Bridget Welsh is Professor of Political Science at Ipek University. She is also a Senior Research Associate at NTU, a Senior Associate Fellow THC and a University Fellow of CDU. She analyzes Southeast Asian politics, especially Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia. She is committed to engagement, fostering mutual understanding and empowerment.

Democratic contraction in Southeast Asia

Taken from New Mandala. 2015 was the year authoritarian governments struck back against democratic pressures. The story of 2015 in Southeast Asia was Myanmar’s November election. In giving the National League for Democracy and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi a landslide, Myanmar citizens signaled their strong support for democratic change and better governance. These calls have been loud in recent years — in Malaysia’s 2008 and 2013 elections, in Thailand’s repeated electoral victories for a non-military aligned government, in Cambodia’s 2013 and Singapore’s 2011 polls as well as strong electoral support for democracy in the Philippines and Indonesia. Democratic pressures on Southeast Asian governments have been increasing, and are not likely to recede in the near future. 2015 was the year authoritarian governments in the region struck back. Behind the Myanmar headlines there is a worrying trend of a significant democratic contraction taking place. The use of the authoritarian arsenal by Southeast Asian governments are not new, but in the course of the year regional governments expanded their use of incumbency and control of institutions to shore up their positions. The most obvious trend has been the increased use of repression, especially targeted toward opposition politicians and critics. In...

In search of hope for Pakatan Harapan

Taken from Malaysiakini.com Today marks the three-month anniversary of Pakatan Harapan – the revamped opposition coalition that is having difficulty getting off the ground. It is supposed to bring about hope, to galvanise like-minded Malaysians in the spirit of reform and cooperation to offer an electoral alternative. It is failing badly. As the year end approaches, it is valuable to examine why. Legacy issues The fact that Harapan was formed out of disappointment with Pakatan Rakyat has marked the new coalition. Attention still centres on who was responsible for Pakatan Rakyat’s collapse, with the blame game a persistent dynamic. At the same time, there is denial that Pakatan Rakyat is over, with some individuals and parties unwilling to let go of the past. These legacies of the past are debilitating Harapan. Rather than look forward, opposition parties in Harapan are continually focused on old wounds and battles. Fighting old friends now enemies is the norm, as old wounds are still raw. DAP attacks PAS. PKR insists that it can work with everyone (while in effect it is working with none as it stymies its supposed partners). Parti Amanah Negara attacks its old colleagues to show it is not PAS as...

Difficult questions on Umno’s future trajectory

Taken from Malaysiakini.com Today the Umno general assembly begins – an event that has been stage-managed to deliver another show of support for Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak. These sorts of activities have become commonplace since the July revelation of the RM2.6 million ‘donation’ that continues to be inadequately explained and embarrasses Malaysia. The meeting provides an opportunity to take stock – not only of the PM but of the state of the party that has governed Malaysia since independence. By whatever measure, Malaysia’s leadership is facing serious challenges ahead. Najib wielding control In Umno, Najib does not directly manage the party’s affairs. This has been traditionally the domain of the deputy and other loyalists around the premier, including the party secretary-general. The PM does set the tone however of engagement and the political culture in the party as president. Since GE2013, Najib has been fighting disgruntlement and opposition within Umno. To manage discontent, he has expanded his repertoire from persuasion to patronage and from promises of rewards to potential purges. As he has done in the national arena, Najib has used the prerogatives of the office of the presidency of Umno to maintain control, with the most notable measure...

Taking new paths

Managing Myanmar’s transition challenges requires humility and an eye for history. The NLD’s decisive victory in Myanmar’s election is being labeled a victory for democracy. On many levels this is correct. Myanmar citizens emphatically embraced the freedom to vote in a free election after decades of exclusion. The sense of joy and empowerment the experience and collective message of change provided cannot be adequately captured in words. Across Myanmar, there is still a sense of post-election euphoria. It is also widely understood that the struggle for democracy and the country’s political transition is far from over. In fact, the post-election environment arguably will be more difficult than the tasks of managing and winning an election. Most attention has focused on the military and whether it will accept the results. There is worry over a repeat of history in 1990, when similar NLD landslide-like results were dismissed. On many levels conditions are radically different than they were 25 years ago. The military has vested economic interests in a more globally integrated Myanmar and opportunities for institutional capacity-building that can enhance the professionalism of the organisation. Many in the Tatmadaw (although not all) understand that repeating history will cause more damage to the military’s...

Malaysia’s ‘Strongman’?

Taken from New Mandala Embattled prime minister’s response to major financial scandal may have ensured his short-term political survival. But his future looks less safe. As Malaysia’s premier Najib Tun Razak holds onto power the crisis surrounding the country’s sovereign development fund, 1MDB, has deepened. In preparations for the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) General Assembly next month, there are moves afoot to purge critics from the party. It had become apparent that Najib will do everything to stay in power. Short-term Najib has increased his chances for political survival, but in the longer term he has weakened his political foundation by narrowing his base of political support and undermining the political fortunes of his own party. The following examines several key features that distinguish Najib’s management of the 1MBD crisis from those of earlier premiers. Responses to the scandal suggest that Najib has weakened his leadership. Past crises Political crises in Malaysia are not new. The most damaging ones have arisen from within UMNO, the political party that has controlled national government since independence. From 1969 to 1999, each crisis has seen challenges arising from declining leadership confidence, fierce personalised battles for position, selective arrests of critics, damage of political institutions...

November 8: Choices and chances

Taken from Myanmar Times Across Myanmar there is a sense of excitement for Sunday’s polls. Old and young, Bamar or ethnic minority, Union Solidarity and Development Party or National League for Democracy or other supporter, this election has already fostered a sense of inclusion and national pride that extends the sense of optimism that has been building in recent years. This is in spite of the concerns raised about the electoral process and uncertainty of the post-election environment. No matter who wins, this election has had a meaningful impact on ordinary people. It has reaffirmed that Myanmar voices matter. A Union Election Commission stamp sits on a ballot paper displaying the names of candidates at a polling station on the outskirts of Yangon on October 29. Photo: AFP As the polls approach, voters have to make some important decisions. The outcome of these will shape the results. Voter turnout: Foremost among these questions is whether to vote. Some will have this decision made for them, as they may not be on the voting list. Others will be too far away to get to their polling station. Yet, others will have to decide whether this election is important enough for their involvement....
Latest entries

Building trust, assuring electoral integrity

Taken from Myanmar Times All eyes are on Myanmar ahead of November 8. But this election is not just about the choices the voters will make – it is a test of the government’s commitment to a “free and transparent” process. A polling station official seals a box used to accept advance votes at a...

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Solving Malaysia’s economic crisis

Taken from New Mandala. Co-authored with Datuk Ramesh Chander. Ahead of the Government’s 2016 budget, Malaysia is staring down fiscal challenges unlike any that it has faced over its history as an independent nation. In this special in-depth report, Datuk Ramesh Chander and Bridget Welsh examine whether Malaysia can resolve its economic woes, and offer several...

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Celebrations of Love

This month Hoa would have celebrated her birthday. She would have joined multiple joyous events this year with her friends. Central among the festivities has been the weddings of some of her dearest friends, who helped her during battle with cancer and shared her life with joy and laughter. In July, Dominic married Ninh in...

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Singapore swing

Taken from New Mandala Singapore’s ruling party led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong secured a decisive victory in the country’s 12th General Elections overnight. By all accounts – including my own – they won 69.9 per cent of the popular vote, cutting into the 2011 election gains of the Worker’s Party who lost one of its...

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It’s the crowd that counts in Singapore’s vote

Taken from New Mandala Some 2.46 million Singaporeans – all citizens above 21 – will have the chance to vote this Friday. This is not only the most competitive elections in terms of all seats contested in decades, it is also a fierce competitive contest. Every vote will count – even the spoilt ones. The study...

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Hungry ghosts and Singapore’s elections

Taken from New Mandala It is political season in Singapore, with the hustings now passing the halfway point in a competitive election. The campaign – a short nine days – is the extension of ongoing politicking since the 2011 elections in which the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) won the most seats, but was perceived...

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Interview: Malaysia’s politics amid the 1MDB scandal

Taken from The Diplomat Edited version of the interview with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about a high-profile corruption scandal – known as the 1MDB scandal – which implicates Malaysia’s current prime minister Najib Razak and could have profound implications not only for the country’s embattled premier, but its politics and economics more generally. Let’s...

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A different lens: Myanmar from below

Taken from Myanmar Times Despite the excitement of upcoming elections – with understandable attention on voting preferences – and necessary attention to ethnic conflict, the main priority of ordinary Myanmar is the economy. Nearly half of respondents identified bread-and-butter issues, such as jobs, salaries, inflation and cost of living, as the most important problems facing...

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Najib’s desperate shuffle for survival

Taken from Malaysiakini.com Najib Razak’s cabinet reshuffle was an expected step in the repertoire of many measures that the prime minister has used to stay in office. In this manoeuvre, he has removed the immediate leadership threats among the Umno hierarchy, closed down the two avenues of negotiation involving the 1MDB scandal, and purportedly strengthened...

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