EXCERPT | Authoritarian Liberalism in Asia
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EXCERPT | Authoritarian Liberalism in Asia

 By Bonn Juego

Image Attribute: Photo by Tony Webster published under Creative Commons License

Image Attribute: Photo by Tony Webster published under Creative Commons License

NOTE: In the current global scenarios, the rise of authoritarian liberalism had underpinned the liberal rules-based order. Despite the fact that this particular article (as an excerpt taken from a research paper) has been written by the author when he was pursuing his doctoral studies in development and international relations from Aalborg University in the year 2012, it clearly substantiates the very reasons behind the "concept" by properly demarcating the causes and effects. 

The reaffirmation of neoliberalism despite its own crisis by international institutions, regional organizations, and states is well received in the Asian region. Contrary to the popular characterization of ‘developmental states’ in East and Southeast Asia, a distinctive state form has long been in the process of being institutionalized ever since the region got locked-in the circuit of neoliberal globalization. This distinctive state form is referred to as ‘authoritarian liberalism’, where a liberal market economy is embedded in an authoritarian polity. It is within this framework that these parts of Asia are responding and progressing during the global crisis. Drawing on experiences in the 1997 Asia crisis and the 9/11 terror attacks and on the ASEAN 2015 project, the case of authoritarian liberalism in the region provides important lessons toward understanding the eventual and most probable outcome of the present crisis.

There are two mainstream theses that cannot explain contemporary political the economy of East and Southeast Asia: first is ‘modernization theory’ of the hyperglobalist that says that globalization necessarily creates a world of liberal democracies, and second is the ‘democratic peace’ that claims that democracies do not go to wars against each other. The restructuring of states in the region towards authoritarian liberalism—i.e., liberal economies in the framework of authoritarian polities—offers a much more appropriate reading than that of the mainstream. A look at two major crises that struck capitalism in Asia, namely the 1997 crisis and the 9/11 terror attacks, suggests how crises have become functional to the institutionalization of authoritarian liberalism.

The toppling of two military regimes—Ferdinand Marcos’ in the Philippines in 1986 and Suharto’s in Indonesia in 1998—were regarded as ‘democratic moments’, signaling the process of democratization in the broader region. This comes at a time when the dominant discourse from mainstream scholars and policy-makers prophesies that economic liberalization encourages the development of liberal and democratic modes of governance. The mainstream assumes that the liberation of a self-reliant and progressive middle class from authoritarian rule was a functional requirement of well-managed markets. Today, such a claim appears hollow. Theoretically, the model of liberal democracy generally proposed in the transitions literature was always thin. It alienated the idea of democracy from its social connotation as a popular power in favor of ‘formal’ and procedural criteria, symbolized above all by the holding of regular multi-party elections and the ‘effectiveness’ of political institutions. The principles and associated practices of people’s sovereignty, including the accountability and responsiveness of governments, and political expression and participation by voters and citizens, are hardly featured at all. Empirically, East and Southeast Asia appear to demonstrate a quite different prospectus from this dominant discourse—characterized by limited accountable government, relatively unfree and unfair competitive elections, partially curtailed substantial civil and political rights and compromised associational autonomy. In fact, neoliberal globalization and its crisis prone economics may mean the end of liberal democracy rather than its triumphant ascendancy. Historically, if there is any cogent lesson that the past two decades have shown about the relationship between democracy and the political-economic regime, it is that a market economy can thrive and survive even without democracy. Asian elites do not necessarily become forces for political liberalism and democracy; they can be downright illiberal and anti-democratic so long as it serves their vested interests [1].

1997 Asia Crisis and 9/11 Terror Attacks

The 1997 Asia crisis accelerated the reorganization of state authority and regulatory frameworks that were already in train long before the crisis in East and Southeast Asia. Central to these political-economic forms is ‘the emergence of the new regulatory state, which is directed towards the production of economic and social order within a globalized economy’([2]; see also [3]). The rationale behind this attempted transformation of political authority is clear. Through the provision of new regulatory frameworks, the state seeks to insulate a range of key economic institutions from the influence of democratic politics and thereby safeguard the market order. The outcome is an explicit linkage between authoritarian politics and a rules-based mode of governance in a range of economic policy areas.

