In Southeast Asia, the Bad Guys are Staging a Comeback

Across Southeast Asia, former autocrats are staging their comebacks, exploiting ethnic and religious divisions, as well as fragile institutions. In Myanmar, a decade of cautious democratisation was violently upended by a military coup last year, while, in more recent times, once-disgraced kleptocratic forces in the Philippines and Malaysia have managed to regain public favour, threatening the future democratic health of those countries. This will have significant implications for governance in one of the world’s most economically dynamic regions.

This trend was first seen in Myanmar following the military’s brazen power grab on February 1st, 2021. Now, a year in, the fallout caused by the coup shows no signs of abating, as violence that was once limited to the country’s borderlands has now spread to the centre, effectively plunging the country into a full-blown civil war between the forces of the Tatmadaw (the official name of Myanmar’s military) and local resistance groups known as the People’s Defence Forces (PDF).

The economy, never the region’s strongest, has collapsed. Its currency has dropped some 30 percent since last February, and the economy is expected to see little to no growth in 2022 after a contraction of 18 percent in the fiscal year ending September 2021. Prior to the coup, the country had enjoyed annual economic growth averaging seven percent between 2011 and 2016.

While the Tatmadaw may be back in power, it has failed to consolidate control over the entire country, with PDF forces claiming to have established “liberated zones” in rural areas complete with their own administrations. Initially established to defend their local areas from Tatmadaw incursions, PDF actions have become more offensive in nature, including attacking military bases and carrying out bombings and targeted assassinations of government officials. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a US-based NGO, total casualties of the conflict are believed to have reached 11,000 in 2021 alone.

In other parts of Southeast Asia, former autocrats have also staged comebacks, albeit using ballot boxes rather than bullets. In the Philippines, the son and namesake of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos won a landslide victory in the recently concluded presidential elections held on May 9th, securing around 60 percent of the votes. (His closest rival, Vice President Leni Robredo, won 27.94 percent of the votes.)

Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. is celebrating a landslide victory in the Philippines presidential election, an extraordinary comeback for a family once best known for widespread human rights abuses and the plunder of an estimated $10 billion https://t.co/Iwqad30BES pic.twitter.com/hiFGTPQktV— Reuters (@Reuters) May 10, 2022

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s sweeping victory represents a remarkable political comeback for the Marcos family, who were ousted from power during the 1986 "People Power" revolution after a two-decade rule marked by human rights abuses and grand corruption. By one estimate, by the time Ferdinand Marcos fled to Hawaii, his family and cronies had looted up to $10 billion from the country, much of which is still being recovered by the government (a recovery effort that is now under threat).

The return of the Marcoses to the Malacañang Palace bodes ill for Asia’s oldest democracy. Institutions created in response to Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s abuse of power during his rule risk being undermined, as do ongoing corruption cases following the Marcos family.

In neighbouring Malaysia, disgraced former prime minister Najib Tun Razak plans a similar comeback of equal audaciousness. Under his leadership, Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, led by the dominant United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), had been ousted from power in May 2018 after 61 years of uninterrupted rule of the country following independence from the British in 1957.

Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Bin Tun Abdul Razak, January 26, 2018. Wikimedia Commons

Much of the blame for the defeat had been attributed to a massive corruption scandal surrounding Najib, in which $700 million had somehow ended up in his personal bank account, widely believed to be part of the $4.5 billion which had been siphoned off from 1MDB, a state investment fund. The 1MDB scandal had gripped the international media, with investigations into financial malfeasance involving the fund taking place in the US, Switzerland, and Singapore. Out of power, Najib was convicted on several charges of abuse of power and money laundering in 2021 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. A presiding judge labelled him a “national embarrassment.”

Out on bail while his appeal is being heard, Najib has nevertheless proven he remains popular among a large segment of the Malaysian public. This was most glaringly seen in the convincing majorities that Barisan Nasional won in state elections in the West Malaysian states of Melaka in November 2021 and Johor in March 2022, both of which saw Najib positioned at front and centre of their campaigns.

Maintaining a large support base within the party, Najib and the other UMNO leaders facing corruption charges are now piling pressure on Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob (who is also vice-president of UMNO) to call an early general election, which Barisan Nasional is widely expected to win handily. For Najib, it is believed that greater control over the federal machinery provided by an election win may give him a get-out-of-jail card, possibly through a self-pardon. Indeed, a recent anti-graft probe launched against the judge who convicted Najib in 2021 has raised fears in certain quarters that a narrative exonerating Najib is already being established.

What explains the longevity of anciens régimes in Southeast Asia? Racial and religious divisions are one factor. In Myanmar, the outsized political influence of the Tatmadaw can be attributed to its claim that it is the only institution that has managed to hold together a country of 135 ethnicities, having been in almost continuous combat against several ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) on Myanmar’s peripheries for more than 70 years since independence.

