The View From Asia

Do voters know what they want?

Should voters be trusted with the decisions they make? Commentators from the region examine recent verdicts. Here are excerpts from views in Asia News Network papers:

Supporting the unsupportable

Azmi Sharom
The Star, Malaysia

Should people be given the vote? Are people too stupid to be entrusted with selecting their leaders and the future of their respective nations?

Looking around the world, it would seem that there is strong reason to believe so. Based on half-truths, nationalist fear-mongering and outright lies, the British chose to leave the European Union.

The Americans have a vile, misogynistic, racist, infantile bully as a potential president. The people of the Philippines are apparently supportive of a president whose crime-fighting policy amounts to little more than murder.

All these countries have a democratic system of government. At various stages naturally, with some more mature than others, but in all three nations, people vote. So the question is, are the people too dumb to do so?

That would be an easy answer, would it not? Blame the situations of these countries on the unwashed and uneducated masses.

But then it would also be an answer based on despair for it ultimately says that people are hopeless without looking for any deeper reasoning behind this state of affairs.

First, I do not think that education is important for people to be able to see right from wrong. There are many very highly educated people who are corrupt and devoid of ethics.

Education does not make you an intelligent or a good person. Just a person with qualifications.

What is it, then? How can people support the unsupportable?

Well, I think that there is a disconnect between a large number of people and governance. A sense of being detached, somehow, from the running of the country. As though their lives do not matter to the great and powerful. This being the case, then, it does not matter what they do, or who they vote for.

This disconnect is linked to poverty, because poverty leads to a sense of being left out of the development of the nation. Many supporters of United States presidential candidate Donald Trump, for example, are working-class people who feel insecure about their future.

And if we look at the Brexit vote, England can be divided into two; London and the rest of the country. A common thread with regard to leaving Europe is that for many, they simply cannot see what effect it has on them and that only the rich (like those who live and work in London) care about remaining in Europe.

This sense of disconnect from the grander scheme of things means that people like Mr Trump and the Brexit politicians with their simple messages become attractive - a way to get at the status quo that does not seem to care for them.

Closer to home, people earning minimum wage probably think that no matter who is in power, they will still be earning minimum wage.

So what if a person takes millions and millions of ringgit in corrupt money, what effect will it have on their daily lives?

And is it any surprise that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, with his "man of the people" rhetoric, can strike a chord in a nation with a 25 per cent poverty rate?

Of course, as understandable as these reasons are to explain why some vote the way they do, it still does not make the reasons correct. Mr Trump's economic policy is meant to help the normal American, yet his past shows that his business uses cheap foreign labour.

And European money helps communities all over Britain in the form of subsidies and the like - money which cannot easily be replaced by the British government on its own.

And surely a non-corrupt government would mean more funds to be used in sustainable development plans and not the occasional handouts. Something which ought to help all of us.

There will always be idiots in any country. The racists will be drawn to the language of Mr Trump, Brexit and the Red Shirts. But I doubt that these are the majority of people.

People need to know that they matter and they also need to understand the real issues and choices before them, not just simplistic political sloganeering. This is the challenge for the future.


The pathology of populism

M. Taufiqurrahman
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Can voters under a democracy be trusted these days?

That is the most pertinent question we should ask today as more evidence shows that voters in country after country are turning their back on many of what we consider established values and norms in democracies, such as greater prosperity, protection of human rights and peace.

Faced with the prospect of greater economic integration through globalisation, voters in Britain chose to sever ties with the European Union and go their separate way through Brexit. In the United States, the same sentiment paves the way for the rise of a racist demagogue such as presidential candidate Donald Trump.

In Germany, the progressive stance of Chancellor Angela Merkel on the refugee problem has been met with a rebuke from voters, with electorates choosing the bandwagon of right-wing political party Alternative for Germany.

In neighbouring Hungary, nearly 98 per cent of those who voted in a referendum rejected the EU proposal to allow more refugees to settle in the country.

The latest blow to the ideals of democracy came from Colombia, where more than 50 per cent of voters rejected a peace deal that had been negotiated for four years by the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Beyond the obvious question of why prime ministers and presidents today have a penchant for holding referendums (which is redundant in a system of representative democracy), the nagging question is what brings voters to challenge the political establishment and embrace populism, something that many considered "a pathology to democracy" and one considered "the paranoid style of politics".

What could explain the rise of "Make America Great Again" or the nativist appeal of a politician such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban? Many have pointed to the socioeconomic cause of populism, which is that those who lose under globalisation are more xenophobic as they believe foreigners in their midst will take away jobs (Mr Trump's wall against Mexico comes to mind).

The key to the rise of populism can also be found in politics.

Populism could be a response to the existing democratic political system that does not function as the majority of the population wants it to and these disenfranchised voters decide to vote for populist leaders who promote a quick fix to society's ills.

Once given a chance to express themselves directly in a non-traditional way (for example, in a referendum), those disillusioned with the democratic arrangement would deliver a surprise that rocks the foundation of a stable society (as in Brexit). Populism appeals to these people because they simply do not believe in representative democracy any more.

Supporters of populist leaders or ideology believe that democratic institutions have been controlled by special interests, the elites or moneyed sections of the society.

Suspicion towards democracy gives disenfranchised voters the motivation to disown democratic institutions and elect leaders who could short-circuit the system.

It is likely that voters in Colombia did not necessarily reject the peace deal. It may be that they simply disapproved of a proposal made by a US-educated, pro-market president who comes from a wealthy family and is unpopular for raising taxes for the average people.

Should Indonesia be worried about populism? Initially, the rise of popular politicians such as President Joko Widodo and Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama gave hope to voters who were fed up with corruption resulting from the marriage of convenience between politicians and the moneyed class.

In fact, at the outset, Mr Basuki displayed the tendencies of a populist governor, especially with his predisposition towards alienating politicians at the Jakarta City Council and political parties.

But as the job of governing became more complicated, both Mr Joko and Mr Basuki chose to compromise and made policies that many perceived as benefiting the rich and the elites.

The forced evictions, reclamation projects on the northern Jakarta coast, tax amnesty programme and granting of licences to import basic commodities were designed and carried out to benefit those who are close to the power centre, or at least this is what most people think today.

This does not look good for the incumbents and could serve as an invitation for populist candidates.

We have seen that in the Jakarta gubernatorial election, in which candidates and their supporters have begun to promote nativist sentiments, brandishing religion and ethnicity as tools to attract voters. Once we allow this to happen, things may only go downhill from there.


  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 21 newspapers. For more, see www.asianews.network.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2016, with the headline 'Do voters know what they want?'. Print Edition | Subscribe