the National Front) in France; while in other countries, we have left-wing movements, like the Podemos in Spain. These are not actually groups with solutions. These are groups which are really protesting: 'I'm letting you know I'm unhappy, please do something about it.'

    Mr Trump reflects the same sort of view in America. His focus is not to provide an analytical solution to a complicated problem. His focus 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 and hopefully he becomes president.

    But if everybody takes that approach in a democracy, then the president who is elected may or may not have solutions to the problems, and may or may not have the mandate to do the things that are necessary.

    And in Singapore, we watch all this with concern and we have to ask ourselves how we can prevent ourselves from going in that direction. For 50 years we've been very lucky. We are still united, still proud of the country, still moving forward. But in another 50 years, can you be sure that, somewhere along the way, the driver will not fall asleep and go off the road into trouble?

    That's one of the reasons why, when we talk about the political system in Singapore, we talk about having balancing stabilisers, so that in case something goes wrong, everything doesn't crash - like having a president who is elected, so that there's a second key for certain decisions. So even if the Government turns out to be unwise, the president is there and can prevent some bad things from happening.

    So be aware that the risks are there, and you have seen what can go wrong in other countries. Better to try our best to not let it go wrong in Singapore. Keep it going right.

The debate was prompted by an online petition that called his comments about Muslims hate speech. It led to lawmakers using a lexicon of insults to describe Mr Trump, who was then the front runner in the Republican primaries.

While some MPs cautioned restraint and called the motion an embarrassment for the UK, others eagerly allowed their righteous anger to show in their choice of words.

From "buffoon" and "idiot" to the very-British "wazzock" and the bombastic "orange prince of American self-publicity", there was no lack of indignant anger directed at Mr Trump over his comments that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States.

"Britain is pretty good at roasting beef, do you not think it's better that we just roast Trump?" one asked.

Such criticisms now seem woefully premature, given the real estate mogul's triumph in the American elections. Commentators now worry that the spectacle may have hurt US-Britain relations.

While Mr Trump had put in phone calls to leaders of nine countries including Australia and Ireland within 24 hours of his victory, he left out the UK despite Prime Minister Theresa May's prompt congratulations that highlighted the "enduring and special relationship" between the two countries.

"What special relationship?" The Telegraph asked, noting that Mrs May had described comments Mr Trump made about Muslims as "divisive, unhelpful and wrong" last December, and that his delay in calling Mrs May could represent a diplomatic snub.

Mr Trump did eventually call Mrs May, stressing the importance of UK-US relations, and inviting her to visit him.

Takeaways for Singapore

The UK is just one of a long string of countries whose leaders have made pronouncements about Mr Trump that they have had to swallow after his shock win.

The rise to power of populist leaders who include Mr Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines, has already forced countries to rethink the way they conduct international relations and has shaken up the norms of diplomacy.

Mr Trump's win further underscores a lesson for Singapore and other countries on the vagaries of foreign elections, and the importance of not assuming that they will pan out in expected ways.

In many ways, Singaporeans have become used to a high degree of predictability, including in politics, says Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani. But the Brexit referendum and the US election have shown that the world is becoming less predictable.

"The main lesson for Singaporeans is, don't take the world for granted - be ready for greater unpredictability," he says.

"Singaporeans are used to living in a comfortable cocoon, and don't have the instincts to deal with chaos and an unpredictable world."

Mr Trump's win is also a reminder that Singapore has to keep an open mind always and be prepared to work with whoever another country chooses as its leader, says Professor Tommy Koh, rector of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.

"We in Singapore and in Asia have no alternative but to work with whoever the American people elect as their president," says Prof Koh, who used to be Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations and the US.

"We must therefore work with Mr Donald Trump as their 45th president, and I hope he will realise the important responsibility that the United States has in the world at large - and in the Asia-Pacific in particular - in maintaining peace and security, promoting economic growth, and promoting a sense of comity and cooperation, and I hope he will continue along this trajectory."

And even as a deeply divided America struggles to redefine its identity and priorities under a maverick president, Singapore should work to maintain its close relations with the world's superpower, says Prof Mahbubani.

"It is a divided America, but there are many Americans who are open, globalised, and who want to deal more with the rest of the world," he says.

"We should maintain our links with Harvard, Yale, and so on, and we should not assume that Donald Trump represents the full spirit of America."

