Deconstructing populism

02 March 2017 | Education
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From left: Mr Darby, Ambassador Lavin, Prof Koh and Assoc Prof Tan examined populism from the perspectives of political events in the UK, US and Singapore

The 21st Tembusu Forum held on 28 February served up a stimulating discussion on the rise of populism — a political view that claims to speak for the common people, sometimes against the establishment — with perspectives from Britain, America and Singapore.

Moderated by Professor Tommy Koh, Rector of Tembusu College and Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the forum featured three speakers — Mr Jonathan Darby, Acting Deputy High Commissioner and Political Counsellor at the British High Commission in Singapore; Ambassador Frank Lavin, who was US Ambassador to Singapore between 2001 and 2005; and Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser from NUS Arts and Social Sciences and the Institute of Policy Studies. The three speakers examined populism from the perspectives of their respective countries based on recent political events, from the UK’s Brexit vote to the 2016 US Presidential elections, and closer to home, the 2011 General Election.

Mr Darby opined that describing Britain’s referendum vote to leave the European Union purely as a populist decision would be an act of populist analysis, as many people who voted against it may not have been for it since the beginning, and still others might have made a balanced decision.

“Instead of comparing different strands of speculation and commentary and building our own thoughts on the musings of others, we should perhaps return to the source material; what the Prime Minister [Teresa May] actually said. And you’ll see her eyes are fixed on delivering the big picture; delivering good governance, prosperity and security for everybody in the UK,” he concluded.

Ambassador Lavin challenged the audience to put aside their own personal opinion of Donald Trump and to look at the phenomenon through the lens of a political scientist. He pointed out that one characteristic of populism is the necessity for emotional connectivity, and how the shift towards grievance politics and increased globalisation has fed into a sense of alienation among a segment of the public, propelling populism to the fore. “If elites cannot maintain that connectivity, they give an opening to populists,” he said.

“People don’t care what you know, until they know you care,” Ambassador Lavin added, calling this the essence of populism.

The 2011 General Election was probably Singapore’s “populist moment”, said Assoc Prof Tan. He described the volatile anger against the government, which was attributed to economic turbulence, population increase and immigration, and a disruption of upward mobility. He noted that efforts by the government to fix hot button issues, an increased level of public consultation and communication between 2011 and the 2015 General Elections might have prevented further anger.

“I think the future lies with creating a good synergy among Singaporeans and the foreigners in our midst,” he said, using the calibration of immigration policies as an example.

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Some 155 participants attended the forum, the 21st edition of Tembusu College’s flagship event

A dialogue session between the panellists discussed issues such as the role of the media in populism, where the solutions may lie, as well as how this particular wave of populism is distinctive.

In closing the forum, Prof Koh said, “If we don’t look after our people well, if growth is not inclusive, if we don’t educate our people well, then there’s going to be a backlash, but if we do a good job then we can put the fear of populism at bay.”