Larry Diamond, founding co-editor of Journal of Democracy and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, argues in a recent article that East Asia, including China, will become democratic within a generation. Diamond’s optimism is underpinned by his conviction in modernisation theory, which regards economic development, a more educated society and higher incomes as key indicators for further democratisation. Southeast Asia’s current authoritarian regimes[1] — Singapore, Burma, and Malaysia — are either facing greater challenges to their rule or embarking on political liberalisation, while the “oscillating states,” the Philippines and Thailand are currently electoral democracies. Indonesia, as a new democracy has performed better than most experts had anticipated. Diamond also resorts to the “political culture” argument by referencing public opinion surveys as an indication for growing support for democracy in the region.

For this article, we asked young scholars[2] from Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia to reflect on the future of democracy in the next generation. We hope New Mandala readers can join in this discussion and share your views, particularly on countries not covered in this piece.

Netina Tan on Singapore

Diamond is rather too optimistic with regards to Singapore’s prospect for democratisation. First, Singapore remains an outlier when it comes to modernisation theory. Growth rates, by themselves, do not explain or predict the mass support for the hegemonic party regime. For example, in 2001, the PAP gained a high of 75.3% of the total vote despite a negative growth rate. On the other hand, the party’s vote share dipped to a historic low of 60.1% in 2011 after recording phenomenal growth of 14.5% (2010) and 5.3% (2011).

Secondly, the lack of a credible replacement is a concern in Singapore. As Adam Przeworski once said: “If the belief in the legitimacy of the regime collapses and no alternative is organized, individuals have no choice.”[3] Social media and changing demography have endeared the younger and more educated Singaporeans to the opposition. That being said, the opposition have only 6 seats in Parliament and most of the opposition parties remain personality driven, uninstitutionalised and resource-poor. Without a credible alternative, there is no choice for the electorate but to vote for the incumbent.

The imminent death of Lee Kuan Yew will signify the end of the strongman era and global economic uncertainties will increase pressures for accountability. But whether the pressures will translate to party alternation, is another question that deserves further study.

Aries A. Arugay on the Philippines

While Diamond lauded the resilience of the Philippines as an electoral democracy, he is correct to point out that there are lingering challenges in the quality of other dimensions such as accountability and the rule of law. Diamond’s positive appraisal of the future of the Philippines’ democracy is apparently attributed to the successful election of Benigno Aquino III to the presidency in 2010 as it signified a “return” to democracy. Aquino’s promise was to get rid of rampant corruption but rather than casting a wide net, its attention and resources were devoted to prosecuting officials of the past administration. Such selective accountability bias has led the legislature to hastily initiate impeachment proceedings against the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a perceived close ally of past president Gloria Arroyo, for instance.

The current government is mobilising existing networks of patronage, engaging in horse-trading, and displaying a willingness to shield allies against prosecution for offenses that are similar to those they accuse the past government of committing. A potential clash between the executive and judiciary might be on the horizon, something that the current government does not recognise as further eroding the country’s already weak democratic institutions. In the end, the devil is indeed in the detail and while the big picture seems rosy and promising, a closer look would reveal that as far as the Philippines is concerned, it’s (bad) politics as usual.

Mei Li Siaw on Malaysia

Diamond is right to highlight the crucial role of social media in facilitating the challenges to UMNO’s dominance in Malaysia. Last year’s strong nationwide turnout at the BERSIH 2.0 rally for electoral reform and the more recent controversy over alleged abuse of public funds by family members of UMNO leaders are clear indications that the Malaysian public is demanding both greater accountability from its leaders and a more transparent electoral system. None of these developments would have occurred at such scale, however, without new media, since mainstream press and broadcast channels remain under the control and censorship of the Barisan Nasional federal government and private sector associates.

That said, Election Commission obfuscation and persistent reports of phantom voters and other electoral irregularities remind clean election activists that the road ahead is a steep uphill climb. Meanwhile, religious and racial issues are frequently harped upon by groups friendly to UMNO, ostensibly to worry the Malay-Muslim majority into closing ranks against the more ethnically diverse Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition.

Thus, whilst the opposition’s unexpectedly strong gains in 2008’s “political tsunami” signalled an appetite for change among Malaysians, mechanisms that prevent effective electoral and democratic action remain. Moreover, the Barisan-dominated Parliament is working in the opposite direction, most recently by passing the inaccurately named “Peaceful Assembly Bill”, which restricts participation in public gatherings and rallies even more than before.

Anonymous on Cambodia

Democracy remains a far-fetched reality for Cambodia. Continued threats have been made against human rights activists, especially those championing the issues of corruption and land grabbing. Freedom of expression continues to be restricted which further compounds the problem of self-censorship. Opposition parties are continually squashed by the CPP and those that made it to parliament have been subjected to the whims of the ruling party. The electoral arena is marked by an uneven playing field, while other democratic institutions, such as the judiciary and the bureaucracy, are wrought with corruption.

The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will continue to stay in power as long as the current system persists with or without Hun Sen. Having said that, Hun Manet, the eldest son of Hun Sen, is being groomed to secede his father with a promotion to top military rank despite his lack of qualification and experience. Should other high ranking military officers toe the line, the Hun leadership of the CPP is likely to continue onwards, leaving democracy a “dream” rather than a “reality.”

