Trashing the ASEAN Brand

Three of Southeast Asia's most important states – Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia – are raising serious doubts about their commitment to the rule of law, the integrity of their judicial systems, and the quality of mercy in the administration of justice. Worse, their political backsliding jeopardizes the entire region's prospects.

CANBERRA – Having a reputation for integrity and decency matters as much in international relations as in professional and personal life. States that are so regarded consistently punch above their weight – witness the Scandinavians. By contrast, those that never earn – or fritter away – such a reputation can seriously endanger their own interests, jeopardizing trade, tourism, foreign investment, political support in international forums and negotiations, and the security of their own nationals abroad.

Three of Southeast Asia's most important states – Malaysia, Thailand, and now Indonesia – have brought trouble on themselves in this respect in recent months. All three are raising serious doubts, in different ways, about their commitment to the rule of law, the integrity of their judicial systems, and the quality of mercy in the administration of justice.

In Malaysia, the country's highest court last month rejected opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's appeal against a five-year prison sentence and a ban against running for public office for a further five years – a shocking and indefensible decision. Prime Minister Najib Razak's government was transparently vindictive in pursuing allegations of sodomy (a crime rarely prosecuted in Malaysia) against Anwar. The evidence against him was obviously inconclusive; and the court's acceptance of it was manifestly craven.

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