Looking back on the 1997 Asia crisis experience, the political strategies and social policies carried out in response to it had been detrimental to democratization, human rights, and the poor. Firstly, the crisis provided the political, economic, and intellectual justification for authoritarian rule—couched in the language of ‘Asian values’—especially among Asian elites (notably in Malaysia, Singapore, China, and Thailand). These elites also came out to explicitly preach the inappropriateness of North and West European welfare state system. Secondly, the crisis had sidelined human rights obligations on civil and political rights in the name of surveillance and internal security (such as in Malaysia and Singapore) and on social and economic rights in the name of belt-tightening measures (resulting in the reduction of social spending in many countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand). And thirdly, the policy responses to the crisis from governments and international institutions were designed to save and protect the market, businesses, and corporations. For instance, the Second Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM-2) held in London in 1998 created the ‘ASEM Trust Fund’ which eventually proved to be lacking in political will and institutional mechanisms to ensure that the fund targets the poor and the workers who were the most vulnerable and adversely affected groups during the crisis. In short, in times of crisis democratization may be stalled, human rights compromised, and the poor severely neglected.

Even the 9/11 terror attack has not jolted Asia out of the institutionalization of authoritarian liberalism. In fact, the US-led war on terror has provided ‘exceptional’ powers to Asian governments through the expansion of their discretionary powers of detention and surveillance. Asian (semi-)authoritarian regimes have become strategic sites of opposing terrorism. The human rights situation in the region after the events of 9/11 has been alarmingly dismal, hitting the headlines which range from numerous cases of outright killing of human rights defenders and journalists in the Philippines to the killing and harassment of monks and their sympathizers in Burma.

Post-9/11 Asia is by far a region of authoritarianisms—a security complex of authoritarianism(s). Regional stability appears to come from a ‘peaceful coexistence among authoritarianism’, rather than among democracies, following the policy of non-interference which every government in the region normatively proclaims. The region is progressing towards the resurgence or deepening of variations of authoritarianism: semi-authoritarian regimes in Malaysia and Singapore; the military government in Myanmar; the influence and prominent role of the military and monarchy in Thailand; one-party rule in China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam; culture of impunity and continued militarization in Aceh and Papua in Indonesia; and an administration predisposed to authoritarianism in the Philippines. Time and again, numerous researches conclude that it is under conditions of authoritarianism, alongside war and poverty, in which governments and people are most likely to commit large scale murder, torture, and arbitrary imprisonment.

About the Author:

Dr. Bonn Juego is a Filipino academic and currently a postdoctoral researcher in Development and International Cooperation at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. His ongoing research is on the political economy of capitalist development in Southeast Asia with a focus on the study of the realpolitik of elite vested interests that are behind – and underpin – neoliberal socio-economic reform processes. He obtained a Ph.D. in Global Development Studies from Aalborg University, Denmark, and an MA in regional integration from the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

Cite this Article:

Juego, B., "The Reproduction of Neoliberalism and the Global Capitalist Crisis", The Interdisciplinary Journal of International Studies, IJIS Vol. 8, No. 1, 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.5278/ojs.ijis.v8i0.510, pp 34-36, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


[1]Rodan, G., K. Hewison and R. Robison (eds) (2006) Political Economy of South-East Asia: Markets, Power and Contestation, Third Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] Jayasuriya, K. (2000) ‘Authoritarian Liberalism, Governance and the Emergence of the Regulatory State in Post-Crisis East Asia’, in R. Robison, M. Beeson, K. Jayasuriya and H-R. Kim (eds)
Politics and Markets in the Wake of the Asian Crisis, London: Routledge, pp. 315-329.

[3] Jayasuriya, K. (2001) ‘Governance, Post Washington Consensus and the New Anti Politics’, Working Papers Series No. 2, Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong.