Asia: Search for Strength

Asian values was the favourite phrase of regional leaders in the 1990s. Apparently overtaken by events, the approach could be coming back, with surprising election results in two prominent Islamic countries.

The World Today Published 1 May 2004 Updated 16 October 2020 4 minute READ

Graham Brown

Research Officer, Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity, Oxford University

Indonesia has held its second general election since the collapse of President Suharto’s three decade-long authoritarian rule in May 1998. It was an important test for a country still recovering from the economic crisis of 1997 and the tide of ethnic and regionalist violence unleashed by the collapse of the Suharto regime.

Neighbouring Malaysia also went to the polls with the results never in doubt. Its democratic process has long been undermined by the ruling regime, but then neither was there any possibility of poll-related violence. In multi-ethnic countries such as these, does unfettered democracy produce violence, and is authoritarianism the price of peace?

In the early 1990s, faced with strong western criticism of their undemocratic practices, long-serving Asian leaders including Suharto, Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew advanced the idea of Asian values to justify their political regimes.

Pointing to the unparalleled economic growth that their countries enjoyed over the previous decades, they argued that in contrast to western preferences, Asians tend to prioritise society over the individual and stability over freedom. What Asians truly want, said these ‘dictators’ of Southeast Asia, is strong leadership, political stability and economic growth, and for these they are willing to see their liberal freedoms curtailed.

Critics of this argument leapt on the financial and economic crisis that engulfed the region in 1997. The ‘miraculous’ growth that underpinned this approach, they alleged, had been proved to be a mirage based on corporate accumulations, creaking banking systems and nepotism. Asian values were nothing more than thin justification for corruption and authoritarianism.

Events seemed to bear these criticisms out. In the aftermath of the economic crisis, governments across the region fell. In semi-authoritarian Malaysia, there was a widespread protest movement and the government suffered a steep drop in support, particularly amongst its core Malay constituency, in the ‘free but not fair’ 1999 elections.

More dramatically, protests in Indonesia brought about the collapse of Suharto’s iron rule and ushered in a period of democratisation which, in 1999, saw the first free elections since 1955.


The situation has become murkier now both countries have returned to the polls. In Malaysia, where economic recovery is well under way, voters strongly backed the Barisan Nasional national front coalition, giving it over ninety percent of parliamentary seats and more than two-thirds of the popular vote.

Conversely, in Indonesia, where economic recovery is faltering, the results were much less conclusive, but support for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, which fronted and rode the wave of democratisation to emerge as the largest party in 1999, has dropped significantly and Golkar, the party that kept Suharto in power for three decades, has overtaken it in popular support.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a symbol of the new democracy and daughter of Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno, who was ousted by Suharto in a 1965 coup, risks losing her directly elected post when Indonesians return to the polls in July.

Counter to many predictions, however, the elections were largely peaceful and free of the violence that had marred previous polling, both under Suharto and in 1999.

Economic growth and political authoritarianism have been electorally rewarded in Malaysia; poor growth and democratisation have led to ever-greater electoral fragmentation in Indonesia, and a widespread hankering for the old ways. Are Asian values making a comeback?

Heightened tensions

Much has changed internationally since 1997, and it is impossible to interpret events purely in the political economy terms of Asian values. The September 11 2001 attacks in America and, closer to home, the Bali bombings in 2002 and the continuing abductions by Philippine-based Islamic groups in Malaysian waters have brought the issue of militant Islam to the fore. With Muslims in the majority in both countries, political Islam has always been a major issue, but the current international context has heightened tensions.

In Malaysia, the government has played a convincing double line on the new international geopolitics. It has appealed to Muslim citizens by stringently criticising the United States and its allies for their actions in the Middle East and their failure to understand the root causes of Islamic terrorism. Simultaneously it has raised the spectre of increased domestic fundamentalism and, by association at least, tied this to the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

Since 2001, Malaysia has detained without trial dozens of supposed members of the shadowy – some say fictional – Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, an extremist organisation with alleged links to Al Qaeda. Among the detainees was the son of the PAS spiritual leader.

In contrast, Indonesia’s handling of Islamic extremism has been marked by timidity and confusion. Fearful of losing support amongst conservative Muslims, Megawati’s administration was reluctant to prosecute the man widely held responsible for the Bali bombings and other terrorist strikes in the country, Abu Bakar Bashir. Eventually he was convicted of terrorist offences, but his sentence was cut in half on appeal, and he is expected to be released soon.

Despite Megawati’s concerns, however, anti-terrorist measures appear to have wide popular support. The person who received most credit for tackling terrorism, former Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, quit the government days before campaigning began, and his own party performed surprisingly well, taking around eight percent of the vote. Polls suggest that he would beat Megawati in a head-to-head contest for the presidency.

The apparently simple pay-off between freedom and stable growth envisaged under the Asian values argument therefore seems reinforced by the prospect of political violence.

In Malaysia, the government has successfully manipulated this threat to reinforce its dominance. In Indonesia, violence is not just a threat, but a daily reality. Even more than terrorism, ethnic and religious conflict has claimed thousands of lives over the past few years, and more insidious forms of violence such as vigilantism and gangsterism are on the rise. In such a context, it is hardly surprising that many voters look back to the relatively peaceful days of Suharto and Golkar, however authoritarian they may have been.

More harm than good

In recent years, an increasing number of academics and political observers have concluded that the introduction of democracy in ethnically divided developing countries can do more harm than good, an argument that proponents of Asian values no doubt feel vindicated by. They point to the experiences of countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, once the miracle economy of Africa, which after the introduction of multi-party elections in the early 1990s collapsed into a mire of ethnic and regional conflict that continues today.

For such commentators, Indonesia, rife with ethnic conflict and secessionism, lies on the brink of similar collapse. In contrast, Malaysia, where increasing authoritarianism came in the aftermath of elections in 1969 which did indeed descend into ethnic rioting, represents a shining example of how constrained democracy can bring about the stability and peace that prefigures rapid development.

Still divided

The argument seems convincing, but digging a little deeper it becomes problematic. Malaysia and its elections may well be free of violence, but this does not mean the country is not divided.

Social divisions between supporters of the two main Malay parties – the United Malays National Organisation, the senior party in the BN coalition, and PAS – arguably run as deep as those in Indonesia. Even at the village level, political affiliations can determine which shop you patronise, which restaurant you frequent and which school you send your children too. In the past, some rural mosques even resorted to using two different imams to lead supporters of the two parties in prayer.

Recent Indonesian experience suggests that free elections in ethnically divided societies do not necessarily lead to conflict. Indeed, it appears that, rather than indulge in the ethnic outbidding expected of political parties in such situations, the sheer diversity of Indonesia, with over a thousand groups spread across more than thirteen thousand islands, has proved a moderating influence.

Indonesia’s politicians appear to have recognised that to win a substantial base of support they must appeal to the centre instead of the margins, much as western parties do. Even parties perceived as Islamic extremist, such as the Prosperous Justice Party, campaigned to distance themselves from Islamic objectives, emphasising instead the need for clean and transparent government.

Free elections in multi-ethnic countries may not lead inevitably to violence, but the danger is clearly there. The Indonesian presidential election with its all-or-nothing outcome may well prove risky, yet it is questionable whether the Malaysian model is a good alternative.

For many years, newspapers have reported stories of Chinese high school students who because of Malay educational quotas are unable to find places in state-funded universities, despite scoring almost perfect examination results.

Senior career opportunities in the civil service and the police are virtually closed to non-Malays and few bother even entering the professions. Corruption and nepotism still run rife. Free elections may well induce conflict, but their absence may also create a peace that hides severe social and ethnic divisions.