South-East Asia not looking pretty

18 January, 2014
As appeared in

Denial will not solve anything.

SOUTH-EAST Asia is the region to watch this year for better or for worse.

Of course we would like the world to see the bustling activity towards regional integration by the end of 2015. Although there would previously have been trepidation of Myanmar’s chairmanship of Asean, there is this year no fear it will screw up or cause the region huge embarrassment.

It will hold the expected 400 or so meetings, spend the budget it has set aside of US$30mil, and even ensure an even-handed chairmanship that Brunei delivered last year and Cambodia did not in 2012.

Then, when Myanmar hands over the baton to Malaysia in 2015 the last successful lap will be completed at its end with the establishment of the Asean community.

A reality or a chimera? Gaps in the AEC (Asean Economic Community) will be experienced even if 80% of targets are already achieved in tick-the-box fashion. But think of the even bigger gaps in realising the Asean Political Community (APC) and the Asean Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).

The distance of the latter from reality informs the mythology often trumpeted of Asean community achievement. If it is still an association rather than a community, let’s say so rather then give rise to false expectations which could deflect from actual community-building.

How many of us really think Asean, or particularly experience all these outcomes from those huge number of meetings Asean government officials busy themselves with?

Asean has become the kingdom of officialdom. This must change. There is a great need to reach out to the people about where Asean is headed and how their lives will be affected by it. And all in two years following 46 years at the end of which, last year, there was little evidence of significant appreciation of Asean among its peoples.

Instead what they see and experience are disparate situations which cause concern. There is big trouble in Thailand. This is different from the insurgency in the south which has been going on for the longest time, or from previous conditions that gave rise to so many coups in that country.

The Muan Maha Prachachon, or great uprising, in Thailand has major significance in South-East Asia, as it reflects strong sentiment against the status quo and growing activism for regime change. While such populist surge has been observed over time in major states such as Indonesia and the Philippines, even in hitherto less challenged democracies like Malaysia and Singapore, established ruling elites have to increasingly respond to oppositional pressure without previous ability to demonise or isolate it as fringe and extreme politics.

There are important differences of course. The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) could not have survived this long or inflicted this much damage to the government in power without tacit military support. Certainly explicit support of the armed forces is absent for the government to enforce law and order. Even the police, largely seen as sympathetic to the Yingluck Shinawatra regime, is powerless to act as the law enforcement agency for fear of antagonising the military into staging the coup.

The government, in other words, has lost its authority if ever it had it. The military has hung over it like the Sword of Damocles. Its majority in the legislature counts for nothing. The military, together with the Privy Council, counts for the most in the political life of Thailand. As long as the civilians are able to forge a stable order, the threat of intervention by the armed forces is reduced. But there always is that threat in a country where since the 20th century there have been at least 18 coups or attempted coups by the military, the last in 2006.

The last coup, around which much of today’s strains in Thailand revolve, had highlighted the political division in the country which does not appear capable of resolution whatever happens in the current turmoil.

This great divide – between rich and poor, rural and urban – is a matter of common concern in South-East Asia. Governments which claim to have given the people economic development are seen as wanting in the distribution of its spoils. Indeed they are often seen as unjust and corrupt in the channelling of largesse. People are no longer willing to be fobbed off with morsels of economic good, no questions asked.

Even when distribution is made to favour the rural and the poor, as the Shinawatra regime in Thailand has done, the urban not-so-rich are antagonized, not to mention the elite rich who accuse the regime of bribery to maintain power while corruptly enriching itself.

Governments are entrapped by their claims of bringing economic success and become responsible for its every ill. When prices go up, they are blamed for it. When there is not enough housing, they must provide more. When roads are choked, it is the government’s fault. And so it goes on.

One way of coming up for air is to have a more open and less constricted economy. This means freeing prices, removing subsidies and widening the tax net. All this will hit people in many comfort zones. Vested interests, monopolies and molly-coddled consumers.

