With a majority of countries in South-East Asia currently under autocratic leadership and little history of liberal democracy in the region, Dr Lee Morgenbesser has found that the region’s penchant for authoritarianism is stable and the level of sophistication is increasing – which is a concern for champions of democracy.

Dr Lee Morgenbesser from the School of Government and International Relations, and from the Centre for Governance and Public Policy and Griffith Asia Institute, has closely examined the techniques of five authoritarian regimes in his 2018 Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) project – ‘The Rise of Sophisticated Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei’ – in order to identify what explains the persistence of these regimes and to rank their movements on a scale of retrograde to sophisticated.


Dr Lee Morgenbesser, Image Tita Foundation

To understand authoritarian governments in South-East Asia, firstly visualise the political regime scale that starts with liberal democracies then shifts across to electoral democracies (Indonesia, Philippines), competitive authoritarian regimes (Malaysia, Singapore), then across to hegemonic authoritarian regimes (Cambodia, Vietnam), and further across to closed authoritarian regimes (Brunei and China).

Then within this political scale authoritarian regimes can be segmented further on their level of sophistication, and Dr Morgenbesser has developed a sub-classification system that incorporates different techniques depending on the level of sophistication or preference for traditional practices.

“They (the five countries in the project) were basically selected for two reasons – one is they are the longest-lasting authoritarian regimes in the region, with the exception of Brunei keeping in mind this is up to 2015 – and Malaysia has now changed leadership as the ruling party lost power last year,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“So they are the longest lasting but there is also variation in terms of the types of the authoritarian regimes that they are. Cambodia and Vietnam are hegemonic, Brunei is closed which means they don’t hold national elections, like China, which makes the political system closed to participation and contestation.”

“And this group of countries has challenges, I mean the difficulty is that Brunei is very controlled and lacks basic political rights and civil liberties. While some people will answer questions you get tailed by State security forces.”

“So Brunei is a problem and then with Cambodia I am banned from going there due to my previous research on the regime, so that only leaves three countries I can safely visit for field research.”

“And the basic premise of the entire project is – I think there has been a subtle change in the nature of authoritarianism, and I am trying to investigate that in South-East Asia.”



Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Image Aljazeera EPA

The decision on whether to remain competitive authoritarian or to strive to become hegemonic authoritarian is one that presents different challenges for regime leaders and Dr Morgenbesser explains it’s very difficult to make this transition using sophisticated techniques.

“I talk about competitive authoritarianism that’s the modal type around the world. I mean that’s between the extreme of liberal democracy and closed authoritarian regimes like North Korea,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“A whole bunch of authoritarian regimes after the cold war settled on this competitive model where you have competitive elections, but you skew the playing field in favour of yourself.”

“And when it comes to using sophisticated techniques – it’s actually very difficult to move from competitive to hegemonic and do it in a sophisticated way because you are going to have to crack down, so you are going to have to jail opponents.”


Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Image AP

The research centred around a theoretical framework and dataset that has autocratic techniques tabulated across seven South-East Asian Countries over forty years (1975-2015). With the addition of Myanmar and Laos that were added after the DECRA project began.

“The framework involves seventy-three indicators in two categories from retrograde to sophisticated, and when you plug those seven countries in from 1975 to 2015 and all the indicators – as a region it has been more sophisticated since 2012,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“So the question I have in the conclusion is if you don’t move towards sophistication do you lose power? And the data indicates that this could really happen.”


“So as a region it has gone from retrograde which is a standard scale and it finally tips over at that level in 2012 towards sophisticated. So the trend is good for autocracy and bad for democracy.”

“And if you examined by who’s the most sophisticated as of 2015 it would be Vietnam. If you looked at who has changed the most over time – it would be Singapore.”

“But then Myanmar has a substantial increase when they decided to release Aung San Suu Kyi, and undertake liberalization, which included holding competitive elections.”

“Cambodia is moving upwards and then it flatlines in 2005. So it’s not inevitable that they become more sophisticated, there’s a lot of variation over an extended period of time.”

“Myanmar is a wave up and down on line chart and Brunei never goes anywhere (maintains a flatline).”

“Malaysia is one of the more fascinating things that I found – So Malaysia has one of the sharpest decreases seen in all of the data (towards retrograde) – once Najib Razak gets in power in 2009, he starts to do certain things that are retrograde and the score plummets.”

“I compared that to Indonesia and the Philippines – so these are the only two cases of democratisation – whereby they have switched from autocratic to democratic governance.”

“Whereas in Indonesia Suharto ruled for 31 years he never made a shift towards sophisticated authoritarianism, it begins here in 1967 and ends there in 1998.”

“In the Philippines here you have a case where Marcos engineering a move towards sophisticated authoritarianism, but it ends in 1981 and it starts to go down and then he loses power in 1986.”

