Populist undercurrents in Pakatan govt

FROM Rodrigo Duterte to Donald Trump, the word “populist” is thrown around a lot nowadays.

You hear it in mass and social media, and sometimes, your daily conversations. This should come as no surprise as it is used to describe, often pejoratively, politicians in positions of power. Whether you like it or not, populism is making a splash and you’re getting hit by its waves.

Yet, as with any commonly used political jargon, there’s hardly an agreement on the exact definition of populism. Some define it as a set of dangerous short-sighted economic policies aimed at garnering votes, while others describe it as a political strategy or a type of discourse.

One definition that has started to gain widespread acceptance and tacit usage in public discourse is by Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde. He defined it as a “thin-centered” ideology, a “weak” ideology that can be combined with a “fuller” ideology (e.g. socialism or nationalism), which posits that democracy and politics should represent the general will of the “people” rather than a small corrupt establishment, the “elite”.

Mudde explains that there are two counter-ideologies to populism – elitism and pluralism.

Elitism is the polar opposite to populism. It posits that democratic politics should represent the will of a moral, capable elite, whose role is to guide the people. On the other hand, pluralism views democracies as a collection of competing, heterogeneous groups that hold fundamentally different views and interests. Hence, these groups must cooperate and compromise with one another.

So, why is populism becoming popular? The simple answer is, it seems to put the people’s view as paramount in government. Governments in most representative democracies are often perceived as distant, inefficient and detached from the harsh social and economic realities faced by most of the general populace.

The people often feel that their voice is rarely given much value by the government and politicians when making decisions, except when elections are on the horizon.

Mass media and other appendages of the government seem to reinforce this perceived elitist apathy towards the people. So, through democratic means, the people voted out the arrogant elite in favour of charismatic political “outsiders” who promised to shake up the system and institutions, and cater to the general will.

Where does this place Malaysia in terms of populism? Elements of populism have started to creep into Malaysia’s political discourse. Pakatan Harapan’s victory in the 14th general election shocked even seasoned political analysts and academics. Perhaps, one unforeseen factor that contributed to PH’s victory was how the coalition used populist language to capitalise on simmering public discontent of a haughty political establishment.

Buku Harapan frames PH’s struggle as one against a corrupt and entrenched Umno and Barisan Nasional elite, who, through excessive and large-scale corruption, weak governance and the mismanagement of the economy, greatly harmed the livelihood of the people and ruined Malaysia’s standing among its peers.

PH promised to rectify the ills wrought by the extravagance of the now former government. PH’s manifesto even echoed the 2008 great recession populist movement, Occupy Wall Street. The opening remarks of Buku Harapan go: “Our promises are for the 99%, and not the 1% cronies of Umno and BN.”

While PH borrowed populist rhetoric in criticising BN, I would argue that the pact isn’t actually populist. Firstly, it is a coalition, and must compromise between the different ideologies and stances of each component. Secondly, PH cannot ignore the inherent socio-economic and ethno-religious cleavages in Malaysian society should it wish to garner or maintain a large degree of political support.

The promises and commitments contained in Buku Harapan try to account for the interests and concerns of different groups – Malays, Sabahans and Sarawakians, Indians, Orang Asal, women and youth. The manifesto takes into consideration the plurality of views and interests within society, even though populism suggests that the people are a homogeneous entity with a more or less singular voice on issues, and that politics should cater only to the views of the majority. To a populist, minority interests detract from the general will, and hence, must be disregarded.

Whether you think the current ruling pact will actually fulfil its pledges is another question.

There has been legitimate criticism of the actual content of PH’s promises, particularly on economic policies. The concern here is that inconsistent and unreasonable policies are being sugar-coated in populism to get the people to support them.

Populism itself also raises several questions: is populism really giving a voice to the people? Or, are politicians disguising self-serving interests as the people’s will? More pessimistically, should the government always accede to the people’s demands, even if they give bad, ill-informed advice on complex issues?

Moreover, who are the people and the elite? Both terms hazily define populist concepts. It often depends on the ideological basis of each populist leader or group.

In several liberal Western democracies, populism is often combined with the exclusionary ideology of nativism. It posits that states should be exclusively inhabited by the native group, and that other groups, be they migrants or “non-native” citizens, threaten the homogeneity and rights of the natives. Populist nativism, therefore, defines the people as natives. It views anyone who supports multiculturalism as part of or in cahoots with the elite.

So, does populism have a place in Malaysian politics? For the opposition Umno and PAS, it remains a viable option, particularly as a means of capitalising on their support base and bolstering their ideologies. Umno could adopt a populist-nativist narrative as a struggle against an immoral, liberal PH elite trying to undermine Malay rights and the pre-eminence of Islam within the constitution.

In Malaysia’s case, the people could exclusively refer to Malays. The minority Chinese, Indians and even non-Malay Bumiputeras are the elite who threaten the people’s sanctity. Taking it a step further, the people may only refer to conservative, religious Malays. This would mean so-called “liberal” Malays are part of the elite.

To all Malaysian politicians, I hope you are aware that this is a less-than-ideal stance to adopt for your political survival and any genuine attempt at regaining support among a plurality of Malaysians, not just one community.

There is one lesson we may learn from populism, though: it serves as a pertinent reminder to leaders and parties on both sides of fence to be on their toes when listening to the needs and demands of the people, whoever they are. You are not immune to a kick in the teeth via the ballot box. – January 4, 2019.

* Faiz Abdul Halim is a research intern at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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