On 21 August 2021, Ismail Sabri Yaakob was sworn in as the ninth prime minister of Malaysia, forming the country’s fourth government in three years and ending 17 months of political instability, which had begun with the collapse of the multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition in March 2020. That coalition had been brought down by the defection of certain MPs who formed a new coalition with members of the opposition in order to uphold the institutional supremacy of the majority Malay Muslims and of Islam.
Interestingly, for a country where race and religion dominate discourse, the new coalition proved Malaysia’s shortest-lived government, brought down by inter- and intra-party factional infighting. The collapse of a coalition ostensibly united by ideology points to another aspect of Southeast Asia often missed by foreign observers: the importance of its highly individualistic, personality-driven form of politics. This has old roots.
As scholars like O. W. Wolters and Michael Vatikiotis have observed, since precolonial times, political power in Southeast Asia has centred, not on formal institutions and bureaucratic controls, but on the cultivation and management of personal relationships through diplomatic skill and patronage.
Historically, these personal relationships, reciprocal in nature, formed what Wolters called “networks of loyalties” that could be mobilized to provide armed men for charismatic leaders. These networks were inherently fragile; they depended on a ruler’s ability to maintain the loyalty of fickle elites by handing out favours and titles. This emphasis on personal relationships has endured in Southeast Asian politics despite its institutional innovations over the centuries and its movement towards more centralized government.
Contrary to western stereotypes of Asians as conformists, Southeast Asian politics is highly individualistic. Power is generally not constrained by institutions governed by overarching norms and predictable behaviours, as it tends to be in western and East Asian political cultures. While politicians in those cultures also engage in factionalism and cultivate personal loyalties by dispensing favours, these tendencies are held much more in check by functioning institutions, the rule of law and cultural pressure to conform to certain norms and rules.
In Southeast Asia, the institutions that we tend to associate with modern states, such as bureaucracies and political parties, are often completely penetrated and thoroughly undermined by personal loyalty networks. A bureaucrat’s authority is more likely to derive from his personal following and his extra-bureaucratic connections than from his formal role. Political parties tend to serve as vehicles for the personal ambitions of elites and their entourages, and they are generally held together through patronage.
It was personality-based factionalism that led to the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan coalition in March 2020. Specifically, it was the personal enmity between the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and Anwar Ibrahim—his expected successor and the leader of one of the coalition parties—that eventually tore the coalition apart. A similar dynamic is currently at play in Thailand: there are rumours that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha may leave the ruling pro-military Phalang Pracharat Party (PPRP) and form a new political party, reportedly because of a personal power struggle between him and Prawit Wongsuwan, the leader of the PPRP.
Personal power in Southeast Asia is largely based on patronage, and this fuels the often spectacular levels of corruption that pervade Southeast Asian economies. The precolonial “networks of loyalties” that Wolters identified endure today, sustained largely by material patronage: for many Southeast Asian politicians, whether they can attain office depends on whether they can buy enough votes, dish out enough government contracts to supporters, and how responsive they are to meeting the personal demands of their individual constituents.
For instance, in the democracies of Indonesia and the Philippines, vote buying is pervasive. Candidates for office openly provide direct benefits to voters in return for their support, including cash, repairs to local infrastructure, free health checks, rice, household goods and school supplies. These benefits are generally distributed through community-based brokers—usually people with local influence, such as village heads and religious leaders—who identify which voters to target with gifts in order to lock in support.
In many cases, these patron–client networks are long-term clientele relationships that endure between elections. In some Southeast Asian countries, politicians take on a quasi-parental role towards their constituents. In the Philippines, brokers expect the politicians they serve to repay their services by providing them with such things as jobs, development projects and help with their children’s school fees. In Malaysia, MPs are expected to respond directly to their constituents’ requests for help meeting basic needs—from providing rice to paying phone bills.
