In Singapore the People’s Action Party has held power continuously since 1959, having won 13 more or less constrained legislative elections in a row over more than half a century. In Malaysia the Alliance Party and its heir, the National Front, have done nearly as well, racking up a dozen such victories over the same 54-year stretch. These records of unbroken incumbency were built by combining rapid economic growth with varying degrees and types of political manipulation, cooptation, and control.
In both countries, as living standards improved, most people were content to live their lives quietly and to leave politics to the ruling elite. In the last decade, however, quiescence has given way to questioning, apathy to activism, due to policy missteps by the ruling parties, the rise of credible opposition candidates, increasing economic inequality, and the internet-driven expansion of venues for dissent.
As the ground appears to shift beneath them, how are the rulers responding? Will their top-down politics survive? How (un)persuasive have official warnings against chaotically liberal democracy become? Are ethno-religious and even national identities at stake? Are comforting but slanted historical narratives being rethought? And how principled or opportunistic are the agents of would-be bottom-up change?
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is the author most recently of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore (2012) and The End of Identity? (2012). Before joining The Economist Group in Singapore in 2006 he was a policy analyst on foreign investment for the government of Dubai. He has written for many publications, including The Economist, ViewsWire, and The Straits Times, and been widely interviewed by the BBC and other media. He earned a master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School (Harvard, 2005) after receiving bachelor degrees in Southeast Asian studies and business administration (UC-Berkeley, 2002). His service in the Singapore Armed Forces in the late 1990s took him to Thailand, Taiwan, and Australia.