Murali Pillai
12 min readMar 1, 2024


On 26 February 2024, I spoke on the danger of populism taking root in Singapore. I highlighted that populism can take a more seductive form which makes it more difficult for people to recognise it for what it is and reject it, given the danger it presents to nation. I called for politicians expousing policy changes that leads to more expenditure to deal with the details, as opposed to being too brief. This will enable members of public to better appreciate the full picture. My speech is set out below.


Mr Speaker, Sir, on 21 April 2023, during the debate on the President’s Address in this House, there was an important agreement reached across the aisle between the hon Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Mr Lawrence Wong, and the hon Leader of the Opposition, Mr Pritam Singh.

Both of them agreed that there is no place for populism in Singapore. Deputy Prime Minister Wong characterised it as follows: “Both sides of the House, we stand for a democracy that is maturing, a serious Government and a serious Opposition. But we say no to populism and political opportunism ever taking root in this House and in Singapore.”

This was a laudable bipartisan moment. It is also recognition of the fact that in countries where populism has taken root, societies have become divided, people have become polarised and the trust between the people and the Government weakened. Singapore should not follow suit.

The agreement, however, presumes that we know what populism is. But do we? Most academics and commentators agree that the core feature of populism revolves around the division between the “people” on one hand and “the elite” on the other.

Cas Mudde stated, “it is a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite””; populist politicians advocate that they represent the “whole people” whereas the elite represents “special interest”, regardless of the truth of the matter.

The framing of issues is usually confrontational, antagonistic and emotive. This sort of populism — once we see it for the grandstanding and posturing — is really not very hard to reject. It is mere opportunism played out in the political arena. This is what I call “weak populism”.

But there are two further elements to populism. First, it is not always easy to see through grandstanding rhetoric and recognise opportunism in its true face. Second, populism is not always mere words — it also reaches into real policy action with a specific approach, which I call a “fool’s gold” promise.

Populism in action lulls people with the promise of easy money, soft compromises, zero trade-offs. These two elements — words and deeds — make up what I call “strong populism”. And notwithstanding the forging of the agreement in Parliament, there remains no guarantee that this sort of populism will not take root in Singapore.

Structurally, we will always be vulnerable. This is because, as in all modern democracies, we have a representative government, where a minority — that is the elected — represents our people, the majority, and has the mandate to govern. The suspicion that this representation is imperfect will always be there.

We have seen several examples where people’s fears, especially during crises, are capitalised by populist politicians espousing radical change. I will give two examples: one from the right and the other from the left.

In November 2023, in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party, a far-right political party that fanned Islamophobia and anti-immigration sentiments amongst its people, with promises to de-Islamicise the country, made huge electoral gains and was the clear winner by a wide margin. It is poised to feature in a coalition government. Should that happen, it would not be difficult to imagine the impact on the cohesion of the country across race and religion.

Let me identify the specific populist lever here — the use of religion and nativism to divide and polarise a country.

In 1998, the late Mr Hugo Chavez, a charismatic Venezualuan leftist leader, came to power after promising to use Venezuala’s vast oil wealth to reduce poverty and inequality. As President, he launched programmes that offered free or highly subsidised goods. He passed away in office in 2013. His policies continued though. In the end, the country’s economy shrunk and hyperinflation set in, despite it being an oil producer.

Again, let me identify the specific populist lever — which is to use price-distorting policies to give short-term, apparent benefits to people, at the cost of the country’s long-term economic health.

Both these acts are forms of strong populism to me. From my research, I noted a number of writers, particularly Prof Simon Tormey, who have observed that in recent times, the world is facing a populist insurgency. The fact that such political opportunists have taken in so many voters across so many countries, shows us that it is no easy matter to see populism for what it really is.

We, as a country, therefore, need to develop the capability to recognise and emphatically reject this insidious and seductive form of divisive politics. If we do not do this, the consequences for us as a small nation will be serious.

Just last week, I learnt about a speech that our first Foreign Affairs Minister, the late Mr S Rajaratnam, made in the UN General Assembly in October 1971. He said to the effect that small nations need to keep their own houses in order, to be able to secure their places in the world. In other words, small nations need to ensure that they retain social cohesion and political, as well as economic stability for the long term.

The implication is clear. Unlike bigger countries, small nations like Singapore, when they fall victim to divisive politics that populism brings, they will be easy for the picking. They would no longer be taken seriously by their bigger neighbours. Once that happens, small nations would not have the ability to protect and promote their national interests in the international arena anymore. In other words, we will have a “double whammy”, domestically and internationally.

