Populism ‘not inevitable’:

January , 2017

Populism ‘not inevitable’:  Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at LKY School of Public Policy

by Charissa Yong


Image result for Singapore's Tharman at LKY School of Public Policy

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivers his keynote address at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA) held on January 7, 2017.

Govts must offer hope and real solutions by helping people regenerate careers, and those left behind: Tharman

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.”

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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.

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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.”

7 thoughts on “Populism ‘not inevitable’:

  1. Populism, like elite politics, has a long history in the United States. Populism gathers steam when discontent becomes the spark of political mobilization, when individual grievances are revealed as shared frustrations and when the dispersed energies of the street are cajoled and channeled into collective action.

    Like elite politics, populism has been a constant throughout America’s political history. It constitutes, in the words of political theorist Ernesto Laclau, the “political logic” of the modern nation-state: By outlining and reinforcing the boundaries of who constitutes “the people” and by articulating their sovereignty, populism can serve as the midwife of democracy, the language of demagoguery and as the antidote to elite politics.

    Not all populisms are created equal. For Tocqueville, the prospect of populism lay in its link to participatory institutions, and thus in the possibility of cultivating the “habits of the heart“ that underpinned popular sovereignty. By contrast, the third-party presidential campaigns of Ross Perot in the 1990s and of Ralph Nader in the 2000s had a distinct populist rhetoric but were ultimately rooted in the logic of reformism, not in a rejection of Washington politics.

    Likewise, the vision of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is not the abandonment of Beltway politics but the reclamation of the political system for the middle class – which has experienced a steady decline in numbers and prosperity since the 1970s – and the working class – which has swelled in numbers and shrunken in social mobility. Sanders’ campaign proposals – universal health care, free education or tightened financial regulation – are remarkable largely because they have long been excluded from American political discourse even on the left but now attract support among people across age and income brackets. They are populist insofar as they have sparked the imagination and galvanized the electorate.

    Many of Trump’s policy proposals are remarkably unimaginative and centrist, but his campaign is unique in the vitriol of its rhetoric and its hostility towards established institutions of American politics. Routine shutdowns of the federal government over budgetary disagreements or calls to ban Muslims from immigrating into the United States have surprised and rocked even his party’s conservative elite, and have given a new lease of life to concerns, grave concerns.

  2. Seriously, there is nothing wrong with populism. Come to think of it, PAP’s 1990s HDB asset enhancement scheme is a form of populism policy

  3. Dr. Phua:
    The “Wobblies” is the Industrial (not International) Workers of the World (IWW), an international labor union that was founded in 1905. Theodore Roosvelt’s Progressive Party was founded in 1910.

    In my opinion, the most significant political mass mobilizations in the US occurred in the 1880s and 1890s, when cotton farmers, sharecroppers, and landowners banded together against “Washington elites” and industrial capitalists. Worried about their declining relevance in a modernizing economy and about the crop lien system that underpinned much of American agriculture, they formed the Farmers’ Alliance to unite the farmers of America for their protection against class legislation and the encroachments of concentrated capital.

    Soon, rural activists were calling for the nationalization of railroads, agricultural debt relief and the establishment of cooperative stores. Those stores could function outside the regular market economy and thus escape the predatory grasp of East Coast financiers and remedy the regulatory lethargy of East Coast politicians.

    By the 1890s, the increasing circulation of mass media, a vibrant rural lecturing circuit and series of droughts had galvanized populist sentiments and contributed to the formation and early electoral success of the newly formed People’s Party. Populist state politicians and congressmen soon broadened the scope of their arguments, and began to link calls for agrarian revival to condemnations of the gold standard and the Federal Reserve.

    Therefore, I believe, it was these populist rural movements in the 1880s and 1890s by folks who were mostly poorly and uneducated that had established the financial system that made America great. I resent the notion by today’s media that painting populism as something bad. It was populism that made America great.

  4. I beginning to feel Trump will be out of office in one term or less. Impeachment before his term ends is real possibility.

  5. Yes, LaMoy.
    My error about IWW.

    If I remember correctly, they were strong amongst
    timber workers in the Western states (Oregon ?)

    Mother Jones magazine had an interesting booklet on the
    history of the US Left way back when I was an undergrad student.
    I’m sure I still have it, in one of the boxes I have still not
    unpacked after moving back to Malaysia 🙂

  6. Dr. Phua:
    IWW is very active in the Bay Area right now. The IWW Bay Area General Membership Branch endorses and encourages all members to participate in the nationwide call for protest and actions beginning with those honoring and continuing the struggle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr on his day, Monday, January 16 and culminating in a national day of action and protest and a reassertion of the power of organized labor on Friday January, 20, the day of the Inauguration of President Donald Trump

    People who do not know history thought it was capitalism that made America great. No sir, it was populism and socialism that made America great. And yet, there are idiots who equate socialism to communism.

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