The trend is becoming clear. With the victory of Malaysian opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan led by former revered strongman Mahathir Mohamad in the recently-concluded Malaysian elections, a region revisits its roots as rapidly-industrialising economies back in the mid- to latter-half of the 20th Century. The return of Mahathir follows a similar ascent to power of Mindanao dark horse Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines in 2016 that also befuddled political observers and turned the political establishment in Manila upside down. The Sydney Morning Herald today makes a similar assessment in its report of the expected aftermath of Malaysia’s first major change in government in 61 years…
In a result that has dumbfounded most analysts and turned the political system of Malaysia upside-down after decades of one-party rule, the Muslim-majority nation delivered a resounding vote for change on Wednesday by dumping the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak.The result will go off like a political earthquake in south-east Asia, where there has long been a tendency towards one-party rule and which in recent years has taken a turn towards more authoritarian regimes.
Mahathir had led Malaysia for two decades as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and oversaw the awesome development of Malaysia from Third World to a major regional economy that uplifted millions from poverty. The 92 year-old Mahathir is regarded as a pillar in a generation of strongmen that ruled the original countries that went on to found the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) including Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Indonesia’s Muhammad Suharto, and Prem Tinsulanonda who was key amongst several military dictators who ruled Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s. Joining that group, of course, was the Philippines’ very own former President Ferdinand Marcos who also ruled the Philippines with an iron fist in the 1970s and early 1980s before he was deposed in a military coup in 1986.
Mahathir’s return to power comes at an interesting time firstly in the context of the Philippine public’s own recent embrace of the “strongman” leadership of Duterte. Second, the current prime minister of Singapore happens to be Lee Hsien Loong who is the son of Lee Kuan Yew. Third, and back to the Philippine context, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, also the son of a former ASEAN Original is also a strong contender for a return to Malacanang. A return of Marcos to power will see three of the five founding ASEAN member states led by men with the illustrious family names of “strongmen” of ASEAN yore.
The ASEAN, now the economic power bloc that was the stuff of the aspirations of its former patriarchial leaders takes its place amongst the world’s cliques of powers that are emerging as part of the developing story of the postulated retreat of Western liberalism worldwide. To the erstwhile dominance of the “goodness” of Western liberalism are the recent proposals presented by the recent “affronts” to it in the form of Britain’s exit from the EU, the rise to power of Donald Trump in the US, the electoral backlash to perverse multiculturalism in Western Europe, the paving the way to a new stance against immigration put up by Eastern Europe, the new Cold War launched against the “good guys” by Russia, and the bid for renewed hegemony in the Orient by a Celestial Empire newly awakened after a century or two of slumber.
It is fitting that ASEAN now takes its place in the emerging new world order led once again by the sorts of leaders that originally made it great and oversaw real progress by showing their respective citizens The Money. Interesting times and even more interesting opportunities to learn from what, essentially, are unprecedented developments. It is difficult to issue stamps on approval to where we are headed at the moment but, at least, the change is real and substantial — a far cry from the mere promises of a former world Western “liberal” order that is now evidently failing to evolve as it latches on to what had essentially become rigid and increasingly-obsolete dogma.