Democracy and Authoritarianism in Asia

By Stephanie Heng

May 10th was a monumental day in Malaysia’s history as Tun Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as its new Prime Minister. Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition trumped Barisan Nasional (BN), marking the first time since Malaysia’s independence in 1957 that there is a transfer of power. Liberals are rejoicing, and many deem it as a triumph for democracy in a region long beleaguered by authoritarianism.

But Malaysia’s case is the exception, not the norm, when considering regional trends. Net democratic progress has steadily declined in recent years. The Economic Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) 2017 Democracy Index seems to concur with this perspective, as it concluded that – of all regions – the Asia Pacific experienced the biggest decline in measures of democracy in 2017.

In Cambodia, the prime minister has imposed severe crackdowns on political dissidents and the closure of the last independent newspaper does not bode well for the liberals in the upcoming general elections.

Notorious President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines declared Martial Law in 2017 and announced an extension for another year. The Philippines police also carried out extrajudicial killings as part of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. Duterte’s attitude towards press freedom is hardly encouraging either.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, once the darling of the Western world, has been increasingly criticised over her inaction with regard to the Rohingya Refugee crisis, which sees the killing and forced exile of the Rohingya Muslims. Moreover, in January 2018, draconian laws were invoked against Reuters’ journalists who reported on the military’s operation in the Rakhine state. 

It is clear that democratic developments have been hardly positive in the region.

Nonetheless, an alternate perspective should be explored. Normative political theory often assumes that democracies enjoy greater political legitimacy than authoritarian regimes and that the former is preferred. This approach, however, has deterministic tendencies and assumes universal goals and processes.

Let us be clear here: by no means are oppressive regimes to be condoned. The authoritarian tendencies demonstrated by the above-mentioned states have been cruel, compromised societal stability, and perpetuates human rights abuses. Rather, it must be understood that certain authoritarian influences and legacies have at times proven to be a stabilising force in the present day for some states, while states labelled as democracies have struggled.

Vietnam, for instance, enjoys comparative present-day stability versus the countries with democratic appearances (such as the Philippines and Indonesia). This is largely due to its strong maintenance of political legitimacy, through its ideology of nationalism and effective governance.

The soft authoritarianism and ‘Asian style democracy’ model of Singapore is another illustration. Singapore has often been called the Asian miracle of South-east Asia. After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the ‘good governance’ discourse justified the continuation of authoritarian tendencies, based on the better performances of the soft-authoritarian regimes compared to problematic democracies.

Interestingly, while the political legitimacy of Singapore’s soft authoritarianism has been increasingly questioned over the past few years, it still demonstrates the durability of an electorally legitimised authoritarian regime. Singapore’s transition from hegemonic to competitive authoritarianism is suggestive of the regime’s responsiveness towards the development of democratic tendencies in its population, seen from the success of the 2011 elections, and the consequent inclusion of opposition parties. While progress towards freedom of speech in Singapore is limited and slow, it is undeniable that there is relative socio-political stability. Therefore, authoritarian influences have the potential to become a stabilising force, should states achieve and maintain performance legitimacy.

This points to an important lesson for Malaysia. Malaysia is now lauded as a beacon of democratic hope in Southeast Asia. I would suggest that Malaysia does have the structural framework of a democracy and it is encouraging that the people have exercised their right to vote. But we should not rejoice too soon; what happens next is crucial, as to whether the liberals can turn their ideals into reality, without succumbing to the pitfalls and abuse of power several modern democracies seem to face today (America’s strongman democracy being a key example).

While we celebrate our achievements, we should also look towards preventing abuses of democracy in Malaysia. Only then can Malaysia fulfil its potential of becoming a shining example of a healthy and open democracy in Asia.

Photograph ‘Jorge Lascar’ via Flickr

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