Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia

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Change and Acceptance

By Kevin W. Fogg, Oct 16 2015 10:42AM

Everyone seems to agree that politics in Malaysia have changed / are changing. The old leaders of the strong UMNO-led regime-- including long-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but also some others-- have now come out saying they support greater transparancy, democracy, and accountability for the regime (and, often more explicitly, that they oppose the current PM). Many Malaysians are hailing these figures as responsible leaders and worthy to lead the opposition cause. That, in turn, is raising eyebrows from some folks long outside the regime; why are Malaysians so willing to accept these voices now for the democratic cause, when for so long they were seen as authoritarian and anti-democratic? (I should note that even voices loyal to the Najib administration are now talking about how much Malaysia has changed, as a method to say that the old leaders should keep their mouths shut.)


In fact, outside Malaysia this change of heart of old UMNO (/Barisan Nasional) leaders has been fascinating to watch, but generally hard for the international community to accept. It seems that we outsiders are not great at moving someone from the category of "shady character" to "good guy." (Perhaps currently imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim stands out here as the Malaysian exception that proves the rule; long seen as Mahathir's heir apparent, when he was kicked out of the government and then spearheaded the opposition, democratic voices around the world and at home have gotten behind him.) Other examples of figures who were seen as shady and have tried to transform into democrats include Indonesian former general Wiranto, Indonesian former general (and Suharto son-in-law) Prabowo Subianto, (contrast with former general then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono-- granted his record as a general was not so grim), and Myanmar's general-turned-president Thein Sein, or more so the ousted chairman of Myanmar's USDP, Shwe Mann. (I would add the Thai military-led regime to this list, except its leaders do not even want to pretend to be democratic on most days.)


Contrast this with Southeast Asian figures who were long seen as brave, honorable, democratic opposition figures, but fell from grace--among foreign observers-- once they got closer to (or attained) positions of power. Indonesia has Megawati Soekarnoputri and Amien Rais, who are certainly no longer seen as leaders for transparant democracy. (One could add, in a different way, Abdurrahman Wahid, who was certainly a failed president but still a decent voice for human rights.) The example par excellence (and particularly timely) is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, who was the world's democratic darling three years ago and is now not looking so hot as she compromises with the regime, stays silent on the Rohingya, and rules her party with an iron fist. It seems very easy for pro-democratic figures to come into question for their democratic commitment (especially in international eyes, if less so at home).


This raises two lines of questioning, both of which I'm afraid will have to go unanswered in this post. First, there seems to be a significant difference in levels to accept a change of political stripes between constituencies at home and observers abroad-- why is this, and is it justified? Second, what would the old "shady characters" have to do to become accepted as "good guys"? In times of great political change (as we are currently seeing in Malaysia and Myanmar), these issues will loom above many of the leading actors in the system.

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The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.