ASEAN-US Security Relations Moving to a New Level

Number 256 | April 15, 2014

ASEAN-US Security Relations: Moving to a New Level

by Mary Fides Quintos and Joycee Teodoro

Chuck Hagel -The United States has just completed hosting a three-day forum with the ten ASEAN Defense Ministers in Hawai’i, fulfilling US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s invitation to his ASEAN counterparts during last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The agenda of the US-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Forum included a roundtable discussion on humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HA/DR), site visits to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the USS Anchorage–an amphibious transport dock ship designed to respond to crises worldwide–and discussions on various pertinent security issues in the region.

The US-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Forum marked the beginning of Secretary Hagel’s ten-day trip to Asia which included visits to Japan, China, and Mongolia and is his fourth official visit to the region in less than a year, all part of the ongoing US rebalance policy to Asia. This event was the first meeting that the US hosted, as previous gatherings were conducted on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Retreat and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) Summit.

The US-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Forum was conducted under the ambit of the ADMM-Plus which was established in 2007 to serve as a venue for ASEAN to engage with eight dialogue partners–Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States–in promoting peace and security in the region. To date, ADMM-Plus has established five working groups for practical cooperation covering maritime security, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster management, peacekeeping operations, and military medicine.

This most recent meeting was held amid another wave of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and in the South China Sea. For ASEAN, a recent water cannon incident near Scarborough Shoal involving Filipino fishing vessels and Chinese Coastguard ships, the standoff at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal again between the Philippines and China, and China’s naval exercises at James Shoal which is claimed by Malaysia are all issues of concern.

Indonesia’s strengthening of its military presence in the Natuna Islands which China included in its nine-dash line is another indication of the increasing insecurity and instability in the region. The meeting provided a good opportunity for informal dialogue on the overall security environment in Asia and the possible implications of developments in Ukraine for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity within the international order. It also served as an opportunity for the United States to reemphasize that it can be relied upon by ASEAN members in supporting the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law and in upholding the freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.

With regard to humanitarian assistance and disaster response, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines Hishamuddin Husseinlast year and the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has demonstrated the lack of capacity of individual ASEAN countries or ASEAN as a bloc to immediately respond to a crisis. Not disregarding the efforts made by the governments of the Philippines and Malaysia, these incidents highlighted the need for the participation of other states particularly in terms of sharing of expertise, technology, and information. The US-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Forum explored areas where cooperation in these areas can be further strengthened. It was a reiteration of the need for multilateral cooperation in non-traditional security challenges that do not respect territorial boundaries.

The increased frequency of high-level visits by US officials to Asia, the provision of resources to its allies in the region, the reallocation of military hardware, along with ongoing military activities demonstrate that the US intent is to have a closer engagement with the region over the long term. These actions are also manifestations of the US commitment to Asia despite fiscal restraints and the looming crises in other regions where the US is also expected to be involved.

Moreover, they send a strong signal that the United States remains the region’s security guarantor regardless of doubts on its capacity to perform that role. However, the US-led hub-and-spokes alliance security model can be perceived as an act of containment against a particular country, hence the importance that bilateral alliances are supplemented by a multilateral institution that is open and inclusive such as ASEAN in shaping the regional security architecture.

The conclusion of the first US-initiated US-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Forum highlights the growing importance of ASEAN to the United States, especially if the event becomes more institutionalized. The message is that the United States views ASEAN as a central and strategic player, not only in the US rebalance to Asia but more importantly in the building of a strong and credible regional security architecture for the Asia-Pacific.

The move by the United States to actively engage ASEAN in its rebalance also shows the maturation of ties between them. By acknowledging ASEAN as an important regional actor, the relationship between the two has clearly been elevated. This also raises a key point with regard to respecting ASEAN’s centrality in the region. Economic power and military size notwithstanding, major powers need to recognize that any credible regional security architecture must include ASEAN.

These deliberate and sustained efforts involving ASEAN in devising the region’s security architecture are clear manifestations that the United States is actively engaging more actors in the region for maintaining peace and stability. More importantly, by involving ASEAN, there is the added assurance that the region’s security environment will work under a framework that is not dominated by a single power.

ASEAN, for its part, should see changes in the regional security environment as both opportunities and challenges. While ASEAN has been successful in engaging the major powers in the region, its centrality must continuously be earned. First, it needs to maintain unity amid differences; it should not be influenced by any external actor that seeks to advance its national interests at the expense of regional interests. ASEAN members must learn how to pursue their respective interests not only through national strategies but also through regional unity.

As a community, ASEAN is expected to act as a bloc championing the group’s interests and not only those of the individual member-states. Second, there should be greater commitment to cooperation not only in HA/DR but also in other non-traditional areas of security. Non-traditional security challenges are often transnational in scope and include multiple stakeholders. ASEAN must continuously enhance regional cooperation and coordination in times of crisis, although individual countries must also develop domestic capacity to respond to security challenges.

ASEAN should start addressing this deficit now otherwise institutional mechanisms will remain only on paper. These challenges will force ASEAN to build and improve on its usual practices and move beyond its comfort zone, in the long run benefitting the bloc as it matures institutionally.

About the Authors: Ms. Mary Fides Quintos and Ms. Joycee Teodoro are both Foreign Affairs Research Specialists with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies at the Philippines Foreign Service Institute.

The views expressed here belong to the authors alone and do not reflect the institutional stand of the Philippines Foreign Service Institute. Ms. Quintos can be contacted at and Ms. Teodoro at

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MH370: Asking the Wrong Government for Straight Answers

March 27, 2014


On March 24, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (above) appeared before the press to announce that missing flight MH370 “ended in the Southern Indian Ocean.” Najib’s statement finally gave the families of the passengers an “answer” on the fate of their loved ones. But it comes after weeks of spectacular obfuscation by Malaysian government officials, who repeatedly fudged details, contradicted each other, or used the tragedy to score points against the political opposition.

Just to add insult to injury, Malaysian Airlines informed the families of the sad news by sending them a text message. Small wonder that some of the relatives are now accusing Malaysian officialdom of orchestrating a “cover-up,” and demanding to see concrete evidence such as the plane’s black box.

The rest of the world has reacted to the half-truths of the Malaysian authorities with bewilderment. But to us Malaysians it’s nothing new: We’ve been putting up with this sort of crap our entire lives. Our officials are incapable of communicating because they’ve never felt the need to. Our corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy regards its own citizens with such top-down contempt that its dialogue muscles have simply atrophied.

So it’s no wonder that Malaysians have spent the past few weeks coping the way we’re accustomed to: by indulging in conspiracy theories, the last pathetic refuge of people who know that they can never expect the truth from their own leaders. So we’ve seen some Malaysians blaming the loss of the plane on everyone from our own government to the United States, China, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, and — why not? — aliens. Yes, it’s sad. And yes, it’s more than a little crazy. But in the final analysis you can’t really blame us. Where else are we supposed to find any answers?

The Malaysian government’s response has been dismal almost from the moment MH370 went missing. In most countries, the prime minister would step forward and take the lead during a catastrophe of this magnitude. In Malaysia, however, our Prime Minister decided to spend his time boasting about his skill at buying cheap chicken, analyzing the economy’s health based on the price of kangkung (water spinach), or strolling around shopping malls. He’s left the bulk of the mundane task of disaster management to the acting Transport Minister cum Minister of Defense, Hishammuddin Hussein, who has figured as the official government spokesman at a number of press conferences following the disappearance of MH370. (Hishammuddin, it’s worth noting, is a cousin of Prime Minister Najib — a coincidence quite widespread in a country where politicians are often linked by clan ties.)

