Ushering 2017 with Sheila Majid,Malaysia’s Lady of Song

December 31, 2016

Welcome 2017 with Malaysia’s Lady of Song–Ms. Shiela Majid

2017 is just a few hours away. Dr Kamsiah and Din Merican present Malaysia’s Lady of Song, Ms Sheila Majid as the guest entertainer for your listening pleasure. We wish you all our friends all over the world a Great New Year from Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh. Thank you for your comments on the blog.–Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican

Democracy in Southeast Asia: A Conversation Between Michael Vatikiotis and Bridget Welsh

December 31, 2016

Democracy in Southeast Asia: A Conversation Between Michael Vatikiotis and Bridget Welsh

Journey through the ebbs and flows of democracy in ASEAN via a conversation between Michael Vatikiotis, a veteran journalist and writer living in Singapore, and Dr. Bridget Welsh, who is a Senior Associate Fellow of the Habibie Center in Jakarta. Their conversation on the state of democracy in Southeast Asia traces the history of the push for democracy in the different countries of the region, current challenges and future prospects. (This article is first published in special issue.)

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Michael Vatikiotis is a writer and journalist living in Singapore. After training as a journalist with the BBC in London, he moved to Asia and was a correspondent and then editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He has written two novels set in Indonesia.

Image result for Michael VatikiotisMichael Vatikiotis

Dr. Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University; a Senior Associate Fellow of the Habibie Center in Jakarta; and a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia. She analyzes Southeast Asian politics, especially Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Image result for bridget welsh national taiwan universityDr. Bridget Welsh

Bridget Welsh (BW): Michael, why don’t you begin. Where do you think the state of democracy is in the region?

Michael Vatikiotis (MV): Well, if you take a glass half-full approach, then I suppose you would look at the long arch of history of democracy over the last 40 years. I argue that in many countries of Southeast Asia there has been a gradual improvement in the forms of governments that have begun to look more and more institutionally like functioning democracies.

So to break that down, you have of course a wave of democratization that began with the People’s Power revolution in the Philippines in mid-1980s which was itself an outgrowth of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in the mid-1970s that sparked what Samuel Huntington called the ‘third wave of democratization.’ This eventually reached the shores of Southeast Asia and manifested itself initially in left wing movements, student disruptions and protests in mid 1970s. Thailand saw a crackdown on student movements that led to people fleeing into the jungle and joining the communist insurgency. Similarly in Indonesia, there was the Malari incident which led to a crackdown on campus politics. In Malaysia too, there was a student agitation in the mid-1970s. By the early 80s things had come to a head in the Philippines with the implementation of martial law, the corruption of Marcos’ rule and the deep sense of unease that many people felt because of the way that they were treated by Marcos, either arrested, detained or worse. In 1983, with the murder of Benigno Aquino as he stepped out of a plane from Taiwan at Manila Airport, these finally weld up into a massive popular protest.

At the time I was a young journalist in BBC. I remember covering it from London, and it was a very exciting time, especially the whole notion of ‘people’s power.’ This was well before any of the colored revolutions that have taken place in this century. This was before the end of Cold War. It was also the very first time that CNN had covered this sort of story so far away with live camera shots of the protests. There was a sense that nothing like this had really happened before in postcolonial Southeast Asia. It was shown and reported in a very vivid manner and it also very quickly brought an end to very despotic ruler. Within a matter of weeks Ferdinand Marcos was on a plane to Hawaii.

As a side note, I think it was also very important time because up until the mid-1980s, the United States and other Western powers firmly back autocratic regimes because they were anti-communist. This changed with the ‘people’s power’ revolution on the streets of Manila. The color of the revolution was yellow, not red. You had this mild-mannered widow of Benigno Aquino who took over. She was not threatening. She didn’t seem to be communist. This allowed the United States and other Western powers to embrace a popular revolution without having to abandon their sort of anti-communist credentials. There was a sense of relief that they didn’t have to support an autocrat, because he was anti-communist.

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This set the region on the path where people expected greater openness and democratization, but it was a faltering path. It led in 1989 to a rash of students protests in Indonesia, where there was pressure on Indonesia’s government to become more open. Soeharto grudgingly allowed more openness, but it did not really bring about democratization. Similarly in Malaysia, we saw attempts to have more open system. This was met by a crackdown in Operation Lalang. Initial pressures on governments to be more open did not really work. Most tragically in Burma, the 1988 student uprising which did take its inspiration directly from ‘people’s power’ failed, spectacularly and tragically so with a huge loss of life. The assumption that ‘people’s power’ would lead to greater democratization essentially let us all down and we experienced another decade of demi-democracy at best.

Then we had the financial crisis. In 1997 there was another round of turmoil, and again there were assumptions made about the impact of the economic financial crisis on the way it would affect authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. It was assumed that now governments would need to be reformed, need to open up and be more transparent; and better serve the people. There was pressure in Malaysia. Obviously, what happened in Indonesia was the Soeharto regime fell, collapsed under the weight of its own authoritarian inefficiency. However, once again, we all felt that there was going to be a democratic dividend from the financial crisis. If one recalls the first few years of the Indonesia transition, the initial two or three years were disappointing. You essentially had a bunch of people who had served Soeharto who basically changed their shirts and became democrats all of sudden. There was marginally more open government, but it took at least five years for the reform period to have an impact. Decentralization of government in 1999 was a first good step. But, do not forget there was also a lot of violence associated in the reformasi period in Indonesia. Many people were generally unhappy with the first few years of that period.

There was no real democratic impact on the rest of the region. Burma continued to be ruled by a nasty military regime. Mahathir continued to rule the roost in Malaysia. In the Philippines during this period there was several setbacks to democratic government in a form of attempted military interventions and impeachments of politicians. So again, while there were these promises of reform and democratization, the overall regional democratic impact was less than expected.

BW: I think if we look at the situation now, we have three different patterns. The first of which is a democratic deficit in the region’s more democratic countries, namely Indonesia and Philippines. Here there are demands for better governance that are not being met by democratic governments. This is true particularly over the issue of corruption, but this extends to social services and economic policies that are not addressing the needs of the masses. This has fueled authoritarian nostalgia, support for more autocratic rule. This was evident in Indonesia’s 2014 election and more recently with the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Large shares of these societies want more strongman rule because of a lack of effective democratic governance. Furthermore, democratic conditions in democracies are contracting, with the rise of intolerance toward minorities and violations of civil liberties.

The second trajectory is the continued stranglehold of one party dominant systems in the region.  This is the case in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and, of course, Singapore. The trend has been increasing use of authoritarian measures against opponents. While opposition in all of these countries has expanded with greater access to information and rising aspirations of new generations, perhaps with the exception of Laos, Southeast Asians governments have used their control of political systems to stay in office. From the manipulation of electoral rules to arrests and control of the media, the incumbents are holding on. Some of these measures are more blatant than others, such as Malaysia’s Najib Tun Razak’s government’s arrest of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and more recently the imprisonment of Bersih chairperson Maria Chin-Abdullah for ‘terrorism,’ but the trend has been across the region. We have witnessed a broad democratic recession in Southeast Asia in the past five years, especially in the one-party dominant countries.

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A Thai Protester

The third pattern is one of regime change in two Southeast Asian countries. The first is military takeover in Thailand with the May 2014 coup. The Prayut government has arguably been one of the most repressive military governments in Thai history, with fear and repression deeply felt. Sadly, the other country affected by Huntington’s third wave, which began democratizing gradually from the late 1980s, is serving as the prime example of the region’s growing authoritarianism. The second has been in Myanmar, where the election of Aung San Suu Kyi National League for Democracy (NLD) has fundamentally opened up the system.  Myanmar is facing the same troubles you spoke about just now after 1999 in Indonesia. There is violence especially on the periphery, contributing to the serious humanitarian conditions of the Rohingyas, and other concerns for ethnic minorities. There are real challenges in weakening the power of the military as well, which extends to the economy as well as security situation. Democracy in Myanmar remains fragile.

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Protest in Myanmar

MV: The question to answer is why. If we move from glass half full at the end of last century to the glass half empty at the beginning the 21st century, the question is what can explain the democracy deficits? To be honest, it is quite hard to find a simple explanation that embraces the breadth of situations in the region. I believe we must categorize the failures.  I think the first failure is institutionalization. In all the countries where we see democratic progress, one of the weakest elements of the reform program has been institutionalizing the changes that have been made. That is mainly because the nature of political culture in Southeast Asia is personal. It largely involves groups of followers owing allegiance to individuals whether they are in bureaucracy or in the political establishment. There has never been a need to institutionalize these networks, because they are fluid and rest on a great deal of patronage. It is very paternalistic and in a paternalistic system you do not actually want to build an institution that would succeed you. I think this sort of combination of personality politics and leadership has contributed to a lack of institutionalization.

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For me, the best example is Indonesia. It is one of the tragedies of Indonesia. While there is no real question that Indonesia’s democratic foundation is firm, and no one would say that there is a danger of moving back to the system that they had before, an authoritarian leader would be unaccountable or even perhaps the military playing a role in politics. Although I think one can never completely rule these out.

BW: Indeed, we should never said ‘never.’

MV: Yes. If you look at the real weaknesses of the system and its hostage to extreme elements of prejudice whether they are racial or religion, it is because the political parties are weak. There are no platforms to speak of. The institutions for mature political debates and exchange are simply underdeveloped and not respected.

You have at the same time have successful decentralization. Many people would argue that the strengths lie here. The elections at regional and local levels are among the most successful. They are bringing forward the future politicians. They have already given Indonesia a president. Having said that, institutional weaknesses plaque Indonesia’s democracy and those of the region.

BW: I would take this issue of institutionalization a little bit further, Michael. It is not just about the relationship between the personal and institutions in places like Indonesia and Philippines and in political parties, but rather we see the weakening of political institutions that did exist. Previously functioning institutions have become personalized.

Perhaps the best example is that of Malaysia where the line between the dominant party UMNO and the system is not there anymore. Essentially all of the checks on executive power have been removed in a systematic way as power has become concentrated around the person who holds the executive office. The office is the person and the person is the office.  We see this pattern throughout the region, in Cambodia and Singapore as well. In the latter institutions function, but they closely reflect the leadership of the PAP.

MV: Well, I tend to agree, but I would break it down into two different factors. One is whether or not this was avoidable or unavoidable. I think in the case of Malaysia, it was avoidable, because the institutions and checks were working. Mahathir weakened many of them, with his very firm, autocratic sort of style of rule. Don’t forget there was this interregnum with Abdullah Badawi when many of different power centers and institutions came a life again because he allowed them to.

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.

2017: Due Year for Najib, Rosmah and Gang

December 31, 2016

2017: Due Year for Najib, Rosmah and Gang

by Dean

Image result for the 1mdb scandal


Image result for Najib, Rosmah and 1mdb

Look at those high heel shoes of Malaysia’s Beauty Queen!

Best wishes to all those who’ve done something – anything – in 2016 to deserve a happy New Year of 2017. And worst possible wishes to all the others for the decidedly unhappy New Year that they’re due for having deliberately done wrong or else failed in their duty to do right by their fellows over the past 12 months, or in many cases far longer, and have no intention of changing their ways.

Of course in the former category I include a whole spectrum of people ranging from those who’ve strenuously striven to be outstanding human beings in their ordinary, everyday lives on the one hand, to heroic humanitarians and ferocious fighters for justice and human rights on the other.

I’m conscious that I should be careful in naming any of the people or organisations I have in mind here, lest I cause offence to some by forgetting or not having sufficient space to include them, or else embarrass or endanger them through public exposure.

Suffice to mention, then, by way of example, such friends and former colleagues as ‘Chemical’ Ali, Alice and her husband Stephen; fellow-travellers in the quest for truth, integrity and transparency in government, like the management, staff and most of the readers of Malaysiakini; literally countless fellow pro-democracy writers and bloggers like Azly (Rahman), Din (Merican), Mariam (Mokhtar), KJ (John), S Thayaparan and Zan (Azlee); and, last but as far as possible from least, the inimitable and unquenchable anti-regime cartoonist and lampoonist, Zunar.

Image result for Zunar and his cartoons

Some of the similarly countless organisations I can’t help thinking of as well-and-truly due the happiest-possible wishes for this and every other New Year include Malaysia’s Sisters in Islam, Sarawak Report and now sadly inactive Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM), France’s Médicins Sans Frontières, Reporteurs Sans Frontières, Syria’s non-government civilian volunteer rescue workers, the White Helmets, and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

As for all those who are not due a New Year at all, let alone wishes for a happy one, the first lot I can think of, as long as I’m concentrating on Malaysia for this column, are the members, cronies and supporters of the ever-ruling UMNO-BN regime.

As of 2017, this cartel of ‘criminals’ posing as a coalition government has enjoyed an unbroken run of 60 years of allegedly happily robbing Malaysians of their rights, freedoms and protections and their nation of its natural resources. Thus these political ‘predators’ deserve to rot for years in prison, not to be wished, let alone allowed another happy year in power at the public’s expense.

All the signs are there, however, that they have every intention of celebrating in 2017 as happily for themselves and as unhappily for the people as they did in 2016 and for decades before.

Continuing to avoid and evade the fact

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Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak continues to avoid and evade the fact of, let alone his responsibility for, the massive 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) brouhaha. And his cabinet ministers and other sycophants, supporters and apologists are still solidly behind him in his campaign of denial and deception.

Meanwhile the regime has even more daylight robberies in train. Literally, as in the case of the allegedly monstrously over-priced MRT rail system currently under construction.

So rather than yet another happy year, I, along with the majority of Malaysian citizens, I suspect, hereby wish UMNO-BN a decidedly crappy or even accursed year.

In the fond if admittedly faint hope that the US Department of Justice will finally bring criminal charges against Najib and his accomplices in the 1MDB imbroglio; or that Najib will call the 14th general election (GE14) and that Chinese numerology will come to the party and make sure that for UMNO it turns out to be truly ‘forever die’.

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And then there’s always the chance that the RAHMAN prophecy will come true, and Najib’s fall will finish off BN forever.

But of course it’s not only Najib and UMNO-N who are well and truly due, in fact way overdue, for a deservedly unhappy New Year.

There are also Bashar al-Assad, his murderous regime and its brutal Russian allies, for example, who are due endless retribution for five years of slaughter of the Syrian people and destruction of their homeland.

Then there are the likes of Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and all the other similar death-squads, many of which have been happily getting away with their crimes against humanity for far too many years.

And finally, who knows whether to wish the US and its citizens a Happy New Year? With president-elect Donald Trump just weeks away from being sworn-in to office, it’s anybody’s guess how 2017 will turn out for ‘God’s Own Country’ and the rest of the world.

Given Trump’s stated intention of greatly beefing-up the US’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, chances are that rather than a Happy New Year we could well find ourselves facing the unthinkable horrors of a Happy Nuke Year.

In which case the displays of fireworks on which Sydney and so many other cities squander such a fortune for the sake of celebrating the New Year could this time around portend the possibility that far more serious and deadly global or regional fireworks, or at least a decidedly dangerous arms-race, may be due in the very near future.

DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.


America’s democracy has become illiberal

December 31, 2016

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America’s democracy has become illiberal

By Fareed Zakaria Opinion writer


Two decades ago, I wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that described an unusual and worrying trend: the rise of illiberal democracy. Around the world, dictators were being deposed and elections were proliferating. But in many of the places where ballots were being counted, the rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of the press and other such traditions were being ignored or abused. Today, I worry that we might be watching the rise of illiberal democracy in the United States — something that should concern anyone, Republican or Democrat, Donald Trump supporter or critic.

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What we think of as democracy in the modern world is really the fusing of two different traditions. One is, of course, public participation in selecting leaders. But there is a much older tradition in Western politics that, since the Magna Carta in 1215, have centered on the rights of individuals — against arbitrary arrest, religious conversion, censorship of thought. These individual freedoms (of speech, belief, property ownership and dissent) were eventually protected, not just from the abuse of a tyrant but also from democratic majorities. The Bill of Rights, after all, is a list of things that majorities cannot do.

In the West, these two traditions — liberty and law on the one hand, and popular participation on the other — became intertwined, creating what we call liberal democracy. It was noticeable when I wrote the essay, and even clearer now, that in a number of countries — including Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Iraq and the Philippines — the two strands have come apart. Democracy persists (in many cases), but liberty is under siege. In these countries, the rich and varied inner stuffing of liberal democracy is vanishing, leaving just the outer, democratic shell.

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What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today.

The Founding Fathers were skeptical of democracy and conceived of America as a republic to mitigate some of the dangers of illiberal democracy. The Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court, state governments and the Senate are all bulwarks against majoritarianism. But the United States also developed a democratic culture, formed in large part by a series of informal buffers that worked in similar ways. Alexis de Tocqueville called them “associations” — meaning nongovernmental groups such as choir societies, rotary clubs and professional groups — and argued that they acted to “weaken the moral empire of the majority.” Alexander Hamilton felt that ministers, lawyers and other professionals would be the “impartial arbiters” of American democracy, ensuring that rather than narrow, special interests, the society and its government would focus on the national interest.

The two prevailing dynamics in U.S. society over the past few decades have been toward greater democratic openness and market efficiency. Congressional decision-making has gone from a closed, hierarchical system to an open and freewheeling one. Political parties have lost their internal strength and are now merely vessels for whoever wins the primaries. Guilds and other professional associations have lost nearly all moral authority and have become highly competitive and insecure organizations, whose members do not — and probably cannot — afford to act in ways that serve the public interest. In the media — the only industry protected explicitly in the Constitution — a tradition of public interest ownership and management aspired to educate the public. Today’s media have drifted from this tradition.

I recognize that this is a romantic view of the role of these elites and hierarchical structures. Parts of the media were partisan and scandal-hungry from the start. Lawyers often acted in their own narrow interests; accountants regularly conspired in frauds. And those smoke-filled rooms with party bosses often made terrible decisions.

But we are now getting to see what American democracy looks like without any real buffers in the way of sheer populism and demagoguery. The parties have collapsed, Congress has caved, professional groups are largely toothless, the media have been rendered irrelevant. When I wrote a book about “illiberal democracy” in 2003, I noted that in polls, Americans showed greatest respect for the three most undemocratic institutions in the country: the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve and the armed forces. Today, the first two have lost much of their luster, and only the latter remains broadly admired.

What we are left with today is an open, meritocratic, competitive society in which everyone is an entrepreneur, from a congressman to an accountant, always hustling for personal advantage. But who and what remain to nourish and preserve the common good, civic life and liberal democracy?

Read more from Fareed Zakaria’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more on this issue:

Miklos Haraszti: I’m genuinely worried for America


The Year of the Demagogue: how 2016 changed Democracy

December 30, 2016

The Year of the Demagogue: how 2016 changed Democracy

by Lionel Barber–The Financial Times

From Brexit to Donald Trump, this year has seen a thundering repudiation of the status quo

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On the morning of June 21, two days before the Brexit referendum, I met David Cameron in Downing Street. During a 25-minute conversation, the Prime Minister assured me that everything would be all right on the night. I wasn’t entirely convinced.

In hindsight, Brexit defined 2016. This was the year when the unthinkable became possible, the marginal invaded the mainstream, and Donald Trump, a property tycoon and television host, was elevated to US Commander-in-Chief.

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In his memoir Present at the Creation (1969), Dean Acheson, a former US Secretary of State, describes how he and fellow “Wise Men” helped President Harry Truman to build a new liberal, rule-based order after the Second World War. It was founded on institutions: the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank and the NATO alliance.

In 2016, as Trump dismissed NATO as “obsolete” and his consigliere Newt Gingrich described Estonia as a suburb of St Petersburg, it felt at times as if we were present at the destruction.

Acheson epitomised the East Coast establishment. He was a diplomat, lawyer and scholar — an expert, if you like. This year, the establishment was hammered, the experts humbled. Most missed Brexit. Many declared a Trump victory impossible. Michael Gove, a leading Brexiter, caught the public mood: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”’Trump won by attacking the Republican party as much as his Democratic opponent’ © Getty Images

Brexit and the Trump triumph mark a revolutionary moment. Not quite 1789 or 1989, but certainly a thundering repudiation of the status quo. Some detect echoes of the 1930s, with Trump cast as an incipient fascist.

It was a good year for strongmen: Vladimir Putin in Russia; Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey; Xi Jinping, now promoted to “core” leader in China. It was an even better year for demagogues, the crowd-pleasers and rabble-rousers who feed on emotions and prejudice. In the year of the demagogue, several vied for the lead role: Nigel Farage, then Ukip leader, godfather of Brexit and Trump acolyte; Rodrigo Duterte, a brutal newcomer to power, who pledged to slaughter millions of drug addicts to clean up the Philippines; and Trump himself, who constantly marvelled at the size of his crowds.

Yet the 1930s analogy is in many ways misplaced. We are nowhere near a Great Depression. The US economy is approaching full employment. The pre-Brexit UK economy has seen employment rise by just over two million since 2010. Credit is flowing. Corporate profits are up. The trouble is that swaths of the population, often those living outside the great cities, have little sense of the economic recovery.

Real incomes in the UK have not grown for the past decade. In the US, 95 per cent of households still had incomes last year that were below those in 2007, according to the Economic Policy Institute think-tank. In Europe, unemployment in the eurozone, especially in countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy, remains high. Yet the wealth of the top one per cent (“the privileged few”, to borrow Theresa May’s mantra) has continued to rise.

Something more profound is happening in advanced democracies. The forces at work are cultural, economic, social and political, driven in part by rapid technological change. Artificial intelligence, gene editing, self-driving cars — progress on all these groundbreaking technologies accelerated in 2016. Each is massively empowering (the smartphone has given everyone a voice) but also massively disruptive (the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs has barely begun to be felt).

