BW: Because he was so weak rather than due to any genuine desire for democracy. He needed to look like a reformer to win power, but when he left office there was actually very little substantive reform.
MV: Because he was weak. Najib came to power in 2009, essentially promising further reform. Many of people of the time including myself saw Najib as a competent parliamentary politician but weak. He was weak as a personality, and therefore did not seem as necessarily much of a threat if things would not go his way. As we see, things did not go his way. The precipice that Malaysia has fallen down from in terms of the undermining of the last remaining institutions of democracy essentially was brought about by the 1MDB scandal. He suddenly found himself led in that direction.
BW: Najib was doing the leading, he is the key person in the 1MDB scandal. He was weak and greedy and has abused his office to prevent prosecution.
MV: Exactly, because of that, the 1MDB scandal, he has completely turned everything on its head for democracy in Malaysia. He needs to defend his position to assure that he does not go to the jail. I have known Najib for many years. I do not recognize him now at all. He is the man who is actually more English than Malaysian. He does not even speak the Malay language properly, who essentially was led there because of the wife.
BW: There is this tendency to blame her, as women are often blamed. It is a partnership. For me he is the prime minister and he is ultimately responsible.
MV: Fundamentally he is weak. for whatever reason. He is never going to stand up either to his wife or to anything that is the least bit trouble and so therefore everything had to change. The direction has to change. The thing that I least understand and this gets back to the what we said earlier, is why there has not been any real opposition to him. Najib is not a particularly strong person. I know that a lot of people have talked about the use of the money and the payments that have been made to keep people in line. This is the idea that people are selfishly essentially going along with it because why bother to resist, why make trouble for yourself when you could essentially make money out of this situation. In that sense I shift the blame a little bit away from Najib onto a generation of politicians, many of whom I knew when they were quite young, who essentially don’t appear to have any moral principles either.
BW: Well, I think there is something more fundamental going on. There is no question that in a serious moral vacuum in terms of the incumbent Malaysian leadership. I would extend this to the Islamist party as well, that has turned away from decent political principles and in effect endorsed corruption. I would say, however, that this is not just about the politicians. It is about the whole state-business nexus, the way the economies in the region work. They are driven by those who control political power, and businesses have very strong crony relationships that feed corruption and buttress incumbent elite rule. Look at the Economist’s list of the top countries in the world for crony-capitalism. The proportion of Southeast Asian countries in top is striking, Malaysia is no.2; Philippines is no. 3 Singapore is no. 4; Indonesia is no 7 and Thailand is no 12.
MV: This is the second factor that I was going to bring up after institutionalization, the utter selfishness of elites. They really do not care. If you take the corruption issue, why would you address corruption when in a case of Thai, Cambodian, Malaysian or Indonesian elite, it means you would have to queue up; it means you would have actually dismantle this system that essentially enhances your status and gives you a privileged position. Why would you dismantle a system where you benefit from it so directly? You just perpetuate it; it keeps your family and your relatives basically in a much better position than everyone else. This has been going on for decades, and this has meant that whatever happens to the economy, there is a consistent and very discernible increase in inequality. Even with the middle class now, the middle class now is so far remote in terms of income from members of elites in many of these countries. The elite share of the amount of money accumulated perpetuates their position. They can buy whatever political process, whether is semi-democracy or even a more democratic context. They can simple buy their way into power.
BW: I think you place too much emphasis on individual politicians in the system. The political-economic relationship has evolved for years, shaped by decades of business-political ties. The structure is as important as the agents.
MV: We have variation. In Indonesia, you have a much more horizontal society because of the geography. You have more cities of more than a billion than another part of the region, and that actually breaks things out a little bit.
BW: Agreed, but Indonesia is still very hierarchical. At a fundamental level, they are few incentives to engage in fundamental economic and political reforms. The role that elites, especially business elites play, should not underestimated. When we look at a place like Malaysia and its trajectory, the business elites have been Najib’s enablers, his bankers and business partners. This extends across borders. Businessmen prefer to work with someone who they can pay off and make a deal with. Najib as minister of finance was the par excellence deal maker. Sadly, most Malaysians have been on the losing end of the deals.
