The Odd Couple: Modernization and Democratization in Southeast Asia

By Nicholas Anderson
Cornell International Affairs Review
2011, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 1/2 |


Seymour Martin Lipset's, "the more well-to-do a nation, the greater chances that it will sustain democracy,"1 has set off over five decades of intense debate over the conditions most conducive to democratic transition and establishment. Variations of what has become known as the modernization theory have been applied to innumerable cases in a variety of ways, in attempts to test its validity. In the process, Southeast Asia (SEA) has emerged as a region which seemingly defies the general thrust of this theory.2 With both incredibly rich authoritarian regimes and incredibly poor democracies, on the surface the modernization theory doesn't seem to apply.

Yet, despite what appear to be a number of exceptions to the modernization theory in Southeast Asia, it still carries great weight in explaining the state of democracy in the region. While leaders and other powerful political figures surely make a difference, individual agency seems to be secondary to socioeconomic development.3 I will begin by describing the modernization theory of democratization and presenting some data to bolster its validity. With this theoretical base, we will then move into the region at hand and show how each of the eleven cases examined,4 in their own way, validates the theory. I will then conclude by discussing some of the implications of the analysis with respect to the future of democracy in Southeast Asia.

Modernization Theory of Democratization

The modernization theory of democratization's central claim is that higher levels of socioeconomic development will make states more likely to transition to, and sustain democratic forms of government. At its core, it is really a theory about power relations. In poor societies with authoritarian leadership, power is concentrated in the hands of the few at the top, resembling what Lipset calls an "elongated pyramid."5 With the increased individual wealth that comes with state modernization, power becomes increasingly diffuse, spread more evenly among the populace. To reemploy Lipset's analogy, rather than a pyramid, society begins to resemble a "diamond."6

It must be stated though, that it is not the increase in individual wealth, per se, that spurs a democratic transition. A $100 increase in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) won't automatically lead to a commensurate increase in a regime's "democraticness" in all places, at all times. Rather, it is what generally accompanies such increases, namely: a market economy; rising literacy and education levels; an increasingly affluent, urban, propertyowning middle class; temperance of class divisions; the secularization of the public sphere; and the rise of a Tocquevillian civil society.7

This newly empowered middle class is expected to push for democratic reforms within the favorable structural context created by state modernization. And if a democratic transition does take place, it will be more likely to survive with the support of this newly empowered demos.

Simply put, modernization theory predicts that, in most cases, the shift in relative bargaining power from the ruling elites to the middle class allows the latter to prevail and sets democratization in motion.8 The body of modernization theory literature though, isn't a coherent whole, as there is some debate as to whether economic modernization is more important for the initiation of democratization or for the maintenance of democracy posttransition.9 There are also competing claims over how much development is required, but commonly cited figures float around $7000 per capita GDP.10

Theorists also note that states with a per capita GDP under $1000 are highly unlikely to transition to or sustain democracy,11 and this range ($1000-$7000) of per capita wealth forms something like what Huntington refers to as "the zone of transition."12 Whatever the case may be, it seems relatively clear that Lipset's famed statement has stood the test of time, as there is broad consensus that socioeconomic development and democracy are positively related,13 and the causal arrow runs from development to democracy.14

An old aphorism warns against allowing exceptions to define general rules, and this advice should be well-heeded with regards to the modernization theory. Like anything else in social science, it is not perfect; neither a silver bullet nor a panacea. Individual agency does matter, and the mere mentioning of names such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ghandi, or Mandela attests to this fact. Yet individuals act within the context of certain levels of socioeconomic development. Popular social movements, for democracy or otherwise, are much more likely to succeed when the people are empowered with increased economic resources. In cases where social elites initiate democratic reforms, they are most often yielding to bottom-up pressure from a newly empowered middle class, rather than altruistically forfeiting their power positions. It is not that agency doesn't matter; it is that it is most often preceded by structure.

But perhaps I should allow the numbers to speak for themselves. In 2008 the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) developed an index that measures the quality of democracy in 165 states and territories around the world.15 The index scores states on a scale from zero to ten (zero being perfectly non-democratic and ten being perfectly democratic) based on a fairly rigorous set of criteria16 and characterizes regimes as "authoritarian" (0-3.9), "hybrid" (4.05.9), "flawed democracy" (6.0-7.9), and "full democracy" (8.0-10).

