10 Years of Socdem Asia
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We cannot think of a better time to release this latest issue of the Quarterly.
Even as this piece is being written, leaders, activists and intellectuals are heading to Kuala Lumpur to celebrate the 10th year anniversary of Socdem Asia. Expected to be the largest gathering of Asian progressives in recent memory, this event aims to take stock of the victories that the Network has achieved in the last decade, and the challenges that it now has to face as it attempts to craft a better alternative for all the peoples of Asia.
In the last 10 years, Socdem Asia has issued numerous publications and organized several conferences that focus on the themes of democracy, sustainable development, people-centered regional integration and human rights. However, much has also happened in the region since the Network was formed in 2009.
Back then, Myanmar was still an international pariah, until the election results of November 2015 compelled the country’s ruling junta to turn over the presidency to a civilian leader after 54 years of military rule. In much the same way, voters in Malaysia ended the six-decade political dominance of Barisan Nasional by giving the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan an overwhelming victory in the 2018 general elections. And two years earlier, South Korea’s rightwing President, Park Geun-hye, was impeached and later imprisoned for bribery and corruption charges, after massive daily demonstrations swept through the streets of Seoul.
We do not see these three events as historically isolated moments, but as hugely significant milestones in the struggle for democracy. But the outcome of this endeavor is still uncertain, since populism is clearly on the rise elsewhere in the region. This is apparent in Rodrigo Duterte’s election as Philippine president; and in the radical shift in Indian politics which is now being dominated by Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The politics in the region is certainly confusing; but Socdem Asia has to make sense of these seemingly opposing trends, so that it can plot its course and set its agenda for the next 10 years or so. We are certain that these questions will generate a great deal of attention, not only during the anniversary celebration, but in the conferences that will soon follow.
This issue of the Quarterly should therefore be regarded as part of a conversation and as a modest attempt to deal with some of the challenges confronting our Network.
Hoping to shed light on the current global situation, the journal first turns to Prof. Thomas Meyer (Technical University of Dortmund) and his examination of the populist surge that began in the middle of this decade. Tracing its origins to neoliberalism’s apparent failure in 2008, Meyer argues that the aftermath of the global financial crisis unleashed an exclusionary political doctrine that artificially “divides society…between the corrupt elites, and the ‘common people’.” With liberalism in retreat, Meyer sees social democracy—with its emphasis on “social inclusion and the fair distribution of public goods”—as “humanity’s best hope against the populist surge.”
A more regional perspective is then provided in the second article, which focuses on the Left’s Post-War rise and eventual decline in Southeast Asia. Written by Filipino activist Avatar Francisco, the essay is his personal commentary on a lecture by Marxist scholar Nathan Quimpo. Closely noting Quimpo's arguments, Francisco reports that the Left squandered its initial success with its dogmatic attachment to Maoist precepts and its failure to adjust their strategy to the changing regional context. The feature then ends with the assertion that the old communist movements are now being supplanted by new social democratic formations, and that these forces represent “the most spirited—and broadest—challenge to the rule of entrenched politico-economic elites” in the region.
This optimistic assessment is shared by Dinesh Sapkota in his think-piece on the Nepali Congress (NC). A member of Nepal Student Union (NSU), Sapkota uses his knowledge of history and philosophy to weave the story of the NC. Formed as a response to the tyrannical rule of the former ruling family, the Nepali Congress has successfully preserved its “democratic and socialist spirit (even as it struggles) against domestic despotism and the global brutality of capitalism.” Currently in opposition, Sapkota observes that the NC has already assumed the role of tribune, chastising the government for “rampant corruption, irregularities, and abuse of power.”
In contrast to the NC’s long and proud history of struggle, Thailand’s Future Forward Party (FFP) is not even two years old, yet it is already the third largest party (and single biggest Leftwing formation) in the House of Representatives. FFP’s meteoric rise is analyzed by Sustarum Thammaboosadee of Thammasat University, who sees a strong link between the party’s clearly articulated program for building a welfare state and its stunning electoral victory. By proposing universal pension and universal childcare benefits, Future Forward Party was able to galvanize support “from the traditional working class and from young people who are demanding better welfare conditions.”
Also included in this issue is a speech by Malaysia’s Deputy Defense Minister Liew Chin Tong, which he delivered shortly after the historic landslide victory of Pakatan Harapan. Claiming that the May 2018 has finally transformed Malaysia into a “full-fledged democracy,” Liew assured his listeners that the new government is committed in overcoming racial politics and in “making democracy work for everyone.” He also called on Barisan Nasional to perform well in their new political role, because “for democracy to work, we need a credible opposition.”
This issue then ends with a reflection piece from Francis Isaac on his desired future for the Asian region. Inspired by the social achievements of Scandinavia, he explores the possibility of developing an Asian welfare state that will “deliver various social services to all citizens, irrespective of tribe, ethnicity, gender or religion.” Unlike in northern Europe where it was primarily used to tame the excesses of industrial capitalism, Isaac sees the Asian welfare state as a tool for nation-building, and as “the primary means of gathering people into more cohesive nations.”
Reading though these pages, one would notice that each contributor has his own distinct perspective on the issues confronting Asia. Nonetheless, they are all united by their common commitment to social democracy and by their shared concern for the region that most of us call home.