Hishamuddin HusseinJudging by the reactions from passengers’ families and the international media, Hishammuddin (left) hasn’t exactly been doing a stellar job. In the early days of the investigation, the minister and his team event offered a conspiracy theory of their own.

In this case, Malaysian officials speculated — without offering any particular evidence to back up their claim — that the plane’s pilot, a “fanatical supporter” of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and a relative of Anwar’s son-in-law, might have been motivated to hijack his own plane for political reasons.

The day before, a Malaysian court sentenced Anwar to five years in prison on sodomy charges, a decision that bars him for running for office in upcoming elections. Again, none of this comes as a particular surprise. In recent years, government officials have developed the habit of blaming everything and anything on the Opposition, and especially on Anwar.

One side effect of the government’s inept response to the MH370 catastrophe, according to some, is that it has prompted some unwelcome analysis of the country’s political system, which has been dominated by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition for the past 57 years. So is Malaysia’s paternalistic political culture really being challenged now that MH370 incident has exposed its leaders to the withering judgments of international critics? I’m inclined to doubt it. As soon as the MH370 issue cools down, Malaysia’s government will return to business as usual. Nothing will change.

Just consider the scandal surrounding Abdul Taib Mahmud, the Chief Minister ofSararwak's CM the Malaysian state of Sarawak. According to the Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss environmental group, and local critics in Sarawak, Abdul Taib, who’s held office since 1981, has amassed enormous wealth (and caused vast environmental damage) through his unchallenged control of the state’s forests. These critics allege that Taib has used his power to enrich his own family and well-connected cronies, who have harvested billions of dollars’ worth of tropical timber.

Early last year, the international corruption watchdog group Global Witness released extensive video footage from a covert investigation that showed Taib’s cousins explaining how they had circumvented state laws to acquired vast tracts of forest land. In January 2013, 20 Swiss members of parliament filed a motion calling for an immediate freeze of assets held by Swiss banks on behalf of the Malaysian Taib family.

In a normal, democratic political system, all this would have prompted official investigations, parliamentary inquiries, demands for accountability. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission did organize a probe to investigate Taib — but the minister simply declared, with apparent impunity, that he would not cooperate with the “naughty” and “dishonest” commission. As a result, Malaysian officials have yet to open a domestic investigation into the case. One year later, in February 2014, the probe made the improbable claim that it could not find any evidence that Taib had abused his power. On March 1 of this year, Abdul Taib was sworn in for a term as Sarawak’s Governor — a position even more powerful than the one he held before.

Taib can get away with this sort of thing precisely because of his cozy relationship with the ruling BN coalition and the party that dominates it (the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO). The ruling coalition sees Sarawak as a vital cache of votes for the party, and within this system, Taib is untouchable.

In our general election last year, the main opposition coalition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, won just over 50 percent of the vote — yet BN still ended up with 60 percent of the seats in the national parliament. That’s because the government uses gerrymandering and elaborate dirty tricks to divide up the election system in ways that ensure continued BN rule, regardless of the way Malaysians actually vote. It’s not surprising, then, that there is zero sense of accountability in our country — and that the government officials who have risen to the top of the system feel little pressure to respond to those pesky demands for information from ordinary people.

The Malaysian government has a long history of ignoring its citizens’ right to know. Just take one of the most notorious cases. Back in 2002, an international human rights group filed an international court challenge alleging that the Malaysian government had accepted millions of dollars in bribes from a French shipbuilding company in the $1.25 billion purchase of two Scorpene submarines. Though the French investigation produced enough evidence to implicate top Malaysian officials, the government summarily denied the claims, and no one was ever punished. Over a decade later, the scandal is still unresolved.

Or take the murder of Mongolian model and translator Altantuya Shaariibuu (which has also been linked to the submarine case). Witnesses linked Altantuya romantically to one of Najib’s best friends and close policy advisors, a man named Abdul Razak Baginda. Sources claimed that she was trying to blackmail Razak with her knowledge of the shady submarine deal before she was killed by two of Najib’s bodyguards.

Rosmah and NajibThough the case implicated both the Malaysian Prime Minister and his wife, the government never initiated any official investigation. The case has remained in limbo ever since.

A private investigator, P Balasubramaniam (known as “Bala”), made a convincing statutory declaration for the prosecution in the Altantuya case — but soon retracted the statement, and subsequently dropped out of sight, along with his entire family.

Bala turned up again a few years later, claiming that he’d been offered $1.5 million by a businessman close to Najib’s family if he’d take back his original declaration. Bala died of a heart attack on March 15, 2013, in the midst of campaigning for the opposition in the upcoming election. Then Olivier Metzner, a French lawyer involved the submarine court case, was found dead in “an apparent suicide” two days after Bala’s death.

Not long after that the Malaysian Court of Appeals decided to acquit the two policemen who had been sentenced to death for Altantuya’s murder. The court’s decision provoked an angry response from Altantuya’s father and the Mongolian government.

But, as we’ve pointed out, foreigners apparently have just as little right to satisfactory information from the Malaysian government as Malaysian citizens do.We Malaysians, in short, have been putting up with this culture of official impunity for decades. Without having much choice in the matter, we’ve become accustomed to living under an authoritarian bureaucracy that mocks our requests for honest dialogue, and revels in its own contempt for basic rules of transparency and accountability. Now the international community is getting its own taste of what dealing with this system is really like.

What’s more, MH370 proves that Malaysia’s political immaturity is not merely a domestic issue, but threatens the citizens of other nations as well. As Malaysian citizens, we offer our sincerest condolences to the families of the passengers and the  international community — and we hope that you’ll join us in the fight against our government’s blatant corruption.

New uncertainty about missing Malaysian plane

March 18, 2014

New uncertainty about missing Malaysian 777 plane (MH370)

By Ian Mader
Associated Press

Pray for MH370The Missing MH380

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Officials revealed a new timeline Monday suggesting the final voice transmission from the cockpit of the missing Malaysian plane may have occurred before any of its communications systems were disabled, adding more uncertainty about who aboard might have been to blame.

The search for Flight 370, which vanished early March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, has now been expanded deep into the northern and southern hemispheres. Australian vessels scoured the southern Indian Ocean and China offered 21 of its satellites to help Malaysia in the unprecedented hunt.

With no wreckage found in one of the most puzzling aviation mysteries of all time, passengers’ relatives have been left in an agonizing limbo.

Investigators say the Boeing 777 was deliberately diverted during its overnight flight and flew off-course for hours. They haven’t ruled out hijacking, sabotage, or pilot suicide, and are checking the backgrounds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members — as well as the ground crew — for personal problems, psychological issues or links to terrorists.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said finding the plane was still the main focus, and he did not rule out that it might be discovered intact.

“The fact that there was no distress signal, no ransom notes, no parties claiming responsibility, there is always hope,” Hishammuddin said at a news conference.

Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said an initial investigation indicated that the last words ground controllers heard from the plane — “All right, good night” — were spoken by the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid. A voice other than that of Fariq or the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, it would have been clearest indication yet of something amiss in the cockpit before the flight went off-course.

Malaysian officials said earlier that those words came after one of the jetliner’s data communications systems — the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System — had been switched off, suggesting the voice from the cockpit may have been trying to deceive ground controllers.

However, Ahmad said that while the last data transmission from ACARS — which gives plane performance and maintenance information — came before that, it was still unclear at what point the system was switched off, making any implications of the timing murkier.

The new information opened the possibility that both ACARS and the plane’s transponders, which make the plane visible to civilian air traffic controllers, were turned off at about the same time. It also suggests that the message delivered from the cockpit could have preceded any of the severed communications.

