This paper aims to examine the level of political awareness of Singaporean youths through a survey testing their knowledge on the US-China tensions with random sampling. Results show that most Singaporean youths have confidence in their knowledge of the issue, indicating a high level of political awareness that has assured them in indicating as such. They have also shown better understanding of the social aspect of the conflict than the economic aspect, possibly attributed to the use of social media. Moreover, they show a keen sense of awareness of Singapore’s position.


We would like to acknowledge Mr Mahmood, our mentor, as well as the Eunoia Humanities Programme for the opportunity to write this paper. 


Political consciousness is the “personal awareness of politics” (Rulska-Kuthy, 2014). We have defined youths as aged 18 to 23. 

With the ongoing debate regarding youth political participation as part of the overall inclination to lower the voting age in Singapore to 18*, it has become increasingly pertinent to actually determine whether youths are actually politically conscious. 

However, there is a current lack of research regarding this issue and evaluation of youths in Singapore and their political awareness. Thus, this paper aims to make explicit the levels of youth political awareness in assessing their suitability for formal political participation. 



Youths are highly regarded for their participation given their ability to create systemic change. Youth political participation is highly significant. In Malaysia, such participation can contribute to levels of democracy even when the country is known for restrictions on political dissidence (Mohd Hed, 2017). Youth political participation is also noted for their “intellectual capacity” where their sustained participation in politics can engender large changes in their political systems (Marsuki et al., 2022). 

However, academics overseas disagree on whether youths are indeed becoming politically apathetic. In the United States, early academics claimed that American youths were becoming increasingly ignorant of current affairs (Bennett, 1998) and in Nigeria, youths participation in formal politics is also on a decline (Mohamad et al., 2018) and it has begun to stagnate in Harare in Zimbabwe (Chiweshe, 2017). Yet, in many other countries, academics have seen a rise in youth political advocacy. For example, in Malaysia, youths have increased efforts in informal politics, such as on social media and through popular culture, even increasing political discussions amongst themselves (Mohd Hed, 2017). Youths in Europe are also highly politically active (Weiss, 2020). 

Recent research has also shown that the rise of social media platforms has also encouraged more youths to become more politically concerned. Because of the ability to freely express themselves on the internet through social media, youths are increasingly using it as a platform to express their political opinions, fostering “participatory culture” which even translates into higher youth voter turnout (Kann et al., 2007). Youth political participation is also encouraged by direct interaction with politicians since many politicians also use Facebook in particular to communicate with their voters (Abdu, 2017).  

However, there is a gap in current research with regards to youth political apathy in Singapore specifically. In the recent World Values Survey, only 37.2% of respondents indicated that they were somewhat interested in politics, making Singapore one of only three countries to have less than 40% of respondents indicating so (Institute of Policy Studies, 2020). Though, there is no survey or research which focuses on youths in Singapore, which could reveal a different proportion. 

The particular case study was chosen because of its significance to Singapore. It has the capacity to greatly change our diplomatic relations with both Superpowers, and threaten our economic growth (Lee, 2021) due to imposition of tariffs and other restrictions on free trade (ASEAN business, 2021). This means that it is an essential and foundational issue in current affairs, of which asking respondents on will be fair as they have received information on the issue before. This will allow us to accurately gather data about their level of interest in politics instead of their level of knowledge on it as respondents will likely indicate a lack of interest in an issue if they are unaware of it.  


This paper will employ a survey to gauge the political awareness levels of youths aged 18 to 23. This will involve an online survey that selected youths fill in which will prompt them to indicate their evaluations of the United States (US) and China in aspects such as the economy and citizens’ freedom. Then, they will be asked on how sure they were of their answers to reveal their confidence in political affairs and thus their political awareness. 

We used probability sampling, specifically random sampling. This is because, for studies that look at political opinions, probability sampling is the most advocated method of collecting a sample size for research. According to How Might Opinion Polls be Improved?: the Case for Probability Sampling (Lynn, Jowell, 1996) and Sample Selection Bias as a Specification Error (Heckman, 1979), probability sampling circumvents selection bias and unit non-response bias in research in the political field. Regarding survey techniques, according to The Effect of Survey Mode and Sampling on Inferences about Political Attitudes and Behavior: Comparing the 2000 and 2004 ANES to Internet Surveys with Nonprobability Samples (Malhotra, Krosnick, 2007), probability sampling are more accurate than internet samples especially in politics.


The youths surveyed were highly aware of issues relating to freedoms in both countries, while seeming less sure in those relating to the economy. Furthermore, they seemed aware of the approaches Singapore should take in relation to the US-China tensions, which was heartening. 


Certainty in the Aspect of Citizen Freedom

Surveyees reflected confidence in their knowledge when comparing the two countries in terms of the levels of freedom offered to their citizens (in Figure 1 below). 

Forms response chart. Question title: How sure are you of your answer to the last 3 questions?. Number of responses: 111 responses.

Figure 1. Surveyees’ confidence in their response to questions regarding the levels of freedom citizens in the US and China are accorded, ranked on a scale of one to five

Most responses concentrated in the 4 to 5 range, with an average of 3.87, showing that most survey respondents had a high level of confidence in tackling this question, thus revealing that they had a good understanding of the issue, thus revealing a keen sense of political awareness. 

Uncertainty in the Aspect of the Two Economies

When asked about their knowledge of the two economies, in regards to their sustainability and projected success in comparison to each other, surveyees seemed to lack confidence in the matter at hand (in Figure 2 below). 

Forms response chart. Question title: How sure are you of your answer to the last 2 questions?. Number of responses: 111 responses.

Figure 2. Surveyees’ confidence in their response to questions regarding the sustainability of US and Chinese economies, ranked on a scale of one to five

As compared to the high levels of confidence shown by respondents in the questions regarding freedom levels, students were less sure in the economic sector, with an average of 3.09 and majority responses concentrating below 4, and significantly less indicated a 5 (24 compared to 8). 

Forms response chart. Question title: How sure are you of your answer to the last 2 questions?. Number of responses: 111 responses.

Figure 3. Surveyees’ confidence in their response to questions regarding the projected level of success of US and Chinese economies, ranked on a scale of one to five

In facing the tougher questions of the projected level of success of each economy, the level of confidence shown by respondents was more varied, with an average of 3.32, thus showing again that the surveyees were less certain regarding the economic issues of the two Superpowers. 

Awareness of Singapore’s position 

Majority of the respondents had an acute awareness of Singapore’s position in the dispute, however (see Figure 4 below). 

Forms response chart. Question title: Do you think Singapore should side with either country?. Number of responses: 111 responses.

Figure 4. Surveyee responses to whether Singapore should take a position in the dispute to side with any of the Superpowers 

Thus, they were aware of the precarious position that Singapore is in and the necessity to remain neutral. This is further backed by elaborations provided by some surveyees, including an emphasis on our weakness as a “small country” and importance of our “neutrality”. Hence, the majority of youths are aware of Singapore’s position in the conflict. 


Singaporean youths have proved to be confident in their political knowledge, revealing that they have political awareness to some extent. It is critical to note that for none of the questions the students are totally unsure (seeing that the average confidence levels for all questions are more than 3 for all the questions). Thus, even with the characterisation of Singaporean youths being politically unaware, this is not the case. Singaporean youths are actually highly certain of their political opinions, indicating a high level of political awareness. 

However, it is also important to note that respondents were more certain in the social than economic aspect. This can be attributed to the fact that economic issues are seen as more elusive to youths who are unfamiliar with economic issues while social issues are highly debated, especially on social media (as seen in the use of social media advocacy). Thus, social issues in the US and China are more accessible, making it easier for youths to have clarity and confidence in this aspect. 

Yet, the overwhelming confidence of youths in the US-China dispute marks success in local education, creating a mostly politically-conscious population.


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Desiree Soh Shi Huei 21-O1

Emylia Audreyna Binte 21-O1

Gideon Chee Yu-En 21-O1

Lay Kai En Ashley 21-O1

Yap Zoe Ern 21-O1

‘Democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia.’ Discuss with reference to the newly independent states of Southeast Asia. #3

Keeping in mind the definitions of “democracy”, which is democratic forms of governance where the population gets to exercise civil liberties and to effect change through electoral processes, and “taken root”, which means established and sustained.  In the period after independence, many Southeast Asian states experimented with democratic forms of governance, but the record of these  governments tended to be dismal as they often failed and were replaced by more authoritarian forms of governance. The question asserts that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia, implying that Southeast Asian states were unable to establish and sustain democratic ideals and institutions after independence. This might be due to the traditional culture of the Southeast Asian societies due to the influences from colonial rule and the failure of the democratic system to bring about economic stability. However, it might be too sweeping to simply claim that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia as there are some Southeast Asian states that none managed to establish and sustain a democratic rule for long periods of time after their independence, possibly owing to the increase in presence of an educated middle class and some countries have even integrated the system into their form of governance. Ultimately, it would be far too myopic and an over generalisation to simply claim that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia.  This essay shall therefore argue against the statement because forms of democratic governance has sustained in some Southeast Asian states. 

It can be argued that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia as some countries were more familiar with other forms of government post-independence due to influences from their culture and colonial rule and hence did not choose to uphold and sustain democracy.  This is evident in Indonesia, with the Javanese constituting the largest ethnic group, making up around 40% of the country’s population. The Javanesesyncretismhad been credited with instilling in Indonesian a feudalistic world view that fosters unquestioning obedience to powerand their leaders because their leaders’ powers were deemed to have been desired from cosmos. Islam’s influence in Indonesia has also facilitated the rise of the military and maximum governance as prophet Mohammed had shown to be not just a religious leader but also a military leader, giving due credibility to the military. Furthermore, there was the lack of the necessary pillars for the support of a democratic regime as Indonesia had inherited from the Dutch and Japanese the tradition and structure of an authoritarian state.  Hence, the years of authoritarian Dutch colonial rule under the Dutch East Indies were also arguably ingrained in Indonesian society an acceptance of authoritarian, further providing obstacle towards the proper functioning of democracy. Similarly, the Vietnamese faced oppression by the French, effectively suffocating moderate nationalist movements and leaning the Indochinese communist party as the only viable movement fighting for national liberation.Ngo Din Diem created a maximum government as it complemented communist rules.  This led to the rise of military leaders such as Nguyen Van Thieu. The military leaders sought to strengthen the authority of the state so as to focus government effort on combating communism.  Hence, there was no space for democracy to come in, leaving the Vietnamese unexposed to democracy.  In addition, the average age of the members of the Politburo in 1992 was a little over seventy. They had spent their youth in the mountainous jungles of North Vietnam during WWII and the first Indochina war,  and some of them in the Vietnam.   They all belonged to the generation of veteran revolutionaries but have little knowledge of modern economy, technology or methods of management. Hence, they were still rigid and strictly abiding by the political culture of Vietnam, which emphasizes Confucian’s belief of hierarchy and order.  Therefore, due to oppression Indonesia and Vietnam faced from their cultural masters, they had a lack of exposure to democracy as they were only familiar with authoritarian rule and were not aware of other forms of governance. This is worsened by the culture of these states, further exacerbating the unwillingness and disability of the states to uphold democracy.  Hence, with inherited structures of a police state from the Dutch and the Japanese and little colonial administrative experience, strong Javanese tradition that emphasized patrimonial style of rule and advocated concentration of power in Indonesia, preventing the establishment of democracy.  Monarchical traditions and repressive French rule in Vietnam meant little exposure to parliamentary democracy.  Thus, with influences from their culture and colonial rule leading some Southeast Asian countries to choose another form of governance, it could be said that democracy was not established and hence has not taken root in Southeast Asia.

