37. Democracy & Self Perception in Southeast Asia

Chapters
Previous
Next
Book

Democracy in Southeast Asia

Why is Indonesia referred to as ‘Southeast Asia’s most democratic state’?

Rather than relying upon isolated examples, analysis and rumor, let us examine the results of yet another global index. Every year since 1973, Freedom House has rated each country according to what it calls ‘Freedom in the World’. To generate this ‘freedom index’, experts rate a country upon 7 subcategories. Three of the sub-categories are averaged to obtain a ‘Political Rights’ index (PR). The other 4 categories are averaged to obtain a ‘Civil Liberties’ index (CL). The PR and CL indexes are then averaged to determine whether a country is ‘Free’, ‘Partially Free, or ‘Not Free’.

The ‘Political Rights’ index could easily be renamed the ‘Democracy’ index. The 3 subcategories that the PR consists of are solely related to how democratic a country is.  The 1st category rates a citizen’s ability to vote freely in a legitimate election on a scale of 1 to 16. On the same scale, the 2nd category rates a citizen’s ability to participate freely in the electoral process and the 3rd rates how well the citizens are represented by their elected officials. In other words, legitimate democracies, such as the US, Japan and the European nations, score the highest on the ‘Political Rights’ scale, while dictatorships, theocracies, monarchies, and communist states all get the worst ratings by this index.

After averaging these 3 subcategories, each country is assigned a score from 1 to 7 that essentially rates how legitimate the democracy is. Truly democratic nations get a score of 1, while communist nations get a score of 7 by definition. Indonesia gets the highest score in Southeast Asia – a reputable ‘2’ on the PR/Democracy index. The Philippines and Timor follow with an ambiguous ‘3’, then Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore with a questionable ‘4’. Brunei, Myanmar, and Cambodia are in the dictatorial range with a ‘6’ rating. And as communist nations, Vietnam and Laos are both given a ‘7’, by definition. In other words, Indonesia is the only Southeast Asian nation that is close to being a legitimate democracy. The rest of the countries range from questionable to dictatorial or communist.

Late breaking news: the conservative Indonesian legislature just voted at the end of 2014 to eliminate local elections. Bummer! Indonesia’s relatively high ranking will certainly drop.

 

Freedom House Ratings 2014
Political Rights & Civil Liberties
 

PR

CL

Average

US
1
1
1
Japan
1
1
1
India
2
3
2.5
Indonesia
2
4
3
Philippines
3
3
3
Timor
3
4
3.5
Singapore
4
4
4
Malaysia
4
4
4
Thailand
4
4
4
Brunei
6
5
5.5
Cambodia
6
5
5.5
Myanmar
6
5
5.5
Russia
6
5
5.5
Vietnam
7
5
6
Laos
7
6
6.5
China
7
6
6.5
Saudi Arabia
7
7
7
       

PR = Political Rights

   

  1) Vote Freely in Legitimate Elections

  2) Participate Freely in Electoral Process

  3) Accountable Representation

CL = Civil Liberties

   

  1) Freedom of expression and beliefs

  2) Freedom of Assembly

 

  3) Rule of Law

   

  4) Personal Autonomy & Individual Rights

        including right to own property

Self-Perception of the Southeast Asians

Note that experts create ‘freedom’ rankings. Anonymous number crunchers generate the other indexes. What does the populace think? What is their self-perception of the state of affairs in their respective countries? Gallup has taken a series of recent international polls that reflect these internal attitudes.

Of course, there are serious limitations upon the interpretations of the results of opinion polls. For instance, does each person throughout the world understand the question the same way? Could there be culturally based misunderstandings? Also, are their external circumstances, such as political suppression, that might exert an effect upon their answers? Was it a truly representative sample?

Despite the many factors that might distort the findings, this is the only data we have that indicates a national temperament. Although hopelessly imprecise, these numbers frequently point in a clear direction. While there might be extenuating circumstances, we are going to take the figures at face value – trying not to read too much into the numerical information. With these qualifications in mind, what do these opinion polls reveal?