Turning off a transponder is easy and, in rare instances, there may be good reason to do so in flight — for example, if it were reporting incorrect data.

The Malaysian plane does not appear to fit that scenario, said John Gadzinski, a 737 captain.

“There is a raised eyebrow, like Spock on Star Trek — you just sit there and go, ‘Why would anybody do that?’” Gadzinski said of what he is hearing among pilots.

Other pilots in the United States cautioned against reading too much into what little is known so far about the actions of the Malaysia Airlines crew.

“You can’t take anything off the table until everything is on the table, and we don’t even have an aircraft,” said Boeing 737 pilot Mike Karn, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.

Authorities have pointed to the shutdown of the transponders and the ACARS as evidence that someone with a detailed knowledge of the plane was involved. But Bob Coffman, an airline captain and former 777 pilot, said that kind of information is not hard to find in the digital age.

Authorities confiscated a flight simulator from the pilot’s home Saturday and also visited the home of the co-pilot in what Malaysian Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar initially said were the first police visits to those homes.

But the government, which has come under criticism abroad for missteps and foot-dragging in releasing information, issued a statement Monday contradicting that account, saying police first visited the pilots’ homes as early as March 9, the day after the flight disappeared.

Coffman said the flight simulator could signify nothing more than the pilot’s zeal for his job.

“There are people for whom flying is all consuming,” he said, noting some pilots like to spend their off-duty hours on simulators at home, commenting on pilot blogs or playing fighter-pilot video games.

Although Malaysian authorities requested that all nations with citizens aboard the flight conduct background checks on them, it wasn’t clear how thoroughly the checks were done in Malaysia. The father of a Malaysian aviation engineer aboard the plane said police had not approached anyone in the family about his 29-year-old son, Mohamad Khairul Amri Selamat, though he added that there was no reason to suspect him.

“It is impossible for him to be involved in something like this,” said Selamat Omar, 60. “We are keeping our hopes high. I am praying hard that the plane didn’t crash and that he will be back soon.”

French investigators arriving in Kuala Lumpur to lend expertise from the two-year search for an Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 said they were able to rely on distress signals. But that vital tool is missing in the Malaysia Airlines mystery because the flight’s communications were deliberately silenced ahead of its disappearance, investigators say.

“It’s very different from the Air France case. The Malaysian situation is much more difficult,” said Jean Paul Troadec, a Special Adviser to France’s aviation accident investigation bureau.

Malaysia’s government sent diplomatic cables to all countries in the search area, seeking more planes and ships and asking for any radar data that might help.

The search involves 26 countries and initially focused on seas on either side of Peninsular Malaysia, in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.

The vast scope of the search was underlined when a U.S. destroyer that already has helped cover 15,000 square miles (38,850 square kilometers) of water dropped out.

The Navy concluded that long-range aircraft were more efficient in looking for the plane or its debris than the USS Kidd and its helicopters, so effective Tuesday the ship was leaving the Indian Ocean search area, said Navy Cmdr. William Marks, spokesman for the 7th Fleet. Navy P-3 and P-8 surveillance aircraft remain available, and can cover 15,000 square miles (38,850 square kilometers) in a nine-hour flight.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Najib Razak said investigators determined that a satellite picked up a faint signal from the aircraft about 7½ hours after takeoff. The signal indicated the plane would have been somewhere on a vast arc stretching from Kazakhstan in Central Asia to the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.

The southern Indian Ocean is the world’s third-deepest and one of the most remote stretches of water, with little radar coverage.

Hishammuddin said Monday that searches in both the northern and southern stretches of the arc had begun, and that countries from Australia in the south, China in the north and Kazakhstan in the west had joined the hunt.

Had the plane gone northwest to Central Asia, it would have crossed over countries with busy airspace. Some experts believe it more likely would have gone south, although Malaysian authorities are not ruling out the northern corridor and are eager for radar data that might confirm or rule out that route.

The northern corridor crosses through countries including China, India and Pakistan — all of which have said they have no sign of the plane. China, where two-thirds of the passengers were from, is providing several planes and 21 satellites for the search, Premier Li Keqiang said in a statement.

“Factors involved in the incident continue to multiply, the area of search-and-rescue continues to broaden, and the level of difficulty increases, but as long as there is one thread of hope, we will continue an all-out effort,” Li said.

Indonesia focused on Indian Ocean waters west of Sumatra, air force spokesman Rear Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto said.

Australia agreed to Malaysia’s request to take the lead in searching the southern Indian Ocean with four Orion maritime planes that would be joined by New Zealand and U.S. aircraft, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.


Associated Press writers Joan Lowy and Robert Burns in Washington, Chris Brummitt, Jim Gomez and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Australia, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Series of Errrors by MALAYSIA mounts complicating th task of Finding MH370

March, 15, 2014

READ: Series of Errrors by MALAYSIA mounts complicating th task of Finding MH370

SEPANG, Malaysia — The radar blip that was Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 did a wide U-turn over the Gulf of Thailand and then began moving inexorably past at least three military radar arrays as it traversed northern Malaysia, even flying high over one of the country’s biggest cities before heading out over the Strait of Malacca.

Yet inside a Malaysian Air Force control room on the country’s west coast, where American-made F-18s and F-5 fighters stood at a high level of readiness for emergencies exactly like the one unfolding in the early morning of March 8, a four-person air defense radar crew did nothing about the unauthorized flight. “The watch team never noticed the blip,” said a person with detailed knowledge of the investigation into Flight 370. “It was as though the airspace was his.”

It was not the first and certainly not the last in a long series of errors by the Malaysian government that has made the geographically vast and technologically complex task of finding the $50 million Malaysia Airlines jet far more difficult.

Continue reading the main story

Reconstructing the Plane’s Path

The main communications systems of the Malaysia Airlines plane were turned off about 40 minutes into the flight, forcing investigators to try to piece together the plane’s location from other systems.


Secondary Radar and Text Updates

Air traffic controllers typically know a plane’s location based on what is called secondary radar, which requests information from the plane’s transponder. A plane also uses radio or satellite signals to send regular updates through ACARS, the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. Both of those systems were turned off.

Primary Radar

Two Malaysian military radar stations tracked a plane using primary radar, which sends out radio signals and listens for echoes that bounce off objects in the sky. Primary radar does not require a plane to have a working transponder.


Satellite Communications

If ACARS updates are turned off, the plane still sends a “keep-alive” signal, that can be received by satellites. The signal does not indicate location, but it can help to narrow down the plane’s position. A satellite picked up four or five signals from the airliner, about one per hour, after it left the range of military radar.

A week after the plane disappeared, the trail is even colder as the search now sprawls from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to the empty expanses of the southern Indian Ocean. Nobody knows yet whether the delays cost the lives of any of the 239 people who boarded the flight to Beijing at Kuala Lumpur’s ultramodern airport here. But the mistakes have accumulated at a remarkable pace.

“The fact that it flew straight over Malaysia, without the Malaysian military identifying it, is just plain weird — not just weird, but also very damning and tragic,” said David Learmount, the operations and safety editor for Flightglobal, a news and data service for the aviation sector.

Senior Malaysian military officers became aware within hours of the radar data once word spread that a civilian airliner had vanished. The Malaysian government nonetheless organized and oversaw an expensive and complex international search effort in the Gulf of Thailand that lasted for a full week. Only on Saturday morning did Prime Minister Najib Razak finally shut it down after admitting what had already been widely reported in the news media: Satellite data showed that the engines on the missing plane had continued to run for nearly six more hours after it left Malaysian airspace.

