Populism vs Moderation

THE last two weeks has seen contrasts in the world of politics.

I will analyse four examples of political events which reinforce my view that politicians today need to do all that they possibly can to eschew populist politics and ensure that rationality and reality triumph over populism and sensationalism.

All is not well. The patchy economic recovery after the 2008 financial crisis remains a major concern. The income gap continues to widen and the lack of jobs continues to frustrate. People are visibly upset because the uneven economic growth post-2008 is frustrating and the everyday lives of most people have not improved. In fact, in Europe and the United States of America, reports suggest that the economy remains below pre-2008 levels.

The direct result of this economic imbalance is that populist movements have gained momentum in a number of European countries. AFD in Germany, the Austrian People’s Party, Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy and the National Front in France are just a number of examples. These parties invariably advocate a “rupture with the past” but a future that is either xenophobic or intolerant of diversity, with emphasis on extreme economic policies anchored to the left or right of the political spectrum.

People who feel let down by traditional political parties and movements have turned to these extreme parties because they are willing to say outrageous things that resonate with a frustrated electorate. This is a dangerous trend that one which has found its way to America and Asia.

Trump and Duterte

When Donald Trump entered into the race to be the Republican nominee for President in the 2016 United States Presidential Election, no one thought he was a serious candidate. Most pundits and analysts predicted Trump’s campaign would implode and he was merely doing it because he wanted the publicity.

But Trump, despite his uncontrolled outbursts, proved to be an astute and canny candidate. He tapped into blue-collar and middle class resentment against politicians in Washington and even Democrats who felt let down by President Barack Obama’s promise to remake the US.

He talked about loss of jobs because of free trade, declining standards of living, poverty and even the environment, which are traditionally issues that Democrat candidates speak about. And suddenly you had Trump Democrats and that is why he is polling almost even with Hillary Clinton in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

But Trump has also been a bully and has said some pretty outrageous things about minorities, women and threatened to ban Muslims from coming to America. Despite all of these reprehensible remarks, he is has a real shot of becoming theleader of the free world.

Rodrigo Duterte, the long serving mayor of the Southern Philippine city of Davao, is now the President-elect. He is brash, insolent and irreverent.

He insulted the Pope because of the traffic gridlock he caused during his visit to the Philippines recently; he said he should have been the first to rape a pretty Australian girl who was raped and murdered in a prison riot; he boasted about his sexual libido and openly advocated extra-judicial killings.

His would-be predecessor, Benigno Aquino did not do too bad. The Philippines is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia and is on track to achieve a per capita GDP of USD 3000. But Aquino failed to tackle crime and Duterte record on tackling crime in Davao won his twice as many votes as his closest rival.


Sajid and Adenan

Sajid Khan was a son of a bus driver from Pakistan and a practising Muslim. He studied hard and became a human rights lawyer. Sajid then joined the Labour Party and was elected Member of Parliament of Tooting in London.

Khan won close to 57% of the vote in an overwhelming Christian city to become the first Muslim mayor of any major European city. Indeed we are proud of him. But he achieved this rare feat despite the rise of Islamophobia in Europe.

Sajid focussed less on himself, unlike Trump and Duterte, and more on what he could do to make the lives of Londoners better.

Those of us who have enjoyed a holiday in London would know that the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is very real. Mayfair seems like fairy tale district with high-end shops and residences. Drive half an hour south, however, and you come to Brixton which has a very high immigrant population. Many are poor and live in council estates. Jobs are also hard to come by but they get to tell people they live in London, a city millions dream of living in.

Sajid talked about economic justice, narrowing the wealth gap and ensuring safe and salubrious public housing. He did not rail against the bankers or their haven known as “the City” but talked about the importance of ensuring the economic cake is properly shared.

Boris Johnson was a popular Mayor that did great things especially with regard to transport, but he did not tackle poverty well enough. Sajid’s Conservative opponent Zac Goldsmith, meanwhile was not defeated because his father was a billionaire but because he chose to make Sajid’s religion a campaign issue and promised more of Boris. London voted for truly transformational change.

Tan Sri Adenan Satem has also defied expectations and has the unique ability of saying the right thing at the right time. He knew the urbanites in Sarawak, especially the Chinese, wanted more in the form of governance and policy.

Adenan said the right things and also did the right things. He reminded all Sarawakians that they are all citizens of Sarawak and no one is a “pendatang”. He also banned troublemakers from West Malaysia from entering the state; clamped down on illegal loggers and corrupt practices and reaffirmed Sarawak’s commitment to religious freedom and harmony.

Adenan even negotiated devolution of powers from the Federal Government to the state government and found a partner in Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, a compatriot who shared the Chief Minister’s commitment to moderation and inclusive governance.

The end result was a thumping victory for Barisan Nasional in Sarawak with 72 seats and 33% of the Chinese vote.


Adenan and Sajid show us that good work can come without fanfare, opportunism and populism. It can come through sincere, targeted and responsive policies.

Adenan and Sajid also remind us that moderation can work if leaders follow through their words with actions. They won their mandates by eschewing populism and being honest with their electorate.  

Gerakan too has always been a moderate party. We do not say outrageous things that get us headlines but we assiduously put the nation first. A party can lose elections, as we have, but as a good and moderate party we always ensure that Malaysia wins even at our expense.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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