SE Asia dabbles with change

SE Asia dabbles with change

It may only be the end of August, but this year has seen some major announcements in Southeast Asia that signal a major shift is taking place in the deeply-conservative region. But do the changes affect reality on a deeper level, or merely cement the status quo?

In June, Thailand made waves after parliament took the first step towards recognising same-sex unions, a move which LGBTQ activists hoped will ultimately lead to the legalisation of gay marriage in the kingdom.

Last week, Malaysia's Supreme Court, upholding an appeal court ruling, ordered former prime minister Najib Razak to begin a 12-year prison sentence related to a multi-billion dollar graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Notably, Singapore also made headlines after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the government will repeal Section 377a of the city-state's penal code -- a colonial-era law which effectively criminalised sex between men.

The announcement was initially met with praise; after all, it was about time Singapore -- which despite its tiny size, is the epitome of a modern Southeast Asian nation -- removed the few remaining anachronisms in its legal code.

The praise, however, was swiftly followed by the realisation that the move might not go far enough to make a big impact.

While the law effectively made sexual relations between men a crime, Singapore was never like its immediate neighbours.

Behaviours considered "immoral" were never policed, whether officially by the state such as Malaysia -- whose state officers have been known to intrude into private spaces to enforce religious laws -- or unofficially as in Indonesia, where certain gay groups had been able to enforce their version of morality with little intervention from authorities.

What came next in Mr Lee's annual speech was more reflective of the sentiment of the city-state's "old guards". In the speech, he noted the constitutional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman will be kept to allay fears of "a drastic shift in our [Singapore's] societal norms".

This means while gay sex is no longer a crime, gay couples in Singapore will remain excluded from many policies aimed at their heterosexual counterparts. Access to subsidised public housing and rules surrounding adoption, for instance, will continue to be based on the traditional definition of marriage, Mr Lee said -- effectively taking two steps back after making one step forward. What began as a nod to a more liberal attitude, became a solid affirmation of conservatism.

That said, Singapore's nod to outdated norms was in no way unique -- in fact, governments across Southeast Asia have been rolling back freedoms and rights for the good part of the past decade at an alarming pace, often justifying them as an attempt to protect society. Indonesia, for instance, has been considering making insulting the head of state a criminal offence again.

Plenty of positions in Joko Widodo's cabinet were awarded to appointees close to the police and military -- undoing decades of efforts to keep security forces from gaining too much power that culminated in a bloody revolution in 1998. In Thailand, calling for reform of the monarchy and ending the lese majeste law ran into the stumbling block of conservative and traditional establishment within the government. What's more, these throwbacks to the days of yore often work -- garnering public sentiment in ways which seem to suggest collective amnesia.

Nowhere in Southeast Asia is this more evident than in the Philippines, where Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr was recently voted into Malacanang Palace, despite the fact that his father, Marcos Sr, is widely considered to be responsible for plundering billions from the Philippine treasury over his three decades in power.

While strange, it isn't surprising for Southeast Asia where the social and political development seems to move in circles as people naturally fear change.

Fear of change and orthodox mindsets have created a boomerang effect. The historian Margaret Macmillan in her 2013 book The War That Ended Peace, noted that in the days leading up to World War I, Europeans -- fearful of the major shifts in society brought on by the Industrial Revolution -- embraced all things kitsch, from military parades to medieval philosophy, with disastrous results.

What is happening in the region is well described by French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

Despite that, changes that have occurred in Southeast Asia over the past few months have inspired hope. Despite the obstacles and weight of history, countries in the region are trying to let go of obsolete mores, evolve with the times and make changes which actually matter.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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