It is difficult to picture, whilst analyzing the political and social development of Southeast Asian countries, how this region was completely dominated by European colonialist powers, even six decades ago. Southeast Asia was among the 84 % of the surface area of the earth that stood colonized at the beginning of the Second World War, a process that began in the 16th century and carried on steadily during the next three centuries (Chadda and Others, 1971). European colonialism in the region ended mainly in the decade after World War II, its greatest result being the birth of nine new nations, including Malaysia (Chadda and Others, 1971).
Political and social developments in the region, from the mid 1950s, when independent sovereign states emerged after the withdrawal of colonial powers, to the current day, have to essentially be viewed through the prism of colonialism to understand the broader issues that face the countries of the region, and the internal ethnic, social, religious, and political forces that play important roles in the shaping of their social and political progress, and in the choice of their structures of governance. For more than a thousand years before the arrival of the armies from Europe, from A.
D. 200 AD to 1500 AD, the complexity and thoughtfulness of Hindu and Buddhist influences from the Indian subcontinent provided the people of Southeast Asia with some commonality and cohesion in areas of politics, governance, religion, arts, and literature (Cunningham, 1990). Numerous developments in the region, like alliances, royal marriages, wars, trade, and population movements brought the people of this region, including the Burmese, the Thai, the Vietnamese, the Khmer, and the Malays into multifarious relationships.
Such harmony, commonality, and communication was disrupted and eventually lost after the establishment of colonial hegemony by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, French, and Americans was established in separate parts of the region (Cunningham, 1990). Colonies became connected to their American or European rulers, which competed with each other, economically, culturally and politically, and became distant from each other. Despite their forced oneness with their colonial conquerors, the countries of Southeast Asia retained their unique ecological, cultural, and ethnic diversity (Cunningham, 1990).
Whilst the region’s geographical dimensions and population are similar to that of West Europe, it is far more diverse in culture and traditions. “Southeast Asia’s population and land area are similar to those of Western Europe, but the region has far greater cultural variety. Hundreds of different societies speak mutually unintelligible languages. Many have proud civilizations stretching back over a thousand years. The people grew irrigated rice, traded overseas between and with India and China, and developed many small states and larger empires that allied and warred.
From about A. D. 200 to A. D. 400, these societies reshaped Hindu-Buddhist cultural influence from India in statecraft, law, religion, art, architecture, and literature. ” (Cunningham, 1990) Malaysia Malaysia, the subject of this essay, is an integral part of Southeast Asia and is a striking representation of the region’s ethnic and religious diversity. A narrow peninsular land mass, Malaysia as it is now known, was ruled from the 9th to the 13th century AD by the Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya. Control of the kingdom passed to the Javanese Hindu kingdom of Majapahit in the 14th century and thence to a local Muslim prince in the 15th century (Gomez, 2004).
The peninsula attracted the attention of the Portuguese in the 15th century, who conquered Malacca in 1511, an event that marked the beginning of four centuries of European rule (Gomez, 2004). With control of the area passing from Portuguese and Dutch hands to those of the British in the early years of the 19th century, its first consolidation took place in 1826, when the British settlements of Malacca, Penang, and Singapore were combined to form the Colony of the Straits Settlements (Gomez, 2004).
Occupied by the Japanese from 1941 to 1945, the territories of peninsular Malaysia came together to form the Federation of Malaya in 1948 and obtained freedom from the British in 1957 (Gomez, 2004). The present-day Federation of Malaysia came into existence only in 1965, when Sarawak and Sabah joined the Federation of Malaya (Gomez, 2004). Evolution of Regional Democracy in Southeast Asia The beginning of post colonialism in Asia witnessed a significant social, intellectual and political endeavour to establish democracy and make it function in line with Anglo-American thought.
Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in India, U Nu in Burma and Ramon Magsaysay in the Philippines, who had receive much of their formative and political education in the west, sought to draft constitutions, form political parties and hold elections (Crouch, 1996). Democratic processes were, during this time, under attack in all of Asia and it is not difficult to imagine the tremendous obstacles that confronted them year after year.
Societies were being reconstructed after the devastation left by European and American colonialism, and a devastating war that had nothing to do with the people of Southeast Asia; the leadership was in the hands of inexperienced and untested administrators, there were a myriad social problems like poverty, illiteracy, and disease to tackle, and nations needed to be moulded from confusing and disparate ethnic puzzles (Crouch, 1996). The ideological confusion was even greater.
Political leaders in Malaysia and other countries of Southeast Asia needed to choose from the democratic processes that were alive and thriving in the countries of North America and West Europe, and in countries like the UK, the state run communism that controlled the Soviet Union and East Europe, the banana republics of South America, paternal leftist dictatorships like those in Castro’s Cuba and Tito’s Yugoslavia, and the monarchical kingdoms and emirates of the Middle East (Crouch, 1996).
The pressures of social reconstruction, nation building and ideological confusion in the region had joined hands, by the 1970s, to remove the essence of democracy from most of Southeast Asia with strongmen like Suharto in Indonesia, and Marcos in the Philippines disregarding democratic norms and consolidating personal power bases (Hill, 2002). The relegation or subversion of democracy in Southeast Asia was however accompanied by the rise of the Asian Tigers, with countries like South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan growing faster than all other countries in the world for over a decade (Hill, 2002).
Such astonishing growth was also accompanied by the need for strong governments, which incidentally were headed by small groups of predominantly male leaders, who took decisions in all areas of public life, on issues as diverse economic subsidies, university admissions, foreign worker entry, working conditions and liberation of women (Hill, 2002). Democracy came back strongly into the political picture only in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, the deconstruction of the Soviet Union, and the economic crisis in Asia (Hill, 2002).
The fall of “democratic” regimes in East Europe along with the acceptance of the superiority of the market system within a liberal democracy brought home the message to the people of Southeast Asia that economic growth built on political repression was ultimately unsustainable (Hill, 2002). Objective Malaysia has by and large experienced a stable political atmosphere, riding on the back of coalition one party rule and the political dominance of Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad for more than 20 years (Johnson, 2003).
Malaysia’s society is multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious. The Malays, who comprise a just over 50% of the population form the majority community, all of them, by constitutional definition being Muslim. About 25 % of the population (down from 31 % at independence) is ethnic Chinese, a group which historically played an important role in trade and business. Malaysians of Indian descent comprise about 7% (again down from 11 % at independence) of the population and include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians.
Non-Malay indigenous groups combine to make up approximately 11% of the population. While national unity as continued to elude the country, its extremely successful industrialisation drive, (since the mid-1980s), has made it into one of the world’s important trading nations. Malaysia has experienced astonishing economic growth in the last two decades. The national poverty rate has fallen from 49. 3% in 1970 to 5. 1 % in 2004, with corresponding improvements in education, literacy, child mortality and disease control (Kershaw, 2004).
The country’s political progress has to be viewed in light of the phenomenal economic growth achieved by it as well as the social and political processes of the region. This study aims to study the political and social development of the country, including issues like the process of holding elections, the level and genuineness of political competition, freedom of speech and media, official and unofficial abuse of human rights, punishment regime, the strength of the judiciary and other institutions, the relationship between economic and political development, and the capacity of the state to politically administer its sovereign territory.