An old Chinese proverb says that wealth does not pass three generations. The first generation works hard to establish the family fortune the second, still has a knowledge of hard times, but has learned the skills will maintain it, and the third, often made up by kids spoiled by the wealth they grew up in, will waste it. A study by Merill Lynch endorses this view. The study “found that, in two out of three cases, family wealth did not outlive the generation following the one that created it. In 90 per cent of cases, it was exhausted by the end of the third generation.” Besides kids being spoiled by their wealthy parents, the decline can as well be due to the larger number of persons to inherit the wealth and often conflicts between them. In Southeast Asia most of the large enterprises and tycoons are family based. Family relations do play a role in politics as well, and often political families are connected to tycoon families based on intermarriage. Thus, does this curse apply for Southeast Asian elites as well?

A generation is commonly estimated between 30 to 36 years. It depends on live expectancy, age of marriage and birth of children as well as when people reach their working life and retire. Instead of a chronological view of generations, Mannheim (1928) speaks of experiences shared by a generation. Generation is a loose assembly of persons in a similar age cohort. They share similar perspectives based on similar experiences. However, crucial is not only the experience as such, but its interpretation in common frames.

Generations in Southeast Asia

Taking the chronological approach as starting point, and using the present as initial period of the third generation, the first generation would cover the time form the 1940th to the 1970th, the second the period roughly from the 1970 to around 2000. Are there any important transformation of society, politics and the economy and cultural interpretations of these that might be interpreted as “generational experiences”?

The first generation or the formation of a post-colonial elite

Certainly the most important experience of this generation was the second world war, the struggle for independence and the creation of the new countries. In Thailand instead of the independence struggle, the end of the absolute monarchy can be taken. This period was characterized by far reaching transformations and shifts of elites. The colonial masters dominating the bureaucracy left which allowed for the rise of new groups entering into these positions. As the main framework of integration of the countries was changed, different groups started to compete to set up a new framework and to establish themselves as dominant. Typically in such a situation of loose integration of society (including politics and economy) charismatic authority becomes most relevant. In fact, when we look at Southeast Asia for this periode, we have charismatic leaders like Sukarno, Ho Chih Minh and Giap. Pridi Panomyong and Phibul Songkran, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Aung San, U Nu and Ne Win.

A crucial factor in the competition between multiple different groups and persons to gain dominance and form the newly rising elite, was the ability to organize and set up working networks. In this the military and state bureaucracy was favoured, as both implicitly require a high level of organisational integration. In the economic field to achieve such an organisational level was more difficult. A way out was to ally and develop closer relations to the bureaucratic/military leaders. A special case are communist parties, grown from the resistance against the Japanese occupation and the struggle for independence. Not the least due to their military experiences these were well organized too.

In Indonesia during the Sukarno period we have a competition and fight between the communist party (PKI) and the military, which was ended with the victory of the military in 1965 by Soeharto. In Myanmar we have well organized separatist and communist movements that were pushed back when the military took over under Ne Win in 1962. In Malaysia we have a combination of the emergency, confrontasi, Singapore being part of Malaysia and leaving Malaysia, and quite strong leftist parties. There the state bureaucracy maintained its power and organisational strength, and the political dominance of the sultans remained undisputed. However, competition related to ethnicity gained in importance. Existing ethnic based organisations became relevant like the parties, networks etc. This culminated in the race riots of 1969 that lead to the end of the government of Tunku Abdul Rahman. In Thailand we have the competition between the civilian and military faction of the revolutionary group and the aristocracy. After the failed Bovoradej revolt, the junior military faction with Phibul Sonmgkran became strong. After the second world war, the military lost its power, while the civilian faction in combination with the aristocracy gained in strength. Finally, with the coup of 1957 and 1958 Sarit and the military established themselves as dominant power.

An interesting aspect of changes during this first generation is the shift from charismatic leaders to bureaucratic or in the case of Malaysia political leaders roughly during the sixtieth, starting with the substitution of Phibul by Sarit in 1958, the turmoil in Indonesia in 1965, the substitution of Ho Chi Minh and Giap by Le Duan and Le Duc Tho in 1965, the coup of Ne Win in 1962, the race riots in 1969 and the coup of Lon Nol against Sihanoug in 1970.

The period up to the sixtieth is characterized by competition, and instability due to a low level of social integration. In the competition between the different groups, individual success be it in terms of which faction within the military becomes dominant or what business gets stronger, personal relations combing economy (business) administration/military were crucial for success. After the sixtieth stabilization set in when the new post-colonial elite as a combination of Tycoon business, high ranking bureaucrats and military established itself.

This transformation is accompanied by an interesting ideological shift. The main ideology after independence (or the end of absolutist monarchy) was modernization, and modernization basically meant to become like the west, with proper nation states, industries, social welfare systems etc. Unfortunately, the policies of modernization did not fulfil the promises, but lead in Indonesia, Thailand and Burma to economic and political crisis. The end of the charismatic leaders required a new ideology of the post-colonial elites. This was the construction of a pre-colonial culture and traditions. A better future should be achieved by a re-vitalization of these traditions. Such a shift of ideology required intellectuals as interpretators of culture to define what the genuine culture was, before alienation from colonialism and western influences set in. In Thailand Kurkit Pramote can be cited as example. These intellectuals soon associated and became part of the new elite. In short, the ideology of modernization for a better future was substituted by forms of neo-feudal ideologies.

