iassw logoSocial Dialogue #17

Bala Raju Nikku
Social Work Section, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia


Azlinda Azman
School of Social Sciences Universiti, Sains Malaysia

Populism in the Asia: What role for Asian Social Work?


Mizuno and Phongpaichit in their book Populism in Asia (2009) have argued that across Asia, "populist" leaders have emerged on an unprecedented scale around the start of the 21st century. We argue that this has many implications for Asian social work. This article discusses some of these implications.

What is Populism?

Populism is a mode of political communication that champions the common person. It is a political program that is centred on creating a contrast and conflict between the 'common man (voter)' and a real or imagined group of 'privileged elites'(political class). Populism usually combines elements of the left and the right, opposing large business and fi nancial interests but also frequently being hostile to established socialist and labour parties (see britannica.com/topic/populism ). In the 21st Century, the term populism is most often associated with an authoritarian form of politics. Populist politics, revolves around a charismatic leader who appeals to and claims to embody the will of the people in order to consolidate his/her own power. In this personalized form of politics, political parties lose their importance and relevance. The (democratic) elections serve to confi rm the leader's authority rather than to reflect the different allegiances of the people.

The waves of populism not only in the Asian region but globally is evident of the re-emergence of new type of global and regional dynamics of power, populism and politics. For example, in 2017 the British people voted in favor of the United Kingdom (UK) exiting from the European Union; the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in trying to gather the popular vote is calling for a partial ban on the burqa; the unexpected rise of Donald Trump to the US oval office; the fall of Italian leader Matteo Renzi; and the Modi wave of politics in India give some indication of the rising populism across the globe. Social work should take note of its development and assess its impact and, either globally, regionally or locally gathers a response as its impact on the citizens, the state and communities unfold.

In its most democratic form, populism seeks to defend the interest and maximize the power of ordinary citizens, through reform rather than revolution. Exclusive populism focuses on shutting out stigmatised groups (refugees, migrants for example), and is more common in Europe. Inclusive populism demands that politics be opened up to stigmatised groups (the poor, minorities). The western populists like that of Donald Trump have used the rhetoric of exclusive populism, while the Asian leaders like that of Modi of India have used inclusive populism. At the end of the day both have captured the power and voters loyalty.

While the rise of a populist movement is not new and has taken many forms over the last century its reemergence in the new millennia needs some attention. The question we are interested in is; What are the issues? What needs to be done? And What role can Asian social workers play in creating a response? The relationship between the (political) populism and social work has not been well investigated, and hence this edition of Social Dialogue focusing on this theme is not only apt but crucial to generate social work scholarship on this phenomenon.

Asian Populism

The rise of populism under Ferndinand Marcos, Joseph E. Estrada Thaksin Shinawatra (who is currently in self exile) in Thailand, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (known as Prachanda) in Nepal, Dr Mahathir Mohamad who served as the Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981-2003, and more recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India are considered by many as populists politicians from the Asia region. Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs and killings as a populist agenda in the Philippines is another obvious example and the populist uprising that toppled South Korea's President Park Geun-hye, the first woman to be elected as the President and served from 2013 to 2017, who is now facing legal prosecution, may also fit in with current definitions.

The irony is many Asian populists who rise to power have used symbolic uses of violence. For example Prachanda in Nepal and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines used extra judicial killings and human rights violations to display their power and to show the masses that enemies ( i.e the elite) are being eliminated. In fact the assassinated may not be the real enemy of the public but for the populist politician, who does not want any opposition and dissent to grow these people are seen as easy targets. However, not all populist leaders use violence to gather popular support.

Let's also look at Malaysia's neighbor Indonesia, with the largest number of Muslim population. In the 2014 Indonesian Presidential elections, the down-to-earth former carpenter and Jakarta governor (popularly known as Jokowi), advanced a new form of technocratic populism that was inclusive, non-confrontational, and primarily focused on improving the quality of public service delivery. Jokowi unlike his rival candidate Prabowo (who used confrontational populism), rightly understood the mood and sentiments of Indonesian electorate who were tired and frustrated of 16 years of autocratic and oppressive regimes. Hence with a foresight, Jokowi applied pragmatic populism, promising rapid improvements in the workings of government the way it delivers its services. This strategy worked well for Jokowi instead of selling grand political visions which has been the norm in the Indonesian political battles. At the same time Jokowi being a non-confrontational politician allowed the powerful and elite to maintain their interests to a greater extent. This dual approach of technocratic approach coupled with specific populist style helped Jokowi not only to come to the power but to survive the presidency. Modi in India and despite his Hindu Ultra nationalist image was able to convince the Indian voters who gave him ( and his BJP party) a huge victory in the 2014 elections. He was able to form his own government without coalition partners for the first time in 30 years. This is quite a significant change considering the history of Indian politics. Since the 1990s (until 2014) no single political party has won a majority in the national polls and has had to form the coalition government to assume power. Many of these coalitions did not survived the full term in office because of self-interest and inter and intra rivalry conflicts and slowed down government business which meant that they were slow to formulate people oriented policies resulting in the gradual degeneration of democratic rights of the citizens. Now with a full majority in the Parliament, it one sided and authoritative approach to governing, which is happening with the current Modi's majority rule.

