Democratization in Southeast Asia: Insights from Democracy Report 2023

Democratization in Southeast Asia: Insights from Democracy Report 2023

by Simone Galimberti

The latest edition of the Democracy Report 2023 published by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute is once again a sober reminder of the status of democracy around the world.

Yet, as its thematic title, “Defiance in the Face of Autocratization” might suggest, there is hope that the trend can buck the slide towards more and more illiberal democracies and totalitarian regimes.

Indeed Chapter 4 focuses on nations that are able to change track and reverse their democratic backsliding. These are nations from both the South of the World, Bolivia, Ecuador, Maldives, Zambia and from the so-called North, Slovenia, and South Korea, but the case studies also revolve around nations in the between, fragile and small countries with enormous social, economic and ethnic challenges like Moldova, North Macedonia.

In relation to the Asia Pacific, four of the countries that have been democratizing since 2012 are in the Asia-Pacific region: Fiji, Malaysia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka”.

Unfortunately, the glass is truly almost empty for the rest of the region as the report explains, “Again, more than twice as many – nine countries – have declined substantially: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, The Philippines, and Thailand.

With a number of elections, of which several partially flawed or completely bogus, coming up in South East Asia, it’s worth reflecting on South East Asia, a region that has always perceived democracy more like a drag rather than a propeller to its economic expansion.

After all, in the report, there were no major surprises here if not the confirmation that Timor-Leste, despite its struggles to create a more equitable and just nation, remains a “point of light” amid a lot of democratic mediocrity and a sea of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian nations.

To start with, the citizens and especially the youths of Thailand, certainly do not lack an eagerness and boldness for a major opening of the political space.

This could be a very real outcome that might be at hand from the upcoming parliamentary elections, even though such development could open up the possibility of a return to a volatile and fragile past fraught with extreme political polarization and the real possibility of confrontations among the parties.

We did not need to wait for the 27-year jail sentence of opposition leader Kem Sokha to confirm that Cambodia is a lost cause and that the general election in July will once again be manipulated and rigged to confirm the regime in power.

I would not totally discount Brunei and its democratization prospects for a slow and very gradual political opening up, and perhaps this tiny nation could unveil some surprises in the medium term.

Worryingly, even Indonesia, once considered a beacon for liberalism and freedoms in the region, is a considerably weaker democracy now.

The status of democracy there can even considerably get worst if the current Defense Minister and Army Lieutenant General Probowo Subinanto wins the presidential election in 2024.

Perhaps it is too early to express a final judgment in the early months of the presidency of President Marcos Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr in the Philippines but his administration could surprise the international community, especially now that it crossed, once again, the Rubicon, with a strategic reproachment to the USA.

Setting aside Viet Nam, Laos and tragically Myanmar, Malaysia with Prime Minister Anwar is laying the foundations for a political system that is less corrupted and more transparent and better able to deliver for the people.

Though local elections are not in the pipeline any time soon, the democratic credentials that the Anwar administration is slowly creating might truly be a linchpin for a real bottom-up governance renewal.

Singapore remains a unique case study with a party in power since independence that has been dominating the political space and still finds it difficult to accept the idea of having to deal with a weak and tiny but rather tenacious and, most annoyingly, “official” opposition.

It is worth making some more considerations about Singapore, the nation where the term governance is often interchangeably used to describe a system that is considered a worldwide benchmark for effective and efficient delivery.

Yet the recent parliamentary debate about public housing that saw a tight back and forth between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Workers’ Party in its capacity of official opposition proved that a check on the governing party, notwithstanding its solid grip on power, can be healthy and useful.

The fact that the opposition is slowly coming out of age in the island nation is probably symptomatic of an era that is slowly changing.

After all, out of an imperative of remaining a cohesive and united society and despite the fact that the “self-reliance” mantra remains the key cornerstone of PAP’s governance model, Singapore is slowly emerging as a more “human” and less selfish society.

This is a process that, even if it might be called paternalistic and top-down, is guided by a domineering party that, finally, realized that the principle of personal responsibility, itself a pillar of the nation’s governing philosophy, alone, is not enough and people need help.

Can a government that at least is trying its best to meet the increasing social and economic needs of its people keep ignoring another type of more intangible need that the whole society, rather than the elite in power, might seriously start longing for?

In its constant pursuit of a better and (more equal) Singapore that, the PAP might have now to come to terms with the fact the opening of closed and contested political spaces cannot be an irritant or speedbump to its development but rather a win -win for the whole society.

Perhaps even unconsciously, the PAP leadership realized this inevitable change at the societal level but it is still dragging its feet and remains in a state of denial, avoiding to see a reality slowly emerging.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrance Wong understood the importance of listening to the people’s concerns with its Singapore Forward exercise, where he regularly meets his compatriots and discusses the most pressing issues they face.

In his speech inaugurating this initiative on 28 June 2022, he said:

“How can we do more to equip and empower our people, whatever their starting point in life, and ensure everyone is able to maximize their potential? How can we as a society better assure Singaporeans and better care for their needs in this volatile and unpredictable world? “

Would DPM Wong contemplate that genuine people’s empowerment cannot happen unless a stronger set of freedoms and liberties are also granted to them or that for the citizens to be able to maximize their potentials, “certain” other conditions that, as per now are rather inexistant in Singapore, should also be in place?

In enabling a more conducive environment for a truly free exchange of ideas and opinions, especially those which different from the prevailing national narratives, Singapore can find its own model and certainly learn from what’s going on in the West on how not to fall in a continuous cycle of polarization and acrimonies.

It will also be up to a less fragmented and too fragile opposition, including the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), the other party represented in the PAP-dominated parliament and up to numerous tiny parties unable to win any representation in the parliament, to be able to put forward a more unified vision for a different Singapore.

Most importantly, it is up to the youths of Singapore to start becoming more assertive of their rights, including those not yet granted to them.

They need to claim space for genuine dissent and criticism that, no matter how constitutional and constructive is going to be, is going to annoy those in power inevitably.

In Tokyo last year, Singapore Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong said at Nikkei’s Future of Asia conference last May that the political system in Singapore “cannot be reinvented but it can be improved”.

It’s high time that the bricks for such “modernization” process started, and one way of them could be for the Singapore Forward exercise to start also dealing with political and freedoms rights, including the role of parties in the society.

Complementary to it, discussions should be held on the potential that deliberative, bottom-up democracy can play in upgrading the “system”, a system that could fit well the unique features of Singapore and could also suit the PAP in terms of ensuring a less “feared” opening up.

A group of independent experts from the academia and civil society, for example, could also be encouraged to formulate new options for a more open Singapore.

Meanwhile, once again, just in a few months from now, Timor-Leste will again prove its democratic credentials, and all the rest of the region should learn from it.

Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.

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