In addition, democracy was not able to take root in Southeast Asia as the democratic government failed to bring about economic and political stability, resulting in other forms of governance appealing more to the masses.  This is evident in Burma, where factionalism within the ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPEL) led to an inability to resolve economic problems.  The budget crisis in 1958 led U Nu to incite the military to form a caretaker government, itself a tacit acceptance of the failure of democracy.  The caretaker government initially appeared to be interested in building state capacity.  It reduced corruption, improved bureaucratic efficiency, and managed to deal with the pocket armies.  This hence emboldened the military and severely undermined the credibility of civilian rule and democracy.  In addition, in Indonesia, the economy was stagnant through the 1950s with regional instability severely affecting Indonesia’s economy.  The political upheaval in the years of revolution meant that the independent government inherited badly damaged plantations and infrastructure, and there was also a population explosion in the first decade of Indonesia’s independence that added further strain to its resources.  From 77.2 mil in 1950, the population rose to 85.4 mil in 1955 and later to 97.02 mil in 1961.  As food prices failed to keep up with the population growth, food shortages ensued, followed by high inflation, as the general cost of living increased by some 100% from 1950-1957.  Hence, with a stagnating economy and high inflation (stagflation), impoverished Indonesians saw that a liberal democratic system yielded few tangible benefits and were inclined to support alternative forms of government that promised better.  In this case, the increasing political centralisation under Sukarno seemed to offer more stability amidst the economic chaos.  The government also proved incapable of dealing with the regional rebellions that erupted in Sumatra and other parts of the outer islands from 1956-1958, allowing some regional commanders to declare an alternative revolutionary government, the PRRI.  Hence, we are able to see how democracy failed to confer upon some Southeast Asian societies the necessary peace and stability.  They were often unable to provide the quick and decisive leadership required amidst the political unrest caused by successive rebellions and ethnic tension, and whether they could provide the political continuity and stability required for economic growth.  As such, their lack of action further exacerbated economic problems and insurgencies, or were themselves the cause of it.  Maximum governments thus became an appealing alternative in the light of these failure of democracy to deliver sound and effective leadership.  Hence, the incompetency of the democratic governments led to a decrease in faith in democracy of the people.  With them being repulsed by democracies, it can be said that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia as it was not sustained after independence due to the people favouring other forms of governance, owing to the failure of democratic governments. 

However, democracy has indeed taken root in Southeast Asia as certain Southeast Asian states have integrated democracy into their system of governance and has been consistently sustained from independence.  This is evident in Malaysia, where elections have been held continuously after independence, from 1955 onwards.  The subsequent constitution of 1947 also sealed the regime’s structure. The power of the masses was evident in the 1969 elections, where even though The Alliance held majority in the parliament, its share of the popular vote fell to 48.5%, it’s lowest ever.  They also failed to obtain a majority in Selangor and Perak, two states with large Chinese communities.  The decrease in The Alliance’s popularity was largely due to the inter-racial riots on 13 May that led to racial problems simmering beneath the surface and there was dissatisfaction with The Alliance’s policies and perceived injustices and discrimination.  Similarly, Singapore has also been consistently having elections since 1948, with some influence of their British colonial rulers.  Their first election after securing full internal self-government was marked by 1959, which suggests even without British intervention and influence, Singapore still chose to conduct elections, implying that the system of democracy has been accepted by Singapore.  The continued elections further reinforces the establishment of democracy in Singapore.  In the 1990s, Singapore declared that it’s practice of parliamentary democracy observe the formal procedures of an electoral democracy.  Furthermore, in 1985, there was a shift towards consultative politics that started after Dec 1984 elections, with the establishment of the feedback unit in March 1985.  The aim of the feedback unit was to give Singaporeans a forum to understand major policies, ask questions, make suggestions and generally participate in working out a solution.  Hence, this shows how the people had the opportunity to voice out their discontent to effect change.  Therefore,  the sustained elections from independence in Malaysia and Singapore suggests how democracy has taken root in Southeast Asia.  Admittedly, the ruling system in Malaysia and Singapore is not purely democratic and is soft authoritarian.  This might be true as opposition parties in both countries face numerous obstacles to getting their foothold in parliament.  In Malaysia, the opposition was subjected to shorter campaign periods and bars on open air rallies.  In Singapore, the People’s Action Party encourages one-party dominance in their constituency.  Therefore, this shows how Singapore and Malaysia are not fully democratic and have instead integrated characteristics of democracy into their way of governance and this hybrid system has sustained through time, reinforcing that democracy has indeed taken root in Southeast Asia.

Democracy was also able to take root in Southeast Asia because in certain countries, the societies opposed the form of governance preferred by the government due to the growing presence of a local, more educated middle class.  This was evident in Indonesia, where its landscape became ripe for democracy.  In 1998 which university student protests grew, which quickly grew into mass movement that was triggered by economic problems, involving food shortages and mass unemployment, and eventually led to the resignation of Suharto and the fall of the New Order government.  This readiness was due to three decades of high economic growth rates and state resources pumped into raising educational levels, which saw the rapid expansion of an Indonesian middle class that was fairly large and well educated by 1998.  Hence, equipped with higher levels of education, the students were able to make their voices of discontent heard by the government. Similarly, in the Philippines, Marcos lifted martial law in 1981 and attempted to bolster his legitimacy through democratic mechanism, allowing the oppositions to run under the umbrella LABAN in 1986 and Aquino, running as the only opposition candidate, was widely expected to win handsomely.  Like the 1981 and 1969 elections, there was fraud and intimidation, but the real anger stemmed from the rigging of the actual vote count. Despite criticism, Marcos tried to force the National Assembly to declare him the victor. This election marked his demise, as the People Power revolution spread like wildfire, with thousands taking to the streets of Manila demanding Marcos’ departure. Hence, it is evident in Indonesia and Philippines how through education and increased vocalisation led to the fall of authoritarian governments an triggered the move back to democracy. In Indonesia, it made a transition from an authoritarian regime to a fairly healthy democratic one, lasting until today evident in the three free and fair elections held in 1999, 2004 and 2009, which set Indonesia in a stable, democratic path. In Philippines, democracy was continued under president Aquino and president Ramus (1992-1998) . Hence, it is evident that democracy has been established and sustained in some Southeast Asian countries, therefore validating the assertion that democracy has taken root in Southeast Asia.

