The Brexit postmortem is ongoing. Like a day old cadaver from a whodunnit novel, it has been dissected in an effort to rationalise the unexpected turn of events. Its entrails have been laid on the table, and pored over by medical examiners, soothsayers, and amateur experts from all strata of society across the globe for clues as to what the uncharted future portends. Grasping in the dark for answers, the logical and prudent amongst us, attempt to find solid grounding by drawing parallels.
Britain is, a relatively small island country with modest resources and a sometimes tumultuous relationship with its larger neighbours from which it is separated by only a narrow straits. The superficial resemblance to our own island home has not been lost on most of us.
Many have drawn links to our country’s own episodes of estrangement from a certain patriarchal polity.
The July referendum that coined the much abused term, Brexit, started off innocuously enough as an attempt to legitimise an expected status quo – an ostensibly rational choice to remain a member to an exclusive trading bloc.
However, it quickly devolved into a vote of no confidence in a government that has pursued cold hard macroeconomic policies that over the years of perceived neglect, engendered much dissatisfaction within individuals. Seething sentiments of disenfranchisement, alienation, a growing resentment of globalisation and stagnated opportunities fuelled the runaway freight train that eventually derailed the 40 year European Union (EU) experiment.
Unlike revolutionary change throughout history, it was not the young agitators with clenched fists that ripped the covenant of a united Europe to shreds. It was, instead, the voice of the angry middle aged voter who refused to go quietly into the night that tipped the scales in favour of Brexit.
A post event analysis of the poll results revealed that opinions began to veer towards a Brexit vote past the age of 45, with the age groups of 50 – 64 and 65+ solidly within the Brexit camp. Conversely, those aged between 18 – 24 were strongly in favour of remaining with the EU, with a level of support approaching 75%.
A correlation was also found between Brexit supporters and lower educational levels, lower median income and allegiance to more conservative political parties. This is barely surprising as those with fewer tools to compete with the human tide of globalisation stood to lose the most – the hapless sacrificial lamb for the common good of the country.
It is an age-old class struggle between the have and have nots, where in this case the privileged bourgeoisie are those with education and social mobility while the blue collared fight a losing battle with real inflation and a diminishing real income. In this way, entire towns, districts, areas zoned as industrial belts, united by adversity, banded together under the banner of Brexit.
A veritable army of people power, soft murmurs of complains grew into brash and vocal disdain of the cheaper immigrant labour, foreigners with a specialised skillset and resulting imported customs that were all touted as a panacea, by ivory tower residing politicians, to all of the country’s economic woes.
Fear of loss, loss of income, opportunities, privilege and of identity fuelled a downward spiral into xenophobia.
Being a globalised economy, Singapore faces the same challenges. A capitalist society does not recognise status quo as performance. Progress is measured in GDP growth. Stagnation is not merely standing still but taking a step back.
At the beginning, Singapore started from a low base, the masses had nothing to lose and were hungry for progress at all costs. The drive was present. At this crucial juncture, a strong leadership team arose to galvanise the nation towards a unified goal toward economic and social progress.
The middle class grew through prudent leadership and distribution of wealth via practical social schemes and an opening of the country to foreign direct investment by more developed countries that provided the expertise that the nascent country lacked.
From the 1970s, FDI in Singapore averaged current US $58 million, with this figure ballooning to US $ 40 billion in 2014. The formula of providing value through a relatively cheap and yet highly educated workforce was a winning formula that, as a whole, propelled the nation from a backwater towards prosperity, and bountiful opportunity.
Gradually, with the passing of generations formerly considered high standards of living became familiar and even expected, as the visions of the formative years faded. This sense of entitlement has arguably led to a dulling of the country’s competitive spirit.
As a capitalist society, globalisation swung open the door to free competition. The profit maximising motive became much more efficient as barriers to entry dissipated. This freer market structure has been more efficient in allocating resources to its most pertinent use, albeit on an international scale. This however, as in the UK is a similar bone of contention on our sunny shores.
Singapore, bereft of natural resources, has but one trump card; human capital. It now sees itself in a middle ground stalemate where it has already conditioned generations of highly educated and productive workers but all the benefits from this strategy have already been exhausted.
