Partyforumseasia: Gratitude is not the most outstanding quality of voters. From Themistocles, the Athenian general who led the city-state against the Persian invasions and was later exiled by ostracism for perceived arrogance in 471 BC, to Winston Churchill who was voted out after the allied victory in 1945, many top politicians have been ousted by their electorate. Sometimes they were just around for too long and the voters were simply bored by their faces.
The tradition in Southeast Asia used to be more respectful of outstanding political leaders. Mahathir in Malaysia is still influential, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore is still around but behind the scene, survivor Hun Sen in Cambodia fends of all attempts to topple him, and in Indonesia it took three decades to end the authoritarian rule of Suharto. But there are signs that awe and respect seem to soften or fade:
The April 2014 election in Indonesia saw quite a number of prominent and incumbent casualties, among them the law minister and the sports minister, both from the shrinking Democratic Party. The chairman of the Consultative Assembly (PDI-P) as well as the House Speaker (DP) and his deputy (Golkar) were also voted out. Practically half of the incumbent MP’s are out, and among the “new blood” winners taking over as members of parliament now are colorful figures from sports and the arts scene like former movie star Dede Yusuf (DP) and racing car driver Moreno Suprapto (Gerindra). Whether they are the best candidates for real change, e.g. against corruption, is an open question, but media attention in the complex Indonesian environment is the most valuable asset.
Another but related development in the Philippines is the indictment of until now “untouchables” on the political stage like political fossil Juan Ponce Enrile (90), former president Estrada’s son Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, and senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla for graft and corruption. The latter is accused of diverting 224 m Pesos (approx. 5 m US$) through bogus NGO’s into huge kickbacks. Senator Revilla has been detained yesterday, 20 June, Estrada and Enrile may follow soon. President Aquino’s government is delivering on election promises to end corruption, the Philippines moved 11 levels up to 94th among 177 countries in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International, but, unfortunately, some of his close allies are also under investigation…
Partyforumseasia: Singapore is one of the most successful small countries world-wide, if not the most successful anyway, and much of its success is due to the foresight of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Nearly five decades of practically unassailable rule have allowed the political and administrative elite to plan and implement with a long term view and according to priorities of necessity. One striking example is the water supply for more than five million people plus industry on the island. From the beginning in 1965 fresh water had to be imported from Malaysia which gave the latter a dangerous blackmail capacity, fortunately always avoided. Now efforts of water catchment, recycling and treatment have made Singapore autonomous and independent, as Malaysia is facing water shortages herself.
The younger generation, mostly grown up in affluence, may take for granted many of the advantages of living in such a well managed country. While the splintered opposition has made it into parliament in sizable numbers since 2011 (eight MP’s from the Worker’s Party – out of 87 ), the relative result for the dominant PAP has gone down to 60 percent.
Among the older generation, the heavy-handed style of founding father Lee Kuan Yew had created a lot of fear and hatred. But as long as the government provided the goods the party could cement its grip on power. Now the fear has faded under the more relaxed and accommodating political style of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, but the hatred seems to resurface among the young. In April, very visible anti-PAP graffiti on housing blocks were fast removed, but the blogosphere reveals more than resentment. A 30-year-old blogger has accused the government of mishandling the billions of dollars in the compulsory retirement fund CPF. Obviously touching a nerve, he collected more than 70,000 S$ in donations for his legal cost when the Prime Minister sued him for defamation, an instrument very efficient under his father. The young man was also sacked by his employer, a hospital.
The social media attacks, called already “internet revolt” by a paper outside Singapore, go on. The newest incident happened on 12 May, when the Wikipedia site of the PAP was massively and rather viciously re-edited, changing the name into “Party Against People”. Parts of the pampered youth of Singapore, used to more freedom than any other generation in Southeast Asia, are obviously allergic against state interference in the blogosphere. But the lightning in the PAP’s logo may not be the right answer to address the problem.
Partyforumseasia: With 240 million inhabitants, more than 13,000 islands, 300 native ethnic groups and 742 languages and dialects, stretching 5,000 km East to West, Indonesia’s national motto sounds suitable but difficult to achieve: “Unity in diversity“. By many different standards and criteria, the country may be the world champion in complexity. No wonder that the organization of Indonesia’s democratic system and elections is extremely complex as well. Like in many Southeast Asian countries money politics and vote-buying are far from unknown, on the contrary. Since the beginning of the democratic era after the fall of authoritarian President Suharto, huge amounts of money have been spent for securing a seat in parliament or other public office. Years ago already, the necessary budget for winning the governorship in an average province has been estimated at the equivalent of ten million USD!
Beside the development of an increasingly professional polling industry, demand has created rather professional jobs for people who know their constituency and the people living in it. They can tell the candidate who they decide to work for – and who can pay them – how many voters they can mobilize for her or him. What is mostly being done in other democracies in Europe by active party members, namely canvassing from street to street and door to door, has developed into a respectable profession in Indonesia.
While being realistic about the extent of direct vote-buying, Ulla Fionna from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, has just published a fascinating insight into this flourishing business. Read in detail how these field coordinators (in Indonesian “koordinator lapangan” or “korlap” in the short form) have been instrumental in the 9 April elections:
Partyforumseasia: “State religions” have played important and decisive roles in European politics for centuries. Rulers have used religion as a powerful political tool. And churches have shown a great propensity to be close to the power holders, often in a cozy and successful symbiosis.
Only a few decades ago, Christian parties in Italy and Germany could rely on campaign support from their alliance with the church, especially on Sunday services before elections. Without necessarily naming the party, the priests would just say that a true believer should know where to mark the ballot paper. With urbanization and secularization the influence of churches and Christian parties has decreased. But the parties were also punished for relying too much on conservative and more religious rural constituencies and giving them more political weight than the cities.
In several Southeast Asian countries we witness developments in the opposite direction. In Malaysia and Indonesia where Islam is dominant anyway, religion is often used as a campaign tool. In a negative way by casting doubts on the religious credentials of candidates, in the worst case by alleging that they are covert Christians like in the case of presidential front runner Joko Widodo. But last week Muhammdiyah leader Din Syamsuddin revealed that he had “tested” Jokowi by asking him to lead a Friday prayer. Result: “It was all correct”. So the members of this Muslim mass organization can trust that Jokowi is a sufficiently pious Muslim. Muhammadiyah (30 million members) and Nahdlatul Ulama (40 million members) have declared that they won’t officially support any of the candidates, but in a country which is seeing a split between pious (santri) and possibly more lukewarm (abangan) Muslims, 70 million potential voters cannot be neglected.
In Malaysia, probably more than in Indonesia, the Islamic agenda in politics is frightening non-Muslim minorities. The introduction of Hudud laws is one of the most controversial issues in the ongoing political debates, fueled recently by their introduction in Brunei. Hindu, Christian and other minorities are concerned that amputations and stoning might be applied to them as well, though they are certainly hard to apply within a predominantly secular legal system. See details in an essay by Mohammad Alami Musa, “Hudud and Inter-Religious Relations” from the Rajaratnam School of International Sudies.( Link )
Playing the religious card in politics can be dangerous. If overdone it opens the Pandora’s box of fanaticism and intolerance. Both, unfortunately, are not unknown in Southeast Asia.