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For several decades, “people-powered” grassroots movements across Southeast Asia have fought for democratic reforms, human rights, improved access to quality education and health care, and, ultimately, an end to extreme poverty. These movements have been motivated by a vision of inclusive prosperity and social justice that stands as an alternative to the neoliberal “road to serfdom” on which much of the region has been traveling by default.

Unfortunately, the hard-fought gains of recent decades are now in jeopardy. Southeast Asia is backsliding on democracy, and the erosion of accountability will lead to familiar outcomes, including concentration of power, massive corruption and rent-seeking by business and political elites, media repression and limits on freedom of assembly. Add to that the destabilizing impact of climate change, mass migration, rising food insecurity and economic inequality, and the risks are set to grow even more acute.

The rise of fascism and authoritarianism, and the collapse of free societies, is becoming increasingly likely; indeed, it is already happening. The only way to counter these forces is through a strong commitment to institutional reform, good governance and accountability.

Democratic backsliding is a global trend, affecting even some of the world’s most resilient exemplars. But it is particularly apparent in Southeast Asia nowadays. Authoritarianism has gained the upper hand in Myanmar, following a military coup early this year; in Thailand, where a royal-military bloc has consolidated its grip on power; and in the Philippines, where penal populism — including extrajudicial killings — has gained ground. Across the region, corruption continues to flourish, robbing citizens of quality jobs, infrastructure, education and health care.

Fears of foreign interference and terrorism, together with the COVID-19 pandemic, have exacerbated democratic erosion by giving leaders a pretext to restrict civil liberties and human rights. In countries with long histories of authoritarianism and conflict, such as Myanmar, democratic institutions never fully matured, and were thus easily dismantled. In Thailand and the Philippines, meanwhile, a failure to meet the rising social and economic expectations of the majority fueled polarization, enabling the rise of charismatic, illiberal leaders.

Malaysia’s malaise

But perhaps nowhere in Southeast Asia has democratic backsliding been more apparent — and more dramatic — than in Malaysia. Just a few years ago, things were looking up for the country. In 2018, after more than six decades under a one-party regime, Malaysians elected the multiracial Pakatan Harapan coalition.

The coalition’s victory capped a two-decade-long movement, led by a diverse group of students, civil-society groups and grassroots activists. And the ensuing transition was peaceful and brimming with hope. Malaysia seemed finally to have escaped the yoke of semi-authoritarian rule, with sweeping institutional reforms to follow. As I optimistically wrote at the time, with the new government in place, Malaysia could “finally begin to build the just, equitable, and effective democracy that its reformers (had) long envisioned.”

Homeless people practice social distancing as they eat their lunch at a temporary shelter in Kuala Lumpur in April 2020. | MOHD RASFAN / AFP / VIA GETTY IMAGES
Homeless people practice social distancing as they eat their lunch at a temporary shelter in Kuala Lumpur in April 2020. | MOHD RASFAN / AFP / VIA GETTY IMAGES

Some progress was made. The media gained more independence, and a constitutional amendment extended voting rights to citizens above the age of 18. Moreover, in 2019, Malaysia rose 10 places on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Yet the most vital reforms — to ensure judicial independence, eliminate preventive detention and establish term limits for the prime minister — did not take root. Hope that they would was soon dashed. In March 2020, the ousted regime carried out a coup d’etat, enabled by the toxic influence of racial polarization and the new government’s failure to deliver tangible improvements to the lives and livelihoods of Malaysia’s working class and marginalized communities.

The COVID-19 crisis, which erupted shortly afterward, provided a smokescreen for the government to implement an emergency ordinance and suspend parliament for seven months, thereby evading parliamentary oversight and institutional checks and balances. In 2020, Malaysia dropped six spots on the Corruption Perceptions Index.

Malaysia’s 70-member Cabinet — the world’s most bloated government, on a per capita basis — utterly failed to manage the pandemic or the economic crisis that it caused. Several global pandemic-response indices — by the Economist, Bloomberg, and Nikkei Asia — placed Malaysia at or near the bottom of the list. Not surprisingly, Malaysia’s economy contracted by 5.6% in 2020 — its worst performance since the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s — and growth estimates for 2021 have been repeatedly revised downward, from 7% to below 3%, with some economists predicting an even slower recovery.

As Malaysia’s experience shows, giving politicians hefty remuneration, perks and access to government procurement, while shielding them from public accountability, is a surefire way to squander public resources and destroy an economy. And yet, even as pandemic shutdowns have pushed nearly 50% of the middle class — roughly 580,000 families — below the poverty line, the country’s wealthiest 10% continue to prosper.

The corruption trap

As I wrote more than 25 years ago, prosperity in East Asia is “not likely to be sustainable or secure if it prioritizes wealth accumulation” over “social justice and trivializes social problems.” I argued that good governance, accountability, and transparency were the cornerstones of sustainable economic growth and development. If we allow the “elites to gloss over their moral entropy, corruption, nepotism and other excesses,” I warned, the “East Asian Economic Miracle” would be short-lived.

In Malaysia, grand corruption and rent-seeking have been the norm for more than three decades. In 2015, Malaysia was rated fifth in the world for illicit capital flight, having lost nearly $420 billion since 2004. Malaysian politicians, including current and former finance ministers, have appeared in the Panama and Pandora papers — caches of leaked documents revealing how the wealthy hide their money. The true extent of offshore holdings of politicians, their family members, and their close associates is likely much larger than these leaks demonstrated. Further investigation by the relevant authorities is needed.

Malaysians have little faith that their country’s political leaders can produce solutions to their many problems. And for good reason: Meaningful governance reforms and effective economic management are impossible in an environment of resource-hoarding, rent-seeking, and declining institutional independence. Only by rooting out corruption — and the politicians who perpetuate it — can Malaysia rebuild its economy and the livelihoods of its people after the COVID-19 pandemic. The same is true for the rest of Southeast Asia: countries must commit to building a “humane economy.”

A first step should be to apply clear time limits for the emergency powers governments have activated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Politicians must not be allowed to use the crisis to strengthen their grip on power and erode democratic institutions any further. The timely restoration of checks and balances is essential to support progress toward a more tolerant, pluralistic Southeast Asia, capable of ensuring social justice, inclusive prosperity and sustainable development at home, and of contributing to global efforts to address shared problems.

Anwar Ibrahim, a member of Malaysia’s Parliament, is leader of the opposition, president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat and chairman of the Pakatan Harapan coalition. © Project Syndicate, 2021

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