TL;DR – To learn from your own mistakes, that’s foolish. The wise man learns from other people’s mistakes.
It’s official. The pundits got it wrong. The Leave campaign won.
In all likelihood, UK will leave the European Union. Most experts predict that Brexit will prove economically calamitous to UK, with knock-on effects to EU and the rest of the world. So why did the Brits decide to leave? Are they masochistic and want to bring more suffering upon themselves? Or were they stupid and irrational?
It is important to note that not all of UK want to leave the European Union. Northern Ireland and Scotland didn’t. London, Bristol, and a few of the more affluent areas of England wanted to stay. Many of the youths wanted to stay. So what happened?
Many things have been written about Brexit and why it’s happening. BBC gave eight reasons. Out of the eight, these five hold important lessons for Singapore:
- Brexit economic warnings backfired. Many Brits discounted the advice of experts. This isn’t just a revolt against the establishment. It suggested far more people felt left behind and untouched by the economic benefits of five decades of EU involvement being trumpeted.
- £350m NHS claim gets traction. The assertion that leaving the EU would free up £350m a week extra to spend on the NHS is the kind of political slogan that campaigns dream of: striking, easy to understand and attractive to voters of different ages and political persuasions.
- Excessive immigration was a great bogeyman. Concerns about levels of migration into the UK over the past 10 years, their impact on society, and what might happen in the next 20 years were more widely felt and ran even deeper than people had suspected.
- Older (and poorer) voters supported Brexit in droves. It was older voters which won it for Leave – particularly in the south, south-west, Midlands and the north east.
- Brits stopped listening to David Cameron. Unsuited to winning over Labour supporters, the prime minister was not able to persuade enough floating voters to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Lesson 1: Fear-mongering can backfire
Much of Singapore’s politics is about fear-mongering. During the General Election, PAP told us about the terrible things that would happen if the opposition wins more seats or, worse, forms the government. The opposition told us of the dire future we had in store if the PAP remained in power. Even as recent as the Bukit Batok by-election, we had Chee Soon Juan telling us of the doom and gloom we were heading in to should the PAP remain unchallenged.
Brexit has shown us that too much fear-mongering will backfire. I certainly look forward to more politics of hope than of fear. Instead of scaring us into supporting you, convince us why voting for you will bring us a better, brighter future.
Lesson 2. Lies work
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who was one of the main proponents of Brexit kept harping on how leaving the EU would free up all that money to fund the National Health System. But it turned out that that was a lie.
Or as he would put it… a mistake. Now we know of many politicians in Singapore who make claims about how they would spend more money on various national social programs if they were voted in. How many of those claims can stand up to scrutiny? Or would the majority of those end up being like Nigel’s “mistakes”?
We need to guard against such populist politics. Lest we be led to make the wrong decisions based on despicable lies.
Lesson 3: Us vs Them is real
Remember the furor that the “Population White Paper” caused? It was caused by the thought of having more foreigners in our midst. The idea that there will be more foreigners in Singapore than “true blue born and bred Singaporeans” was so abhorrent to us. Websites like The Real Singapore rode on the wave of the rejection of the influx of foreigners. This isn’t an issue that will go away any time soon. Will it be the main driving force that determines how Singaporeans will vote in the next general election? Perhaps.
The PAP government is aware of this. It has taken steps to reduce the influx of foreigners. It has put in measures to be more selective in who to allow in. Is it enough? Some would argue it’s not. But one thing’s for sure. In today’s globalised world, where borders are so porous, being xenophobic is plain stupidity. Have we found the right balance? I think it’s still work in progress.
