Arab revolts. Nevertheless, the wave of popular uprisings that shook the
Middle-East and North Africa region goes far beyond the region’s boundaries,
and Southeast Asia is no exception to the global crisis of confidence towards
governments. 2011 was a year of massive demonstration of widespread and
deeply felt discontent that was willing and able to assert itself in powerful and
often new ways. Although contexts and political cultures differ, the impact of
the Arab revolts on Southeast Asia is already palpable. The consequences of
the wave of Arab protests on Southeast Asian countries carry their load of
opportunities and risks for governments, in political, social and economic
terms. But the impact is not one way, and Southeast Asian experiences could
represent a source of inspiration.
A Different Political Culture
cleverly manoeuvre within tightly controlled spaces mainly through electoral
contests that do not directly challenge entrenched authority. Malaysians have
succeeded to get their messages across, created dents, raised questions,
and expanded spaces for public discourse. Filipinos, Thais and Indonesians
who have succeeded in regime change through relatively peaceful means,
redirected the course of political life and a qualitative shift in social life has
occurred. Thai voters returned to power the party of deposed premier Thaksin
Shinawatra through the landslide victory of his sister Yingluck --- a victory
forhis red-shirted supporters that in the past involved bloody clashes with the
military. For the moment, her unequivocal electoral victory ended years of
strife between red and yellow shirts and put the country back on a path of
relative stability and economic growth. In Burma, the generals have retreated,
and a new civilian government promises to deliver reforms, signaling a new
political direction for the country that would emulate market-based
democracies. In Indonesia, broad-based social movements have helped
restore democratic practice.
Since the eruption of the Arab uprisings, Myanmar has relaxed strict
government control in part for fear that the Burmese might be capable of the
kind of resilience displayed by Syrians in their 14-month old defiance of brutal
regime repression. Singapore's long-ruling People's Action Party has seen its
share of the electoral vote drop to a record low because of surging prices and
immigration and a new generation of young voters who espouse the values of
political choice and social change. In a further indication of sensitivity to
developments in the Middle East and North Africa and recognition of the need
for release valves, Singaporean bloggers were long able to get away with what
mainstream media could not(1). Malaysia has responded to sharp criticism of
the police by repealing two sweeping security laws and lifting restrictions on
the media even though a new restrictive assembly law and clashes between
police and demonstrators point in the opposite direction. In all of these
countries in Southeast Asia, grievances were channeled via organized efforts
of social movements.
In all of these countries thus far, political strife has not resulted in civil wars.
This is perhaps the singular feature that distinguishes protest action in
Southeast Asia from the Middle East. It also suggests that Southeast Asian
governments are likely to be more adept in responding to potential popular
discontent than entrenched Arab autocracies.
Further, most Southeast Asian countries have engaged in party politics
despite the imperfections in the development of political parties in this region.
Some countries like Malaysia have experienced the dominance of the Barisan
Nasional which has ruled the country for nearly two decades. Yet, opposition
politics led by Anwar is making inroads into the ruling party and will most likely
see the emergence of more vigorous electoral contests in the coming years.
In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to parliament in which her
party, the National League for Democracy, commands a respectable following.
The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia continue to struggle with political
party formation, so that these entities reflect broader programs for governance
rather than the personality of its front-runner candidates. Political evolution,
though slow and tedious, heralds the institutionalization of a political process
that in turn signals a forward march in the creation of a more modernized
political culture. For all the citizens of these countries, hopes are high that the
deepening of these processes will consolidate democracy and therefore
For all Southeast Asian countries, an active electoral culture is in place, and
citizens do take their electoral rights seriously. They insist on the legitimacy of
their leaders through fair and honest elections. This should be construed as a
sign of political health, and a staunch adherence to a social contract between
government and their subjects.
Finally, social movements have been a part of the institutional life of Southeast
Asian countries. Even in Myanmar where civil society organizations including
media have faced severe restrictions, the Burmese found spaces within the
existing political opportunity structures to have their voices heard and
registered. In Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, social movements have
been an integral part of the fabric of social life. Where protest groups have
taken to the streets, these have been, by and large, relatively peaceful despite
the occasional violence and destruction to public property.
Interestingly, social movements in all these countries opt for an electoral
option, thus working within institutional means that are offered by a regime
which, in and of itself, desires to play by the rules of the “legitimacy game.”
However unpopular, regimes seek recourse to legitimatizing procedures, even
incurring the risk of potential loss. Thus far, all rulers seek a popular mandate,
never mind that they might engage in the occasional electoral manipulation to
ensure longevity. Notwithstanding fraudulent practices in electoral politics in
Southeast Asia, the quest for political legitimacy should be construed as a
hopeful development in the evolution of politics in these countries.
However flawed these processes are, most Southeast Asian nations are
poised to consolidate their economic and political gains in the years to come.