In conclusion, even with influence from some countries’ culture and colonial rule, in addition to failure of some democratic governments to bring about stability within some Southeast Asian countries, there are still some Southeast Asian countries that have managed to integrate democracy into their system of governance and sustain it, in addition to the emergence of more vocal masses that spark changed to sustain a democratic government. Therefore, I believe that democracy has indeed taken root in some Southeast Asian countries. 

Ashton Siow (18-E6)

‘Democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia.’ Discuss with reference to the newly independent states of Southeast Asia. #2

Democracy refers to democratic forms of governance where the population gets to exercise civil liberties and to affect change through electoral processes, and taking root means establishing and having an effect. In the period after independence, many Southeast Asian states experimented with democratic forms of governance, but the record of these governments tended to be dismal as they often failed and were replaced by more authoritarian forms of governance. The question asserts that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia, implying that the political system of democratic ideals and institutions has not been established in the political and social fabric of Southeast Asian states, possibly due to Southeast Asia’s longstanding political culture, with its strong adherence to collective loyalties and conventional values, as well as the ineffectiveness of democracy which failed to have an effect on the political and economic stability, making other forms of governance more appealing to the people. On the other hand, it might be too sweeping to simply claim that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia, as there were instances where civil society voiced out against the form of governance preferred by the government through the presence of an educated middle class, trying to effect political change through their actions. Also, there were states where democracy had been successfully tested in and established in hopes of securing independence, implying that democracy had an effect on various states. Despite the longstanding political culture and values and its inefficiency in bringing about political and economic stability, democracy was established in some Southeast Asian states in varying degrees and periods.

Democracy might not have taken root in Southeast Asia due to certain traditional cultures and values of the Southeast Asian states that support more top-down authoritarian systems of government which made it hard for democratic systems to be fixed. Taking Indonesia as an example, Javanese syncretism had been “credited” with instiling in Indonesians a feudalistic worldview that fosters unquestioning obedience to power and their leaders because their leaders’ powers were deemed to have been derived from cosmos. This is substantiated with the strong Javanese tradition that emphasised patrimonial style of rule with the advocation of the concentration of power in the hands of an individual or group to prevent the weakening of power. Also, Indonesia inherited the structures of a police state from the dutch and the japanese and had little colonial administrative experience, and years of authoritarian Dutch colonial rule under the Dutch East Indies have also arguably ingrained in Indonesian society an acceptance of authoritarianism, further providing an obstacle towards the establishment of a proper functioning democratic system. Similarly, in Vietnam, its monarchical traditions and repressive french rule meant little exposure to parliamentary democracy, which was reinforced by vietnam’s decades of war. The protracted struggle for full independence and unification also sharpened the anxiety to see greater centralisation of power and the establishment of VCP as the only vanguard party in both the North and South. Thus, the lack of exposure to a democratic form of governance due to conventional tradition hindered democracy to take root in Vietnam. With such societal values and principals coined from traditions and religions, it could have been difficult for democracy to take root under such circumstances as people would accept the customs and laws of their tradition, which in the case of both Indonesia and Vietnam, people have to heed the rules and follow the conventional way of living. Hence, this served as an obstacle for democracy to take root. 

Democracy might have been unable to effect a change in Southeast Asia as democratic forms of government were ineffective due to the inherent disunity within some countries, resulting in the failure to bring about political and economic stability. This in turn made alternative forms of governance such as maximum governments more attractive to the people rather than democracy, resulting in democracy being unable to take root. In Indonesia, the ideological divisions between the PNI, PKI, NU and Masjumi were so entrenched it led to a deadlock in Constituent Assembly in 1955 over the basic principle of the new Indonesian state- whether Indonesia was to be secular or theocratic state, and this led to difficulties in ensuring smooth political and policy continuities. It became clear that the liberal parliamentary system had failed to fashion consensus among the different various parties, and had worked to reinforce the deep-seated ideological differences that existed between them and those that existed between Javanese politicians and those from the Outer Islands, showing how the disunity within the country severely hampered the effectiveness of democracy and its ability to bring about political stability. Similarly, in Burma, the assassination of Aung San in 1947 removed the single unifying force among the diverse mass organisations that constituted the AFPFL. The party became rife with factionalism, as it became deeply divided over the issues of ethnic minorities rights and the direction of economic development for the country,  resulting in the AFPFL splitting into two factions, further providing an obstacle towards the establishment of democracy. With the lack of unity in Southeast Asia stemmed from the different ethnicities and political ideologies, it could be seen as a challenge for democracy to thrive under such circumstances as it became very difficult to get a mandate which led to severe disunity within the governments. Due to the inability to provide quick and decisive leadership required amidst political unrest caused by the difference in political ideologies and ethnic tensions, democracy could not bring about political and economic stability. As such, democracy was seen as ineffective in some countries because of the lack of action taken which exacerbated economic and political problems. The inefficiency of democracy thus made alternative forms of governance such as maximum governments more appealing because of their perceived ability to perform better than democratic governments. 

