Thursday, July 7, 2016

Pressure piles up on leaders as business landscape shifts

Koh Choon Hwee

June 30, 2016

In May 2012, one year after a Singapore General Election that was said to have ushered in a “new normal”, a Chinese expatriate crashed his red Ferrari into a taxi and a motorcycle, killing himself and claiming the lives of a Singaporean cab driver and the taxi’s Japanese passenger.

About a week later, The Wall Street Journal ran an article titled Ferrari Crash Foments Anti-Foreigner Feelings in Singapore. In it, the author noted increasing levels of xenophobia in the country, and cited local academics who expressed the need to deal urgently with such divisive anti-foreigner sentiment.

Even though one of the victims was also a foreigner, Singaporeans’ outrage at the perpetrator of the accident, an expatriate, was portrayed as xenophobic.

Recent political developments in the United States and United Kingdom have likewise been too easily tarred with the xenophobic brush. The overwhelming show of support for Mr Donald Trump in the Republican primaries in the US and the recent triumph of “Leave” voters in the British referendum have both been cast as the prevailing of racist, nationalist or nativist sentiments.

That Latinos, blacks and other minorities were supporting Mr Trump had initially been passed over in much of the mainstream media. Instead, the press preferred to vilify the Republican nominee in simplistic and sensationalist ways rather than to comprehend the traction of his controversial campaign and to analyse the social and economic conditions of his supporters.

Similarly, prior to the referendum on whether Britain should exit the European Union, Leave voters were caricatured in the mainstream press as bigots, racists and “less educated” people who would, bafflingly, vote against their own economic interests.

Since the shock of the “Brexit” vote, however, more soul-searching and reflective op-eds have emerged. In attempting to understand the world views and motivations of Leave voters, these articles have illuminated the problem as being more fundamentally about the unequal distribution of the benefits of globalisation and capitalism — the irresponsibility and duplicity of British politicians notwithstanding.


Singapore’s 2011 General Election (GE2011) predates the Brexit vote, the US presidential primaries and much of the populist wave sweeping many countries now. But there are similarities among the issues that had concerned Singaporean voters in 2011 and those that now concern voters in the UK and the US. This is despite the characteristics particular to the respective contexts of the US, UK and Singapore, not to mention their vastly different political cultures, institutions and circumstances.

Comparing these similarities may yield insights about our own society. I refer to similarities that concern citizens’ economic anxieties towards the unequal gains from global capitalisation.

In the US, these fears are concentrated among masses of working-class Americans who have lost jobs to outsourcing. Reports have shown that both Mr Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have had much traction among these people.

Judging from voting patterns in the Brexit referendum, similar fears are concentrated in working-class, rural areas of the UK. In both cases, xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric has been the dominant language that has given voice to such complex anxieties. This language that has been articulated in mainstream media is a caricature of this demography, and has been adopted by opportunistic politicians seeking to shore up political support.

In the small, economically open, city-state of Singapore, a similar dynamic of popular resentment against outsiders occurred around GE2011 but manifested in different ways.

For example, it is not clear that residents of Aljunied Group Representation Constituency, the majority of whom voted for the opposition Workers’ Party, came from a distinctly identifiable economic class. Yet many of the conversations, both online and offline, used a similar language of resentment against immigrants, whether stemming from increased competition in the job market or frustration with the overcrowding of transportation systems.

After the shock of GE2011, the political leadership seemed to have understood the real issues disturbing Singaporeans beneath the frustrated language of anti-immigration. It renewed focus on the well-being of the “Singaporean core”, rushed to complete infrastructure projects and open new MRT lines, and poured efforts into public consultation and national-level community engagement, epitomised by the dialogue programme Our Singapore Conversation.

While treating the social and economic problems at the root, political leaders and academics also engaged the symptoms of anti-immigrant frustration rhetorically. They preached the virtues of an inclusive and harmonious society while rolling out initiatives for integration - though the Little India riots in 2013 and the detention of radicalised Bangladeshi workers earlier this year have prompted debate on how we can more effectively integrate migrant workers in our society.

Ultimately, the results of GE2015 show that, at the very least, the most acute of grievances shared by a large part of the electorate in 2011 had been addressed.

Larger pattern of globalisation, capitalism

Pondering over current events in the UK, US and globally reveals this: What occurred in Singapore in 2011 is part of a larger pattern of globalisation and capitalism that brings about inevitable tensions between the demands of capital and big businesses on one hand, and labour and local welfare on the other.

The former portrays its cause as one of breaking down barriers and peddles such concepts as “cosmopolitanism” and “multiculturalism”, but it also likes to vilify the latter as nativists and xenophobic. Many self-styled liberals and left-leaning youths of comfortable economic backgrounds fail to see through such “cosmopolitan” rhetoric to the real class conflict. This often results in them talking past frustrated working-class voters who do not speak in the same register or use the same political vocabulary.

Ruminating over current events in the UK and US also yields another insight: That precisely because Singapore is so small yet so economically open, unforeseen consequences that result from global business developments and trends may surface in our society before it does in other places, thus requiring the political leadership to preempt such eventualities.

To take another example: In response to increasing Airbnb-related disruptions to residential areas, global cities such as San Francisco, Paris as well as countries like Iceland have only started to strengthen and reexamine the issue of short-term rental regulations in the past year.

In contrast, discussions on this same issue had already taken place in Singapore back in 2013. At the time, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Housing Development Board strictly upheld the six-month minimum for short-term rental leases. The fact that Singapore is both an international city and a residential “hinterland” mandates extra sensitivity to global business forces that may disrupt our heartland.

In other words, there is added pressure on the Singaporean political leadership to anticipate potential fallouts from a changing global business landscape — thanks to a rapidly evolving tech scene — and to have the gumption to stand up to global corporate pressures to protect the Singaporean core while avoiding facile appeasements of populist pressures.

The emphasis here is on “facile”, because truly understanding the nature of popular grievances requires looking beyond the clumsy language of their frustration.


Koh Choon Hwee is pursuing a doctorate degree in Middle East history at Yale University

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