‘Democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia.’ Discuss with reference to the newly independent states of Southeast Asia. #2

Democracy refers to democratic forms of governance where the population gets to exercise civil liberties and to affect change through electoral processes, and taking root means establishing and having an effect. In the period after independence, many Southeast Asian states experimented with democratic forms of governance, but the record of these governments tended to be dismal as they often failed and were replaced by more authoritarian forms of governance. The question asserts that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia, implying that the political system of democratic ideals and institutions has not been established in the political and social fabric of Southeast Asian states, possibly due to Southeast Asia’s longstanding political culture, with its strong adherence to collective loyalties and conventional values, as well as the ineffectiveness of democracy which failed to have an effect on the political and economic stability, making other forms of governance more appealing to the people. On the other hand, it might be too sweeping to simply claim that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia, as there were instances where civil society voiced out against the form of governance preferred by the government through the presence of an educated middle class, trying to effect political change through their actions. Also, there were states where democracy had been successfully tested in and established in hopes of securing independence, implying that democracy had an effect on various states. Despite the longstanding political culture and values and its inefficiency in bringing about political and economic stability, democracy was established in some Southeast Asian states in varying degrees and periods.

Democracy might not have taken root in Southeast Asia due to certain traditional cultures and values of the Southeast Asian states that support more top-down authoritarian systems of government which made it hard for democratic systems to be fixed. Taking Indonesia as an example, Javanese syncretism had been “credited” with instiling in Indonesians a feudalistic worldview that fosters unquestioning obedience to power and their leaders because their leaders’ powers were deemed to have been derived from cosmos. This is substantiated with the strong Javanese tradition that emphasised patrimonial style of rule with the advocation of the concentration of power in the hands of an individual or group to prevent the weakening of power. Also, Indonesia inherited the structures of a police state from the dutch and the japanese and had little colonial administrative experience, and years of authoritarian Dutch colonial rule under the Dutch East Indies have also arguably ingrained in Indonesian society an acceptance of authoritarianism, further providing an obstacle towards the establishment of a proper functioning democratic system. Similarly, in Vietnam, its monarchical traditions and repressive french rule meant little exposure to parliamentary democracy, which was reinforced by vietnam’s decades of war. The protracted struggle for full independence and unification also sharpened the anxiety to see greater centralisation of power and the establishment of VCP as the only vanguard party in both the North and South. Thus, the lack of exposure to a democratic form of governance due to conventional tradition hindered democracy to take root in Vietnam. With such societal values and principals coined from traditions and religions, it could have been difficult for democracy to take root under such circumstances as people would accept the customs and laws of their tradition, which in the case of both Indonesia and Vietnam, people have to heed the rules and follow the conventional way of living. Hence, this served as an obstacle for democracy to take root. 

Democracy might have been unable to effect a change in Southeast Asia as democratic forms of government were ineffective due to the inherent disunity within some countries, resulting in the failure to bring about political and economic stability. This in turn made alternative forms of governance such as maximum governments more attractive to the people rather than democracy, resulting in democracy being unable to take root. In Indonesia, the ideological divisions between the PNI, PKI, NU and Masjumi were so entrenched it led to a deadlock in Constituent Assembly in 1955 over the basic principle of the new Indonesian state- whether Indonesia was to be secular or theocratic state, and this led to difficulties in ensuring smooth political and policy continuities. It became clear that the liberal parliamentary system had failed to fashion consensus among the different various parties, and had worked to reinforce the deep-seated ideological differences that existed between them and those that existed between Javanese politicians and those from the Outer Islands, showing how the disunity within the country severely hampered the effectiveness of democracy and its ability to bring about political stability. Similarly, in Burma, the assassination of Aung San in 1947 removed the single unifying force among the diverse mass organisations that constituted the AFPFL. The party became rife with factionalism, as it became deeply divided over the issues of ethnic minorities rights and the direction of economic development for the country,  resulting in the AFPFL splitting into two factions, further providing an obstacle towards the establishment of democracy. With the lack of unity in Southeast Asia stemmed from the different ethnicities and political ideologies, it could be seen as a challenge for democracy to thrive under such circumstances as it became very difficult to get a mandate which led to severe disunity within the governments. Due to the inability to provide quick and decisive leadership required amidst political unrest caused by the difference in political ideologies and ethnic tensions, democracy could not bring about political and economic stability. As such, democracy was seen as ineffective in some countries because of the lack of action taken which exacerbated economic and political problems. The inefficiency of democracy thus made alternative forms of governance such as maximum governments more appealing because of their perceived ability to perform better than democratic governments. 

