Elites that ‘settled’ Southeast Asia’s politics

Urwah Saari

International Development Analyst

This week, the discussion continues about elites and political settlement. I have learned that politics cannot separate itself from being associated with political actor and its behavior. Political actor often refers to the elites and it works to attain political settlement, which determine key driver that mediate politics of a state. Menocal (2015,p.7) describes political settlement far from being static, its “ongoing political processes that involve the negotiation, bargaining and contestation of the power relationship between key elite figures and groups”. This description is quite identical with Adrian Leftwich’s (2002) definition of politics. It is also interesting that Ed Laws (2012) equates political settlements as “two-level games” that involve “both horizontal dynamics and interactions between elites”.

Who are the political elites? They are from various sectors particularly in developing state and according to Hossain and Moore as cited by Menocal, “They often command a particularly large slice of the national income, and the influence that goes with it.” It’s common that minister and legislators together with upper-level public servant are the elites, however we must not discount the prominent role of senior members of armed forces as seen in African countries, major business enterprise owners and publicly prominent professionals. It is interesting fact that in Indonesia post of Reformasi 1998 era, most of politicians or their relatives directly own tv stations and newspaper,  which raised Freedom House’s concern over independent journalism during 2014 General Election. This increasingly suggests that media owners has become part of elites in developing state.

With broadly similar structures, some state behaves differently, nonetheless with certain level of exclusivity, some state describes strong, stable and effective while others weak, unstable and ineffective. I like to use Southeast Asia region where my home country is, to discover the political elites and settlements. A region consists of 11 countries with approximately 593 millions growing populations and one of seventh largest economy with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion in 2013, Southeast Asia might be a good case study.

While Menocal argues political settlement can be inclusive, Southeast Asia proved to exclusive. The hegemony of political leadership is obviously circulated around relatives and favourable colleague. This can be seen in in Singapore’s Kuan Yew’s vision and ambition is now succeed through his son, Hsing Long, despite Goh Chok Tong’s interval between them. It is similar to Indonesia, Megawati the daughter of Sukarno, rose up as Indonesia’s 5th republic president, believed to be influenced by this his father’s figure. Mahathir, even though didn’t not inherit premiership to his sons, through internal political settlement (president of ruling party is an automatic seat for prime minister job), Abdullah Badawi succeeded Mahathir after his retirement in 2003.

Secondly, political settlements are built up from economics arrangement. Mahathir, which has brought Malaysia into development state starting with his masterpiece ofVision 2020 , has set an example of exclusive political settlement within economy. While crony capitalism thriving through his era, privatisation policy became his main economics development’s model, with most of the nation’s public and utilities service were privatised. To speed up the process, he allocated and distributed the roles to 3 millionaires representing 3 main races in the country. Nevertheless, Mahathir’s sons  Mokhzani, is among 20 richest man in Malaysia in Forbes Fortune ranks.

Mahathir-Kuan Yiew-Suharto may have some hostile relationship, I suggest perhaps Southeast Asia has been ‘settled’ not only through internal political and economic maneuver but with inter state arrangement between them.