Locating Liberalisms in Southeast Asia

Locating Liberalisms in Southeast Asia

This post is based on the introduction to a recent special issue, Locating Liberalisms in Southeast Asia, published in the Asian Studies Review. The full introduction can be read here and is available open-access to all readers. The articles in the special issue can be read here.

Special Issues of academic journals need a common thread that binds individual contributions. When contributors to Locating Liberalisms in Southeast Asia met at the City University of Hong Kong in mid-2019, we agreed in practice that our common thread was to explore the presence of liberalism in national locations by junking a pre-determined view of what liberalism should be. We were open to liberalism’s temporal and spatial variations and its contradictions. This commitment also entailed overcoming presentist prejudice, whereby liberalism is associated with a hegemonic form, which we call ‘benchmark liberalism’. The latter tends to be present in accounts of democratic transition and in reporting the health or otherwise of regimes against set criteria.

Perhaps because of this form of benchmarking scholarship, the nuances and variations of Southeast Asian liberalisms have been missed. One reason for the dearth of research on Southeast Asian liberalisms is that its varied forms are often misrecognised by observers because liberals in the region have taken apparently paradoxical positions that often do not conform to the expectations of ‘benchmark’ liberalism of the West.

Most students of ‘transitology’ (as it has come to be known) assume the desirability of strictly defined liberal democracy and study the conditions that might facilitate its emergence and consolidation and the factors that mitigate against democratic quality. They often have little to say about the localised practices or identities of liberalism and how these might shape liberal forms and historical development. Transitology has often taken a benchmark view of liberal democracy (based on ahistorical accounts of the development of liberalism in the West) and applied it to other places such as Southeast Asia.

Eschewing benchmark liberalism, the papers in the Special Issue uncover efforts by liberal actors to promote a viable political discourse or to defend a liberal minimum in often hostile environments. A liberal minimum may be understood as what realistically can be achieved – according to purposeful actors – through the kind of pragmatic politics of possibility that so often attend political defeats, retreats, and compromises. This approach also emphasises understanding liberalisms in location, which may well involve understanding why localised pragmatic liberalisms travel far from the ideals of benchmark liberalism. Thus, some of the papers also uncover, from the perspective of benchmark liberalism, ‘illiberal’ postures among liberals whose political practice and discourse may thus appear paradoxical.

Yet if we return liberalism to its historical context, this paradox is much less surprising. Many of the forms of liberalism that now go largely unrecognised in Southeast Asia share similarities with historical forms of liberalism in the West. These include anti-majoritarian liberalism, developmental liberalism, social liberalism, the prevalence of liberal ideas alongside often extreme forms of racial and/or ethnic-religious exclusion and repression, and the willingness of liberals to work with authoritarian regimes. Most liberalisms are vernacularised, developed in congruence with national and cultural discourses even as they engage global political economy, and this is no more so in Southeast Asia than elsewhere.

As co-editors, we did not prescribe a definition of liberalism. To do so at an early research stage in this area would compound a particular prejudice about what is, and will remain, a contested meta-concept. Even so, we recommended that contributors to the Special Issue consider engaging with two related approaches to studying liberalism. The first approach is Duncan Bell’s and centres on how a liberal tradition emerges by knowledge construction and political contestation in particular times and places. The second is Michael Freeden’s morphological approach to liberalism (and ideology in general), which centres on applying a sharp analytical toolset to deciphering and identifying the historical, cultural, and political ‘layering’ of specific liberalisms across time. Both writers provide researchers with substantive and flexible thresholds for what counts as liberalism.

It is true that a contemporary search for liberalism conventionally understood may seem quixotic as there seems very little liberalism to locate and understand in today’s Southeast Asia. The region’s dismal outlook has a history, and it is one in which liberals have often cut a less than a heroic figure. Yet this gloomy view of ‘liberalism lost’ in Southeast Asia is of limited help in understanding liberalisms’ local manifestations in the region. There are identifiable liberal trends that can be found in several countries in the region, despite the many setbacks. In all the seven countries considered as cases studies or part of comparative papers in the Special Issue, there exists a wide range of advocates, journalists, jurists, and policymakers all working towards liberal aims aided by a limited domestic constituency but supported and sustained often by international organisations and norms. They form liberalism as a ‘party of opinion’ with each responding to unique settings for the formation of specific liberal strategies.