And to add to the dilemmas, the pillars of the political systems will be shaken and disturbed if economic reform is taken too far. Political support must not be risked. Caution is the better part of valour. There are thus half-hearted measures. There is truncated change which does not fully address resentments and dissatisfactions.

Even in Singapore, which perhaps has the least complex political structure, the ruling PAP will lose further ground unless it can come up with a growth model which does not overly reward the top end of its work force. How do you do it when you have become a high-income economy which has left the lower income behind?

Now when you bring in foreign high earners, it causes deeper resentment. When you bring in cheap foreign labour, it also causes further resentment among the local low income earners who experience pressures on housing and social services – and higher prices.

And they are all expressing their grievances in open unSingaporean fashion as well as voting for the opposition. If the PAP does not move from the technocratically-driven system with few political questions asked, its position will erode. If it tries to address that erosion through Lee Kuan Yew style iron fist, its position will erode even further.

So it eases. Interventions in both the higher and lower ends of the labour markets. Greater freedom of political expression. Outcome for the PAP: Remains to be seen. But at least policy is trying to adapt to socio-economic realities with consequential relaxation of political rigidities.

In Cambodia, the regime does not change. It shoots at the garment workers asking for more pay. Not a pretty sight. But Cambodia remains a member of Asean and is part of the tireless official effort to establish the Asean political community where observation of human rights is part of the mantra – but not by interfering in the domestic affairs of a member state.

Shooting demonstrating workers is a domestic right. To demonstrate peacefully or to live is not a human right. Is this the Asean way? It becomes increasingly difficult to countenance it as the region moves to become a community which must mean something in terms of shared values.

Flavour of the month – or is it a couple of years now? – Myanmar has been killing Rohingyas and other Muslims with impunity ever since it became a darling investment destination. Not many voices have been raised. Not even by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who is lured and lulled by the prospect of becoming Myanmar’s next president just as foreign investors are by that of making money. Their condemnation of human rights violations was so great until Myanmar opened up.

Buddhist monks openly call for the killing of Muslims in a country where they form 4% of the population. What chance do they have against this wave of religious and racial hatred and persecution?

Indeed pluralism is in peril in significant parts of South-East Asia, including in Malaysia which has always prided itself on its multiracialism.

Indonesia has a clear policy of religious tolerance and recognition. After the fall of the Old Order in 1998, many positive changes came about. For example, the Chinese New Year was reinstated as a public holiday. The national Pancasila ideology is tolerant and very much alive.

Yet, the extremist fringe tries to close out the national policy. Terror and intolerance are their tools and their targets move to suit particular emotional circumstances. Churches are burned in Sulawesi, pagan Papuans are murdered. Fellow Muslims are not spared. The Ahmadiyya sect is a favourite victim. The Shias are increasingly being defined as not Muslims when, as every level-headed Muslim knows, only Allah has the prerogative to judge who is and is not a Muslim.

Malaysia has also come under the attack of the extremist fringe. We have come to the point where the safety catch has been released. It is a dangerous moment when there must be clear leadership in the direction of the country’s ethic of tolerance and moderation.

Some things – like the controversy and interpretation over right of use of the word Allah – will probably never be resolved, whether by a 10-point plan or decision of the Federal Court. What will abide however is a system of law and order which maintains peaceful relations among citizens and acts against violation of the peace. When the system arrogates such powers to many and different agencies, such diffusion spells the beginning of the breakdown of law and order.

It will be as if vigilantes have the right to hang their quarry and the Klu Klux Clan the licence to burn and kill. We have to be very careful and clear. The task of statesmanship in the present circumstances – I do not say political leadership – is to be clear about law and order without favouring one side or the other. And then to examine the systemic risks to that order and to make changes to the law as necessary to ensure control of that safety catch. Too many tragedies have occurred in the world when there have been too many fingers on the trigger.

This is not a matter of politics. It is not a matter of trade-off, between one group or the other, or as between the economics and the politics that we are seeing across South-East Asia.

All the talk about establishing an Asean community will ring hollow if there is not even a sense of community within member states. Hollow indeed if there is violation of individual and communal rights. This is not a box to be ticked. It is fundamental.