And in contrast to the Middle East and North Africa with its entrenched
autocracies, their governments have by and large displayed a greater degree
of attunement to what is happening around them with a greater deal of vision
Energy Security Issue and Islamist Experience
If the Arab revolts and developments in Southeast Asia are both expressions
of a broader global trend, the impact on ASEAN nations of developments in
the Middle East is far more direct. As the Arab uprising inevitably spreads to
the Gulf, Southeast Asian nations will have to define the risk to their energy
security and develop alternatives in case of a disruption in oil and gas supplies
as well as increase their focus on alternative energy options. Some Southeast
Asian nations particularly the Philippines and Indonesia will also have to deal
with the impact of large numbers of migrant workers returning home to escape
The energy security issue will no doubt shoot to the top of the agenda if or
more probably when the protests spread to Saudi Arabia and/or other major oil
producers. Non-oil producing Southeast Asian nations like Singapore,
Thailand and the Philippines depend on the Middle East for 70 per cent of the
oils and gas imports. In addition, Southeast Asia and the Middle East are
crucial links in a seaborne commerce conveyor belt that runs from the Gulf to
the Pacific. If the Straits of Malaka and Singapore were seen as potentially
among the most risky maritime choke points in the past, today it's the Straits of
Hormuz and Bab el. Mandeb, which is straddled by Somalia and Yemen. Asia
would be most affected if shipping particularly through the Strait of Hormuz
were to be interrupted. The US gets 22 per cent of its oil from the Gulf, Europe
about 30 per cent as compared to Asia’s whopping 75 per cent. Needless to
say, Asia has the most at stake in terms of energy security.
Southeast Asian governments and military and intelligence organizations are
monitoring closely the geopolitics of the Arab revolts as well as their fallout as
part of a global trend that expresses a lack of confidence in institutions with a
mixture of hope and anxiety.
The debate over the potential domestic fallout is to some degree coloured by
vested interests that have gained in strength and prominence in the wake of
9/11. For those whose budgets are boosted by perceptions of a terrorist threat,
the focus is on the rise of the Islamists in countries like Egypt and what this is
likely to mean, for example, for Islamist groups in Indonesia, Malaysia,
Thailand and Brunei.
To be sure, the rise of Islamist forces in the Middle East and North Africa
boosts confidence among Islamists in Southeast Asia. Yet, the tradition of
Islamist participation in Malaysian party politics dates back to the 1950s and
has proven its resilience despite the efforts to silence its proponents. Islamist
politics in Indonesia is no doubt gaining ground against more secular forces.
But it is doing so in a country that votes decidedly secular despite growing
religious intolerance and widespread corruption.
Beyond The Turkish Model A Southeast Asian Inspiration
As post-revolt and opposition forces in the Middle East and North Africa look
first and foremost to Turkey but also to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore,
they are likely to have to first settle their post-revolt battles before they can
really build on the experiences of others. Despite all their warts, Indonesia,
Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, the Philippines, and more currently,
Myanmar, have much to offer. Singapore alongside Malaysia constitutes
examples of multiculturalism which the Middle Eastern and North African
countries increasingly wracked by ethnic and sectarian cleavages will need.
Similarly, Indonesia stands as a model of reform of the military in a post-revolt
society, a model that, like Turkey, can only grow in significance as the push for
greater accountability and transparency moves forward in the Middle East and
North Africa. Finally, Myanmar’s path towards a more open political system
demonstrates that even the most intractable of regimes are capable of being
Nonetheless, with the exception of Brunei, Southeast Asia is likely to be more
a question of a monsoon in which steady rain washes away entrenched
powers rather than an Arab Spring in which costly revolutions seek to replace
systems rather than reform them. Fact of the matter is that Southeast Asia
despite its political uprisings is a region of relative peace and stability. It has
posted one of the world’s highest growth rates and Southeast Asians enjoy
grounded in elections and who, by and large, have upheld their end of the
bargain in social contracts. In doing so, they have established structures that
are increasingly robust yet capable of embracing change. This is being
reinforced by Southeast Asia having one of the world’s fastest expanding
middle classes whose clamour for greater openness, transparency and
accountability is certain to make itself felt.
There is reason to believe that no matter how flawed the process is, most
Southeast Asian nations are poised to consolidate their economic and political
gains. The challenge will be for governments to see social movements and
street politics not as fundamental defiance to the system but as evidence that
social contracts are subject to the vigilance of their citizens.
The collective experience of Southeast Asia should boost confidence in the
region and hold out hope for the Middle East and North Africa. It is an
experience of volatility, of two steps forward and one step backward in the
immediate wake of a revolt and of the ultimate entrenchment of electoral
politics and the flourishing of civil society in the longer run. In short, Southeast
Asia shows that institutions, processes and mechanics, however flawed and
imperfect, can convert contentious springs into manageable monsoons. What
sets the experience in Southeast Asia apart from that in the Middle East and
North Africa is that in Southeast Asia grievances were channeled through the
organized efforts of social movements rather than suppressed by a military
crackdown on civil society.
(1) That could be changing with at least one blogger for the first time having been taken to task for what he
wrote and forced to retract some postings