Over the past two weeks, several interesting articles have emerged on politics in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are supposedly two of the more democratic nations in Southeast Asia. In one Asia Sentinel piece that also has been discussed endlessly in Jakarta circles, the author speculates that the wife of current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) may well run for the presidency in the next election. In a well-drawn New York Times profile, the paper chronicles the rise of Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. She has recently been elected to the leadership of Anwar’s party, despite the fact that she is extremely young and politically inexperienced.
Nepotism has been and remains one of the biggest curses of political development in South and Southeast Asia. Though the region has elected a large number of women leaders, in places as diverse as Bangladesh and the Philippines, almost all of these women were the daughters or wives of former leaders, many of whom were killed for their beliefs. Many powerful political men, too, are largely known for their names, even though some of them have skills of their own. Today, Corazon Aquino’s son runs the Philippines, Benazir Bhutto’s son is being prepped to run Pakistan, and the daughter of Bangladeh’s founding leader currently serves as prime minister.
And while the United States is hardly immune to nepotism (who’s our Secretary of State again?), the fact is that a country like the United States, or India (which, of course, worships the Gandhi dynasty) is large and diverse enough that nepotism does not dominate the political scene. Ms. Clinton, after all, was defeated in the 2008 presidential primaries, and despite the Gandhi worship, powerful politicians have emerged in Indian states, in lower-caste Indian parties, and even within Congress itself.
Malaysia or the Philippines or even Indonesia—which still has a very small political class—is not diverse enough to weather this kind of nepotism. With such a small political class, nepotism crowds out fresh blood, new ideas, and real change. Anwar and SBY have positioned themselves as reformers, as harbingers of real breaks from their country’s past. Allowing such potential nepotism suggests that they are not the reformers they sometimes appear to be.