The reflexive denunciation of “populism” on the part of most of the media and political class is most often deployed as a tactic against parties or individuals of the far right, the UKIPs and Donald Trumps of the world. This tendency can be, and often is, read as a kind of leftist media bias by conservatives, but that is correct only by a half-measure. The same language is deployed when talking about movements of the anti-establishment left, think Podemos, whenever they become sufficiently strong to pose a meaningful challenge to the status quo. The allergy towards “populism” is revealed therefore not so much a matter of political ideology in the typical meaning, but rather of governance style and the legitimate locus of decision-making. Though it is easy to read such dismissals as simple self-interest in protecting social station and personal standing, something more essential animates these pronouncements. The strange kind of admiration for China’s political system that occasionally bubbles up from the likes of Thomas Friedman and Justin Trudeau, however qualified it may be, reveals a preference of governance style that says more than it intends to. This style ultimately places faith in a kind of technocratic, elite-based process over what it would call “populism”, but might more accurately be termed “democratic passions”. The fact that post-Maoist China is not democratic in any sense is viewed more as an over-corrective than a structural flaw. The insulation of policy formulation from the ballot box may be crude, and doubtless breed a variety of corruption stemming from lack of sunlight, but as the cliché goes, it gets results.
It is understandable, especially given the seeming dysfunction of the United States in particular, to long for something more effective and the idea of what could be called insulated electoral democracy has a long history. One may compare this most easily to Edmund Burke’s thoughts on the judgement of the elected representative owed to their electors. By this line of thinking, many of the problems with democratic systems are due to a surrendering of judgment by policymakers to the passions of various groups on the “outside”. To some extent, this can take on a benign formulation in the rightful denunciation of sweetheart corporate welfare deals or the influence of particularly well-organized lobbying groups on government. However, it is not hard to see where this line of thinking ends up more as a kind of electorate-shaming exercise from people believing themselves to be more qualified to run the world . Though China is sometimes invoked in quasi-admirable terms, the real goal for the anti-populist would be, in a sense, “getting to Singapore”, where there are (notionally) competitive elections, but much of the state functions on a perception of “clean”, meritocratic technocracy. However, Singapore is not “Singapore” and the reasons for this point to both the impossibility of closed systems of government being benevolent and the need for the anti-populists to stop dreaming and start addressing real concerns.
Singapore: Real and Imagined
It is important to note that Singapore as a nation has indeed accomplished a great many things since its independence. It has a high standard of living, low crime rates, long life expectancies and a deeply admired education system. The question of the extent to which its models of social security delivery can only apply to its unique geographic and historical circumstances aside, some of the admiration for the country’s government is not misguided. Particularly in terms of housing policy, there are a great many things that an increasingly population-dense world could learn from Singapore in negotiating affordability in rent costs. It is curious, though, that much of the most successful elements of the nation’s approach rely on heavy state intervention when its example is most-often invoked by conservatives and neoliberals. It is true that Singapore’s economy is generally a lightly-regulated one in terms of doing business, but this is also true of Denmark and Finland (often graded in the “socialist hellscape” category by these same wags). The conflation of all regulation with progressivist meddling is a dynamic too often bought into by both left and right, and deserving of a column all its own. All this is to say, though, that Singapore, as a concrete political entity rather than philosophical construct, does get many things right, for its own circumstances, but that looking at its success as a blueprint to export often leads down blind alleyways.
The darkest amongst these comes in the oft-made claim that Singapore’s success owes itself to its quasi-authoritarian government, which is allowed to make policy decisions for the betterment of the nation far from the untrained opinions of the general public. The nation does have elections, but the People’s Action Party has been in power since independence and is in little danger of being unseated any time in the foreseeable future. The assertion that the nation’s success hinges on this lack of accountability may be further reinforced by its heavily restrictive press laws and the penchant of the government for suing its opponents into financial ruin. Most of the nation’s overseas admirers would likely concede such tactics are heavy-handed, but this concession would be besides-the-point. The real problem in policy terms is how often Singapore’s closed loop of elitism has led to misguided or outright abusive government decisions which a more open framework would have found wanting. These range from its infamous birth restrictions policy (which it later had to sharply reverse after it worked too well), to the extensive nepotism pockmarking the “meritocratic” state to the failures of its much-remarked-upon “individualized” pension system. Singapore may be developed, but it is sharply unequal and often resorts to papering over genuine social tensions with crude police state repressions. As such, its example offers little counsel in dealing with key challenges ahead for most Western nations, suffering from many of the same problems itself. Much in the same way as classic rock nostalgists, Singapore boosters suffer from the retrospective habit of only remembering those successes which stuck, whilst forgetting those many failures along the road.
The world is not Singapore, and it is certainly not “Singapore”, and wishing it to be made so by some magic of electoral rejiggering will not do. Much of the “populism” currently animating politics and denounced by many comes out of legitimate frustrations, concerns and anxieties on the part of the public. Doubtless many demagogic figures can easily exploit these anxieties, but in that case the solution is not to simply denounce the electorate themselves as inherently stupid. Rather, political actors sick of seeing citizens run after such alternatives simply need to make their case better. If these ideas were so great, and those of the “populists” so bad, perhaps it would not be a necessity to indulge in fantasy to make them more appealing.