Indonesia can be an important factor in the creation of a liberal democratic Malaysia.

Its sheer size, its proximity to Malaysia and deep ties that bind both countries prevent any pretension that our developmental path is independently of each other. It is for this reason that recent liberal, democratic, and economic advancements in Indonesia are a cause for celebration among liberals and democrats in Malaysia. For the same reason, the latest bombing in Jakarta should be a source of concern for them.

Indonesia’s transition from an authoritarian state to the most democratic one in the region has been nothing less than impressive. The violent manner of the transition is less than ideal but it was a transition for the better nevertheless. With all else being equal, Indonesians are potentially set to reap the dividend of democratic peace and progress. Already its economy has been growing consistently above 4 per cent since 2000. Furthermore, the archipelagic country is still growing despite the ongoing crisis that has forced many others, including Malaysia, to go into recession.

I celebrate the much talked about progress in Indonesia, first and foremost, because of the ideal of a liberal democracy. That is the only form of government that is supportive of individual liberty. Only that system is capable of balancing individual liberty against state power as well as any majority power. It guards individual liberty tightly against the ugly side of gross majoritarianism: tyranny of the majority.

To have one more state — in the case of Indonesia, a major state — embracing liberal democracy as a system, and having it working, enhances the influence of the idea all over the world. To have one more state as a liberal democracy further gives credence to the statement that the most successful countries in modern times, by and large, have been liberal democracies.

A point that is more relevant is the effect of Indonesian progress on Malaysia. Its success as a liberal democracy is important to Malaysian democrats and liberals because if Indonesia, during this period of its liberal democracy, can achieve unprecedented socioeconomic progress to catch up with Malaysia, it can provide Malaysia with a liberal democratic model to follow.

This is an important point that demands stressing. It provides a strong alternative to the development model preferred by the government of the People’s Republic of China. For Malaysian democrats and liberals, between deep statism as practised in mainland China and democracy, the answer does not demand too much mental manoeuvring.

This idea may in a way parallel the Domino Theory in a restricted sense. The Domino Theory in its original form postulates that if one country fell to communism, others in the region would fall to communism too, just as a domino piece in a well-arranged deck only waits toppling after the fall of the first piece. Except this time around, the force that pushes the first piece sits on the opposite side of communism, and decades after communism was ideologically defeated.

The liberal democratic Domino Theory could even affect Singapore. Any big change in Malaysia will affect Singapore, just as a big change in Indonesia will affect Malaysia. A liberal democratic Malaysia will present unwanted pressure for the Singapore establishment to be more flexible in matters concerning democracy and liberty.

For Singapore, in times when it is surrounded by illiberal states — Malaysia and Indonesia that from time to time presented a cold front to it — it can find allies in other liberal democracies in the West, even when Singapore itself is an illiberal state. When, and if, it is surrounded by liberal democracies, Singapore’s ties to Western liberal democracies would somewhat diminish as attention would shift from Malaysia and Indonesia’s record to Singapore’s.

On top of that, liberal democracies tend to be noisy about illiberal conducts. If the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia are unwilling to do so, then the civil society in both countries would. Consequently, the domino deck would exert strong pressure on Singapore to democratise and liberalise.

Before that can happen, Indonesia must make significant progress. Without that, Indonesia will not have a significant role in democratising and liberalising Malaysia and give currency to the theory. One barrier to that progress was exemplified by the recent bombing in its capital.

What happened in Jakarta is disheartening because it can adversely affect confidence in the country. Confidence is a precious commodity in the making of a successful economy. Without it, Indonesian economy can falter to undo the progress made on the political front. Without a healthy economy, a liberal democratic Indonesia will not command respect from others. That will easily cancel out the possibility of the Domino Theory.

Thankfully, the bombing so far has not significantly impacted the Indonesian economy. It may be that the momentum of progress there is so big compared to the negative impact of the bombing. If that is so, that is great. Yet, one may never know what is in store next.

An Indonesia in chaos will not only remove an external factor that catalyses the realisation of a liberal democratic Malaysia, it can also contribute to a setback. Indonesia after all is not so far away and it has been pointed out that the network of terrorism consists also of Malaysians. These Malaysians may target Malaysia some day.

If ever that happens, it is likely that individual liberty in the country will suffer further erosion. In the United States, with its strong tradition in liberty and credible institutions, a strong challenge against the transgression of liberty can be mounted by its civil society. In Malaysia with smaller cache as far as the idea of liberty is concerned, the same challenge will be hard to mount. After all, laws irreverent to liberal democratic values introduced during the Emergency era are still in place. For instance, when was the last time Malaysia held a local election?

For Malaysian democrats and liberals, it is in their interest to ensure that what is in store for Indonesia is peace instead of chaos. They can do this by requiring their own government to cooperate earnestly with the Indonesian government on the matter of anti-terrorism. Successful cooperation will lessen the possibility of Malaysia facing such attacks at home and avoid the oft-mentioned dilemma between liberty and security.

The dilemma between the two is a false one, since liberty requires protection to remain firm. That, after all, is the purpose of a liberal democracy. But convincing the masses of that reasoning will be a difficult task during dangerous times. With an illiberal government at the helm, the government will certainly make use of that opportunity to rob liberty from individuals, either consciously or indirectly.

The cause of terrorism is clearly multifold but I am convinced that poor economic conditions — which in turn affects other factors like good education that are crucial in sustaining a liberal democracy — play a large role in it. A developing Indonesian economy can address that, and that makes the progress in Indonesia all the more important; economic success is the real anti-terrorism measure.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

First published in The Malaysian Insider on July 27 2009.

One Response to “[2044] Of a liberal democratic Domino Theory”

  1. […] reduced probability of attacks in Indonesia. I have mentioned that I have high hope for Indonesia to spearhead democratic change in Southeast Asia and become the symbol of aspiration for all liberal democrats in the region. If […]

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