Democracy by far is the most respectable way a society can govern itself. That, however, does not mean that democracy has no weaknesses at all. As Winston Churchill is often quoted, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

It is the best that we have after thousands of years of experimentation. Populism is the very essence of democracy. The good thing about that is that it helps ensure the power of the day must always come back to the people if they want to renew their mandate.

Unfortunately, populism is probably the worst feature of democracy as well. That is so because populism can bring about irresponsible policies that can be costly in the future. Everybody loves having a good time but nobody likes to be there for the clean-up.

We saw that in Greece when the government spent everything that it had and more to make its people happy.

The economic populism we saw there is not the only cause of the Greek sovereign debt crisis but it was a major contributor nonetheless. When the debt crisis finally came about and it was time to tighten the belt, the country was up in arms.

And who can forget, in a humiliated and desperate pre-World War II Germany, Adolf Hitler was popular. That populism later brought devastation that no one had seen before.

Greece of recent times and Germany before World War II are extreme examples of populism gone wild. But it is still a cautionary tale for all to bear in mind: there is always cost to populism.

In the late 1970s, Margaret Thatcher was elected as the prime minister of the United Kingdom. She was no friend of populism. She swam against the current ferociously. “The lady’s not for the turning,” as she once said in response to increasing opposition to her policy.

She was adamant in changing the way of doing things to push the UK national economy forward and out of the doldrums. In her mind, there was too much government in the economy and the private sector played too little a role.

The most important thing of all is that she succeeded in revitalising the economy of the UK. She did the job she set out to do even when it cost her job.

Her determination in pursuing her policy shocked her colleagues. Fearing that they might lose the election, they turned around and gave her the boot.

She died earlier this week at the age of 87. The vile comments that followed the news of her death only strengthened the idea that she was not very popular.

At the very least, she was divisive. But whatever one thinks of her, she took her responsibility to heart and she did not flinch. As Malaysians go to the polls, perhaps it is worthwhile to reflect on the resoluteness that Thatcher showed.

This is especially so when both sides of the Malaysian political divide are engaging in populism.

Both are promising to either increase subsidy or cash transfer in hope of winning the general election. To make the matter worse, both sides promise to cut taxes even when their promises if implemented will see government expenditure rising.

The continuing economic populism cannot be good for the health of public finance. Sooner or later when the party is over, somebody will have to pay for that. The path of economic populism is ultimately unsustainable and somebody will need to hit the brakes.

Fortunately, Malaysia is still at the stage where we can hit on the brakes gently. Government finance is still at a respectable level. There is no need for the harsh fiscal austerity in practice in Europe as European economies struggle to grow. But the leeway that Malaysia enjoys cannot be true for too long if economic populism goes on.

The responsible side will be the one which will hit on the brakes gently. The responsible side will be the one that goes out promising a vision that does not depend on promising yet more subsidies and money to voters.

The responsible side will be the one that stands up and reminds all that we cannot go on partying all day, every day.

It is in this respect that Malaysia needs a Thatcher.

One may disagree with the policy Thatcher implemented in the UK in the 1980s but her resoluteness and refusal to succumb to crass populism is something to be admired.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Sun on April 11 2013.

2 Responses to “[2679] An Iron Lady to stop populism”

  1. on 25 Apr 2013 at 15:35 Dominic Yusoff

    A shame that you have swallowed the whole neo-liberal line that Thatcher was the “saviour” of her country. Yes she was anti-populism and anti-consensus (her own words), but her policies ruined the lives of many in the UK. Its the reason why she is a polarising figure, while Winston Churchill is not. Also the reason the UK is suffering now economically is because of Thatcher. Her legacy is leaving an out of control City who feel they are answerable to no one and promote a culture of short-term gain. Another thing, Thatcher’s many economic liberalising reforms came about with ironically strengthening the state. Police powers were increased and local councils were abolished. Civil liberties were also directly attacked. Her admirers often ignore the increased powers of the British state under thatcher and only tout her “free market” reforms.Is this the sort of thing you want replicated in Malaysia? Your admiration of her seems misplaced. Tun Dr Mahathir is very much similar to the Iron Lady. Both are politicians of conviction, anti-consensus, dispose of allies who don’t toe their line, carried out economic reforms ala privatisation etc and never lost an election. Is basically what you want another Tun Dr Mahathir. I personally don’t mind. Despite his faults, he was a man of conviction as you say. I do apologise as you are not affirming her polices but merely her stand of conviction. But her “conviction” came with the strengthening of the state not in the economy but its interference with society. Since your writings have argued for greater liberty, Malaysia does not need a Thatcher.

  2. on 25 Apr 2013 at 16:18 Hafiz Noor Shams

    It’s important to look at the 1970s context and what would have happened without Thatcher’s policy. The British economy then was doing badly and it was in need of reforms. Those reforms gave its economy new life. Without those reforms, Britain would have been in a worse state than now with sovereign debt crisis.

    Many anti-Thatcher made it as if they would have preferred the sclerotic decades instead, citing troubles 30-40 years later to justify their opposition to Thatcher. But they ignored the prevailing 1970s situation rather conveniently. They ignored what would have happened if the 1970s status quo remained well into 2010s.

    Finally, while there are some parallels between Mahathir and Thatcher, the parallel ends somewhere. One, Thatcher was bounded by strong institutions. Mahathir wasn’t and Mahathir in fact compromised them greatly. Thatcher didn’t in fact, those institutions remained influential after she left office. Second, Mahathir’s privatization was a mess. Britain, well, look at Roll Royce. Look at British Airways. The way privatization was carried out matter. Not all privatizations are the same.

    Furthermore, the lack of Thatcher’s policy wouldn’t have stopped the death of various heavy industries (steel for instance) in the UK. They would have died anyway even without Thatcher. It was a global phenomenon already underway the minute the Japanese found a cheaper way to do things. You ignored that.

    As for civil liberties, yes, let us ignore the reality of the 1980s with its IRA and labor actions and the difference between the UK and Malaysia shall we?

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