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Fragility in Southeast Asian democracy

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Singapore Prime Minister and Secretary General of the ruling People's Action Party Lee Hsien Loong gestures while delivering his speech during a political rally at the opposition constituency of Aljunied in Singapore, 04 September 2015. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

Democracy in some of Southeast Asia's major economies is now under intense scrutiny.

In Thailand, the imposition of martial law has been a major source of international economic and diplomatic problems for more than a year.


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The abolition of martial law in May, a year after it was imposed, superficially made it easier for the private sector and foreign stakeholders as well as democratic governments in the West and elsewhere to deal with the government of Thailand. But King Bhumibol’s reign is coming to an end and his looming departure has elevated anxiety among Bangkok elites, of which the military is a central part. This has driven it to intervene in politics again, as it tries to manage the royal succession, defend the interests of the old elites and ensure that the political infrastructure that is left behind can be used to maintain the military’s political role. The terrorist bombing of Erawan Shrine in August was yet another major setback on the long road towards the restoration of democracy in Thailand.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak is embroiled in a major corruption scandal and the country is in political crisis. The origins of the crisis are entrenched in the way in which Malaysia’s democracy has come to operate. The road toward ruin, as Dan Slater argues, came with Mahathir, two prime ministers back. By the late 1980s, all of the defining features of Malaysia’s current crisis under Najib’s leadership were evident under Mahathir. The regime was increasingly repressive. The office of prime minister was becoming the centre of autocracy. Ethnic tensions had been reopened to political manipulation. The economy was worrisomely indebted. The ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was shedding some of its most capable leaders. Mahathir blamed everybody but himself for the crash during the Asian financial crisis. He sacked and imprisoned his popular and gifted deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, largely for his temerity in suggesting that Malaysia needed deeper reforms to regain economic health.

Mahathir didn’t pull Malaysia out of its crisis with economic reform or adjustment, but with more and more borrowing and spending. Like Mahathir, Najib assumed autocratic control over the economy and embarked on reckless borrowing and investment schemes. ‘Like Mahathir’, Slater explains, ‘Najib unleashed a torrent of repression under antiquated security laws to protect his own position amid rising criticism from civil society and from within UMNO’. In this context, it is easy to see why so many were bewildered last weekend when Mahathir attended civil society’s Bersih 4 rally — a protest movement seeking greater transparency and accountability of government. But that is not the end of a comparison between the two Malaysian leaders. Slater adds that ‘like Mahathir, Najib has recklessly played the ethnic and religious card as his position has weakened. And in consummate Mahathir style, Najib has now even sacked his deputy, Muyhiddin Yassin, for questioning Najib’s repression of the media in response to the 1MDB scandal‘.

It won’t be easy to renovate Malaysian democracy, exit from steeper decline and put the country on a path to recovery, without the political and economic reforms that were demanded in the reformasi movement of the late 1990s. That will need a new generation of leadership within UMNO or in Malaysia’s repressed but resilient political opposition.

This is the sad context in which Singapore goes to the polls this week. Singapore’s approach to dissidents no longer involves arrest without trial, but the truth is that activists and the loyal opposition that challenge the government still face repression. As Stephan Ortmann explains, ‘[t]his usually takes the form of the threat of lawsuits alleging slander, sedition or contempt of court. A recent case is Roy Ngerng, who was found guilty of defamation and was forced to pay S$29,000 (US$21,100) to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — Lee Kuan Yew’s son’.

The undemocratic atmospherics of Singaporean politics are unlikely to change in the near future. Yet now more than ever, the government feels insecure in response to activism. ‘The indefinite suspension of the Speakers’ Corner, the only space where the government has recently allowed protests, following Lee’s death could be an early indication of further restrictions. As is the branding of even slightly negative remarks about the former prime minister as disrespectful’, Ortmann adds.

So why is there this anxiety in the ruling Peoples’ Action Party (PAP)? There are only seven non-PAP members, or less than 10 per cent of the total, in the current legislature. Opposition parties secured around 40 per cent of the vote at the election four years ago. The electoral gerrymander is completely government controlled and lacks transparency. About 19 per cent of the population was moved to a new constituency in 2015. The sharp drop in electoral support for PAP at the last election, however, came as a profound shock.

As Terence Chong observes, Singapore’s general elections this week will be the most widely contested since independence. Eight opposition parties and a handful of independents will compete for the 89 parliamentary seats. The question that will weigh on the almost 2.5 million eligible voters as they go to the polls on Friday will be whether they should reward the ruling PAP for its recent policy turnarounds to address electoral discontent or give credit to the Workers’ Party, the main opposition group, for making the government more responsive to public concerns.

In our lead essay this week, Michael Barr says that it all boils down to the timeframe through which the contenders are judged. The government wants voters to judge it based on its record over 50 years or more; the opposition says it should be judged based on the past decade of policy failure. So in the lead up to an election that didn’t have to be held for another year, campaigning has been constrained to a less than two week period, and the celebration of the legacy Lee Kwan Yew and the 50th anniversary of independence have helped to smother airtime for opposition.

‘Support for the government is sitting at such a low level and the string of government defeats and near-defeats has been so consistent’, says Barr, ‘that anything less than improving the government’s vote and share of seats will be considered a defeat for the prime minister’.

There is, of course, no chance that the opposition can wrest government from PAP in the Singapore election, but a bad result does have the potential to disempower Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong within cabinet. The imperatives within Singapore’s political culture require maintaining the appearance of stability. So Lee knows, as Barr says, that if this election goes badly for him, he risks losing authority within cabinet and being a ‘lame duck’ prime minister for the rest of his term, however long that might be.

Friday’s election will provide another point for reflection on where democracy stands in Singapore and how democracy now fares in Southeast Asia.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

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