Populism, identity and the
state of democracy in Southeast Asia

1 News political journalist Katie Bradford reports on her experience on the East-West Center’s Jefferson Fellowship, which saw her learning about recent political developments in Southeast Asia.

OPINION: When I say being a Jefferson Fellow is one of the best experiences of my life, I’m not exaggerating.

The theme this year was “Populism, Identity and the State of Democracy in Southeast Asia”. The topic was timely and infinitely interesting, especially following recent elections in Malaysia and ongoing tension in the Philippines.

This year’s three-week trip saw 11 fellows from America, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Cambodia, the Philippines, India and New Zealand travel to Hawaii, Singapore, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu.

The politics, history and culture of every place we visited was fascinating. Aside from Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, I had visited every location previously, but the Fellowship provided an entirely different view from my usual trips covering trips by New Zealand's prime minister. 

In Manila, we met priests, journalists, activists, the defence ministry, and President Rodrigo Duterte’s right-hand man, Harry Roque. All of those meetings provided us with fascinating views of the past and present political turmoil, and some scary insights into where it may be heading. The political system is complicated for such a “new” country; the Philippines is politically divided and torn about the direction it wants to head in. 

In Malaysia, we could sense the excitement about the opportunities provided by the first ever change in government. In some ways, it felt like New Zealand last year after power changed hands, but it was a far more momentous occasion for Malaysia. 

People were energised and optimistic about what a new democracy might bring – and hopeful. In Kuala Lumpur we met a new, young MP, Fahmi Fadzil, who was excited at what being in power might mean for the future of his country.

Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the state of Sabah, showed a different side of Malaysia. Sabah culture is different from mainland Malaysia and people seemed far warier about what a new government might mean for them – and whether anything would change. They were far more cynical, and in some ways more realistic, about politics in their country. Some spoke of the potential opportunity for Sabah and Sarawak to split from the rest of Malaysia.

Katie Bradford and co with fake tattoos at mari cultural centre

Katie Bradford (third from left) and the 2018 Jefferson Fellows at Mari Mari cultural village in Sabah, Malaysia.

Culturally, Kota Kinabalu was an amazing place to visit. We met with Anne Lasimbang from the PACOS Trust – a group that deals with indigenous groups and natural resource management, teaching people about how to use their land. We also went on a Klias river cruise and visited the Mari Mari cultural village to see how indigenous cultures have lived for many years.

In order to understand the politics of a country and how it got to where it is, it seems to me crucial that you understand its cultures – and that’s what this Fellowship provided.
From a New Zealand perspective, the many discussions about security concerns and counter-terrorism in the Asia-Pacific region were also of relevance.

I’m fascinated by where politics in the Philippines and Malaysia may head in the next few years. It would be great to go back to Malaysia in a couple of years to interview some of the people and see if they still feel as enthused and hopeful about where their nation is heading as they did in July 2018.

The ‘What is News Now’ conference

Part of this year’s Jefferson Fellowship involved travelling to Singapore to attend the East-West Center’s “What is News Now” conference.
This was a great opportunity to meet new people and hear how media is changing around Asia-Pacific region. Fake news was a big topic of discussion - how the media is affected by it and what is being done to counter it. The conference was also a good chance to hear from other journalists working in the region about the challenges they face, from censorship to gender barriers.

As one of only three Kiwi journalists there, it also allowed me to see how lucky we are in many ways. We have a media largely free from interference, political or otherwise, and our political system is stable and democratic.

Great access and true connections
One of the most incredible parts of being an East-West Center Fellow is the access to experts all over the globe. During our first week in Hawaii, we had the opportunity to hear from, and question, everyone from the Director of the East-West Center in Washington DC to the Lieutenant-General of Hawaii. We had lunch with two Hawaiian Republican representatives, who provided an eye-opening view of local politics. We were also lucky enough to experience the culture and history of Hawaii

group standing in front of the Pearl Harbour Memorial

Katie Bradford and 2018 Jefferson Fellows at the Pearl Harbour Memorial in Hawaii.

By far the most important and special part of being a Jefferson Fellow is the people I met, and the friendships made.

Many of those we spoke to and interviewed I can see being useful for future stories. I learnt so much about a variety of topics and it was an incredible feeling to be learning all day, every day, for three weeks (we had one day off!).

Connecting with 10 other journalists from around the region gave me the opportunity to learn so much about their politics, media, culture and interests. When we weren’t “in session”, we spent hours talking together on buses, planes or over breakfast, lunch and dinner. I feel privileged to know I now have those friends for life.

At every opportunity since I returned home I’ve told people about this experience. And I recommend every journalist jump at the opportunity to become a “Jeff” if they have the chance.

Katie Bradford’s participation in the 2018 Jefferson Fellowship was funded by the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

 This article was first published on the Foundation's Asia Media Centre