First the background: Gallup’s pollsters asked the residents of most countries several questions during the time period from 2007 to 2013. Most questions could be answered with a positive or negative response: i.e. ‘satisfied’ or ‘dissatisfied’, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The figures in the tables represent the percentage of respondents who were ‘satisfied’ or said ‘yes’. Let’s check the results.

Perceptions of individual well-being
HDI rank
Country
 Education quality
 Health care
Standard of living
9
Singapore
85
84
80
30
Brunei
..
..
..
62
Malaysia
91
87
75
89
Thailand
91
88
83
108
Indonesia
82
80
63
117
Philippines
83
83
70
121
Vietnam
83
59
68
128
Timor-Leste
..
..
..
136
Cambodia
92
83
49
139
Lao PDR
73
66
73
150
Myanmar
69
54
45
SEA Average
83
76
67
5
United States
64
73
72
World
64
57
Very high HDI
63
72

83% of Southeast Asians are quite satisfied with their education system. In fact they are 20% more satisfied than Americans (64%), the World average (64%), and even those in countries with a ‘Very High’ Human Development Index (63%). There is some logic behind this finding. Even though many countries in the territory have a low HDI ranking, Southeast Asia has always been a very literate area of the world, in part due to the early Buddhist influence.

76% of Southeast Asians are also quite satisfied with their healthcare system. This is substantially higher than the World average (57%) and about the same as the citizenry of the US (73%) and the very high HDI countries (72%). Despite the low HDI rankings, Southeast Asians perceive their ‘standard of living’ (67%) in about the same light as Americans (72%). Of course the residents of certain countries, such as Cambodia (49%) and Myanmar (45%), are not quite so satisfied in this category for reasons we’ve discussed.

Perceptions of individual well-being
Country
 Job Satisfaction
Safety
Freedom of choice
Life Satisfaction
Singapore
88
89
82
6.5
Brunei
..
..
..
..
Malaysia
83
45
82
5.9
Thailand
97
74
83
6.3
Indonesia
77
89
70
5.4
Philippines
83
66
91
5.0
Vietnam
82
67
73
5.5
Timor-Leste
..
..
..
..
Cambodia
84
63
95
3.9
Laos
85
75
87
4.9
Myanmar
71
89
65
4.4
SEA Average
83
73
81
5.3
United States
85
74
82
7.0
World
74
66
68
5.3
Very high HDI
84
72
77
6.6

 

In the categories of ‘Job Satisfaction’, ‘Safety’ & ‘Freedom of Choice’, Southeast Asians are just as satisfied as US citizens and the residents of countries with a ‘Very high HDI’. Malaysians are the one notable exception in the ‘Safety’ department. As previously mentioned, Malaysia’s high income disparity has contributed to a rise in crime. As a consequence, a majority of their residents (55%) don’t feel safe going out at night.

There was only one question that required more than a binary response. Respondents were asked to give a numerical rating to their life satisfaction on a 1 to 10 scale: with 1 being the worst and 10 being the best. In contrast to the other categories, Southeast Asia’s ‘Life Satisfaction’ category tends to parallel the rankings of the Human Development Index. In other words, the residents in countries with a high HDI ranking tend to be more satisfied with their lives than those in countries with low HDI rankings. Cambodians were particularly dissatisfied at 3.9 out of 10.

Perceptions about community & government
Country
 Labor market
 Community
Tend Poor
Preserve Environment
 Trust in Government
Singapore
63
92
66
84
83
Brunei
..
..
..
..
..
Malaysia
44
83
70
72
76
Thailand
73
95
67
75
70
Indonesia
38
90
28
54
67
Philippines
65
90
82
87
76
Vietnam
35
81
59
50
86
Timor-Leste
..
..
..
..
..
Cambodia
55
92
89
92
83
Laos
66
94
66
90
98
Myanmar
32
90
51
50
..
SEA Average
52
90
64
73
80
United States
28
85
43
59
35
World
78
44
51
48
Very high HDI
86
41
53
36

 

The residents of Southeast Asia are generally more satisfied than the rest of the world with their local job market, their community, and how well their governments are dealing with the poor and the environment. In some of these categories, up to 20% of Southeast Asians are happier than their counterparts in America and the countries with a ‘Very High’ HDI. Some details: only 28% of Americans are satisfied with their local job market. This is less than the citizenry in any Southeast Asian country.

