Thinking of Politics, Thinking of You

As an international student in the United States, I am often asked by both my American and Singaporean friends about what it is like to live in the U.S. following last year’s presidential election.


My first response is that life goes on: there are still essays to be written, movies to be
watched, parties to go to, and friends to meet. Life is too short to be defined solely by politics, at the expense of everything else which gives life meaning — health, art,
culture, relationships, family. If we are to survive these tumultuous times, we need to build robust private lives, tuned out of incessant notifications on our iPhones —
be it from the New York Times or from Twitter.



The writer with fellow Singaporeans at Yale



At the same time, indifference can be too easy an option, especially for a ‘non-immigrant alien’ who will leave the U.S. after four years. American politics is world politics, and at a bare minimum, we owe it to ourselves and our communities to think critically about the space we all share. As Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (and Pericles before her) once said, ‘You may not think about politics, but politics thinks about you.’


For one, the past half-a-year has forced me to reconcile my own mobility — geographical and socio-economic — with the realities of immobility and forced mobility which so many others face. International students often imagine themselves as jet-setting
neoliberal subjects, free to live and study where they want on the basis of their talent and hard work. When we think of Singaporeans in the U.S., we think of students in Ivy
League universities; high-wage professional working for MNCs; maybe high net-worth individuals who decide to retire overseas.


This portrayal is not entirely inaccurate, but recent events should remind us that this global order is historically contingent rather than inevitable. In January 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order barring the citizens of seven Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S. For most Singaporeans at home and abroad, it seems unthinkable that we would ever be subject to a similar policy. After all, we are one of just 37 countries eligible for the U.S. Visa-Waiver Program, and we have one of the most powerful passports in the world.


But exactly a century ago, in 1917, Singapore became part of the newly-formed Asiatic Barred Zone, which prohibited people of Asian descent from entering the U.S. Freedom of movement is precious and fragile, subject always to the vicissitudes of domestic politics and the vagaries of public opinion. Moreover, debates about refugees and unauthorized immigration are not just about Syrians or Mexicans; they are about Singaporeans as well.


According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 457 Singaporeans were removed from the U.S. from 2009 to 2015. From 2006 to 2015, 1,254 Singapore citizens were deemed ‘inadmissible.’ And while teen blogger Amos Yee’s asylum bid has drawn widespread media attention, he is by no means the first or only Singaporean to seek asylum: between 1946 and 2004, 118 Singaporean asylum-seekers were granted legal permanent residency in the U.S.




True, these numbers are minuscule, and people will reasonably disagree about the merits of specific cases. But these statistics complicate our stereotype of overseas Singaporeans as financially successful and universally well-educated — a caricature articulated in Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, Crazy Rich Asians, which is set to be adapted into a film next year.


In New Haven, I often make late-night food runs to a Singaporean and Malaysian take-out restaurant near my dorm — a rare reminder of home on the other side of the world. One of the wait staff there moved from Singapore to the U.S. in the 1980s, in search of job opportunities during the recession which followed the failure of Singapore’s Second Industrial Revolution. As a service worker, he may not conform to the popular conception of an ‘Overseas Singaporean,’ but he is just as much one as I am. In a time when globalisation is increasingly in peril, all of us are united by our vulnerability as the ‘other.’





Ivy Wok, a Singaporean and Malaysian take-out restaurant near the writer’s Dorm



Apart from nonchalance, another tempting response to the ongoing political turmoil is ridicule, maybe even gleeful contempt. As a classmate of mine at Yale told me: ‘Singaporeans must think that America has gone mad!’ But derision assumes that what is happening in the U.S. is exceptional, even unique, when it actually reflects wider global trends.


In the past year, New Zealand, Australia, and Britain have all tightened their immigration policies, as did Singapore following the ‘watershed’ 2011 General
Election. The problem of ‘fake news’ has not spared Singapore, as evidenced by sites like All Singapore Stuff and The Real Singapore.


Some of these transnational connections are analogous, but others are more direct, be it the 15-year-old Singaporean student who was hired to prepare slideshows for ‘Students for Trump,’ or the Marina Bay Sands owner, Sheldon Adelson, who donated US$35 million to the Trump campaign. Instead of pointing fingers or mocking Trump supporters, we ought to reflect on the global structures and logics which explain the here and now.


