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Social Democracy in a time of Populism: from ripples to surges

On its third successive batch, the Network of Social Democracy in Asia’s (or SocDem Asia) Political Management Training brought together progressive young leaders from across Southeast Asia. The current batch is the largest and most diverse yet with participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, East Timor, Burma, Thailand, and the Philippines coming from the youth movement, political parties, art community and civil society. The first leg of the PMT was again held in Manila with the partnership of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Olof Palme International Center. With the usual pleasantries and camaraderie among the participants one would get the impression that progressives and social democrats are gaining the upper hand in Asia. However, step outside the conference room, Asian democrats and progressives are losing ground to fundamentalist and populist movements. Like their European counterparts, the Asian populist movements are competing with the established progressive, labor and democratic movements but with far better results. Populists are taking the reins of government.

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Young, progressive and leading the way: meet PMT 2016 batch President Nalina Nair

We asked Political Management Training Batch 2016 (Stand by Oh)* Nalina Nair about her experience in the program which prepares young progressive leaders from the region for greater responsibilities and how it influences her own political work and social activism.

Nalina Nair
Currently State Secretary for Democratic Action Party Women’s Wing Selangor and Organising Committee Member of Demi Malaysia
Batch President, PMT Batch 2016 (Stand by Oh)

What has happened since your graduation from the program more than five months ago?

Upon arriving back in Malaysia after graduating from the PMT in Cebu, I joined my comrades in organizing the Bersih 5 rally, as I was part of the program team. The rally was held just 2 weeks after the PMT graduation.

Immediately after the rally, we went on to work on the release of election watchdog Bersih 2.0’s chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah. There was no time to waste, as she was being detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act on the eve of the Bersih 5 rally. After being held for 11 days, she was released due to the overwhelming pressure from Malaysians and various foreign NGOs.

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Challenges and Outlook to Asian Social Democracy

After an encouraging surge of democratic mobilization across Asia in recent years -- with the Malaysian opposition making massive electoral gains, Indonesia electing a grass-roots-driven president, and Myanmar’s junta ceding more power to the elected, civilian leadership -- a combination of authoritarianism and right-wing populism is besetting Asia’s most promising democracies, from India to the Philippines.

Over the past decade, Asia has maintained robust economic growth rates, giving birth to a rising middle class. Resource-based nations such as Mongolia have been among the world’s fastest growing economies, while Japan, South Korea, and China have maintained their lead in the global electronics, steel, and machinery market. New tiger economies such the Philippines have dispensed with their age-old image as ‘sick man of Asia’ by registering among the highest growth rates in the region and the world.  Despite these changes, growing income inequality, wide-scale degradation of the environment, and deepening sense of insecurity and income uncertainty among a significant section of societies across Asia persist. These internal contradictions in Asian economies have empowered outside the box political figures, who have effectively tapped into the grievance and frustrations of the populace.

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