My Say: The politics of demagoguery

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 25 - 31, 2016.


The seemingly strange choices made in the UK and the US recently — Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump — signify something more profound than a voter’s misjudgement at the ballot box. At the core of the populist revolt is the unleashing of bottled-up resentment over the abandonment of exemplary leadership.

Britain’s landmark referendum saw a 52-48 split in favour of Brexit, the subsequent fall of several politicians and a new prime minister in Theresa May.

In the US, nary a day goes by without Trump hollering incendiary insults and yet he emerged as the Republican presidential nominee. Both ostensibly mature democracies — the UK and the US — are avidly expressing the conviction to break from the status quo.

Many have cited the Brexit vote and the ascent of Trump as proof that democracy does not work as well as it should. When the ruling class fails to address the people’s plight, there will be a political backlash. The irony is that in actualising their anger, the electorate merely exacerbate their initial predicament.

In Blaenau Gwent, Wales, which has the highest working class population in the UK, a stunning 62% voted in favour of leaving the European Union. Yet, numerous studies have shown that opting out of the EU will only worsen the economic malaise of the UK’s working class. The UK government predicts that Brexit will cause the British economy to contract between 3.8% and 7.5% by 2030.

In the US, a sizeable proportion of Trump’s supporters are white and from the working class, who lost their jobs due to automation in the manufacturing industry. Trump, in turn, promises to slash tax across all income levels. However, this magnanimous Trump-led tax policy will increase national debt by nearly 80% of gross domestic product by 2036 if no spending cuts are introduced.

Indeed, who could be blamed for likening the average wage earner’s support for Trump to shooting himself or herself in the foot? A debt ceiling spiralling out of control will affect economic growth, inducing the tragic inevitability — the retrenchment of workers and prohibitively high interest rates for consumers.

In Malaysia, the working class is also being backed into a corner by harsh economic policies. According to the National Budget 2016 Sentiment Survey, most respondents lamented the rising cost of living as their foremost concern. The Goods and Services Tax is a regressive tax that eats away at the wages of low-income earners disproportionately more than it does for high-income earners. All that has affected us — compounded by stagnating wages.

When the status quo backs other relevant stakeholders into a corner, caution is thrown to the wind as desperation sets in. Should the government fail to address this, a political backlash — and possibly unfavourable social upheavals — may take place. We need practical policies to uplift the masses from their economic plight and not rely on quick-fix solutions promised by demagogues, bringing about disastrous consequences.

Secondly, demagogues falsely inflate the protective instinct, veering towards jingoistic nationalism, trampling over the freedoms and rights predicated on inclusiveness.

In the run-up to the UK referendum, some from the “Vote Leave” camp relied intensively on anti-immigrant rhetoric, stoking racist and xenophobic fears. Tabloids cried out “Vote Leave: Murderers and terrorists from Turkey will head to UK” as Muslim-majority Turkey continues its bid to join the EU.

Additionally, staunch Brexit campaigner and former leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage has been castigated for inciting racial hatred. For featuring an anti-migrant poster — non-white migrants and refugees in long queues — he was reported to the police.

Similarly, in the US, Trump shot to infamy with his totalitarian proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country. For his discriminatory proposal to build a 40ft-high wall separating the US and Mexico, he also drew much public ire.

The rights of refugees and migrants are dismissed over unproven racist claims that they are predisposed to terrorism and crime. In fact, the American Immigration Council has found that at an incarceration rate of 1.6%, immigrants are less likely to be behind bars than their native-born counterparts (3.3%). Yet, Trump’s bigoted rhetoric continues to garner overwhelming public support.

For as long as some of our national political parties sing the same tune of racism, this trend will not bode well for Malaysia. Just recently, some Umno members demonstrated outside the DAP headquarters. They alleged that DAP member of parliament Nga Kor Ming had insulted Islam by posting a cartoon of children receiving duit raya, which was akin to bribery.

However, despite Nga’s denial that he uploaded such a caricature, the protesters hurled hell money — joss paper used by Taoists as offerings to the dead — at DAP members. Going so far as to call for the DAP “to die”, this poisonous behaviour — seemingly escaping legal action — only serves to cement the Muslim-non-Muslim divide in the country.

Be it in the UK, the US or Malaysia, such sentiment indicates a rise in nativism — a mix of nationalism with xenophobia and racism. Regardless, we must not tolerate parties that advocate bigotry. When one party is wilfully aggressive and blatantly disrespectful towards others who are innocent, we lose the shared respect, patient negotiation and mutual compromise that are needed to make politics a positive sum game for everyone.

If nothing else, what transpired in the UK and the US has taught us a lesson — be swayed by the demagogues and we will be left to languish in regret.

Mere hours after the Brexit decision was known, Farage disavowed ever pledging to channel the weekly commitment of £350 million to the EU to the country’s National Health Service despite being an impassioned supporter of the “Leave” campaign. Barely a week later, Farage, who once postured himself as the know-it-all of a sovereign UK, washed his hands of the disarray that Brexit has left his country in. Moments before slipping into oblivion, he announced his resignation as the leader of UKIP to the still-bewildered British population of 65 million. He simply cited a selfish, cop-out excuse — “I have got my country back, now I want my life back”.

Trump had revelled in his own wealth, courting voters by claiming the moral high ground of honesty, for he was obligated to no one. Yet, after months of mocking his political opponents for being pawns of special interests, Trump has now done a one-eighty on funding independence. He has since asserted that he will not be self-funding his campaign for the general election, opening his arms to the special interests that he once decried.

This phenomenon of broken promises by demagogues is only all too familiar in Malaysia. In 2012, the government had vowed to repeal the Sedition Act, only to fortify the already draconian law with more oppressive restrictions last year. Additionally, contrary to its 2013 promise to gradually reduce the price of intra-city tolls, Malaysians now have to pay more.

When systems of governance do not address the needs of the many, we must be prepared to face the populist revolt, which more often than not, leads to dangerous alternatives. The world is facing tempestuous times as it is not just the UK and the US that have been veering to the far right, such as France, where Marine Le Pen is making a  bid for presidency, and the Philippines, which has  come under the stewardship of Robert Duterte.

Before it is too late, let us stop Malaysia from falling deeper into the trap of demagoguery. If the status quo reigns supreme, people will start to disengage, and worse still, choose options that will rip society apart.

As a parliamentary democracy, Malaysia has much to learn from and be cautious of from the UK and the US experiences. Demagogues should serve as a lesson to opposition leaders; they should take stock, take action and snap out of the perpetual internal rifts. We must lead by example by taking the first step in engaging the electorate, be it within or devoid of a formal opposition pact.

As the electorate, we must remain vigilant. In the diversity that makes up democracy, a handful of views that are premised on hatred — promoting divisiveness rather than unity — can gather steam and hijack the mainstream agenda and well-being.

Nurul Izzah Anwar is vice-president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat