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COMMENTARY

Could we have anything in common with Trump supporters?

Singapore is also subjected to the vagaries of the new economy which will require more strategic re-skilling of the labour force

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Fear is prompting even immigrants to vote for Mr Trump, who has called Mexicans rapists, and pledged to build a wall to keep immigrants out.

New York

TUCKED in a booth at a watering hole in New York, a young Google software engineer and I were chatting about the odds of the Singularity - the Second Coming of Technology where machine learning surpasses that of humans. (His view? Not in our lifetime.)

Just as well that hours ago, a quote from Stephen Hawking off an office wall popped up into my view. It said: "I believe what makes us unique (as human beings) is transcending our limits." While on its own, a sagely observation, the quote captured attention because of the news story that was playing next to it. On it, the CNN news ticker read: "Obama, Trump, meeting at the White House".

Limits were transcended on Nov 9, 2016, just not the ones Dr Hawking sought. Donald Trump served up an American-style Brexit, with the world's largest economy (and nuclear launch codes) now in his hands.

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As the results streamed in on Tuesday, a heavy wave of nausea washed over me. And the immediate instinct was to pin this on irrationality of the white men of the working class, and rural areas. They have ushered in an inflammatory presidential candidate into the White House who is set to undo policies and instate new ones that would hurt health insurance and welfare spending. Tax cuts are expected, and these are likely to keep the income gap yawning wide. An anti-trade position hurts the economy, and slows the import of cheaper consumer prices.

But all that geeky talk about the Singularity has bearing on the implication of Mr Trump's upset win. Technology is an emblem of the new economy today for America, and the rest of the world. Mr Trump's capture of votes represents much of the past.

There may be - gasp - something we all have in common with voters from the coal and smelting industries in time, as the world is grappling with ideas such as the Singularity with some dread. No doubt, technology can rev up productivity, and innovation that could spur new areas of economic growth. Technology, on its own, is a sterling enabler. But there is also growing concern that technology will not just disrupt low-value jobs, but also displace white-collar workers, even without the big-bang explosion in technology that resembles the Skynet prophesied by James Cameron.

What's not to be discounted is the impact of racism and sexism in the heady mix that led to the defeat of Mr Trump's opposing candidate. One way to see it is that a man from a dominant race who had just lost his job may find it emasculating to vote in a woman that also has a liberal immigrant policy. Hillary Clinton's staggering qualifications in policymaking puts her in a far better position to lead the country. But there were enough voters who wanted another caricature. The double standards she has had to meet as a woman make this defeat all the more tragic. The world demands perfection from women.

But underneath all of that misdirected hatred and bigotry, is fear. It is a fear of that slipping grasp as the economy breathes a life of its own without taking more people on the ride. It is that fear driving former supporters of Barack Obama to back Mr Trump. It is the same fear prompting even immigrants to vote for Mr Trump, who has called Mexicans rapists, and pledged to build a wall to keep immigrants out. More immigrants means more competition for existing immigrants.

It is a collective rejection of the establishment - even as Mrs Clinton had a much more middle-class upbringing than Mr Trump - because enough voters feel the government has failed to help those who had been disrupted. Fear came packaged with a dose of anger. Some of that criticism has merit. And countries that want to make use of technology right, as Singapore hopes to do, will have to introduce new skills to its labour force so their people can adapt in quick time. That these Americans increasingly feel stranded on the economic fringe suggests that fiscal policies may not have kept up to keep these people relevant in the labour market as their old jobs fade away. And the vagaries of the new economy, as charged by technology, will require even more strategic re-skilling of the labour force.

Still, this fear does not excuse in any way, prejudice. There have been reports of more overt and deplorable harassment of non-white Americans in the early days after the election. They fear, so they look for someone to blame, and bully. That fear powers some part of that foul behaviour. And it also highlights that as technological disruption bubbles to the surface in the decades ahead, the same potential fear may not be isolated to classes. The fear would strike the base instinct in the human psyche, as Mr Trump galvanised to his advantage.

The 2016 election has been ugly. America is emotionally broken. But the lesson to drive home is that the economy is bigger than you and me, and the goal is to be on the right side of change when the fresh tide of technological disruption comes crashing. That anxiety must be channelled towards preparing for a resilient fight ahead, before that universal fear turns into something much more destructive.

 

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