Despatch from Southeast Asia:unpacking the region’s complex take on democracy

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

Sholto Byrnes


The idea that liberal democracy is under siege around the globe has been gaining force over the last year or so. A number of books have warned darkly–and at last correctly–that there is nothing inevitable about a system of government that most in the West consider to be not just the best, but the only morally legitimate model, and one that they had hitherto assumed all countries would eventually adopt.

While concern has mostly centred on populist leaders such as America’s Donald Trump, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, a quartet of elections over 2018-2019 in Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia has drawn attention to the state of democracy in Southeast Asia. The Economist, certain as ever of the superiority of its judgements, wagged its finger at the regions’ governments: “Democracy’s worldwide retreat makes no exception for Southeast Asia.”[1] In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has boasted of killing suspected criminals during his long stretch as a provincial mayor. Venturing wider to India, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long been associated with the full “horrors of Hindutva (extreme Hindu nationalism)”. Mr Modi may have, to some extent, transformed himself into a respected international leader, but it was not so long ago that he was banned from entering America over suspicions that he had failed to prevent a massacre of Muslims while he was the governor of Gujarat.

Setting aside the records of Duterte and Modi, the fear remains the same: that liberal democracy is in trouble in South and Southeast Asia. But what if this is, in effect, a category error, and countries are being criticised for receding from a system–liberal democracy–that they never truly had in the first place?


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On independence, or on achieving freedom from dictatorship, most of these states in South and Southeast Asia surely looked like liberal democracies. (I naturally exclude here the Communist states of Laos and Vietnam and the absolute monarchy of Brunei.) They had parliaments and constitutions, separation of powers, and various freedoms–of religion, speech–elections were held and often fiercely fought, and politicians’ espousal of democratic norms made Westerners think they were speaking the same language and shared the same concept.

That the constitutions appeared similar or recognisable was no surprise, since some had been partly written by the departing colonial masters, or were done so with their influence. Moreover, a large number of their leadership had been educated at elite European institutions. If it sometimes seems that a disproportionate percentage of Africa’s “strongmen” were tutored at the London School of Economics, then the Inns of Court were to serve many of Asia’s rising stars equally well. Malaysia’s first three prime ministers, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Hussein Onn, all studied there, as did India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan’s Muhammad Ali Jinnah; while Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was called to the bar at the Middle Temple after reading law at Cambridge.

Cambodia’s King Sihanouk attended training at the Ecole de Cavalerie in Saumur, France. Albeit not in Europe, Indonesia’s Sukarno still received a Dutch education at school and university level on the island of Java. (And although neither a liberal nor a democrat, it is believed that Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh trained as a pastry chef under the legendary Auguste Escoffier at the Carlton Hotel in London. “My dear young friend, please listen to me!” the cuisinier apparently told him. “Leave your revolutionary ideas aside for now, and I will teach you the art of cooking.”)

As James Chin, Director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, recently wrote: “More often than not, local elites simply imported and modified the political systems of their European overlords. Thus, former British colonies Singapore and Malaysia adopted the Westminster system, while the Philippines took on the US system. Indonesia and Thailand embraced the worst aspects of both and have suffered politically ever since.”

Later founding documents, such as the constitution formulated for Cambodia after the end of its long civil war in 1993, also bear traces of Western influence. Article 51, for instance, states: “The Kingdom of Cambodia adopts a policy of liberal multi-party democracy…The powers shall be separated between the legislative power, the executive power and the judicial power.” Such familiar language is no surprise given that the Constituent Assembly tasked with the necessary drafting met under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC).

Even Myanmar’s military rulers made sure to tick the right boxes when they drew up their 2008 constitution. Article 11 states that: “The three branches of sovereign power namely, legislative power, executive power and judicial power are separated, to the extent possible, and exert reciprocal control, check and balance among themselves.”

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Despite the outward appearances, how “liberal” these democracies ever were, however, is another matter. To take one example: The rise of LGBT rights, while a relatively recent phenomenon in the Western world, is frequently used by human rights organisations to measure if a society’s laws and culture are considered liberal or not. On this, nearly all countries in the region would fail to meet the bar, with some having longstanding laws against homosexual activity, while in others societal disapproval still weighs very strongly.