However, democracy was able to take root in SEA when civil society became more vocal and opposed the form of governance preferred by the government through the growing presence of an educated middle class. With subsequent civil protests and discourse in various countries, elements of democracy was present when people voiced out their displeasure, proving that democracy was used in an effort to effect political change in the country. In indonesia, the final blow to the regime was the Asian Financial Crisis 1997, in which the Indonesian economy plummeted. The Indonesian rupiah crashed from a high rp . 2432 against the dollar on 1 july 1997 to its lowest of rp 14800 on 24 jan 1998. The crisis reached its peak in May 1998 as riots broke out in Jakarta when students took to the streets and demanded greater democracy and protested against corruption. This quickly grew into mass movements and this readiness was possible due to rising educational levels, which saw the rapid expansion of an Indonesia middle class that was fairly large and well educated by 1998, showing how democracy was demonstrated through the actions of the people. Similarly, in philippines, Marcos lifted martial law in 1981 and attempted to bolster his legitimacy through democratic mechanisms, allowing the opposition to run under the umbrella LABAN in 1986. Even though Marcos and his KBL regime won 54% of the votes, it was clear that the elections were rigged. This election marked his demise, as the People Power revolution spread like wildfire, with thousands taking to the streets of Manila demanding Marcos’ departure. He was effectively replaced by Corazon Aquino, and the 1987-88 elections saw the return of political leaders and clans of pre-authoritarian period, further proving how mass movements which is an element of democracy is able to effect change on the country’s political state. The move back to democracy was possible when civilians started to take on democratic measures to voice out their opinions on the country’s political affair. Under a more liberal circumstance, democracy was able to thrive as people made use of democratic measures to exercise the freedom of speech and made their own choice of leaders. This thus suggest that democracy had taken root in some SEA countries through the use of democratic measures taken by the people to effect political change in their country. 

Democracy could be said to have taken root in SEA as there were states where democracy had been successfully tested in during colonial rule, together with the establishment of strong political structures for democracy. In Singapore, the People’s Action Party has managed to use constitutional means to weaken opposition and hinder active civic participation. On one hand, there is the Internal Security Act which it uses to detain political opponents, on the other, it uses the Group Representation Constituencies which is regularly changed by the Prime Minister’s Office just before every election, without the need for Parliamentary approval, to erase any inroads the opposition might have managed to make. Consequently, the PAP is often assured the majority, even before the elections. The act of having a democratic form of governance with elections of choosing a leader shows that that democracy has taken root in Southeast Asia. Similarly, in Malaysia, she has been formally democratic since gaining independence from the British but the Alliance Party allowed the Malay-dominated UMNO to use undemocratic measures to limit opposition in order to remain in power. Such measures included the introduction of the Internal Security Act of 1960 which was used to detain and repress opponents of the government, while the government candidates themselves developed client relations with the voters. The adoption of a democratic form of government implies that democracy had an effect on the political climate of the country. In countries that had prior experience with democracy during their colonial rule, democracy was able to be integrated with democratic governments providing a stabilising force for political and economic development. Therefore, democracy was able to take root due to the colonial experience and the nature of decolonisation as some colonial powers like British and the UN prepared their colonies for democracy by providing them with self-government experiences before independence. In the case of Singapore and Malaysia, the relative stability and peace granted by democracy as well as its structure allowed for the continuation of democracy. In addition, maximum governments and democratic governments exist on a spectrum in Southeast Asia. As such, while some countries like Singapore and Malaysia took on parliamentary democracy as a system, they are also referred as “soft authoritarian” because of the combination of maximum and liberal governments, where there is the presence of free and fair elections, but at the same time, there is strict control of freedom of expression and a high degree of political control. Hence, democracy can also take root in different kinds of governance, including soft authorianism. 

In conclusion, it would be too sweeping to claim that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia when there are various states that adopt democratic forms of governance and people engage in democratic forms of actions to voice their opinions. Although there were cases where democracy was deemed as ineffective in some states due to its inability to bring about peace and political stability, as well as cultural values hindering the proper functioning of democracy, there were elements of democracy that persisted through stints of maximum governments and also subsequently present and established in Southeast Asia states in the later stages after independence.

Tee Yu Ling (18-E6)

National Unity in Southeast Asia

National unity can be defined as achieving a sense of cohesion and identity in society, which can transcend ethnic or religious differences. In Southeast Asia, it might not be wrong to claim that trying to achieve national unity was a challenge, due to the vast ethnic groups and insurgencies that fractured society in Burma and Indonesia. Furthermore, the failure to implement a national language that was used by all its citizens regardless of ethnicity in Malaysia and Philippines can also be regarded as a failure to achieve national unity. However, it is simply too dismissive to claim that national unity was ‘impossible’. There were success stories of national unity, such as achieving a common language in Singapore and Indonesia, or overcoming religious differences to achieve a national common identity in Singapore and Thailand. Thus, national unity was certainly a possible and realistic goal for Southeast Asia, despite certain significant obstacles that prevented it from fully developing.

The violence and disorder as a result of ethnic insurgencies and calls for separation were certainly a large roadblock to achieving national unity, making it almost impossible to introduce any sense of common identity. Burma has been plagued with ethnic insurgencies since its independence was granted. Ethnic groups such as the Karens and Shans were so potent that it resulted in the introduction of military governance under Ne Win in 1958 and 1962. Since then, the military has been in power and able to quell ethnic violence. However, the large number of ethnicities and their calls for autonomy and separation made achieving national unity almost impossible, as they were alienated and forced to assimilate by the majority Burmese. Furthermore, violence in Timor Leste between Javanese Muslims and the Timorese also prevented any sense of national unity from forming. In fact, Timor Leste managed to gain its sovereignty from Indonesia, which was an outright failure in maintaining territorial integrity. From Timor Leste’s succession from Indonesia, this suggests that national unity was simply not achievable in the region. However, these cases are likely to be caused by the geography and sheer size of the nations. Burma and Indonesia are the most ethnically diverse nations; they were more susceptible to having pushback from ethnic minorities in the government’s attempts to form a common national identity. Furthermore, ethnic insurgencies in Burma fell in the 1990s as ceasefires were signed with many ethnic armed forces. Since then, violence has significantly dwindled.

