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Jacques Bertrand: Political Change in Southeast Asia.

Jacques Bertrand

Political Change in Southeast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, x + 246 pp. ISBN 9780521883771, price: GBP 55.00 (hardback); 9780521710060:18.00 (paperback).

Though it is now widely agreed that Southeast Asia is a region, writing about it as such, as your reviewer knows only too well, is, to say the least, a challenging task. Jacques Bertrand attempts a survey of politics in the region, proceeding for the most part country by country, though, for no explained reason, omitting the Sultanate of Brunei. A political scientist at the University of Toronto, he invokes theories that political scientists have advanced. Usually developed without substantial reference to Southeast Asia, they scarcely seem to fit. His explanations of political change seem rather to argue their deficiency and challenge their generalisations.

His conclusion suggests as much. 'While the region's experience, or that of particular countries, may seem to be unique, we can understand several aspects of political change by focusing on a few, comparable explanatory factors [...] A dialogue between generalisable propositions and detailed political histories yields strong analytical insights to understand the region's vast transformations.' (p. 228) Even that seems doubtful, unless one concludes, as your reviewer does, that the very deficiency of the theories points up the relevance of other factors, and that they have in that sense a negative role in structuring the book. One feels that may not have been the author's intention at the outset, though it was where he ended up.

As Bertrand points out, Seymour Lipset established a correlation between democracy and high levels of economic development: the more advanced economies were stable, advanced democracies. An offshoot of the argument was that 'the middle class typically prefers more active participation in politics and representation of their interests' (p. 21). But modern Southeast Asia--not the normal focus of political scientists, perhaps--does not support this theory.

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The wealthiest country in contemporary Southeast Asia, the Republic of Singapore, is, for example, more authoritarian than democratic.

Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, as Bertrand says, argue that splits in elites 'always precede the collapse of authoritarian regimes and transitions to democracy' (p. 25). He finds the theory relevant to the fall of the Soeharto regime, though hardly sufficient to explain it. Does it work in Thailand? In a kind of way: there, as the author concludes, the crucial factor is the clash between the Bangkok elite that so long dominated Thai politics and the emergence of a provincial challenge, mobilised, under a new and more democratic constitution, by a wealthy recruit to the elite, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Even Bertrand's attempt to order his material into two parts, one covering 'capitalism, economic growth and political change' and the other 'state-socialist countries and authoritarian stability', is challenged by its content. In the latter he deals with Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma/Myanmar; in the former with Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, and Thailand. Yet that surely diminishes the role of the state in Singapore.

'Patrimonialism has been a strong feature of Southeast Asian politics', Bertrand remarks (p. 28). Perhaps it is, in various forms, the most prevalent and widespread one. He argues that it explains stability rather than political change, but that seems questionable. Who's in and who's out--as King Lear put it--becomes crucial. The Philippines provides only the most obvious example: the crisis comes when the big boss is re-elected, alternation ceases, and redistribution is denied.

'[U]nique features are also important', Bertrand admits, in international as well as domestic realms. A historian, such as your reviewer, might indeed go too far in emphasising them. He or she might also cavil at the somewhat cavalier way Bertrand treats historical events: sometimes his shorthand gives them short shrift. Independence for Singapore in 1959? (p. 17) Not so. Timor's 'obtaining independence from the Portuguese in 1975' (p. 64). Not so (if it had, the UN would not have still been able to regard Portugal as the administering power). Lee Kuan Yew 'repeatedly interfered in the Malaysia-wide elections' (p. 98). There was only one. King Sihanouk held 'tight control over Cambodia' prior to 1975? (p. 146) He had been overthrown in 1970.

If there are some errors, there are few misprints. One your reviewer noticed was almost praiseworthy: under President Arroyo, we are told, '[k]ickbacks were awarded to high-raking officials' (p. 86). There are no footnotes; only the occasional in-text brackets of the type '(Jones, 1991)'. Reading the book was not without some rewards, but this reader felt it needed more work.

DOI: 10.1163/22134379-17002006

Nicholas Tarling

New Zealand Asia Institute, The University of Auckland
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Author:Tarling, Nicholas
Publication:Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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