Finding the plane and figuring out what happened to it is now a far more daunting task than if the plane had been intercepted. If the aircraft ended up in the southern Indian Ocean, as some aviation experts now suggest, then floating debris could have subsequently drifted hundreds of miles, making it extremely hard to figure out where the cockpit voice and data recorders sank.

And because the recorders keep only the last two hours of cockpit conversation, even the aircraft’s recorders may hold few secrets.

With so much uncertainty about the flight, it is not yet possible to know whether any actions by the Malaysian government or military could have altered its fate. Responding to a storm of criticism, particularly from China, whose citizens made up two-thirds of the passengers, Mr. Najib took pains in a statement early Saturday afternoon to say that Malaysia had not concealed information, including military data.

“We have shared information in real time with authorities who have the necessary experience to interpret the data,” he said, reading aloud a statement in English at a news conference. “We have been working nonstop to assist the investigation, and we have put our national security second to the search for the missing plane.”

Malaysia Airlines issued a similarly defensive statement late Saturday afternoon. “Given the nature of the situation and its extreme sensitivity, it was critical that the raw satellite signals were verified and analyzed by the relevant authorities so that their significance could be properly understood,” the airline said. “This naturally took some time, during which we were unable to publicly confirm their existence.”

Aviation experts said that a trained pilot would be the most obvious person to have carried out a complicated scheme involving the plane. Yet for a week after the plane’s disappearance, Malaysian law enforcement authorities said that their investigation did not include searching the home of the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

Continue reading the main story

Estimated range of plane with its remaining fuel if it was flying at the plane’s maximum speed:






60 min. of fuel

20 min.


Approx. area within the top and bottom 20-min. ranges:

2 million square miles








Approx. time
after takeoff



+40 min. Last contact with civilian radar.

First week

search area


Kuala Lumpur airport

+1 hour 34 min. Last contact with military radar.


Position of satellite that received last known signal

from plane.

+7.5 hours Red arcs represent possible positions of plane when it transmitted last signal to satellite.


Plane may have flown up to another hour after its last satellite transmission.


On Saturday afternoon, the police were seen entering the gated community where Mr. Zaharie was said to have lived, and Malaysian news media reported that they had searched his home. The police declined to comment, and it is not known whether the authorities made any effort to secure Mr. Zaharie’s home and prevent any destruction of evidence over the past week.

Mr. Najib said on Saturday that “the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” but Mr. Zaharie has not been accused of any wrongdoing. No information has been released yet on whether the homes of the co-pilot or flight attendants might be searched.

Even before the plane took off, Malaysian immigration officials had already allowed onto the plane at least two people using passports that had been logged into a global database as stolen, although there is no evidence that either person carrying a stolen passport was involved in diverting the plane.

A British Royal Air Force base in the colonial era, the Malaysian air force base at Butterworth sits on the mainland across from the island of Penang at the northern reaches of the Strait of Malacca. There, in the early morning hours of March 8, the four-person crew watching for intrusions into the country’s airspace either did not notice or failed to report a blip on their defensive radar and air traffic radar that was moving steadily across the country from east to west, heading right toward them, said the person with knowledge of the matter.

Neither that team nor the crews at two other radar installations at Kota Bharu, closer to where the airliner last had contact with the ground, designated the blip as an unknown intruder warranting attention, the person said. The aircraft proceeded to fly across the country and out to sea without anyone on watch telling a superior and alerting the national defense command near Kuala Lumpur, even though the radar contact’s flight path did not correspond to any filed flight plan.

As a result, combat aircraft never scrambled to investigate. The plane, identified at the time by Mr. Najib as Flight 370, passed directly over Penang, a largely urban state with more than 1.6 million people, then turned and headed out over the Strait of Malacca.

The existence of the radar contact was discovered only when military officials began reviewing tapes later in the morning on March 8, after the passenger jet failed to arrive in Beijing. It was already becoming clear that morning, only hours after the unauthorized flyover, that something had gone very wrong. Tapes from both the Butterworth and Kota Bharu bases showed the radar contact arriving from the area of the last known position of Flight 370, the person familiar with the investigation said.

Gen. Rodzali Daud, the commander of Malaysia’s Air Force, publicly acknowledged the existence of the radar signals for the first time on Wednesday, well into the fifth day after the plane’s disappearance. He emphasized that further analysis was necessary because the radar plots of the aircraft’s location were stripped of the identifying information given by the plane’s onboard transponders, which someone aboard the aircraft appeared to have turned off.

The failure to identify Flight 370’s errant course meant that a chance to send military aircraft to identify and redirect the jet, a Boeing 777, was lost. And for five days the crews on an armada of search vessels, including two American warships, focused the bulk of their attention in the waters off Malaysia’s east coast, far from the plane’s actual path.

General Rodzali went to the Butterworth air force base the day that the plane disappeared and was told of the radar blips, the person familiar with the investigation said. The Malaysian government nonetheless assigned most of its search and rescue resources, as well as ships and aircraft offered by other nations, to a search of the Gulf of Thailand where the aircraft’s satellite transponder was turned off, while allocating minimal attention to the Strait of Malacca on the other, western side of Peninsular Malaysia.

Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Sepang, Nicola Clark from Paris, and Matthew L. Wald from Washington.

A version of this article appears in print on March 16, 2014, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Series of Missteps by Malaysia Mounts, Complicating the Task of Finding Flight 370.

MH370: Really, who’s in charge?

March 12, 2014

MH370: Really, who’s in charge?

With over 10 nations joining in the search for the MH370 missing Boeing 777-200ER, the absence of a command centre is perplexing.

MH370Ten nations, including the United States and Australia, have mobilised aircrafts and ships to locate MH370, which vanished off the radar early Saturday with 239 people on-board, including the crew.

The MAS Boeing 777-200ER had taken off from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport half-hour after midnight and was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6.30am. But slightly more than an hour into flight, the plane disappeared, prompting an unprecedented search.

The search covering almost the whole of Southeast Asia, from the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea, is being participated by 34 aircrafts, 40 ships and a battery of search and rescue technologies. Hundreds of fishing vessels have also been mobilised to find traces of MH370.

About two-thirds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew aboard the plane were Chinese. The airline said other nationalities included 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans.

The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records of any commercial aircraft in service. Its only previous fatal crash was on July 6 last year when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 struck a seawall on landing in San Francisco, killing three people.

To add drama to the whole matter is the presence of two passengers on the flight who possessed fake passports. Neither Malaysia’s police, the agency leading the investigation locally, nor spy agencies in the United States and Europe have ruled out the possibility that militants may have been involved in downing of MH370.

But Malaysian authorities have indicated that the evidence thus far does not strongly back an attack as a cause for the aircraft’s disappearance, and that mechanical or pilot problems could have led to the apparent crash.

MAS, at a press conference earlier this week, said two passenger in the flight had fake passports and this had led to more talk that the plane could have been subjected to acts of terrorism. There was also talk that five passengers had missed the flight.

But yesterday Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar clarified that one of the two passengers was an Iranian teenager on his way to Frankfurt in Germany and would have been in transit in Beijing. The identity of the other person is yet to be ascertained.

The Malaysian top cop also revealed that only one person, a lady, missed the flight as she mistook the date of her flight to Beijing and not five as earlier reported. While the Malaysian side has been coming out with press conferences on a daily basis, little is explained on how the searches are being conducted.

Standard Operating Procedure

With over 10 countries in the fray one wonders, if the Malaysians have set up a command centre for these rescuers to operate from. Conflicting statements from the Chinese side have made things worse. Chinese authorities are seething over the lack of information on the search.