“And that’s what I saw in Malaysia and this is what we are starting to see in Cambodia – so if I was going to make any future predictions – the data suggests a trend that regimes are at risk of losing power if they don’t become more sophisticated.”


Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Image MCI

The research has identified techniques that sophisticated authoritarian regimes employ to gain advantages and retain power, such as permitting opposition parties, stacking opposition parties and legislatures with loyalists and holding competitive elections that have skewed playing fields.

“So if you take elections for example – a lot of the research shows if you hold ‘competitive elections’ (skewed to government) as opposed to one party elections with no competition, over the long term that will provide you stability,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“The election is merely just one indicator of what I call sophisticated authoritarianism. And there is a whole bunch of other ways that you can be sophisticated as opposed to retrograde.”

“Elections are important but they are scheduled infrequently, they are only every 4 to 6 years. So you have got a lot of work to do in between them. And whether you have a legislature that involves opposition parties, as opposed to not involving them, this is a sign of a different quality of authoritarianism.”

“Or you can get even the step further if you can have fake opposition parties in the legislature. So you stack it (with loyalists), you just get them to run in the election and they take some vote share away from the opposition.”

“And you get them to sit in the legislature and they ask you soft-ball questions and it all looks all very representative of a healthy party system, but really underlying it, it’s not very representative at all.”

“While elections are important, some autocratic regimes don’t use them for legitimacy. They don’t care what the United States or the European Union thinks about them.”

“Instead they might employ a public relations firm in Washington DC to advocate on their behalf. Or they might employ a cyber-army or troll-army to spread positive propaganda about them, and to me, that is another sign of sophistication.”


Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Image AP

In the case of Cambodia and Prime Minister Hun Sen, they are classified in the research as a retrograde regime, after an earlier sophisticated classification that was prior to 2005. And Prime Minister Sen is currently the world’s longest serving prime minister who arrived in office in 1985.

“Cambodia was sophisticated up until to about 2005-2006, and then the data I have collected shows that the quality of autocratic rule has declined. And it is now in what I would call the retrograde category,“ said Dr Morgenbesser.

“The things that they’ve done, I mean the crackdown and the sham election is a good example. Vladimir Putin for example, is on the record saying you don’t want to win 99% of the election, you want to win 70% because it’s far more credible.”

“And yet here we have Hun Sen in Cambodia, after five competitive elections disbanding the opposition party and claiming they have won every seat in the parliament.“

“To me, that’s a very regressive strategy to employ. It keeps him in power, but it doesn’t convince anyone of anything.”


Singapore’s Former PM Lee Kuan Yew, Image Ummid

In Singapore, the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was one of the longest-serving PMs in history (1952-1990) and his regime the People’s Action Party (PAP) is classified in the research as sophisticated competitive. Dr Morgenbesser explains he employed sophisticated techniques of lawsuits against opposition leaders to keep them occupied.

“So I mean the better strategy that Lee Kuan Yew mastered in Singapore, was to use a ‘libel or defamation suit’, and Hun Sen was using them and does still use them against Sam Rainsy, the other opposition leader. To just bankrupt them and tie them up in courts which you control,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“It suggests that the opposition leader is at fault because of the court. The supposedly independent court, police force and security force is charging them with a crime. So it puts the onus on the opposition leader to prove his innocence.”

“There is a documented history in South-East Asia of this technique being used. And yet in the last couple of years, Hun Sen the dictator (in Cambodia) stopped using it or he chose another step.”


Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Image AP

Dr Morgenbesser has found that authoritarianism is currently stable in eight countries in South-East Asia, with the exceptions of Philippines, Indonesia and East Timor. And because of the rising level of sophistication in these autocracies citizens tend to have less civil rights and liberties than previously.

“It depends how you measure this, but it’s very hard to disagree with the fact that eight out of eleven countries in South-East Asia have authoritarian rule. So Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam are autocratic. And they have different kinds of authoritarian regimes,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“And then you have got Philippines and Indonesia what we call electoral democracies. They are not full-fledged liberal democracies as they are deficient in some way. And then you can probably put East Timor in that category as well. So yes there is eight to three, but also the region has never been known for democracy.”

“What’s happening is you have less civil rights and civil liberties than previously, but the balance between the number of autocratic and democratic countries is fairly stable.”


“The big question mark is what is going to happen in Malaysia now after the regime lost last year?
And people had (democratic) hopes in Myanmar, after Aung San Suu Kyi won in 2015 – but I think those hopes were misplaced.”


United Malays National Organisation, Img MalaysianInsider

While most governments in South-East Asia prefer authoritarianism over liberal democracy – because they know they can remain in power longer using autocracy – occasionally parties will give up power or lose power and then compete in democratic elections.

