Beware: More Brexits ahead

Brexit is far from being a uniquely British phenomenon and holds lessons for Asia

The shock waves triggered by Britain's decision to quit Europe continue to reverberate around the world, including here in Asia.

It should prompt some soul-searching among the key players: politicians, pollsters, pundits, as well as voters. For unless the right lessons are drawn and acted on, the road the world is now speeding down should be marked with signs that say: Beware Brexits ahead.

The questioning should start with politicians and policymakers, to fathom how they allowed such a huge gulf to emerge between them and the electorates they are meant to serve.

Indeed, for many British voters, the so-called "European project" of pushing for an "ever-closer union" came to be seen as politically aloof and adrift, while globalisation was thought to be benefiting entrenched elites who cared little for the common man.

The result: Political opportunists, sniffing an electoral opening, played on voters' anger and anxieties to swing support their way. This political risk was flagged in a recent interview I had with Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which does more than just about any other organisation to champion the idea of globalisation.

Unless the resulting twin gulfs - growing economic inequality and a widening political disconnect between leaders and the people - are bridged, holding off the "demagogic voices" will prove ever more difficult.

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  • The implications of Bri- ain's exit from the Euro- ean Union, the future of Asean and issues affecting the wider Asian region - these are some of the topics that top editors from the region will comment on as part of an Asian Editors Circle column.

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Referring to his new book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Prof Schwab noted that "social inclusion" - both within and between states - is a key challenge of our time.

This arises because wave upon wave of technological change - robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing - is sweeping away jobs, faster than new ones are being created, or the ability of people to retrain for new roles. By the WEF's own reckoning, some five million jobs across the world could be lost by 2020.

"We see it in the statistics. If you look at the US, the real income or purchasing power of the middle class has decreased. If you look at jobless rates, again that of the American middle class, it has increased.

"But even if you have jobs and housing, job security has become very precarious. So until now, people could look to the future in a relatively secure way, but that's no longer the case. And there are not just social consequences but also political consequences, which you see in today's rise of what I would call 'demagogic voices'."

Lamentably, these voices are now being heard in many parts of the world, not just in the United States or the United Kingdom, but also elsewhere in Europe, and even here in Asia, where politicians propelled by populism have raced past rivals from the established elites.

Furthermore, for all the economic progress that has been made, many Asian countries remain reliant on what Prof Schwab calls "low-skill, low-pay" workers whose jobs are especially vulnerable to being disrupted and displaced. Mass unemployment and underemployment loom for this segment of the population, even as those with "high-skill, high-pay" roles gain richly.

Unless the resulting twin gulfs - growing economic inequality and a widening political disconnect between leaders and the people - are bridged, holding off the "demagogic voices" will prove ever more difficult.

Some of these voices were shamelessly "economical with the truth", to borrow that immortal Whitehall euphemism, plumbing new depths during the Brexit campaign with misleading election pledges, which they have been busy edging away from after the polls.

But voters too have reason to be red-faced, given how many seemed to be discovering the import of their votes only after the ballots had been cast and counted.

Indeed, one alarming explanation for this was how in this digital age, where many are relying increasingly on social media for snippets and snatches of information, some voters simply did not pay sufficient attention to be able to discern the impact of their electoral actions.

Without a media that is trusted, reliable, financially robust and, yes, widely read, a critical prerequisite of democracy - an informed electorate - is unmet.

Democracy does not function as it is meant to if unscrupulous politicians mislead without qualms or consequences, a responsible media lacks the standing and the sway to call them out, and voters are just too busy to bother.

Pointing to this in an article in the New York Times, former British prime minister Tony Blair lamented: "Those in the political centre were demonised as out-of-touch elites... The campaign made the word 'expert' virtually a term of abuse, and when experts warned of the economic harm that would follow Brexit, they were castigated as 'scaremongers'."

He added ominously: "The political centre has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent. Instead, we are seeing a convergence of the far left and far right. The right attacks immigrants while the left rails at bankers, but the spirit of insurgency, the venting of anger at those in power and the addiction to simple, demagogic answers to complex problems are the same for both extremes."

Or, as William Butler Yeats put it, poetically and prophetically:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

No one should imagine that Brexit was a uniquely British phenomenon. The political trainwreck that shocked the world should have set off flashing lights all round. Hopefully, we in Asia have watched and learnt.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Beware: More Brexits ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe