Pressure for Reform in Southeast Asia

Singapore's "watershed" election sends new signals for change across the region.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
Singapore opposition party supporters celebrate results of general elections, May 8, 2011.

Rights activists constantly bombard Burma and its communist one-party state neighbors Vietnam and Laos for their stubborn refusal to embrace meaningful political reforms.

But shouldn't the more prosperous Southeast Asian nations—especially the founders of the ASEAN grouping—also take the flack for dragging their feet on expanding political liberties for their peoples?

The recent election in Singapore, in which the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) suffered its worst performance, has thrown the spotlight on lagging reforms not only in the island state but also in other more developed economies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.   

The PAP's share of the popular vote slipped to an all-time low of 60 percent despite the island state's strong economic growth in the last five years, including a record 14.5 percent expansion in 2010.

The opposition romped home with six parliamentary seats, the highest number it has ever taken.

Many disenchanted young voters used social media during the elections to press for a more open political system as they spoke out against Singapore's high living costs, low wages, and lax immigration laws.

Reacting swiftly, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled sweeping Cabinet changes, opting for younger ministers, and with a pledge to review the high salaries earned by ministers, a raging election issue.

His blunt-speaking father, Lee Kuan Yew, the country's first prime minister, who has little patience for dissent, also stepped down from active politics after more than half a century at the very top.

But the public is crying for more reforms in the tightly controlled state, demanding changes to sedition, libel, and electoral laws and those that control media and freedom of assembly.

"It’s time for Singaporeans to realize that they will never be entitled to the full economic rights they deserve as citizens of Singapore without first reclaiming their political rights from the PAP," said Temasek Review, a popular Internet newspaper.

It urged Singaporeans to "first fight for their basic human rights of freedom of speech and assembly as enshrined and guaranteed" under the city state's constitution.

"Sounding board"

The "political tsunami" in Singapore serves as a "sounding board for the future political landscape in Southeast Asia," wrote Kavi Chongkittavorn, editor of The Nation newspaper in Thailand.

"Changes, albeit small and at a snail pace, as it may be in the island republic, sends a strong signal to similar kinds of governments in ASEAN that they either take up reform or soon be challenged by their own people," he said.

Rapid economic growth "is no longer sufficient criteria to sustain power holding without democracy and acceptable governance."

Reforms and polls

Elections are also approaching in Thailand in July and in Malaysia possibly within a year with planned reforms weighing heavily in the polls.

In Thailand, a high level panel that has recommended decentralizing the government's powers in a bid to give more rights to citizens was disbanded this month ahead of the elections.

The National Reform Committee was set up last year following political violence in a bid to heal deep social divisions, strengthen civil society and promote fairness as part of a government reconciliation agenda.

“Political parties (campaigning in the election) should make national reform a major policy. But so far no party has a clear-cut policy,” lamented Thailand's ex-premier Anand Panyarachun, who headed the panel.

The election is set to boil down to a clash between prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and exiled businessman Thaksin Shinawatra, who was twice elected premier only to be forced out by the military in 2006.

Any reform will have to scrutinize the role of the army in Thailand, which has endured at least 18 coups in the last eight decades. The military is believed backed by a small establishment of royalists and business elite.

Race-based policy
In Malaysia, reforms to a four-decade-old race-based policy that has led to blatant abuses and corruption and spawned a patronage-ridden economy have failed to take off one year after they were announced.

Prime Minister Najib Razak appears reluctant to move forward with his "New Economic Model" to revamp the affirmative action policy favoring majority ethnic Malays, due to opposition from right-wing  groups.

While the new model envisions an open high-income economy and attempts to ease criticism of racial discrimination against the ethnic minority Chinese and Indians, it does not go far enough in grappling with the enormous challenges facing the economy.

The reform plan "doesn't reflect and address the structural challenges or even identify them adequately," said Kamal Malhotra, a senior United Nations Development Programme official, Malaysia's official Bernama news agency reported.

Democratic reforms are also slow to come by in Malaysia, which still maintains a draconian law that allows indefinite detention of without trial. Newspapers must renew their licenses every year, and cannot petition the courts if the government revokes them.

Political parties

In the Philippines, much delayed political party reforms are still languishing in the legislature despite support from many lawmakers and non-government organizations.

The reforms set limits to campaign contributions and state financing for political campaigns as well as prohibit political turncoatism in a country driven by personality politics and where political parties are almost inconsequential.

The current Philippine system requires a "radical re-engineering as it is studded with opportunism and turncoatism and there is no transparency or accounting of political contributions or donations," said veteran politician and senator Edgardo Angara.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who was elected by a landslide last year, has also come under fire for not being firm in efforts to weed out corruption and poverty in the archipelago where more than 40 percent of the people live on less than U.S. $2 a day.

It took eight months for Aquino to get cracking on a committee to plan the government's agenda and prioritize legislative programs. Even then, the initial list did not include bills that he had championed, including those on reproductive health and freedom of information.

Islamic radicalism

In Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest state, efforts to spread democracy have slowed and some hard-fought reforms implemented following dictator President Suharto's ouster in 1998 risk being rolled back due to pressure from conservatives, according to reports.

Rising Islamic radicalism is also posing a threat in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told American journalists who traveled to Indonesia recently that his country was serious in conducting reforms but admitted it will be a long and "painful" process" and that "democracy takes time."

Electoral management, the fight against corruption, and the lack of protection of minority rights are major areas where conservatives have sought to unwind reforms, Australia-based scholar Marcus Mietzner said in a report.

He argued that a civil society push-back was the only reason there had not been a full-blown reversal.

Swift reforms in the leading ASEAN countries are key to prodding the others in the group to open up their economies, especially Burma, which is under increasing pressure to release the more than 2,000 political prisoners it holds at present.

"It’s not wrong to regard Burma as the epitome of an evil regime in Southeast Asia, but this view shouldn’t prevent us from exposing and resisting the varying shades of authoritarianism in the region that are anathema to the building of a genuine democracy," said Mong Palatino, Southeast Asia editor at the international bloggers' forum Global Voices.


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