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  • Soft Authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore
  • Gordon P. Means (bio)

Both Malaysia and Singapore, as a consequence of their colonial past, have inherited the basic democratic institutions of the British political tradition. After 40 years of independence, most of these institutions survive with relatively slight modifications. Yet today Singapore and Malaysia generate a debate, not about the survival of democracy, but rather about “transitions to democracy” from “soft authoritarianism.” Why have basic democratic institutions survived in these countries, while democratic ideals and practices have not? The reasons are many and complex, and with limited space, only a partial answer can be given.

When the Second World War ended, British colonial officials returning after the defeat of the Japanese occupiers concluded that Malaya and Singapore should be granted independence, but gradually and with careful preparation. The rigors of war and occupation, however, had generated tensions that produced escalating political mobilization based on ethnicity. Malaya’s population in 1945 was 50 percent Malay, 38 percent Chinese, 11 percent Indian, and less than 2 percent “other.” Across the Johore Strait on the island of Singapore, the Chinese constituted a decisive majority of 75 percent, while the Malays accounted for 14 percent, the Indians for 8 percent, and “others” for 2.5 percent.

Instead of a gradual transition to democracy and independence, the British were forced into making piecemeal concessions to one ethnic community after another. Therefore, the introduction of democratic institutions was retarded as the British strove to manage rising ethnic [End Page 103] conflict by negotiating directly with the leaders of the main ethnic communities. Most local politicians demanded rapid transition to independence, and supported popular democracy and human rights. None questioned whether democracy was congruent with “Asian values,” or doubted that an independent judiciary was needed to protect human rights against the sovereign powers of new governments. As a consequence, the wholesale transplanting of British-style democratic institutions was easily accomplished, and received wide popular support.

The introduction of elections and representative institutions did not produce widespread popular participation in political affairs. Neither the public nor elites had experience with democracy. The colonial system, even in its most benevolent phases, had been highly authoritarian. Each ethnic community supported leaders from traditional status hierarchies or at the apex of various patron-client networks. Malays (who accounted for most of the population) supported local village and regional leaders grouped around the nine Malay royal courts at the state level. Indians supported charismatic leaders arising from labor unions or cultural associations. The Chinese were descended from immigrants who in the old country had often been affiliated with secret societies dedicated to revolution or peasant resistance against imperial Chinese authority. In Southeast Asia under European colonial rule, this resistance tradition continued. Most overseas Chinese distrusted all public authorities and viewed government as something to be avoided, not supported. For all communities, “Asian values” meant communal loyalty, distrust of government, and avoidance of individual or collective responsibility for wider public interests. Few could acknowledge or empathize with the claims of ethnic communities other than their own. In this climate, elections and parliamentary government became the basis for the rituals of legitimacy, while the habits and attitudes required for a civic culture and participatory democracy went largely uncultivated.

Party Systems

In the period just after the war, politics was dominated by the struggle of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) against colonial rule. The CPM was secretive, authoritarian, and highly centralized; its cadres generated mass support through a combination of ideological indoctrination and violence. Although the CPM was ultimately defeated and eventually disbanded in 1989, its years of armed struggle set a pattern of militancy and intransigence that affected all parties.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) became the most powerful party in Malaya even before independence, basing its power on the mass support of Malays. Traditional Malay elites founded UMNO in 1946 with a fairly democratic party structure. Because UMNO negotiated Malayan independence and was returned to power in all [End Page 104] subsequent elections, it has been viewed by most Malays as the bastion for the preservation of Malay political supremacy. Over time, strong Malay prime ministers have centralized power, creating tension between UMNO’s...