F***ing Populism and Partisanship: A Lesson in Responsible Discourse (GP Topics: Politics, Singapore)

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In a defining moment during Singapore’s Parliamentary debate on April 17, 2023, the Speaker of Parliament, Tan Chuan Jin, unintentionally brought the concept of populism to the forefront of the nation’s political discourse. The incident occurred as Opposition Member of Parliament, Associate Professor Jamus Lim, delivered a stirring speech titled ‘Hard Living in Singapore,’ which shed light on the challenges faced by the impoverished in the country, calling for an official poverty line. In response, a stray microphone inadvertently captured Speaker Tan muttering the words, “F***ing populist” in response to the opposition’s speech. 

Singapore’s political landscape, characterized by its pragmatic approach to policy making, has long championed evidence-based solutions and fiscal prudence. Yet, this incident brought into focus the fine line between labeling progressive policy proposals as populist tactics for political gain and genuinely addressing the concerns of the marginalized. 

But what exactly does populism mean in politics? Populism, as Assistant Professor Walid J. Abdullah aptly defines, is a movement that rallies ordinary people against a perceived corrupt elite, advocating for the commoner who has been left behind. It is a political philosophy that champions the interests of the common people against the perceived corrupt and self-serving elites. By presenting itself as the voice of the disenfranchised, populism promises to break down established structures and return power to the masses. While the term itself is neutral, it has become increasingly loaded and often serves as a dismissive label to discredit alternative ideas without genuine assessment.

Indeed, the term “populist” has been increasingly loaded with negative connotations in modern day politics. This is due to the rise of populist leaders who often employ simplistic and emotionally charged rhetoric to mobilize support. By offering straightforward solutions to complex problems, and appealing to the frustrations and fears of the public, they are able to garner more votes in parliament. However, these solutions may lack nuance and practicality, leading to potential disappointment and disillusionment. 

Moreover, the accusation of populism fosters division and weakens democracy. It creates an “axis of populism and anti-populism”, dividing society between those perceived as reasonable and liberal and those portrayed as frustrated and emotionalized. This divide impedes constructive dialogue and encourages a paternalistic approach to politics, where one side seeks to redirect or dismiss the concerns of the other, rather than engaging in open, fact-based discussions. 

Beyond the debate of whether populism should be criticised, Tan Chuan Jin’s incident highlighted broader concerns about the role of elected officials in shaping responsible political discourse and upholding the integrity of Singapore’s democratic institutions. As the custodian of the Parliament, the Speaker holds a position of immense responsibility and trust, charged with maintaining decorum, fairness, and impartiality during debates and proceedings. In light of this incident, questions arose about the extent to which personal biases or emotions may inadvertently influence the conduct of Parliament and the perception of fair and balanced decision-making. 

To bridge the gap between opposing political views, it is crucial to encourage an open and transparent dialogue that focuses on evidence-based policy proposals rather than resorting to derogatory labels. Engaging in respectful discourse, grounded in critical thinking and data-driven arguments, can help dismantle the polarization that often accompanies discussions on populism. While Singapore’s political scene has traditionally been clean, such incidents serve as a reminder for us to be more conscious and attentive of the standards that our politicians uphold. 

For A Level GP Paper 1 as well as for Paper 2’s Application Question, students need to be well aware of current political situations, both its criticisms and the areas that deserve praise. By having an arsenal of specific political vocabulary, such as “populism”, and understanding the pros and cons of these structures, your arguments will sound more knowledgeable and cogent. As responsible citizens, we must not lapse into political apathy, but rather, be conscious and form sound opinions on current affairs.

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