While Singapore has experienced some of these disquieting trends, he believes policies here and in some other societies made a difference in addressing their impact.
He cited four global trends: stagnant wages, declining social mobility, the sense of togetherness in society eroding, and politics and the media becoming more polarised.
“The only surprise is how long it has taken for those underlying domestic changes in society to be reflected in politics,” he told 350 people at a global affairs conference, Has The Game Changed?, hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. While last year’s populist upsets, driven by anti-globalisation, have created a despondency about global cooperation, Mr Tharman said: “The real challenge is not about globalisation. The real challenge is in domestic policy responses.”
He added: “There are countries where you don’t get the same trends played out, although globalisation happens in the same way.”
He cited how in Sweden and Singapore, middle-income workers’ pay went up by more than that in other advanced economies. But lower- and middle-class workers’ wages in America, parts of Europe, Britain and Japan have stagnated.
In America, in 1970, 90 per cent of 30-year-olds had real incomes above what their parents had at 30. Today, the figure is only half, and it affects people’s sense of hope.
The second trend he highlighted was a general decline in social mobility across advanced economies.It is now a stubborn fact and “people know that their chances of moving up in life are less than they used to be if they start off at the bottom”.
Third, people no longer think of themselves and society in terms of “we” but in terms of “us versus them”. This is complicated by how sectarian strife in one area can go global, widening domestic fissures.
Fourth, politics is increasingly polarised, reinforced by how social media algorithms filter “news” in ways that reinforce people’s bias.
Mr Tharman suggested four ways countries can tackle these issues. One, pay attention to cities that have been left behind, in particular through schools and education.
Two, help people regenerate their careers throughout their lives, through skills training.
“You need redistribution in society, and you may need more in some areas, but it’s not at the heart of the matter. It doesn’t give hope. Regeneration is what brings hope because you allow individuals, communities and cities to rise through their own abilities,” he said.
Three, neighbourhood and urban planning must discourage segregation and encourage people to mix. This will enable communities to do well together, said Mr Tharman.
Four, bring honesty and the need to look to the long term back into politics. He noted a long drift towards “short-termism” reflected in the brazen neglect of issues such as unsustainable pensions and healthcare funding. And neither the left nor the right has offered solutions which give confidence for tomorrow’s generation, he added.
There is a need for honest politics that “tells it like it is” but offers hope and real solutions, he said.
“There is nothing inevitable about the drift towards populism. We have to regenerate the politics of the centre. It can be done.”