In Malaysia, UMNO’s return to power in March 2020 was predicated on stoking the concerns of the majority Malay Muslims that the institutional supremacy they have traditionally enjoyed (which privileges them when it comes to access to housing, schooling, and government contracts) was under threat from the more multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition, which drew huge support from the country’s minority Chinese and Indian populations.

Southeast Asia’s highly personalistic form of politics also plays a part. Contrary to Western stereotypes of Asian conformism, Southeast Asian politics is highly individualistic, with power depending on personal networks rather than formal institutions, the latter of which are often weak.

The rehabilitation of the Marcoses in the Philippines, for example, would never have been possible if Marcos-era loyalists had been fully expunged from the country’s institutions, particularly its judiciary. These networks of loyalists allowed the Marcoses to dodge numerous lawsuits and even jail time.

Despite being convicted on tax evasion-related charges, Marcos Jr. has been allowed to hold multiple offices prior to running for the presidency, having previously served as a governor, congressman, and senator. Imelda Marcos, the former wife of the dictator who was also convicted on charges of graft in 2018 has, likewise, remained free from jail.

Unsurprisingly, this personalistic form of politics has imparted autocratic tendencies among the region’s leaders. Even those elected to office on the promise of reforms have felt the allure of it. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has, over the years, demonstrated some of the same illiberal tendencies that he once campaigned against, including overseeing a crackdown on civil society groups, as well as more recently flirting with constitutional changes to allow him to rule beyond the end of his two-term limit in 2024.

The personal networks which sustain power in Southeast Asia are primarily fuelled by patronage which, in turn, fuels often spectacular levels of corruption. Looking at the Economist’s latest incarnation of its Crony Capitalism Index (which measures the share of total billionaire wealth in each country believed to be attributed to cronyism), one notes the overrepresentation of Southeast Asia within the upper ranks of that list.

As of the 2022 update, Malaysia ranked second in the world behind Russia, while Singapore stood in third place. They were followed on the list by the Philippines (fourth), Indonesia (eighth), and Thailand (ninth). The 1MDB scandal which rocked Malaysia was, ultimately, not a one-off but, rather, the logical conclusion of decades of the country’s state-owned entities and government bodies being looted for political gain and personal aggrandisement.

Corruption degrades not only the quality of institutions and public services—to the detriment of the poorest, who rely on them—but it also stifles the sort of economic reforms needed to help raise productivity growth and develop more higher-valued industries. In other words, to escape the dreaded middle-income trap and join the ranks of high-income economies.

The problem is that the inherent structures of many Southeast Asian economies create little political incentive to undertake more serious structural reforms. For many of the region’s economies, pervasive cronyism is often fuelled by high levels of government intervention and regulations within the market. There is, thus, generally little desire to liberalise markets further, since elites gain and hold political office through the financial support that their cronies provide.

The return to power of Southeast Asian autocrats arguably benefits China’s attempts to curry regional influence, to the detriment of the attempts by liberal democracies to counter Chinese geopolitical clout. Under Najib’s administration, for example, Malaysia found itself aligning closer with Beijing to secure massive infrastructure investments, with allegations arising that some of these projects had been offered by Najib to secure Chinese bailouts for the then-struggling 1MDB. In the Philippines, Marcos Jr. is expected to continue with outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China, possibly hoping to use Chinese commercial opportunities to consolidate his family’s power base by rewarding local elites and their home province of Ilocos Norte.

That being said, we mustn't fall into the trap of assuming that the alternatives to autocrats within the region are inconsequential. Southeast Asia continues to host a vibrant and active civil society willing to challenge authority, speak out against injustice, and push for more inclusive politics (often at risk to their own lives). The region’s rapid economic growth over the last decade has, likewise, seen the emergence of a sizeable middle class that is more cognizant of its rights and demands better governance from its leaders.

Ultimately, however, the biggest enemy of the elites may be within their own ranks. The dependence of the region’s elites on personal networks to maintain power is what makes its politics so inherently unstable and unpredictable. The legitimacy of the elite is dependent on the fickle loyalty of retainers and clients who may decide to cut ties if they believe their patron is unable to deliver, or if they simply decide they have a shot at grabbing the top spot for themselves.

Throughout Southeast Asia’s post-colonial history, periods of openness and reformist zeal have, thus far, proved fleeting, as illiberal forces lurking in the shadows simply bided their time before clawing their way back to the top. It remains to be seen whether the region’s young and frustrated population can one day break free of this miserable cycle.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/06/10/in-southeast-asia-the-bad-guys-stage-a-comeback/

Good essay, highlighting an issue rarely discussed in Western media. However, I would have spent a portion of the essay discussing the role of social media in reinforcing autocracy and non-democratic forces. In the initial phases of the social media revolution online engagement was a democratising force, but as despots everywhere have become familiar with the technology, it has increasingly been a tool employed more effectively by anti-libertarian forces, than those who represent liberal values at any cost. This shouldn’t surprise us, as Bertrand Russell stated “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision. ” Social media amplifies stupidity whilst rendering nuance impotent for this very reason.