If we compare Modi of India and Jokowi of Indonesia and their political ideologies and populist strategies, we see that these two men could not have been more different in background and politics but were successful by using similar populist political strategies to a garner support for the politics Their success in in mobilizing voters especially the masses (the poor) as their main constituency and by attacking the rich and elite demonizing them as collective enemy of the poor and the political class these populist leaders and t secured their rise high office in their own country. For example, both focused on the poor in their country and by using pro-poor images and their own (humble) background as a commoner they presented themselves as understanding the common man's struggles. Both have used inclusive religious populism to win the votes. In addition to the rhetoric to offer corruption free governance, typically these two charismatic politicians have marketed themselves both as uncompromising defenders of the rights and interests of the common people and as the only true representatives and promoters of 'genuine democracy' (Betz, 2001).

Populism or Pluralism: What Role of Asian Social Work?

Populist political leaders from the Asia and West seem to have similar values and strategies that ae in direct contrast with social works values of respect for human life and protection of vulnerable people and support for democratic rule and redistributive welfare system of governance. For example, during Mr. Modi's vist to the USA during June 2017, President Trump did not comment publicly on the crackdown on civil society in India, or the threat posed to vulnerable groups under Modi's rule. Nor did he mention the populist hate campaign that has produced brutal mob killings of Muslims suspected of trading or consuming beef in selected Indian states. Similarly, Mr. Modi did not raise any alarm over the Trump administration's travel ban on people from several Muslim countries or police abuse in the USA. He is also did not mention or cite any remark about the hate fueled death attacks on Native and Black Americans and other minority groups (eg Muslims) under the Trump administration. In fact, the most obvious thing in common with these populist leaders is their support for each other use of violence and silencing dissent and their almost unqualified support for, or inciting incidents of, racism, misogyny, islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiments more than was obvious in the past decades. We argue then, from the examples above that populism and populists regimes can be fertile grounds for further spreading sentiments of separatism and exclusion politics and autocratic rule. As a result, more people are excluded from the democratic processes and their human rights are abused and violated. There is a clear role for social workers to respond to these regimes styles by using political social work models.

The 21st century is witnessing more of populist policy making, lead by a single muscular nationalist leader leading the way. The contradiction is that these autocratic tendencies to incite exclusion and division is antithetical to solving the growing poverty, inequality and rights violations to name a few that have helped these leaders capture power and political stardom in the first place. Political populists have managed to weaken even the established political parties and used societal fears of anti establishment, aggravating popular anxieties like that of globalization, and nuclear threats to name a few to launch their successful populist electoral campaigns and captured powerful political offices. The use of fear has been a powerful mobiliser the populist vote! This form of Asian populism may rise further and also reappear or spread across other countries in the region. This is due to the general disillusionment and increasing poverty of the general public who are losing confidence in the State as the main provider of services and care taker of their lives. They rather believe in populist leaders and give their vote and democratic power over to them to rule.

Why should social workers be concerned about, understand and analyse populism? Is it because many Asian societies are still impoverished and are experiencing severe violations of human rights and minimum standards of living? In assuming more power and failing to tackle corruption and cronyism, these populist regimes are further weakening civil rights movements and increasing the economic hardship for the most disadvantaged in our communities leaving social workers puzzled and powerless in Asia (and probably in the west too!) as to how to respond. We know that social Work has to play a crucial role in ensuring human rights and well being in the region, but how? What skills do social workers acquire to work against populist agendas?

Asian social work can be a powerful catalyst to resist political populism by working towards a pluralistic society that can resist populist politics that are mainly based on divide and rule. Social workers should be involved in grassroots organizing and helping people- the masses to understand the party politics and politics of populist polices and form alternative polices to counteract this development. Hence there is a continued role for political social work in the region to empower people with information and policy knowledge so as to make right choices in electing peoples representatives who in turn are accountable, not only to their voter citizens but also to the entire population that includes refugees, migrant without papers and other disadvantage groups in the Asian Society.

To conclude, we argue that questions of cultural identity, values, religion, human rights, economic prosperity, poverty, ethnicity, citizenship and federalism are bound to dominate the political agenda for next few decades in Asia. Under these circumstances, the Asian social work has to play a proactive role to be in a position to carve out a larger niche in the Asian democracy and political market space.


Betz, H. G. (2001). Exclusionary Populism in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland.International Journal,56,3, 393-420.
Kosuke, M., & Phongpaichit, P. (2009). Populism in Asia. Singapore: NUS Press.
Pinker, R. (1984). Populism and the Social Services. Social Policy & Administration, 18,1 , 89-99.