Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

Introduction

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

Introduction

Article excerpt

Economic growth in Southeast Asia was estimated at 6.1 per cent year on year compared with 6 per cent in 2006. This was due to better performance in Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia while Vietnam sustained its impressive performance of 2006. Further, Singapore exceeded earlier expectations by growing only marginally slower than in 2006. Stronger than expected domestic demand and higher remittances for some countries contributed to the robust performance of Southeast Asian economies though exports also continued to play an important role. Yet, there were also growing concerns about the underlying competitiveness of some countries to meet longer-term economic challenges, with issues of governance, education and training at the forefront of these concerns.

The picture was more mixed in the arena of politics and security. Thailand had yet to recover its stability after the military coup of 19 September 2006, despite the election of December 2007. The political divisions in the country had, if anything, increased and the apparently failing health of the King only added to the currents of uncertainty. Meanwhile the insurgency in the southern Muslim provinces continued unabated with no solution in sight. In the Philippines, though President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's presidency turned out to be politically resilient, it remained tarnished by a widespread perception of corruption among those close to her, while the country continued to face multiple insurgencies involving the communists and, in the south, different groups of Muslim rebels. In Malaysia there were growing signs of racial polarization and disappointment with the Abdullah administration's failure to deliver on its promises to reduce crime and corruption. The situation in Myanmar seemed worse with the September demonstrations led by Buddhist monks, which were violently suppressed. Yet, by the end of the year, nothing seemed to have changed. On the other hand, Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, had acquired a measure of stability and normalcy not seen since the financial crisis of 1997-98. However in a world vastly changed since 1997, it faced daunting challenges to attracting the foreign direct investment needed to achieve the pre-1997 growth rates of 7 to 8 per cent.

ASEAN featured prominently in the developments of 2007. The year marked the fortieth anniversary of ASEAN and saw the adoption of the ASEAN Charter, which seemed to be a significant step forward for the Association, even though there was some disappointment that the document finally adopted was a somewhat watered down version of what the Eminent Persons Group had recommended.

Democracy has recently suffered reverses in the region after the major advance in 1998-99 when the largest country of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, became a democracy. It suffered a setback in Thailand with the military coup of 2006. Poor standards of governance seemed to be eroding support for democracy in the Philippines, where according to public opinion surveys, between 2001 and 2005 the percentage of Filipinos who claimed to be satisfied with democracy dropped from 54 per cent to 39 per cent. There were also signs of growing dissatisfaction with the political system in Malaysia with its corruptionprone patronage along racial lines and its seeming inability to deal with rising graft and crime. Larry Diamond, in an article in Foreign Affairs of March/April 2008 could have been talking of the Philippines among others when he said: "democracy has been a superficial phenomenon, blighted by multiple forms of bad governance. ... There are elections but they are contests between corrupt clientelistic parties..."

Indonesia's democracy seemed to be consolidating well, but was still blighted by poor governance, a state of affairs, which, if not significantly improved, could at some stage increase the attractiveness of authoritarian or Islamic alternatives. To cite Larry Diamond again: "Emerging democracies must demonstrate that they can solve their governance problems. …

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