Setting-up a command centre is the duty of Malaysia. Presently the Malaysia Airlines is taking the main role in informing of its efforts to locate its aircraft. This is supported by announcements from the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) and the Malaysian police.

Efforts taken by search and rescue teams from other nations are not elaborated in these press conferences. The Malaysian DCA had been entrusted to take the lead. But the question arises: Is it the duty of the DCA (Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) to oversee such search and rescue efforts?

Hishamuddin HusseinThe Malaysian Defence Forces, which is working behind the scenes, is also mum on the matter except press conferences held by Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein. At the same time, those hungry for the latest news on the plane’s disappearance have to follow Twitter or Facebook to exchange information.

After news broke of the aircraft’s disappearance, there were reports from the Vietnamese Navy that the plane had crashed off the waters of Vietnam. But this has yet to be verified. The Chinese on the other hand are combing the South China Sea and are coming out with statements of their own that they have yet to find any debris.

Based on past experience, in a disaster or an untoward incident of this magnitude, the first Standard Operating Procedure would be to set up a command centre. The command centre should be in touch with all involved in the operation and they are required to report back if they had found anything.

Participating nations usually do not hold media conferences but convey their finding to the command centre. The command centre must also inform the media where all respective participating countries are searching and the type of equipment used in the search.

The lack of a central command will only fuel more speculative reports. These are still early days. The search for the jet could run into weeks if not months.

Malaysia must do more to show to the world that it can handle a disaster. Confusing the people is not a way to tackle the issue. There is a dire need to streamline information. This can only be done through experienced public relations experts, which is now sorely lacking.

Malaysian must not just fault the Chinese for wanting prompt answers. Efforts must be taken to explain how the search and rescue mission is being conducted in detail. No stones must be left unturned.

All issues must be addressed. All questions must be answered. This could be a long haul which can last for not days but weeks or even months.

Tun Dr. Mahathir and the political games he plays for public attention

March 10, 2014

Tun Dr. Mahathir and the political games he plays for public attention

by Koon Yew Yin (March 9, 2014)

Dr M

Malaysia’s Pathetic Attention Seeker

Every few days or so, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, our former Prime Minister, comes out with a new story lamenting the loss of Malay and Muslim power and complaining how it is in fact the non-Malays or non-Muslims who are the ones that are really running the country.

There are many variants of this argument that he comes out with, such as that the DAP is running the show in Pakatan Rakyat; or that PKR and PAS leaders have sold out to the DAP; or that the Christians have an ulterior motive in raising the Allah issue, and are to be blamed for the rise in tension and resentment in the country.

In his latest skirmish with Muslim orthodox groups in his blogsite over his support to Kassim Ahmad who has been critical of the ulama class and its over-reliance on hadiths, Mahathir has seen it fit to claim that the result of the ongoing schism in the Muslim world between those who are called ulama and the non-ulama is that “[therefore Muslims have become weak and they have to beg for support from non-Muslims”.

Why must he bring the non-Muslims into this latest controversy if not to stoke more fear and distrust among Muslim of their non-Muslim brothers and sisters?

This was no spur of the moment, slip of the tongue or foot in the mouth accident. It was carefully crafted and meant to share with his Malay and Muslim audience in his blogsite as well as for reproduction in the other media to ‘enlighten’ the Muslims.

It seems so typical of Mahathir to introduce his brand of racist or religiously bigoted thinking and argument into every controversy in the country, whether or not he is directly involved in it and regardless of whether there is any need or justification.

“Pathetic” is the word that some would prefer to use to explain his behaviour and conduct. I prefer to use the words “mischievous” and “evil”. While Mahathir is conspicuous for what he selects to focus his attack on, he is also unmistakable in what he deliberately chooses to ignore.

Take for instance the list of the richest Malaysians of which two separate lists have recently appeared.

The first list is compiled by Malaysian Business and the second list by Forbes. In both lists Mokhzani Mahathir, the son of the former Prime Minister, has joined the ranks of the country’s richest men or billionaires.

According to the Malaysian Business magazine, the SapuraKencana Petroleum mogul added another RM1.59 billion to his coffers over the last year to raise his estimated wealth to RM4.22 billion — good enough for ninth place on the list.

Forbes also includes Mokhzani in its list but only at number 15, with a total fortune of US1. 2 billion. According to Forbes, Mokhzani has broken into the billionaire’s club (calculated in US dollars, and not our cheap Malaysian ringgit) because of the 22% rise in his oil shares in his oil and gas stocks.

Mahathir has so far made no comment on the lists and the people who have made it, including his son.

Perhaps our docile and politically correct reporters are too afraid of the repercussions to ask him questions about his son’s meteoric rise in the wealthiest Malaysians list.

But not all our reporters are that bad. I think the braver ones among them are probably afraid that if they asked him questions about it, all they may get is another round of diversionary, evasive and sarcastic comments about how Mokhzani would have been able to come out much higher up the list – say at number 3 or 4 – if not for the Chinamen or Indians who have made it difficult for his son to rise higher and more quickly.

That answer would have no leg to stand on. But it should please the anti-non-Malay audience that Mahathir is so fixated on to salvage his reputation.

Koon Yew Yin is an investor and philantropist. He is the founder IJM Group, Gamuda Koon Yew Yinand Mudajaya.

Malaysia in 2014–A Perspective from Thailand

March 1, 2014

Malaysia in 2014–A Perspective from Thailand

Najib and Yingluck

Thai-Malaysian relations have in the past decade been predominantly shaped by the situation in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand. In 2004, under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration, an Islamic insurgency re-erupted, seen in the incidents at Krue Sae Mosque in Pattani, where 32 Muslim militants were executed, and at Tak Bai district in Narathiwat, where 78 Muslim detainees suffocated to death while being transported to a military camp.

But the real turning point in Thai-Malaysian relations took place in August 2005 when 131 Thai Muslims fled across border into the Malay northern states. Reportedly, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Alba agreed to release them only if Bangkok could “guarantee” their human rights and safety. Thaksin was infuriated, perceiving his remarks as interfering with Thailand’s internal affairs.

Malaysia subsequently proposed a dialogue to resolve the problem as a means to defuse tensions. Accordingly, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad held informal discussions with former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, who was then the head of the National Reconciliation Commission. They reassured Anand that Malaysia did not support the separatist movement in Thailand.

But the complexity of Thai politics and its impact on the issue of the southern conflict has continued to influence bilateral relations. As Thailand attempted to isolate its southern conflict, it also isolated Malaysia. Such isolation reflected on a Thai policy of externalising the cause of conflict, and Malaysia was painted as a prime manipulator behind the Thai Muslim insurgents.

In December 2009, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in striving to improve ties with Thailand, made a high-profile visit to Narathiwat. Najib said, “I don’t expect things to change overnight. This is a journey, but there is a commitment and plans by Thailand to move toward a comprehensive solution. Malaysia’s stand is to be a partner who will respect that this is domestic, and the message is clear that the people of Thailand must be loyal to the country.”

Clearly, Najib’s mission was to dispel the existing mutual distrust. At the end of the meeting, the two countries initiated a number of joint projects to rebuild Thailand’s southern region. For example, Thai Muslim teachers were to be trained in Islamic teachings in Malaysia and Thai businesses invited to visit Malaysia with the possibility of investing in the country.

In June 2013, peace talks between the Thai government and members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) reached a milestone when the two parties decided to sit down to discuss ways to rebuild mutual trust, eliminate suspicion and to find a long-lasting solution to the protracted conflict. Malaysia hosted the peace talks in Kuala Lumpur signalling a new role as a peace mediator.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told the media that he was hopeful of progress through development of the southern provinces: “The issue of development, poverty, fair treatment of everybody — those are the issues to be navigated by both sides based on trust. Building up trust is the difficult part.”

