Discussion without democracy in Southeast Asia

Author: Garry Rodan, Murdoch University

In recent decades there has been a proliferation of formal and informal institutions of political participation in Southeast Asia. These include party list systems, nominated members of parliament, participatory budgeting, public policy feedback bodies, anti-corruption campaigns and civil society movements. A key driver of this has been rising inequality due to rapid capitalist development, which has generated new conflicts and exacerbated existing ones.

People react at a 1MDB protest organized by pro-democracy group Bersih, calling for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to resign, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 19 November 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su).

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This flurry of new political institutions has not only expanded avenues for democratic representation but also for ‘consultative representation’. The latter primarily involves state-sponsored institutions for public policy consultation where elites control who participates and how. In authoritarian and democratic states alike, such institutions allow governments to mitigate reform pressure without necessarily deepening democracy.

States facing the pressures of capitalist development have opted for different consultative institutions to try to contain conflict. This is because different models of capitalism shape the interests threatened or supported by particular institutions and ideologies of participation and representation. Brief comparisons of the two authoritarian cases of Malaysia and Singapore illustrate these points.

Since the early 1970s, capitalism and politics were organised and …continue reading