How to rule the masses

Political Legitimacy in Southeast Asia
March 21, 1997

While developed societies tend to take concepts like political legitimacy for granted, many Third World countries experience severe and often debilitating problems in justifying their rule. Legitimacy acts in many different ways but, most crucially, political systems and leaders have to be seen to exercise moral authority effectively to govern and to control political and social change, particularly leadership succession. This problem goes to the heart of all types of governance and this book is a welcome addition to the literature. It is one of the most solid and well-written books on the challenges that face states in Southeast Asia in recent times. It uses case studies to compare the notion of legitimacy across the board in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, diverse and different states which encompass every shade of regime including monarchies, military and personal dictatorships, quasi democracies and democracies (although never of the liberal kind). I particularly liked the first and last sections of the text written by the editor. It develops clear and comprehensive frameworks for understanding and conceptualising political legitimacy.

What is it that justifies the right to rule in these diverse states? On what basis is this claimed and how and why is it contested? The other side of the coin is the question of what engenders illegitimacy in systems of rule? The topic has never been fully explored until now. The notion of legitimacy also plays a large part in how effective government is and how it can develop strategies for managing political change, an issue close to the hearts of many Southeast Asian elites in the postcolonial period. The fact that Indonesia is experiencing leadership succession problems, for instance, is of significance not only on a regional scale but also globally.

The skilful use of case studies to underscore the analytical framework is comprehensive and clear. Rarely have I seen a book on this kind of topic that melds theoretical insights with historical and empirical data to provide excellent understandings of why some states receive legitimacy and others do not. The general framework is grounded on a Weberian formulation of legitimacy on which Muthiah Alagappa argues for four constituent elements: a set of "shared normative ideals and values", "conformity with established rule in acquiring power", "the proper exercise of power" and the "consent of the governed". However, Alagappa also gives overviews of other theories of legitimacy to provide a balanced perspective.

All of the chapters dwell on the political and historical dynamics of how and why legitimacy has evolved and changed over time. There are no guarantees and no magic formulae. Rather legitimacy is presented as constantly adapting to specific historical and political circumstances.

In the case of Malaysia, William Case focuses on the historical and sociocultural forces surrounding the salience of ethnicity and the way in which the government has tried to blunt conceptions of illegitimacy among different groups. Political stability and economic performance appear frequently as two necessary but not sufficient criteria in terms of claims to the "right" to rule. This is particularly prevalent in Singapore where the politics of "survival" is the predominant agenda among political elites, and where among the masses the obedience to authority appears based on calculated, material self-interest. Cho-Oon Khong, perhaps one of the most astute observers of the Singaporean political scene, also illustrates the important and effective symbiosis of the city-states' civil service and the ruling party elite.

While these cases have much in common in the search for legitimacy they also display their idiosyncrasies. The Philippines is still plagued by historical systems of patronage and paternalism in politics while Thailand still has to deal with the curious mixture of monarchical and military influence in its domestic situation. Among all of the cases Burma stands out as the singular anomaly in having failed to resolve any of the questions of legitimacy; it rests on pure coercion and is the classic "weak" state, subject to continual ethnic rebellions since the end of colonialism.

Alagappa, however, demonstrates that even the successful political structures of Southeast Asia cannot forever rest on their laurels simply by delivering the material goods. The long-term search for rule justified by moral authority which is not contingent on short term and perhaps tenuous gains will need to be addressed and will become a preoccupation of these societies in the coming decades.

This book deserves a wider audience than its likely target of postgraduate students and scholars interested in Southeast Asia. Anyone with a serious interest in the region and its political dynamics is advised to read it.

Kenneth Christie is a lecturer in politics, University of Natal, Durban, South Africa.

Political Legitimacy in Southeast Asia: The Quest for Moral Authority

Author - Muthiah Alagappa
ISBN - 0 8047 2504 7 and 2560 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00 and £16.95
Pages - 446

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