Dropping the fig leaf of ‘Asian values’

Marwaan Macan-Markar
22 Dec 06

As Indonesia lays claim to being the most promising democracy in South-east Asia, it is burying the expression, ‘Asian values,’ conveniently used by leaders in this region to crush civil liberties while calling their countries democracies.

The New Year is expected to strengthen the democratic credentials of South-east Asia’s largest country especially when set against its five regional neighbours — Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia — that end 2006 with a growing list of questions about their claims to be functioning democracies.

Indonesia is winning praise for seeing the current year through with signs of a country growing as a developing democracy after being crushed for over three decades of strongman Suharto’s rule which ended in 1998. Two significant indicators suggest the shift away from Suharto’s heavily centralised regime that tolerated little dissent — and one billed at the time as a government advancing the idea of ‘Asian values’.

December saw a successful provincial election in the troubled and tsunami-ravaged region of Aceh. It has come to represent a glowing symbol of the push by Indonesia’s political reformers to make way for more devolved power to benefit local communities across this archipelago.

Equally significant was a ruling in December by the country’s Constitutional Court which annulled three articles in the constitution that prohibited insulting the president. It meant political space opening up for the two main engines driving the country’s democracy movement — civil society groups and the media — to strengthen transparency and accountability.

‘’Democracy will be strengthened in 2007 because of our strong civil society movement and the free media. They have been the backbone of reforms in the country,” Azyumardi Azra, rector of the Jakarta-based State Islamic College, said in a telephonic interview from the Indonesian capital. ‘’The recent election in Aceh should help the on-going decentralisation process. In fact the problem at times is there may be too much democracy on the ground, with little awareness of what it means.”

His views have been amplified by a poll conducted in October by the Indonesia Survey Institute, where 82 percent of the people questioned by this Jakarta-based body said they support democracy in the world’s most populous Muslim country. The survey also revealed a swing towards political parties and leaders, such as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who represent a more moderate secular culture than those advocating radical Islamic policies.

The prospect of the Indonesian military returning to dominate the political scene will also get more remote in the new year, added Azyurmadi, since public sentiment has grown against military officers holding political power, a central feature of the Suharto regime. ‘’I don’t think the army can revive its political role. The military is finished in this area, as far as I see it.”

Thailand, by this yardstick, has taken a step backwards in 2006 following the Sep. 19 military coup, which ousted twice-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. And the prevailing views of the ruling junta and its chorus of supporters in Bangkok point to a further departure from the customary feature of a democracy in 2007, when the regime plans to unveil a new constitution – the country’s 18th since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Typical of this call for a ‘’Thai-style” democracy is a move to have the country accept an appointed prime minister rather than one elected at the polls. Analysts have viewed this sentiment as one more clue about the intentions of the coup-makers and their supporters, even among academics in Thai universities, to return the levers of political power to a conservative elite that treat with contempt the country’s rural poor, the largest voter base.

But such a move to shut the public from the democratic process may come at a price, critics warn, since it would be seen as reverting to the practice of unelected premiers and a ‘’semi-democracy” that had been a regular feature before the country’s 1997, reformist constitution. ‘’A constitutional solution that tries to ensure rural demands do not get the hearing they deserve in the formal politics of the nation will simply redirect those demands elsewhere,” argued a respected columnist writing under the pseudonym Chang Noi in a November edition of ‘The Nation’ newspaper.

In the Philippines, on the other hand, a similar quest by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to tinker with the prevailing constitution in the hope of introducing a new charter in 2007 has seen a growing chorus of street protests. A recent anti-Arroyo rally in Manila, which attracted 50,000 demonstrators, indicated just how unpopular this measure is. The presence of the country’s powerful Catholic clergy among the ranks of the opposition would not have been lost on her, given that the priests were in the vanguard of public disenchantment that brought down two unpopular presidents since the mid-1980s.

Arroyo’s motives, to replace the prevailing constitution, the country’s fifth, with a new charter is being viewed with suspicion as an attempt to extend her power. She wants the U.S.-style political system of a presidential form of government, which has a two-term limit, replaced by a British-styled parliamentary form of rule, where the prime minister has no time limit in office.

Arroyo’s record in office in 2006 has also not helped to foster an image of a democracy advocate, particularly her inability to stop the growing list of extra-judicial killings of grassroots activists, leftist sympathisers and even priests. With that comes her increasing dependency on the Philippines army for survival following her 2004 election victory, where she was accused of cheating.

Meanwhile, the political troubles Malaysia carries into the New Year will be as daunting for the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The year ends with deepening cracks in the image the country has tried to promote as a role model of an economically successful, moderate Muslim nation. Growing animosity the majority Malays harbour towards the country’s minorities, in particular the ethnic Chinese, was highlighted during a convention of Abdullah’s ruling party in November. Some speeches, delivered live on television, called for the beheading of non-Muslims.

Abdullah has already been put on notice for his government’s sluggish response to growing threats to minority rights and may see the country head down a dangerous road in 2007. Such concerns are not unfounded, given the 1969 race riots in which hundreds of people were killed.

‘’Malaysia today is facing a huge dilemma, as the country’s public domain is being torn apart by competing demands and interests,” Farish Noor, a Malaysian political commentator, wrote recently in the on-line edition of Pakistan’s ‘Daily Times’. ‘”The failure to take into account the realities of multicultural life is what is painfully evident in present-day Malaysia.”

A lack of action by Abdullah in 2007 may only serve to bolster the credentials of the country’s popular opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim, who hopes to reach out to the country’s liberal political centre during campaigns in the New Year. ‘’The mood is with us on the ground,” Azizah Ismail, who heads the People’s Justice Party besides being Ibrahim’s wife, told reporters recently.

And of the other two countries — Singapore and Cambodia û the political stability of 2006 is expected to continue in the New Year along with the disdain the ruling parties of both countries have for political and civil liberties. And in doing so, Singapore, the significantly richer of the two, will be able to hold on to the image of being the last outpost of the ‘’Asian values” culture — where the ruling elite takes on the role of a nanny to determine what is best for the country.

‘’There will not be any easing up of the political space in the country,” Sinapan Samydorai, president of the Think Centre, a Singapore-based non-governmental group lobbying for human rights, told IPS. ‘’There will be no change to this ‘guided’ democracy..”

In fact, media rights campaigners questioned Singapore’s claims to be a democracy this year and pointed to harsh censorship policies in place, making it no different, at times, to the repressive measures imposed on journalists by the region’s communist regimes, Laos and Vietnam. The country’s repressive laws, which are on par with that of military-ruled Burma, came into play against street demonstrations in September during the annual World Bank-International Monetary Fund meetings hosted by the city-state.

Samydorai does not expect Singapore’s ruling family to buck this trend in 2007. ‘’The press will be suppressed,” he said. And so will ‘’opposition figures who dare to speak out,” he added as a reminder of a country going through the motions of being a democracy but is in fact little better than a police state.

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