They were the titans of their time: larger-than-life figures who, through skill and force of personality, built their homelands into modern states, lifted their populations from poverty and defended them from threats foreign and domestic. They were once so powerful they almost seemed immortal. Yet the end is finally approaching for the strongmen of Southeast Asia. Indonesia's Suharto, 86, is grievously ill; Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 80, is frail, and Malaysia's Mahathir Mohammad, 82, suffers from heart trouble. Though Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew is a hale 84, even he can't live forever.
All of which has observers wondering what comes next. Most of these patriarchs retain powerful bases in a region that, unlike Northeast Asia, remains a bastion of authoritarianism. That said, as the titans finally prepare to exit, there are signs that the old status quo is shifting. Indonesia, the first significant test case, has already abandoned the major tenets of Suharto's dictatorial New Order.
His once mighty political party, Golkar, is out of power, and his pet institution, the military, no longer enjoys a lock on politics. The current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was swept into office on an obscure ticket in free and fair elections. Of all of Suharto's legacies, corruption has been the hardest to live down. But by any other measure, the country looks radically different than it did when he retired in 1998—which helps explain why his imminent death will cause surprisingly few shockwaves.
But Indonesia is unusual in this respect. "The country has gone past Suharto, and that's a great distinction from the rest of the region," says Douglas Ramage, head of the Asia Foundation in Indonesia.
One key difference between Suharto and his comrades is that none of the other patriarchs were forced to retire in disgrace or bore the same legacy of graft (thought in Suharto's case to total an estimated $15 billion to $35 billion). Thus the influence of Mahathir, King Bhumibol and Lee remains much stronger—and their departures are likely to be more destabilizing. These men were "comrades in arms in containing forces for social and political change," says Garry Rodan of Murdoch University in Perth. All were anticommunist, antidemocratic and intermittently anti-Western. But each also embraced the idea that economic growth fueled by trade should trump other concerns. And the formula worked: from the 1970s to the 1990s, incomes in Southeast Asia skyrocketed, glittering cites rose from the jungles and the region became a vital center of resource extraction, manufacturing, trade and even finance.
The problem was that "these guys governed when personal power was in its heyday," says Bridget Welsh, an expert on Southeast Asia at Johns Hopkins. And "the heyday of personal power is [now] gone." New affluence has led to criticism of the strongmen who delivered it, as empowered and informed citizens begin to bridle at the restrictive legacies these leaders left behind.
Thus instability is a real possibility, especially in Thailand. King Bhumibol, though deeply revered as above the political fray, has in fact long played a key behind-the-scenes role holding together an alliance of palace advisers, bureaucrats and military men. But though he is personally beloved, the rural masses have lately rejected his vision of pastoral bliss that would keep them poor and down on their rice paddies. More and more Thais have embraced instead the agenda of the populist firebrand Thaksin Shinawatra, who encouraged them to think big in both political and economic terms. Elected prime minister three times before being ousted in a September 2006 coup, Thaksin is now back, albeit by proxy: through the People Power Party, which won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections last month. By backing the wrong horse—the military—in its conflict with the people, the king has revealed the limits of his power. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, calls the events since the 2006 coup a "failed restoration," adding: "It is tragic for the establishment, the palace and the military that they [couldn't] contain the forces their success has unleashed."
The king's death could spell real trouble for Thailand. Since taking the throne in 1950, Bhumibol has intervened twice (in 1981 and 1985) to prevent armed conflict between rival regions; once (in 1992) to halt the killings of unarmed pro-democracy protesters, and once (in 1997) to soothe the nerves of his subjects during great financial turmoil. Many now fear that if he passes away before the current conflict between Thaksin and the junta is resolved, it could leave the country without an arbiter. "Thais have put so much faith in the king as a political referee, it will be totally traumatic for them when he dies," says Diane Mauzy, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at Canada's University of British Columbia. "Everything could temporarily fall apart."
Such turmoil is less likely in Malaysia or Singapore when their strongmen expire, but the transitions could nonetheless prove turbulent, as figures jockey for power behind the scenes. During his long tenure (1981–2003), Mahathir turned his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) into a hugely powerful patronage machine. Mahathir's development model, though it succeeded in building First World infrastructure and eradicating abject poverty, institutionalized a bitterly controversial affirmative-action program favoring the country's ethnic Malay majority—UMNO's base—over Malaysians of Indian or Chinese origin. And it encouraged the growth of state-owned financial, IT and manufacturing conglomerates, which became bastions for massive graft.
Mahathir deserves credit for having engineered "a socioeconomic transformation," says Chandra Muzaffar, president of the Kuala Lumpur-based International Movement for a Just World. But his long-term legacy could include renewed ethnic tension and an economy hobbled by corruption. In the meantime, UMNO is fracturing. Mahathir's handpicked successor, Abdullah Badawi, took office four years ago pledging to open the political process, uproot corruption, shrink the state sector and improve race relations—all subtle ways to distance himself from his predecessor. Though he has had some success on the first point, however, Abdullah hasn't delivered much on the others and probably never will. Too many powerful figures in his party (including Mahathir's sons and several of his rivals) benefit from the way things are and keep "chopping him down to size," says UBC's Mauzy. She warns that the UMNO's factions could split if Abdullah keeps pressing for change. "They don't like each other. The next generation is going to [have] a big fight."
Something similar, though more subtle, could occur in Singapore. On the surface it seems like the most stable country in the region and best able to weather a transition. Lee Kuan Yew has, for more than four decades of Confucian tutelage, groomed a cadre of caretakers to protect and preserve a corruption-free meritocracy that is economically competitive in everything from high-end manufacturing to biotech and finance. But Lee, though retired, remains personally more powerful than his peers, continuing to call the shots in his role as "mentor minister." In part, this is because he seems more modern than the other patriarchs; unlike them, he refused to build a cult of personality or patronage. His success, however, was achieved in part by constraining opposition parties and the media. "The idea that Singapore is run by a meritocracy is institutionalized to such a degree that if you argue for checks and balances, you're questioning the integrity of the people at the helm," says Rodan.
Some analysts think infighting in the ruling party is a real risk after the elder Lee exits the scene. His son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, "will not have the same hold" over the opaque party structure his father built, says Johns Hopkins's Welsh.
All of which means that much of the region could be in for significant changes in the years ahead. That, of course, is what you get when regimes that were held together by the force of a founding figure loose their central player. Southeast Asia's 20th-century titans built systems that rested heavily on what political scientists call "performance legitimacy," meaning their ability to deliver the goods on social stability and economic growth. Four decades on, the crises that faced Southeast Asia's newly independent countries at their birth have long since abated, and the best of them are so developed economically that the stellar growth that typified their take-off phases is no longer sustainable. Adjusting to success will bring a whole new set of problems—and take a new kind of leader to help these states weather the changes.