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The Politics of Accountability in Southeast Asia: The Dominance of Moral Ideologies

23 Feb 2015
Reviewer Professor Kanishka Jayasuriya

This path-breaking and innovative book by Rodan and Hughes tackles one of the most important questions in comparative politics: why has accountability become such a crucial issue in politics? The authors set out to analyze, with Southeast Asian examples, the ideas behind this accountability agenda, and what interest drives it, and, importantly, its implications for political mobilisation. This is one of those rare books that, while grounded in a detailed and rigorous empirical analysis, makes a substantial theoretical contribution to understanding of the politics of accountability.

In essence, the book goes beyond the technocratic rationales for accountability: a view of accountability as a kind of ‘public good’ the supply of which is supposed to benefit everyone. Rodan and Hughes see accountability as a set of ideological and political practices that need to be located in the context of a broader set of social and political structures whose effects are to legitimise certain forms of political action. The authors argue that, far from being neutral, accountability (or rather varieties of accountability practice and ideology) is the stuff of political conflict. In other words, accountability agendas are ideologically mobilised and organised around political and social coalitions whose interest it serves. The implementation of its governing architecture privileges certain modes of political action over others and, as such, these practices constrain some forms of collective mobilisation and disperses contentious issues to technocratic institutions within the state.  The originality of this argument lies in the idea that accountability institutions are about the ‘politics of politics’ serving to organise issues and conflict out of politics.

In their argument they distinguish between various forms of accountability: liberal, democratic and moral accountability. The book makes the important point that the distinctive trajectories of Southeast Asian polities have been shaped by the Cold War which significantly weakened the capacities and institutions for political mobilisation in a civil society that is ‘…primarily urban, middle class, and professional, with links to mass constituencies’.  This historical background means that accountability practices and ideologies are used by political elites to legitimate modes of political regulation and restrain collective political action.

Hence the development of capitalism and the state in Southeast Asia makes the region highly propitious for the development of what the authors term ‘moral ideologies of accountability’. This is a very original contribution and includes ‘the idea that personal behavior is core to the critique of the performance or political elites and public officials; and that poor performance by officials and elites is fundamentally the result of personal rather than political failings.’. In the Singapore case, they argue that these moral ideologies of accountability have buttressed the political dominance of the People’s Action Party (PAP).

The authors have selected case studies across Southeast Asia – the book draws on detailed empirical case studies of Cambodia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore – to explore the way the ideologies of liberal, democratic and moral accountability have played out in various contexts. It important to note that these ideologies are not mutually exclusive. These case studies are rich in detail and worth the price of admission in itself, but they all paint a rather depressing picture of how moral ideologies of accountability buttress anti-democratic forces and coalitions.

The exemplar of these moral ideologies is the way these notions have been used in Thailand by the anti-democratic and Royalist forces (‘the yellow shirts’) to wrest control from political forces and movements founded by former leader Thaksin. There is a great quote in the book from a red shirt taxi driver to  academic and activist Walden Bello that sums up the politics of accountability: ‘The  Bangkok rich think we are stupid people who can’t be trusted with democratic choice. We know what we doing. So yes, they say Thaksin is corruption. But he is for us and he’s proven it’.

This is a path-breaking book that illuminates the changing texture of Southeast Asian politics and at the same time provides a broader theoretical contribution to the analysis of the global spread of accountability agendas.  The theoretical contribution, particularly the analysis of moral ideologies of accountability, goes way beyond the analysis of Southeast Asian politics and is an example what I call ‘global social science’.  In this book, case studies of Southeast Asia provides the basis for a broader theoretical contribution to the analysis of the politics  of accountability  that is as  applicable to Australia as it is to Indonesia.  This highly-innovative book opens a fertile research agenda on the politics of accountability.

Professor Garry Rodan and Professor Caroline Hughes, The Politics of Accountability in Southeast Asia: The Dominance of Moral Ideologies, 2014, Oxford University Press.

Reviewed by Professor Kanishka Jayasuriya, Professor of Politics and International Studies and Director of the Indo-Pacific Governance Research Centre (IPGRC), University of Adelaide.