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Two Different Political Animals

Comparisons, they say, are odious--particularly when the people or objects being compared are of approximately equal virtue or worth.

But comparisons can also be very useful. Take Thailand and Malaysia. A brief comparison of the political systems of the two countries can help identify the strengths and weaknesses of their respective political systems at a time when both have been experiencing months of instability. Armed with such knowledge, it is possible to get beyond the daily news and focus on the issues that are really important.

Although both nations are constitutional monarchies, their political systems differ in almost every other respect.

Like his Malaysian counterpart, Thailand's beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej is expected to stay aloof from the cut and thrust of daily politics. But the King has also intervened decisively to end national crises in ways that could scarcely be imagined in Kuala Lumpur. Under Malaysia's unique system of rotating monarchs, no state sultan can reign nationally long enough to build up the sort of moral authority that the Thai King enjoys.

From time to time, various Malaysian statesmen and retired prime ministers--notably Tunku Abdul Rahman--have played the role of dispassionate arbiter during times of political tension. However, this no longer seems possible. Retired prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's sharp comments on controversial issues have ensured that he stands within rather than apart from the political process. Current Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is in a similar position, with critics both outside and inside his party demanding his resignation.

The bureaucracies of the two countries also have completely different histories. In Thailand, governments have changed so frequently that senior bureaucrats have become used to operating in a virtual political vacuum, with little direction from Cabinet ministers.

This is one reason why foreign investors are rarely troubled by Bangkok's frequent changes of government. To them, it matters little whether Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and the ruling People Power Party survive the current crisis.

The historical dominance of Malaysia's United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and its coalition partners, on the other hand, means that the Malaysian bureaucracy is closely identified with its political masters. Thus, while Thai governments have sometimes struggled to overcome bureaucratic resistance to fresh initiatives, Malaysian leaders have experienced few such difficulties.

A change of government in Kuala Lumpur, however, would raise the prospect of administrative paralysis. At the very least, Malaysia's bureaucrats would find it more difficult to adapt to new circumstances than their counterparts in Bangkok. Herein lies a potential problem for a government led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

When assessing reports of the political crises in Malaysia and Thailand, it is also important to remember that the prospect of political violence is also viewed differently in the two countries. After violent clashes in Bangkok on 2 Sept between supporters and opponents of Mr Samak left one person dead, local critics slammed the incident as unseemly - yet another blow to the nation's tourist industry. But in Malaysia - depending on the racial composition of the rival groups - such an incident could plunge the country into a serious crisis.

Seen in the above context, we may say that while Thai politicians can act in the full knowledge that the King will save the country in the final analysis, Malaysia has no such fall-back position. Instead, its racial mix means that politics in Kuala Lumpur can easily deteriorate into a high-stakes game in which everything depends upon the good sense of the nation's political leaders.

This is why recent reports of increased racial tensions in the country are so worrying. Fortunately, history suggests that Malaysians have learnt the lessons of the 1969 riots.

Thai politicians, on the other hand, seem condemned to repeat the same mistakes. In October 1976, for example, the Thai army staged a coup after 46 student protesters were killed and hundreds more wounded by security forces. Then, in 1992, the military-backed government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon was forced from power after troops shot at least 50 pro-democracy demonstrators. Thai politicians have never ceased digging the hole that they stand in.

Much has been made in recent months of the need to strengthen the integrity of Malaysia's institutions - notably the police and the judiciary. These institutions undoubtedly need to be reformed. But it is worth pointing out that many of the country's key institutions stand head and shoulders above Thailand's in terms of durability.

There has never been an extra-constitutional change of government in Malaysia. Elections have been held at regular intervals; and despite a recent call by the country's armed forces chief for 'stern action' to prevent racial conflict, a military coup is almost unthinkable. Whether Malaysian institutions are strong enough to withstand a major crisis involving a sharp deterioration in race relations, however, remains to be seen.

Asian political systems have as many noteworthy differences as they do similarities. As fears grow that political unrest may make it difficult for some countries in the region to respond to economic challenges, it is important to avoid focusing on the similarities to the point where crucial differences are overlooked. (By BRUCE GALE/ The Straits Times/ ANN)

MySinchew 2008.09.13


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