(July 6): It will be months before a verdict is reached in the corruption case brought against ex-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is accused of siphoning money from a former unit of the state-owned 1MDB development fund. But his arrest this week is more significant than many people outside the region may realise. It’s the first sign of something that modern Southeast Asia has till now lacked — accountability for the region’s top leaders.

Since gaining independence after World War II, former colonies in the region have struggled to develop political systems that could accommodate indigenous power structures. More often than not, local elites simply imported and modified the political systems of their European overlords. Thus, former British colonies Singapore and Malaysia adopted the Westminster system, while the Philippines took on the American system. Indonesia and Thailand embraced the worst aspects of both and have suffered politically ever since. (In Brunei, an absolute monarchy with aspects of the Westminster system, the last word always belongs to the Sultan.)

These political systems mostly codified existing hierarchies. Those at the top preserved their privileges and their immunity from the law. If there’s one thing Southeast Asian elites understand, it’s that the higher you are in the political food chain, the greater your ability to act with impunity.

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