Word of the Day: Populism

Jul 15, 2016 11.04AM |

by Tan Chu Chze

Cameron is out. May is in. Brexit is on.

That is the gist of the happenings in UK. But what do they mean for the rest of the world?

Politicians everywhere were quick to jump on the Brexit story and spin it into a cautionary tale. “Beware!” they said, “this is what populism looks like.” Even our own ministers and ambassadors’ responded similarly. From what is heard from the MSM, it seems like ‘populism’ is a very bad thing.

What is all this pessimism surrounding ‘populism’ anyway? Especially when it’s not even clear what ‘populism’ actually means.

Based on the picture painted by MSM, ‘populism’ is a disaster – a political hurricane of sorts. And, like most natural disasters, ‘populism’ can be identified by a number of conditions.

First, that ‘populism’ storms occur only in democratic climates. There are two main geological features: an evil/distant/ineffective ruling minority, and a deeply disgruntled voting population – otherwise known elusively by names of “the masses” or “the people”. When the ambient temperature becomes temperate – or worse still, temperamental – then chaos ensues… Disgruntled voting population engages in disgruntled voting.

The fear, at least for politicians, is that angry voting isn’t good voting.

And, the Brexit story says it all. Not long after the disgruntled people of UK had expressed their anger, many of them discovered – some, for the first time – what they were actually voting for. Others began to regret their vote because they realised how it mattered. Thus, what seems to be suggested by ‘populism’ is that it leads to irrational, and hence unreliable votes.

Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh summed it up neatly in a Facebook post. “[Brexit] is a victory for populism over rationality. It is a victory for fear over hope,” he said.

“The global wave of populism which is sweeping the world is a danger to democracy and to democratic institutions. Let us hope that it will not invade Singapore.”

Perhaps what is ironic about the caution against ‘populism’ is that it only seems to grow. There is Trump in the US, Hansen in Australia, and Duterte in the Philippines. Depending on who you ask, these politicians are either products of ‘populist’ voting or popular voting. Do they represent the sentiments of their voters? Or are they manipulative fear mongers?

Whichever the case, the term ‘populist’ clearly makes enemies of certain politics.

However, to say that fully describes the meaning of the ‘populism’ would also be a mistake. The real problem of the word ‘populism’ isn’t so much the fact that it is insidious, than it is ambiguous.

If Brexit was all that populist and hence a bad decision, why does UK’s new PM May wish to follow through with it? Especially considering that she had voted against it. Does the fact that PM May promises to act on a populist vote make her populist too?

And even more puzzling, why does Obama call himself a populist in place of Trump?

Besides, the original intent of the populist movement was positive. It arose, and rises still, when the concerns of “the people” are not addressed. That means in spirit, the idea of ‘populism’ was to be fair and democratic.

So does that make ‘populism’ good or bad?

We just might need to take a vote on that.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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