“There is a debate out there about what is called ‘successor parties’, so this is the idea that former autocratic ruling parties sometimes give up power to compete in a democratic system,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“And so Malaysia’s ruling coalition, The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), they are in this phase at the moment. So they lost power rather than giving it up and now they are going to compete in a hopefully more democratic system.”

“Myanmar is a good example, the military junta lost the election in 1990 and just refused to give up power to Aung San Suu Kyi from the National League for Democracy. And then they lost power in 2015 and they gave it up that time.”

“There are certainly instances where they don’t give it up and they do give it up. But if you are clever enough or sophisticated enough – you should have won the election before the election day – basically because you have skewed the playing field.”


Malaysian Former Opposition Anwar Ibrahim, Image AFP

If a country is serious about leadership change, firstly ensuring the opposition partly has a credible leader who is charismatic and critical, and one who articulates their understanding of other autocratic leadership challenges and successes in other countries is needed.

“There are other ways you can run far more sort of effective campaigns where you give people a reason to vote for the opposition as a credible alternative (sounds cheesy) but you provide some hope that the opposition might win,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“Which is what happened in Malaysia last year – and it is not something that necessarily happens a lot in South-East Asia, where some opposition leaders aren’t very good, they are not critical enough, they are too moderate – they haven’t learned the lessons of success elsewhere.“

“When I say there is a lot of variation in autocratic regimes, there is a lot of variation in opposition in South-East Asia and they are not all fighting for democracy, they are not all credible – some are better than others.”

“And in Malaysia, the media landscape isn’t as dominated as you would see in Vietnam or Laos or even Cambodia. So there is space for the opposition to work. Facebook, What’s App and other social media tools are critical here.”

“And learning from opposition parties – so there has been a lot of work on what we call ‘electoral revolutions’, so where the regime steals the election or manipulates the election, even when the opposition is supposed to win.”

“And then you get mass protests on the Street and the army starts to question their loyalty. So learning from those experiences like particularly in Eastern Europe and Central Europe and taking lessons from success elsewhere and applying it to your country. I think is really important.”


UN Human Rights Council, Image UN JMF

One new technique uncovered that indicates a higher level of regime sophistication is the creation and deployment of government organised non-government organisations (GONGOs).

“So one technique we have seen are these things called GONGOs – Government Organised Non-Government Organisations,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“So we have NGOs everywhere right and in Australia we have proper NGOs. But in some autocratic regimes, the government creates NGOs that look independent. But behind the scenes, beneath the surface, they’re receiving funding and instructions from the government.”

“And you can occasionally see loyalists or prior loyalists staffing these things. Cause the idea is you create this impression that civil society is vibrant because it has so many different organisations. They can be environmental or occasionally human rights or economic actors.”

“There is a couple of things here in relation to sophistication – 1. Have they created GONGOs and do they operate domestically? And you occasionally see an even more sophisticated thing – 2. Do the GONGOs travel overseas?” Dr Morgenbesser asked.

“One thing the Chinese Communist Party is very good at is sending GONGOs to the Human Rights Council in Geneva (World Conference on Human Rights), and disrupting discussion or criticism of China’s human rights policies and human rights actions.”

“As for the UN, it’s a bit harder to get associate status. But there is some GONGO operation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. And I think it’s only going to get worse.”

Another sophisticated technique employed is the commissioning of reputable public relation firms for communication pieces that blur the lines of reality and advocate for regime legitimacy.

“And the other one I look at is whether they employed a public relations firm and how long they have done that since?” Dr Morgenbesser asked.

“I ask do they fund a think-tank in Washington DC? – so the Vietnamese Communist Party has funded the Heritage Foundation, which is a very prominent conservative think-tank – and the Heritage Foundation has written reports about the US-Vietnamese relationship and completely white-washed Vietnam’s Human Rights record.”

If you’re an opposition leader in an autocracy it can be damaging to your reputation and dangerous for your personal wellbeing from physical intimidation tactics and being detained with house arrest. But in competitive systems, there are steps that clever opposition leaders can take to improve their chances for success.

“Safety at the individual level is difficult and it all depends on the nature of the political system. In these hegemonic countries (Cambodia/Myanmar) there is no credible opposition – so if you wanted to be one and you came out and said it, you wouldn’t last too long,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“So it’s in the competitive systems, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, are good examples – your best chance the research shows is if you coalesce with other opposition leaders.”

“So forget about taking on the regime party as just one opposition party. You need to build coalitions before elections, for example, two or three coalitions of the major parties, not the minor insignificant ones, and you need to pool resources.”

“You need to agree on one first candidate, don’t have two opposition leaders, you have one that is the major one. You need to build an organisation that serves both parties, write a manifesto and pick an emblem that is representative of both.”

