Southeast Asian political systems

In Cambodia power is divided between those formerly allied with Vietnam and the royalists around Sihanouk. The fanatical Khmer Rouge remains out in the jungle. One should not expect to find civil liberties in a country ravaged by civil war, genocide, famine, xenophobia, and isolation. Cambodia could not have achieved a respectable rate of economic growth in 1991 but for the infusion of billions of dollars from the United Nations. (Diamond, 1999, 238-43) Since independence, Brunei has been ruled by a hereditary sultan who brooks no opposition. Political parties are banned and there are no elections.

Freedom of speech, press, and association are not recognized. The sultan controls all areas of life, including the political system and the economy. There is no opportunity for Bruneians to change their absolute Muslim monarchy. Many freedoms have been limited in the name of assuring "compatibility" with traditional culture. The most outspoken proponent of this view is Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, who warns his compatriots against Western assumptions and Western behaviour. He argues that economic development is more rapid when freedoms are curtailed and a "strong state" prevails.

Singapore is unique; it is questionable if Lee's prescriptions could be applied to other larger, more diverse, and more complex societies in Southeast Asia. Strong authoritarian rulers of Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam have led their nations to economic stagnation, not economic development. (Kiernan, 1993, 12-14) Conclusion The winds of change in this new era of democratization have touched Southeast Asia, particularly those states in which modernization has widened people's horizons and encouraged them to ask for greater liberty.

Only in the poorest nations of Southeast Asia has the worldwide movement toward democracy been skirted. So-called Asian democracy prevails. It is a system that is supposed to combine elements of democracy with elements of authoritarianism. The Asian democracies are those countries that allow their citizens a wider range of economic and political choices than in truly authoritarian countries, but effective government is still more valued than democracy. No doubt, democracy has not yet come to most of mainland Southeast Asia. Some explanations that go deeper than simple levels of economic development must be invoked.

Otherwise, one cannot explain why the impoverished Filipinos overthrew a dictator while prosperous Singapore lives under Lee Kuan Yew's authoritarian control. Thailand's cycles of military and semi-democratic administrations appear not to depend on the economy. If economic development alone explained democratization, Brunei would have to change its authoritarian ways. One explanation focuses on political leadership. At a time of transition, when nations have overcome extreme poverty but not yet achieved real wealth, leadership plays an important role.

But it is unpredictable, and so defies easy analysis. Individual Southeast Asian leaders determine the extent of democratization in their nations. Political scientists may search for universal laws of political behaviour, but they will always be confounded by human free will. Political culture is another critical factor. The Confucian culture of Singapore, which places great value on order, respect, and harmony, may have to adapt to modernity. But Confucianism is the centrepiece of the official ideologies of governments as different as those of Singapore and Vietnam.

In Buddhist countries, the belief that the powerful deserve exalted status as a reward for past merit remains an important consideration while assessing prospects for democracy. Political culture is important, but it is not everything, for culture itself evolves when it encounters new ideas and information. Democracies require stable institutions. Without vigorous independent legislatures, courts, and interest groups, popular sentiments cannot be expressed. Modern democracies also need rational bureaucratic agencies to implement public policy.

The semi-democratic nations of Southeast Asia have more effective institutions than do the authoritarian nations. In the latter, a single institution operates without checks or limits. There is nothing to prevent these governments from pursuing disastrous policies. Democracy's prospects in Southeast Asia are improving. Many Southeast Asian countries have improved their standard of living and have met some demands from their citizens for political openness. Some Southeast Asian nations are fashioning their own distinctive democracies, adopting those aspects of Western governments appropriate to their culture and rejecting others.

Southeast Asian political systems are being melded from each nation's indigenous values and behaviour in response to winds of change blowing from the West.


Amitav Acharya, B. Michael; 2001: Democracy, Human Rights, and Civil Society in South East Asia; Frolic and Richard Stubbs Toronto (Ontario): Joint Centre for Asia Pacific Studies (University of Toronto–York University). 102-108. Barber James D. 1995; The Book of Democracy. Englewood Cliffs, N. J. : Prentice-Hall, 56-60