Even the Western democracies have not been averse to employing behavioural economics units in tandem with media and social media to let lose their nascent authoritarian urges, unheedful of the charge that every tyrant and monster in history has claimed to acting for their people’s own good.

I would love to see a follow up article detailing how social media has been used to empower the forces mentioned in the article.

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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Indeed, “every tyrant and monster in history has claimed to acting for their people’s own good.” The USA is in the midst of an expansion of autocratic power and a diminution of civil liberties. Woke cancel culture, destruction of the rule of law and Bill of Rights, asset forfeiture, open voting fraud, the Patriot Act, and dozens of others. “Never let a crisis go to waste” has become the guiding principle, which has lead to more and more of Mencken’s created hobgoblins… and “docile and un-inquisitive citizens”.

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Liberal democracy is actually quite a-human. It’s actually kind of a shocking experiment that doesn’t really scale. Just look around outside of the US and Western Europe and realize that it’s a rounding error of governance and that the people, by and large, don’t care as long as their tribe is in power.

Then look internally to the US and you can see the manipulations back to the same end.

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The Committee to Re-Occupy the Philippines (CROP) is now accepting donations.

Yet the rousing, professionally written political speech continues to stir our hearts. Like sugar it seems to be addictive on an almost biological level. Humans are unfit for purpose, they are social animals who don’t understand their own asocial brains. Some say they need another 5 million years of evolution before they are fit to be grouped in with the other sentient species.

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“South-east Asia” is a very complex place. It has everything from Lee Kuan Yew to Pol Pot to the Sultan of Brunei. Its current geopolitical significance is in the contest for influence between China and the Quad. The quasi-Westphalian ASEAN philosophy of mutual non-interference was hospitable to China, but will now come under pressure from a renewed pro-democratic militance, exemplified by the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum, a recently created economic adjunct to the Quad, that will compete with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is dominated by China and excludes America… It would be interesting to know the author’s organizational affiliations (it’s apparent that ideologically he is some kind of liberal).

I was thinking along similar lines just this morning. Specifically, about the FBI in the light of the disclosure that they are purging conservatives who aren’t of the Never Trump flavour, on the grounds of disloyalty. It seems we tend to tolerate the imperfections of our institutions provided we feel they are on our side.

There have been persistent problems with the FBI for decades- with the case of Aaron Swartz but one example. Don’t get me wrong- property rights need protecting. But one doesn’t scare an obviously emotionally vulnerable kid into suicide.

Of course, the real problem is neither the FBI nor the agents involved. It’s an incentives structure which is antithetical to civil liberties. Lawyers should never be placed directly in charge of an investigation and in particular America’s special prosecutor convention is an abomination inimical to justice. Quite apart from the fact that the American legal system values victory over truth, with no higher duty to the latter and a level of trust in the adversarial system which can only be described as naive, placing lawyers in charge instils just the right combination of fear and ambition in law enforcement to undermine ethical considerations.

In the UK, we insist upon a Chinese Wall between the CPS and police, to the extent that the senior officer for the most part only communicates with the CPS via short phone conversations, and case details, including evidence, used to be presented by fax, with the CPS then making a decision to go forward with the case. We do still have the occasional scandal or miscarriage of justice, but on the whole they are orders of magnitude less common than in America. Usually when they do occur, it is a matter of political interference, which also happens to be the real reason why the American system tends to err with such frequency- lawyers, in the American context, are an inherent conduit to the political.

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I just caught up on more about the politics of the three countries mentioned in this article, but have more questions than answers.

Myanmar: Suu Kyi was actually sentenced to five years in jail in April (for “corruption”). Somehow I hadn’t heard that.

Philippines: I’d heard that a Marcos is the president-elect. But I hadn’t realized that his vice-president, is Duterte’s daughter! Obviously there’s a story to be told, regarding how a Marcos heir joined forces with the Duterte dynasty.

Malaysia: I have been completely out of touch with the politics of that country. There was a weird little mnemonic, RAHMAN, for the first six prime ministers of Malaysia - Rahman, Abdul Razak, Hossein, Mahathir, Abdullah, Najib - all from the same coalition, UMNO, with the implication that Najib was somehow the end of the line. And indeed Najib fell amid scandal, to be replaced by an opposition coalition - led by Mahathir! That was where I lost track. But it turns out that just as Covid started spreading, Mahathir resigned, and was succeeded by a new UMNO prime minister, who was in turn succeeded by his deputy, and it’s this UMNO comeback which the author fears may rehabilitate Najib.

One thing that shocked me about the current Malaysian PM is that, a few years back, before he was PM, he called on Malays to boycott Chinese businesses, in order to bring down their prices. I knew that Malaysian ‘bumiputra’ policy has favored Malays, but I’m still surprised to see a politician make such an ethnically divisive appeal, and end up running the country. But then, I really know nothing of what inter-communal relations have been like in Malaysia over the years.