Search Thursday July 22, 2004

Philip Bowring: When the Malays cast their votes
In East Asia
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Tuesday, July 13, 2004

HONG KONG: The world has its gaze on China's economic growth and emergence as a global power. But something perhaps as remarkable and significant for the longer term evolution of east Asia has passed almost unnoticed.

This year more Malays have participated in reasonably free and fair national elections than will vote in the U.S. presidential election in November. Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia have all engaged in mostly peaceful exercises in political choice, with more than 70 percent casting their ballots. Of the four predominantly Malay nations, with a combined population of some 300 million, only the tiny oil rich sultanate of Brunei cannot pass as a democracy. Is this a happy coincidence or a cultural statement with political and ethnic implications for the region?

Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia are usually thought of in terms of either their religious differences - Muslim, Christian or a mix - or the different governance systems that have grown out of foreign rule - British, American, Dutch.

But there is a shared common cultural heritage which predates the arrival of the West, of Christianity and of Islam. It is found in many social attitudes and behavioral norms and often transcends religious and national differences. For instance the higher status of women compared to Chinese societies is reflected in the lack of a bias for male births.

There is also the basis of a shared language - before English, Malay was the lingua franca of Southeast Asia.

Is there here the germ of a pan-Malay political agenda?

The Indonesian presidential election coincided with the death of Subandrio, 90, President Sukarno's foreign minister and key player in the 1961 creation of the Nonaligned Movement. Subandrio was also the 1963 inventor of the word "Maphilindo," shorthand for a pan-Malay confederation, an idea initiated by President Macapagal, father of the current Philippine president.

The motive was to thwart the attachment of the British Borneo states to Malaya. But there was a genuine pan-Malay sentiment behind it, and a sub-text in a fear of China. Maphilindo became irrelevant when the Malay nations joined with their fellow anti-Communist neighbors, Thailand and Singapore, to create the Association of South East Asia Nations (Asean).

Fast forward 40 years and at first glance Maphilindo looks more remote than ever. Asean has expanded to include all of mainland Southeast Asia and has created a free trade area of sorts. China is now outwardly friendly, a source of trade growth and investment opportunity.

But Asean may have become too big to be meaningful. Thailand and Singapore are going their own ways with bilateral free trade deals. Asean-China free trade looks more rhetoric than reality. Meanwhile there is long-term concern as well as short-term advantage in China's growth. China's ambitions to control the South China Sea remains very much on the table to the discomfort to the Malays who occupy most of its coastline. Only this month China announced an award of oil exploration blocks to its national oil company Petrochina but kept the location under wraps.

Translating a shared culture and geopolitical concerns into common policy is hard. The Malay lands of island and peninsular Southeast Asia have scant record of political cohesion. Historically, states have been transient. In contrast to the Chinese world, they have no tradition of strong bureaucracies holding states together and imposing a state ideology. But their traditions of patron-client relationships, of relatively high levels of religious and behavioral tolerance, their instincts of loyalty to individuals rather than institutions or ideologies may accord quite well with the modernity of the ballot box.

Possibly, populism and nationalism will be in the defining marks of Malay democracy rather than economic growth and law-based governance. Systems might be far from ideal from the perspectives of the economy and good order but allow cultural freedoms to flourish. Unlike China, Malaysia and Indonesia have cushions of natural resources and no costly big power ambitions.

Longer term they also have one particular advantage over their giant northern neighbor. The Philippines has excessive population growth but Indonesia and Malaysia have achieved gradual, undraconian, demographic transition which 30 years from now will show up China's mix of one child policy and male preference. Perhaps China's southward expansion will be reversed just as demography has led Russia's retreat from Asia.

The Malay enthusiasm for voting may prove transient. Possibly, China will follow its Northeast Asian neighbors in escaping from rule by one party and a state bureaucracy. But that is not now. There will be consequences from the ubiquity of the Malay ballot box at a time when pan-Malay identity is stirring as China rises and old colonial-imposed divisions erode. What those consequences will be is anyone's guess. But they are worth contemplating.