A “populist” measure, can be a sound measure: ex-IMF Chief Economist

In Political governance on 20/03/2012 at 8:13 am

I tot of the word “populist”, when I read the reports of the SDP’s heathcare plan. I’ll have to go through it in detail before I dare comment on it. I know one of the doctors on the SDP panel. But it seems like a “populist” plan, a potential vote winner, especially aimed at older S’poreans like me and those who have to care for their elderly folks.

Except that the SDP doesn’t do “populist”. From a Today article few weeks ago, Even as it welcomed several help measures for certain population segments announced during the Government’s Budget last week, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) spoke out at what it deemed was an increasingly populist approach.

At a press conference to present its shadow budget to the media yesterday, party treasurer Vincent Wijeysingha, who is the principal author, noted that the Budget had “focused so significantly on the issues raised in the general election”.

This, he felt, was because the Government was trying to “sweeten or rebuild its relationship with the electorate” after its “poor showing” during the polls last May.

He added: “My concern is that this propels the mindset into one that is willing to play politics with the nation’s resources.”

When I read this, I tot to myself: The PAP may be losing popular support but it has won the battle of ideas. Even Dr Chee and his merry people think that “populist” is a dirty word.

The PAP and the government has a mindset that has problems distinguishing between “popular” actions and “populist” actions. They seem to think that the words are synonymous. They hate “populist” because by definition it is opposed to rule by the elite. Fair enough but then they think that being popular is being a populist.

Worse they think that the way to go is to do “unpopular” things. Witness LKY’s boast of not doing popular things to win elections, and Philip Yeo saying,”My greatest fear now is that the government is terrified of the people. You cannot have a system where the people are pampered.” They conflate “populist” with “irresponsibility”. 

They are wrong. According to  Simon Johnson, once the Chief Economist at the IMF, home of austerity’s the answer to almost any economic problem, and now the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, Populism and irresponsibility are not, in fact, synonyms. Populism can be sound, he argues. He argues that populism is often used in a pejorative way – as a putdown, implying “the people” want irresponsible things that would undermine the fabric of society or the smooth functioning of the economy.

So what if the people are to be “pampered”, if it is right thing to do by them. According to Simon Johnston, the issue is whether  a “populist” measure in question is a responsible one. If it is, then the label doesn’t matter, juz do it.

The SDP and this chap ranting about the bus subsidy, have got it wrong. The issue is not whether a measure is “populist”. It is whether it is a pragmatic, cost-efficient and responsible way of solving a problem. As the the PAP, it’s too early to draw conclusions about whether it’s changed it’s mind that “A populist measure is always bad.” The  populist measures on public transport, housing and healthcare could simply be a pragmatic response to ensure that its share of the popular vote at the next general election edges towards the 65% mark once again.

Wouldn’t it be a delicious irony, if the PAP starts believing that a populist measure can be a sound one, when its critics are still stuck with the PAP’s old way of thinking, “A populist measure is always irresponsible”.


  1. […] – Thoughts of a Cynical Investor: A “populist” measure, can be a sound measure: ex-IMF Chief Economist – Diary of A Singaporean Mind: SDP’s Healthcare Proposal…. – Yahoo: Unemployed should […]

  2. As a say goes: Give a dog a bad name so that you can kill it.

    IMO, to approach or respond to every suggestion or call for improvement or a re-look into an existing situation or policy with a knee-jerk reaction of first of all having to label or categorize it into populist or pragmatic or whatever label, says a lot about the people who are doing it.

    It says, the vested interest of such people is at variance with the vested interest that a situation under purview justifiably deserved based entirely on its merits. In other words, the mind has already been made up, it is closed to everything except that which could adversely impact the unwilling decision maker or who is vested with such powers to decide.

    Virtually in most substantive issues involving the decisions made by the Singapore govt, it is very clear that this is the prevalent mindset of its administrators.

    It is impossible to make the ‘brain’ listen unless one is an ‘asshole’. I wonder how many of you are familiar with this story of the different parts of the body debating among themselves how important they are to the body, until the asshole decides to show them that unless it does it work of passing motion, none of what the rest do mattered at all.

    The moral of the story is that when the basics and lowest denominators in society are ignored/neglected we do so risking the rest of the body politic.

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