The most striking figure concerns ‘Government Trust’. While only a minority 48% of the world population trusts their government, a whopping 80% of the Southeast Asian population has ‘confidence in the national government’. Americans are far below the World Average with only about one third of the people 35% having confidence in their national leaders.

What could be the reason for this peculiar result?

As we saw in the previous chapter, the Human Development Index has been rising steadily in nearly all the Southeast Asian countries since 1980. There could be a few factors behind this steady improvement in living conditions. The Cold War was especially bad for Southeast Asia and gratefully ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Most of the countries have shed either repressive military dictatorships or dogmatic communist ideologies or both in the ensuing decades. In contrast with the prior European colonial or the US neo-colonial rule, all Southeast Asian nations are now ruled locally.

Perhaps because of this steady rise in living conditions, the residents tend to view their government in a positive light. In contrast, benefits and privileges are being cut in the more well developed nations. This perception of loss could be easily attributed to poor government performance. Indeed the residents of countries with a ‘Very High’ HDI ranking have the least trust in government of any grouping. This could be an indication that humans, in general, tend to be happier when circumstances are improving. Further no matter how good things are, humans tend to begin worrying when they perceive that their present situation is degrading.

In summary: While the Southeast Asian nations tend to rank in the middle bottom of the world’s nations in terms of the Human Development Index, their residents tend to be more satisfied with many features of their lives than are people in most other regions. Could this optimism and satisfaction have to do with steady improvement combined with self rule?

Tragedy to Break the Grip or Down precedes Up

Southeast Asia: “Whatever the reasons for this self-perception, it makes me happy that my people seem to be more satisfied with their circumstances than in the last century, or maybe since the Europeans arrived. To end this tome just a few reflections upon the Way of the Universe - the Tao of Heaven.

My entire geography with the exception of Thailand was under the thumb of Western imperialism entering the 20th century. Some, like Vietnam and Burma, had been subjugated fairly recently - less than a century before. Others, like Malacca, the Philippines and Java, had been dominated for centuries - nearly 400 years in the case of Malacca. However by the beginning of the 21st century, only 100 years later, all of them had thrown off the shackles of imperialism to embrace self-determination, for better or worse.

Like children, who are on their own for the first time, there have been many excesses combined with honest mistakes. Some of the parent countries felt that their freedom was premature and that they should have remained under parent supervision, for a while longer. But the conditions at home were too repressive and the teenager needed to break away. So for better or worse, our teenage countries have ventured out on their own. And just like teenagers or young adults, they are relishing their control over their own personal destiny. Although there have been some mistakes and hardships, each of my cultures prefers their freedom to being under the control of the colonial powers and then eventually the neo-colonial Cartel-controlled US.

So we’ll call the present condition ‘good’ for my cultures and countries of Southeast Asia, despite any present difficulties they might have. Freedom from the oppressors!

Let’s look at their general route towards independence - how it transpired. Despite the infighting between the colonial powers, there had been an unbroken European presence in my territories since the Portuguese arrived in the early 1500s. That’s a long time as far as cultures go. Although the name of the European country changed along with their language and orientation, the exploitation grew, continuing unabated for many long centuries. Some might suggest that it had to do with a superior culture dominating an inferior one. I would suggest the evidence indicates otherwise.

My people belonged to a rich interacting cultural heritage for over a thousand years before the Europeans arrived. We created some architectural masterpieces that are still considered artistic wonders today. We also had a rich literary tradition that preceded that of the Western European countries.

The only way we were lacking was in military experience. The constant fighting between the Bible-based cultures had sharpened their combat skills to the extent that they were able to easily dominate all other cultures on the planet - regardless of the level of their sophistication. These European conquerors were superior militarily but not culturally. They were like big bullies who were dominating the weaker but more sensitive and artistic children on the playground. At least, that’s my biased opinion.

