Malaysia and Singapore: Changing Leviathans?

Slater, Dan, Strong-State Democratization in Malaysia and Singapore, in: Journal of Democracy, Vol.23, No 2, April 2012, pp.19-33

Partyforumseasia: Starting with some “political archaeology” to describe the formation of strong states with a well- functioning bureaucracy and fiscal capacity, Slater compares the two countries with the Democratisation in Korea and Taiwan. There, he argues, the authoritarian strong-state tradition has helped to maintain political stability through the democratisation and beyond.
Saying that “The iron cages of authoritarian Leviathans (…) have by no means been dismantled” may sound somewhat far-fetched when applied to Malaysia and Singapore of today. And taking the bureaucracy of the two countries as equals raises doubts as well.
Slater describes the Korean and Taiwanese developments as middle-class voters turning conservative and abandoning their support for reform and democratisation “in the face of real or perceived threats to economic and political stability.” And he predicts similar patterns in Singapore and Malaysia, “accompanied by the same sort of party-system continuity, electoral conservatism, and persistent state capacity.”
Slater is right in highlighting for both countries the huge gap between exceptionally strong states and exceptionally weak oppositions. But it seems rather questionable when he continues that UMNO and PAP could stem the tide of opposition gains by upholding their old ways of coercive tactics. Neither UMNO nor the PAP would look so concerned about recent election wins of the opposition if they were sure that coercion still works as it did in the old days.
As much as the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition, though unstable in itself, may win the upcoming elections to be held by June 2013 and take over the federal government in Malaysia, this remains a pipe dream in Singapore. The Workers’ Party as strongest among a number of small and splinter parties even seems to be a bit insecure with its own success and declared after a by-election win in January how loyal an opposition it will be and that it is by no means prepared to take over the national government. Preventing exaggerated expectations is fine, but Slater’s assessment at the end sounds somewhat overdone, that Singapore’s opposition “…is extreme in only one respect – its pronounced moderation.”
Comparing East Asian with Southeast Asian developments certainly has its shortcomings. But Slater’s central point is interesting, that the state structures in Malaysia and Singapore (calling them Leviathans may be exaggerated) are strong enough to allow more political liberalisation and even a smooth change of government. The latter is not on the cards in Singapore and may not be so smooth in Malaysia.
Loosening up traditional repressive controls, Slater concludes, would not only be good for democracy, but also good for UMNO and the PAP themselves. While the PAP leadership still looks relatively relaxed, though alarmed, the Malaysian ruling coalition is obviously much more nervous before the upcoming elections. According to Talleyrand the farewell from power – and its spoils – is the most painful farewell in this world.

Indonesia: Gerindra advertising for candidates?

Partyforumseasia: The democratic era in Indonesia has seen quite a number of changes to party and election laws… and quite a number of creative adaptations to them by the political parties. Advertising in newspapers to recruit more candidates may be a rather unique exercise, though, probably a first world wide.

Straits Times, Singapore, is taking that up on 29 January 2013. Here is the link:

The article is quoting Yunarto Wijaya from Charta Politika in Jakarta on the ‘cash for candidacy problem’: This is why we have this term ‘dowry’ where candidates pass money to party officials to ensure their names are on the list.”
Growing – and 4-fold is really ambitious – with the help of self-funding candidates may be a strategy many parties did not dare to dream of so far.

Gerindra 1Gerindra 2


Singapore: Punggol East by-election results

Partyforumseasia:The opposition frontrunner Workers’ Party scored big in the Punggol East by-election on 26 January 2013. The results:
Workers’ Party:             54.5% (16,038 votes)  + 13.5%pts compared to the 2011 GE
People’s Action Party: 43.7% (12,856 votes)  – 10.8%pts compared to the 2011 GE
Reform Party:                 1.2% (353 votes)
Singapore Democratic Alliance: 0.6% (168 votes)

The Punggol East single seat constituency can be classified as Singapore heartland with predominantly lower middle and middle class population, many of them young families with children. A tight neck to neck outcome had been predicted, the victory margin of nearly 11 % pts comes as a shock for the ruling PAP, after discounting the “by-election effect” which works against the PAP and its super-majority in Parliament by not threatening the stability of the government as such, just “teaching them a lesson” or “make them work harder”.  The PAP had been caught on the wrong foot when speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer resigned and a candidate had to be found fast to confront the young female candidate of the WP who had scored a respectable 41% in 2011 already. And there is still a lot of anti-establishment resentment in heartland constituencies like Punggol as well, despite enormous progress in the suburb’s infrastructure.
Even more dramatic is the poor result of the two candidates from small opposition parties Reform Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance. They both lost their deposit of S$ 14,500 for some limelight to keep their small parties recognizable for the national public. And all suggestions that their participation might dilute the opposition vote and favor the PAP can be dismissed. What the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) might have scored without their strategic blunder of asking the strong WP to support their candidate, and the following pullout after failing this call for opposition unity, is now futile to discuss anyway.

More interesting for discussion seems the question of what some suggest as an upcoming two party system. Are the very small parties doomed to follow the two losers in Punggol East????

The floor is open
Please send your suggestions to:

How many parties for Indonesia?

