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Malaysia an exception in a region full of military men

AS revolutions in the Middle East topple their autocratic rulers, a colleague in Kuala Lumpur reminded me last week that his country has never had a military leader.

He said the notion of a soldier, of whatever rank, as head of government was deeply offensive in this day and age.

And he was right. But it still happens an awful lot, particularly in this region.

Consider Laos and Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, they all have current and former military men in top government posts.

In Myanmar, despite last November’s flawed election, Senior General Than Shwe and his fellow top brass still rule with an iron fist.

Indonesia’s current president, General Susilo Bambang Yuduhyono, appointed five former military officers to his first cabinet and made sure the key Ministry of Interior Affairs was held by a fellow general.

Throughout the 1990s, the Philippines was run effectively, but sternly, by General Fidel Ramos.

As for Thailand, ever since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932, it has been ruled by a slew of military generals – some robustly fascistic, some benignly stupid, all corrupt.

They have included General Surayud Chulanont as recently as 2008, and General Prem Tinsulanonda, who served for most of the 1980s and is now head of the Privy Council – and, some say, still deciding the affairs of state.

These are the more obvious examples.

What is often forgotten is that Lieutenant General Choummaly Sayasone is president of Laos, Brigadier General Lee Hsien Loong is prime minister of Singapore, and former military officers Hun Sen and Nguyen Tan Dung lead Cambodia and Vietnam, respectively.

When I was posted to Singapore in 1989, Lee was always known as “BG”

Lee, but political correctness made him later drop that and instruct people to just call him Mr Lee.

Brigadier General  George Yeo, the Singapore foreign minister, has done exactly the same.

So too have Deputy PM Teo Chee Hean, a rear admiral who was head of the navy, and Lim Hng Kiang, Minister for Trade and Industry, who spent nine years in the military.

One could go on: in Vietnam, aside from Dung, the nation’s key decision-making bodies, the Politburo and the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party, are both top-heavy with military men.

Mercifully, Malaysia has avoided this militaristic lineage in its politics and if only for that it should be unequivocally praised.

It is one of the reasons why, despite its volatile mix of Malay Muslims, freewheeling Chinese and vocal Indians, Malaysia is among the least susceptible countries in the region to social unrest.

Other places are more worried about possible copycat uprisings, and in the Philippines and Indonesia, there are already re-appraisals of their respective 1986 and 1998 revolutions.

As I write this now in Manila, President Benigno Aquino is reported as saying that without the 1986 people power movement, his country would now be experiencing a Libya-style violent upheaval.

Aquino’s remark was in reply to opposition Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr – yes, some strongmen live on in their progeny – who said that if his father had not been deposed 25 years ago, the Philippines would be a “Singapore now.”

He has a point. Dictators often improve efficiency and make the trains run on time, as the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini reportedly did.

But if any autocrat puts a gun to someone’s head and says get the train in on time or else, then it’ll arrive on time even if it skips stations and discards carriages.

Such shotgun efficiency is hardly justification for bringing in military officers at the highest levels of government.

Instead, a nation’s political and social strength is shown by not using soldiers to run ministries and keep citizens in check.

That is why my Malaysian friend was right to be proud of his country’s non-military record in politics. It is something the rest of Southeast Asia could start to emulate.

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