For the past half century, East Asia has been a crucible of change demanding global attention because of its promise. Most notably, countries in northeast and southeast Asia have posted high rates of economic growth for decades. And for most of this period, East Asia has also enjoyed peace and stability. As a region, East Asia has been the home of several “miracle” economies and still holds the greatest promise for growth despite volatile phases of the global economy. But what about the politics?

After the economic rise of post-imperial Japan came the rise of the Asian tiger economies, followed by China’s. The surging regional “tide” also lifted the economic fortunes of the other “boats” of neighbouring countries. However, only in Japan did economic transformation follow political transformation, as industrialisation and national development progressively built on a postwar democracy that displaced the militarism of Imperial Japan.

The thought of prioritising economic over political change encouraged optimistic democrats to presume that economic development must be followed by greater democratisation. One result has been a debate of sorts about the potential for genuine democratisation in Southeast Asian countries. How real, how deep and how sustainable have political reforms in this direction, if any, been for Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines?

For just over six decades since independence, Malaysia had six prime ministers until May 2018. However, these had all been of the same coalition of parties dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – the Alliance, later the Barisan Nasional (BN) – with an outlook, priorities, style and habits remaining very much the same, leadership personalities aside. Reforms had been discussed, deliberated upon and some even attempted, but these were all within the parameters permitted and limits provided by the governing coalition of parties that had never lost a general election. Was this necessarily acceptable or desirable?

The governing BN coalition seemed invincible such that any signi cant challenge could come only from within. And that happened, twice, in the 1980s and the 1990s: Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s faction of UMNO broke off with a chunk of the cabinet; then Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s faction followed a decade later, splitting UMNO’s rank and file. However, in both instances, the UMNO and BN mainstreams held sway, as Razaleigh’s and Anwar’s moves were seen as somewhat personal or marginal, despite their founding of new political parties.

Nonetheless, if these party dissidents’ defeats boosted the UMNO and BN mainstreams’ esteem, it would emerge as false confidence. Two generations of UMNO/ BN’s tenure built on business-as-usual patronage would also eat into its electoral foundations quite decisively. By 10 May 2018, a new federal government was in place, after the 14th General Election (GE14) the day before. Suddenly, new questions came to the fore: how real, how deep and how sustainable can reform in Malaysia now be?

After this formal political change post- GE14, a narrative of sorts had developed that social and political changes in Malaysia would somehow carry over into Singapore. A contagion effect is assumed, apparently, because a sociopolitical umbilical cord is presumed to connect the city state with the “hinterland” that is Malaysia of which it had been a part. However, the political dynamics, demographics, inter-communal relations and societal concerns – all factors so vital in Malaysian politics and the GE14 results – are too different between the two countries. Even the social milieu between Malaysia and Singapore is different enough after more than half a century of separation. If and when Singapore undergoes a similar change, it is more likely to be for reasons quite of its own.

Another neighbouring country often compared with Malaysia is Indonesia. It was here that the cries of Reformasi (reform) against the decades-old autocracy of General Suharto were born in the late-1990s. Anwar’s attempt to import Reformasi from Indonesia proved unsuccessful for years. When GE14 finally came to Malaysia precisely two decades later, the change was for reasons quite unrelated to Indonesia’s. There can be no clearer indication that Malaysians moved for change on their own, in their own time and for their own reasons, rather than from any contagion effect from another country.

That testifies to the limited impact of Indonesia’s reforms on a neighbouring nation. Some analysts argue that Reformasi has had limited impact in Indonesia itself. Pratono Iskandar, for example, finds that it had merely moved Indonesia towards an electoral democracy and failed to deliver the promised liberal democracy. Indonesia now has regular general elections in which results are respected, but arguably little more than that. The old elites are very much in place, patronage politics remain alive and well, ethnicity and religion are still manipulated for undeclared political reasons and the military is still a political force – plus a growth in Islamist politics.

Indonesia’s reform process is said to have begun in the late-1990s with financial instability, the loss of confidence in the state, political challenges, soaring prices, public dissent, racial clashes, economic collapse, refusal of the army to crush the protests and the fall of the Suharto government in May 1998. The post-Suharto era has seen a growth of democratic institutions, but their scope and achievements remain limited. Hopeful reformists have been disappointed by the growing inertia overcoming the momentum for change, even when much of the promised change had yet to be seen.

There have been some changes since 1998, compared to the Suharto and Sukarno eras. But democratic prerogatives in the status quo post-1998 do not differ significantly from Malaysia’s pre-GE14. Malaysian electoral democracy was established instead of a liberal democracy upon independence in 1957, resulting from a political evolution different from Indonesia’s. The general slowing of the impetus for change is a universal phenomenon, but what is localised to each country is the extent to which reform is realisable. It may not be helpful therefore to gauge a country’s propensity for reform by comparing it directly with that of another country.