Therefore, our commitment to reject populism in its strong form, must therefore carry a commitment to educate all Singaporeans to recognise it when we see it and call it out.

Which brings me to my second caution. Fool’s gold and the easy choice.

The rejection of strong populism commits us to a specific duty. It is a duty to make hard choices, to be accountable to the people of Singapore, by way of political and practical solutions to the social imperatives of our nation.

The critical difference between this “hard choice” approach and a populist approach to policies is two-fold. First, this should be done without the histrionics that populism often attracts. I must say here that I am for even more scrutiny of policy proposals and performance from political leaders, from both sides of the aisle. What I am against here the chest-beating, sabre-rattling politicisation of issues that get in the way of true analytical discourse. Without the “noise”, there will likely to be better engagement on the substance of the matter.

In the end, there will be clarity on what parties are agreed and what they are not. This is what we should aim for. I feel that this distillation process is essential. Otherwise, there is a danger of performative politics entrenching itself in this House.

Second, I believe details matter. We have reached a point in our country’s development where solutions to most things are complex, and sometimes, finely balanced. It is characteristic for populist politicians to be short on details when advocating for a policy change.

We politicians, from both sides of the House, need to do the homework, understand the background facts, and also understand how the status quo was forged, highlight the trade-offs inherent in the policy proposals, separate facts from fiction and then, go on to make arguments as to why the balance should be struck one way or another.

I would also add one other point. Political leaders in office should eschew the tendency to just label policies as “populist”, even though they may in fact receive broad support of citizens when what they really want to do is to make the policies sound unreasonable and irrational. This is a point that Francis Fukuyama made — and I agree with him.

It is incumbent on leaders to go beyond labelling, highlight the precise aspects of the proposed policies that they are concerned about. It is this process of responsible contestation and distillation of ideas and proposals which, in my respectful view, will serve as a bulwark against the emergence of populism in its strongest form in Singapore.

Through this process, there will be better accountability to our people. Our people, noting the areas where politicians are agreed and where they disagree, will be better placed to choose which future they wish to ascribe to through the ballot box.

Let me underscore the point by making reference to the debate at the last session of Parliament on the national reserves.

In opening the debate, the hon NCMP Mr Leong Mun Wai highlighted what he referred to as “social ills” that must be addressed. These included cost of living, social inequality, mental health and declining total fertility rate. To this list, the hon Leader of the Opposition, in his speech during the debate on the Motion added healthcare costs and intergenerational equity. Both hon Members advocated for the slowing of the growth of reserves so that more money can be spent on these areas.

I, for one, do not see these human conditions as diseases or “ills” but as imperatives for the Government of the day, as moral directions for us to apply our best minds and our utmost resources. These social imperatives cannot be denied, but they cannot be solved by mere handwringing, or by profligate spending. Our duty is to be accountable in the way that I have outlined above, by a serious political commitment and spending our time, energy and resources in formulating and explaining our policies.

Importantly, we need to be aware of the parameters of the hard choices at play and to reject the “fool’s gold approach”.

To explain its hard choice in rejecting even more spending of the income from the reserves, the Government has stated that the reserves provide substantial “passive income” for expenditure in the Annual Budgets and given our unique vulnerabilities, we need to grow the reserves to ensure that we have a chance of overcoming what future challenge that may come our way. These points were articulated so well in my hon friend, Mr Shawn Huang’s speech which I heard earlier today.

Putting aside the use of monies from the reserves for the moment, I think there are two points arising from what both the hon Members have said that will find agreement on both sides of the House.

First, that the social imperatives identified by both of them are legitimate. These imperatives require the attention of this House and the Government. In fact, I would say, as a backbencher, much of what I do in my constituency for my constituents revolve around dealing, amongst others, with such issues.

Second, as responsible MPs, both sides of the House will reject spending for merely the sake of spending. This constitutes fiscal prudence. Hence, to make the case to spend more money will involve taking at least the following steps.

First, an examination of the existing programmes that the Government has for the imperative in question. Second, a calculation of how much the Government is committing or spending on these programmes. Third, a performance assessment or review of the programmes. And finally, the articulation of the case for more spending on the imperative which will have to include dealing with the Government’s points on “passive income” that the reserves currently provide and having sufficient ballast for the future.

At this point, I would like to deal with the hon Leader of Opposition’s point raised in his speech earlier that the Government should be even more forthcoming with information to make better decisions on the Budget.