In political terms, Brexit and the Trump triumph highlight the decline of the party system and the end of the old left-right divide. The centre-left appears in terminal decline. This month, François Hollande, whose approval rating hit a low of 4 per cent, ruled out a second run for the Elysée. Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left leader of the opposition Labour party, had more to say about the death of Fidel Castro than Britain departing the EU. Matteo Renzi, the centre-left reformer in Italy, lost heavily in his own referendum on constitutional reform and promptly resigned.

In 2016, we saw, finally, that this period — call it Globalisation 2.0 — is over

The Conservative or Christian Democrat centre-right fared better but remains under pressure from an anti-immigrant, nationalist fringe, from Austria to England, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and, increasingly, Poland. In 2016, we witnessed the birth of the “Fourth Way” — a new brand of politics that is nativist, protectionist and bathed in a cultural nostalgia captured by Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again”.

The second development is a widespread disillusion among western democracies with globalisation, the postwar phenomenon marked by three trends: the Roaring Eighties deregulation of the Reagan-Thatcher era; the 1994 Uruguay Round agreement on global trade liberalisation; and the opening of a market economy in China. The progressive abandonment of controls on capital, goods, services and labour, epitomised by the launch of the single European market and the single currency, reached its apogee in the summer of 2007. In 2016, we saw, finally, that this period — call it Globalisation 2.0 — is over.

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In the year of the demagogue, several vied for the lead role, including the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte’ © AFP/Getty Image

Free trade has become ever harder to sell to a public worried about job security and the competitive threat from developing countries. Trump denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact between the US and 11 Pacific Rim countries, and the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. Hillary Clinton, once a free trader, caved. No one countered that the US consumer, including many Trump voters, bought cheap goods at Target and Walmart thanks to efficient global supply chains and cheap labour in the developing world. Hostility to free trade was a vote winner. Only last-minute arm-twisting of the Walloon regional government in Belgium salvaged a Canada-EU trade pact seven years in the making.

Free movement is also in question. Europe has experienced mass migration on a scale not seen since the late 1940s. In 2016, the refugee flow from the Middle East and north Africa was stemmed at one end thanks to a German-brokered deal with Turkey but record numbers travelled (and drowned) on the treacherous route from the central Mediterranean to Italy. Terror attacks, notably in France, heightened public insecurity about immigrants. There was a sense governments had somehow lost control, of national borders and national identity.

This explains the power of Trump’s pledge to build a “beautiful” wall on the Mexican border, and Theresa May’s conference jibe about politically correct multiculturalism: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” The party faithful in Birmingham cheered but cosmopolitan London, home to hundreds of thousands of “foreigners”, including Mark Carney, the Canadian Governor of the Bank of England, was not amused.

The Brexit referendum exposed an economic gap between winners and losers of globalisation; but also a cultural divide between those comfortable with the pace of change, from technology to same-sex marriage, and those wanting to slow down the clock and rediscover their roots in ethnicity, religion or nationality.

 Leave’s slogan in the Brexit campaign, “Take Back Control”, was simple and brilliantly effective across classes and generations. Constitutionalists liked the idea of regaining sovereignty from EU institutions. Everyone liked the idea of reclaiming money from Brussels and diverting the savings to the NHS. Clamping down on immigration was a vote-winner. No matter that these claims were deeply misleading (as were Remain’s claims of imminent economic disaster in the event of a Brexit vote). Throughout the year, facts were elastic concepts.

In 2016, the world woke up to “fake news”, sponsored by political activists but also increasingly by state actors and their surrogates. The CIA accused Russia of being behind the leaking of emails from the Democratic National Committee, a shocking, brazen attempt to interfere in a US presidential election.

Trump dismissed the claims as ridiculous, as did his supporters. Throughout this political cycle, many appeared to live in a parallel universe where facts were entirely subjugated to opinion.

Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump supporter and CNN commentator, explained: “So one thing that’s been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way — it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

Trump’s victory gives succour to the demagogues-in-waiting in 2017

Welcome to the world of post-truth politics, turbocharged by technology such as the smartphone. A single device allows individuals to project in real time an unfiltered version of the news and (often highly partisan) views across Facebook, Google and Twitter. In the US election, journalists, once enjoying a degree of trust as the filter of last resort, were howled down or singled out on Twitter as “disgusting” or “lame”.

