With its reputation for political stability, social cohesion, and economic wealth, global-city Singapore is very rarely discussed as a case for thinking about populist politics. Kenneth Paul Tan will explore what lies behind this reputation and discuss how the Singapore system, led by a government celebrated as clean, meritocratic, and pragmatic, is now showing signs of change not necessarily in the direction of democratization, but towards authoritarian forms of populism, first of the right and then of the left.
Professor Kenneth Paul Tan delivered this presentation during the “Varieties of Populism and Authoritarianism in Malaysia & Singapore” panel on October 26, 2023, organized as part of the Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series.
Kenneth Paul TAN is a tenured Professor of Politics, Film, and Cultural Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He teaches and conducts interdisciplinary research at the Academy of Film, the Department of Journalism, the Department of Government and International Studies, and the Smart Society Lab. His books include Asia in the Old and New Cold Wars: Ideologies, Narratives, and Lived Experiences (Palgrave MacMillan, 2023), Movies to Save Our World: Imagining Poverty, Inequality and Environmental Destruction in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2022), Singapore’s First Year of COVID-19: Public Health, Immigration, the Neoliberal State, and Authoritarian Populism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Singapore: Identity, Brand, Power (Cambridge University Press, 2018), Governing Global-City Singapore: Legacies and Futures After Lee Kuan Yew (Routledge, 2017), Cinema and Television in Singapore: Resistance in One Dimension (Brill, 2008), and Renaissance Singapore? Economy, Culture, and Politics (NUS Press, 2007). Previously, he was a tenured Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. He has held visiting fellowships, and honorary and adjunct professorships at the Australian National University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Georgetown University (on a Fulbright Fellowship), Harvard University, Sciences Po, the University of Duisburg-Essen, and the University of Hong Kong. His degrees are from the University of Cambridge (PhD, Social and Political Sciences) and the University of Bristol (BSc First Class Honours, Economics and Politics).
In an exclusive interview exploring the intricacies of declining democracy, the rise of far-right populism, and the adaptability of democratic systems, Prof. Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord voice their deep concerns, highlighting that this is a matter of significance for all. Prof. Lindberg emphasizes, “We’ve demonstrated through various publications that far-right extremist parties are not only populist but also hold anti-pluralist views in their rhetoric and policies. When they attain power, they often spearhead the ongoing wave of autocratization. I would be very concerned if that also translates into and materialized in the European Parliament elections.”
The state of democracy across the globe is under intense scrutiny as the world grapples with shifting political landscapes and the rise of authoritarian tendencies. In an exclusive interview, Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, provide valuable insights into the complexities of this critical issue.
Addressing criticisms from Professor Steven Levitsky in an interview with the ECPS on October 12, 2023, the interview begins with a robust response to his contention that the global democratic decline highlighted in the V-Dem Project’s 2023 report may not be as dire as depicted. Lindberg and Nord emphasize the significance of their data, underlining the approach of population-weighted data, which accounts for the global impact of democratic changes in countries with large populations.
The interviewees discuss the apparent resilience of democracy and its concurrent decline, emphasizing that these findings are not necessarily contradictory. They point to countries such as that have made significant democratic improvements, as well as others where the situation has deteriorated. These varying experiences contribute to the complex global picture of democracy.
Prof. Lindberg explained the use of population-weighted data to assess the state of democracy worldwide, emphasizing that it gives more weight to countries with large populations due to their greater impact on the global state of democracy. This approach led to the conclusion that the global average for democracy regressed to 1986 levels in the V-Dem Project’s 2023 report.
Dr. Nord also pointed out that even when looking at country averages, there is a decline, which dates back to 1997. However, she highlighted the resilience of democracy in terms of the continuation of elections in many countries. The interviewees delve into the multifaceted nature of democracy, highlighting that it encompasses much more than the mere presence of elections. Dr. Nord notes that while elections may still take place in certain countries, the decline in essential democratic attributes such as freedom of speech and freedom of association is a pressing concern.
Prof. Lindberg also expressed a deep concern about the potential surge of far-right populist parties in the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024. He emphasized that extremist and anti-pluralist parties often drive the current wave of autocratization, and their rise in Europe is worrisome.
