Welcome Address of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats at the Opening Session of the CALD General Assembly 2012, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy.

Hon Rauff Hakeem, Minister of Justice, colleagues from the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats and from the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, distinguished guests and friends, I am honoured to welcome all of you to the CALD General Assembly, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy. This event is taking place in Sri Lanka after a gap of only two years. While we are glad to be able to host it, I am sorry about the circumstances that have caused this unusual repeat performance.

Both my predecessor and my successor as Chair of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats come from countries where there are actual threats to the democratic process, and harsh measures to muzzle the opposition. My predecessor was Dr Chee Son Juan of the Singapore Democrat Party, my successor will be Sam Rainsy of the Cambodian Sam Rainsy Party. My predecessor is not permitted to leave Singapore, my successor cannot enter Cambodia.

The first was convicted repeatedly in courts which sadly do not draw criticism from Western democracies that profess concern for justice and the rule of law. Unfortunately economic and political affinities count more than principle, and except for the Liberal International, which last year awarded Dr Chee its Prize for Freedom, institutions purportedly devoted to freedom allow the Singapore government a blank cheque. Laws that do not conform to basic principles of justice or democracy are not allowed to take away from its well touted status as a remarkably free country on various indices.

The Cambodian situation is even more peculiar. There the Leader of the Opposition following the last election, my colleague and successor Sam Rainsy, had his Parliamentary immunity taken away, and would face incarceration were he to return to Cambodia. This is unfortunately nothing new, for it happened to him a few years back too. This time round, it has now been established that the offence which first led to charges was not an offence at all. But political victimization does not require rationality or consistency. More remarkable I believe is the manner in which countries that should know better continue to fall over themselves to provide assistance to Cambodia. But I suppose this is not surprising, given the opportunities not just for investment, but for exploitation that a complacent regime offers.

Unfortunately both these countries are much more accomplished than Sri Lanka, or Thailand under the Democratic Party, which both suffered trenchant criticism even from Liberals in other countries. I suppose this is a feature of Liberals, that they rush in with attacks where less idealistic people fear to tread. Tragically such misplaced idealism also sometimes leads to valorizing of politicians who sell themselves better than governments more concerned with development do.

I will not talk here about the Sri Lankan experience, that led normally sane commentators to seem to privilege both terrorism and racism in their haste to criticize the Sri Lankan government. After all, the Sri Lankan people were not hoodwinked, even though the denizens of Colombo were quite convinced that such extremist forces would be electorally successful. But I should dwell for a moment on the strange phenomenon of the Thai Rak Thai Party in Thailand, which through aggressively populist policies managed to ensure election to office, on several occasions, though the form in which it presented itself changed over the years. Now, as once before, its leader Thaksin Shinawatra has continued through a surrogate party to dominate the electoral process. However, Thailand does have in place constitutional safeguards, which ensure that the current government cannot easily bring him back to Thailand and permit him direct control over the government.

This is the key to dealing with the theme of our Assembly this year, the need for constitutional safeguards against exploitation of the weaknesses of democratic systems. E M Forster, many years ago, pointed several of these weaknesses out, in his celebrated essay, ‘Two Cheers for Democracy’. He concluded then that democracy did not deserve three cheers, but it certainly warranted two, for it was better than any other political system.

That still remains true, but the need to ensure safeguards against majoritarianism and against populism still remains vital. We must have constitutional safeguards that prevent legislation that allows for the state to be hijacked, either by a particular interest group, or even by an unscrupulous government. And we need a strong but at the same time sensitive judiciary to ensure the rule of law.

At the same time we should guard against a too easy assumption that the people cannot be trusted. I have been astonished in recent months by the determination of decision makers in Europe to prevent the Greek people from voting at a referendum on measures to which they will be subject. It seems to me fundamentally undemocratic to claim that they will not understand the consequences that will occur if they do not adopt measures decided on for them elsewhere. Indeed, it is ironic that at one stage Europe was wooing China for financial support. Putting it crudely, it would seem that democracies are unable to cope with the demands of their voting population for greater indebtedness, and the solution has to come from a country criticized for not being democratic.

China, I should note, does have its systems of internal democracy, and we should perhaps also recognize that these can contribute to lessening of populist threats in that they provide outlets for popular feeling without e need for leading politicians to cater to special interests that hijack the democratic process. I would argue that that provides a healthy corrective to for instance the American primary system, which encourages politicians to appeal to the most parochial, if not necessarily the worst, human instincts.

Seeking balance then, ensuring that people can express themselves, whilst also preventing special interests from detracting from the interests of the whole, is a challenge that we need to face. Sharing experiences here will I hope help us in this exercise.