Prosecutions of LGBT are, on the whole, rare–although there has been a noted increase recently in Indonesia–and liberal elites tend to be relaxed, open and accepting of the full spectrum of sexual identities. Equally, there is often wide tolerance of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” variety at the societal level, or even a degree of compassion. The Mufti of the Malaysian state of Perlis recently issued a statement in which he condemned discrimination, saying that “the right to education, business, employment, justice, property and so on for those who commit major sins, including the LGBT, must not be disturbed… a sin does not justify other sins being committed against the sinner.”

But there are few, if any, signs of the changes that the likes of Human Rights Watch demand. The outside world–as well as many in Malaysia–hailed the 9 May 2018 election victory by the Pakatan Harapan coalition, the first time the country’s federal government has ever changed. “Liberal” reforms are expected. “Hopes for New Era of Malaysian Free Speech Are High” was the headline of a New York Times report on 18 June. But anyone expecting the section of the penal code that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”–oral and anal sex–to be repealed will be disappointed, for there is only one, lone MP (Charles Santiago of the mainly ethnically Chinese Democratic Action Party) calling for the law to change.

He is not likely to be joined by many others soon, as religious sentiment in the Muslim-majority country would make it political suicide to do so. (On the wider issue, President Duterte’s support for same-sex marriage makes him an outlier in the region; but this may well be due to his antagonistic relationship with the influential Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines, rather than any hitherto hidden weakness for human rights.)

There has also been a strong history of authoritarianism–often with apparently high levels of popular support–throughout the region. In 2004, Transparency International named General Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, and Ferdinand Marcos, the dictatorial president of the Philippines from 1965 to his overthrow in the People’s Power Revolution of 1986, as the two most corrupt leaders of all time. One might have expected their countrymen to revile them; yet their rules appeared to be viewed through ever more rose-tinted glasses.

Not only was Suharto, who died in 2008, never brought to justice for looting up to $35 billion from his country, his former party, Golkar, has at least three times over the last ten years called for the former tyrant to be officially declared a national hero. And far from being some shell for ancien regime apologists, Golkar is a mainstream player and a part of the government of President Joko Widodo. Further, Suharto’s ex son-in-law, the former special forces general Prabowo Subianto, may have lost to Widodo in 2014, but he is expected to be the chief challenger to the incumbent in next year’s presidential election. The family connection clearly does him no harm.

In the Philippines, meanwhile, Marcos has finally been granted the grotesque honour of being buried in the National Heroes’ Cemetery. His wife Imelda (she of the shoe collection) has repeatedly won election as a member of congress, the first time in 1995, less than a decade after she and her husband had to flee into exile. Marcos’s daughter Imee has been elected three times as governor of the family’s home province of Ilocos Norte, while her brother Ferdinand Marcos Junior, or “Bongbong”, as he is known, narrowly missed out on being elected vice president in 2016 (he is challenging the result) and is expected to run for the presidency in 2022.

In Singapore, the People’s Action Party (PAP) has never lost an election, while the city-state’s long-time leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was unapologetic about his rejection of liberal democracy. “I'm not guided by what Human Rights Watch says. I am not interested in ratings by Freedom House or whatever,” he told TIME magazine in 2005. His view, as outlined in a speech in Manila in 1992 (with variants on numerous previous occasions) was that: “Contrary to what American political commentators say, I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development.” And in 1987, there was the even more forthright: “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.” The PAP still won nearly 70 per cent of the vote at the last general election in 2015.

Thailand has had 19 attempted armed coups since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932, 12 of them successful. While democracy has always been restored, a shifting faction including (at various times) the armed forces, royalists, and the urban middle classes and elites have been happy to reject it when they feel threatened by what they perceive as populist politics–such as the succession of parties that have been vehicles for exiled leader Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, who have won every election held since 2001. As the Kyoto University academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun puts it: “When its interests come under threat from the lower rungs of society, the middle class switches to its preference of political exclusion…It only lends its support to democracy on its own conditional terms, earning the title of the ‘contingent class’.”

Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen has been prime minister ever since 1985. Human Rights Watch recently accused him of having become a “fully fledged military dictator.” It is no surprise that he won the 29 July 2018 election by a landslide after the Supreme Court conveniently dissolved the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party last November. Nevertheless, a former minister (not from Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party) recently estimated that he still has the support of around 50 per cent of the population–despite the excesses of which he stands accused.

There is little suggestion that many in Myanmar supported the disastrous “Burmese Way to Socialism” under which the military ruler General Ne Win impoverished his country from 1962-1988. The hybrid democracy, which the army conceded in 2015 and which allowed Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to come to power, could not accurately be described as wholly authoritarian (although perpetrating and denying ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya clearly denies it the title of “liberal). But “the Lady” herself has widely been accused of autocratic tendencies and has proved no friend of media freedom. Two Reuters reporters have, for instance, just been charged under the Official Secrets Act for receiving documents that were handed to them by the police just prior to their arrest. Suu Kyi is, however, undeniably the most popular politician in the country; and her original prominence stemmed entirely from being the daughter of a general–Aung San, the country’s liberation hero.

Lastly, India may be the world’s largest democracy, but there is precious little liberal about the Hindu nationalist BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has also been accused of authoritarianism. But his popularity remains high, and his party has regularly won state elections since he came to power in 2014, most recently in Karnataka this May.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has also been a strong history of majoritarianism rather than the privileging of individual rights in the region. As Professor Benjamin Reilly of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia has written: “The practice of democracy in Asia displays recurring commonalities, being state-preserving, developmental, majoritarian and consensus-based. The emphasis is less on the rights of man and even less on the rights of minorities. Similarly, judiciaries act as defenders of the state, not individual rights.”

Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, Malaysia’s current (and former) prime minister, gave me an explicit justification for bending to the shifting view of a majority of the population when I interviewed him in 2010. “We have decided to become a democratic country, we have to be sensitive to the majority,” he said. If “the majority feels that it is wrong…we have to accept, otherwise we go against them and we lose.” One example he provided concerned whether female members of UMNO, the Malay political party he once led, should wear the headscarf or not. “Before, the UMNO ladies did not cover their heads. But PAS ladies [from Malaysia’s Islamist party] covered their heads and PAS made this a big issue. You don’t cover your head then you are not quite a good Muslim. If the UMNO ladies did not cover their head they stand a chance of undermining the popularity of the party. So they put on the headscarves. What’s wrong with that?” Rather than suggesting that UMNO should stand firm for the right of its “ladies” not to have to wear headscarves, Dr Mahathir was content to say that the majority “hold the trump card, they have the vote.”

This in itself stands completely at odds with the notion–much treasured by Western liberal democracies–of human rights as being timeless, universal and non-contingent. But Dr Mahathir was more concerned with the collective. “There is a big difference,” he told me, “because you place so much value on individuals’ rights that you forget that the majority also has its right. The majority is actually made up of individuals. We have to protect their rights also. So if a person does something that is objected to by the majority, you cannot say ‘well, he does it because it is his right’.”

At its harshest this majoritarianism manifests itself in Myanmar in the refusal to grant citizenship to the Rohingya, a community that has been in the country for decades, if not centuries, and whom government supporters insist on calling “Bengali” instead. “India has its ‘untouchables’,” commented the French political scientist Dominique Moisi, “now Myanmar, with the Rohingya, has its ‘unnamables’.” There is likewise such widespread acceptance of anti-Muslim prejudice in the country that Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD refused to field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 regional and national elections.

At a different level, this majoritarian preference for the collective also influences the management of pluralism in what are often very diverse societies. Article 29 (2) of the Indonesian constitution, for instance, says that: “The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief.” But the government only recognises six religions–Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism–while Article 29 (1) apparently restricts matters further by saying that “The State shall be based upon the belief in the One and Only God.”

Both Singapore and Malaysia are multi-racial countries with mostly harmonious (or at least non-violent) relations between the communities. This peace is greatly prized given their respective histories of racial riots; but it is maintained partly through the occasional use of various laws with vague and open-ended provisions that would be considered far too restrictive in liberal democracies.

Proponents of the “Asian Values” argument–notably Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Mahathir and the Singaporean academic K