MV: I think this brings us to the third reason for the region’s democratic deficit: a complete lack of sufficient counterbalance by the rule of law to political or corporate power. I have seen this situation fairly close up in Malaysia, in Thailand, less so in Indonesia. There are huge problems with a functioning judiciary. You see this in Thailand in particular, where there has been aggressive politicization of the judiciary. There is a misplaced sense that the judiciary should be politically controlled rather than apply moral pressure to the corrupt politicians. In a case of Malaysia the judiciary was one of the strongest institutions bequeathed by the British at the end of colonial period. It is striking to go back and look at some of the High Court decisions that were made in early years of independence, cases that were referred to the High Court of United Kingdom before Mahathir stopped this practice. Kelantan actually tried to bring a case to a High Court to succeed before the Federation was fully formed. That case was allowed. None of that would not happen today.
BW: Never said ‘never’. Pressures in East Malaysia are growing.
MV: Indeed, never said never. Nevertheless, the insufficiency of the law to provide a check and balance on what we talked about earlier in terms of weak institutions and elite power is a major factor in the deficit of democracy.
BW: I’m not sure whether or not this is also a reflection of public opinion. We find in multiple surveys that many Southeast Asians do not support checks and balances such as an independent judiciary in any meaningful sense. I am drawing from the Asian Barometer Survey. Southeast Asians do not conceptualize horizon accountability with check and balances, because in part of the legacy of strongman rule and the personalized and hierarchical nature of politics that we spoke about earlier. The problem goes beyond the judiciary. It is the lack of other effective horizon accountable institutions such as independent election commissions and anti-corruption bodies. These institutions do not have any real power in most of the countries of the region. Southeast Asians have few meaningful checks within the system. Laws surrounding these bodies are often manipulated in a very fundamental way to suit those in office. It is a vicious cycle, the lack of operating checks contributes to a lack of support of these institutions and further political manipulation of these institutions for political ends.
MV: We have to consider the other side of situation which are the responses by ordinary people. This is much less clear. For example, impunity is another major problem in Southeast Asia. The lack of resolution of issues does not mean people do not suffer and do not want redress. Throughout this period, there have been successful ways in which civil society has brought pressure and staved off, in some cases, some of the worst excesses or abuses of power. It is not completely a black and white picture. I would say that civil society has in some cases made considerable progress. But, maybe not enough, as they too have hampered because by the strong or selfish grip of elites in the system. They are often just scratching at the surface of some of the problems. Nonetheless it is important to acknowledge the aspirations of people and those who have been on the frontline in the struggle for democratic change. In the thirty plus years I have been in the region, I have met some of the most inspiring people who work in small NGOs, small law offices or in opposition political parties. They really struggle. It is not always a violent struggle, although at times it is. We see Southeast Asia punctuated time and time again by needless violence, more often than not violence for political reasons. It is very often a mundane, sometimes lonely, fight for change.
BW: I think you quite rightly point to the bravery of ordinary people. Here too, however, when we look at society, we see two very worrying trends. The first of which has been the deepening of political polarization across the region, the red and yellow shirts. You talked about the yellow shirts of the Philippines in the 1980s. Now we have open clashes in Thailand and Malaysia, large splits in Cambodia and Singapore with very different perspectives shown in survey research and divides in Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines as evident in recent elections. Even in Myanmar where everybody talks about the Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘landslide,’ she only won 57% of the popular vote. Prabowo almost won in Indonesia in 2014. Duterte only won with 38% of the vote. Across the board in Southeast Asia, we have very deeply politically polarized societies. Governments often use this polarization to their advantage, either to as an excuse for intervention in the case of Thailand or they perpetuate this polarization in a place like Malaysia. Divisions are used as a way to justify authoritarian rule and perpetuate their power in the name of stability. Sadly, large shares of the political aspirations of Southeast Asian societies have been dismissed politically, as they are being so economically as well.
