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How Successful Were Attempts to Establish Democracy in the Newly Dependent States of Southeast Asia?

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Submitted By Azah
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Southeast Asians countries attained independence from their colonial powers after World War 2, and so would have attempted to establish a legitimate government in order to secure their independence. (T) More often than not, these countries looked into the Western-style democratic structure. Unfortunately, due to the limited exposure in running a democratic administration during the colonial era, the extent of establishing democracy was questionable. (I) This was because ‘attempts’ highlighted that actions to adopt democracy was met with both willingness and resistance throughout 1945-1997. But before one evaluates the extent of success of these attempts, it is crucial to note that democracy meant that the state was ruled by the people, and existed in either in the liberal form or the parliamentary form. Additionally, one needs to consider the features of Western-style democracy, politically and economically. A democratic political model would have the presence of multi-party, free and fair elections as well as the separation of powers amongst the leaders of the country. A democratic economic model would adopt capitalism that promotes free trade and economic stability. (C) With these in mind, the assumption put forth by the question holds as we recognise that there were attempts, to establish democracy. (A) However, there were varying degrees of success when carrying out said attempts if one closely looks into individual features of democracy that was present (or not present) in the countries. (C) Therefore if one looks into the amount of presence of a democratic feature in the countries, it was to large extent that the attempts were successful. However, when one looks at the countries holistically the attempts to establish democracy was successful to only to a small extent throughout 1945-1997. (T)

If democracy equates to the presence of many political parties, with none dominating the local political situation then the attempts to establish democracy was successful to a large extent. With multi-parties, there is a guaranteed check and balance of one another to ensure that decisions are made in favour of the country as opposed to an authoritarian government, where there is a single and dominant party that is able to make decisions which prioritises their self-interests. This can be seen in the Indonesia, during the 1950s, where the formation of competing political parties was encouraged to legitimize the country’s commitment towards democracy. These parties included a Socialist Party, a re-establish Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), a Masjumi, and a new Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI). Additionally, with the free and fair elections held in 1955, representatives from the different political parties would come together in the parliament to govern Indonesia together. This ensured that power was not concentrated in a single dominant party and thus cannot be abused for the party’s self-interests. Similarly in Singapore, the period between 1948 and 1968 was known for its competitive multi-party phase commenced with the first Legislative Council elections in March 1948. The electoral history for the next twenty years would see a growing multiplicity of political parties followed by a short-lived phase of two main political parties, the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Barisan Socialis. These two political parties satisfied Schumpeter’s basic condition for democracy, “a competitive struggle for people’s votes”. Clearly, the democratic feature of multi-party was present in most Southeast Asian countries which were eager to establish democracy after given independence and legitimize themselves as sovereign states. As such, it is fair to say that the attempt to establish democracy was greatly successful.

On the other hand, if one evaluates the success of attempting to establish multi-party as a whole, throughout 1945 to 1997, then it would have been a limited success. This was because there were not significant attempts in encouraging multi-party in the political scene after 1950s. Most of the time, by 1950s a popular political party would have been voted to be the ruling government. More often than not, these parties would have made use of their power to crush any opposition parties, discretely or either wise. Such was the case in Singapore in 1963, where many members of Barisan Socialis were arrested during the enactment of Operation Coldstore by the Internal Security Department as they were suspected to be Communist and had committed subversion acts. This too was the case for Thailand, after 1948. Before 1948, the atmosphere of freedom promoted the formation of political parties. Thereafter, the government leaned towards an authoritative regime which had a detrimental effect to any democratic developments made before 1948. Although Thailand became increasingly democratic in 1990s, it was far from being a congenial democracy as its military was too politicised and was not willing to allow political parties to take full control of the state. Thus, the attempts to establish democracy in the long run faced limited success as it was met with a dominant ruling party that was not keen on being replaced if there were any future free-and-fair elections.

Another successful attempt at establishing a feature of democracy was present in the economic front. By adopting Western-style capitalism which promotes free trade, it was easier for the country to experience economic growth. This goes back to the strength of USA which had emerged from WW2 as the only economic powerhouse. Since it was democratic as well, a democratic economic front was greatly associated to bring about an internal political stability and economic growth. Economic growth was especially important to a newly independent country, as a great economic growth paves the way for economic and political stability in the country. Coupled with the fact that these countries emerged from the war and internal revolution in utter disarray, with most of its infrastructure destroyed, it was crucial that the country was able to recover quickly before other countries would take advantage of the period of weakness. This can be seen in Singapore, where policies were implemented in 1960s to promote foreign investments and trade. As a result, throughout 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose by about 80%. A booming economy and happy workers probably created the most suitable condition for the PAP to intensify its strategy of depoliticizing society and securing its legitimacy among the population as it had fulfilled its election promises. In such instances, capitalism – a democratic economic model, was present in the Southeast Asian countries as supported by evidences of economic growth. This shows that if one looks at the presence of capitalism, as an attempt to establish democracy then this attempt was largely successful.

Despite the non-existing presence of capitalism certain countries due to being deeply entrenched in the authoritarian principles this does not imply that the attempt to establish democracy was not successful on the economic front in the short run. It is important to note that as there were only 2 Southeast Asia countries took this route; it further reinforces my point above that a democratic economic model was successfully established. Such authoritative countries established socialist economic models as they believed that this works hand in hand with their maximum governments. This can be seen in Vietnam, where the Communists believed that the solution to the devastated economy after the war was to socialise the economy as quickly as possible. They implemented Five-Year Plans and economic policies such as collectivisation. Similarly in Burma,. Thus, in the short run there were conflicting approaches taken when dealing with the economies.

Nonetheless, when one evaluates the extent of a democratic economic model present in the countries as a whole, it was to a large extent that the attempt to establish democracy was successful. Taking into account that majority of the Southeast Asian countries were already practising capitalism, Vietnam quickly realised the inefficiencies of a socialist economic model due to the apparent decrease in productivity and increase in social discontent and so adopted doi moi (“politics of revolution”) as its guiding economic philosophy in order to liberalise her economy. Although Vietnam may not entirely adopted capitalism, it did undertake certain characteristics of it such as carrying out measures to make the country friendlier to foreign investment by reforming the legal system. This shows that democracy was apparent in the economic front and thus the attempt to establish democracy was successful when looked at it from a holistic aspect.

In conclusion, it ultimately depends whether democracy is to be measured as an over-arching feature of the countries from 1945 to 1997 or measures as individual features, which differed in the extent of its presences between the same periods. Hence, when democracy was taken to be in the political context, the attempts to establish it was very successful if looked at it as a lone feature. But since there were not future attempts at establishing features of a politically democratic country and thus looking at it holistically, the attempt was largely unsuccessful. This does not apply in the economic context however. In both instances, an economically democratic model was seen in the majority of the countries and by the 1980s, all of the countries had incorporated features of capitalism although to varying degrees.

Even so, since most would identify a democratic country by its political model, it was to a limited extent that Southeast Asian countries attempted to establish democracy as it had failed to retain the politically democratic features throughout the period between 1945 and 1997.…...

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