The Chinese dragon never sleeps. When the dragon begins to flex its muscles, its smaller neighbours take notice. So it is in South-East Asia. But the South-East Asian nations aren’t sleeping either and beneath the surface, the winds of change are blowing, putting old regimes to the test.
China claims the whole of the South China Sea as its own territory, as any map made in China clearly shows.
Most South-East Asian nations claim some of the South China Sea islands. These nations are backing the “pivot” by the United States away from Europe towards Asia, with US forces in the region bulking up. Only the US Navy has the power to keep open the sea-lanes of communication, through which the bulk of the region’s trade passes.
But the old regimes can’t rely on scare tactics to retain power. Maybe not next year, maybe not next election, but eventually the old regimes look set to topple.
Singapore has been ruled by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1963. Led by Lee Kuan-yew, it has dominated Singaporean politics ever since. But in the latest by-election, on Saturday, January 26, 2013, the main opposition Worker’s Party swamped the PAP for the second time in a year, gaining 54 per cent of the vote in sleepy Punggol East, a typical Singapore electorate dominated by residential tower-blocks.
The shock result reflected the anxieties of the average Singaporean about the rising cost of living, exploding real estate prices and immigration. The government says Singapore’s population will rise by 30 per cent to 6.9 million by 2030, meaning half of Singapore’s population will be immigrants. Singapore’s birth rate has not been above replacement level for three decades.
The opposition Workers Party shocked the PAP by winning six seats in the last election, and looks certain to better that total in the next election, due no later than 2017.
The PAP, which gained 81 seats in Singapore’s single-chamber parliament, does not look like losing power any time soon, but it has been put on notice by the highly educated Singaporean electorate.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien-loong, son of Lee Kuan-yew, is a very competent administrator, but does not seem to have his father’s magic touch. Recent investment disasters affecting Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds, one of which was managed by the younger Lee’s wife, have done nothing to improve the standing of the ruling PAP.
Singapore is said to be a Chinese island in a Malay sea. Malaysia, which gained independence from Britain in 1957, looks set for the first change of government, if not in the upcoming election, then likely in the next.
Malaysia has not had a change of government since independence, making the ruling party, the National Front (Barisan Nasional), the longest-ruling party of any government in the democratic community. The National Front is a coalition of parties dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Other major constituent parties represent the Chinese and Indian communities.
Malaysia has never been poor. The former British colony’s economy was for years supported by three pillars — rubber, tin and palm oil. Under Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Malaysia began to industrialise. Penang, for example, the island off the peninsula’s west coast, is now a major hub for the computer chip industry.
But, as Australia’s Lynas Corporation has found to its cost, it does not pay to ignore the political dimension when investing in Malaysia. The Lynas rare-earth processing-plant has been picketed by the opposition, who say they will shut it down if they gain power. Mahathir, who is a medical doctor, had poor relations with Australia due to some ancient insult, but it has not prevented a productive two-way relationship evolving.
Prime Minister Najib Razak must call the next election for no later than June 2013. The opposition shocked UMNO in the last election, taking one-third of the seats, as well as winning power in five states.
Najib has some very nasty skeletons in his closet. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim survived a prison term based on trumped up charges. He has re-emerged as the major opposition voice after Malaysia’s judges found some backbone and refused to incarcerate him on further, similarly fanciful, charges.
Prime Minister Najib has yet to win an election in his own right. It is quite possible, though by no means certain, that the opposition will win. The Opposition may win more than one-third of the seats, which would allow it to block constitutional changes.
People in South-East Asia, including Singapore and Malaysia, are prosperous and increasingly well educated. They are no longer cowed by predictions of economic and social Armageddon if the old regimes fall. They are confident of their ability to carve out their own destiny.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who has recently returned from a tour of South-East Asia.