MV: Yes, I think the polarization has always been there. Now certainly there is a greater ability to mobilize and simultaneously to exploit the polarization as you pointed out. I think one of the things that interests me about the polarization is the limited channels for addressing differences and grievances. I am struck by the steady narrowing of opportunities for different ideologies, for the ideology of sort of the socialist’s nature that would revive channels for people to actually ask for more in a political context. The collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War is still to a large extent being felt across the Southeast Asia. This great fear of the left wing persists. What is happening is that people channel a lot of the polarization into sort of racial or religion sentiments. The reality is that people do suffer and despair under the weight of equality. They yearn for some kind of inspiration, a motivational ideology that gives them an avenue for protest. If it is in fact cut off because communism is still banned in places such as Indonesia, or frowned upon the Philippines and Thailand. In Thailand the leader of the red shirts is in fact a former communist. She has tried to establish a party that aspires to represent the massive of people. It is very difficult then to actually channel that polarization into something less violent, more constructive.
BW: We know that in terms of research, most Southeast Asians conceptualize democracy in terms of equality disproportionately compared to other parts of the world. We also know that there are no real substantive open policy debates taking place in most of the region’s political environment. Admittedly, there are some areas and some pockets that we do not want to dismiss those, but at the sense of meaningful discussion of the directions of development policy or allocations of funding, there are real discussion vacuums. In the last five years especially, a lot of government policies had been low hanging fruit, basically throwing money to stave off problems. If there is one area that has been focused it has been infrastructure, hard development, an area that has created few jobs for the region’s youth and reinforced corruption. Regional governments are not meaningfully dealing with underlying challenges that these countries are facing in terms of moving their economies forward and transforming their societies towards the future, especially for the younger generations. The promise of greater social mobility is not being realized.
A second worrying concern in society involves the violations of others by members of society themselves. Disproportionately, governments are not intervening on the significant human right violations that are being conducted by non-state actors, whether they are in the name of religion, drugs or greed.
MV: That is true. Let me come back to that. There is something else needs mentioning. In the early period of independence in Southeast Asia, many of these countries were conceived of as democracies, the pre-1965 period in Indonesia, pre-1962 period in the Burma, even in the very first year after 1954 in Cambodia. These formation democracies were led by a group of people who had been imbued with the notion of democracy from the outside. They had received education outside. If you look at some of the early leaders of Indonesia, they were essentially were Fabian Socialists. They brought these values to the establishment of the republic. That had all gone by the 1980s. One of the things that I find most interesting about what is driving this democratic deficit is the emergence of a generation of leaders who actually did not share democratic values in the same way. They simple didn’t. Mahathir never went to the West for his education. Lee Kuan Yew is another example. The whole ‘Asian values’ debate in the 1990s, was built around a lot of resentment and frustration by a generation that succeeded the founding fathers. In a patronizing way, the departing colonial powers left it to the founding leaders to set up democracy, because they were imbued the same values. That was all gone by the 1980s. Instead you have a generation who were imbued with traditional notions of power and politics.
BW: I think you continue to place considerable emphasis on leaders and their values. For me, this was broader, it was about the wealth they were accumulating and the synergy between economic and political power. Many of these leaders allied with business and other elites, and were willing to challenge those that challenged them. They were not really willing to share power.
MV: The successive generations emerging in power were not imbued in these democratic values. That is why it was very difficult for them to accept change or reform.
Now we come to the issue of human rights. In my view Southeast Asians have a really good sense of survival, family and land. Security for themselves and their families was the most important. Very often these things are prioritized against more universal things you think might be important to people. You know, if you look at the victims of 1965 in Indonesia, maybe what they want in return is not so much justice, but compensation.
BW: There should not be a trade-off. They should get both.
MV: They should get both, but I think in the end what people often settle for is the material and not the other. There helps us understand the issue of human rights not being enshrined or carried out properly. Weak institutions and power holders are simply not interested. You also have a society that is unfortunately less interested than you expect them to be in pushing for these things.