The degree of surprise and shock that greeted Mr Trump's victory has also turned conventional wisdom and analysis of the political process on its head, says Professor Chan Heng Chee, who chairs the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.

Like many, the former ambassador to the US had expected Mrs Hillary Clinton to prevail based on projections and data collected by pollsters, many of which predicted a comfortable win by Mrs Clinton even until the final day of the race.

"Perhaps for the educated watcher, pollster, and analyst, we don't understand those who have been excluded, and we should have some humility about that," she says.

"Certainly the analysts, and many of these polling places, were not able to poll properly, and haven't polled well for Brexit too."

2. Govt policies must not leave anyone behind

A man carrying a pro-Brexit placard takes parts in a protest against pro-Europe marchers at Parliament Square in London on Sept 3, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Call it the unintended consequence of free market economics: a backlash against globalisation.

From Britons exiting the common market of the European Union, to last week's election of avowed trade protectionist Donald Trump, voters are declaring they have had enough of worrying about jobs going abroad or to lower-paid migrant workers. This latest groundswell of protest by those left behind by globalisation has ripples even here: The Trans-Pacific Partnership involving 12 Asia-Pacific countries, including Singapore, now faces the prospect of indefinite suspension under Mr Trump.

And it comes even as Asia looks increasingly outwards. Take trade agreements such as the Asean Economic Community which came into effect last December, and aims to integrate South-east Asia's diverse economies into a single market.

The United States may be at the vanguard of economic interchange, but Mrs Hillary Clinton's campaign made the mistake of overlooking working-class voters' worries about globalisation and growing inequality arising from that new order.

In thinking that she had demographics on her side - that Mr Trump could not gain as many white voters as the minority voters that he was bleeding from his campaign rhetoric - Mrs Clinton made the mistake of focusing her last-lap efforts on battleground states such as Florida, taking for granted that middle America would stay blue.

But states such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania that had been expected to vote Democratf lipped for Mr Trump.

Why? These states represent the old America: solidly middle-class because of once-powerful industries such as car manufacturing and coal extraction, but whose towns are now hollowed out because jobs in these industries have gone overseas or disappeared entirely.

"In the last 30 years, many good, hard-working Americans have lost their jobs, whether in the lumber industry, paper mills or steel industry," says Professor Tommy Koh. "And the tragedy in America is that in many of these small towns, they have not been replaced with sunrise industries.

"One problem leads to another: unemployment leads to poor schools, which leads to truancy, and truancy leads to drugs. So many of these small towns are under multiple distress."

Disillusioned, angry and desperate, many of these voters saw in Mr Trump a way to reset the political system that seemed to have forgotten them. One stark statistic from exit polls shows the effectiveness of this message: Mr Trump won 67 per cent of the non-college-educated white vote compared with 28 per cent for Mrs Clinton.

"Some elections are all about identity, and some elections are all about the economy," says Professor Kishore Mahbubani.

"And this was clearly an election about the economy."

Takeaways for Singapore

Experts say the election result hammers home the importance of ensuring that a country's policies, no matter how well-intentioned, leave no one behind.

"The most fundamental lesson is that the disconnect between the elites in America and the people of America is actually very sharp and profound," says Prof Mahbubani. "We should ask ourselves whether there's a similar disconnect in Singapore too."

While globalisation and the embrace of free trade have long been seen by the world's elite as a necessity for countries to keep growing, the quest for economic efficiency has claimed many casualties, says Prof Koh.

"At a high level, you can say correctly that free trade is good for everybody, and that for every job that America loses, it gains two in return. That's true, but the same people don't get the new jobs, and unlike Singapore, there has been no attempt by government to offer them help in the transition, no attempt to help reskill and re-educate them."

Singapore's rocky road to independence and geographic realities have meant that the People's Action Party (PAP) government has become good at "the politics of anticipation", says Professor Chan Heng Chee. "Our government leaders go all over the world to talk to people, to know what are the major trends in the world with technology, shifts in the economy, shifts in patterns of globalisation and in the supply chain," she says.

"My sense is the Government is really looking at Brexit, and has looked at what has happened in the rise of Mr Trump, and understood that people should not be left behind, because when there is anger in that way, it's very uncontrollable.

"All the policies of the PAP government in the last few years have really stressed inclusion and inclusiveness."

Singapore may yet forestall the problems of populism and protectionism if the Government keeps a finger on the pulse of the nation, says Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat.

He points to how the PAP government responded to its lacklustre performance in the 2011 General Election, undertaking efforts to engage the public through Singapore conversations.

