Politics in Action 2024: Power shifts, political legitimacy and performance

23 May 2024
Mapping Southeast Asia’s political landscape
SSEAC’s flagship Politics in Action forum brought together a distinguished line-up of speakers from Australia and the region who provided insightful analysis on the current state of politics in six Southeast Asian countries.
Group photo of presenters and moderators at SSEAC's Polictics in Action 2024 event

Politics in Action 2024 speakers with SSEAC moderators (from left): Professor Kenneth Paul Tan (Singapore); Mr Layton Pike (Vietnam); Dr Natali Person (SSEAC Curriculum Coordinator); Ms Navhat Nuraniyah (Indonesia); Dr Kesone Kanhalikham (Laos); Professor Greg Fox (SSEAC Interim Director); and Professor Azizuddin bin Mohd Sani (Malaysia). Absent: Ms Moe Thuzar (Myanmar), who presented over Zoom

Politics in Action provides an opportunity to hear from experts who deeply understand the political dimensions of Southeast Asia and this year’s forum was no exception. Delivered in person, and livestreamed on Facebook, the forum focused on recent political developments in Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and Malaysia.

SSEAC’s Interim Director Professor Greg Fox opened the forum, noting that “politics is context” and the importance of context for how we address some of the region’s complex challenges. “If we’re going to do research in the region, if we’re going to do research in partnership with the region, we need to understand context,” he said.

Several themes emerged across the presentations, including the shifting of power in a number Southeast Asian countries, political legitimacy following various scandals, and the relationship between economics and politics. 

The Indonesia update, presented by Ms Navhat Nuraniyah (Australian National University), focused on three key issues in the wake of the country’s 2024 presidential election. Prabowo Subianto’s election victory, including a campaign that saw a shift away from sectarianism to populism and the impact of President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo’s backing and resources; Jokowi’s legacy, including the steady decline of democracy and emergence of a more powerful executive and police force; and what a Prabowo presidency, characterised as the pairing of a former general with a history of human rights abuse and questions around his health with a young vice president and heir to Jokowi’s dynasty, might look like.

As Ms Nuraniyah noted, “Jokowi’s anointed successors will inherit an Indonesia that has much weaker institutions, civil liberties and rule of law than ever before. The compromised checks and balances coupled with Prabowo’s track record, volatility and possible impending friction with Jokowi spell unpredictability and instability for Indonesia.”

Ms Moe Thuzar (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute) delivered the Myanmar update grounded in the country’s political history. As she explained, the resistance and pushback by ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar today, stems from a history of long periods of military/authoritarian rule following coup d’etats. As such the pushback against the coup in February 2021 was the people’s expression of not wanting another long period of military/authoritarian rule. Over the decades, “[t]he military has created a privileged political position for itself,” Ms Thuzar observed. “Narratives such as ‘the military is the only entity that can protect Myanmar from disaster and disintegration, maintain law and order, and convene elections and transfer power’, all have past parallels and have been entrenched over decades of military/authoritarian rule.”

As well as the serious socio-economic impacts of the coup and mounting humanitarian crisis, Ms Thuzar outlined the response to the coup internationally and regionally by the ASEAN community, and the realities in Myanmar today for various stakeholders including the military, ethnic armed organisations, the resistance broadly represented by the National Unity Government and, importantly, the people of Myanmar.

The Vietnam update was delivered by Mr Layton Pike (RMIT and Australia Vietnam Policy Institute), who outlined the country’s large and complex political system, key institutions and influential figures in Vietnamese politics. One current issue he noted is political stability amid the country’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign. “Right now, two of the top four roles in an equally distributed power model are vacant,” Mr Pike said, testing Vietnam’s stable power model.

Other issues covered included Vietnam’s economic success driven by foreign direct investment, enormous infrastructure investment and lower costs of labour, making Vietnam attractive for many countries as they look to diversify beyond China. Economic growth and improvements in the quality of life for Vietnamese people were supported by Vietnam’s flourishing trade and investment relationships, including with Australia. On foreign policy, Mr Pike noted that Vietnam is friends to many as it prioritises global engagement, with the country’s so-called “bamboo diplomacy” demonstrating an approach that is sturdy, flexible and multifaceted.

Dr Kesone Kanhalikham (National University of Laos) provided an overview of the political, economic and social situation in Laos against a backdrop of the Laos-China Railway, which opened in 2021 and links the capital Vientiane with Kunming city in China’s Yunnan Province. “The railway has strengthened trade, with transportation of goods such as casava flour, barley, rubber and iron ore increasing. It has also improved local travel times between major centres and opened up tourism,” Dr Kanhalikham said.

However, as she also noted, while the railway has contributed to social and economic development in Laos, which aims to graduate from least developed country status by 2026, it has created challenges. The proliferation of Chinese investment in both upstream and downstream businesses has hampered local SMEs and Lao’s small private sector, which cannot compete with China on price. Additional topics covered include hydropower dams, electricity exports, cross-border projects, economic investment in special economic zones and Lao-China relations.

The Singapore update, delivered by Professor Kenneth Paul Tan (Hong Kong Baptist University), started with a brief history of leadership succession in Singapore and the recent rare transfer of power to Lawrence Wong, only the fourth prime minister since the country’s independence in 1965. He explored possible challenges for the prime minister in coming years, including managing intra-party dynamics; an increasingly popular opposition party; more alternative voices from a younger, globally connected generation mobilising around causes such as climate justice; and the uncertain economic and geopolitical environment to which Singapore’s fortunes are tied. 

More recent challenges discussed include a string of scandals surrounding Singapore’s political elite in 2023 and the downward trend in the ruling party’s popular vote, which could continue in the next general election when the party will be looking to reassert its legitimacy and give Prime Minister Wong a strong mandate. Professor Tan concluded by noting that, “In the long arc of political liberalisation, we must ask whether Singapore needs a rejuvenated and radically transformed People’s Action Party or a replacement of what is fast becoming a decadent ruling-party establishment.”

Professor Azizuddin bin Mohd Sani (Universiti Utara Malaysia) gave the final presentation on Malaysia. He explored the instability of Malaysian politics in recent years, with three prime ministers since 2018 and the unprecedented hung parliament in the 2022 general election, which resulted in the Malaysian King appointing Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister to form a Unity Government. “The challenge now for the current government is to make sure there is political stability. In order to have political stability, we need to have economic stability first,” Professor Azizuddin said. He also noted that while the Reformasi movement that Prime Minister Ibrahim has tried to introduce has been slow as the coalition government manages many different interests, economic reform continues.

Other issues discussed include the Unity Government as a centrist government; the three Rs – race, religion and royalty – and the politics of fear; political Islam, which in recent years has become particularly strong among young Malaysians; and increasing partisanship in civil society due in part to the number of parties in the so-called ‘super grand coalition’.

Professor Fox closed the forum, noting that, “We can see that the region is very much experiencing change, and is undergoing many challenges. More than ever, research such as that done by researchers here at the University of Sydney and other institutions here today will be critical to understanding these challenges. Politics in Action has provided highly insightful analysis, backed up by the latest data. It equips anybody engaging in Southeast Asia to confront these challenges in an informed manner.”

You can watch all six Politics in Action updates on SSEAC’s YouTube channel: Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and Malaysia.

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