Achieving national unity by introducing a common language in Malaysia and Philippines was met with failure and resistance, proving that national unity was a challenge to inculcate. The Malaysian government attempted to impose Bahasa Malaysia as a national language in order to ensure a common tongue, which would help in fostering national unity. However, this was met by pushback from the Chinese community, and their continuation of Chinese- medium schools. Eventually, universities also began teaching in English instead of exclusively Malay. In Philippines, Tagalog was only spoken by 70% of the population, with minorities continuing to speak in their traditional tongues. The failure of Tagalog can be attributed to it being the native language of the ethnic group in Luzon; similarly, Bahasa Malaysia was based on the majority Malay language. The decision to implement a main ethnic group’s language, instead of a more ‘neutral’ language was perhaps the main failure in the government’s policy to ensure a common language. However, this policy was still successful in the long run, as the ethnic Chinese and Indians in Malaysia accepted the language policies and were successfully assimilated, with no ethnic violence occurring since 1969.

Language policies designed to promote national unity were successful in multiethnic nationsif the government implement a ‘neutral’, non-majority group language. In Singapore, English became widespread after its introduction as a primary language. Bilingualism was also promoted, allowing each ethnic group to maintain its mother tongue and unique identity. Inline with the state’s model of multiculturalism, Singapore achieved national unity successfullywhen compared to the region. Similarly, Bahasa Indonesia was chosen as a national language as it was not associated with the majority Javanese. This allowed majority of its citizens, including the Chinese community, to adopt the language as a main mode of communication. In an ethnically diverse region such as Indonesia, the success of a common tongue helped to foster national unity. However, the examples of Singapore and Indonesia may simply be an exception to the rule; most of Southeast Asia did not enjoy a similar level of success.

Accommodation in religious policies in multi-religious countries were successful in ensuring national unity in Singapore and Thailand. In Singapore, the national ideology of multiculturalism meant that each religion was granted freedom and was able to be practised. Singapore has a mix of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and many other faiths, none of which constitute an overwhelmingly large percentage of the population. Since the 1964 racial riots, there has been stability and a sense of harmony in the country, proving the success of the accommodative religious policies in ensuring national unity. In Thailand, Muslims were granted political freedom and the King was made a patron of Islam in the country. This was followed by Muslim representation in politics and the inclusion of Muslims in the Buddhist-majority nation’s identity. Indeed, achieving national unity as a result of accommodative religious policies proved to be a success in Thailand. However, the successes of Singapore and Thailand may again prove to be exceptions to the norm, and very few countries have succeeded in achieving the same level of national unity due to their religious differences.

It is incorrect to claim that national unity was not possible to achieve at all. Some nations such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have been relatively successful in creating a sense of national identity despite their racial and religious differences, or their geography in the case of Indonesia. However, much of Southeast Asia has had significant obstacles to national unity, cause by their natural composition, demographics, or forceful assimilative approaches.

Chang Aik Chuan (18-U1)

‘Democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia.’ Discuss with reference to the newly independent states of Southeast Asia. #1

The word “democracy” refers to democratic forms of governance where civil liberties are protected and the population has the power to affect change through electoral processes. The term “taken root” can be defined as democracy being established and sustained to play a prominent role in the governing process. During the period shortly after independence, many Southeast Asian states experimented with democratic forms of governance. However, many of these governments proved to be short-lived due to a variety of reasons and were gradually replaced by other forms of governance. The question asserts that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asian states post- independence. This is because the initial failures of democratic governments led to them being replaced by authoritarian regimes such as those led by the military, as well as the fact that many countries use democracy as a facade to gain political legitimacy. On the other hand, it can also be argued that it is an over-generalisation to say that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia, as there are some countries which maintained their democratic institutions and system from independence and that there was a shift in attitudes particularly in the 1980s and 90s with the masses beginning to demand for a return to democracy. Even so, such cases were either isolated incidents or their impacts were too insignificant and shallow to definitively prove thatdemocracy has “taken root” in Southeast Asian states. As such, this essay shall argue for the statement because democratic institutions were often dismantled by authoritarian regimes which seized power and democracy was often just an empty shell used by these very regimes to veil the true oppressive nature of their rule.

Democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia as the initial failures of democratic institutions to establish political and economic stability led to authoritarian regimes, such as those led by the military, taking over control of the government in the country. These authoritarian regimes often blatantly disregard democratic values and sometimes even go as far as to actively dismantle democratic institutions, leading to democracy as an ideology being unable to play a significant and sustained role in the governance of Southeast Asian states post-independence. In Burma, the democratic government led by Prime Minister U Nu was unable to put an end to the incessant civil strife caused by several insurgencies from the communists as well as the ethnic minorities in Burma. U Nu, unlike his predecessor Aung San who was assassinated, was insufficiently politically savvy and was unable to project himself as a legitimate figure to lead Burma. This incompetency of U Nu and the democratic government in Burma is contrasted with the efficiency of Ne Win, who upon taking over as the head of the caretaker government in October 1958, managed not only to deal with the pocket armies, but also reduced corruption and improved bureaucratic efficiency. When U Nu proved unable to improve the situation after his election in 1960, Ne Win led a coup d’etat in March 1962 and upon taking control, arrested members of the civilian government and suspended the constitution. This spelt the end of democracy in Burma for the next few decades. Similarly, in Thailand, the constitutional assembly was plagued by political jostling, which allowed Phibun Songkram to take control on 8 April 948 by issuing an army ultimatum. Once gaining control of power, Phibun and the military strengthened their hold over Thailand, abolishing the 1949 Constitution and dissolving the parliament. With the rise of authoritarian regimes such as the ones in Burma and Thailand, democracy and its ideals were almost completely wiped out following decades of iron-fisted rule by military dictatorships as these dictators often want to preserve their power and control over their countries. Therefore, democracy was clearly unable to take root in these countries led by authoritarian regimes, as the very concept of democracy was a threat to their power and was hence actively purged by these authoritarian rulers.