"But meeting them alone is not sufficient without crafting policies to meet their needs - this also means fundamentally changing or rethinking important tenets of society," he says. While welfarism was a taboo in Singapore in the past, "there is an element of welfarism after 2011, and this proved the Government is in touch with the needs of society", he adds.

"Being in touch with the electorate is key to winning elections. That is probably what the Trump camp did in the US."

Lim Yan Liang

3. Steer clear of racist politics and rhetoric

Demonstrators gather in front of the Trump International Hotel to protest against Donald Trump's supposedly racist, sexist and anti-immigration positions on Sept 12, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

In the end, race mattered in the American elections, which saw white voters sending Mr Donald Trump to the White House.

They weren't only angry white men, as some had predicted.

The Republican candidate, far from being backed by only poor and disenfranchised white voters, was buoyed by a broad range of white people cutting across gender, age and education levels.

Exit polls by CNN showed that 63 per cent of white men and 53 per cent of white women voted Trump.

CNN political commentator Van Jones called this a "whitelash" - that is, a backlash from white Americans against minority races.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it similarly in Parliament hours before America headed to the polls: "They feel threatened by the demographic changes happening in America. Theirs is a white protest vote."

The undercurrent of divides along racial lines was also seen in other national votes this year, particularly the Brexit vote in June in which Britain chose to leave the European Union.

Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee observes that the sentiment among some Trump voters of wanting to "make America white again" was the same one that drove the Brexit vote.

She says: "I think the British voter was looking to see the old Britain re-established, with a British core as they understood it: the old British core, which was really the English, Welsh, Scottish core. And in America, there is that yearning."

Last week, in America, the relative unity of white voters was remarkable for two reasons.

One, it stood in stark contrast to the minority vote. The same exit poll showed that on the whole, 58 per cent of white voters backed Mr Trump - compared with the 88 per cent of black voters and 65 per cent of Latino and Asian voters who chose Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Two, whites chose Mr Trump despite his racist remarks against blacks, Latinos and Muslims - not least of which was his calling Mexicans rapists and proposing a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

The voting patterns revealed a serious divide between the US' majority race and its minorities, as well as the lack of empathy some segments of white voters had for fellow citizens of different races.

It didn't stop there. In the aftermath of the result, networks and newspapers reported a rise in racist incidents, and that minority communities felt anxious and unwelcome in their own country.

The Singapore Takeaway

Obviously, Singapore does not have the same level of baggage and the deep-seated divide between its major ethnic groups that the US, with its history of white enslavement of blacks, does.

But given how much Singapore values multiracialism, and that it has experienced race riots in the past, it might be instructive to look at how to avoid the US' experience of race in politics.

On one level, the answer is institutions and policy fixes.

Observers cite the group representation constituency scheme, which requires would-be politicians to run in teams that must comprise at least one minority candidate. This decreases the likelihood of racist rhetoric in elections, because politicians must appeal to all races.

It also guarantees minorities a minimum level of representation in Parliament and lessens any resentment or fear they might feel from majority-race politicians.

On another level, politicians and policymakers also should watch out that they do not give racism fertile ground on which to foment dissent.

Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat notes that in the heated US election campaign, candidates played with the emotions of white voters, particularly the middle class.

"Questions that voters normally ask in elections are: Have our lives improved? The white voters must have felt they are deprived in their homeland," he tells Insight.

"It does not help that candidates took advantage of these grievances and blew them out of proportion, making big promises that they can be solved overnight, even though in reality, there can be no quick fix."

This inflamed the tendency to blame immigrants, or people who appear to be outsiders, when grievances are not addressed.

In the Brexit campaign, some politicians used racist and bigoted rhetoric to shore up their arguments for Leave - preying, for instance, on the fears of voters that Turkey could join the EU bloc.

Far-right parties such as the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and Britain First did very well this way.

The lesson here for Singapore is to ensure that citizens do not feel alienated in their own country.

"They must always feel important in their own country and the Government must address their concerns," adds Dr Norshahril.

Electoral dynamics aside, what Singapore can also do is strengthen race relations from the ground up.

In midwestern America, where swathes of working-class voters feel short-changed by globalisation, this coincides with a lack of exposure to non-white cultures.

Here, Singapore does better due to its ethnic integration policy of racial quotas in public housing.

But it doesn't mean Singapore should rest on its laurels, as Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun pointed out in last week's debate on changes to the elected presidency.

In particular, the onus may be on the Chinese majority to engage other races, he said. Because the population is predominantly Chinese, how Chinese Singaporeans vote will have an undeniable influence on the final results.

In a passionate speech, Mr Kok argued that the fact that Singapore needed to amend the presidency to ensure minorities are elected from time to time "says a lot about how far the majority is from real engagement with minority races".

He said: "Can we Chinese Singaporeans look beyond race to make an informed choice for our vote? Do we know enough about what happens in communities other than our own... or do we keep to our own?"

He added: "As a society we need to consider and care for people of other races and religious beliefs, people who speak a different language from us, perhaps more so than our own races, languages and beliefs."

If Singapore can achieve this, should it have a candidate who makes racist statements, voters would not back him or her - even if they are aligned on other fronts.

That would be a triumph of multiracialism.

Charissa Yong

4. Beware the dangers of populism

Rodrigo Duterte kisses the Philippine flag during a rally before the national elections at a Manila Park on May 7, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

This year saw the rise of the anti-establishment, populist figure in national elections around the world - from the surprising popularity of far-right party leaders like Nigel Farage in Britain, to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

The latest: Mr Donald Trump, the incoming 45th president of America.

One common thread is that these politicians pandered to people's anxieties and prejudices, universal feelings that cut across party loyalties and ideologies.

Mr Trump, for instance, during his campaigns declared that he would build a wall to keep Latinos out, or repatriate all undocumented immigrants - sweeping statements that could not actually translate into reality without significant cost and details to be ironed out.

But it connected with the visceral fears people had about immigrants "stealing" their jobs, which were also being eaten away by globalisation.

A similar trend was seen in June in the Brexit vote, where Leave campaigners likewise won over the disenchanted groups who felt threatened by immigrants and competition by cheaper manufacturing hubs overseas.

In contrast, the Remain campaign, as well as the Democrats in the US elections, failed in the eyes of ordinary people on the ground to critique and demolish their opponents' arguments.

This goes some way in explaining how Mr Trump was able to pick up votes off Democrats who had voted for Mr Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, scoring a series of victories in swing states like Florida that pollsters had thought would be Democrat.

But there is a danger in this phenomenon of populism, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in a dialogue with Singapore Institute of Technology students last month.

PM Lee's take on Mr Trump was that he had less of a focus on providing an analytical solution to a complicated problem, and more on "making a simple message that will resonate with the ground who are already very angry and work them up so they vote for him and hopefully he becomes president".

This may result in leaders elected this way potentially not having a solution to the problems their country face, he added.

The Singapore Takeaway

The big lesson for Singapore is to not underestimate the danger of a populist politician emerging here, says Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

"Even here it can happen, yes. I would say beware of the dangers of populism," he adds.

Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat reckons that what can be done during election time is a greater focus on policies, rather than personalities.

"Candidates have to deliberate how the promises can be carried out so that they are not empty promises. The government has to raise the bar on politics of decency," he says.

He says of the recent US elections: "I find in this election, discussion of policies was not very substantive. A greater debate on policies and how they will be implemented could prevent populism."

Observers, however, note that there is a limit to the effectiveness of logic to address what are essentially existential fears.

Dr Norshahril points out that during the live election debates, Mrs Hillary Clinton always emphasised fact checks on the statements Mr Trump made.

"Even this strategy, which could be a product of her legal training, does not work. It seems the art of communication is key to a candidate's victory," he adds.

Instead, what Mr Trump did was speak to a target audience of groups that feel deprived due to the Obama government's neo-liberal policies.

The ability of populist rhetoric to catch fire is in part due to angst over losing jobs, and it is important for major parties to attend to that problem with policies or proposals.

Observers also warn that it is important not to dismiss voters' concerns and deride them as being susceptible to demagoguery - the surest way to drive them into the arms of populists.

That would be unfair to the people who voted for Mr Trump, for instance, says Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh.

"We must not make the mistake that Hillary Clinton made during the campaign of describing his supporters as a 'basket of deplorables'. This was a tragic mistake that Hillary made, and she paid a price for it," he adds.

In short, it is vital to demolish such populist arguments in a way that connects with voters by engaging their rational side.

But perhaps another lesson here is for the political establishment not to let the situation get to a stage where populist rhetoric can be effective, in the first place.

Charissa Yong

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 4 takeaways for Singapore from Trump win . Subscribe