Thursday, 18 September 2014

What Singapore can learn from Scotland’s referendum – Tan Wu Meng

Today, September 18, 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.

A year ago, the pro-independence “Yes” campaign was lagging behind. This has since narrowed to a dead heat, with a “Yes” majority being a very real possibility.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the opposition Ed Miliband and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have vigorously campaigned in a cross-party effort to keep the UK together.

Even the prime minister’s questions (PMQs) session, an important part of UK political culture, has been affected – Cameron and Miliband have skipped PMQs to campaign in Scotland.

Scottish independence would have deep implications for Scotland and the rest of the UK.

For some time, the UK’s international standing has surpassed its tangible military and economic reach. Through a combination of international partnerships, cultural soft power and afterglow from the post-Empire and Cold War years, the UK has been able to punch above its weight.

This stature will be much diminished if Scotland separates, the sum of sundered parts adding up to less than what was whole. The UK-America trans-Atlantic relationship will be affected as well.

Separation would be traumatic. Custody of natural resources and strategic assets could be disputed for many years.

An independent Scotland’s fiscal and defence situation would pose problems on both sides of the border. For instance, what would become of the submarine-based Trident, the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent, which is based in Scotland? The choice of Scotland’s currency would also have implications for investments there and London’s status as a financial centre could also be hurt.

But independence can bring opportunity, too. Self-government would help the Scottish people’s policy preferences find clearer expression, without the overriding influence of the wider UK.

Small countries have started with even less and succeeded amid stiffer odds – as Singapore did, despite independence being thrust upon us in 1965.

A close call

Whatever the merits, why would so many in Scotland countenance the drastic step of independence? Each voter will have his or her own views and sentiments, each campaign its issues, but broader themes emerge, too.

The referendum question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, is loaded language. The word “independence” carries a positive connotation, but it leaves aside complexities of “how” and “what happens next”. In this context, a simple word such as “yes” adds momentum, due to its subconscious psychological cachet. Even the pro-unity campaigners have recognised this – hence their use of catchy slogans such as BetterTogether.

Scotland’s referendum will not have compulsory voting. This introduces an additional hurdle for campaigners. When voting is optional, it is not enough to win support – one’s supporters must find motivation and the will to show up at the ballot box.

Voters with strong views and deep-seated feelings are more likely to turn up. In a close contest under such conditions, emotion can overrule reason – the angry vote against a bitter yesterday, the passionate vote of beliefs made manifest or the inspired vote in the hope of a better tomorrow.

Identity also plays a key role, especially when it fuels emotions. The separate Scottish identity has deep-seated origins, but more could have been done by successive UK governments to minimise divisiveness.

Lessons for Singapore

Although the country is halfway around the world, Scotland’s experience has relevance for Singapore.

By playing to strong emotions, hot-button issues and identity, it is possible for an astute political competitor to whittle down a significant incumbent lead over a few months. The pro-unity campaign in Scotland enjoyed a 60-40 lead barely a year ago. Analysts are now seriously considering the possibility of a loss.

In Scotland, the pro-unity platform, citing track records, policy logic and long-term thinking, has found limited traction. Successful campaigns will be those able to connect with emotion as well as reason: inspiring people to give of their best, while feeling deeply the gravity of what is at stake.

In a political campaign, the crafting of words is crucial, whatever the language. Words have cadence and rhythm. They carry the weight of context and history. Language frames a discussion for speakers, respondents and observers, for better or for worse.

Identity matters, too – how people see themselves and the lenses through which they see others. Communal and ideological forces have not gone away in the era of globalisation.

It will be more important for public- and private-sector leaders to engage individuals with diverse identities, while drawing together to find common ground and higher purpose.

Amid diversity, our Singaporean society must remain inclusive. Each of us has a unique identity: who we are, what we do, how we became ourselves. But whatever our race, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability, personal beliefs or socio-economic station in life, we must still see ourselves as Singaporeans in shared humanity.

We are too small a country for individuals to declare themselves islands and be set apart from the rest of society. We can be great enough a nation to accommodate diversity while having a shared purpose. – Today Online, September 18, 2014.

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