The economies of Southeast Asia were largely colonized by European powers for many centuries due to their natural resources and abundance of labor. Since their independence, some unfortunately became known as the “sick men” of Asia. These diseased economies, plagued by corruption, cronyism and nepotism, are always supported by an authoritarian regime.

In the 70s, the most prominent such economy was the Philippines. Despite prospering after gaining full independence in 1946, it quickly degenerated into becoming the sick man of Asia under the Marcos regime.

Ferdinand Marcos started his career as a lawyer but quickly lay claim to being the most decorated war hero in the fight against the Japanese during WWII. This political ruse earned him the presidency for 21 years until the people reached their tipping point and toppled him in the rebellious “People Power” movement in 1986.

This surprised the world as many had viewed the Philippines’ middle and lower classes as being powerless against the Marcos regime’s military and constitutional powers that allowed it to unilaterally invoke martial laws to crush dissent to stay in power, thus depriving the people of their constitutional rights, economic opportunities and billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, during the post-Marcos era, it soon became the sick man of Asia again as the underlying diseases were never surgically removed. This is validated by the fact that the Marcos family could return and continue to flex their political power and run for public office without restraint or recourse.

Indonesian perspective:

Suharto, Indonesia’s second president, was forced to resign over widespread allegations of corruption, cronyism and nepotism in 1998 after 31 years in power.

Unlike Marcos, Suharto was credited with creating the “New Order,” which adheres to Pancasila or the “Five Principles” ideology. This allowed him to delicately integrate the various Indonesian ideologies, with all their cultural and religious differences, within a differentiated democracy that championed social justice for all. It galvanized Indonesians toward being a more moderate and progressive economy, without undermining its Islamic values.

In the post-Suharto era, Indonesians of all beliefs and ideologies have been actively coming together to rid their public sector of widespread corruption and build a more democratic society that champions the cause of its rising middle class and low-income people.

The fact that its current president, Joko Widodo, who is not from the old elite or military, could be elected as its current president for two terms shows just how far Indonesia has transformed itself democratically. As he commences his second term, he wisely emphasizes this unique Pancasila-based democracy while advocating for greater economic reform, and threatening to fire corrupt civil servants and shut down non-performing public agencies.

Pancasila demands an active citizenry and it is the duty of every citizen to work diligently and help their society and country move forward. People must take ownership of their country and its prosperity. There is much other democracies in the region can learn from Indonesia.

Asian perspective:

There have been massive political reforms in Malaysia since its people wrestled power back from the Barisan Nasional. As the people and newly-installed politicians push for change to rid public offices of corruption, it is clear that remnants of the old regime are still very much alive and are resistant to change.

Their exploitation of the rural poor with politicalized religious beliefs places Malaysia in a precarious position as the mix of religion and politics is a dangerous potion that could implode Malaysia into a failed economy or another sick man of Asia.

Their current government cannot fight the old regime alone and if the support from the people is lacking, it risks ending up like the Philippines. But if the people were to step up further and push back the agendas of the old regime and help the government implement the various reforms and changes, then Malaysia could well be as inspiring as Indonesia in its fight for democratic reform.

As such, Malaysians urgently need their own version of Pancasila to integrate the various ideologies and religious differences, within their collective consciousness, and foster their future as a unified nation. It needs to be inoculated against subversive forces from within.

The pursuit of ideology and religion must be grounded in reality. No one can preach when their flocks are hungry, dying or being exploited

The pursuit of ideology and religion must be grounded in reality. No one can preach when their flocks are hungry, dying or being exploited. Ideology and religion demand real responsibility and courage, and must be exercised within the reality of the New Economy. In the Malaysian context, its faithful must hold questionable religious leaders accountable whenever they propagate politically-driven falsehoods.

Under the new government, Malaysia is actually ready to embrace its own version of a differentiated democracy as the government has been actively pushing for greater democracy and an active citizenry to rid its economy and public sector of corruption. If Malaysians can be successful in this push, their collective economic future will be very bright as it is blessed with abundant natural resources and remains a strategic gateway to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

Singapore, a former British colony to the south, is no exception to this unfortunate phenomenon. Despite its economic prosperity, growing income and real wealth disparities are fuelling a growing political divide that may become the tipping point of change.

With one-party rule over an extended period of time, the government is able to unilaterally enact laws or make sweeping changes fairly easily despite the many protests from its people.

The country’s politicians are unable to formulate real socio-economic policies to address the many issues plaguing the country. In the face of new economic uncertainties, more Singaporeans are beginning to question their competency.

When they foolishly stage a massive bicentennial celebration, hoping to exploit the grassroots sentiment, the outcome generated a mix of laughter, anger and frustration. Many new facts have surfaced that contradic the many textbook accounts of the country’s past and many are questioning why Singapore is lavishly celebrating British colonial rule. It is like black people in the US celebrating slavery or white supremacy, or the Chinese thanking the Europeans for plundering their country.

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Such miscalculation prompted many to question their competency and sincerity as ministers in this city-state are paid in the millions. Singaporeans are obviously nearing their tipping point for political change as the nation cannot continue in its current state of affairs, but the type of major public protests seen in Hong Kong are unlikely to happen.

Many Singaporeans still prefer to use the ballot box to effect democratic change. As such, the current government is treading on very thin ice as any curtailing of this option, or even the perception of it, may trigger a major public protest.

With an awakened collective consciousness that all is not well in Singapore, Singaporeans must find their own Pancasila to integrate their aspirations with its economic growth and prosperity.

The talk of a Swiss standard of living over the past 50 over years has turned out to be mere rhetoric, stripped of all sincerity given the growing economic divide. Patriotic Singaporeans are finding it hard to continue doing social good for free knowing that their politicians are earning millions doing the same.

While Singapore has the advantage of a low-tax regime, its overall tax is actually very high and it is making it very hard for the average Singaporean, entrepreneurs, and  small and medium enterprises to achieve the Singapore dream. Everything is taxed, directly or indirectly, despite the country’s huge financial surplus, and this massive burden is working many Singaporeans to the bone. With more tax increases to come, Singapore may have just redefined modern slavery.

Time to differentiate Asian democracy:

Many politicians simply do not know the meaning of corruption and see cronyism and nepotism as part of their privileges and entitlements. When they start aspiring to be as powerful a dealmaker as their industrious private-sector counterparts but not break a sweat, they are clearly deluded.

While some politicians and their cronies may have successfully hijacked democracies and treated them like their own private entities in the past, the pushback by the people has begun. The time has come for politicians in the region to return to serving their people – instead of treating them like slaves.