Moreover, the interview explores the adaptation of democratic systems to specific cultural and socio-political contexts. Prof. Lindberg emphasizes the inherent contradiction in the concept of an “illiberal democracy” and highlights that the core principle of liberalism is the acceptance of opposing views, which is not compatible with an illiberal stance.
The interviewees conclude with the discussion of the recent Democracy Report by International IDEA, aligning with the findings in the V-Dem Project’s report. Professor Lindberg and Dr. Nord emphasize the urgency of collective action in the face of the growing number of countries undergoing autocratization.
Dr. Garry Rodan (Honorary Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland).
“Political Islam and Islamist Populism in Malaysia: Implications for Nation-Building,” by Dr. Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid (Professor of Political Science, University Sains Malaysia).
“Islamist Civilizationism in Malaysia,” by Dr.Syaza Farhana Mohamad Shukri (Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia).
“Authoritarian Populismin Singapore,” byDr.Kenneth Paul Tan(Professor of Politics, Film, and Cultural Studies, School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University).
“Populism, religion, and anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes in Malaysia,”Dr.Shanon Shah(Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London).
“This process of a declining Liberal West, along with its increasing inability and unwillingness to promote democracy, presents a significant challenge in the world. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we can return to the world of 1990 to 2003 when democracy was, in many respects, almost the only game in town. Those days are over, and we now face a much more complex and challenging world,” says Professor Steven R. Levitsky.
Dr. Steven R. Levitsky, the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and Professor of Government at Harvard University, stated that “the process of a declining Liberal West, along with its increasing inability and unwillingness to promote democracy, presents a significant challenge in the world.” In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Levitsky analyzed the state of liberal democracy worldwide, saying, “Unfortunately, I don’t believe we can return to the world of 1990 to 2003 when democracy was, in many respects, almost the only game in town. Those days are over, and we now face a much more complex and challenging world.”
Primarily discussing the article jointly written by him and Professor Lucan A. Way for the Journal of Democracy on October 4, 2023, titled “Democracy’s Surprising Resilience,” where they emphasize that authoritarianism has a hard time consolidating power in countries with weak states, Levitsky argues that democracy promoters exaggerate democratic backsliding and criticizes those scholars for doing so because they want to highlight the degree of autocratization in the world. “I’m concerned that there has been an almost a rush to declare the world in a democratic recession, with an excessive focus on cases of backsliding, which are undoubtedly real. But they’re not the only thing happening in the world… Our assessment indicates modest backsliding over the last 15 years, rather than dramatic backsliding,” underlined Dr. Levitsky.
This panel is jointly organised by The European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) and The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI) .
Dr Susan de Groot Heupner (Associate Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in Melbourne, Australia).
“Imran Khan’s Populist Narratives: An Analysis,” by Dr Samina Yasmeen (Professor, Head of Department of International Relations, Asian Studies and Politics in University of Western Australia’s School of Social Sciences).
This panel is jointly organised by The European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI) and the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Adelaide.
Dr Priya Chacko (Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia).
“Politics, ethics, and emotions in ‘New India’,” by Dr Ajay Gudavarthy (Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi).
“Ram Rajya 2.0: How nostalgia aids the populist politics of neo-colonial Hindutva futurism,” by Maggie Paul (PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia).
“Constitutional roots of judicial populism in India,” by Dr Anuj Bhuwania(Professor at the Jindal Global Law School in India & currently Senior Visiting Fellow at the SCRIPTS ‘Cluster of Excellence’ at Freie University Berlin).
“India’s refugee policy towards Rohingya refugees: An intersectional approach to populism,” by Dr Monika Barthwal-Datta (Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of New South Wales, Sydney) and Dr Shweta Singh (Associate Professor of International Relations at the South Asian University, New Delhi, India).
The entanglements of climate change politics with populism are beginning to receive the attention they deserve. Many have argued that an exclusionary conception of “the people” and a critical account of scientific expertise make populism a fundamental threat to effective action to address climate change. While this threat can be real, I argue that it can also mislead us into reaffirming trust in mainstream political actors as a viable alternative. Instead, I explore opportunities for effective climate change action to be found in a more encompassing conception of populism, one rooted in an inclusive conception of “the people,” and an embrace of counter-expertise grounded in local knowledge of climate vulnerability and injustice.