With the low lying fruit picked bare, we are now faced with the triple threat of more educated foreign talent that are more creative, in plentiful supply, and do not pale significantly in terms of skill.
Technological innovation and globalisation has been a phenomenal game changer. It has provided opportunities to those who can break free of the conventional mould of employment and embrace new developments. However, this has only benefitted a small group; the entrepreneurs, and those with perfectly positioned skill sets such those in the creative industries and the tech savvy.
The rest of the masses are clinging on to old ways that no longer provide an advantage and choose trudge forward, hoping against hope that they will not be rendered obsolete when the inevitable changes arrive – a situation similar to those that surfaced during UK’s Brexit referendum.
It is this vulnerable section of the silent majority that our own government would do well to take lessons from the UK’s experience and address their concerns before dissent foments and leads to vociferous cries for sweeping change. As with the less competitive workers in UK’s industrial belt, our own less competitive workers will see their real wages decrease as their nominal wages flags behind inflation and are kept low by foreign workers who are willing to accept lower wages.
Like the UK’s conservative party, the PAP lost touch with the concerns of individual voters as it adopted long term strategies for the country.
Having grown complacent from years of unabridged stewardship of the country, it overlooked the truism that humans are innately short sighted and self-interested. This oversight almost cost them control of the country in the 2011 elections, as support fell to 60% of voters, the lowest in its history. Also, for the first time in its history, a Group Representation Constituency (GRC), typically seen as a bastion of PAP support, was won over by an opposition party.
This shock upset provided the impetus for the PAP to review its policy strategy.
The Government had to address the dissatisfaction which was monumentally difficult due to demographic changes, and the changing expectations of a new and well educated generation. The results in last year’s elections showed a restored faith in the ruling party after noticeable efforts from the ruling elite to walk the ground and listen to concerns from the community. The same hot-button issues, however, still exist.
(Housing expenditure by income deciles, denoted from P10 to P90 – Source)
Housing costs in Singapore have long been seen as becoming excessive, with studies showing that housing expenditure expressed as a ratio to income which, measures general housing affordability, has spiked since 2009.
In line with the general increase in cost of living, the spiking of artificially engineered COE prices had similarly widened the gulf between social-economic demographics, further fuelled by the current state of our less-than-ideal public transportation networks.
These have been blamed on population, immigration and foreign labour policies by the Government, which are seen to be the main cause for the competition of scarce resources and the eventual upward creeping inflation.
Singapore’s Government’s challenges are far from over.
The sources of dissatisfaction have to be continually addressed as its nature is constantly in flux. Affordable healthcare, looking into the existing transportation system, a lax approach to alternative transportation options such as Uber, and continued provision of quality housing that shifts with changing benchmarks all dig deep into the treasury but is of paramount concern in order to recapture the hearts and minds of the core middle income demographic which forms the country’s majority.
The Government has its work cut out for it.
The goals are a running target as factors such as expectations, age demographic and increased international exposure shape people’s perceptions.
The nation’s policies must be robust enough to constantly adjust to these influences, or else the increasingly vocal middle income voters will start to feel the familiar cost and social pressures build up again, leading to unhappiness and a potential repeat of the abysmal 2011 election results.
The danger of ignoring the individual for high handed policies is not only exhibited in the Brexit referendum but also clear as day in the rising popularity of presumptive U.S. presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
Disgruntled citizens, Singaporean or not, would easily fall for the same rhetoric of blame and racism to address all of one’s difficulties in life. It is simply another innate characteristic of humans to find external scapegoats rather than to make efforts to change one’s lot in life or to examine if any personal flaws are hindering one ascent of the social ladder.
Brexit has shown the breakup of a country along certain lines can occur if the government adopts policies that are too broad based for individuals who, are inherently myopic, to see the benefit of.
This current generation believes more on individuality and wants to be heard, and addressed. It is a scenario that is repeating itself across the world.
Call it the “me” generation if you will, call it the “strawberry” generation. It is the new reality and it is what a progressive government should work towards addressing to ensure its political continuity.