Until recently, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has tried to reach out for peace with the Thai Muslim community and for better ties with Malaysia. There were obstacles to the government’s efforts. For one, local Thai Muslims could not forget what her elder brother, then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, did in 2004. In the political context, the south has never been the territory supportive of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, but instead, are long-time supporters of the Democrat Party – the current opposition party.

Thailand has fallen into another crisis and Yingluck’s resolve will once again be tested. It has been more than three months since the anti-government protesters seized Bangkok, driving Yingluck to dissolve the parliament. General elections were held but outcomes were inconclusive. The Yingluck administration is now in a limbo. The Thai political situation is unpredictable, to say the least.

Daily killings in the restive south, meanwhile, have been normalised. The more Bangkok is preoccupied with other domestic crisis, the longer the insurgency will prolong in the south. Since the last meeting between the government and the BRN, the Thai public is in the dark regarding progress on the peace talk. If the violence escalates in the Thai south, it will further complicate Bangkok politics and Thailand’s relations with Malaysia.

Insurgency issue aside, democratic and anti-democratic movements in Thailand could also impact Malaysia. Political power in Thailand, long dominated by the old elite, are now being seriously challenged by new political alternatives. The end game could be traumatic. The imminent royal transition could serve to exacerbate the already fragile situation. In Malaysia, the United Malays National Organisation has been in power for far too long. It has been too inert, complacent and perhaps too authoritarian. The Thai example could influence political developments in Malaysia, particularly through the rising political awareness of the Malaysian masses and their demand to gain better access to political resources, economic wealth and better social status. Like Thailand, it will be interesting to see where Malaysian politics would be heading towards— reforms or struggle?

Pavin Chachavalpongun is Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. He is the author of ‘Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and His Foreign Policy’.

Prime Minister Najib: Malaysia must embrace middle power position in ASEAN

February 24, 2014

Prime Minister Najib: Malaysia must embrace middle power position in ASEAN

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia must embrace its position as one of the region’s middle powers, in its path towards becoming a developed nation by 2020.

NAJIB_RAZAK_091213_TMINAJJUA_05_540_360_100Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib  Razak said as a middle power, the nation will be expected to play a greater part  in Asia and to help Asia play a greater part in the world.

“Come 2020, Malaysia will be a developed country with far-flung and expanding interests. The international community, as well as our own public, will expect that we assume our share of the burden of responsibility and leadership.

“As a Middle Power, that means playing a greater part in Asia, and helping Asia play a greater part in the world,” he said in his keynote address at the 8th Heads of Mission Conference here today, which was attended by among others, Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman and his deputy, Datuk Hamzah Zainuddin.

Najib said this meant Malaysia was continuing its commitment to ASEAN which groups 10 Southeast Asian countries.

“We swim or sink with our region. If we don’t have an influential voice here, we won’t have an influential voice anywhere,” he stressed.

Meanwhile Bernama reported, Najib said the most effective coalitions in the future will be those which involve both the developed and developing world.

In this regard, he said, Malaysia must be deft and nimble in building and participating in coalitions, seeking out those which shared its concerns. He said there was also a need at the same time to exercise leadership within the shared platforms which were needed to tackle multilateral problems.

“A stronger foreign policy establishment here in Malaysia, which brings together think-tanks, academic chairs and foundations will strengthen our hand when it comes to building coalitions for change,” Najib said.

Najib noted that Malaysia must react to the transformations around it with a transformation of its own, including having a foreign policy that would see the country through to 2020 when this country achieved a developed nation status, and beyond.

Najib also said Malaysia must devote adequate resources to strengthening its bilateral relations with neighbours and continue to value ASEAN as the fulcrum of peace, prosperity and stability in the region.

“Even as we undertake to do more, we must concentrate resources on initiatives that will generate the best returns, leading in areas that concern us the most, not aiming to be everything to everyone,” the Prime Minister said.

He said Kuala Lumpur must sharpen the way it conceived and executed the cooperation and assistance programmes it provided at the bilateral, regional and multilateral levels.

“And we must assess the impact of such programmes more systematically to ensure they are effective and efficient,” he said.

In the speech, Najib noted that the factors which shaped Malaysia’s diplomacy — its dependence on trade, strategic location and demographic change — were in turn shaped by external trends

“And here the grounds beneath our feet are shifting as old assumptions are being overturned and new ones emerging.

“These global and regional trends ask that we adapt our diplomacy to fit the pressures and opportunities of a new century,” he added.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak delivers keynotes address after opening conference on ‘Transforming Malaysia’s Diplomacy Towards 2020 and Beyond’ at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (IDFR). Auditorium in Kuala Lumpur. — NSTP/Yazit Razali

Controversial Muslim Thinker and Politics

February 23, 2014

Controversial Muslim Thinker sets the cat among the canaries, again

by Terence Netto@

COMMENT They say politics makes for strange bedfellows. It looks like religion also does the same. Consider thinker Kassim Ahmad’s ties to former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad – on Islamic exegesis, the two are birds of a feather.

kassim thinkerThe Controversial Muslim Thinker

This is best understood in the context of Voltaire’s famous criticism of Christian belief and practice at the onset of the Enlightenment in the 18th century – that incantations can kill a flock of sheep if administered with a certain quantity of arsenic.

In other words, faith should not be blind and unexamined beliefs are for bovines, not homo-sapiens.

In 1986, Kassim published a book – ‘Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula (Hadith: A Reappraisal)’ – that espoused a subversive idea.This was that certain bases of Islamic practice and belief cannot sustain critical scrutiny. The book proposed the Quran as sole basis for sound Muslim belief and best practices.

That view Kassim reiterated to a conference which reviewed his thought held last Sunday at the Perdana Leadership Foundation, a think-tank associated with Mahathir (right).

The former Premier officiated at the conference’s opening and days later, after controversy flared over what Kassim had said, allowed that Kassim was a thinker whose opinions are easily misunderstood.

Like the publication of his book 28 years ago, Kassim’s latest musings have caused a furore. Its magnitude can be gauged in the days to come as Islamic authorities mull action against him.

It’s a safe bet, though, that none of them will take him on in a debate because they know that Kassim is a formidable foe to joust with; he will not easily recant his views.

Kassim blames Anwar Ibrahim – the Education Minister in the mid-1980s – for squelching the debate that ‘Hadis’ was obviously intended to provoke.Till today, Kassim nurses an enduring antipathy towards Anwar for the turn of events following publication of Kassim’s book in early 1986.

The ironies in history

Although all this occurred 28 years ago, the passage of decades has not had a becalming effect on the visceral feelings the controversy evoked at that time.

As recently as the middle of 2012, Kassim remained choleric at the mention of Anwar’s name, denouncing the Pakatan Rakyat leader with a vituperation that was ugly to behold.

It is not clear that Anwar had anything to do with the banning of Kassim’s book or with foreclosure of the debate.What’s less incontestable is that had the book not been banned, matters to do with Islamic thought and understanding in Malaysia would plausibly have transcended the present moment where some peninsula Muslim Malaysians insist that the term ‘Allah’ is exclusive to them.

In one of those ironies in which history abounds, in the debate over the ‘Allah’ issue, Anwar (left) is not opposed to non-Muslim use of the term – provided it is not abused – whereas Mahathir is for prohibition of the term to non-Muslims.

Kassim’s position on the issue is not known, but judging from what can be deduced of the man’s intellect, it would be a huge surprise if he agreed with Mahathir’s stance.