Sai Latt on Myanmar/Burma

Myanmar is a good example to show democratic transition cannot be limited to electoral process. For now, the scenes of reform appear rosy: opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi can relatively freely organise election campaigns; film and news industries have challenged media censorship; and there have been negotiations with ethnic armed groups and exiled opposition.

Yet, there are reasons to be less optimistic about Myanmar’s democratic future. Even if one sees the appointment of 25% of the country’s MPs from the army as a minor issue, there are major problems codified in the constitution. To name a few, article 40c of the constitution permits the military to take control of political affairs should national security be at stake. Article 20b allows the military to administer its own affairs without interference from the civilian government. Equally important is article 232b that allows the Commander-in-Chief to appoint the Ministers of Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. As such, military supremacy lingers in the background of the civilian government. As always, Myanmar is unique and perhaps extreme, but this shows that electoral participation is not enough to ensure democratic transition.

Aim Sinpeng on Thailand

Mired in a protracted, and often violent, political conflict since 2005, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, I share Diamond’s optimism about Thailand’s prospect for democratisation for the following reasons. First, inevitable changes in the style of the monarchical institution will lead to a greater focus on the importance of democratic institutions. Ongoing intense debate with regards to Article 112 of the Criminal Code, (the lèse majesté law) in some sections of the public signify subtle shifts in the position of the royal establishment. Secondly, mass support for elections has been high since the coup of 2006, which suggests some degree of internalisation of democratic norms that are crucial for further democratisation. Third, the enfranchisement of the previously disenfranchised groups along with greater public participation in the political arena will continue to exert monitoring pressure on political leaders’ performance and policy responsiveness.

The monarchy and the military have long been linked but they are not synonymous. The military will not allow itself to be weakened after the royal succession. How it will adapt to this change remains to be seen, but the army has made clear in recent years that as the “protector of the nation” it has the right to shape political outcomes.

Democracy in Thailand will remain highly contested and continually negotiated among different stakeholders. Various groups will continue to stake out their claims over their vision of democracy and political rights. Some will push the boundary of what is “possible,” “acceptable” or “moral.” In the end the future is uncertain but recent development should give us some reasons to be positive of the long-term outlook.

Manneke Budiman on Indonesia

The biggest threat to Indonesia’s democracy is not likely to be the army. Since the Reform movement in 1998 brought the Suharto regime to an end, fundamentalist groups and narrow-minded state officials have taken over the role as “oppressors” of tolerance, pluralism, and freedom. It’s no longer a conflict between state and civil society but it has become a horizontal conflict among various elements of civil society. The challenge in Indonesia is to guarantee that freedom is upheld, difference is respected, and basic human rights are protected not only by the state, but also by various elements of civil and political society.

While Western scholarship tends to view democracy as a “goal” to work towards, in fact democracy must be negotiated and rearticulated on a daily basis. Indonesia can be a modern nation that is free from authoritarianism and oppression without having to embrace Western democracy. Our experiment with finding an alternative to authoritarianism, which is locally contextualized and taking into account all the local knowledge, will result in an alternative type of modernity that is distinct from Western modernity, yet is not incompatible with it. Our kind of “democracy” should not be state-oriented or rely on state institutions and apparatuses, but on the commitment of every element of civil society to build a common goal together based on initiatives that come from the grass-roots instead of state policies.

Concluding remarks

Indeed the biggest impetus for political change in Southeast Asia may neither be economic crisis nor a future wave of democratisation hinged upon modernisation. Rather the inevitable passing or secession of the region’s “strongmen,” be they Lee Kuan Yew, King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, Hun Sen, Mahathir, or the SPDC’s conservative vanguards, will leave a significant power vacuum among ruling elites and set in motion monumental change from within. But whether such change will lead to greater democratization will partially depend on other factors such as the existence of a viable opposition and a pro-democratic civil society. As O’Donnell and Schmitter remind us: transition from certain authoritarian rule does not lead directly to democracy, but rather to an uncertain “something else.”[4]

[1]Schumpeterian conception of democracy is used here.

[2](in alphabetical order) Aries A. Arugay is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Science at Georgia State University and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines at Diliman; Author on Cambodia wishes to remain anonymous given his close ties to the CPP; Manneke Budiman is an Assistant Professor in Literature at the University of Indonesia Depok; Sai Latt is a Doctoral Candidate in Geography at Simon Fraser University and a Vanier Scholar; Mei Li Siaw is an independent scholar and works for a Kuala Lumpur-based NGO, Green Purchasing Asia; Aim Sinpeng is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Science at the University of British Columbia and a Visiting Fellow at Thammasat University; Netina Tan is a SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Munk Centre for International Affairs, University of Toronto

[3]A. Przeworski, “Problems in The Study of the Transition to Democracy,” in Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Comparative Perspectives, ed. G. O’Donnell, P. C Schmitter, and L. Whitehead (Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 1986), 53.

[4]O’Donnell and Schmitter. (1986). “Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies.” Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press.