This is the age of restiveness in South-east Asia. No South-east Asian leader can be comfortable in his seat. Of the 11 countries in the region, 10 of which are in Asean, at least half of this generation of leaders face growing aspirations, or disaffection, among their citizens. It is an age of heightened uncertainty.
Thailand’s current crisis epitomises this. As Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra looks increasingly besieged, even as the opposition seems to be softening, the outcome appears to be heading towards political flux or political change. If mayhem follows, a return to military rule cannot be ruled out, despite the generals’ equivocation.
Doubtless, the region is waiting with apprehension, yet no one really knows what awaits at the end of the tunnel. Thailand is becoming the most unstable country in the region today.
Yet, that tag used to belong to Indonesia, South-east Asia’s largest country, when it crashed under the weight of the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Indonesia took almost a decade to turn around economically and politically. After completing his maximum two terms of, arguably, a fairly successful presidency, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is stepping down this year under a cloud.
He is leaving behind a party that is quite suddenly turning from a vehicle of hope to one of disappointment, no thanks to the scourge of corruption.
Yet it is not really clear at this point who will succeed him, even though there are several hopefuls for the upcoming presidential race in July. This is a far cry from the predictability of the Suharto years, which, ironically, are being missed by many despite the late leader’s heavy-handed rule.
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak is not much better. While he has been returned to power through the ballot box, his political future is not really firm. He is increasingly facing the same pressures as his predecessor – from an assertive former premier Mahathir Mohamad who still wants to have his say in how the country is run.
If Datuk Seri Najib is not deft enough, he could slip and eventually be eased out by the forces of conservatism and Malay nationalism. Should he stumble, Malaysia could enter into a new period of political ambivalence, joining Thailand, its neighbour to the north.
In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen came close to losing power at the ballot box for the first time last July. The opposition surprisingly put up a strong showing, missing a takeover by only 13 seats. So even in Cambodia where strongman rule has prevailed for more than three decades, the wind of change is blowing – a la Indonesia in the 1990s. For a leader so used to dominating and governing with an iron fist, a premier like Mr Hun Sen losing political grip could recoil in a way that, in turn, could trigger internal revolt.
In Myanmar, change is already sweeping the country. Following the country’s chairmanship of Asean this year, a critical general election will take place next year that could result in the charismatic Ms Aung San Suu Kyi emerging as the new leader. Her chances are far from certain at this point, because the powerful military has not shown its hand.
Many things remain unsettled. It is still too early to celebrate the change in this South-east Asian country, from which much remains to be heard – for better or for worse.
So in at least half of South-east Asia, there may be either political change or political fluidity. Even in the more firmly organised systems, such as Singapore and Brunei, things are not as predictable as they used to be.
Singapore’s People’s Action Party regularly contests and wins elections, retaining its track record of political longevity. Yet it has seen its popular vote eroding on the back of changing electoral expectations – even as it secures its parliamentary dominance.
In Brunei, the Sultan’s push for Islamic criminal law, or hudud, was unexpected; it shows that even in a country long perceived as unchanging, there is an undercurrent of norm-altering shifts.
South-east Asia cannot afford to be at sixes and sevens, given at least two defining developments. The first is the emergence of the Asean Community 2015. The second is the rise of China.
By the end of next year, the Asean Community is to be realised. The region’s more advanced economies have always regarded the creation of this community to be an important step towards greater cohesion. I am among those who are hopeful, yet not really optimistic, about South-east Asia being ready just yet for that common identity.
A single Asean Community will eventually emerge, no doubt. But not by next year. Besides, much will also depend on how Myanmar – untested in its regional leadership – plays its role as Asean chairman this year.
If Naypyidaw fails for whatever reason, especially over its human rights record, or, if like Cambodia in 2012, it succumbs to the will of its close ally Beijing, the knock-on effects will be demoralising. A failure to declare that the Asean Community 2015 has been achieved by Dec 31 next year could undermine Asean’s position of centrality in the larger Asia-Pacific architecture.
Yet Asean’s position is already being shaken. Continuing leadership uncertainties in three Asean founding members – Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia – will have an impact on broader regional cohesion.
The surprising tension between Indonesia and Singapore over the “Usman Harun” warship issue is adding fuel to fire. If it festers, the tension could, over time, corrode Asean solidarity.
Looming over the horizon is a rising China, now under a new leadership that is set to outlast almost all the South-east Asian leaders. Mr Xi Jinping and Mr Li Keqiang, who took office about a year ago, will be around for the next 10 years – their full tenure. Many of the South-east Asian leaders today will have stepped down long before Mr Xi and Mr Li do.
The savvy of the new Chinese leadership should not be underestimated. Look at how they fanned out to South-east Asian capitals late last year bearing billion- dollar gifts of friendship and cooperation. The Middle Kingdom is no longer waiting for the world to come to it. It is now going out, complete with a smiling diplomacy, to project its soft power, even through the music industry. This is new. But discomfitingly, it is also carrying a big stick to assert its dominance in South-east Asia, especially over the South China Sea.
With an increasingly sophisticated China fast learning the ways of the world, South-east Asia cannot afford to act like a disparate group.
As the region enters a new phase of unprecedented disarray, as starkly demonstrated by the 2012 foreign ministers’ meeting fiasco in Cambodia, Asean needs a new stabilising core similar to what it enjoyed during the era of strong-minded leaders like Mr Suharto, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Dr Mahathir. Where is it?
The current lack of leadership has to be offset by the institutional strength of Asean as a collective entity. With China growing increasingly assertive, and two of its most senior leaders now as savvy as their global counterparts, South-east Asia cannot afford to stumble.
The writer is a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He is the author of a book on leadership in South-east Asia.