Go with a smile!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Trump and the spirit of 2011

Sometimes I look at the appeal that Trump has for the common people – for rank and file White Americans. I wonder this came about. Then I think back on 2011.

When I came to the University of Mexico, I met a guy who studied in Singapore up till JC, he was from China, and he told me that he was pretty unnerved by the political climate of 2011, when the popularity of the opposition reached its peak. There was a lot of talk about how the policies of the government failed, in particular with regards to immigration. If you had too much immigration in Singapore, there would be a backlash, and there was a backlash.

A lot of us were wondering why the immigrants would staunchly support the PAP. Now that I’m living in a country where Trump enjoys a great surge of popularity, I’m beginning to understand. Personally, I can’t vote in America. But it matters to me who becomes the president of the United States, because I’m a resident in the USA, and because I’m a Singaporean. Some people might question whether I have a right to comment on the presidential election in the USA. Well, it affects me, so I’m a stakeholder, like it or not. So the fact that I’m a stakeholder and yet don’t have a say in whether or not Trump becomes the president is actually pretty unfair.

US foreign policy has always been an important issue in Southeast Asia. I didn’t understand this very well before I went to Snowy Hill, and I used to think that we are really a sovereign nation. And I got taught about the history of southeast Asia from the American perspective, and that overemphasises the American part and deemphasizes the native part. But there are patterns which emerge. Sukarno was supported by the Americans, as was Ferdinand Marcos. The King of Thailand was an ally of the United States. The communist insurgency in Malaya got put down. I think everybody saw that if they didn’t co-operate, there would be a Vietnam style consequences.

Anyway, US foreign policy has had a huge impact on Southeast Asia. In many ways, the huge event that I lived through – the Asian Financial crisis, was also in many ways American made, and in many ways it marked a departure from our close ties with the US. You couldn’t really trust the US after they screwed up so many of their economies. But the US still provides defence for Japan and South Korea against China and North Korea. And Vietnam and Philippines have become pretty alarmed at the advances and occupation of the islands in the middle of the South China Sea by China.

In 2011, after decades of rejecting the opposition parties, we swung towards them. We had always admired their grit and fortitude, although we didn’t know if they would make good rulers. This time, there was a great coalition of people who were willing to stand up against the government. What this movement had in common with Trump was that it was caused by peoples’ resentment of the system. Not the government, but the system. The government – corporations nexus that was building a system that favoured a select few, but made everybody worse off. Everybody knew that. The opposition was surprisingly strong in 2011, and there were people who were of a higher caliber than what we were used to in the opposition parties. (Some of them have since left). In 2016 America, it had always been a two party democracy, but within the two parties, there were the Trump and Sanders uprisings.

The Sanders uprising was somewhat benign. At least the two sides appeared cordial in public, and they agreed to have civil debates. But Hillary is at best a pretty uninspiring candidate, and people vote on emotions. There are doubts about Hillary. There was the very bad decision over what to do with her emails. Everybody knows that she was already thinking of running for president, and trying to minimise the amount of dirt that could be dragged out of her. But in the process, the way that she handled her email account was incredibly risky and opened her up to a lot of criticism.

Also, some people have not been completely happy about a few shenanigans. Hillary is not having a commanding lead ahead of Bernie Sanders, in terms of primary voting, but somehow she got all the superdelegates. This is not too hard to understand: she is the establishment candidate, and Bernie Sanders is the insurgent. Plus there are some things about the way that the primary elections that were conducted that make you want to raise your eyebrows. For example, there were stories of election centers in Illinois and Arkansas running out of ballot slips before people got to vote in them (probably for Bernie Sanders).

I think somewhat about the politics. “Business as usual” candidates are pretty unpopular. People understand that they haven’t been well served by the system and they’re pissed off, and when they’re pissed off, they will either vote in somebody else who they think is better suited to change the system, or they will vote against the establishment in order to apply political pressure on them.

So what are the similarities between Donald Trump and the opposition parties in 2011?

First, two of the main issues are remarkably similar: immigrants and the rising gap between the rich and the poor. The opposition parties in Singapore have complained that there has been too much immigration, and the native born Singaporeans are being squeezed out. In America, there is much lesser reason to complain about immigrants, because with the exception of Silicon Valley and New York, America isn’t really going to be overcrowded anytime soon. But they are also feeling the squeeze on the quality of jobs, and they are also feeling that the character of the country is changing. There is a nostalgia for the good old days when America was America (and much more white than it is now). And similarly in Singapore there is a nostalgia for the days when it was just CIMO and nobody else.