In the UK, both Leave and Remain regularly lambasted the BBC, which tried to remain neutral. Timothy Garton Ash, the Oxford historian, warned presciently about the risks of “fairness bias”. The danger was that the BBC, in seeking to remain impartial, would fail to be informative, especially on complex economic issues. “You give equal airtime to unequal arguments, without daring to say that, on this or that point, one side has more evidence, or a significantly larger body of expert opinion, than the other,” he wrote.

The Trump campaign presented “mainstream media” with a challenge on a different scale. His demagoguery broke every taboo in the book, casting Mexicans as “rapists”, eliding the difference between traditional Muslims and radical Islamic terrorists, and threatening to jail his Democratic opponent.

The TV networks, especially Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, gave Trump far more airtime than other candidates. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” quipped Les Moonves, head of the media group.

Trump won by attacking the Republican party as much as his Democratic opponent. He spent hardly any of his own money, less than a fraction of the Clinton campaign’s war chest. His was the triumph of the brand.

Yet Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate at a moment when Americans wanted change — not a continuation of the Obama presidency by other means or a return to the Bush or Clinton dynasties. She had sky-high negative ratings, just like Trump. She was not liked, she was not trusted, and she was evasive. “Crooked Hillary”, Trump’s signature tweet, stuck for a good reason.

In this respect, it is misleading to suggest that the typical Trump supporter was an angry white man on opioids from West Virginia. Educated people voted for Trump. Women voted for Trump. As Salena Zito wrote in The Atlantic, Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally. By contrast, liberals, including the media, took Trump literally but not seriously. What this ignores is the damage the tycoon may have inflicted on public trust in American democracy. He coarsened civic discourse. He declared the political system corrupt. He even cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election not once but twice, declining to confirm he would accept the result if he lost.

Yet Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate at a moment when Americans wanted change — not a continuation of the Obama presidency by other means or a return to the Bush or Clinton dynasties. She had sky-high negative ratings, just like Trump. She was not liked, she was not trusted, and she was evasive. “Crooked Hillary”, Trump’s signature tweet, stuck for a good reason.

In this respect, it is misleading to suggest that the typical Trump supporter was an angry white man on opioids from West Virginia. Educated people voted for Trump. Women voted for Trump. As Salena Zito wrote in The Atlantic, Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally. By contrast, liberals, including the media, took Trump literally but not seriously. What this ignores is the damage the tycoon may have inflicted on public trust in American democracy. He coarsened civic discourse. He declared the political system corrupt. He even cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election not once but twice, declining to confirm he would accept the result if he lost.

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In the late spring of 2016, I travelled to Houston, Texas, to have lunch with James Baker, a former Treasury Secretary, US Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. I asked him whether America could survive a Trump presidency. “We are a country of laws, limited by bureaucracy. Presidents are not unilateral rulers,” Baker replied.

This confidence in the power of democratic institutions will be tested in the coming months. Trump wants to undo Obama’s legacy and unleash the animal spirits of American capitalism. The initial reaction in the stock market bordered on euphoric. Foreign policy is the bigger risk. Trump wants to pursue an America First foreign policy, renegotiating trade pacts and obliging allies to pay more for their collective defence. His world is about money not values: America the selfish superpower, as Robert Kagan has described it.

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Trump’s victory gives succour to the demagogues-in-waiting in 2017, notably Marine Le Pen, who will almost certainly make it through to the run-off for the French presidency. A win for Le Pen on top of Brexit would surely spell the end of the European Union. Elections in the Netherlands may also signal a shift to the right. Even in Germany, Angela Merkel, running for a fourth term, faces a challenge from the populist right in the form of Alternative für Deutschland, which will make the task of forming a ruling coalition much harder.

Trump’s foreign policy, assuming action follows words, also leaves the door wide open for the rising power of China. His abandonment of the TPP — a geopolitical building block as well as a trade pact — has unsettled Japan and Pacific neighbours. His anti-Mexican rhetoric has undermined the peso and left Latin Americans wondering whether Beijing is a safer bet. Among the Baltic states and Scandinavia, many are fretting about NATO’s defence guarantee in the face of Russian aggrandisement under Putin.

For more than two centuries, the US has served as a beacon for democratic values such as pluralism, tolerance and the rule of law. For the most part, it has been on the right side of history. In 2016, Americans for the first time voted into the White House a man with no previous government or military experience. Like Brexit, it was a high-risk gamble with utterly unpredictable consequences.

