SINGAPORE, Nov 15 — Young, good-looking and oozing an easy charm, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is clearly a crowd favourite everywhere he goes, as evidenced by the applause and laughter the 46-year-old drew from a 400-strong audience during a dialogue session at the National University of Singapore (NUS) today.
Upping his cool quotient among the crowd of mainly university students, Trudeau also made a pitch for multiculturalism and free trade as he revealed a little-known fact that connects him to Singapore: He is a descendant of William Farquhar, First British Resident and Commandant of Singapore.
One of the children Farquhar had with his French-Malaysian partner, Antoinette Clement, was a daughter called Esther, whose grandson emigrated to British Columbia, Canada. Trudeau’s grandmother was born two generations later.
The family history was traced in 2008 when Trudeau’s mother was approached by a television show, said Trudeau at the start of the town hall discussion on “Asia and Canada in a Changing World”.
“I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for multiculturalism.”
Trudeau is visiting Singapore this week at the invitation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to attend the 33rd Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) Summit and related summits as a guest of the Asean chair.
He also visited Fort Canning Park today to pay his respects to Esther Bernard, his great great great great grandmother.
In a post on Facebook, the National Parks Board said: “Mrs Bernard’s plaque, which can be found along the walls of Canning Green, is one of some 400 tombstones of people who had lived in the area during the 19th century.”
At the dialogue at NUS’ University Cultural Centre, Trudeau was asked by moderator Sharanjit Leyl and audience members about trade, the global debate on multilateralism and nationalist populism, as well as the role of internet and social media in global politics.
Leyl, a BBC World News presenter, asked who was winning the debate on multilateralism and nationalist populism, and if was “getting lonely” for those promoting socially progressive policies amid the rise of populist leaders in countries such as Brazil and Austria.
Trudeau said political leaders have two choices when faced with anxiety felt by the public over trends such as offshoring, immigration, and robotics technology.
He said: “You can either reflect that anxiety back to people and amplify it to a certain extent, and play up the politics of fear, of anxiety, of division, of negativity. Or you can do what we’ve chosen to do, which is to say, ‘Yes, this is a challenge but it’s a challenge we can overcome together. Here are the complex answers to complex questions’.”
Steps that Canada has taken include a tax cut for the middle class, raising taxes for the wealthiest one per cent in society, and investments in higher education and research, he said.
“It’s always been easier to divide in politics than to bring people together. But it’s really hard to govern responsibly once you’ve created wedges within the population — once you’ve turned people against one another and made them more fearful,” added Trudeau.
Social media has the potential to enhance and allow for conversation, but societies that value free speech have to struggle with the polarisation and intolerance that easily creep in when “everything’s anonymous”, he said.
There is a point where “public discourse and debate become so toxified” that it is almost impossible to have thoughtful and real conversations about tough decisions — on issues such as the environment, reproductive rights or drug policy — that a country has to make, said Trudeau.
“When you have a polarised population where you’re talking but not listening to each other, it actually becomes really hard to find that common ground,” he added.
The Canadian prime minister also weighed in on the new United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement that aims to forbid free trade deals with “non-market” economies. When asked about negotiations with China on a free trade deal in light of this agreement, he said: “This clause doesn’t prevent us from doing anything that we’re already doing, which is indeed continuing to negotiate with China towards an eventual free trade deal.”
But it was not all serious talk on Thursday, as Trudeau took time out to pose for a wefie with some members of the audience at the end of the dialogue session.
The audience also erupted in laughter when one participant remarked during the session that Trudeau was “very good-looking”.
Trudeau’s cheeky response to the compliment? “It’s the Singaporean blood. Gives me high cheekbones and a tan dark,” he quipped. — TODAY