So, Southeast Asian countries have become democracy’s bad boys, according to activists on the sidelines of the latest Asean summit. I have no problem with that declaration, since this part of the world is democratically naughty, to say the least – a nightmarish classroom where all the juvenile delinquents are grouped together. If you are a strict democracy teacher, better go somewhere else.
Let’s take a quick glance round the room. This wild bunch comprises Myanmar, once the biggest bully but now struggling desperately to turn over a new leaf; Cambodia, who has just escaped from a broken home and a vicious blood feud within the family; Vietnam, who remains caught between ideological worlds; the Philippines, who is the most unpredictable student, scoring the highest on some days but flunking tests for fun on others; and of course Thailand, who is seemingly the naughtiest problem child at the moment.
There are others as well. Teacher’s pet Singapore can’t tolerate – and always lashes out at – criticism. Malaysia is an alleged crook. Brunei is an arrogant rich kid who joined the group not because of ideology but because he simply needed friends. Indonesia is the quiet big boy, not obviously troubled lately but looking like a dormant volcano who might one day erupt.
As we can see, the regional leaders who gathered in Manila last weekend are anything but poster boys for democracy. But as they held hands in traditional Asean fashion, you could almost hear the strains of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”: “We don’t need no education”.
The song goes on to reject “thought control”, echoing perfectly the protestations of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. His threat last year to pull his country from the United Nations and spearhead a new world organisation sent top Filipino officials into a panic of denials, while his verbal attack on an American ambassador hit even farther below the belt. But on both occasions he was delivering the same message: “Who do you think you are, trying to control me?”
That’s a mild interpretation, mind you. Here’s a direct quote, uttered by Duterte after international criticism of extra-judicial killings in his war on drugs: “Even the EU is scolding me ... When I was mayor, that was okay. But it is different now because I am the president. Why would you insult me? It is as if I am your subordinate ... F*** you.” The insult was rounded off with a raised middle finger.
His aggression has grabbed headlines but also obscured the key question – which is whether his like is becoming the rule rather than the exception. Duterte has lashed America, for example, because he says the country is in no position to preach principles it doesn’t practise. He is certainly not the only “small-country” leader to feel that way. He may simply be part of a trend, though whether Washington realises it or not is another matter.
Most countries in this region have experienced colonial rule, suffering to different degrees. And when colonial masters morph into democracy preachers, their students are understandably sceptical, even defiant. It’s not enough to say “Forget our shared history – we have changed.” The region may demand stronger reassurance that, after failed attempts at physical domination, it isn’t being subjected to attempts at mind control.
Or else the region is simply confused. Thailand has been told to give democracy a chance and tolerate corruption or abuse of power by elected officials. Duterte is being condemned for not respecting human rights, but he was elected by the people and is implementing campaign vows, as did Thaksin Shinawatra, who most teachers of textbook democracy don’t regard as a threat to that system. Malaysia’s Najib Razak faces mounting evidence of corruption, but he is being protected by a system boasting the best checks and balances.
There are many reasons why Southeast Asian countries have “gone rogue” democratically, by Western standards at least. Personal ambition may be behind certain violations of principles, but there are cases where politicians in this region have simply followed the bad examples of their “teachers”. Make no mistake, the teachers may have since ceased their wrongdoing and now be offering guidance according to their experiences, but they must not be hypocritical about their teachings.
Thai children are often warned not to act like “mother crabs”, who tell their children to walk straight but can only zigzag themselves. The region’s juvenile students of democracy are not walking straight, all right, and the best they can do might be to avoid the high horse when they grow up.