The journalists who cover SE Asia for the Anglophone world, aka “the international community”, are back on the “beacon of democracy” hobby-horse.
Malaysia has just shown the world that democracy is alive and well in SE Asia. And in much the same way as happened in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s overwhelming victory in the Myanmar elections just two and a half years ago, the poor, junta-ridden Thais are being twitted for their failure to keep up. If only Thailand could have an election, a genocide, and a widening civil war on multiple fronts, it could get the same sort of plaudits Burma got from the brain trust of white men that constitute the international media hereabouts.
There is precious little in the way of awareness of the gaping irony that Malaysia’s democratic phoenix is manifest in the form of a 92-year-old former demagogue who once imprisoned his closest party rival for being gay, who was accused of every kind of corruption in his almost 23-year run as the head of a one-party state that blatantly and unapologetically promoted the interests of one ethnicity over those of others, and who grew more illiberal, less democratic, and more anti-western as his time in office went on. And on.
When the “shock” victory was first announced, it was confidently announced that Mahathir would stay in office for only a month or two, until Anwar Ibrahim could be released from prison and seated on the Prime Ministerial throne. Two days later, Mahathir was in the media announcing that it would actually be a year or two. There is every possibility that this will turn out to be a lifetime position for the old demagogue.
Mahathir famously once said of Ibrahim that he “would make a good prime minister of Israel”, a very sharp jab indeed in an anti-semitic nation like Malaysia, but in SE Asian democracies there are no permanent enemies or friends, only bodies that can be stepped on to get that much closer to power. While Ibrahim really has been released from prison already, this is not the first time that such an amnesty has been granted the former student activist. And if he gets sent back in, that won’t be a first either.
The local media definition of ‘democracy’ seems to be little more than “election that can be spun for headlines”. Given the state of the liberal-democratic world, they may be onto something. Either that or they have simply made it so by communicative fiat.