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The march of democracy in Southeast Asia

By Jessica Brown - posted Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Does economic development lead to democracy? Up until now, several East Asian states have seemed determined to prove the theory wrong.

But small changes in Malaysia and Singapore suggest that, in these countries at least, claims for political freedom may be slowly on the march.

Both Malaysia and Singapore are nominally democratic. Yet both are what Fareed Zakaria calls 'illiberal democracies': "democratically elected regimes... routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms."


Both countries have been ruled by the same party, the Barisan National (BN or National Front) coalition in Malaysia and the People's Action Party (PAP) in Singapore, since independence. Both the BN and the PAP have used their country's remarkable economic growth over the past five decades – Malaysia's GDP per capita is now around US$7,000, and Singapore's is more than US$36,000 – to legitimise their ongoing rule. The pace of economic development has been spectacular; the pace of democratic reform has not.

In its 2010 'Freedom in the World' report, US think-tank Freedom House rates both Malaysia and Singapore as 'partly free'. Both hold regular elections; but elections are not necessarily fair. Both governments use strict controls on the media and opposition parties, as well as electoral gerrymandering, to maintain their grip on power.

Yet that grip now seems to be gradually slipping. In 2008, the BN was dealt a blow in the Malaysian general election when it lost more than a third of its seats as well as control of five state governments.

In the last few months, Kuala Lumpur has been rocked by a string of mass protests calling for cleaner elections, the biggest of which saw almost 1,700 protestors arrested.

Only last week, Prime Minister Najib, under pressure, promised that he would repeal the controversial 'Internal Security Act.' The legislation, introduced in 1960 due to fears of Communist subversion, allows police to detain Malaysians without trial or charge. The BN has long been criticised for using it as a weapon to silence political opponents, including charismatic opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister pledged that Malaysians would no longer be detained on the basis of their political views.


In 2009, Najib announced that he would begin to dismantle Malaysia's institutionalised system of racially based affirmative action, a bedrock of the BN's historical platform which had attracted sustained criticism for limiting Malaysia's economic growth.

Commentators have suggested that Najib's most recent round of liberalizing reforms are 'sweeteners' ahead of next year's general election. Sceptics have questioned whether the changes are significant at all. The government maintains that human rights and law reforms are needed to bring Malaysia closer to developed country status.

Whatever the case, the BN appears cognizant of the need to edge closer towards meaningful democracy before Malaysians go to the ballot box.

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About the Author

Jessica Brown is a Policy Analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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All articles by Jessica Brown

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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