S.E.A. VIEW

South-east Asia: Where is the ideology in our politics?

A traffic policeman standing before country flags at the 24th Asean summit in Naypyidaw on May 10. The year 2015 will mark a major turning point in the region's history. South-east Asians need to re-learn the lesson of the earlier generation of natio
A traffic policeman standing before country flags at the 24th Asean summit in Naypyidaw on May 10. The year 2015 will mark a major turning point in the region's history. South-east Asians need to re-learn the lesson of the earlier generation of nation-builders - and re-learn the importance of ideology too.PHOTO: REUTERS

IN INDONESIA, the former minister for Religious Affairs is being urged to resign after being accused of misusing funds that were meant to be used to fund pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca. In Malaysia, a parliamentary candidate has found herself the target of a smear campaign in which images of a foreign actress in a bikini were distributed, purporting to be her in a state of undress. In Thailand, the army has stepped in to prevent what appeared to be an escalating state of tension between opposing political factions that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.

All across South-east Asia, we see ample evidence of politics being waged in earnest, but with almost no ideological moorings to give these spectacles any real meaning. Why is this so?

A cursory glance at the goings-on across our region would suggest that we, contemporary South-east Asians, have grown accustomed to the tools and trappings of Modernity but have not internalised any of its values or ideas.

Over the past four months, I have been following the Indonesian election campaign - first for the legislative elections, and now for the presidential elections. My general observations are dismal, to say the least: Indonesian survey agencies have noted that more than 50 per cent of Indonesians no longer believe in politicians or political parties, while more than 50 per cent think that it is perfectly all right to accept a bribe to vote for a particular party.

This low level of public trust accounts for the lacklustre campaign we have seen thus far, and the poor showing of all the major parties in the legislative election. Even more worrisome is the fact that the proportion of eligible voters choosing not to vote has risen to over 30 per cent. Yet we maintain some semblance of normality in the political process, with elections being held on a regular basis. That elections have become precisely that - a spectacle - should set alarm bells ringing. Indonesia's election campaign was not without its share of fanfare and "celebrity candidates". In Thailand, an election that was practically forced upon the incumbent government was later rendered null and void.

In such instances, is it any wonder that many South-east Asians - particularly younger generation first-time voters in Indonesia and Thailand - feel that elections are a sham, and a convenient means to secure a stamp of legitimacy for an otherwise illegitimate system? While these developments occur around us, let us not forget that in a year's time, the Asean region is meant to be headed towards closer economic integration and unity. On what basis is this unity meant to be founded, if the respective populations of the countries of the regions do not even believe in the legitimacy of the political process?

The year 2015 will mark a major turning point in the history of our region. Hopefully, Asean will step out of its Cold War womb and turn itself, creatively and intelligently, into something more than a pact between governments that did not want to be dragged into the quagmire of the Cold War debacle. But if this is to be the case, it will require trust and legitimacy as its building blocks.

Looking at the present state of politics in South-east Asia, however, it seems that what is lacking among many South-east Asian nation-states is political education. This is particularly true when it comes to internalising and respecting the rules of the democratic game.

When politicians and governments are toppled at a whim; when leaders are discredited for having not only their hands but also practically their arms in the till; when voting for leaders is reduced to beauty contests between stars and celebrities; then ideology has gone on holiday and politics is reduced to a case of capturing the state as a means of self-gratification.

This amounts to a betrayal of everything that the founding fathers of the nations of Asean fought for. Between the 1930s and 1950s, an entire generation of South-east Asian political leaders, intellectuals, activists and scholars fought long and hard to end the legacy of colonialism and to give birth to new nation-states where the principles of nationalism, citizenship and equality before the law were meant to be upheld.

That generation ranted against the blatant injustice of a colonial order of knowledge and power that relegated native Asians to the category of the exotic, primitive and absurd. But today, the nation-state - that was once seen as the prize among prizes - has itself become hollow. Democratic politics has been reduced to a bargaining process among elites with aspirations of upward social mobility.

If the state is simply to be regarded as a means of individual betterment, and politics reduced to careerism, then the Asean of the near future will be one with no ideological credo, meaning or content. South-east Asians need to get back to the drawing board and re-learn the lesson of the earlier generation of nation-builders. And re-learn the importance of ideology too.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs. Read more S.E.A. View pieces online at straitstimes.com/news/opinion