S’poreans must be wary of populist ideas. Here’s why


Over the years, many populist ideas have made their way into our political sphere. 

It is easy to see their allure. After all, they are mind-bogglingly simple and present a quick fix to a complex issue. 

We saw that during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Whenever cases spiked, there would be a cacophony of voices calling for the Government to shut down everything and live in a self-imposed bubble, metaphorically and physically.

What would have been the consequences if the Government had done that? The answer – our economy would have tanked, which would not benefit us long-term.

Unfortunately, we are now experiencing the same parochial narrative of populism in our housing debate. 

In particular, the spread of unsustainable ideas that are overly simple but lacking in substance.

No quick-fix solution for housing

High resale prices and a delay in Build-To-Order (BTO) flats due to Covid-19 have turned housing affordability and accessibility into an urgent concern. 

So far, the PAP Government has implemented cooling measures and ramped up BTO supply to bring down prices in a calibrated manner. 

But rather than acknowledge that there is no quick fix for housing or provide constructive suggestions, the Opposition repeatedly presented confusing rhetoric that deliberately stoked discontent, peddled falsehood and misled Singaporeans.

Earlier in February, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) shared in Parliament their proposals for making HDB flats cheaper.

But as appealing as their proposals might be in the current climate, adopting them would mean giving some Singaporeans an unfair advantage at the expense of others and subjecting our children to a prepaid rental scheme leveraging on past reserves

Are these trade-offs worth it in the long term? If yes, does that make us inward-looking individuals primarily obsessed with immediate gains? 

Housing is an emotive issue. But if we were to take a step back and ponder closely, what PSP proposed is not practical or sustainable.

It is a quick fix to a complex problem, a string of band-aid solutions that ultimately don’t work in the short term as well as the long term.

Therefore, we need to ask ourselves this: Are short-sighted and reactive policies with no consideration for the future really what we want? 

Besides, if there is one thing history has taught us, it is that populist policies have almost always resulted in catastrophe. 

Populist policies never work

Historically, populist policies never work. 

Colonel Juan Domingo Perón was the voice for the marginalised Argentineans. Using his power, he spearheaded redistributive policies and made numerous reforms, pouring large sums of money into healthcare and education. 

But still, he/ Peronism failed because while universal welfare, free education and low-cost housing projects were attractive, there was no strategy for financing them. 

Pro-poor, anti-elite policies might have buoyed Perón’s popularity. However, it resulted in a government that ran up massive deficits, trapping Argentina in repeated boom-bust cycles for the next 50 years. 

Then there is Hugo Chávez.

Here is a radical who famously provided Venezuelans with a subsidised fridge but left them with runaway inflation and nothing to put in that fridge.

During his reign, Chávez went on a spending spree on programmes that doled out cheap food, education and housing, hedging on ever-increasing oil prices to finance the plans. 

What happened next is a textbook example of a lack of prudence in governance. Chávez died in 2013, oil prices plummeted, and Venezuela found itself in serious debt. 

Today, the legacy of Chávez lives on in Venezuela, where hunger and desperation continue to exist in tandem. 

Underlying the populism with both Perón and Chávez is that they have reacted to problems with short-term measures instead of long-term solutions. 

They surrendered to demagoguery instead of making sustainable choices, gambling away the future of their everyday citizens.  

Now, is this what we want from our Government?

The dangers of populist politics

Stripped to the core, populist policies do not ultimately address the concerns of citizens. 

That is because they are manipulative in nature, designed to exploit the grievances of the people to score political points without providing real solutions.  

Just take a look at Brexit. 

It was a watershed election when Labour-voting communities switched allegiance and voted for the Conservatives, the party that promised to deliver Brexit. 

But did Brexit deliver the benefits of reducing immigration and easing the housing supply? 

The answer is – hardly. 

Free movement might have ended, but net migration to the UK is at a record high of 504,000 in 2022, compared to 173,000 in 2021.

Meanwhile, the supply crunch continues because housing has not kept up with population growth. 

Blaming immigrants and halting immigration might seem logical, but it does not free up the housing supply overnight. Nor does it solve the underlying issue (i.e: not enough housing built). 

If the British people who voted for Brexit were wishing for it to be the panacea to all their problems, they have been left sorely disappointed. 

Brexit is rooted in populism, and populist ideas seldom work or stand up to scrutiny, which makes sense because their real purpose is not responsible governance.

Instead, populism is about disruption and protest against the establishment, not problem-solving. 

Sadly, parties and politicians that endorse populist ideas are probably aware that their policies will stutter in the long run. 

But that does not matter, especially when the goal of populist policies is to win hearts and votes at all costs, even if it means emptying the coffers and wrecking the country by dishing out unsustainable benefits. 

Balance and foresight is the key to good governance

Policymaking is a delicate exercise. One that requires a government to develop sustainable policies that will balance the needs of the present and future generations

To do so means having the tenacity to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. It also means acknowledging hard truths and being upfront about trade-offs.

Successful policies—in housing and other areas—require a Government that is decisive and far-sighted. That is because we are not just building a Singapore for now. We are also laying the groundwork to ensure future Singaporeans can benefit from our success. 

One cannot claim to be the ‘voice of the people’ without considering the ‘needs of the people’, now and in the future. 

To focus mainly on the present would be doing a disservice to Singapore and Singaporeans. And that is something a responsible Government would never do.

Images via: Parliament of Singapore, Jannes Van den wouwer on Unsplash, Flickr, Victor He on Unsplash