Democracy means “the power of the people”, but do Southeast Asians feel they have the power? Do their governments genuinely represent them? Are their voices heard or taken into account? We have elections, therefore we are a democracy.” This isn’t sufficient proof that democracy exists. As the history of Southeast Asia shows, democracy is more than elections. The people need to play an active role in decision-making and be able to express their opinions.
What is Southeast Asian democracy? What values and principles do we base our democracy on? What problems does it need to solve? How did our nationalist leaders articulate democracy? How do Southeast Asians today conceive of democracy?
How do Southeast Asians practise democracy? How do Southeast Asians actually fight for democracy? How do we need to behave? What do we need to do to build better lives for all of us, and live with dignity and justice?
This series will also evolve democratically: it starts with a series of articles proposing principles for Southeast Asian democracy. These will be followed by virtual Democracy Classrooms, to discuss these principles. From self-determination to historical awareness, we will then collectively define and vernacularise what these mean to us. Further events and outputs will look at how we practise and promote democracy in our local communities. Find democratic practices near you! Look up some examples from across the region in this map.
See the case studies across the region:
💡 Click icons to learn about specific events or click “Data layers” button (4th top left icon) to see all data points. To learn more about the map, click “About” (bottom right).
This map is our beta version to visualise the case studies of Principles of Democracy, and we hope to expand this visualisation for better data storytelling for you. If you have any feedback or suggestions on how we can develop this map, please write to us. Thank you!
12 Principles of Democracy
What are the challenges standing in the way of good governance in Southeast Asia? We suggest four major ones that Southeast Asian societies need to address. Our systems of governance should:
- Ensure that decisions made represent all people,
- Incentivise good governance,
- Meet the needs of the people, including food, safety, and freedom from fear and hunger,
- Be sensitive to local contexts.
Accordingly, our proposed principles of democracy aim to address these obstacles. We hope that they go towards making and implementing good decisions, based particularly on local challenges and conflicts in our region.
Self-determination is at the heart of democracy: the right of each and every individual to govern themselves and to have the freedom to determine their own future, without external compulsion.
For a democracy to function, it must protect minorities; for it to function well, everyone should recognise that they, too, are a minority or may become one, and therefore such protection is in their own interest.
Free, fair, and regular elections give people the opportunity to look back and evaluate the past, debate the future, approve policies for the country, address wrongs, and/or protest the limitation of their rights.
If citizens are to govern their own affairs, either directly or through representative government, then they must be able to have access to the information needed in order to make informed choices about how best to determine their affairs.
Power is distributed in a way that different parts of the democratic system have separate and distinct responsibilities, and those different parts can limit, control, or regulate each other in ways to prevent abuse of power.
Development should not just be understood in narrow economic terms, but must consider social, political, ecological, and psychological factors too, offered to all citizens equally without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
The rule of law is the supreme check on political power used against people’s rights. Without the regulation of state power by a system of laws, procedures, and courts, democracy could not survive.
Legally and rhetorically, all Southeast Asian countries recognise the legitimacy of universal human rights principles. But like many of the other principles, human rights are often observed in the breach.
Freedom of expression, despite being oft-misunderstood, guarantees everyone’s right to speak and write openly without state interference, including the right to criticise the injustices, illegal activities, and incompetence of the government without fear of reprisal.
The exercise of freedom of association by workers, students, activists, and others in society has always been at the heart of the struggle for achieving and defending democracy around the world. Without freedom of association, other freedoms lose their substance.
Without the ability to think, believe, and worship freely, and without the principle of toleration of others’ beliefs, there can be no democracy. When religious freedom is protected, it fosters an environment where people of different faiths and beliefs can coexist peacefully.
Many historic events continue to have a major impact on Southeast Asia today, and likewise, must be understood to understand the present. For us to build democracies and ensure good governance, then, we must come to grips with the past and our historical baggage.
I want to be politically engaged beyond the ballot! Where to start?
For the majority of us in Southeast Asia, we reside in democratic countries, or so it appears on paper. Not so fun fact: holding a general election is not a good indicator of a democratic country.
Read our Explainers
In order for democracy to exist, we provisionally suggest that it has to be underpinned by 12 principles. New Naratif delves into each principle in our series of explainers and explores how these principles are observed (or not) in Southeast Asia.
Join the Events
After reading each explainer, you can join a Democracy Classroom to discuss with others and learn more about each principle. This is the space where you can explore ideas that you may not feel comfortable doing so elsewhere.
Our latest Explainers
Elections allow voters to pass judgement and express their will on the government. How elections are designed and how their results are determined are fundamental to any country’s democracy. Thus, it should be regularly and carefully debated through a democratic process, with the design updated as flaws become apparent.
In this episode, we will talk about New Naratif’s The Citizens Agenda, 22 most important issues facing Indonesia in 2023, and what we can do about it.
Democracy is the rule of the people, for the people, and by the people. But what happens when the people disagree? The majority can easily tyrannise the minority, hence it must be balanced by minority rights. Just as democracy must guarantee the expression of the popular will through majority rule, it must guarantee that the…
This project was made possible by a grant from the Democracy Discourse Series.