The View From Asia

Tests for democracy

Asia News Network writers look at how electoral battles can sometimes take turns not quite in keeping with popular expectations. Here are excerpts.

A coming storm for Malaysia

Wong Chun Wai

The Star, Malaysia

It's unfortunate that politics in Malaysia is going to get more toxic with the formal pact between Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), as we can expect the two parties to take the race and religion agenda to its limit.

The two sides may not have the best credentials. Umno is still struggling to face the aftermath of the barrage of corruption and money-laundering charges that have been filed against its top leaders since its defeat in the general election.

Then there is PAS, which has found itself in an awkward situation following the expose that its leaders have a weakness for luxury cars and super bikes.

Both Umno and PAS share something similar - their leaders have been kept busy at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission office.

Many rational Malaysians have dismissed the marriage of these two parties, which have planned their pact in the name of upholding race and religion. But the reality is that enough voters will buy into their poisonous ideology.

They feel they need to support Umno and PAS because "the new government is controlled by DAP - which is a euphemism for the Chinese - and that they need to protect Malay interests and Islam".

We also need to examine closely the voting patterns of Semenyih.

While most analysts have described the defeat of Pakatan Harapan (PH) in this predominantly Malay state constituency as a "mini Malay tsunami", we should also be mindful that Umno, the Alliance Party and Barisan Nasional have won the seat 13 consecutive times since 1957.

The only exception was in GE14, when the PH candidate won with a 8,964-vote majority. So, the Barisan victory must be seen from the right perspective.

Still, we must not overlook the fact that there has been an increasing sense of frustration and let-down that PH has failed to deliver what was promised.

Previously, most voters didn't bother to read the manifesto, but times have changed.

Parliamentary candidate Korranit Ngamsukonratana of the army-aligned Palang Pracharath Party leading a motorcade during a campaign in Klongtoey district in Bangkok on Thursday. This is the first time that Thailand's military has formed a political party to run in the elections. Its objective is to hold on to power even after the return of democracy, one writer says. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The voters and opposition hold the government to it. Now that they are coming close to a year in office, they can't continue blaming former prime minister Najib Razak or his wife Rosmah Mansor, Jho Low and everybody else for their inability to deliver.

The legacy issue has become tiresome and their performances will be affected if voters keep hearing the same excuses, because PH was voted in to fix the problems.

It wouldn't be wrong to assume the percentage of support for PH has dipped since May. Even Dr Mahathir Mohamad can't be counted upon to deliver the votes now in the fight for the hearts and minds of the Malays.

Non-Malays have every reason to worry about the fight for Malay votes between Barisan and PH. There are concerns that both sides will try to outdo each other in being more Malay and Islamic than the other. At some point, non-Malays will become the bogeymen.

The monarchy and the military


The Statesman, India

Thursday's ruling of Thailand's constitutional court is as much a resounding message to the deposed Shinawatra clan as it is a reaffirmation of the certitudes of a constitutional monarchy.

The court has dissolved the Thai Raksa Chart party, which had nominated Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi for election as prime minister. That nomination in itself had caused a flutter in the roost ahead of the March 24 elections in a fractious land.

The party is closely aligned with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who met his political eclipse in 2006.

But more than the political alignment, the opposition to Princess Ubolratana's nomination - and ambition - had emanated from within the palace itself.

Notably, the King's damning decree stated that the princess, his elder sister, did not have his approval to contest. The resultant turmoil that had revolved around the elections and the monarchy has now reached its logical conclusion with a ban on the party.

The dissolution of the party comes less than three weeks before the election. The decision of the court is a blow to supporters of pro-democracy parties and those loyal to the exiled Thaksin, who were hoping that Thai Raksa Chart would help prevent a pro-military coalition from taking control of Parliament.

Markedly, this is the first time that the country's military has formed a political party to run in the elections. Its objective is to hold on to power even after the return of democracy, a faint echo of the power structure in Myanmar.

Clearly, the monarchy and the military will continue to play a pivotal role in Thailand's narrative. The essay towards a rediscovery of democracy might hit the reefs in the face of the challenge posed by the king and the cantonment and also, of course, the court.

It is a pregnant fortnight before the elections. At stake are the freedoms of association and expression.

Politics first, people second

Andrew Sheng

ANN columnist

Flying to Washington and London, news came of the tragic Ethiopian Boeing 737 Max 8 jet crash almost immediately after take-off, eerily similar to what happened just five months ago to the Lion Air Max 8 jet that also crashed after take-off from Jakarta.

US President Donald Trump weighed in with a tweet that "airplanes are becoming too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT".

But one could argue that things are so complex these days; do we need auto-pilots in planes, trains, or even countries?

Complexity theory suggests that you cannot apply simple, linear and mechanical models to understand reality. Conventional economic models have failed to predict the future because they are too simplistic, assuming that humans have "rational expectations" with perfect information and completely ignoring contextual issues such as climate change, technology disruption and politics - namely, everything that even to a layman, has huge economic consequences.

And that is exactly how it felt after a week visiting the two capitals of the world that used to run the whole world - Washington and London. Life has become so complicated that we have moved from a simple, predictable world of optimal, "first best" solutions to all problems to a condition of utter confusion, in which everything is possible.

It was the distrust of the elite, especially the politicians, that drove the electorate to vote for change - Brexit in the case of Britain and Mr Trump in the United States.

This week in London, British Prime Minister Theresa May had her second parliamentary defeat, despite her heroic efforts to strike an exit deal.

If no deal is struck over Brexit, Britain may exit Europe under a condition of "no deal", with totally unpredictable economic and political consequences.

All this goes to show that today, any single miscalculation in policy in both capitals could have serious consequences around the world. Mr Trump's America First policy has stirred up a hornet's nest with the trade dispute with China. Similarly, Brexit will have terrible consequences, not just for Britain, but also for Europe, which is also in a political pickle.

Which brings us back to the jet crashes. The problem is that if the plane is so complex that even pilots may not be in charge, who is in charge?

Our political leaders across the world will do whatever they think is right, but we, the silent passengers, who watch and wait for key decisions by the pilots in front, pray that they know what they are doing.

 • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news organisations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2019, with the headline 'Tests for democracy'. Print Edition | Subscribe