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.

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