There is a strong strain of the iconoclast in Kassim, evident from half a century ago when he suggested that Malay folklore was wrong to view Hang Tuah as a hero because the real hero was Tuah’s friend, Hang Jebat, whom Tuah had killed.

Because of his tendency to examine the received wisdom on a subject, it wasn’t surprising that Kassim, who tuned 80 last September, gave vent at last Sunday’s conference to views that were even more controversial than the ones he aired in his 1986 work.

In what was purported to be his final testament – rendered at the conference themed ‘Thoughts of Kassim Ahmad: A Review’ – the man who started his intellectual journey as a cultural iconoclast and doctrinaire socialist, invited Muslims to return to the teachings of the Islamic faith as revealed in the Quran.

He said that believers would find Quranic teachings to be cognate with natural law (undang-undang alamiah).Kassim also espoused the view that Muslims do not need, like he claimed Christians did, a “priestly caste” to know what God commands of them and to perceive those commands’ consonance with what natural law tells them.

He argued that the female practice of wearing a headscarf (tudung) was a wrong interpretation of the Quranic stricture against bodily exposure, claiming that hair on a woman’s head is not included in the ‘aurat’ that is required by the Quran to be covered. He said that head hair must be aired for health (natural law) reasons.

An interesting tack to take

Thus, he took an example from nature to elucidate a Quranic teaching, demonstrating in the process the supposed truth of his argument that sound interpretation of Quranic revelation would necessarily be found to be compatible with what natural law teaches.

This is an interesting tack to take and is at variance to the asharite (God is power/God is will) school of Islamic thought. The asharite has been the dominant school since the 12th century when it gained the upper hand over the mutazilite (God is also reason) school of Islamic interpretation.

Since the victory of the asharite school, Islam’s answer to what is called “the Socratic puzzle” has been emphatic.But, pray, what is the Socratic puzzle?

It is a question that is so abstruse, it gives philosophy a bad name: Is a good action good because it is approved by God? Or is it approved by God because it is good?

In other words, do the categories of good and evil, right and wrong, have an existence independent of the divine will?

To this, the answer of the Asharite school is: An action is good because it is approved by Allah.

The asharites hold that there is no independent criterion of morality outside the will of Allah. And since the Quran is an absolutely literal and accurate account of that will – indeed in a deep sense, the Quran itself actually incarnates that will – there is no independent criterion of morality outside the text of the Quran.

In other words, if the Quran says something that seems morally offensive, it is morality that is mistaken, not the Quran.

The Mutazilites are inclined to find an interpretation of the Quran that accords with what natural law teaches. This is because they believe that there is an objective moral order to the universe and that this is discoverable through reason. That is why the Mutazilities are called rationalists.

Because these are febrile questions of religious interpretation and philosophy, and apt to foment divisive and emotional effects on believers – Voltaire advised that discussion of complex religious questions be held behind closed doors and out of the hearing of servants – Muslim thinkers approach them with circumspection.

Now and then, one or the other of them saunters on to the turf and inevitable detonations ensue.

Last Sunday, Kassim Ahmad walked into a blast-prone area and set off subversive ripples of resonance. He is likely to enjoy immunity because he did it at the Perdana Leadership Foundation

Last year about this time, Ibrahim Ali (right) escaped a sedition rap for threatening to burn bibles after Mahathir offered extenuations on the Perkasa chief’s behalf, following former attorney-general Abu Talib Othman’s admonishing incumbent AG Abdul Gani Patail against dilly-dallying on pressing charges.

This time round, Mahathir’s extenuations on behalf of Kassim are likely to have intellectually more beneficent uses.

The irony is that Kassim – like the man he detests, Anwar Ibrahim – is not likely to think much of the argument that the term ‘Allah’ ought to be the exclusive preserve of Peninsula Muslims; more certainly, he will laugh Mahathir’s reservation of the term for Peninsula Malays, to scorn.Not just politics, religion, too, makes for strange bedfellows.

Malaysia in 2014–A Perspective from Singapore

February 22, 2014

Malaysia in 2014–A Perspective from Singapore

For Singapore, due to history, geography, demography, economy and recent political experiences, Malaysia has perpetually been its lynchpin concern and preoccupation. In the past, S Rajaratnam, the Republic’s first foreign minister, had described Singapore’s relations with Malaysia as ‘special’ and there is nothing to suggest that this has changed in anyway. If anything, the ‘specialness’ has been intensified and further reinforced due to a whole array of factors, not least being the imperatives of national, regional and international economics. A weakening United States, an assertive China, an unstable Thailand and a new nationalistic leader in Indonesia can change the political and security architecture in the region to the detriment of both states and hence, their bilateral ties.

MALAYSIA-SINGAPORE-DIPLOMACYIn the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia in August 1965, the emotive dimension of Singapore’s view of Malaysia was dominant. Even though this has largely dissipated, it is not totally absent. Still, the pragmatism with which both states have moved forward is definitely a milestone achievement in bilateral ties in Southeast Asia.

For Singapore, continuity rather than change remains its key perspective on Malaysia. This was especially true after the May 2013 general elections where the Barisan Nasional (BN: National Front) was returned to power albeit with a weaker majority. Still, Prime Minister Najib, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) and the BN are in power and that is what matters even though the winds of change must also be disconcerting. The disquiet would be more, not so much from the economic aspect as it would be from the rising racial and religious polarisation of Malaysia in the last few years that was brought to the forefront during the last general elections.

The ‘Allah’ issue has not been helpful and the recent firebombing of a church in Penang has merely raised the ante of what this will mean for Malaysia and possibly, even multiracial and multi-religious Singapore. All that aside, the single most important development of late has been the rising warmth in Singapore-Malaysia bilateral ties under Lee Hsien Loong and Najib Tun Razak. While past imperatives of history, geography and demography remain relevant, most dominant in the new narrative has been the personal warmth of the two Prime Ministers (Lee and Najib) and the strategic nature of their bilateral ties.

Most of the past issues have been addressed or settled such as relocation of Customs and Immigration Complex, land reclamation and even water. Most importantly, has been the breakthroughs that both leaders have made vis-à-vis two issues, namely, the resolution of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the land exchange deal as well as Singapore’s support for the Iskandar Development Project in Johor. Other positive developments in ties include the holding of annual leader’s retreats, re-establishment of links between both countries’ stock exchanges, Malaysia’s agreement to sell electricity to Singapore, the agreement to build high speed train link from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, the amicable post-Pedra Branca technical talks to resolve legacy issues over the islands’ dispute and finally, the establishment of a Singapore consulate in Johor Baru.

If there is one key factor that has brought bilateral ties to a new height, it is the cooperation in the Iskandar Project. Not only is the Singapore Government supporting investments in the project through Government-linked companies such as Temasek Holding but also playing an important role in encouraging the private sector to invest in the project. Additionally, thousands of Singaporeans are expected to be permanently based in the Iskandar region and Johor as a whole, bringing interdependence to a level that was never seen before. To that extent, Iskandar has been the key game changer in Singapore-Malaysia bilateral ties of late.

The breakthrough in bilateral ties was a function of a number of factors. First, the decision by both sides to adopt a new approach to bilateral ties in order to garner win-win results. Second, the personal warmth of the top leaders was extremely helpful. Third, the calculation of the mutual benefits that would be gained by both sides in view of the increasing regional and global competition. Fourth, over the years, there has also been increasing economic interdependence with Singapore as one of the top investors in Malaysia over the last two decades or so. Two-way trade and investments are among the highest between the two states. Fifth, there is also the realisation of increasing security indivisibility of both states. Finally, the ideological pragmatism of both sides has also helped in boosting bilateral ties.

