Year of the Arab Uprising: Impact on Southeast Asia

The pop­u­lar revolts sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa are part of a glob­al demand for polit­i­cal open­ness and trans­paren­cy. South­east Asia has so far proven adept in its response but has yet to address fun­da­men­tal issues.


TUNISIAN STREET ven­dor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immo­la­tion was not sim­ply a cry for jus­tice, free­dom and eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty. It was an act of des­per­a­tion in the face of humil­i­a­tion, a cry for dig­ni­ty that res­onat­ed with the mass­es across North Africa and the Mid­dle East.

Bouazizi’s death sparked a move to end not just the yoke of tyran­ny but of neo-patri­archic rule in which the auto­crat­ic father fig­ure repli­cates him­self through­out soci­ety from head of state to vil­lage chief to the head of the nuclear fam­i­ly. The sys­tem fran­chised author­i­tar­i­an rule. As a result Bouazizi’s cry for dig­ni­ty was and is a quest for cit­i­zen­ship rather than guardian­ship, for legit­i­mate author­i­ty, trans­paren­cy and ulti­mate­ly true sov­er­eign­ty.

Arguably, more than any­thing else, Bouazizi’s cry inte­grat­ed the rel­a­tive­ly inward-look­ing region from Moroc­co to the Gulf into a glob­alised world. The region became part of a glob­al trend and in some ways its most resilient, poised to rewrite polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy. The demand for open­ness and trans­paren­cy, fuelled by a per­ceived fail­ure of exist­ing insti­tu­tions, man­i­fests itself in dif­fer­ent ways in dif­fer­ent parts of the world. In the West it’s Occu­py Wall Street. In the Mid­dle East and North Africa, push­ing for greater trans­paren­cy often meant vio­lence to change ossi­fied dic­ta­tor­ships inca­pable of accom­mo­da­tion of people’s aspi­ra­tions and reform.

South­east Asia not immune

South­east Asia has not been immune to the glob­al trend. Nonethe­less, to sug­gest that the Arab Spring would spark a coun­ter­part upris­ing in South­east Asia would be far-fetched. South­east Asia was already con­fronting calls for change before the Arab revolt erupt­ed and the impact of the trend in South­east Asia is evi­dent.

Myan­mar has cau­tious­ly relaxed strict gov­ern­ment con­trol, Malaysia respond­ed to sharp crit­i­cism of the police by repeal­ing two sweep­ing secu­ri­ty laws and lift­ing restric­tions on the media and Thai vot­ers returned to pow­er the par­ty of deposed pre­mier Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra, a vic­to­ry for his red-shirt­ed sup­port­ers involved in bloody clash­es with the mil­i­tary last year. In doing so, South­east Asian gov­ern­ments have proven to be far more attuned than their Mid­dle East­ern and North African coun­ter­parts to what was hap­pen­ing around them and have dis­played a greater deal of vision and flex­i­bil­i­ty. Nonethe­less, they will also require for­ward plan­ning.

Ensur­ing ener­gy secu­ri­ty

When, rather than if, the Arab upris­ing inevitably spreads to the Gulf, South­east

Asian nations will have to define the risk to their ener­gy secu­ri­ty and devel­op alter­na­tives in case of a dis­rup­tion in oil and gas sup­plies as well as increase their focus on alter­na­tive ener­gy options. Some, like the Philip­pines, will also have to deal with the impact of large num­bers of migrant work­ers return­ing home to escape erupt­ing tur­moil.

Non-oil pro­duc­ing South­east Asian nations like Sin­ga­pore, Thai­land and the Philip­pines depend on the Mid­dle East for 70 per­cent of their oil and gas imports.

In addi­tion, South­east Asia and the Mid­dle East are cru­cial links in a seaborne com­merce con­vey­or belt that runs from the Gulf to the Pacif­ic. If the Straits of Malac­ca and Sin­ga­pore were seen until now as poten­tial­ly risky mar­itime choke points, today it is the Strait of Hor­muz in the Gulf and Bab el Man­deb between Soma­lia and Yemen that are more vul­ner­a­ble.

Asia would be most affect­ed if ship­ping par­tic­u­lar­ly through the Straits of Hor­muz were to be inter­rupt­ed. The Unit­ed States gets 22 per­cent of its oil from the Gulf, Europe about 30 per­cent but Asia all of 75 per­cent, which makes Asia hav­ing the most at stake in terms of ener­gy secu­ri­ty.

South­east Asia’s strate­gic advan­tage

Almost a year into the Arab revolt, the Mid­dle East and North Africa region is look­ing at up to a decade of volatil­i­ty, uncer­tain­ty and blood­shed. The region may be the part of the world where resis­tance to change will prove to be most adamant with con­se­quences far beyond its bor­ders.

South­east Asian nations, unlike those in the Mid­dle East and North Africa, with few excep­tions have demon­strat­ed an abil­i­ty to respond to demands for open­ness and trans­paren­cy and sought to restore con­fi­dence in insti­tu­tions in ways that do not esca­late ten­sions. Nonethe­less, steps tak­en by South­east Asian gov­ern­ment are like­ly to prove insuf­fi­cient. Those steps are by and large designed to remove imme­di­ate light­ning rods and release pent-up frus­tra­tion but often do not real­ly address basic griev­ances, among which cor­rup­tion fig­ures promi­nent­ly.

A major­i­ty of South­east Asian gov­ern­ments, unlike their Mid­dle East­ern and North African coun­ter­parts, enjoy vary­ing degrees of pop­u­lar­i­ty and legit­i­ma­cy. To the extent that there is a desire for change, it is a desire to effect change with the gov­ern­ment, not in spite of it. That is an asset few Mid­dle East­ern rulers can claim. How­ev­er to main­tain that strate­gic advan­tage, South­east Asian nations will have to devel­op enlight­ened, proac­tive poli­cies that go beyond remov­ing imme­di­ate irri­tants and address real con­cerns.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.