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Expanded Version of the closing remarks of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha – Former Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, at the Closing Session of the CALD General Assembly, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy

Hon Sam Rainsy, Chair of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, Hon Vasantha Senanayake, our closing Keynote Speaker, colleagues and friends, though I should not take too long about these winding up remarks, I must record my appreciation of the seminal contributions to political thinking that have emerged during the last couple of days. The threat of populism to liberal democracy is something we must be very careful about, and not least because there is a tendency amongst intellectuals – a disproportionate number of whom subscribe to Liberalism for obvious reasons – to assume that we necessarily know better than the people. We thus tend to dismiss as populism even legitimate concerns.

While therefore avoiding the excesses of indulgent populism, avoiding the temptation to play to the gallery on the assumption that ignorance is something to take advantage of for political gain, avoiding full discussion and comprehensible advocacy, we should also ensure that our ears are to the ground, and that we take account of all concerns. Though some concerns may seem to us trivial or not quite legitimate, we should not dismiss them, but should rather take them seriously and discuss them in a manner that illuminates and assuages. We may not always be successful, but it is as bad as playing to the gallery to assume that the gallery is irrelevant.

I am glad therefore that our concluding session was about developing a symbiotic relationship between Populism and Democracy. Earlier we looked at the manner in which policies can contribute to populism, which should make us realize that populism is not always a reaction to emotions or parochial interests. Sometimes it is the politicians who are responsible for rousing and privileging such emotions and interests. We have looked at examples of such in earlier sessions, and I believe we have been able to cast light on the problems inherent in democratic dispensations, which we must strive to overcome through greater transparency, through more thorough methods of stimulating discussion and thought.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2012
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