This Special Issue narrates some of their stories, including: authoritarian rulers courting liberal actors or vice versa; ‘bourgeois’ liberals instrumentalising anti-corruption campaigns to topple unwanted ‘pro-poor’ populists; liberals invoking human rights in a lonely struggle against illiberal populists with strong public support; and liberal ideas being taken and passed around among a succession of groups and parties that never succeed in grounding them in their country’s national political norms.

Mark R. Thompson offers a new interpretation of contemporary political struggles in Southeast Asia by identifying a pattern of enculturated or vernacularised liberalisms in the region. By this, the author means that liberal actors ‘framed demands for human rights and “good governance” within a religious communalist framework’. For Thompson, ‘vernacularised’ liberalism in Southeast Asia helped local liberals counter charges that liberalism was a ‘Western ideology’ by claiming indigenous justifications for their rule. Reference to ‘vernacularised’ liberalism provided tools for local liberals to meet such culturalist arguments while underlining the extreme corruption of many dictatorships in the region.

Lisandro E. Claudio wonders at the dearth of scholarship on liberalisms in the region. He identifies factors that may have stunted serious scholarship: the perception that liberalism is an elite project, that it is unsuitable if not dangerous to Asia, and that it is incapable of creating a social base to advance it because of its ‘emotionally barren’ nature. Claudio offers a normative response to these obstacles, calling on a new generation of scholars freed of the left/right dichotomy to take up the fight.

Astrid Norén-Nilsson forensically dissects the dead ends of Cambodian liberalism. Seeking to identify a liberal tradition in Cambodia, the author finds instead ‘broken lineages’, a ‘stunted circulation of liberal idioms’, which is to say that liberal ideas are taken up across the postcolonial period but never cohere into anything constituting a performative tradition. Despite a case of broken lineages and finding no substantive liberalism in Cambodia, the exercise still has significance. She writes: ‘Tracing the stunted circulation of liberal idioms … allows us to see the comparatively familiar history of the more dominant political ideologies and projects differently’.

David Bourchier and Windu Jusuf note that Indonesia’s political context has not produced a ‘self-conscious liberal tradition’. Even so, they note that Indonesian liberalism presents as a counter-narrative in moments of statist authoritarianism or in the face of Islamic conservatism, even as it struggles to find a mass constituency. They conclude that while ‘collectivist ideologies have dominated most historical periods, liberalism has always been present, sometimes visible, sometimes less so. [It has] almost always been a counter-narrative, reacting to and sometimes shaped by collectivist, populist, religious, or class-based ideologies’.

On Siam/Thailand, Michael K. Connors argues for understanding ‘the logics of liberal security’ or how liberals, perforce, illiberally strategise in inhospitable environs. Connors shows how conservative liberals, in the face of post-revolutionary authoritarianism (1932-1944), advanced liberal ends by enculturing a national liberal tradition centred on the monarchy. They saw this form of politics as incrementally enabling greater freedom, progress, and rationality. This early form of liberalism shaped the political openings that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s and helped generate a politics of ‘royal liberalism’. Conservative liberalism built wide acceptance of the extraordinary ability of the monarchy to refound politics after and through authoritarian interventions.

The five papers point to a varied evolution and expression of liberal ideas in Southeast Asia. Evidently, there is nothing we can label ‘Southeast Asian liberalism’ given key national differences in encounters with imperialism, nation-state building projects, the politics of the Cold War, and different projects of political economy. We believe the Special Issue is an opening rather than a closing, and in that spirit, we hope each paper prompts engagement.

This post is based on the introduction to a recent special issue, Locating Liberalisms in Southeast Asia, published in the Asian Studies Review. The full introduction can be read here and is available open-access to all readers. The articles in the special issue can be read here.

The featured image is licensed under CCO 1.0.

Michael K. Connors teaches Global Studies in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia. Most recently he is co-editor with Professor Ukrist Pathmanand of Thai Politics in Translation: Democracy, Monarchy, and the Supra-constitution (NIAS Press, 2021), which explores Thai conservative thought and sentiment.

Mark R. Thompson is a Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs and the Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. His recent publications include Authoritarian Modernism in East Asia (Palgrave, 2019), China’s ‘Singapore Model’ and Authoritarian Learning (co-editor, Routledge, 2020), and Presidentialism and Democracy in East and Southeast Asia (co-editor, Routledge, 2023).

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