To tackle social and political issues, return to ‘honest politics’: DPM Tharman

The political upsets of 2016 across the world and a rising sense of “despondency” about globalisation may seem to have changed the game on how the world works. But these, in fact, were caused by political and social changes that have been brewing for a long time, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

“The game has been changing in much more disquieting ways … and the only surprise is how long it has taken for those underlying domestic changes in society to be reflective in politics,” Mr Tharman said at a conference organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on global power shifts.

Mr Tharman outlined four major trends that have contributed to a shift in global politics: Stagnant wages – not just for those at the bottom of the income ladder – but also for the middle class, a general decline in social mobility, a loss of sense of togetherness in society and the growing mentality of “us against them”, as well as an increasingly polarised political landscape.

“What politicians say does influence how people think. And unfortunately, there is a new phenomenon – it’s in the social media. The way in which social media as a dominant media around the world today is polarised and becoming more so, and the way in which algorithms filter ‘news’ and information in a way that reinforces people’s biases,” said Mr Tharman.

“What we’re seeing is a polarisation in politics, with the rise of both the populist right and left, a weakening of the politics of the centre, but the same being mirrored in the media and in particular social media. So it’s not too surprising that people themselves think in increasingly polarised terms,” he added.

Mr Tharman outlined some ways governments can tackle these issues, such as how they respond through domestic policies.

For instance, helping citizens “regenerate their careers” through training and equipping them with relevant skills, and “regenerating the politics of the centre”.

“There’s been a long drift towards short-termism in politics, left and right. Every of the major challenges that I’ve talked about … every one of them requires actions that only pay off over multiple electoral periods. Short-termism is the biggest enemy of social mobility, the regeneration of cities.

“Politics that is honest, that tells people what’s what, that offers them hope because there are real solutions, and those are the solutions that the politics of the centre can bring back confidence,” said Mr Tharman.

Two major issues were also discussed during the conference – the global impact of a Trump presidency and the emerging rise of Asia. It was attended by representatives from the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs.

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