Secondly, democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia as many leaders were merely using democracy as a facade to disguise the dictatorial nature of their rule and to gain political legitimacy. As such, the ideals of democracy and democratic processes were either not actively pursued or can be easily exploited by the whims and wishes of the leaders. In South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem was known for holding rigged elections to maintain the disguise of political legitimacy especially to his aide, the United States, who was supporting him in his conflict against North Vietnam and the Communists. In the 1955 elections, Diem was notoriously elected Head Of State by garnering 20000 more votes in Saigon than there were voters, a giveaway sign that the elections were rigged to ensure he remains in power. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, Suharto, who seized power in March 1966, retained a facade of liberal democracy by still holding elections as well as retaining the 1945 Consititution which held him accountable to a People’s Consultative Assembly. However, he remained fully in control of the electoral process, which can be seen when he forced the amalgamation of ten political parties to just three in 1973. Futhermore, the two remaining opposition parties were also put under heavy restrictions and ultimately had to pledge allegiance and subordinatoon to the government and the Golkar. Both the case studies of South Vietnam and Indonesia show how democracy was not actively pursued and sustained by the leaders of Southeast Asian states but was instead used as a tool to gain political legitimacy and especially in the case of South Vietnam, gain foreign support to fulfill its own political agendas. Given the lack of democratic presence and influence beyond the surface level as it was all an act to the outside world, democracy is unable to fully establish itself and become a prominent feature of governance in Southeast Asia, meaning that it has not taken root. However, on the flip side, the very fact that eventhe most brutal and authoritarian regimes like Diem’s South Vietnam did attempt todisplay some form of democracy does show how the governments of Southeast Asian states view being perceived as democratic is important, proving that democracy was at least somewhat important in Southeast Asia post-independence.

On the other hand, it can also be argued that democracy has taken root in Southeast Asia, given that there are some countries which have integrated democratic processes into their governance and has managed to sustain their democratic system from independence. Not only that, they also managed to achieve success with their various forms of democracy, showing that democracy is perhaps embedded into the Southeast Asian culture post-independence. In Malaysia, the system of parliamentary democracy has bern maintained since its independence from the British in 1957 and has been sustained depite emergencies like the Konfrontasi with Indonesia from 1962 as well as the 1969 racial riots. Under this parliamentary democracy, Malaysia managed to restructure its economy as well as improve the welfare of the people, with poverty rates being slashed from 49% in 1969 to about 17% in 1990, thanks largely to the New Economic Policy launched in 1971. It is a similar story for Singapore, where the system of parliamentary democracy has also been sustained since it has been granted full internal self-government from the British in 1959. Under this system, Singapore also managed to achieve rapid economic growth, with the state-driven efforts to recreate and remake the economy of the city-state thrusting Singapore into the league of dynamic and well-developed Asian tiger economies by the 1980s. These above two case studies show how the sustained and consistent efforts by the Singaporean and Malaysian governments retained democracy in their political system as well as achieved economic growth and success under the democratic system. Given that it hasbeen more than half a century since the countries’ respective independence, it could perhaps be fair to say that democracy has become ingrained in the political process of certain Southeast Asian countries. However, it can be argued that the governments in Singapore and Malaysia are soft-authoritarian regimes rather than ideal democracies. This can be seen in the dominance of one big political partt, the UMNO, as well as the tight control the government has on political opposition. Similarly, Singapore is alsodominated by one large political party, the People’s Action Party, since independence and in additon, the government also suppresess the freedom of the press.

Lastly, it can also be argued that democracy has taken root in Southeast Asia as the masses that were under authoritarian rule began demanding for greater civil liberties and a return to democracy, particularly in the 1980s and 90s. This is in part due to a growing middle class, the increase in student activism as well as people becoming more educated in general. In the Philippines, when Marcos tried to force the National Assembly to declare him the victor of an election where he rigged the actual vote count, opposition to Marcos reached a boiling point and caused the People Power protest, which overthrew Marcos and restored the cacique democracy the Philippines had before Marcos’ dictatorial rule. In Thailand, when the armed forces cracked down on 50000 protestors demanding Suchinda’s resignation in May 1992, King Bhumibol stepped in and demanded both sides to end the conflict, resulting in Suchinda’s resignation as Prime Minister and the end of the military dictatorship in Thailand. However, such people power can be limited in helping democracy take root in Southeast Asia, as can be seen in the 8888 Uprising in Burma on August 1988. The Burmese people held mass protests in opposition to the military regime led by Ne Win but on 13 August 1988, the military fired on peaceful unarmed protestors, killing 2000 with Aung San Suu Kyi subsequently placed under house arrest in 1991. This shows how while the masses does have ability to affect some political change by inclining toward democracy, sometimes their actions can have little to no effect on democracy taking root in Southeast Asia as their actions can be met by brutal reprisals by the authoritarian government and dictators who are seeking to remain in power. As such, this shift towards demanding for democracy often did little to change the status quo of authoritarian tule in certain countries, meaning democracy could still not take root in Southeast Asia.

In conclusion, I believe that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia due to the dismantling of democratic institutions by maximum governments which rose to power after the democratic experiments, as well as democracy merely being used as a tool by dictators to gain political legitimacy and remain in control. While there are some countries that did manage to achieve success and sustain in maintaining a democracy post-independence, cases of that happening are in the minority and therefore not all of Southeast Asia has democracy taken root. Not only that, the shift of the masses towards preferring democracy in the the 1980s and 90s also sometimes had little impact in allowing democracy to take root and flourish, such as in the case of Burma which failed to free itself from the oppressive rule of the military government.

