By Ernie Bower
This week in Hanoi, the former head of Vietnam’s state audit agency, Vu Dinh Hue, will be named the country’s new finance minister. The message to Vietnam’s state-owned enterprises and ministries with bloated budgets is clear: there is a new sheriff in town, and he has access to all the numbers. His marching orders from the Communist Party Central Committee appear to include stabilizing the macro economy and starting to clean house to ensure there are no more high-profile collapses of major state-owned companies like the shipbuilder Vinashin.
Vietnam’s cabinet will shrink from 26 ministers to 22. Roughly two-thirds of the cabinet will be new ministers, most of whom are well prepared for their new roles as former deputy ministers or ministers in other ministries. While the dominant narrative is continuity of policy, the subplot is change, reform, and responsiveness.
What is happening in Vietnam is also taking place around Southeast Asia. ASEAN’s governments are finding themselves in a new era. The days of the great leaders who forged nations with fast-developing economies from post-colonial, commodity-driven regimes are fading. The new reality is dominated by voters empowered by economic growth, with access to technology, increasingly urbanized, and demanding better governance from their political leaders.
Thailand’s newly elected Parliament will confirm Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister this week and a new cabinet will be chosen ahead of the birthday celebrations for Queen Sirikit on August 12. Real political change was enacted by Thailand’s citizens at the ballot box on July 3. It is likely that Thais will watch the new government closely and judge it on results.
This is also the case in Singapore and Malaysia, where incumbent ruling parties were shocked by historic numbers of votes cast for opposition parties in elections held in May of this year and in March 2008, respectively. The elections sent messages about responsiveness and the need to address voters’ priorities. As a result, new Singaporean cabinet members say they will be more attentive to constituencies and hold “our ears to the ground,” even to the point of reducing time spent outside of the country.
Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, his UMNO party, and the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition felt the sting of perceived stagnation on political reforms in the recent Bersih 2.0 protests in Kuala Lumpur. Citizens demanding electoral reform are seeking more from the government, and national general elections must be held by early 2013.
Philippine president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III was literally conscripted to run for office by Filipinos hungry for political and economic reforms and fed up with rampant corruption. His platform was mandated by a wave of public disapproval of the previous Arroyo government. Aquino’s historic approval ratings dipped after he was elected and did not rise again until he started to demonstrate some tangible evidence that his government would go after senior corrupt officials.
In Indonesia, there are legitimate concerns about the strength of relatively new and weak institutions ahead of the 2014 national elections. Indonesians perceive, perhaps rightly, that some former reformers, having been voted into office, have sought to slow the momentum of the reform movement to protect their interests and consolidate gains. Champions of good governance such as former finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati were apparently chased out of office—and even out of the country—by forces resisting change. The quintessential question for Indonesian democracy is whether the country’s leaders are watching these trends and what messages voters will send at the ballot box in three years.
Governance trends in ASEAN are not linear and they cannot be applied generally across borders. Witness the horrible case of Burma, whose governance is consistently considered among the world’s worst. However, ASEAN’s growing middle class, now estimated at nearly 100 million strong, is making its voice heard. That trend is one that is strengthening ASEAN itself.
Indonesia, as the chair of ASEAN, exemplified the grouping’s new confidence during the recent ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali by not turning away from tabling sensitive issues such as maritime security in the South China Sea, governance in Burma, and North Korea’s nuclear intentions. As ASEAN’s members strengthen their governance, ASEAN becomes stronger and more stable. This fact augurs well for the development of new ASEAN-based regional security and economic architecture.
The United States should recognize that governance trends in ASEAN have not been imported. They were born, were engendered, and will be protected by citizens of each country. Supporting those trends humbly—is there any other option after the debacle of the destructive partisanship displayed in Washington over the debt ceiling debate during the last two weeks?—will make good foreign policy and support U.S. interests in the region and Asia generally.
ASEAN’s governance models are evolving. That fact is illuminated by the case of Vietnam’s newly minted finance minister. He will have a bright political future if he can rein in inflation and enact effective controls while “corporatizing” his country’s massive state-owned enterprises. However, if he cannot make those changes, he is not likely to be in the cabinet at the end of the government’s five-year term.
Ernest Z. Bower is senior advisor and the director of the Southeast Asia Program and Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.