“But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” Theresa May paused to survey the crowd, her gentle manner belying the savage attack she was launching on globalist values. “You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
Across the Atlantic, then-Republican nominee Donald Trump had chosen to dispense with pretenses of statesmanship altogether, indulging instead in invective against immigrants and foreigners alike. Mexicans, Trump thundered, were “taking (American) jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.”
In a harrowing year characterized by widespread distrust of globalization and technocratic elites, politicians who have rejected cosmopolitanism in favour of parochialism have emerged victorious. Regardless of what PM May or President-Elect Trump might privately believe – May is herself a member of the Oxonian Tory elite, while Trump was formerly a Democrat and is currently backtracking on his most outrageous claims – they had the acumen to realise that the neoliberal political consensus of the last two decades was fraying at the edges, straining under the weight of blue-collar populist nationalism.
As the West lurches toward a future shaped by ethno-cultural chauvinism and inward-looking protectionism, Singapore must be wary. America, with her populous talent pool and staggeringly large domestic market, can afford the occasional dalliance with harsh immigration controls and trade barriers. Singapore, an economy largely dependent on external trade and human capital, cannot. Much of our economic vibrancy is premised on our openness to foreign inflows, both of talent and capital. To be swept along by the same illiberal wave of isolationist populism that has captured much of the West is to cede our comparative advantages to our close neighbours and China.
Worryingly, there is reason to believe that such sentiment has already taken hold. The 2011 General Elections, held against a backdrop of rising popular discontent toward the government’s immigration and labour policies, saw the PAP suffer its worst defeat in forty years. Two years later, thousands of disaffected Singaporeans gathered in Hong Lim Park to protest the Population White Paper – the largest-ever crowd since Hong Lim Park was designated as a free speech zone. Protesters held signs that would not have been out of place in a Britain First or Alternative for Deutschland rally, proclaiming “Singapore for Singaporeans”, and “We want to be heard, not herded”.
With the Singaporean economy posting meagre growth figures in 2016 and projected to perform similarly poorly in 2017, economic insecurity might further fan the flames of populist nationalism by encouraging Singaporeans to fallaciously view immigration as a zero-sum game. In a paper analyzing the relationship between ethnic threat and economic insecurity, research Jaak Billiet argues that “the general idea of group conflict theory is that hostile attitudes toward immigration can be regarded as a defensive reaction to perceived intergroup competition for scarce goods.” In the bleakest scenario, public pressure leads to the government placing tighter restrictions on immigration, causing SMEs to fold and large businesses to cut costs – which in turn slows economic growth and triggers another onslaught of populist nationalism.
We can ill-afford to hide behind empty platitudes of ‘racial harmony’ and ‘social cohesion’, while ignoring the tribalism and social dissatisfaction that have rapidly transformed the socio-political landscape in other countries. Centrist parties led by educated elites with Ivy League and Oxbridge credentials are being manhandled by right-wing populists who make up in grassroots savvy what they lack in technical finesse. The PAP government, widely considered to be a technocratic party par excellence, is not immune from similar challenges – especially during a time of leadership transition and rising social inequality.
Some would suggest that this is a problem in public communications. That if only the bureaucrats and policy wonks could better convey their genius through pie charts and infographics, if only it could persuade Singaporeans of the deep irrationality of their personal views, we can hold uninformed nationalism at bay. In my view, such a position is precisely what could foment a populist overthrow of the establishment. While we should not abandon efforts to improve public communications, a more fundamental question must be considered – what if a small but growing minority of Singaporeans have heard the PAP, but simply disagree with its operating assumptions and outcomes?
Take immigration, for instance. One could have gone down to Hong Lim Park to speak with the “Singapore for Singaporeans” protesters. They could even have been convinced that, on average, Singaporeans are better off when foreign talents contribute to our economy. But what if they are willing to trade away $500 a month in exchange for less crowded trains and a stronger sense of national identity undergirded by nativism?
The fatal flaw of liberal globalist politicians elsewhere is that they have won the contest of ideas, but not the battle for hearts. They have turned the debate over cosmopolitan values into a polemic struggle between good and evil. As if there is something intrinsically moral about embracing diversity, and fundamentally evil in tribalism. This would work if we were sure that the liberal globalists outnumbered the protectionist nativists in society, but evidence seems to suggest otherwise.
Hence, constructive compromise should prevail in Singapore. Though I don’t personally have a problem with our projected immigration figures, it may well be good politics to adjust these numbers downward if there is a surge of populist nationalism. Even for causes which I firmly believe are unquestionably moral – opening our borders to Rohingya refugees springs to mind – perhaps the constraints of our political reality mean that accepting refugees today leads to a Trump or Le Pen being elected tomorrow. There was much hand-wringing when German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed a partial ban on the burqa and niqab, as people saw it as a continuation of the many indignities faced by Muslims living in Europe. But in actual fact, it was a calculated maneuver to prevent far more radical right-wing parties from taking power. Better the lesser of two evils, if you will.
All around the world, rancour and fractiousness threatens to undermine the common overlapping consensus which supports stable democratic systems. In viewing the Other as anti-patriotic or evil, voting bases on both sides of the political divide have made compromise fundamentally impossible. In response to this criticism, many have argued that this assumes a false equivalence between ideas; for instance, compromise shouldn’t be reached with climate change denialists, because their views are so scientifically bunk that any compromise would be a political injustice. While I would agree that some opinions are plainly wrong, and we should not stop in trying to persuade our political opponents, the wrongness of one’s opinion does not invalidate the power of their vote. To not find reasonably palatable middle-ground on extremely contentious issues of religion, morality, national identity, and immigration, is to create pressures that will one day result in conservative blowback. Whether Singapore will have to one day grapple with a reactionary ethno-chauvinist government is up to whether we can today find compromise in divided times.