The example of Myanmar is unique if nothing else. For decades, the image of a lone, defiant and ultimately victorious Aung San Suu Kyi standing courageously against the might of a brutal military machine was etched into the world’s consciousness. Countless and nameless others, all patriotic Myanmars, had suffered in seclusion and perished at the hands of the ruthless Tatmadaw before the 2015 election that signalled her political ascendancy – and after 2015. It was an election that turned the tide only if “the tide” was Suu Kyi’s last credible attempt to establish democracy in Myanmar.

Her turnaround was so swift and complete that if her conversion was not a disappointment, it could only have been premeditated. The military’s power is effectively undiminished, it still controls key ministries and makes the important decisions, and Suu Kyi’s administration has come to know better than to challenge or even question it on the big issues. Legions of her cheerleaders around the world have been shocked at her being turned by Myanmar’s deep state, which appeared to embrace her campaign in 2015 only to devour her and spit her out as its most eloquent frontwoman. There can be no real measure of a maturing Myanmar democracy when it was strangled at birth, denied even an infancy. But somewhere deep in the bowels of the nation it may still be struggling to be born.

Possibly the region’s most celebrated opportunity for reform was the Philippines’ “People Power (or EDSA) Revolution” of February 1986. In November 1985, President Ferdinand Marcos called a snap election after 21 years of increasingly autocratic and violent rule. Three major factors shaped the conduct and aftermath of the election, underlining the uniqueness of the situation as well as the universality of some of its features and themes. These were the election itself, the action of key government officials and institutions, and the role of civil society groups including the Catholic church and the people themselves. When Marcos abruptly called the election, he was confident of victory. What he did not expect was the depth of abhorrence to the long years of his corrupt excesses and violent abuses, including the 1983 murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. Public revulsion at Marcos’ rule meant that the election became the trigger point for massive, non-violent protests in Manila that turned the tables on his plans for continued rule. The count by the government COMELEC (Commission on Elections) went to Marcos as expected, differing with that of the private NAMFREL (National Movement for Free Elections), which went to the slain Aquino’s widow Corazon (Cory) as chief opposition presidential candidate.

During the election campaign, the spate of violence and killings of oppositionists implicating the government added to public revulsion. It seemed that for the Marcos regime to retain power, full-scale repression was needed because poll fraud alone would not suffice. In reality, perceptions of the regime by then had dropped so much in public opinion at home and abroad

that greater repression would only have accelerated its collapse. The idea of a mass-based popular democracy was on the march and its time had come.

Out on the streets, civilians marched peacefully to the presidential palace demanding Marcos’ ouster, flanked by civil society groups and influential Catholic church leaders. As images of massive crowds braving armed soldiers and tanks ashed around the world, Enrile and Philippine Constabulary chief General Fidel Ramos emerged to join the protesters – and the Marcos era was over. Popular will, buoyed by civil society institutions amid the collapse of repressive state institutions, dangled the promise of a grassroots democracy.

The scale and spontaneity of the popular revolt proved too formidable for the faltering state to counter. Less visible, but no less decisive, was support for Cory Aquino’s opposition forces from Philippine elites based typically in such cosy enclaves as Manila’s Greenhills and Makati business district.

Aquino’s presidency enjoyed a honeymoon period of innocent hope and gushing goodwill before tough enduring realities re-emerged. Among the most pressing issues was land reform (access to cultivable land), and Aquino had pledged to give her vast family estate Hacienda Luisita to the landless. That unnerved elite members of the extended family and the business community in general.

Talk of her inexperience and naivety during the election campaign now resurfaced. There were repeated coup attempts against her government. She had as many as 50 advisers, but ultimately elite interests would hold sway. A generation later, most of Hacienda Luisita – as a symbol of reform possibilities – remains in elite private hands; land reform is still urgent across the country and traces of padrino (patronage) linger in society.

One can never be presumptuous in any democracy because actions and circumstances in the supposed public interest – and which invite public responses through the vote – can still determine outcomes. In many parts of the developing world, an upset through the popular vote, as witnessed in Malaysia’s GE14, would have been accompanied by widespread violence or martial law. Yet none of this happened in Malaysia – what subsequently occurred was the duly peaceful transfer of power in accordance with the Federal Constitution.

The country’s institutions pertaining to governance and the state had been tested like never before and they passed. They held when it mattered most. This is highly significant because it is the ultimate test of a mature democracy and a definitive distinction as a modern developed country. Some countries may have achieved better economic development than Malaysia, but unless and until they have also proven capable of a peaceful and constitutional transfer of power, they may not have achieved a fully developed status. There is an implicit recognition that a country’s social, political and security institutions matter as essential measures of development, as its capacity to achieve it and as the means of delivering it.

In the ultimate analysis, citizens in a democracy vote not just for one party over another, but for a system of democratic governance and accountability that truly serves the larger public interest. The least such a system can provide is the opportunity for people to vote out a bad or disappointing government as well as vote in a promising one with a chance to prove how good or better it can be. For Malaysia today as elsewhere, one electoral term is all it gets to prove that. This test has begun, and the results so far have been more patchy than consistent.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy and Security Studies, ISIS  Malaysia

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