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Constitutional Challenges in Southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia is one of the most ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse parts of the world. Significantly, all states in Southeast Asia – with the exception of Thailand – were once colonies of the various European powers. The design and operation of a constitutional framework for survival and good governance was a crucial challenge to both the departing colonial authorities and the nationalists charged with leading their states to independence.

On 18 April 2018, Dr Kevin Tan, Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU and Adjunct Professor at the Faculty of Law, NUS, looked at the kinds of challenges faced by constitutional drafters during the period of decolonisation and discussed how these were addressed.
Dr Tan first talked about how most of Southeast Asia, a region with diverse cultures and traditions that lacks homogeneity, share a common historical experience of colonisation. Colonisation affected the way countries thought about the law and continues to be influential today.

Dr Tan argues that colonialism is the most important influence on how most Southeast Asian countries formed their laws and crafted their constitutions. This can be seen in the imposition of foreign law by adapting these to local conditions, the marginalisation of indigenous law and the crafting of the constitution during the de-colonisation process.

How the 11 countries’ experiences with constitutional reform differ from each other, Dr Tan argues, is due to the varying degrees of the influence of Communism, and the moments of revolutions and evolution in their respective modern histories.

When the influence of Communism reached the region, particularly the Indo-Chinese states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Marxist concepts of law and legality were introduced. Revolutions, which signify a major break from the past, have rocked some countries in the region as well, shaping each state’s constitution accordingly.

However, decades after independence from colonial masters and of evolution, countries in the region continue to face some challenges. While most claim to uphold the rule of law, some states have parties powerful enough to be above the law. Some states may also not have the sufficient support to facilitate the rule of law. With some countries being made up of various ethnicities and religions, scattered across archipelagos, fractions among societies also present the challenge of ensuring that society functions. The military is also a formidable enough force in many Southeast Asian nations, that their role has to be considered.

The talk ended with Dr Tan addressing the audience’s questions which included discussions on how countries, like India and China, deal with challenges regarding their constitution and the influential parties that affect them, contrasting that with the experience of Southeast Asian countries.

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