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Perspectives from Singapore on Donald Trump

The World Policy blog is hosting a weekly series of articles featuring global perspectives on the U.S. presidential election, the effects of which extend beyond partisanship and beyond our borders. Read previous articles addressing U.S.-African trade and similarities between the Trump and Brexit campaigns. Stay tuned for commentary from Turkey, Israel, France, and more!

By Tee Zhuo

What do the U.S. presidential elections have to do with a small, densely urbanized island-state on the opposite side of the world? Not much, it may seem, especially to Singapore’s denizens. The country’s politicians, however, are paying much closer and more anxious attention to the presidential race and to, of course, the rise of Donald Trump. 

There is no lack of international criticism of Trump. But as always, Singaporean leaders have refrained from commenting on the domestic politics of other countries—for obvious diplomatic reasons. Yet, American elections, in a way, are the world’s elections, and it is hard to stay neutral when its implications stretch far beyond the United States. 

Singapore’s interests in the U.S. general elections lie with two interrelated aspects that are at the top of the national priority list: trade and regional security. The U.S. has always maintained an interest and presence—both economic and military—in Asia, not least in recent years with President Barack Obama’s much-discussed “Pivot to Asia.” This pivot seems like it will be somewhat short-lived, however. The Trans-Pacific Partnership has been a domestic nightmare for Obama due to its purportedly deleterious effect on American jobs, as well as the secrecy of the meetings behind the agreement itself. What’s interesting, but not completely unexpected, is that this unpopularity has resulted in a rare instance of bipartisan agreement: both Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (and during his campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders) have been quick to voice public opposition to the trade pact. 

This means that none of the current presidential nominees are really ideal for Singapore. In April, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, gave a wide-ranging interview to the Wall Street Journal, which included brief comments on the presidential elections. Lee said that some of the more isolationist positions from the candidates would not bode well for Southeast Asia. Arguing for American exceptionalism, he elaborated on U.S. responsibilities in the region regarding security and the TPP. As an article in Singapore’s English language broadsheet, The Straits Times, mentioned, Clinton would likely be the “best” of the candidates in terms of Singaporean interests, given that she has the least protectionist stance.

In a show of democratic centralism typical for Singapore’s one-party government, politicians have spoken out with a single message for the U.S.: Backing out or changing the TPP would be a very bad idea. Lee mentioned that calls to reopen negotiations on the trade pact would “considerably undermine American credibility and seriousness of purpose, and confidence in America all over the region.” Singapore’s trade minister, Lim Hng Kiang, recently reiterated the message, warning that to go back on the agreement runs the risk of “unraveling” it completely. It should come as no surprise that the TPP has been front and center in the concerns of a modern and historical entrepôt. As former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong recently said, “Trade is the lifeblood of the region.” 

Security is another important issue, especially with the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea area. Historically, Singapore has been a strong military ally of the U.S. in the region, with defense pacts that enable the sharing of military resources including strategic naval and air bases. Past leaders such as the senior Lee have mentioned the importance of the U.S.-Japan security arrangements as vital to regional stability. Goh also mentions the importance of an “accommodative relationship” between the U.S. and China, with any conflict being “disastrous.” U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar tried to assuage fears in a recent interview, stating that U.S. business interests in Asia would stay strong regardless of the presidential outcome. He hit back at portrayals of the South China Sea situation as a U.S. versus China issue: “The ability to fly, sail, and operate international waters under international law is not an American point of view. That is a global point of view.” Yet in reality these two points of view often tend to coincide, for better or for worse. Thus, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large, Bilahari Kausikan, sums up Singapore’s foreign policy toward the U.S. pretty well: “The U.S. is like the weather: we can’t change it so we adapt to it.”

The concerns of Singapore’s politicians and diplomats are not necessarily the concerns of the average Singaporean, even in a highly cosmopolitan and globalized country. As their policymakers get paid (a lot) to lose sleep over the geopolitical consequences of a Clinton-Trump race, most citizens have other things to worry about, cost of living not among the least of them. Most ordinary Singaporeans view Trump negatively. Lim, a 54-year-old taxi driver, called Trump a “joke.” “He’s the reason why America is now the laughing stock of the world.” Undergraduate student Regina Lee said that Trump “definitely has a bad reputation,” but notes that this is largely the influence of the mainstream media. Singaporeans should be less quick to dismiss Trump as “some crazy guy,” she said, given the support that he has in the U.S.

But as Kimberley Pah, a second-year university student observes, politically apathetic Singaporeans see Trump as “more a source of entertainment than an actual cause of alarm.”

“Key concerns in Singaporean lives likely center around their jobs and family, not a demagogue in a faraway land,” she notes. Politics in the city-state could not be more different from the U.S. One young Singaporean described American politics as “tangled” and “bizarre.” A single-party streak tends not to be very exciting, especially if it lasts half a century; in contrast, every U.S. general election feels to the Singaporean spectator like a similarly distinctive American product: reality TV. Nothing actually like reality, of course, but with high entertainment and dinner conversation value. 

It is unsurprising that most in Singapore are “faintly appalled” by Trump. Isolationist policies run counter to the education drilled into the Singaporean psyche; the vulnerability of a small country with little natural resources, and our dependence on free trade, globalization, and good relations with other countries. Long exposure to a socially engineered environment designed to be “racially harmonious” (an example of this being the oft-referenced ethnic housing quotas) means that most Singaporeans have grown up in a multicultural environment. Pah notes: “[Singaporeans who] have for 50 years lived among our mainly Muslim Malay friends in relative amity mostly regard his remarks, in particular his anti-Muslim ones, with a sense of horror, disdain.”  

While outspoken support for either candidate has been muted, even online, the Internet has responded to the campaign with hypotheticals that range from worrying to comedic. Netizens poke fun at the idea of walls on the Causeway (the main bridge linking Singapore to its close neighbor, Malaysia), or point out that Southeast Asia has its own Trump in newly-elected Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. A Quora thread disturbingly asks, “What would happen if Donald Trump was President of Singapore?” One of the more humorous responses predicted that Lee Kuan Yew would rise from his grave, referencing a speech he made in the late 80s. Undead politicians or not, one thing remains certain: While others may toy with the idea, Singapore will never, and can never, build a wall.

*****

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Tee Zhuo is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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