Southeast Asia's Democracy Index Struggles, Malaysia Highest in 40th Place with 'Flawed Democracy'

Southeast Asia's Democracy Index Struggles, Malaysia Highest in 40th Place with 'Flawed Democracy'

Asia remains the world's most dynamic region in terms of economic growth, but it continues to lag in terms of democratization. According to the latest Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Democracy Index 2023, released on Thursday, February 15, South Asia and Southeast Asia scored the lowest of any sub-region on the continent.

The index comprises five criteria: electoral process and pluralism, government functioning, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties.

In Southeast Asia, Malaysia emerges as the top among eleven countries but only ranks 40th out of a total of 167 countries globally in the Democracy Index. With a score of 7.29 out of 10, Malaysia experienced a slight decline compared to the previous year's score of 7.30. In the Asia and Australasia region, Malaysia ranks sixth, below Israel, Botswana, and Italy, also categorized as a "flawed democracy."

Other Southeast Asian countries listed in this index include Timor-Leste (ranked 45th), the Philippines (ranked 53rd), Indonesia (ranked 56th with a score of 6.53), Thailand (ranked 63rd), Singapore (ranked 69th), Vietnam (ranked 136th), Laos (ranked 159th), and Myanmar (ranked 166th).

These countries are labeled as flawed democracies, where although they conduct free and fair elections and protect basic civil rights, there are significant weaknesses in other areas, such as governance, underdeveloped political culture, and low levels of political participation.

Malaysia achieves the highest score in the electoral process and pluralism with a score of 9.58 but performs worst in civil liberties with a score of 5.88. When compared to neighbors like Indonesia and Singapore, as well as its former colonizer, Japan, Malaysia excels in the electoral process. However, countries like Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, and Singapore score higher in terms of civil liberties.

On the other hand, the report mentions that Thailand, which dropped eight places to 63rd, is still influenced by the military presence and is far from being free, fair, and competitive.

The EIU states in its report that assessing Asia and Australasia based on sub-regions reveals significant disparities in governance quality, democratic freedoms, and social cohesion in the region. South Asia and Southeast Asia previously scored the lowest among all sub-regions on the continent, and declines in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand have exacerbated the lag in these two regions.

The report also notes that one reason for Asia's decline in recent years is the erosion of civil liberties. Some governments cite concerns about national security and social stability to justify restrictions on freedom of speech and the media.

Overall, out of 165 independent countries and two territories, 50 countries are classified as flawed democracies, while only 24 countries are considered full democracies, including Greece, which has returned to the full democracy category.

In the Asia and Australasia region, more than half of the total, 15 countries, saw their scores decline, while only eight countries managed to improve their scores. On a global scale, however, the situation is no better. In 2023, the global democracy score fell to 5.23 from 5.29 the previous year, marking a new low since the EIU Index was launched in 2006.

Globally, only 32 countries managed to improve their Index scores in 2023, although in many cases the gains were small and often from low positions. Meanwhile, 68 countries saw their Index scores decline.

The EIU assigns "full democracy" status to countries that score 8 or above. Meanwhile, those in the range of 7.99 to 5.99 are termed "flawed democracy." Countries that score between 5.99 and 3.96, they are classified as "hybrid regimes," indicating a tendency toward authoritarian governance.

Overall, Norway leads with the highest score (9.81), followed by New Zealand (9.61), Iceland (9.45), Sweden (9.39), and Finland (9.30). The Democracy Index report analyzes the relationship between democracy, peace, and current geopolitical conflict triggers.

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