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  • Introduction
  • Malcolm Cook

The twenty-two chapters in Southeast Asian Affairs 2020 again highlight the dynamism and diversity of the eleven countries covered and Southeast Asia as a region.1 Events ranged from the tragic deaths from overwork and poor conditions of many election workers in Indonesia during the national elections to the release on social media of a rap song supporting former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, the first leader of UMNO to lose a parliamentary election.

Six overarching themes each feature in many of the twenty-two chapters, and no chapter is devoid of all six. Two of these themes are global in nature, two relate to major powers outside of Southeast Asia, and two are domestic in nature. The enduring and definitive nature of these themes is underlined by the fact that many of them feature heavily in previous volumes of Southeast Asian Affairs, including those like major power competition and transitions in political leadership that have been constant themes since the first volume was published almost a half century ago. Others, like environmental degradation and the political ramifications of social media, are distinctly modern.

Environmental Degradation

In the thematic chapter for Malaysia, Serina Rahman looks at the ambitious environmental policy agenda of the Pakatan Harapan government and the political challenges it faces. Global pressure particularly from the European Union on the Malaysian palm oil industry, a major source of Malaysian exports, has led to a defensive response from Kuala Lumpur in contrast to the proactive position the government has taken against the export of trash to Malaysia from advanced Western economies. The Pakatan Harapan government has taken a regional lead in trying to address some of the causes and consequences of environmental degradation. Will others follow? [End Page vii]

Social Media Politics

The thematic chapter for Indonesia by Jennifer Yang Hui looks at the use and influence of social media in the 2019 elections in the largest country of Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, social media is now the predominant channel of political communication between politicians and voters and supporters of politicians and voters. A large industry of social media political communication has arisen that is changing the conduct of election campaigns fundamentally. In the 2014 and 2019 presidential campaigns, black propaganda against political opponents has proven to be widespread even if its effectiveness is questionable.

In the thematic chapter for Thailand, James Ockey's study of the rapid rise of the Future Forward Party shows a positive democratic-opening dimension to social media politics. The clever use of social media greatly aided the party's phoenix-like rise to become the third-largest party in Thailand, and one that is particularly popular among young urban voters. The country review chapters on Vietnam by Paul Schuler and Mai Truong and on Singapore by Khairulanwar Zaini highlight the concerns of the ruling regimes with the political impact of social media.


As with last year's volume, the chapters of Southeast Asian Affairs 2020 underline that China is now the leading external power in Southeast Asia and its influence is expanding and becoming more politically salient. In the first chapter, the regional political and security outlook, Graham Ong-Webb goes into some detail on the centrality of China regionally. The regional thematic chapter on China's Belt and Road Initiative by Gong Xue evaluates President Xi Jinping's signature foreign policy endeavour and counters criticism from within Southeast Asia and internationally of the initiative's rationale and effects on host countries. The country review chapter for the Philippines by Lowell Bautista looks into President Duterte's close embrace of China. The country review chapter for Brunei by Pushpa Thambipillai, Cambodia by Kheang Un, and Laos by Geoffrey Gunn each show the growing asymmetrical importance of China for each of these countries. In the thematic chapter for Singapore on the Bicentennial commemorations, Terence Chong posits that concerns with China's growing influence was a major external factor in the ongoing recasting of Singaporean history reflected in the Bicentennial.

US-China Rivalry

In 2019, the nature and regional ramifications of the US-China major power rivalry became clearer and of greater concern. In his regional thematic chapter, Daljit Singh [End...


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