SINGAPORE – Relief. That was all Mr Brian Suresh Charles felt as Mr Joe Biden, uttering the words “so help me God”, was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States earlier this week.
“At last, after four painful years of watching an absurd political farce unfold in the US,” said the 32-year-old university teaching assistant.
Mr Charles and several other Singaporeans The Straits Times spoke to hailed Mr Biden’s nascent presidency as marking a return to much-needed normality at a time of global crisis.
They applauded his clarion call for unity in his inauguration speech as pertinent to not only the United States, but beyond.
But there were also locals like Mr Hidayat, who registered the exit of Mr Donald Trump as a regrettable loss for the US.
The 33-year-old broadcasting professional, who wanted to go by just his first name, said: “Trump truly cared for America. I liked his ‘America First’ policy.”
Fellow supporters of Mr Trump, or at least his administration, also said they were apprehensive of the direction that would be taken by his more liberal-leaning successor, and the potential cultural ramifications for Singapore.
America, flag-bearer again?
For Mr Charles, however, it was worth celebrating how Mr Biden’s inauguration speech, in pledging to tackle the likes of white supremacism and racism, was a clear rejection of the climate fostered during Mr Trump’s era.
“The US is still a flag-bearer for the world at large, and states and leaders still take cues from how the US behaves,” he said.
Mr Charles expressed optimism that Mr Biden’s commitment to repair alliances and re-engage with the world could signal a return to former president Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” strategy -whose architect, Mr Kurt Campbell, has already been picked by Mr Biden to head policy in the region.
Added Mr Charles: “Hopefully, Biden’s presidency will go some way towards restoring faith in democratic rule.
“It’s now common to hear leaders and citizens of other nations express cynicism about democracy, and they will cite the US as a prime example of their claims,” he explained.
“This is troubling, for it further emboldens authoritarian regimes, autocrats and totalitarian governments in legitimating their claims to power.”
Professor Joseph Liow, dean of Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, said Mr Biden’s immediate signing of executive orders on climate change and public health was good news for Singapore.
“The American role in leading and coordinating efforts on global challenges has been lacking somewhat, so these developments will, I hope, bolster global cooperation,” he noted.
“I think what Singapore desires is a US that is stable, and that continues to be engaged in Asia in a constructive way in security, economics and diplomacy.”
Political scientist Chong Ja Ian of the National University of Singapore said Singapore would need to rebuild trust with the US, and navigate a more precarious international setting, in the wake of Mr Trump’s undermining of global institutions and legacy of frayed US-China relations.
“Simply saying that (Singapore) does not wish to choose sides may not be good enough anymore,” Associate Professor Chong noted.
Professor of political science Elvin Lim from the Singapore Management University (SMU) said the US-China dynamic was unlikely to cool down from one of competition to co-existence.
“(But) there will at least be more predictability and continuity,” noted Prof Lim, who is also SMU’s dean of core curriculum.
“Singapore and US allies in the region… will appreciate a committed American presence in the region and a defender of free trade.”
Dr Lei Hsien-Hsien, chief executive of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, urged the Biden administration to take a more active economic stance in the region, by joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership mega trade deal and forming a digital economy partnership with Singapore.
Prof Liow noted there was a silver lining to the uncertainty of the Trump years.
“It allowed countries like Singapore to take a closer look at strategic opportunities, which has led to the pursuit of a wider and deeper set of bilateral, minilateral and multilateral initiatives,” he said.
“This diversification strategy, I think, is the right move in view of the more complex geo-strategic and geo-economic landscape that has beset us.”
Concern over ‘radical’ agenda
However, Singaporean admirers of Mr Trump highlighted to ST what they saw as successes of his regime, from delivering a border wall as promised, to not starting any new wars.
They said his alignment with conservative Republican beliefs on issues such as abortion, as well as his objection to so-called “radical” ideas around race and gender, reflected their personal values.
With Mr Biden rolling back some of these key policies on his first day in office, one local Trump supporter, who asked to be identified only as Mr Goh, said: “The promotion of progressive ideologies under the new administration can possibly embolden more radical elements in Singapore.”
This, said the 33-year-old member of a local charismatic megachurch, “could possibly lead to the same kinds of fractures in the US, if we’re not careful and don’t hold fast to certain values, such as nuclear families being of paramount importance in a society”.
Another Trump supporter, who wanted to be known as Gabriel, said most “rational” minds in his church did not see the former president as a “good person”.
He said: “Most Christians I spoke to were very torn during the election. On one hand, we wished for a Republican victory, on the other, we couldn’t imagine another four years with Trump.”
For freelance writer Michael Y.P. Ang, 52, a personal preference for political parties that prioritised Singaporeans above foreigners meant it made sense to back Mr Trump and his analogous America First leanings.
Mr Ang also cited Mr Trump’s support for Israel – including recognising Jerusalem as its capital in 2017 – as being of particular significance, because of how the country had helped a newly independent Singapore build up its military in the 1960s.
The global community regards this recognition as against international law. Singapore has said Jerusalem’s status is a sensitive and complex issue that should be decided through direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine.
A retiree in her 60s, who asked to be referred to as Elena, said Mr Trump only “wanted the best for the American people – but in doing so, he might have been bad for the world”.
Meanwhile, Mr Hidayat rejected the notion that Mr Trump had stoked Islamophobia in the US, and said the 2017 ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries – framed as an anti-terrorist measure – was the right thing to do.
“As a Muslim, I feel he did service to us by preventing more killings in the name of my religion,” he said.
“It’s up to Muslims to correct this issue ourselves, and not get offended. It’s not Trump’s job to take care of our feelings.”
Mr Hidayat told ST that he began to admire Mr Trump once he started consuming news outside of the mainstream media – which seemed, to him, overwhelmingly negative in its portrayal of the former celebrity businessman and TV personality.
That Singaporeans have polarised takes on Mr Biden and Mr Trump, stemming from contrasting personal ideologies and values, is not a sign of fundamental division, said Ms Amanda Trea Phua, senior analyst at the US programme of NTU’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“It becomes divisive when civil society and political establishments fail to have patient and compassionate processes to achieve understanding, even if consensus of views cannot be forged,” she said. “There is no quick fix, but the issue is an important one for countries, including Singapore, to commit to seriously.”
For Mr Hidayat, the Trump supporter, and Mr Charles, the Trump detractor, there was at least one matter they could see eye to eye on: Their favourite point in Mr Biden’s inauguration speech.
“Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” urged the new US President, as he squinted into the light of day. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
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