Benjamin Zhang (18-E1)

Military and Democracy in Southeast Asia

The term “stifled” can be defined as the military not allowing democracy to gain influence in independent Southeast Asian states. The military can be said to have stifled democracy as it was used as a tool for maximum governments to retain control while also crushing democratic movements in the 1980s and 90s. However, it can be argued that the military did not stifle democracy given the inherent failures of democracy and how democratic ideals were still upheld in certain Southeast Asian states. Even though the military did stifle democracy in the period shortly after decolonization and continued to attempt to do so, it was ultimately unable to stop and contain the will of the people for democracy.

It is said that the military stifled democracy in independent Southeast Asian states as it is often used as a tool by maximum governments and rulers to sustain or even expand their control, resulting in the ideals of democracy being unable to take shape. Given how such maximum governments almost always see the idea of democracy as a threat to their rule, the military will often be utilized by such rulers to actively purge the system of any semblance of democracy. As the rule of these rulers may often last decades, such actively suppression may have lasting impacts on whether democracy can flourish in the country. This can be seen in the Philippines, where Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and ordered the military to arrest thousands of anti-Marcos forces in Manila. This continued as Marcos became a authoritarian ruler, with the military being utilized by Marcos to stifle differing voices, mostly notably in the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., a prominent opposition leader, in 1983. In addition, in Indonesia, the military under Suharto caused chaos by ordering and encouraging civilians to kill any suspects communists and communist sympathizers, something which was deeply undemocratic and resulted in thousands of innocent lives being lost. These two case studies show how the military often crushed dissenting voices as well as political opposition, and given how freedom of speech is one primary facet of democracy, this in and of itself is a stifling of the ideals of democracy. However, the military can also be used as a force of good by civilian democratic governments, as seen from how the National Operations Council (NOC), whose membership included the military and was able to restore order after the May 13 Incident, which saw an unprecedented amount of ethnic violence in Malaysia, thus enabling democratic governments to act decisively.

The military can also be argued to have stifled democracy, given how it crushed democratic movements and public calls for democracy in the 1980s and 90s, preferring instead to try to cling onto their power against public opinion. The military of such maximum governments tended to use excessive force against mostly peaceful protesters and often denied the moves towards democracy even though it was the prevailing public sentiment to return to democracy. This can be seen in the case of Burma during the 8888 Uprising where thousands of protesters gathered against the military regime on 8 August 1988 but was fired upon, causing many innocent civilian deaths. The military not only displayed a cruel disregard for the lives of their own citizens, but also placed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League of Democracy (NLD) under house arrest in 1989. Similarly in Thailand, General Suchinda also attempted to cling onto power despite promising to hold elections in 1993, firing upon and killing thousands of protesters for challenging his rule, with the violence only being halted thanks to King Bhumibol’s intervention. Both case studies highlight how the military often stubbornly held onto power while suppressing democratic movements, despite it being the overwhelming will of the people. However, the military did not always act against such democratic movements, as seen in the case of the Philippines during the People Power Revolution in 1983, where the military refused to fire upon protesters despite Marcos ordering them to do so.

However, the military in fact did not stifle democracy given the inherent weaknesses of a democratic political system and how democratic governments were typically met with failure during the period shortly after independence. The democratic system was often too slow, inefficient and was simply not suitable at the time as the political climate in many Southeast Asian states called for a strong and decisive leader. This can be seen in Burma, where the democratic government under U Nu was met with incessant civil strife due to U Nu’s inability to unite the various ethnic groups like his predecessor Aung San. U Nu proved to be insufficiently politically savvy, backtracking on promises such as forcing the Sawbwas to give up their autonomy in 1950. In contrast, Ne Win improved bureaucratic efficiency, dealt with pocket armies and reduced corruption all in the space of two years upon coming into power leading his caretaker government in 1988. Meanwhile in Indonesia, the democratic system was crippled as a result of political factionalism, as none of the four major parties commanded more than 25% of the popular vote in the 1955 elections. Their differing beliefs and political ideology meant that the government became deadlocked over the very principles of the new Indonesian state, thus showing how a democratic political system often led to slow and inefficient decision making when a newly independent nation often needed the exact opposite of such decisions. As such, democracy in the earlier stages of the independence of the various Southeast Asian states was not stifled by the military, as it was doomed by its very own shortcomings and failures which led to people choosing alternatives that were seen as more favourable.

Indeed, the military did not stifle democracy due to the fact that democracy was still able to thrive in certain Southeast Asian states, where the system of democracy has been somewhat sustained since independence. As such, it would be an over-generalization to state that the military completely stifled democracy throughout Southeast Asia, as these systems proved that democracy can find success in Southeast Asia. One such example is Malaysia, where the democratic system has held strong since its independence from the British in the 1960s, despite it undergoing certain periods of uncertainty such as the period of Konfrontasi with Indonesia and the 1969 racial riots. The military has remained largely subordinate to the democratic government, as seen from how all Defence Ministers have been civilians. Similarly, in Singapore, the military is also subordinate to ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), as it was developed from the ground-up only after Singapore’s independence from the British in 1965. The military has remained subservient to the civilian government throughout Singapore’s history, as the system of democracy was able to achieve notable economic success and enabled Singapore’s rise to being one of the four tiger economies in Asia by the 1980s. This shows how the military did not stifle democracy in Southeast Asia, particularly since the military is subordinate to the civilian governments in Singapore and Malaysia and has been throughout their existence. However, some may argue that Singapore and Malaysia merely used a different force in the police force and also similarly stifled ideals of democracy. This can be seen in both countries’ implementation of the Internal Security Act (ISA), with Malaysia notably arresting 119 dissidents in 1987 in response to protests from Chinese educationists. This can be said to be infringing upon the freedom of speech of the people, which is one key facet of any democracy. However, while the political structures of Malaysia and Singapore may not closely resemble that of a Western democracy, it does not change the fact that the military has remained mostly subordinate to civilian governments and played no role in stifling democracy in these two countries. On the contrary, the ideals of democracy and democratic structures have become deeply rooted into the Malaysian and Singaporean societies.

Benjamin Zhang (18-E1)