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  • Southeast Asia After the CrisisA Tale of Three Countries
  • Donald K. Emmerson (bio)

First came the boom. For at least three of the six years from 1991 through 1996, each of Southeast Asia’s “tiger” economies—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand—enjoyed a rate of economic growth of 8 percent or faster. Each year during this period, the pace of the slowest tiger in the GDP race substantially exceeded the world’s rate of growth.

Then came the bust. It began in mid-1997, when persisting signs of weakness in the Thai economy caused a massive lack of confidence in its currency, the baht. Soon the other tigers stumbled too. In 1998 Singapore’s economy slowed dramatically. The economies of Indonesia and Malaysia (and the Philippines) contracted. The decline of the Thai economy, which had begun in 1997, accelerated. By mid-1999 the worst was apparently over for these economies; all four (and the Philippines) are expected to grow again in 2000. But the downturn had been all too real.

Much has been written about the causes of the Asian economic crisis. 1 Less has been ventured about its political implications. I want to begin to redress this imbalance by exploring what the economic downturn has meant for democracy: Did the economic shocks that rippled through Southeast Asia in 1997–98 promote, retard, or have no effect on the region’s democratization—and why?

As is shown by the first column of figures in the Table on the following page, between 1996 and 1998 all the economies of Southeast Asia either lost speed or actually lost ground. One might have expected that this economic crisis, which had dramatic political repercussions in Indonesia, would also have led to significant changes in levels of political freedom throughout the region. By the imperfect but useful [End Page 35] standards of Freedom House, however, this did not happen: As can be seen in the Table, most Southeast Asian countries became neither more nor less free in 1998, retaining the scores they had received in 1997.

Table 1.
Economic Shock & Political Freedom in Southeast Asis, 1996–1998
Country Shock Net Fluctuation in Rates of Change in Real GDP, 1996–98
(% points)
Freedom Change in Freedom Rating 1997–98
(scale points and categories)
Indonesia −21.7 +1.0 (from Not to Partly Free)
Malaysia −15.4 −0.5 (still Partly Free)
Thailand −13.5 +0.5 (from Partly Free to Free)
Cambodia −7.0 no change (still Not Free)
Philippines −6.3 no change (still Free)
Singapore −6.0 no change (still Partly Free)
Vietnam −5.8 no change (still Not Free)
Burma −4.0 no change (still Not Free)
Brunei −2.6 no change (still Not Free)
Laos −1.9 no change (still Not Free)

Notes: “Shock” = the difference between the rates of real GDP growth in 1996 and in 1997 + the difference between such rates in 1997 and 1998. As of the end of each year, Freedom House rates countries on a scale from 1.0 (most free) to 7.0 (least free) and classifies them as “Free,” “Partly Free,” and “Not Free.” “Freedom” = the difference between the ratings as of the end of 1997 and the end of 1998.

Sources: Asia Yearbook 1999 (Hong Kong: Review, 1999), 88; International Monetary Fund, IMF Economic Reviews: January–April 1999 (Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund), 27; International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook: May 1999 (Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund, 1999), 140, 147; Freedom House, Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, 1997–1998 (New York: Freedom House, 1999), 13.

This impression of political continuity despite economic change is reinforced by comparing the ratings for Southeast Asian jurisdictions issued by Freedom House for 1972 (when it first began rating countries and territories in terms of political rights and civil liberties) and 1998. Although Singapore and Vietnam (North Vietnam) received the same scores on both occasions on both variables, the combined totals earned by the ten Southeast Asian states in 1998 for political rights and civil liberties were exactly the same as the totals awarded to the region’s members in these regards 26 years before. 2

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