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Interview

US democracy crumbles as money swamps politics: Singapore's Mahbubani

Diplomat says Biden win won't fix political 'plutocracy' -- and Asia must learn

Over $3.5 billion was spent on this year's U.S. presidential campaigns, more than double the roughly $1.5 billion spent when Donald Trump was elected in 2016.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Joe Biden's defeat of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election will not heal the deep divisions in American society nor fix the fundamental problem in the country's politics -- the pervasive power of money -- one of Singapore's most prominent former diplomats argues.

Kishore Mahbubani, whose 33-year career in Singapore's foreign service included an appointment as ambassador to the United Nations and a stint as president of the U.N. Security Council, told Nikkei Asia that the U.S. is a "very angry, violent, polarized society" in need of structural reform -- providing cautionary lessons for Asia.

"The United States used to be a democracy," Mahbubani said in an interview before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. "But the United States is no longer a democracy, the United States is a plutocracy today, where you have a government of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%."

Democracy advocates have long taken issue with Singapore's own political system, in which opposition parties often struggle to pay thousands of dollars in candidate registration fees. But Mahbubani argues the role of money in American politics has become extreme.

"In most democracies in the world ... there are limits on how much money you can use in elections," observed the distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute. "The plutocracy is deeply embedded now [in the U.S.], and it is money that makes decisions."

Kishore Mahbubani's 33-year career in Singapore's foreign service included an appointment as ambassador to the United Nations and a stint as president of the U.N. Security Council. (Photo courtesy of Kishore Mahbubani)

Total spending in successive U.S. election cycles has risen over the last four decades. Over $3.5 billion was spent on this year's presidential campaigns, more than double the roughly $1.5 billion spent when the billionaire Trump was elected in 2016, according to market and consumer data provider Statista.

"If you allow money to determine the outcome in politics, the result will be a system that favors the rich and hurts the poor," Mahbubani said, noting American political philosopher John Rawls made a similar argument.

Rawls, who hailed from Harvard University, was a proponent of equal basic rights and equality of opportunity, where the least advantaged members of society would have their interests recognized.

Mahbubani held up Japan as an example of a wealthy country that has struck a better balance.

"The world should learn from Japan -- how to have a more socially just society," he said. "Among the [Group of Seven] countries, which are the richest countries in the world, the country that has done the best job of taking care of the bottom 50% is Japan."

He continued: "Look at Japan, look at the United States -- which is a happier society? Japan is by far a much happier society."

Biden, for his part, has pledged to bridge the political divide and be a "president for all Americans." Mahbubani believes this will be easier said than done, however, as more than 70 million people voted for Trump -- a fact he finds curious.

"The white working classes went with the Republicans, which is very strange -- the Republicans are the rich man's party," he said. "The Democrats have to do something fundamental to win over the working classes once again."

Either way, as the U.S. struggles to address its social fissures, Mahbubani thinks Asian countries would do well to pay attention. "We should learn a lesson from that -- all of us in the rest of Asia -- and we should address the issues of inequality," he said.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to bridge the country's political divide and be a "president for all Americans."   © Reuters

One thing the U.S. could do, he suggested, is start by removing some of the tax breaks Trump has granted the wealthy.

"If you can improve that taxation system, that will make a big difference in terms of changing the plutocracy," he said. "The Scandinavian societies -- Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland -- have also done a good job of taking care of the bottom 50% and the United States should go and learn lessons from Japan and from Scandinavia on how to manage these societies."

Yet, Mahbubani also has a feeling the world has not seen the last of Trump. He said Biden's presidency might be just a "brief interlude" before Trump returns for another run in 2024, as some in his camp have already hinted.

"Trump may win again -- you cannot rule out the possibility. And why can he win again? It's because America is very deeply divided and polarized," Mahbubani stressed. "I'm telling Americans, 'You've got to address your structural issues if you're going to have a better future and just electing Biden ... is not going to change anything fundamental.'"

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