SINGAPORE: The political upsets of 2016 across the world and a rising sense of “despondency” about globalisation may seem to have changed the game on how the world works. But these, in fact, were caused by economic and social changes that have been brewing for a long time, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
“The game has been changing in much more disquieting ways … and the only surprise is how long it has taken for those underlying domestic changes in society to be reflected in politics,” Mr Tharman said at a conference organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on global power shifts.
Mr Tharman outlined four major trends that have contributed to a shift in politics in most advanced nations: Stagnant wages – not just for those at the bottom of the income ladder – but also for the middle class, a general decline in social mobility, a loss of sense of togetherness in society and the growing mentality of “us against them”, as well as an increasingly polarised political landscape.
“What politicians say does influence how people think. And unfortunately, there is a new phenomenon in the social media. The way in which social media as a dominant media around the world today is polarised and becoming more so, and the way in which algorithms filter ‘news’ and information in a way that reinforces people’s biases is now a part of life in most democracies,” said Mr Tharman.
“What we’re seeing is a polarisation in politics, with the rise of both the populist right and left, a weakening of the politics of the centre, but the same being mirrored in the media and in particular social media. So it’s not too surprising that people themselves think in increasingly polarised terms,” he added.
Mr Tharman outlined some ways governments can tackle these issues, such as how they respond through domestic policies. For instance, helping citizens “regenerate their careers” by reinvesting in them and equipping them with relevant skills, and “regenerating the politics of the centre”. He added this has been and will be the real differentiator between countries.
What is also crucial is returning to politics that is honest with the people, said Mr Tharman. He gave the example of politicians on both the left and right "brazenly" ignoring pressing issues like unsustainable healthcare and pension systems in the pursuit of winning votes.
"The facts are clear, but neither left nor right has found that it pays to be truthful about the issues and to offer solutions that give people confidence that the next generation is not going to be worse off that today's baby boom generation”, said Mr Tharman.
“We have to find a way in which honesty comes back into politics, and a sense of long-termism, because each of the major challenges that we talked about - every one of them - requires actions that only pay off over multiple electoral periods.
"We have to get politics that is honest, that tells people what's what, but offers them hope, because there are real solutions that are available. There are real solutions, and those are the solutions that the politics of the centre can focus on to bring back confidence."
ASIA'S EMERGING POWER
Also at the conference, representatives from various international affairs and public policy schools discussed two main issues: The global impact of a Trump presidency and Asia as an emerging power.
"We are clearly moving from a uni-polar world at the end of the Cold War, where the United States dominated the world for almost two decades, to a multi-polar world. And a multi-polar world is good for small states like Singapore because it gives us more options”, said Professor Kishore Mahbubani, who is the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Professor Mahbubani also commented on the rise of China as a superpower, and how small states like Singapore must learn how to deal with it.
"Great powers have been flexing their muscles for thousands of years. There's a very famous saying: 'The strong must do what they do, and the weak must suffer.' This was said 2,000 years ago, so it's an eternal feature of the geopolitical landscape.
"So what it means is that, small countries must learn to be very careful and very vigilant, and learn how to manage these powers. Overall, Singapore has done an exceptionally good job for over 50 years, so I think our geopolitical skills will keep us going."
The conference was attended by representatives from the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs.