By Chris Kuan
“Singapore must avoid deep divisions as seen in the UK, US” so said our Lee Hsien Loong at the APEC summit.
He puts the issue down to the narrative of the impact of technologiy and economic change. In this, he firmly puts himself well within the liberal order albeit in his case just the economic version of free markets of trade, capital and labour, not the higher ideals of fairer societies and civil rights.
However, the issue behind those divisions in the United Kingdom and the United States are far more than just economics. The far bigger issue is that of the nation and from the nation flows the existential meaning of identity and citizenship. This explains the reason well-off people voted for Brexit in the UK and that the average Trump voter earned higher than the US median wages. It also explains why in supposedly fairer countries such as France, Germany and even the Scandinavians, there are right wing populist ascendacies even more strident.
To bring up the issue of nation and identity, one gets easily labelled as “xenophobic” which is the charge levied at supposedly “stupid” Brexit and Trump voters.
But the issue of nation and identity does not easily go away with derision – one gets confronted with being a minority in the workplace in one’s own country as happened in Singapore or that too many of your neighbours speaks an unfamiliar language as is the case in many British rural areas.
Then one question if the one’s work, taxes and in some cases the sacrifices of war and social conflicts of past generations, all of which that built the security, the wealth and the social goods of the nation should so easily be placed at the disposal of newcomers who by their sheer numbers felt little need to assimilate.
Is it xenophobic to ask these questions and be angry and frustrated to find no answers? Are the meaning of identity and citizenship, in Singapore made especially poignant by National Service, unimportant “ravings of the nativists”?
Our Prime Minister couched the Brexit and Trump votes in terms of economics, He is taking the easy option. Nation and identity seemed inconveniences in the path of the liberal economic order of free trade and free movement of capital and labour because they are essence that cannot be totted in dollars and cents, and hence a difficult issue to be studiously avoided.
In a nation in which citizens comprised just 60% of the population and foreign labour underpins a growth at all cost economic strategy never mind the social fabric, it appears preferrable an issue that should not speak its name.