So how were my children able to escape the club of these bullies?

Through misfortune. Things had to go down before they could go up.

The first tragedy to enable our eventual freedom was the Japanese occupation of World War II. This period of extreme hardship broke the colonial trance and made us aware of our power. Although the Japanese were worse than the Europeans despite being from our part of the planet, we bless them because they made us aware that we could be free. Even though the ‘Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ was mostly for Japanese profit, their dialogue played to our urges and needs and eventually inspired our growth. ‘Asia for Asians’ was their motto, which we eventually translated into ‘Southeast Asia for Southeast Asians’. Each of my countries craved its own independence - along the lines of language, geography, and colonial influence.

Our second calamity was the neo-colonialism of the US-based International Business Cartel accompanied by their greed-motivated politics of terror. Like the preceding Dutch VOC and British East India Company, they were loosely tied to their country of origin, but acted independently of it. The US President had about as much influence on the overseas behavior of the Cartel, as the King of Spain had on his explorers, or the Kings of England or Holland had on their international companies - not much. Indeed, frequently the US president was the Cartel’s agent.

In neo-colonial fashion, the Cartel assisted us to become independent from the European nations so that they could more easily exploit us. To this end, they established local military dictatorships that answered only to their representatives. The Cartel’s dictators were much more repressive than the European powers that preceded them - murdering and enslaving millions of my people. Perhaps, this had to do with superior firepower or a more ruthless attitude, but it was much more invasive, affecting larger sectors of the population.

However the fact that they encouraged us to rule ourselves, albeit under their strict supervision, gave us the potential for self-control that was lacking under the European powers. At least, the Cartel-dominated US government respected the local people that cooperated with them to exploit the populace. In contrast, the Europeans had retained all power for themselves. While ruthlessly exploiting the poor, the American-led international business community extended respect to the wealthy unscrupulous people of any culture. Perhaps it was their egalitarian heritage extending itself to wealth.

To break free from neo-colonialism, the political and/or economic circumstances had to get bad enough for people to break out of their comfort zone - no matter how miserable they were. Demonetization that eliminated life savings in Burma, the obvious assassination of a popular political rival in the Philippines, and the economic downturn of the 90s in Java, each of these events enraged the population sufficiently to evoke enough collective courage to throw off these long-term dictatorships. Once the people stand together, they can easily topple dictators - as they did with Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Ne Win in Burma, Suharto in Indonesia, the series of puppets in Vietnam, and Lon Nol in Cambodia. The people have the power. Right On!

While many innocent souls were pinched by these difficulties and cultural disasters, these hardships were necessary steps on the path to Freedom.

Ah! The Tao of the Universe is complex and varied.

Going down to go up is a difficult mind-set to cultivate.

While the image that I have presented is one of progress for my people, the same issues as always face each and every one of us everyday. While more of my people are happier with their circumstances than in the mid 1960s, as witnessed by the almost universal cooperation with their governments, there are pockets of very unhappy people who spread their misery when they can. There are even more people who create their own unhappiness every day by constantly comparing themselves with others that are more fortunate. And then there are hopefully even more who have seen through the many veils of illusion to reach the point where happiness is not dependent upon external circumstances, but just is.

Although things are far from perfect for my people, they all live in locally ruled sovereign states now. Less than a century ago, all these countries, with the exception of Thailand, were under colonial rule. But what an excruciating process to liberation! We feel as if we’ve been to hell and back. Right now we’re experiencing the Buddhist enlightenment to the ‘suchness of things’. All circumstances - horrible and wonderful, has led to this transitory moment of peace – where everything seems perfect.”

 

Paraphrasing a writer, more famous than myself:

Forgive if this tale of woe and joy has offended.

Merely words babbled by a fool that might be amended.

Rather than confusing,

Hopefully these chicken scratches have proved amusing.

 

Home    Southeast Asia Home    Chapters    Prior    Next    Comments