Reflections 2020 : American Politics

Updated: Jan 5

In the past 4 years it seems as if nothing has dominated or polarized public opinion in Asia more than the person of the, now, former President of United States, Donald J Trump. Every conversation on politics, regardless of whether it was on the Singapore elections or the riots in Hong Kong, would inextricably end up focusing on Mr Trump and what he was doing or not doing in the single most influential political office in the world.

My theory on why the US is so important to us is that since the fall of the former Soviet Union in the 90s, we have been living in Pax Americana where the United States through its military and economic might has wielded some influence on almost every nation in the world. The consequence of this dominance is the somewhat surprising phenomena that every non American person I have spoken to about President Trump, regardless of whether they are European, Australians or Asians, seems to have strong views on whether or not he should be the President of the United States. Rightly or wrongly, we have come to expect the average American to recognise that, for better of worst, what happens within its borders of the US is important to us in far away places such as Africa or Asia.

My first stark encounter with US domestic politics came years ago over what I thought was to be a pleasant lunch in Singapore with American investors. I had been proudly alluding to the closeness between Singapore and the US by explaining that we hosted one of the largest US naval bases in Asia when, out of the blue, over the generous plate of sushi I had order, my American guests shocked me to stunned silence by suggesting Singapore should be paying the US for the protection that its navy was providing Singapore. I was shocked into a stunned silence that lasted at least until the end of the lunch. When I recovered I realized that underlying assumption in my companion's mind, which was clearly wrong, was that Singapore needed saving and that our saviour was the United States to which we needed to be profoundly grateful. A month later when I gave a talk to a group of visiting students from my alma mater, Baruch College, City University of New York, one student asked me what was the one thing every Americans should bear in mind not to do when visiting Asia. Without hesitation, I said that every Amercian needs to know that no one in Asia truely understands American politics and, with that in mind, we would all be better off if we let Americans keep their politics to themselves. In this year of Democrats and Republican, Left and Right, Trump and Biden, I can only echo that sentiment again.

That said, in my mind, the rise of Trump highlights the fact that not everyone in the world is a globalist. It also reminds us that we should not be dismissive of the loss of job security to the American worker in the mid-West (or any worker in the developed world for that matter) when his or her factory closes down to move to Asia even if the result is a substantial gain in relative wealth and prosperity for so many communities in the developing world. While it is clear that the affect of globalization has been to lift millions of people out of poverty, if we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of continuing prosperity for the world through trade we need to be more cognisant of the communities that are increasingly left behind. In growing overall wealth for the world as a whole, we need to be sure that everyone gets a bigger piece of the pie - including the average American struggling to make a living in middle America and the factory worker in Southeast Asia trying to put his children through school.

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