Lesson 4: Rich vs the Not so Rich (and the Poor)
The economic benefits of being in the EU weren’t equally distributed. Many have suggested that it was this inequality, and the lack of income security and social protection that resulted in the Brexit. Donald Low, in a Facebook post said this:
“I suspect this is what happens when older people lack income security and adequate social protection. Baby bombers, unlike the generation of older people before them, are less likely to feel that they owe anything to the next generation, and are less willing to make sacrifices for the young.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that the two western countries where populism in the form of anti-immigrant and anti-foreign sentiment has seen the most troubling resurgence in the past year – the US and Britain – are also the two with the least adequate pension and social security systems? When people feel insecure, they tend to find scapegoats among foreigners.”
In Singapore, the economic benefits of Singapore’s development in the last decade have been very unequally shared. There is the impression that there is a growing class of people who will be shut out from the opportunities of the economic restructuring that comes as a result of the fourth industrial revolution.
As Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University puts it: “Average is Over.” Prof Cowen describes a future economy stripped of middle-skilled jobs and broad-based prosperity, while a “cognitive elite” of 10-15 per cent of the population prosper.
Will this mean that Singapore is also prone to making irrational political decisions like the Brits? Quite likely. Does this make Singaporeans more likely to fall prey to populistic demagogues? Possibly so.
Perhaps then it’s important that as we restructure our economy, we need to seriously consider being more aggressive in the way we redistribute our wealth. To do that, we need great social trust and social capital. We need to be truly convinced that we, all Singaporeans, are in this together. We need a sense of togetherness as strong as the Nordic countries. Do we have that?
I don’t think so. They have had centuries fighting against the elements to build that social capital. We haven’t. I hope we can quickly get there. Otherwise the divide between the haves and have-nots may just rip our society asunder.
Lesson 5: Politics is about convincing people emotionally too
There may have been when the PAP could have gotten away with saying: “Hey trust us. We have your best interest at heart. If we do things that seem painful now, please bear with us. The benefits will come.” I think that time is long gone. For whatever reasons (including those in Lesson 4 above), there are more Singaporeans now who are more vocal in displaying their distrust of the PAP government. They want the PAP government to explain themselves more.
It’s not enough for the government to ask Singaporeans to trust that whatever decision they make is the best possible option. Or that if something is not done, there must be good reasons why it was not done. It’s not enough for the PAP to ask us to be rational. Politics isn’t just about being rational.
As a netizen, Samuel Myat San, said in a Facebook post:
“People vote in ways different from our own. The “rational and intellectual” position is Bremain and I think many people would have assumed that the average Briton would be smart and vote accordingly. However, Brexit supporters are not driven just by the intellectual calculus but have cast their votes based on how their personal lives may have been affected by the EU. They either saw no benefits from staying in or associated their own relative decline and poverty as being a result of the EU.
If we are to appreciate and change mind sets, it is important for us to understand how people, even with incomprehensible positions (see Trump, Donald J.) think and feel and then seek to find ways to address their concerns. Brushing them aside means that we may well be ignoring the silent majority, as we often discover in Singapore elections. “
Hopefully Singapore learns these lessons well
Someone wise I know once told me: To learn from your own mistakes, that’s foolish. The wise man learns from other people’s mistakes.
I hope Singapore, particularly our politicians, are wise. I hope we learn from the mistakes that UK has made in this whole Brexit debacle. I am cautiously optimistic that we can. At least one of our political leaders seemed to have gotten it.
As DPM Tharman said:
“As politics gets fragmented, the political extremes will gain appeal. We do not know where this will lead to, but it cannot mean anything good. But to tackle it, the politics of the centre must stay connected to the challenges that ordinary people face – and address their need for jobs and security, and a balance in immigration that preserves a sense of identity. Tackling this without turning inward, and weakening jobs and society further, is the central challenge everywhere.”
I hope the rest of his PAP colleagues are convinced by him.
Related links (Aftermath)
1. Britons regret their protest vote #Brexit
2. The young people are angry
3. Over a million people signed petition for a referendum rerun
4. Over 100,000 people signed petition for Londependence.
5. Yes, Londoners are asking to leave UK and stay in EU
6. There have been protests, see here and here
(Featured image via Newstatesman.com)