With respect, this is a red herring. There is already sufficient information available. In fact, at the last Sitting, the hon Prime Minister gave us a Master Class. Hon Members may recall he asked us to take out the back of our envelopes and follow him in doing the sums. He projected that the returns from the reserves at about 4%; he then said if we were to spend 2% for the Budget, that means 2% for the reserves. So, the reserves will grow at a rate of 2% per year and that more or less, keeps up with the GDP. So, we roughly know what is the band of the NIRC which has remained stable and contributes about one-fifth of our revenue.

We also know that the variance of the operating revenue and the expenditures within a band of about plus or minus 4%. Of course, there would be situations where the predictability may be affected by, say, market situations. For example, for property tax, it went up because the AV went up and that is a function of the market.

For that kind of situations, all we can do is we make best predictions and then make adjustments as we go along. But these will be the inputs for which we would have available for the purposes of making sure that whatever we are articulating as policy proposals for more expenditure can be supported and fiscally prudent.

The hon Leader of the Opposition made reference to an article which appeared on 19 February in The Straits Times and he pointed out that some economists had also made the point about lack of information being forthcoming from the Government.

One point to note, as he had stated, is that most economists lauded the Budget. One economist had asked about the use of pre-funding Government programmes, for example, the Pioneer Generation package and he suggested that there should be more transparency in relation to this plan. But the reality is, every year, the statement of accounts is presented to Parliament. That statement of accounts is actually audited by the independent auditors. All MPs can ask questions and it is also subject to scrutiny of the Estimates Committee. And, of course, drawdowns are also subject to scrutiny of the Auditor-General.

Another economist felt that the amount of past reserves should be disclosed. This is something which, as we all know, the Government has a conscientious objection to. But most importantly, as I said earlier, the NIRC amount can be estimated and that is the important part for Budget planning.

For these reasons, I would say that there is no real obstacle for anyone of us in this House to articulate holistically why more money or more resources should be spent for a particular policy imperative.

I will now provide an illustration on the working of the framework that I suggested by dealing with the Cost-of-Living imperative.

In October 2022, the Government unveiled a support package to give Singapore households additional help to deal with rising prices. The amount of monies committed for these programmes is a matter of public knowledge — $1.5 billion.

Deputy Prime Minister Wong, in his announcement, said that the package was designed to fully cover the increase in cost of living for lower-income households and to cover more than half the increase in the cost of living for middle-income households.

It is entirely open to hon Members who wish the Government to spend more to tackle cost of living issues to make the case that the 50% mark is insufficient for middle-income households and argue that it should be higher, say, 60%, 70% or even 100%.

They should articulate how such a move would be in the better interest of Singaporeans and Singapore as a whole. What then this leads to is the crystallisation of a sum that is needed to fund the advocated policy proposal from the reserves or elsewhere with the accompanying reasons.

The political office holder responding to hon the Member’s proposal, if he disagrees with the proposal, will be well advised not to simply shrug it off by labelling it as populist. Rather, he must tackle the proposal head-on and explain why the current spending levels are sufficient and should be maintained, having regard not just to the specific issue but the big picture as well. Through this, we will gain a clear understanding of the points of agreement and disagreement as well as the reasons in support of the respective contentions. Singaporeans will be better able to follow the debate and the implications of the policy proposals should they be implemented or rejected.

It is, of course, open to hon Members across the aisle to make their plans part of their election campaigns even if they may be rejected by the Government. That is their prerogative. But they must have such plans in the first place. If they do not, it is merely promising Singaporeans as a share of a piece of gold that disappears after election day.

I view this as healthy politics as both sides will then present their cases to our people. In the end, it will be fellow Singaporeans who will judge and decide through the ballot box. This is how we prevent populism from rearing its head in our politics. This is how a high level of accountability to our people will be maintained.

The social imperatives are upon us. We all know this and it is no great epiphany to point these out. If we are to really say that we have a serious Government and a serious Opposition, as exhorted by Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, the focus must fall on the generation of solutions to such imperatives and a reasoned articulation of why these solutions create better outcomes for our people whilst being fiscally prudent. And by democratic acclaim, let us stand behind the ones which we believe, as elected Members, most benefit the people of Singapore for now and the future and by so doing, reject populism in its strongest form. I support the Budget. [Applause.]



Murali Pillai

Member of Parliament, Bukit Batok SMC, Advisor to Bukit Batok SMC GROs.