Christian Caryl

The Slow Death of ‘Asian Values’

Why the latest news from Malaysia helps to undermine authoritarianism throughout the region.


Something remarkable is happening in Malaysia, and the rest of the world should take note.

Malaysia, you ask? Really? It’s only 28 million people, and it’s just one part of Southeast Asia, a region fragmented into a variety of cultures and systems — and largely off the radar  of people in the West, except when it comes to planning honeymoons on the beach. So why should non-Malaysians care?

Last week, a Malaysian court acquitted Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the country’s main opposition movement, of sodomy charges. (Sodomy is a crime in Malaysia.) Anwar’s supporters have long maintained that the case against him was actually political, cooked up by the government to prevent him from mounting a credible challenge to the system that has ruled the country for decades. Anwar was arrested on similar charges back in 1998 and spent six years in jail before a court finally overturned his conviction. Many understandably expected the same thing to happen again this time around.

But it didn’t. To general astonishment, the court dismissed the accusations, saying that the DNA evidence cited by prosecutors didn’t hold up to scrutiny. The judges, it seemed, had actually assessed the case on its own value. And with that ruling, Anwar can now continue his campaign against the government, one that is likely to culminate in a general election within the next year or so.

So why should we regard this story as worth our attention? Well, it’s certainly true that the verdict could help Anwar lead the opposition to victory, thus overturning decades of control by the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). But this is by no means a given. Just because Anwar has been pronounced innocent doesn’t mean that he’ll win. Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, notes that the opposition movement headed by Anwar is a fairly volatile coalition of different groups pulled apart by sometimes competing interests: "Anwar has a real challenge ahead," Bower noted in a recent email to me. "As he and his supporters anticipated a guilty verdict, they had planned to rally around political martyrdom. Now they need to go back to basics and compete in an election based on an economic and policy platform and ensure their very diverse coalition gets unified around those ideas."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been pledging to clean up corruption and reform the system from within, can now argue that efforts are bearing fruit. The verdict works in his favor as well.

And even if Anwar does win the next election, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to deliver on his own promises of reform. Malaysia’s complicated political mix — in which ethnic Malays have long enjoyed the benefits of affirmative action programs designed to improve their chances against the country’s sizable Chinese and Indian minorities — will throw considerable obstacles in the way of any effort at fundamental change. It’s likely, of course, that imposing accountability on the ruling party is a good thing in itself. It’s hard to dispute the need for a thorough housecleaning of the entrenched Malaysian political elite.

But these are issues that matter primarily to Malaysians. What about the rest of us?

Here’s the thing. For decades now, Malaysian leaders — above all, the country’s crusty ex-prime minister, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad — have been arguing that the country owes its remarkable record of economic progress to something called "Asian values." In this reading, Asians are inherently predisposed to discipline and thrift, traits often attributed to Confucianism or its influence. In line with this theory, the region’s authoritarian leaders have dismissed democratic institutions and "Anglo-Saxon" free-market capitalism as alien assaults on local mores. Of course, this was an argument that just happened to have the handy side effect of shoring up the legitimacy of said authoritarian leaders. As long as they could reasonably claim to be delivering the goods of rapid growth and social stability, many voters were content to take the claim at face value.

Of late, however, the "Asian values" model has been taking some dents. Indonesians threw their dictator overboard at the turn of the century and now enjoy one of the region’s strongest economic growth rates. Last year, voters in Singapore, long controlled by the ruthlessly efficient People’s Action Party (PAP), handed surprising victories to opposition candidates. (To be sure, the PAP is still in power – but its share of the popular vote declined to just over 60 percent, its worst result since 1965, when Singapore became a country.) Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military rulers have announced that they want to free up the country’s political system, and the leaders of its long-abused opposition are preparing to participate in a parliamentary by-election in the spring. And now the story in Malaysia is getting interesting too.

Some of the other societies in the region aren’t quite there yet. But while Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos all maintain authoritarian forms of government, they have opened up considerably in economic terms. So what’s to stop them from one day following in the footsteps of Singapore or Malaysia?

Around the region, people are increasingly expressing a desire for official accountability. Economic growth on its own is not enough to satiate the desires of a rising middle class that is tired of being patronized by the powers-that-be. These citizens are insisting on participation, transparency, and an end to corruption.

Indeed, it would seem that these are the real Asian values now coming to the fore. Last month, writing in a Malaysian newspaper, journalist Karim Raslan noted that, under the old rules of the game,  were willing to concede certain civil liberties in return for implicit government guarantees of "prosperity and social peace." But that compact no longer holds: "This worked well enough when the economy was growing and internal checks and balances prevented undue injustice," wrote Raslan. "Unfortunately, a stalling economy has brought out our inherent weaknesses, including corruption and mismanagement. Moreover, there’s a mounting sense –whether true or not — that elite groups are securing enormous personal benefit by manipulating the system." As a result, he suggested, Malaysians are now starting to think seriously about throwing the bums out.

None of this, of course, means that the people in these countries are necessarily striving to embrace the Washington Consensus or the principles of Jeffersonian Democracy. The push for greater openness is coming from the region’s peoples themselves, not being imposed from without. And it is precisely for that reason that the rulers’ self-aggrandizing claims of legitimacy are sounding hollower by the day. So, once again, why is this important to Westerners or Americans?

Because it’s not just Malaysians or Singaporeans who will feel the effects. The Chinese Communist Party has long legitimized its rule in terms strikingly similar to those employed by Mahathir or Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. But suddenly those arguments about wise rulers lording it over happy and quiescent populations are looking, well, very 1999. "These values will continue to force change in Asia," Bower notes. "In fact, it is likely that political evolution in Southeast Asia may influence China more in the next five years than Chinese economic dynamism influences Southeast Asia." And there’s the real take-away from this story.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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