Trump’s winner-takes-all approach and his lack of respect for minority rights violates a cornerstone of democracy and free society, as set out in the 10th of the Federalist Papers written by James Madison, one of the founding fathers. His position mirrors the more extreme Brexiter demands that the “will of the people” be respected at all costs. Anyone who raises objections — the media, the opposition or, indeed, the judiciary — risks being branded “enemies of the people”.

This is not merely populism run rampant. It is a denial of politics itself, which, as the late scholar Bernard Crick reminds us, is the only alternative to government by coercion and the tyranny of the majority.

We have been warned.

Lionel Barber is the FT’s editor

An end to South Korea’s middle power moment?

December 30, 2016

An end to South Korea’s middle power moment?

by Jeffrey Robertson, ANU

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The Park Geun-hye administration started with an ambitious middle power foreign policy agenda. But as President Park’s time in office seems set to come to an end, South Korea’s middle power prestige may fall victim to South Korea’s domestic politics.

Park had several policies seeking to utilise South Korea’s middle power status. The ‘Eurasia Initiative’ aimed to establish a logistics and energy network through North Korea, Russia, Central Asia and on to Europe. Park’s ‘trustpolitik’ idea was intended to encourage reciprocal reconciliation with North Korea. The Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) sought to overcome the ‘Asia paradox’ of high levels of economic interdependence but low levels of trust and political cooperation. And the grouping of Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia (MIKTA) aspired to become a forum for middle powers to convene on global issues.

But despite the middle power zealotry, successes on the foreign policy front have been few and far between. With strains in the North Korea relationship, the Eurasia Initiative, ‘trustpolitik’ and NAPCI all faced an uphill battle from the start. Now, as the Park administration enters interminable decline, what’s left of the fruits of middle power diplomacy may also wither on the vine.

The next South Korean administration will face a choice on whether to continue promoting South Korea as a middle power.

The first reason to drop the middle power label is electoral politics. Under the Park administration, ‘middle power diplomacy’ became a guiding refrain. Hardly a speech went by without officials reiterating South Korea’s middle power identity.

As yet there are no clear signs that the electorate is tiring of the middle power label. But for an indeterminable period of time, middle power rhetoric will be inextricably linked to the Park administration. This may deter its use under the next administration.

Like Australia and Canada at the end of the 1990s, South Korea has also reached a middle power saturation point. Political, academic and media interest in middle powers is waning.

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The second reason to drop the middle power label is the personal vanity of leadership. Governments everywhere seek to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. But the South Korean presidential system effectively encourages foreign policy differentiation. The president overwhelmingly dominates the parliament, its political parties and the bureaucracy, which support greater continuity in other countries. With a single five-year term, it is also natural for a presidential administration to favour short-term goals over medium to long-term goals.

Sometimes only the labels change on foreign policy. South Korea’s relations with the Central Asian region serve as an example. Under Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea launched the ‘Comprehensive Central Asia Initiative’. Under former president Lee Myung-bak this became the ‘New Asia Initiative’, and under Park Geun-hye it was transformed into the ‘Eurasia Initiative’. Each reincarnation acted only as a façade of new policy, all seeking to strengthen bilateral relations with countries sharing a high degree of trade complementarity with South Korea.

At other times, more than just the label changes. In 2010, Lee Myung-bak launched the Global Green Growth Initiative as one element in a broader policy initiative to establish South Korea as the global hub of green growth and sustainable development. Despite the huge potential and importance of this initiative, the desire to differentiate led the Park administration to largely discard it. MIKTA may now meet the same fate.

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MIKTA may be the only foreign policy initiative of the Park administration that will be missed. What seemed like a haphazard gathering of diverse states with varied interests and aims is steadily transforming into a distinct process that is building bridges between politicians, policymakers, media and academics. The result will be a degree of middle power ‘like-mindedness’ and, ultimately, cooperation between the five countries on global issues.

Even in its short history, the process has witnessed warming relations between states that previously saw little reason to gather. Without ongoing South Korean support, the likelihood that MIKTA will recede into foreign policy memory increases. Whether it does or not will be in the hands of the next administration.

Both electoral politics and the personal vanity of leadership suggest that we are, unfortunately, witnessing an end to South Korea’s middle power moment.

Jeffrey Robertson is Visiting Fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, The Australian National University and Assistant Professor, Yonsei University. He is the author of Diplomatic Style and Foreign Policy: A Case Study of South Korea (Routledge, 2016).