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.