BW: Advocated for human rights are clearly minority across Southeast Asia, but this is not as simple as you suggest. A majority of Southeast Asians want better, fairer and moral governments. It is much more than the material you suggest. Survey research in the Asian Barometer Survey provides insights. For example, there is no majority of public opinion supporting a secular government a single country in Southeast Asia, including Singapore.
MV: Indeed, the growth of Christian community in Singapore is one of the most understudied phenomena in Southeast Asia.
BW: I also think have the emergence of a religious nationalism that is intolerant and undemocratic. This is not just the extremism we associate with terrorism, but an intolerance that is eating away at the fabric of society. There are clearly counter forces, but the authoritarian rhetoric and closed education systems of many governments reinforce this lack of nuance, empathy and understanding. Civic education is missing, as many governments often work against creating problem-solving and critical thinking in their education systems. Many of the forces that are challenging democracy are coming from below, shaped of course by the institutional and leadership context in which they operate.
MV: Indeed, many dynamics are coming from below. In Indonesia there is more primordialism
BW: Well, it is broader than primordialism in my view.
MV: We have reached a point in the second decade of 21st century, where we have to all ask ourselves are we going to see incremental progress. Can we assume that these hiccups along the way for democracy that we have described will continue to be hiccups and ultimately these societies are reaching the goal of becoming more democratically countries? I am doubtful frankly. I see continuing cycles of upheaval. It is possible for instance in Indonesia that what we saw in the last couple of weeks, the ability of hardline extreme group to put pressure on a very popular elective president could see the undermining not so much of his legitimacy, but of his power. People will exploit the weakness of the presidency. They will not think of the institution of the presidency. They will simply think of their own interests. They all are thinking of their own interests. This could spin-off into a cycle of instability.
Similarly, Cambodia is facing elections in the next two years, the commune election this year and general election after that. It is clear that a younger generation of voters, increasingly a majority of voters, want change. It is also clear that the ruling party and Hun Sen is not prepared to provide them with that change. He wants his son to take over the prime minister eventually when he decides to retire. He wants to retire not according to the electoral schedule.
In Thailand, we have a military that is now entrenched in power. It is not likely that they will give up power in a time soon. There might be an election in 2018. In Myanmar as you point out democracy is fragile.
BW: Democracy is definitely stagnating. but let me take an alternative view. You may be doubtful about the future, but I am hopeful. I think these authoritarian leaders, the Najib, Hun Sen and others are not delivering on expectations either. There are very serious governance deficits in Southeast Asian societies, especially in many of those led by autocrats. This is why we have seen the democratic recession in the region; they are fighting to hold on. Today we have the big catch: we have a contracting economy. We have a very different global and regional economic conditions now. It is not increasing as it was in the 1990s or even in the 1980s. The democratic pendulum can swing back. I am confident it will. There are large shares of Southeast Asians ready to accept change, with the poles on the other side ready and waiting for the tipping point to move in their direction.
MV: I am doubtful. We had exactly the same conditions in the late 1990s, and there was no a hint of the time that there was a Duterte on the horizon or that the military was going to come back to power in Thailand. We cannot use that kind of analysis because economies contract and grow again; leaders do not rise and fall in that basis. We are not see the evidence of autocrats losing power. In fact, quite the opposite. Look at Duterte, who only basically decided to run for election a few months before the election itself. He is widely popular. This is in spite the death of four thousands or more people without the judicial process. We simply can’t predict that won’t happen again.
BW: Populist autocrats are a real possibility in democracies. This is happening across the world, especially in democracies. Trump’s election is case in point. Southeast Asia is different, as the dominant mode is more authoritarian governments rather than democracies. Authoritarianism rather than democracy will be targeted. Failures of economic reform are important and now more than ever this lack of economic and political reform is affecting the system. We are not in the 1990s. There is more information and reservoirs ready to embrace change, the excludes political poles. There is unprecedented pressure on autocrats in terms of their abilities to deliver and serious shortcomings in this regard. The leaders lack the same level of legitimacy than earlier leaders, with more impatient, diverse and demanding societies. This opens up the possibility for hope.
MV: It opens up the possibility but more people like Duterte will come along
BW: Maybe, maybe not.