TCS Daily

After Thaksin

By Yang Razali Kassim - May 5, 2006 12:00 AM

The fall of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has thrown Thailand into uncertainty. Thaksin will remain at the head of his Thai Rak Thai party and has not ruled out a possible comeback, so the rough road has not yet reached its end. But if Thai politics are in for more political jockeying, what about the rest of Southeast Asia? What about the political fortunes of his fellow leaders in the region, some of whom emerged around the same time?

Is Thailand alone?

The uncertainty in Thailand is not likely to have any shattering effect on the region. But it is not quite true to say that Thailand is currently alone among the Southeast Asian democracies experiencing political shake-ups. In the Philippines, many have been questioning the legitimacy of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo since the country's last presidential elections in 2004, where she was embroiled in a scandal related to alleged vote rigging. There have been public protests demanding her resignation for almost a year.

But in this respect the Philippines seems to represent an exception, not the rule. The knock-on effects of the Thai problem -- if indeed there are any -- are far from the scale of the 1997/1998 baht crisis. That financial crisis exposed a generalised and systemic problem, triggering a region-wide financial conflagration. The crisis upended Thaksin in 2001 and unleashed a series of structural changes throughout the region that ushered in a new generation of Southeast Asian political leaders at the turn of the decade. But despite Thaksin's setback and the heat felt by Arroyo, many of the other leaders in ASEAN seem to be firmly in their saddles. Where Indonesia's leaders experienced a prolonged period of political turmoil post-1998, its leadership seems more stable now than it has for some time. Recent leadership transitions and elections have not threatened to upset the political equation in Malaysia or Singapore.

Notable amongst the new crop of post-1998 leaders who, unlike Thaksin are clearly in the driver's seat, are Yudhoyono of Indonesia, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia and Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore (the latter's election is May 6th). President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Abdullah have emerged handsomely through general elections. Yudhoyono's party is already thinking of campaigning for a second term for him. Prime Minister Lee, meanwhile, will be seeking his own mandate from the people very soon -- his first electoral outing since succeeding Goh Chok Tong in August 2004. The hope was that this new generation of leaders would be able to strengthen the revival and consolidation of the region post-1998. Time will tell whether they can live up to such expectations. But while the rocky political fortunes of Thaksin and Arroyo suggest that some of these "new-century" leaders will not be spared the old politics, others may go on to make their own marks on the region.

Different leaders, different styles

Notwithstanding his controversial style, Thaksin did have some capacity to shape the region. Within a year of sweeping to victory in 2001, he made his presence felt by initiating the continent-wide Asia Cooperation Dialogue that for the first time linked the different zones of Asia, with Bangkok as its facilitator. The last Thai leader to have influenced the region with such strategic moves was Anand Panyarachun, a key figure behind the idea of an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA).

But Thaksin's hardline stance and repressive policy towards the Thai Muslims in the south partly contributed to his downfall. Malaysia's former premier Mahathir Mohamad, openly irked by Thaksin's harsh policy, called for autonomy for southern Thailand where the Muslims predominate. Thaksin's southern policy has upset the Muslim world and complicated relations with Kuala Lumpur. But Prime Minister Abdullah, as Mahathir's successor, has taken a neutral stance towards Thaksin's exit. Still, Kuala Lumpur would probably prefer a Thaksin successor it could work with on the south Thailand question -- to contain the spill-over effects on Malaysia's Islamically-conscious northern states.

Malaysia benefits from new leadership

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah has proven to be a savvy political leader in his own right. While not confrontational like Thaksin, Abdullah is popular and gives the false impression of being soft -- despite a hidden capacity for toughness. In this respect, Abdullah is not unlike Singapore's Goh Chok Tong when he was premier from 1990 to 2004. Abdullah displayed this unseen side when he did a sudden U-turn on the bridge issue with Singapore to strengthen his hand domestically. (Malaysia wanted to replace a causeway between the two countries with a modern bridge, but Singapore was concerned about the cost of the project and the impact on the environment; they wanted the issue resolved as part of a wider array of bilateral issues). By scrapping the controversial bridge project to replace the Causeway, Abdullah shows that he wants to deal with Singapore in his own way, on his own terms. He wants to be his own leader who will not be constrained by the complicated legacies of his predecessor. Such may reconstitute the complex bilateral dynamics between Malaysia and Singapore. And it can be an asset for both countries as he and his Singaporean counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, forge their own relationship on a clean slate.

Singapore shows leadership regionally

PM Lee, for his part, emerged as Prime Minister when he did not exactly expect to -- although he was widely anticipated to become premier sooner or later. His predecessor, Goh Chok Tong, decided to retire in August 2004 to take advantage of the changes sweeping the region. The aim was to allow his successor to blend with the regional transitions and build a new camaraderie with his regional counterparts. PM Lee has done that very quickly with President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Abdullah. Such was revealed in his rapid and generous response to the tsunami crisis, which happened within months of his taking over as premier. Under his leadership, Singapore's ties with Thailand were maintained and strengthened.

Prime Minister Lee is now leading the People's Action Party (PAP) into the hustings -- his first major political battle. A PAP victory is hardly in doubt, given the PAP's dominance and PM Lee's own leadership qualities. The question is how big the victory will be. PAP leaders have described the coming general election as a watershed for Singapore, and one that is not without its external significance. Mr Goh, now Senior Minister, has tied a strong victory for the PAP to a strong mandate for the new Prime Minister. Anything short of this will not be sending the right signals to investors and to the outside world. A less-than-strong mandate could affect the new premier's dealings with Singapore's friends outside Singapore, as well as to investors. "So it is important that we give him a strong mandate," he said.

It would be a surprise if Singapore's new Prime Minister fails to secure a strong victory. There are no domestic or foreign policy issues that can pose a serious challenge. Even the Temasek factor in Thaksin's current political predicament has not been exploited by the opposition against PM Lee; but the Prime Minister is well placed to handle any such challenges.

Finally, Thailand and the Philippines look less stable than their neighbors, but events there do not suggest systemic regional problems on the scale that followed the regional financial crisis post-1998.

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He is the author of Transition Politics in Southeast Asia: Dynamics of Leadership Change and Succession in Indonesia and Malaysia (Marshall Cavendish, 2005).


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