Opinion

Economic boom, ‘democratic
recession’ in ASEAN

Under the chairmanship of Indonesia, ASEAN is on its course to become a single community with economic, socio-cultural, political and security pillars by 2015.

Many people didn’t notice that Southeast Asian economies were on the verge of an economic boom. It is good for everybody. But a recent report on democracy says that ASEAN countries are facing a democratic “recession”.

Southeast Asia’s largest economy, Indonesia, recorded an impressive growth rate of 6.1 percent in 2010, while neighboring economies recorded similar impressive numbers: Singapore 14.5 percent, Laos 8.4 percent, Thailand 7.8 percent, Philippines 7.3 percent (its highest economic growth in 35 years), Malaysia 7.2 percent, Vietnam 6.8 percent, Cambodia 5.9 percent and Myanmar 5.3 percent. This high-growth trajectory is expected to continue this year and in the coming years.

The tiny oil-rich Brunei Darussalam was an exception, where gross domestic product grew just 0.5 percent last year.

Coming back to democracy, most of us feel proud that Indonesia is now the most free and stable country in Southeast Asia and the third biggest democracy in the world after India and the United States.

But according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2010, Indonesia is a flawed democracy. The report says further that no ASEAN country has a full-fledged democracy.

With an overall score of 6.53, Indonesia was ranked 60th out of 167 countries surveyed under the category of flawed democracies, just below Thailand (57) in the same category, which had a score of 6,55.

The score was based on a global survey in five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political cultural and civil liberties.

Indonesia, home to world’s largest Muslim population, received a score of 6.92 in electoral process and pluralism, 7.50 in functioning of government, 5.56 in political participation, 5.63 in political culture and 7.06 in civil liberties on one to 10 scale.

Surprisingly, Timor Leste, one of the world’s youngest nations, had a better score of 7.22 — ranking 42nd.

“It’s not a surprise for me if Indonesia receives a low score in the survey. Since Soeharto’s fall Indonesia has been making good progress in democracy. But we don’t have a good political culture,” human rights watchdog Demos executive director Antonio Pradjasto recently said. “Our political parties do not educate people and their cadres about democracy”.

There is nothing but shame for receiving poor marks in the survey. Even India, the world’s most populace democracy, managed to rank 40th, still under the category of flawed democracy, with an overall score of 7.28, despite threats from terrorism and religious extremism.

Democracy has been on decline, including in the US (17) and the UK (19), and all over the world since 2008. “Democracy is in retreat,” the report said in its preface. Financial crisis and the war on terror were some of the main reasons mentioned for the decline in democracy.

Only four countries — New Zealand (5), Australia (6), South Korea (20) and Japan (22) — from Asia featured in the list of 26 full democracies. Besides full democracies, flawed democracies, the survey has hybrid regimes (such as Singapore and Cambodia) and authoritarian regimes (like Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar) categories.

Why is ASEAN lagging behind in democracy?

“We have to choose between development and democracy. We in Vietnam give priority to reducing poverty, curbing unemployment and providing education rather than democracy,” a senior Vietnamese diplomat who is now in Hanoi said recently.

One may ask which is the most democratic country in the world. Norway is the most democratic country on the planet and North Korea is positioned in the bottom of the poll under authoritarian regimes. Micro states like Brunei were not included in the survey.

According to the report, for some 2.5 billion people, or more than one-third of the world’s population, democracy is still a distant dream.

The author is a staff writer at
The Jakarta Post.

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