The Southeast Asian nations were the original Tiger economies. Their export-led economic growth was held up as a model for all developing nations. There was only one missing piece in their national jigsaw: all were one-party or one-junta polities.
The argument that was made then was that after they reached a certain income bracket, political reforms would follow. Spurious political science was synthesised to argue “Asian values” differed from western ones, that Asians were less interested in political rights than economic goodies. This was particularly important to China whose one-party system saw a means to legitimise repression with vibrant economic growth.
The recent experience of Southeast Asia, however, indicates that much-delayed political reforms are now being demanded — and many of these countries are feeling the pain of lacking legitimate political institutions and structures to handle these demands.
This has been underlined by the recent election results in Thailand where an opposition coalition now has three-fifths of parliament’s seats. The Bangkok-based establishment has been the main beneficiary of the country’s economic boom. The assumption was that this economic growth would paper over the resentments of Thailand’s poorer south and west. Instead, over the past few years, the establishment has used military arm-twisting, royal diktat and a faked territorial dispute with Cambodia to keep the opposition out of power. None of this stopped Yingluck Shinawatra from sweeping the polls. Even Singapore, the world’s most intelligent one-party system, saw the ruling People’s Action Party experience its worst election result since 1965 thanks to a working class revolt against ruling party arrogance. Malaysia’s one-party system is representative but illiberal towards its minorities.
The Southeast Asian country that has made the most ambitious push to genuine democracy has been the largest and most multicultural, Indonesia. But it is experiencing a large number of teething problems.
Storm clouds can be seen as far as the eye can see in Southeast Asia’s most successful economies. And the turbulence is almost solely political in origin. The problem with having put democracy on hold is that when the good times no longer roll, carrying out such reforms is even more difficult than normal. South Asian countries, except Pakistan, have bitten the political bullet first and have only begun tackling the economic questions now.
The result has been a broad political consensus: for all the noise and commotion, there is little debate as to the structure of government and sources of legitimacy in these polities. Southeast Asia, in the coming years, will have to show whether it can build such a consensus without sacrificing the economic gains of the past decades or slipping into political chaos.