Malaysia has just finished its General Election. Like the election in Singapore two-years ago, there was plenty of euphoria and hope that things would change. Like its Singapore counterpart, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition held onto power but with its “worst-ever” election result. Like his Singapore counterpart, Malaysia’s Prime Minister had to acknowledge that despite his victory, he had received a proverbial slapping.
Things as they say, are getting interesting in the politics of Southeast Asian countries. There was a time when politics in Southeast Asia was boringly predictable. Western commentators went as far as describing ASEAN, the regional body, as a cozy dictators club. To a certain extent it was. The rulers of the various Southeast Asian Nations ruled for so long that they became synonymous with their countries. Mahathir was Malaysia as much as Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore and Suharto was Indonesia.
ASEAN’s strongmen attributed their longevity to things like culture and values (Asian culture instils a desire for strong leadership) and most importantly spectacular economic success. Singapore’s success story is so well known that it gave Lee Kuan Yew a nearly two-decade career as a “must-have” speaker to countries wanting to go from the Dark Ages into the Space Age in less than a decade. While Singapore’s development story takes the front pages, the rest of the region also saw economic growth that raised millions out of poverty. So, given the economic growth and the spectacular raise in wealth of the people, why have people in Southeast Asia become so angry with the systems that have brought them so much?
Well, the most logical place to start, would be with the 1997 economic crisis. People across the region found that the hot air lifting the balloon of economies was just that – hot air. The biggest casualty of the regional crisis was Suharto, the strongest man in the biggest country in the region. Mr Suharto, a former army general who had ruled as a Javanese emperor for 30 over years was ousted by student protest (children of the middle class he had helped create).
As many have pointed out – people were tolerant of abuses and corruption from the top as long as they were getting richer. When the economy collapsed, the poor and the newly created poor (formerly known as the Middle Class) would not tolerate wide-scale corruption amongst the elite.
Neither Singapore nor Malaysia have seen the type of collapse that happened to Indonesia. The conditions in Malaysia and Singapore are far milder than what hit Indonesia in 1997, yet the populations in both nations are reacting and not waiting for things to happen. Why?
I suppose you could say that there are two-key factors, namely communications technology and the size of the middle class.
Communications technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, it’s not just about the mobile phone and the internet but about the internet being received on the mobile phone. People can pick up all sorts of information delivered into their palms in an instant. Officials can no longer censor information the way they use to and the official version of the truth is not the ONLY truth. Thanks to “Smart Phones” – everyone is a news reporter. At the time of writing, one of the most prominent stories coming out of Malaysia is the deluge of videos “allegedly” showing trucks bringing in “fake” ballot papers to various polling stations and “phantom” voters from Bangladesh.
Such videos will make it imperative for Mr Najib to distance his government from the ‘corruption’ that his party has been accused of. The public will pounce on every perceived injustice that the government tries to ‘cover up.’
Economic success also created a large middle class. In Singapore one can argue that the majority of the population can be considered middle class. Unlike the poor, the middle class will not wait for an economic collapse before taking to the streets. The moment this group feels its basic aspirations (sending kids to college and good jobs) it starts to act.
So what can the political elite do? The most obvious is to recognize that times have changed. Both the BN and PAP have remained in power through the votes of older voters who remember the good things they did. Both have used the powers of incumbruancy and the power of patronage to shamelessly.
However, these things will not work on their own forever. It’s perhaps time that the ruling elite in Singapore and Malaysia recognize that business is no longer going to be as usual.