However, democracy was able to take root in SEA when civil society became more vocal and opposed the form of governance preferred by the government through the growing presence of an educated middle class. With subsequent civil protests and discourse in various countries, elements of democracy was present when people voiced out their displeasure, proving that democracy was used in an effort to effect political change in the country. In indonesia, the final blow to the regime was the Asian Financial Crisis 1997, in which the Indonesian economy plummeted. The Indonesian rupiah crashed from a high rp . 2432 against the dollar on 1 july 1997 to its lowest of rp 14800 on 24 jan 1998. The crisis reached its peak in May 1998 as riots broke out in Jakarta when students took to the streets and demanded greater democracy and protested against corruption. This quickly grew into mass movements and this readiness was possible due to rising educational levels, which saw the rapid expansion of an Indonesia middle class that was fairly large and well educated by 1998, showing how democracy was demonstrated through the actions of the people. Similarly, in philippines, Marcos lifted martial law in 1981 and attempted to bolster his legitimacy through democratic mechanisms, allowing the opposition to run under the umbrella LABAN in 1986. Even though Marcos and his KBL regime won 54% of the votes, it was clear that the elections were rigged. This election marked his demise, as the People Power revolution spread like wildfire, with thousands taking to the streets of Manila demanding Marcos’ departure. He was effectively replaced by Corazon Aquino, and the 1987-88 elections saw the return of political leaders and clans of pre-authoritarian period, further proving how mass movements which is an element of democracy is able to effect change on the country’s political state. The move back to democracy was possible when civilians started to take on democratic measures to voice out their opinions on the country’s political affair. Under a more liberal circumstance, democracy was able to thrive as people made use of democratic measures to exercise the freedom of speech and made their own choice of leaders. This thus suggest that democracy had taken root in some SEA countries through the use of democratic measures taken by the people to effect political change in their country. 

Democracy could be said to have taken root in SEA as there were states where democracy had been successfully tested in during colonial rule, together with the establishment of strong political structures for democracy. In Singapore, the People’s Action Party has managed to use constitutional means to weaken opposition and hinder active civic participation. On one hand, there is the Internal Security Act which it uses to detain political opponents, on the other, it uses the Group Representation Constituencies which is regularly changed by the Prime Minister’s Office just before every election, without the need for Parliamentary approval, to erase any inroads the opposition might have managed to make. Consequently, the PAP is often assured the majority, even before the elections. The act of having a democratic form of governance with elections of choosing a leader shows that that democracy has taken root in Southeast Asia. Similarly, in Malaysia, she has been formally democratic since gaining independence from the British but the Alliance Party allowed the Malay-dominated UMNO to use undemocratic measures to limit opposition in order to remain in power. Such measures included the introduction of the Internal Security Act of 1960 which was used to detain and repress opponents of the government, while the government candidates themselves developed client relations with the voters. The adoption of a democratic form of government implies that democracy had an effect on the political climate of the country. In countries that had prior experience with democracy during their colonial rule, democracy was able to be integrated with democratic governments providing a stabilising force for political and economic development. Therefore, democracy was able to take root due to the colonial experience and the nature of decolonisation as some colonial powers like British and the UN prepared their colonies for democracy by providing them with self-government experiences before independence. In the case of Singapore and Malaysia, the relative stability and peace granted by democracy as well as its structure allowed for the continuation of democracy. In addition, maximum governments and democratic governments exist on a spectrum in Southeast Asia. As such, while some countries like Singapore and Malaysia took on parliamentary democracy as a system, they are also referred as “soft authoritarian” because of the combination of maximum and liberal governments, where there is the presence of free and fair elections, but at the same time, there is strict control of freedom of expression and a high degree of political control. Hence, democracy can also take root in different kinds of governance, including soft authorianism. 

In conclusion, it would be too sweeping to claim that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia when there are various states that adopt democratic forms of governance and people engage in democratic forms of actions to voice their opinions. Although there were cases where democracy was deemed as ineffective in some states due to its inability to bring about peace and political stability, as well as cultural values hindering the proper functioning of democracy, there were elements of democracy that persisted through stints of maximum governments and also subsequently present and established in Southeast Asia states in the later stages after independence.

Tee Yu Ling (18-E6)

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