The second generation or the economic miracle (with a focus on Thailand and Malaysia)

The first generation depended on personal ties and links between business and bureaucracy/military. The bureaucracy provided licences and monopolies as basis for economic success, while business provided the resources necessary to finance clientelist networks within the bureaucracy. The main problem was that any change like f.e. through a coup meant that new relations had to be established. This arbitrariness was dysfunctional for business as well as for bureaucratic efficiency and lasting political stability. But, economic growth was necessary to satisfy increasing demands. Furthermore, the first generation was getting older and the world was changing. In addition, the ideologies were quite in contrast to political processes.

In Thailand the dominance of the military faction around Kirttikachorn (after the death of Sarit) lead to dissatisfaction by other military groups. The power of the military and its involvement in the economy was a problem for business, and the attempts of the middle classes for advancement were frustrated. These formed part of the background for the student protests (basically a middle class protest movement) in 1973. Malaysia followed an open economic policy to attract investment for further economic growth. Burma is a different case, with its policy of isolation. The new policies required new skills for business and administration.

The second generation, or the “children of the revolution” n the double sense that they were the children of those who had made the revolution, and they themselves pushed forward a form of radical change through protest etc. In difference to many of the first generation, the children had a good education. Especially the children of the elites studied abroad and became professionals. In general, after a period of instability, we have strong technocratic, professional developments. In Thailand the generational change was longer and accompanied by instability until the coup of Kriangsak 1977 and in particular the start of the governments of Prem Tinsulanond. In Malaysia since 1969 we have quite a few elections and changing prime ministers, until Mahathir. The governments of Mahathir (1981 – 2003) and Prem (1980 – 1988) were based on a technocratic, professional approach. The success of these policies became obvious especially in the ninetieth and the Southeast Asian economic miracle.

For the second generation the personal ties that were the base for success of the first generation were still of relevance, but the common technocratic, professional orientation among those now in business and the administration provided a far more sustainable form of articulation and integration as an elite. Again we have a shift of ideology. The pre-colonial traditions were maintained as “Asian values”, which were interpreted as the base for economic success and Asian modernization. Economic growth in turn allowed for social mobility and consumerism as values for the middle classes. (the study of Kanokrat of the “Octobrists” dealing with a quite large segment of the “children of the revolution” is very interesting in this context)

In terms of generational experience and generational culture, for the second generation the “revolution” that is studying and protesting in the seventieth were crucial. These were part of academic studies to gain professional knowledge and technocratic competence.

The third generation or from the Asia-crisis to a system crisis

The elites survived the Asia-crisis surprisingly well. Although in Indonesia Soeharto had to resign, his children and the Tycoons could maintain their property. In Malaysia Anwar tried to use the crisis for a shift from Mahathir to him as real (not only as acting) prime minister. This however would have meant that his cronies gain. However, Mahathir won the struggle and Anwar went to jail. In Thailand Chavalit had to resign and Chuan Leekpai faced the task to handle the crisis in such a way that the elite could survive it with limited losses, and to keep the farmers etc. at bay. The ability of the second generation elite to survive the crisis is an indicator of their success and strength. However, parts of the ideology were now challenged, not the least because the future perspectives of the rising middle classes got frustrated. F.e. Asian values were hardly mentioned anymore. Instead, cultural traits (Thainess or Islam) became prominent.

There is an important difference between politics and the elite in Thailand and Malaysia. In Malaysia, politicians are representatives of the elite and thus elite decisions are formulated as decisions of politicians. In short, in Malaysia political decisions concerning the future of the country are made by politicians. In Thailand, in contrast, politicians hardly make political decisions. Throujgh the military, economic power, bureaucrats and courts, as well as intellectuals important political decisions are made by the elite. If any important political decision is planned by politicians in parliament, we hear about the military contemplating a coup, the courts making it clear that such a decision is against the law and the intellectuals noting that it is in contrast to Thai culture, and finally the administrations showing it unwillingness to implement it.

In Malaysia the conflict centred on who will be prime minister and what parties form the government. Although Mahathir could, based on his long experience, manage to maintain the power of the elite, the elections indicated that their power is declining. The opposition, although quite a motley crue reaching from PAS to DAP, was able to attract surprising high numbers of voters. In terms of ideology the cultural campaigns, not mainly centred around Islam as indicator of Malayness were boosted, but the result is ambiguous, as many regard the governing parties (Barisan Nasional) not as genuine upholders of religion.

In Thailand the tensions are most strongly expressed. Chuan was facing strong opposition and demands from middle classes as well as peoples groups like the forum of the poor. Thaksin, as representative of the successful secondary elite of new business men, was regarded as a better choice to provide stability. Thaksin was successful. With his popular policies to help the poor and the farmers, not the least influenced by the second generation, he received their support. The middle classes were happy as he tried to solve problems like drugs etc. in a CEO-manner. As a result he was re-elected with a 60% majority in 2005. After this success, Thaksin tried to change the system in the sense that now political decisions should be made by politicians, which for him meant basically by himself. This was, of course, a problem for the elites. They faced though a problem: If they try to compete with Thaksin through elections with f.e. the Democrat Party, they implicitly endorse the political power of politicians, which is against their inherent interests. Thus, the only way out was a coup. This happened in 2006 and 2014. However, even though the current powers can hardly be challenged, it was accompanied by a big loss of legitimacy.

The current problem is that the countries are facing a generational change. The second generation of the elite, the modern technocrats who could manage quite well, even during the crisis, has to, sooner or later, hand over to their children. Do they have the necessary skills, and can they compete with rising new challengers?

Ruediger Korff works at the Department for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Passau