Looking over the data for 2008 adds credence to the modernization theory. The average GDP per capita among "full democracies" is $43,096, among "flawed democracies," $7,537, among "hybrid regimes," $4,333, and among "authoritarian" regimes, $7,801. Once primarily oil-producing economies17 are controlled for, this final category falls to $2,388 (See Figure 1).

Modernization theory predicts that, in most cases, the shift in relative bargaining power from the ruling elites to the middle class allows the latter to prevail and sets democratization in motion.

Furthermore, of 54 states with a GDP capita above $10,000, a mere 8 (15%) are authoritarian, all of which are primarily oilproducing econoimies.18 Of 69 states with a GDP/capita less than $3,000, only two (India, East Timor) have democracy scores of 7 or better. In sum, in 2008 if your GDP/capita was above $7,000, you were most likely a "flawed democracy" leaning towards "full democracy." Figure 2 shows the process of democratic development as one progresses through Huntington's "zone of transition." States with a GDP/capita between $0 and $1000 have an average democracy score of 4.04, progressing all the way up to states above $7,000, which have an average score of 7.02 (See Figure 2).

(7.02). If it was below $7,000, you were likely a

(7.02). If it was below $7,000, you were likely a "hybrid regime" leaning towards authoritarianism (4.71).

Southeast Asia

We turn now to our region of interest. Here the data seems to continue to support the modernization theory. In 2008, the average EIU democracy score of a Southeast Asian state with a per capita GDP above $7,000 was 6.69, within the "flawed democracy" range. For states below $7,000, the score drops to 4.72, a lower-level "hybrid regime" score.19

Other indices concur with the EIU findings. In the same year, the average Polity Score of a SEA state above $7,000 GDP/capita was 4.46, and below $7,000, 0.85.20 Similarly, the 2008 Freedom House combined Freedom Index scores show states with per capita GDPs above $7,000 averaging 3.87 (higher), and below $7,000, 4.93 (lower).21 The use of quantitative data in analyzing a mere twelve cases, though, can be highly misleading, so we must examine the cases individually. SEA regional states, for our purpose, can be broadly categorized three ways: those that fit the modernization theory, those that are exceptions to the modernization theory, and those in the "zone of transition." It is in this order that we will proceed.

Those that fit…

There are a number of regional states which conform nicely to the modernization theory, albeit for somewhat depressing reasons. Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar/Burma are just as autocratic as the theory would predict them to be. Cambodia's current GDP/capita rests at $805,22 its EIU democracy score is 4.87 (low-hybrid),23 and Freedom House has given it a combined score of 5.5 and labeled it "not free."24 Laos is also greatly under-developed, with a GDP/ capita of $878,25 and a corresponding EIU democracy score of 2.1 (authoritarian).26 Much like Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam also fits the theory readily.

In spite of recent impressive growth levels, it remains relatively poor (GDP/ capita $1060)27 and harshly authoritarian, with a democracy index score of 2.53.28 And unsurprisingly Burma, which has one of the most repressive governments in the world, has a per capita GDP of $45929 and a democracy index score of 1.77 (authoritarian), the fifthlowest of the entire dataset.30 As a result of their authoritarian governance then, these four states — Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar/Burma — are almost exactly as non-democratic as the modernization theory would assume.

The Exceptions…

Southeast Asia also includes a number of states which appear to be exceptions to the modernization theory. The first and most prominent is Singapore, which some insist undercuts the legitimacy of the modernization theory.31 Boasting the region's highest GDP/capita of $37,293,32 its highest human development rating (0.94),33 and its highest transparency rating (9.2),34 one would expect Singapore to have a far higher democracy score than 5.89 (hybrid).35 However, there are two very good reasons for its unexpectedly low score. The first is Singapore's massive civil service relative to its small population and territory. With a population of approximately 4.66 million, Singapore maintains a civil defense force of 522,800, totaling 11.2% of the entire populace.36

Comparatively, the closest regional state is Vietnam (6.2%),. whereas most states in the region, such as, Malaysia (1.7%), Thailand (1.0%), Indonesia (0.4%), and the Philippines (0.3%) have civil defense forces that are much smaller. Furthermore, if we add the approximately 66,000 non-defensesector civil servants to Singapore's total,37 the number swells to 12.6% of the population officially employed by the regime in power. If we imagine that each potentially has even one dependent at home, we are at nearly a quarter of the population that is structurally dependent upon the success of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). So, in this way, the PAP has successfully "co-opted the state"38 to maintain its power. The second reason for the resilience of authoritarianism in Singapore is that, since its independence in 1965, it has been afforded the rare blessing of incredibly capable authoritarian leaders. With the regions highest individual wealth, most transparent government, highest literacy rate (94.4%),39 and longest life expectancy (80.2),40 citizens have little reason to throw off their yokes and demand a democratic shift.

