Elites and Regimes in Comparative Perspective: Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia



Because of the diversity that characterizes politics in Southeast Asia, area specialists hasve lacked a framework for comparative analysis. Drawing on some of the recent transitions literature, this article argues the worth of investigating political regime forms, the extent to which a country's politics are stable or unstable and democratic or authoritarian. It then focuses on three important Southeast Asian countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand — analyzing stabilitylinstability in terms of state elites and their rules of the game, while considering democracylauthoriturianism in terms of societal audiences and legitimating “mentalities.” Briefly, Indonesia's authoritarian regime (and its strong appearance of stability) is attributed to astute personalist leadership, muted elite rivalries, and control over societal audiences. In contrast, Thailand's unstable democracy emerges from uneven national leadership, perennial elite disunity, and episodic surges in societal pressures. And Malaysia's semi-democratic regime — in some ways bordered by the outcomes in Indonesia and Thailand — is explained by skilful national leadership and sustained elite unity, offsetting the country's ftuctuating levels of societal tensions and claims.