The liberal order’s illiberal turn: implications for Southeast Asia

By Lee Sue-Ann, Senior Fellow, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute

The clash of online opinions surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reveals support for pro-Russia, pro-Putin narratives in Southeast Asia. Untangling why such rhetoric is attractive points to deep dissatisfaction with the existing liberal international order, and, as Lee Sue-Ann writes, Southeast Asia can play a part in helping the world avoid worse alternatives.

More than a few commentators have puzzled over the strong resonance of pro-Russia, pro-Putin narratives in Southeast Asia, despite the still unfolding horrors of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Some common threads in the analyses on netizen responses to the war in Ukraine in Singapore, the Philippines, IndonesiaMalaysia and Vietnam are the intense criticism of ‘Western’ hypocrisy, the highlighting of double standards and likening of past US military actions in Iraq and elsewhere to Russia’s moves. There has been much speculation over whether such anti-West, pro-Russia narratives may have been stoked by Russian and possibly even Chinese disinformation operations to undermine Western leadership of the liberal international order. Certainly, some researchers have found indicators to suggest that this is indeed the case.

But it is too simplistic to credit such sentiments to nefarious disinformation operations alone. There is a genuine undercurrent of discontent within Asia and elsewhere into which these narratives have tapped. The simple fact is that the liberal international order is broken. More disconcertingly, it has taken an illiberal turn which has become more apparent as it becomes increasingly intolerant of alternative perspectives.

The narratives propagated by President Putin and President Xi have resonated strongly because many people support their calling out Western elites for their hypocrisy. In his televised message justifying his military actions in Ukraine, President Putin accused Western powers of having an attitude of ’absolute superiority’, practising a kind of ’modern absolutism’ coupled with the ‘low cultural standards and arrogance [in pushing] through decisions that suit only themselves.’ In his seminal speech in July 2021 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi had expressed similar sentiments when he vowed that China, while remaining open to learning lessons from other cultures, will not ’accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us.’ In many countries where experiences of colonialism have fostered deep cynicism towards the West, such narratives contain more than a modicum of truth.

But outside the polarised echo chambers online, there are grounds for confidence that Southeast Asian countries, sitting at the crosshairs of great power competition, can see past the rhetoric of moral outrage on both sides and are clear-eyed about the hard truths of realpolitik at play. The region has seen, not infrequently, the inconsistencies between Western words and actions, and the seeming imposition of double standards by Western commentators. This was highlighted recently by the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia Siswo Pramono, who responded to criticisms of Indonesia’s invitation of President Putin to the upcoming G20 summit by pointing out that Australia had made a similar decision in 2014, notwithstanding Russia’s annexation of Crimea at that time. Southeast Asian countries have also increasingly felt the brunt of China’s assertive moves and pressure tactics both on the ground and at diplomatic fora over the South China Sea dispute.

It should be apparent to Southeast Asians in general that the models of governance represented by Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China are not necessarily attractive alternatives to the existing international order. If the current international order crumbles, the outcome could well be a reversion to the anarchy of ethno-nationalism and neo-imperialism that was experienced prior to the second World War.

The liberal international order in essence stresses pluralism, tolerance, mutual respect, self-determination and the predictability of international rules and norms. It has been a means to keep the peace amidst a diversity of worldviews and convictions. In many respects, one does not need to subscribe to Western cultural or societal values to support and appreciate the liberal international order.

The decision by ASEAN members Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand to abstain from the UN vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, despite having voted earlier to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, should be understood in this context. As Singapore’s former ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan put it – the exclusion of a member state from a UN body is ’only to be undertaken after thorough preparation and scrupulous adherence to correct procedure.’ In Singapore’s view, it was of vital importance to uphold the integrity of the rules-based international system and its due processes. It was therefore premature to have voted to suspend Russia before the investigations into Russia’s alleged violations of human rights in Ukraine were concluded.

In the same vein, the decision by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to invite both Russia and Ukraine to the upcoming G20 Summit should be supported. Though inviting President Putin was clearly not the decision that the US and its European allies had wanted, it should be read as an effort to uphold the proper functioning of the multilateral forum and respect the fact that there was no consensus among the member states regarding Russia’s exclusion.

Globally and across Asia, the online sentiments surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been deeply polarising. The danger is that this split leads us to think in false dichotomies and conflate issues. Putin’s criticisms of the current liberal order ring true in some respects, but they do not justify an unprovoked attack on another sovereign nation or blind disregard for international norms and laws. Russia’s military actions in Ukraine have resulted in many atrocities, but they do not justify retaliation through the hijacking of due processes in international institutions. The challenge for Southeast Asian nations is how to do their part to facilitate constructive conversations and reforms that will build up and not further undermine the only international order we have.

Lee Sue-Ann is a Senior Fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute and Director of the Media, Technology and Society Programme.

Banner image: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at welcoming ceremony for Chinese President Xi Jinping, Moscow, Russia - June 5, 2019. Credit: Kremlin.

This article originally appeared on the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on May 6, 2022.