2. Reducing the number of parties: A danger for the diversity of Indonesia?

Partyforumseasia:   Conventional political science wisdom is rather unanimous that too many competing parties are more of a nuisance than a blessing to any party system. Consequently, Indonesia has been commended for the effort to keep a lid on the mushrooming party scene in the earlier part of the democratic era (Benjamin Reilly and others). But the question is, whether what is good for “normal” countries can be applied to the huge archipelago state of Indonesia and its regional diversity.

In an article for the Link: Straits Times of Singapore (22.1.2013), John Mcbeth looks into the negative side effects of the new move by the the General Election Commission (KPU)’s screening process for the 2014 election:
“Only 10 parties passed the General Election Commission (KPU) verification, in a screening process that has seen the overall field drop from the 48 parties which took part in the first democratic elections in 1999 to 24 in 2004, and then back to 38 in 2009. (…) Among the victims of the KPU paring knife were the Crescent Star Party (PBB), which had contested all three past elections, and the United National Party, founded by the leaders of 12 minor parties who failed to win representation in 2009.
Quite apart from denying the country’s 187 million potential voters a wider choice, the onerous qualification obstacles the big parties embedded in last year’s amendment to the 2008 electoral law will also make the electorate more Java-centric than ever. The PBB, for example, failed to win a seat in 2009. But most of its 1.8 million supporters were concentrated along Sumatra’s central spine and in West Nusa Tenggara – not on populous Java.”
The criteria of the electoral law, amended in April 2008, are certainly not easy to meet by small and new parties unless they have access to very comfortable funds:
– The minimum threshold to enter parliament has been increased to 3.5% – still low in the international comparison
– A regional chapter in all 34 provinces
– Branches in 75 per cent of the 398 districts and 98 municipalities, and in 50 per cent of about 5,400 sub-districts.

See the following contribution also on page Party Theory:
Benjamin Reilly
on January 25, 2013 at 9:33 am said: Edit

 John McBeth is right to point out the inequities created by Indonesia’s party registration law, which are amongst the most stringent in the world. party formation rules appear to have been much more consequential. I have argued previously that political party engineering in Indonesia, of which the party registation laws are a central part, has helped to consolidate the party systems and provided incentives for aggregation, but in doing so have also assisted larger incumbent parties at the expense of minority interests. These incentives are now so strong that they appear to have become a means for the major parties to block new entrants and possible competitors, which is clearly a backwards step for Indonesia.

However, the genesis of the laws lies in Indonesian elites concerns about not just party fragmentation, but also means to deny ethno-regional parties a platform to pursue sectarian or even secessionist policies. It is in this conflict management role that the laws have been notably successful. The one exception to the law – which allows the Free Aceh Party to compete in Aceh – was a crucial bargaining chip in helping end the secessionist struggle there. More broadly the decision to disallow local political parties has meant that ethnicity cannot be a viable vehicle for party-building. As a result, Indonesia’s national political parties have proven surprisingly adept at making cross-ethnic appeals and downplaying the role of ethnicity in politics. This is a major achievement in a country as diverse as Indonesia, and not one to take lightly given the other possible avenues Indonesia’s democratic transition could have taken.

Partyforumseasia: The floor is open…
Please send your suggestions to:


Singapore: Punggol East by-election – opposition dilemma


Click on the article excerpt to enlarge
Source: Straits Times, 19 Jan 2013

Partyforumseasia: It is certainly more than difficult to organize rival opposition parties to field a common candidate against a strong ruling party. The SDP’s proposal to the stronger Workers’ Party not to field their own candidate and support the SDP’s looks rather overoptimistic, especially in view of the latter’s strong self-confidence after the GRC success in 2011. A strategic mistake of the SDP??? The debate is open…

Indonesia’s PKS: No more “political families”!(?)

Spouse candidates

Link: Straits Times 8 Jan 2013

Partyforumseasia: A step towards cleaner and more transparent party politics? An end to an all too visible business approach in Indonesia’s party politics? This is certainly a good move, which may put pressure on the other parties if the voters show their appreciation and vote for PKS.

Indonesia reduces number of parties

Indo 10

Link: Straits Times, 8 Jan 2013

Partyforumseasia: Many young democracies try to control the number of political parties without making the formation of new ones too prohibitive. Indonesia has been quite successful so far by changes to the electoral law (see Benjamin Reilly’s research on political engineering in our bibliography). The move of the General Elections Commission (KPU) is the next step, which, of course, is being criticized by the small parties which lose their chance to get at least a few seats, and maybe some business opportunities… It remains to be seen whether they find a creative way out.


Malaysians abroad to vote

Malaysians abroad

Link: Straits Times, 7 Jan 2013

Expectations on both sides seem to be high and the question is whether Malaysians living abroad are more pro or more anti establishment. If they are really a million voters the effect could be crucial.
For comparative purposes and not predicting anything: When Germany introduced overseas voting in the late 1970s, most expectations were disappointed by a very low turnout.

Malaysia: Religion splitting the opposition?

Link: Straits Times, 7 Jan 2013

Coalitions between more or less comparably strong partners can be more than difficult. In the best case they are marriages of convenience, hardly or never a love affair, but more often than not a marriage dispute and not a honeymoon, in the case of Pakatan Rakyat hardly a harmonious ménage a trois. With the overbearing dominance of UMNO in the Barisan Nasional coalition, where smaller parties look more like piggy riding, the semblance of harmony seems to be easier to project. And the discord within Pakatan certainly gives hope to the Barisan for the upcoming elections.