TL;DR – We need to be a better informed and less angry electorate
I’ve tried not to read anything about Trump’s election since it happened. Or rather, since his win. I was reeling in shock. How as it possible that someone like him could become POTUS? He (probably) gets the nuclear codes. Can someone with his temperament be trusted with them? And he thinks that climate change is a hoax. He might undo the Paris climate agreement.
How did someone like him get elected?
I think his election holds at least three lessons for Singapore.
1. Election promises sound good but probably won’t happen
One of Trump’s campaign slogans was “Drain the swamp”. He used that to refer to his promise of ending what he sees as corruption in Capitol Hill. He promised:
“We are fighting for every citizen that believes that government should serve the people, not the donors and not the special interests”
Sounds good right? But what is the reality? In just days after being elected, it seems that corporate lobbyists and rich donors are shaping up to play influential roles in the Trump administration. It seems that the election slogan was… just that. A slogan. nice sounding words meant to stoke emotions and arouse and stir feelings. But now that the elections are over, it seems that the slogan won’t be turned into reality.
In Singapore, we’ve had our fair share of candidates promising various things during campaigning. But after the elections are over, do the elected people always have the will and wherewithal to make good those promises? It would take some wisdom of the electorate to distinguish between mere promises (that sometimes border on lies) from deep convictions and commitments that the elected politicians will and can deliver on.
But to do that it would require the electorate to be informed and interested. But that, in itself is a problem.
2. Most US voters are ignorant
Research has found that most US voters are ignorant and uninformed. Why so ignorant? Why are they so uninformed? This is the theory:
“Consider: If you go to buy a car, you do your research. After all, if you make a smart choice, you reap the rewards; if you make a bad choice, you suffer the consequences. Over time, most people learn to become better consumers.
Not so with politics. How all of us vote, collectively, matters a great deal. But how any one of us votes does not. Imagine a college professor told her class of 210 million students, “Three months from now, we’ll have a final exam. You won’t get your own personal grade. Instead, I’ll average all of your grades together, and everyone will receive the same grade.” No one would bother to study, and the average grade would be an F.”
Most voters are ignorant and uninformed because the cost to them to be informed outweighs the individual benefits. They don’t think that they actually have a say in choosing and deciding policies. This ignorance auggests that political parties pander to uninformed and disinterested.
Closer to home, I wonder how well informed are Singaporeans about politics and policies. How well do we understand the various competing tensions that form the considerations of policy making? Democracy is a government of the people, by the people. But are we, the people, really fit to govern?
We have been fortunate thus far. Whatever you might say about Singaporean politics, we must be doing something right. Look at our neighbours, especially those who have similar histories as us. Look where we are now compared to them.
But will this last if we continue to be ignorant about politics and policy making? I doubt. I hope that we will learn from this and start educating ourselves to better understand our politics and policy making.
3. Pent up anger and resentment
Even if the electorate was interested and informed, it would be naive to believe that elections are exercises in rationality. Emotions play a big part in our choices. And in the US elections, there was a wave of anger that carried Trump to victory. Why are Americans, especially those in the rural small communities, so angry?
“Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult. I’m doing what I was told I should do in order to be a good American and get ahead, but I’m not getting what I was told I would get”
Though we don’t have the rural-urban divide in Singapore, there is a sense that there’s a group of people who are working as hard as they can, following their parents’ path and advice, thinking that that’ll give them the same results as their parents. But they aren’t achieving what they thought they would. You could say we have the rich-poor divide, or haves and the have-nots.
There’s a sense that there are more working poor (i.e. people who are working, but still relatively poor compared to the rest of Singapore). There’s also a sense that there are more people who are underemployed. These are people whose education should have allowed them to get better jobs. But for various reasons, they end up working at lower paying jobs that don’t require such high educational level.
All of these breed resentment. Worse if the people in government are perceived as out-of-touch elites. In USA, that resentment led to Trump. In time, will such resentment tear Singapore up? Will such resentment result in us electing a Trump-like candidate into the highest office? What would that mean for Singapore’s future?
I hope that we would be more aggressive in implementing the economic and social policies to address the issues that breed such resentment before they bubble over. I also hope that we can have more meaningful conversations between the government and the public, allowing for more constructive exchanges and discourse. Otherwise, all that we have built up over the last 50 years could quickly be ruined.