A view of the Singapore skyline; Singapore is considered to be an exception to modernization theory due to its resilient authoritarianism.

A view of the Singapore skyline; Singapore is considered to be an exception to modernization theory due to its resilient authoritarianism.

The next notable exception is the micro-sultanate of Brunei. With its high level of economic development (GDP/capita $26,325), the modernization theory would predict it to be more democratic than its Freedom House score suggests (combined score 5.5, "not free").

This anomaly can be explained by the fact that, like those eight highly-developed authoritarian states referred to earlier (see note 18), Brunei is quite literally "floating on oil."41 According to the CIA, crude oil and natural gas production account for over 50% of Brunei's GDP and over 90% of its exports.42 This incredible resource wealth concentrates power in the hands of the state and reverses the old axiom: "no representation without taxation."

The final exception in the region is East Timor. As one of the poorest states in Southeast Asia with a per capita GDP of $542,43 its democracy index score is surprisingly high (7.22, flawed democracy),44 as is its Polity IV score (7).45 This contradiction though, can be explained by the fact that East Timor is an embryonic state that only gained official international recognition since 2002 after breaking away from Indonesia in 1997.

The fact that it is so democratic has more to do with international pressure, aid, and norms than any natural process of development. It should also be noted that, in spite of its democratic credentials, its abysmal transparency rating of 2.2 is even worse than that of authoritarian Vietnam (2.6),46 and, according to the World Bank, its government functions at a lower level than that of Cambodia.47 So, for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons, Singapore, Brunei, and East Timor are understandable exceptions to the logic of the modernization theory.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

South Asia is not in itself the primary zone of interest of China. However, China has since long used the region’s dynamics to achieve some of its most important strategic goals. Moreover, since India wishes to establish... MORE»
Founded in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is one of the most prominent intergovernmental organizations in Asia. ASEAN's main achievement has been to unite ten countries in Southeast Asia through shared goals of regional peace and prosperity.i It attributes this success to the "ASEAN Way", of which the principle... MORE»
From 1954 to 1989, Paraguay was subject to the authoritarian regime of Alfredo Stroessner and the Colorado Party. While Stroessner came to power at a time of great economic strife, it was the most prosperous time of his regime that led to his downfall – the construction of the Itaipú hydroelectric project on the Paraguay-Brazil border. While the project gave temporary prosperity to the country, its completion led to economic stagnation... MORE»
In Federalist No. 34 Alexander Hamilton, arguing for the ratification of the United States Constitution, claimed that the Roman Republic had “attained to the utmost height of human greatness.”[1] The Roman Republic, at least an idealized version, was explicitly the model that the founding fathers looked to when developing... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in International Affairs

2022, Vol. 14 No. 04
With over 10 million stateless people globally, statelessness has increasingly become a pressing issue in international law. The production of statelessness occurs across multiple lines including technical loopholes, state succession, and discriminatory... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 09
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated current global challenges. However, this article argues that this time of crisis can also be a unique opportunity for the existing global economic institutions - G20, WTO, IMF, and World Bank (WB) - to make the... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 02
On January 1st, 1959, a small band of Cuban rebels shocked the world, overthrowing the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. These rebels were especially known for their guerrilla tactics and their leaders, such as Fidel Castro and Ernesto... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 01
Israel has increased the nation’s security presence around the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. Here, the research project analyzes how transaction costs resulting from Israeli security policy impact the output of manufacturing activities... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 09
The necessity of international relief is unending as new crises continue to emerge across the world. International aid plays a crucial role in shaping how affected communities rebuild after a crisis. However, humanitarian aid often results in a... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 10
This article aims to present the biopiracy of traditional knowledge from India by the United States, which has occurred directly through the use of patent law and indirectly through economic power and cultural imperialism. Throughout this essay,... Read Article »
2018, Vol. 10 No. 10
After joining the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004, Estonians felt secure and in charge of their future. However, following the 2007 Bronze Horseman incident in the Estonian capital of Tallinn which included... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


How to Use Regression Analysis Effectively
5 Tips for Publishing Your First Academic Article
Writing a Graduate School Personal Statement