When I was still a student at Raffles, I was deeply influenced by Christopher Hayes’ book, Twilight of the Elites, recommended by the then-Principal Lim Lai Cheng. Writing in 2012, Hayes argues that the ‘cult of smartness’ has irreparably damaged public trust in theAmerican establishment, and that the self-serving and insular nature of the elite has perpetuated a number of crises, from the Iraq War to the 2008 recession.


Hayes begins his book with a vignette of Hunter College High School, a New York City public school for the intellectual gifted. Admission to Hunter is based solely on test scores, and while it was once an emblem of meritocracy, it has become less racially and socio-economically diverse over time. Hunter sounds a lot like Raffles — as senior diplomat Bilahari Kausikan put it in his eloquent 2012 Founder’s Day speech, ‘one of a number of similar elite educational institutions… united by a certain sense of entitlement.’ And sure enough, my first-year roommate at Yale was a graduate of Hunter.


As students and alumni of Raffles, we must thus consider how we fit into wider networks and assemblages which are becoming a target of worldwide discontent. To have been to Raffles is not just to have studied Economics or Chemistry or History, but to have been schooled in a particular way of thinking and a specific way of being. The solution cannot be mindless self-flagellation, but a constant alertness to our own blind spots and biases, an aliveness to the possibility of error.


How do we go forward from here? What lessons can we learn from Trump’s election, or Brexit, or the rise of Marie Le Pen in France?


To begin with, I think we need to be endlessly curious about our world. To the extent possible, we ought to conduct what historians call ‘primary research,’ to figure things
out for ourselves rather than rely on clickbait headlines. Talk to people whose lives are radically different from yours. Observe changes in your surroundings. Read the labels on the Pepsi can, the advertisements at the bus stop, the obnoxious comments on someone’s Facebook feed.


Remember: a source does not have to be reliable to be useful, for it can tell us something about how others see the world.


Prejudices and falsehoods are never solely the result of individual psychological phenomena; even the most preposterous idea has a reasoning and genealogy of its own.

By experiencing our environment more fully, we can draw better connections between theory and practice, between the general and the peculiar, between the personal
and the political.


Much has been written about the need for ‘empathy’ in the aftermath of Trump’s election, but perhaps there is an even greater need for suasion. To that end, we all need to learn to tell better stories. The last time many of us narrated a story may well have been when we wrote a ‘picture composition’ for the PSLE (and it was probably a ‘model composition,’ at that). At Raffles, I was taught to craft ‘balanced’ arguments for the General Paper essay, to take different sides on the debate team. I learnt to venerate
data and statistics, arguments and counter-arguments.



Yet Trump won, as the Brexiteers won, because he crafted a compelling — if perhaps misleading — narrative: that the country was in decline; that the villains were the
‘global elites’; that it was time to ‘take back control.’ His opponents were able to respond analytically, but not affectively. While critical thinking is a valuable skill, it cannot be the be-all-and-end-all of our education (including self-education). Myths and metaphors matter, and they matter even more in an unsettled, cynical time.


Finally, we have to think imaginatively about how we can do good for the world. If there is one positive effect of last year’s polarizing U.S. election, it’s that more of my friends at Yale are considering careers in the public interest. They are moving back to their hometowns rather than being drawn to the ‘bright lights’ of coastal cities; they are applying to nonprofits rather than to Goldman Sachs or McKinsey.


One reason I am proud to have gone to Raffles is its ethos of public service — but we also need a more expansive vision of what constitutes the common good. I was moved by Deborah Lee’s recent op-ed in Word of Mouth, ‘The Pressure to be Extraordinary,’ which argued that RI’s school culture embodies a very particular idea of service and success. As the article circulated on social media, many of my friends shared how unhappy they were with the compulsion to become a doctor or a lawyer, a civil servant or a political leader. Despite the exhortations of school leaders and even Government ministers to take the path less travelled, many clearly still feel constrained by a well-intentioned but blinkered idea of what it means to be a contributing member of society.


Regardless of who is in power, all of us have power: to act ethically and live intentionally; to ask hard questions and reject easy answers


Editor’s Note: This piece was written before the results of the 2017 United Kingdom General Election as well as the 2017 French Presidential Election.


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