In Singapore, we were pretty nuanced about it, I think. We knew that this was about being squeezed out by immigrants, rather than any explicit hatred of foreigners. We never associated them with crime, the way that Donald Trump equates them with rapists and murderers. But the environment veered dangerously close to xenophobia. That was the first time I really doubted that Singapore was truly open to the rest of the world. Regarding the gap between the rich and the poor, this is something that’s also been experienced by many Singaporeans and Americans. Singaporeans had 20-30 years when it seemed as though prosperity was across the board, and from the Asian financial crisis onwards, it seemed as though there would be an elite who would be able to progress economically, and everybody else who wouldn’t. We could see the cost of living going up, and the GDP going up, but the workers’ wages would remain stagnant.

In America, corporations were offshoring their jobs on a regular basis. Unemployment would be relatively low (although there are plenty of people who stop looking for jobs and they are not counted in the statistics). But the quality of work would go down. There were the fat years, and they were going, going, gone. The manufacturing jobs – the ones that were supposed to be secure and gave you a middle class existence – were gone. The second aspect in which these two were similar was that both were a reaction against the “politics as usual”. We wanted change, and we’d take it, regardless of the form in which they came. Any opposition politician who came along and was halfway decent would receive our adulation, because there was a great skepticism that anybody would be able to work within the system to change it for the better. Similarly, in America, the Republicans were facing the Trump revolt (successful) and the Democrats were facing the Sanders revolt (somewhat less successful).

We saw two unfamiliar figures in America. One of them was the progressive socialist: Bernie Sanders. America hasn’t really had a socialist in power since at least FDR’s vice president. George McGovern got roundly trashed when he ran in 1972. Barack Obama was never a socialist: the best way to describe him is slightly left of center. He never talked about dismantling the existing power structure the way that Bernie Sanders did. He did turn the screws on plenty of entrenched interests: fuck the people who want another war in the Middle East. Fuck the people who want to continue the embargos on Iran and Cuba. Fuck the pro-Israel / anti-Palestinian lobby.

The other figure was Donald Trump. It used to be that Sarah Palin was the “know nothing”, a governor of a provincial state who was chosen for being photogenic and being able to pander to the right wing of the Republican party. Donald Trump was the guy who had no experience in government, doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but is a brilliant marketer and improviser.

Many of us thought that the PAP was going to lose power one day, with the momentum going firmly against them. But the pendulum has swung back. Low Thia Khiang did a wonderful job with the Worker’s Party, working with his constraints. But he’ll probably be remembered as one of the confederate generals during the US Civil war: known for their great leadership qualities, struggling against great odds, but the leader of an insurgency that did not successfully foment a revolution.

The other characters that we saw: there were a few youngsters that seemed to portend the rise of a new generation that drives the opposition. But they fell away after that pretty soon. Many of the most visible and successful of the opposition candidates did not acquire leadership positions in their opposition parties, and many left them afterwards. There was a revolution in the PAP, all right. After the 2011 elections, quite likely the old Goh Chok Tong stalwarts either resigned or were told to leave.

There seemed to be plans for a revolution. I remember when SDP started coming up with policy papers. Tan Jee Say even wrote out a fairly detailed plan and manifesto for Singapore, and incredibly got a high ranking UK civil servant to endorse it. (Although, seeing the way that the UK is being run these days, it is a bit of a dubious thing to get endorsed by that guy.) It does remind me of Bernie Sanders' economic plans. They promise a lot, they tell you there is a different way, and quite possibly life is going to get better for you. But how does that work out in practice? To tell you the truth, I got a little excited at looking at TJS' plans. I didn't agree with everything, but I thought that you had to work out the details, but here there was something to start with. After seeing the way that he's run his political career, one hopes that he is a more competent civil servant than a politician.

It's strange to compare something that I used to love (the opposition) and something that I hate (Donald Trump) and there are many many important differences. But the similarities are also quite striking. Ultimately, what I would say about the years between 2011 and now: the PAP managed to reinvent itself. Not as much as I was hoping for, but somewhat. The opposition, with the exception of WP, hasn't. And even WP is facing growing pains, but we already knew that. Hopefully what Low Thia Khiang has built up will endure, and hopefully there will be a second viable party in Singapore, but it won't grow into a full fledged taking over of the government anytime soon.


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