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Political System or Leaders-What Works?

September 14, 2018

ASEAN or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is comprised of ten countries having a wide range of political structures with functioning democracies being in the minority. At this juncture, Malaysia has recently emerged as a revived voice of democracy while the election of Hun Sen in Cambodia was viewed to be tainted. The Thai government seems to be on a roller coaster of democratic elections which are then overturned by military coups.

The Nikkei Asian Review is believed by this author to represent the most in-depth and insightful reporting of Asian news in the business. The fact that their bureau chief in Bangkok is a friend and great supporter of elephants has nothing to do with that opinion. In any event, the Nikkei offered the most comprehensive coverage of the recent election of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party which was viewed as a foregone conclusion. Competing parties seemed to encounter legal difficulties with Hun Sen's party capturing all of the 125 available seats of parliament which was described as the "death of democracy" on election day. The poster below was not necessary as there was no competition. Moreover, a massive, financially induced "get out the vote" campaign was implemented so the election would not be viewed as a sham.

Following Hun Sen's election success, the author happened to have a conversation with a Cambodian who had fled Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge seizing control in 1975. As a small world story, he jumped ship in Singapore off a fuel tanker. Surprisingly, the author had a role in managing the distribution of aviation fuel for the war effort in Cambodia utilizing that very ship. A Chinese fortune teller had predicted the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Lon Nol government and advised our friend not to return. It is a shame Richard Nixon listened to Henry Kissinger and not the fortune teller. Many years of western democracy have not settled in our Cambodian friend's thought process. He was not disturbed by the Cambodia poll results as everything "back home" seems to be far more prosperous than ever before though he is never going back for a first-hand look.

On the other hand, Mahathir Mohamed's recent success in unseating the corrupt realm of Najib Razak in Malaysia indicated that even a former Prime Minister like Mahathir could change his spots. Historically, Mahathir had suppressed any competition until he stepped down and ceded his party to Najib. Having had enough of Najib's embarrassing reign, Mahathir, at the senior citizen age of 93, engineered a brilliant strategy to defeat Najib.

Thailand Prime Minister Prayut, who took power in a military coup in 2014, may well emerge as the leader of a political party to participate in a Thai parliamentary election next year. Thailand has a recent history of military coups to overthrow corrupt democratically elected governments. The general shed his uniform and has grown to like the life of a political leader.

The nation state of Singapore was formed by Lee Kwan Yew who served as a controversial leader to create the miracle island economy of his country. He often faced considerable criticism from the U.S. given his heavy-handed ways and the western views of his encroachment on human rights. He once said "My enemies may be imprisoned but I would have been dead had they prevailed."

The United States is rightfully proud of its position as the champion of democracy. On the other hand, we have seen examples where our own electoral college system has created presidencies that did not reflect the popular vote of the people. Not all of those administrations have served our country well. Moreover, the very close Brexit "yes" vote for the UK to exit the European Union is often viewed as a tragic mistake in today's world.

Therefore, certainly democracy may be flawed but it is still the best system known to man. However, there is plenty of room for other cultures to adapt the process to their people and provide the time for democracy to work as appropriate. Moreover, the U.S. must be mindful not to preach a system that may not be immediately adaptable to a particular society. At the end of the day, democracy should be the best political structure though the time might not be right in a particular place. Regardless of timing, capable and compassionate leaders are far more important than any political process known to man.

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