At a recent forum in Kuala Lumpur on political finance reform, one panellist noted, “[There is] this expectation of [elected representatives] to be a sort of Santa Claus or a welfare officer to their constituents … A lot of the feedback that we get from the young politicians across the country is that their constituents expect them to practically do and provide everything for them.” These informal, personal patronage networks tend to be responsive, but they are generally less comprehensive than formal distribution systems organized by the state.
Indeed, introducing formal means of providing state assistance to the people takes away the political advantages that politicians get from these personal networks. For example, in 2012, an unconditional cash-transfer programme was launched in Malaysia, under which people qualify for payments based on neutral criteria (rather than on their voting intentions), and through which cash was deposited directly into recipients’ bank accounts rather than conveyed to them in person. One Malaysian MP interviewed during a study on political patronage in Malaysia complained, “When you deposit the money straight into their account, then there’s no political mileage.”
Effective policymaking is hindered when bureaucracies become simply another mechanism for distributing patronage. In Indonesia, the country’s strong and highly centralized bureaucracy never developed the requisite culture of impartiality, as the personal interests of power holders and public office became fused (the rot first set in during Suharto’s New Order regime), ensuring that to this day patronage networks remain largely in the hands of local government officials and bureaucrats. Similarly, in Malaysia, while the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition was in power, there was a melding of state and personal interests, and today so-called government-linked companies play a prominent role in distributing government contracts and licences directly to politicians’ individual supporters.
Unsurprisingly, this highly personal form of politics has encouraged autocratic tendencies among most of the region’s leaders. Historically, political power in Southeast Asia has tended to be concentrated, rather than diffused or institutionalized. In general, the region’s elites treat politics as a zero-sum game: the main goal being to build up their personal power base rather than to share power or use established norms and processes to accomplish the tasks of governing.
Even leaders who had claimed to be defending human rights and promoting inclusive politics have tended to show a shocking disregard for these goals once they are in power—as was evident when former Myanmarese State Councillor and Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi defended the Tatmadaw’s genocide against the Rohingyas at the Hague in 2019 (a stance that increased her popularity at home). Nor was she much of a democrat. Vatikiotis recounts visiting Myanmar six months after Aung San Suu Kyi had secured her parliamentary majority in 2015: “Almost every minister or official I met was already deferring to her decisions. ‘All matters will be decided by the State Councillor,’ one deputy minister told me repeatedly. Aung San Suu Kyi is considered an imperious leader who brooks no dissent or opposition within her party.”
Indeed, as former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan argues in a piece published just after the military overthrow of Myanmar’s civilian government in February 2021, Aung San Suu Kyi’s autocratic rule of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and her refusal to share power with the Tatmadaw contributed to the country’s ongoing crisis.
Similarly, in Cambodia, the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen rests on his pre-eminence within a large network of the Cambodian elite, who are heavily interlinked through marriage and have come to dominate the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, the security apparatus and the private sector through a system of patronage leading to Hun Sen. Just as the Khmer kings of old maintained the loyalty of elites by conferring titles, so today the children of Cambodia’s elite families are promoted to high-ranking positions in the government and the military because of their families’ personal connections to the prime minister.
The personalization of politics across Southeast Asia tends to effectively sideline any discussion of policy issues. In Malaysia, politics is generally framed as a contest of personalities rather than policies, with Malaysians appalled at the state of their country constantly in search of a new saviour figure to rescue them. In July 2021, just before the collapse of the coalition government, the Malaysian political scientist Wong Chin Huat argued convincingly that the Malaysian public’s penchant for political gladiator fights impedes the urgent task of making Malaysia’s political system less winner-takes-all and more policy based.
Inequality, nationalism, ethnic tensions and Islamism are also pertinent factors in contemporary Southeast Asia’s political dynamics. But we should seek to understand the complex interplay of these factors alongside Southeast Asia’s age-old, highly individualized, personality-driven form of politics. In one of the most economically dynamic regions on Earth, a new generation of Southeast Asians who long for a more democratic and fairer society will have to contend with the selfish, patronage-fuelled politicking of their ruling elites.