“All of these sorts of things have been shown to help – and this happened in Malaysia last year – to increase your chances of defeating the ruling party, but only in competitive systems. And having some international support helps.”

A fair degree of patience is also required for opposition leaders to shift the balance of power as it takes time to build momentum, sometimes decades, and other aspects such as election law changes, economic downturns and corruption scandals can align together to bring regime change.

“Timing is also important – the evidence shows that to bring about democratic change, it’s a cumulative process. So in Malaysia for example, it was a 20-year effort to unseat the ruling party. So it doesn’t happen like in just one election you need to build momentum and credibility over time,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“You need to work within the system to change it. So yes the system is autocratic, but if you slowly push for incremental changes around election laws, for example, it has been shown to boost your chances down the track by making the system more competitive.”

“And then sometimes it’s just the perfect opportunity – so in Malaysia, Najib Razak (Prime Minister) was embroiled in a massive corruption scandal.”

“So when you have a scandal timed with an economic downturn, timed with an opposition coalition, you have got this perfect trifecta of everything coming together – but coordinating that over the course of several years is very difficult.”

Another sophisticated technique employed involves Internet clamp-downs on social media, and when this is combined with out-of-bounds topics that are socially unacceptable and fake-news laws, it becomes more difficult for opposition leaders.

“What we have learnt is social media is important, and there are ways to clamp down on it, but you can’t do it at the spur of the moment you have to know in advance it’s going to be necessary,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“It’s happened in Myanmar in the 2007 Saffron revolution, so this was starting to be spoken about the revolution in social media and the regime just shut the Internet off.”

“It does happen but you need to have an arrangement with the ISPs beforehand. And you need to have the physical infrastructure in place. So the level of control over the Internet in the project is a measure of regime quality.”

“Singapore is very sophisticated – they have never got to the point where they have to shut the Internet off. And there are instances of them criticizing dissidents and opposition leaders on social media.”

“The thing that they are better at is creating informal out-of-bounds rules. So in Singapore, you cannot talk about opposition party history, cause that would be a front to the nationalist message about the role of the PAP.”

“You can’t talk about homosexuality and gay rights. And they passed a fake news law earlier this year which gives members of the cabinet the power to sue people that they think are expressing fake news, which is extraordinarily arbitrary.”

“The forward-thinking of these autocratic regimes is a fundamental way of telling whether they are sophisticated or retrograde.”

In terms of the opposing forces of autocracy and democracy and the implications for Australia’s national security with having eight authoritarian regimes as neighbours – it must be a concern to the Australian government for regional stability and for the safety of Australian citizens who travel in South-East Asia.

“I think there are three concerns – Number 1. Is all the research shows that autocratic regimes are more repressive and more likely to develop nuclear weapons – by simple arithmetic, the more autocratic regimes we have in the region the more unstable it will be,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“Number 2. Is the more autocratic regimes we have in the region, the more dangerous it is for tourists and researchers travelling in South-East Asia. And there has been a spate of cases recently in China with people under espionage charges – it’s not South-East Asia, but it’s dangerous.”

“And the fact that the rule of law is arbitrarily applied, that means there is a certain level of unpredictability and Australian foreign policy doesn’t really function on unpredictability.”

“And so that is going to make it harder for the Federal Government to maintain a safe region for businesses, tourists and researchers and whatever it might be.”

“And Number 3. Is the emerging concern – which is this idea of ‘authoritarian influence’, whereby autocratic regimes, such as China and Russia, are trying to influence domestic politics in democratic countries and they’re doing it in very subtle ways.”

“South-East Asia autocratic regimes are very different to China in terms of that capacity and interest in doing so. But, if China’s efforts are perceived as successful, it might encourage other autocratic regimes to try and influence domestic politics in democratic countries.”

The opposition leaders in South-East Asia can benefit from this research as it’s the first time a longitudinal study of this kind has been done that outlines the key techniques and sophisticated trends of different regimes, over four decades, and the similarities and differences between regimes.

“And on the differences between competitive and hegemonic regimes, so initially competitive regimes were more sophisticated, but then these hegemonic regimes have caught up over time. They are very similar now – which is something I didn’t expect,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“If the quality of the regime decreases (less sophistication) and at the same time the opposition is clever enough to learn and adapt – these two forces can’t meet in the middle one has to overtake the other – I think there is hope for the opposition.

To learn more about the rise of sophisticated authoritarianism in South-East Asia, Dr Lee Morgenbesser will be releasing a book shortly on this topic with an extensive analysis of the theoretical framework and research findings, or alternatively you can contact him for more information.
Feature Image: Marina Bay Singapore, Image Mandarin Oriental

Related Reading:

Journal of Democracy:
‘Cambodia’s Transition to Hegemonic Authoritarianism’

Griffith News:
The troubling reality of Southeast Asia’s ‘democratic recession’