The election of Mr Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States earlier this week has sent ripples around the world — and while it is much too early to tell if President Trump will be a mirror image of Candidate Trump, these are nervous times for Singapore.
As a candidate, Mr Trump’s campaign rhetoric, insults and behaviour left many aghast. His vows to build a wall to keep Mexicans out, to get tough with China, and force allies to pay more to benefit from the American security umbrella raised many an eyebrow, and led to much hand-wringing.
Now that he is the leader of the free world, there is much expectation that, as is the well-established pattern of politics, there will be some dialling back of the fire and brimstone as he gets down to the business of governing.
His acceptance speech and the remarks he made after meeting outgoing President Barack Obama yesterday certainly suggest so. Mr Trump appeared conciliatory, promised to represent all Americans, and called it an “honour” to have talked at length with Mr Obama, despite the obvious dislike both men have for each other.
The two public appearances after his election victory have given pause to those who have said that Mr Trump’s administration will be anything but presidential.
That is the hope, anyway.
For Singapore, the stakes are high, experts interviewed by TODAY said. The populist fury against globalization and migrants, among others, that propelled Mr Trump to the most powerful position in the world will not be easily put back in the bottle, and while it is practically inconceivable that the American isolationism of the 1930s will return, many expected a US withdrawal of sorts.
Singapore — as one of the most open economies in the world — stands to lose a lot if this comes to pass, the experts said.
Over the decades, America has become “deeply interlocked and intertwined in both the political and economic affairs of the world”, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Dr Mustafa Izzuddin noted. “What we may see from Trump is not isolationism, but where interventions are likely to take place only if it is in the interest of the national security of the US. The Trump administration is not likely to withdraw completely from international affairs, but the role of the US in international affairs will be unequivocally premised on domestic interests and exigencies,” he said.
Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, who was Singapore’s Ambassador to the US between 1996 and 2012, said that while Americans who voted for Mr Trump “really are against globalisation”, her sense is that the new administration “may try to push for what they consider ‘fairer trade’”.
“But I cannot see America completely not trading in the world. No, they have too much at stake,” she said.
It is not all about dollars and cents, however. The US plays a central role in the security architecture of the region, and Mr Trump’s apparent disavowal of American commitments to the region during his campaign left many worried. He assuaged some of that worry on Thursday, when he called South Korean President Park Geun Hye and promised to uphold the alliance as a bulwark against North Korea, but the switching of his positions has already given rise to nervousness.
One thing there is little doubt about is America’s commitment to fighting terror. Mr Trump has had some choice words about the Islamic State, and Mr David Adelman, the US Ambassador to Singapore from 2010 to 2013, told TODAY he has “every confidence the incoming administration will continue to lead the fight against terrorism”. This extends to other aspects of security too. “Since the end of the Second World War, the US has been at the forefront of international cooperation on security issues,” Mr Adelman, now a partner at law firm Reed Smith LLP in New York, said. “That leadership is likely to continue.”
Away from the immediate impact of a new, blustery US Commander-in-Chief, the voter fury that led to Mr Trump’s victory holds lessons for Singapore, those interviewed said.
As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself and others have noted, the election result shows the direction Western democracies are trending in – turning their backs on globalisation, which they see as being responsible for many of the ills afflicting the lower and middle-classes, while enriching further the already well-off. Migration is a sharp issue too, and is blamed for a host of problems, both cultural and economic.
Those issues have already reared up in Singapore: The 2011 General Election, where the ruling People’s Action Party posted its worst showing since independence, and the public outcry over the Population White Paper in 2013.
Noted Prof Chan said: “It is important to practise inclusive politics. That is the lesson of Brexit, that is the lesson of the US Presidential Election. This means you must make sure that no group is left behind, that you do not make any group feel they are excluded. And I think Singapore has been doing that in the last few years.”
Referring to last week’s announcement by the Government to extend compulsory education to children with special needs, Prof Chan added: “Our policies are getting better and better at inclusion. I think we are dealing with these issues. America did not, and Britain did not.”