Why do I need to care about what happens far away?

Updated: Mar 25

By Alvina Koh


For starters, I have to confess that I am a Political Science major, which naturally puts me in the “yes, we have to care about foreign affairs” camp. Part of that could be influenced by my university’s edict to take at least one module on international relations — the study of political, economic and cultural interactions across two or more nations — if I want to graduate. Truth to tell, the university provides a great variety of modules to engage students into thinking about ourselves vis-a-vis the world.

I used to bo chup things that happened so far from home. We should mind our own business, I thought, and be more concerned about local affairs than foreign ones. Besides, I was convinced that there was no need for an ordinary citizen like me to bother too much since I can’t effect much change anyway.

The year 2016 changed my outlook. That was the year property magnate Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. On Twitter and Facebook, I witnessed a wave of helplessness as many of my friends viewed a Trump victory as the end of friendly relations between the US and Singapore. Many were afraid about what this meant for Singapore’s economy. His “America First’’ slogan that got him into office seemed to signal the beginning of insularity for one of Singapore’s biggest trading partners. He wants American firms to come “home’’, do business and create jobs for Americans. At one point, he even called out Singapore for stealing jobs from Americans. Then he decided to pull the US out of the “job-killing” Trans-Pacific Partnership which he called a disaster in the making.

Will his presidency lead to job losses here? Less investment? What will happen to the Free Trade Agreement Singapore has with the US? All these uncertainties loomed over the little red dot as we contended with the new shifts in relations with Trump’s America.

My father, a businessman, put things in perspective for me. He said that having a businessman as president meant more profit-centred deals, which could quickly weed out the weaker countries that were leeching on the US for survival. He also said that the advantages of Singapore’s economy, which laid predominantly in its robust capital markets and financial systems, could bring forth more trade deals that would elevate Singapore in relation to our regional counterparts.

My father viewed the changes in the US through the lens of a small business owner. He weighed the pros and cons of a Trump presidency and what it meant for people like him. He saw Trump as unpredictable, rather than irrational. And he continued to trade stocks as a sideline without becoming too worried that the world economy would tank.

This short exchange with my father allowed me to appreciate the relevance of foreign affairs to our daily lives. Being armed with information makes us prepared. Information could also influence our thinking and mindset. In more and more places, ordinary citizens are banding together and demonstrating how they can effect changes in their countries.

In Malaysia, a regime change took place peacefully at its 14th General Election in 2018, as voters expressed their fury over Mr Najib Razak’s kleptocratic approach to government. In Hong Kong, dissatisfaction with the pro-China regime sparked by resistance towards proposed extradition legislation led to fiery protests that lasted for months. The chaos and destruction should be decried, but the tangible end result was the pro-democracy parties’ landslide victory at the local polls in November last year.

Citizens, more than we know it, have proven that they are capable of generating watershed changes in their country if they want to. As a Singaporean witnessing these events, I began to realize the potency of my role as a citizen.

We cannot afford to be ignorant and close-minded because changes far away can affect us too. We should also not think that we are so unique as not to be able to learn from foreign cultures or imbibe lessons from foreign developments.

This is particularly pertinent for my generation, whose usual apathy towards foreign news due to the mundane nature of such information tends to prevent us from reading broadly. While the government has done much in assuring job security for us soon-to-be graduates, we ought to remain nimble to sudden changes by being proactive in the sort of knowledge that we consume.

That being said, one example that comes to mind is last year’s World Economic Forum at Davos. Climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, 91, were there even though Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping gave it a miss. Even if non-politicians are unable to force through change, like convincing Mr Trump about the real effects of climate change or why Germany should use less coal, they can at least hope to influence those on the fence.

As for the young protestors in Hong Kong, I do not endorse the means they employed but I empathise with their desire for more say in governance. As a young Singaporean watching my peers over there, I find myself thanking the platforms that my government has created for us to voice our concerns. They may not be perfect, but at least I would never have to think about resorting to violence to have my concerns addressed.

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