Lecturer Dr John M. Meyer is Professor in the Department of Politics at Cal Poly Humboldt, on California’s North Coast. He also serves in interdisciplinary programs on Environmental Studies and Environment & Community. As a political theorist, his work aims to help us understand how our social and political values and institutions shape our relationship with “the environment,” how these values and institutions are shaped by this relationship, and how we might use an understanding of both to pursue a more socially just and sustainable society. His current project explores the intersection between climate politics and the political potentials and dangers of populism. Meyer is the author or editor of seven books. These include the award-winning Engaging the Everyday: Environmental Social Criticism and the Resonance Dilemma (MIT, 2015) and The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory (Oxford, 2016). He is editor-in-chief of the international journal, Environmental Politics.
Moderator Dr Tsveta Petrova is a Lecturer in the Discipline of Political Science at Columbia University. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Cornell University in 2011 and then held post-doctoral positions at Harvard University and Columbia University. Her research focuses on democracy, democratization, and democracy promotion. Dr. Petrova’s book on democracy export by new democracies, From Solidarity to Geopolitics, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014 and her articles have appeared in Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Democracy, Government and Opposition, Europe-Asia Studies, East European Politics & Societies, Review of International Affairs, and Foreign Policy among others. Her research has been supported by the European Commission, the US Social Science Research Council, American Council of Learned Societies, National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, Council for European Studies, Smith Richardson Foundation, and IREX. She further serves a Series Editor for the Memory Politics and Transitional Justice collection at Palgrave-Mcmillan as well as a Scholar with the Rising Democracies Network at the Carnegie Endowment and an Advisor to the Nations in Transit Program at the Freedom House.
Taking the French case as an example, this presentation revisits and nuances the explanations of right wing populism in terms of “cultural backlash” and “cultural insecurity.” Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour both frame immigration as a deadly threat to French identity and values, nativist attitudes are the main driver of their voters. While anti feminism and sexism drive male votes for Zemmour, but not for Le Pen. However cultural factors are tightly mixed with social and economic factors.
Lecturer Dr Nonna Mayer is CNRS Research Director Emerita at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics of Sciences Po, former chair of the French Political Science Association 2005-2016), member of the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights (since 2016), co-PI of its annual Racism Barometer. Her current fields of expertise are electoral sociology, radical right populism, racism and anti-Semitism, intercultural relations.
Moderator Dr Sorina Soare is a lecturer of Comparative Politics at the University of Florence. She holds a PhD in political science from the Université libre de Bruxelles and has previously studied political science at the University of Bucharest. Before coming to Florence, S. Soare obtained funding from the Wiener Anspach foundation for 1 year Post-Ph Programme in St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. Her work has been published in Democratization, East European Politics, etc. She taught at the Central University of Budapest, Université libre de Bruxelles, University of Palermo and University of Bucharest. She works in the area of comparative politics. Her research interests lie primarily in the field of post-communist political parties and party systems, democratisation and institutional development.
The lecture will offer an ideal type of the relations between religion and populism to show the difference between religious nationalism and populism; highlight the importance political history and secular cultures on the political role of religion in any given country; and include the international and transnational religious forms of populism.
Lecturer Dr Jocelyn Cesari holds the Chair of Religion and Politics at the University of Birmingham (UK) and is Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. Since 2018, she is the T. J. Dermot Dunphy Visiting Professor of Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School. President-elect of the European Academy of Religion (2018-19), her work on religion and politics has garnered recognition and awards: 2020 Distinguished Scholar of the religion section of the International Studies Association, Distinguished Fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs and the Royal Society for Arts in the United Kingdom. Her new book: We God’s Nations: Political Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2022 (https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/we-gods-people/314FFEF57671C91BBA7E169D2A7DA223). Other publications: What is Political Islam? (Rienner, 2018, Book Award 2019 of the religion section of the ISA); Islam, Gender and Democracy in a Comparative Perspective (OUP, 2017), The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State (CUP, 2014). She is the academic advisor of www.euro-islam.info
Moderator Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University. She defended her PhD thesis on the populist conception of political representation in Lithuania. Since then, she has been part of a research team that studies the collective memory of the communist and post-communist past in Lithuania. As a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University in 2022, she focused on the reconstruction of emotional narratives of post-communist transformation from oral history interviews. Her current research integrates memory studies, narrative analysis, and the sociology of emotions to analyse the discourse of populist politicians.