By Howard Lee
When Brexit was first announced, my initial reaction was, “seriously?”, followed almost immediately by a big laugh and “good luck to the Brits!”
I was with the British High Commission when the UK’s place in the European Union was debated, and the mood back then was a mixture of resigned irritation: Irritation that the UK could not break out of some of the EU policies that were said to be disadvantaging it, but resignation in believing that it is too dependent on the European market to ever risk getting out.
At the base of it, there was probably some smugness in thinking that the UK remains the gateway to the EU for the rest of the world. How many seriously believed that the Brits wanted out of the EU?
As such Brexit was essentially a test of all those long held beliefs, and it is timely for the UK to have a deep rethink about who it is and what it really wants for its people.
Locally, there have been views passed around about how the Brexit referendum was a case of “tyranny of the masses”. Some even compared it to our Population White Paper, and celebrated that Singapore did not succumb to a people’s vote on the matter.
Such a view is inaccurate and defies the principle of democracy. The Brexit vote was promised to the people by PM David Cameron, as a way of sidestepping the UK’s political position in the EU as an election issue. Cameron was kicking the can down the road, but this has also allowed advocates of both camps to embark on a national education drive to convince voters.
The result was a failure on one side to convince the British people, plain and simple. If anything, we should draw an important lesson here about gaining the people’s trust, and how Cameron has effectively failed to do so, due to either arrogance or misinformation.
The more important task, however, is how the UK government must now buckle down and work towards a solution out of the EU, for the benefit of the people. This is what citizens expect of governments, and what a responsible government voted in by citizens need to do.
At the High Commission, I had the opportunity to work on the GREAT campaign, a UK-wide and international effort to highlight the best of UK industry, culture, technology, sports, fashion, food, shopping and anything-you-can-name to the rest of the world.
The problem with GREAT was not that it was unbridled fancy-pants bragging-rights advertising, although to some extent, it was. The GREAT campaign fell short in that it highlighted past glories without looking at how this can be effectively taken forward into a new global environment that the UK necessarily finds itself in. GREAT British engineering, for instance, was a Mini Cooper that was owned by a German company. GREAT British technology was the invention of the Internet that is currently ruled by giants in the US and China.
GREAT Britain has lost touch, and Brexit is a stark reminder that it needs to get back in touch.
It can be done, but it will need political will that reaches beyond narrow industry interests, and focus on what the UK people need and believe they can do. Innovation comes from the ground, not from the pages of a glossy magazine, and I believe that the British people have that spark in them, if only they were given the chance to light it.
GREAT Britain also needs to reconnect with the world. It would be a great pity if the UK chooses to throw the baby out with the bathwater and scale back on useful EU policies like emissions control and green energy. The UK needs to understand that the EU has strengths that it can continue to tap on and take advantage of. It also needs to reassess its place in other parts of the world as a contributor and, at times, even as a small player in the bigger picture.
On our side of the world, Singapore can learn much from Brexit. Economically, we might have lost our hub in Europe, but we have never been shy about putting our feet into door cracks.
Also, the UK remains a strong business partner of Singapore’s, and just as Britain now needs to reconcile internally with Scotland and Northern Ireland for the journey ahead, so should we reassess our relationship with the UK on our shared and interdependent strengths.
Similarly, we need to reassess what Singaporeans are capable of, rather than depend on big markets and established ways of working.
Politically, Brexit has shown us that national referendums are useful mid-term evaluations of governments and allow them to give on policy issues without risking a general election, or unfairly asking the people to vote on “the package”.
As Cameron himself said, “(The UK) not only have a parliamentary democracy, but on questions about the arrangements for how we are governed, there are times when it is right to ask the people themselves, and that is what we have done.”
Like the British, Singapore needs to learn that we are the greatest only when we humble ourselves as the least. The concept of “one strong government” is a thing of the past. It is time to listen to the people, or risk losing them for good.