While Singapore expects Malaysia in 2014 to have a largely ‘normal’ year barring any unexpected events – all the more to be the case as the UMNO annual assembly has opted for status quo – the Republic is also mindful of the many uncertainties that can unexpectedly crop up to affect bilateral ties. While 2014 can expect the warming of ties to continue, this cannot be taken for granted. First, the warm ties of two Prime Minister, both of whom are sons of two former prime ministers  who were not close, may not survive personalities if a more nationalistic prime minister takes over in Singapore or Malaysia. Second, tensions could surface if the promised cooperation proves futile or produces one-sided benefits, say in Iskandar Project. Finally, growing domestic tensions in Malaysia, especially among the Malay and Chinese communities in Johor or in Malaysia could spill over into Singapore-Malaysia relations.

Hence, for Singapore, while Malaysia in 2014 is expected to continue ‘good business as normal’, there are also potential minefields that might explode, and hence, the need for caution. ‘Special relations’ are important but can never be taken for granted, and this also holds true of Singapore’s view of Malaysia in 2014.

Bilveer Singh is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore, adjunct senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and President of the Political Science Association of Singapore.

Malaysia’s Anifah Aman on Foreign Policy: Promoting Peace and Moderation

February 22, 2014

Malaysia’s Foreign Policy: Promoting Peace and Moderation

by Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Dato’ Seri Anifah Aman

FOREIGN POLICY GOALS: World acknowledging Malaysia’s role in promoting peace and moderation.

AnifahAmanA COUNTRY’S foreign policy consists of self-interest strategies chosen by the state to safeguard its national interests and to achieve its own goals through relations with other countries.

While interactions with other countries through bilateral means remain the core element of foreign policy, multilateralism is also an important facet in foreign policy when dealing with collective concerns and issues of common interests.

In today’s complex international environment with fast changing political realities in many countries, foreign policy imperatives have become equally complex, calling for a more flexible, pragmatic and accommodative stance.

Over the years, Malaysia’s foreign policy has come to encompass trade, finance, human rights, environment and culture apart from the political relations.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry has established a total of 107 missions (missions in Baghdad and Damascus are temporarily closed)  in 83 countries and appointed 53 Honorary Consuls who provide support and assistance in promoting Malaysia’s interests and safeguarding the country’s image abroad.

The objectives of Malaysia’s Foreign Policy are:

  • MAINTAINING peaceful relations with all countries regardless of their ideology and political system;
  • ADOPTING an independent, non-aligned, and principled stance in regional and international diplomatic affairs;
  • FORGING close relations and economic partnerships with all nations, particularly with ASEAN and other regional friends;
  • PROMOTING peace and stability in the region through capacity building and conflict resolution measures;
  • PLAYING an influential leadership role in ASEAN, the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC);
  • PARTICIPATING actively and meaningfully in the United Nations, especially in the efforts to end injustice and oppression, and to uphold international law; and,
  • PROJECTING Malaysia as a leading example of a tolerant and progressive Islamic nation.

The evolution of Malaysia’s Foreign Policy

Malaysia’s Foreign Policy since Iindependence in 1957 has evolved and isasean1 characterised by the notable changes in political stewardship. It began with the nation’s emphasis on nation-building under Tunku Abdul Rahman, to non-alignment and an Islamic nation under Tun Abdul Razak, to consolidation and ASEAN as a cornerstone of Malaysia’s Foreign Policy under Tun Hussein Onn.

Malaysia saw greater economic orientation and advocacy for the rights of developing countries under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the strengthening of ASEAN as a rule-based organisation under Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Foreign Policy thrusts are the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM) and the transformation agendas towards making Malaysia a high income developed nation by the year 2020.

Fostering close bilateral relations with neighbouring countries remains a high priority. ASEAN is the cornerstone of Malaysia’s Foreign Policy. A strong and successful ASEAN is not only an economic necessity but also a strategic imperative. A prosperous, consolidated and stable ASEAN is a security deposit for Southeast Asia and Asia at large.

Building and deepening partnerships with other Asian countries including China, Japan, South Korea and India, US, Russia, European, African, Middle-Eastern and Latin American countries are continuously pursued.

At the multilateral level, Malaysia is a strong proponent of the United Nations (UN) Charter and the fundamental principles governing interstate relations. These refer to the sovereign and mutual respect for territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs of other nations, peaceful settlement of disputes and peaceful co-existence.

Malaysia’s engagement in other multilateral fora such as APEC, ASEM, OIC, Commonwealth, NAM and other organisations are equally important. These are available platforms to speak on issues of common concerns.

Wisma PutraThe Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Wisma Putra has been part and parcel of this evolution of the nation’s foreign affairs from the early days of Independence.

The pioneering diplomats of the day had laid a strong foundation in our international relations which over the years has been further fortified in pursuing our foreign policy imperatives.

We hold our former officers in high esteem for their service in raising the stature and prestige of Malaysia in the eyes of the international community just as we acknowledge the dedication and commitment of all those who came after them to the present day.

In today’s digital era, information flow is instantaneous, almost seamless and unstoppable compared to decades ago. With the dramatic transformation of the geo-political landscape over the decades and the emergence of a plethora of new and complex issues, such as those relating to the environment, energy security, war, terrorism, pandemics and other humanitarian crises, food security, climate change, piracy, among others, Wisma Putra has had to face new challenges that require new strategies and approaches and inevitably hiring of officers from an array of disciplines.

Coordination with ministries and agencies

Wisma Putra works closely with all relevant government departments in organising and managing international meetings or visits by foreign leaders and delegations. Similarly, Malaysian missions abroad work with other Malaysian agencies such as MIDA, MATRADE and Tourism Malaysia based in the host country in carrying out their activities. This cohesive platform also contributes to cost-effective promotion of Malaysian interests and conduct of foreign relations.


The entry into force of Asean Charter on December 15 2008 was a turning point for ASEAN, where it transformed itself into a rule-based organisation, with legal personality. This Charter reiterates the common principles and collective commitments of ASEAN in enhancing regional peace, security and prosperity.

The Charter also sets a firm footing for achieving ASEAN Community in 2015, with a dedicated work plan, clear timelines and targets. Initiatives that have been realised include the adoption of the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, establishment of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, ASEAN Institute of Peace and Reconciliation, as well as ASEAN Regional Mine Action Centre.

As the ASEAN Chair in 2015, Malaysia will play a key role in steering the work of ASEAN towards the establishment of one community and beyond 2015 Vision. Malaysia underlines five key elements as the basis of the Asean post-2015 vision namely:

THE Post-2015 vision should reflect the commonly-held aspirations of the ASEAN people. These include good governance, transparency, higher standards of living, sustainable development, empowerment of women and greater opportunity for all;

THE ASEAN integration process should be brought to a higher level;

THE capacity of ASEAN’s institutions must be strengthened;

THE coordination between the various ASEAN organs must be improved; and,

THE region must be free of internal conflicts which could be achieved by promoting moderation as one of the key ASEAN values.

UN Security Council

Malaysia is currently vying for the one non-permanent seat of the UNNajib@UNGA Security Council (UNSC) allocated to the Asia Pacific Group for the 2015-2016 term. The elections are scheduled in October 2014 in New York. Malaysia’s candidature carries the theme “Peace and Security through Moderation”.

If elected to the UNSC, Malaysia will continue to promote the moderation agenda and mediation approach, and contribute towards the enhancement of UN peacekeeping operations.

Malaysia was the facilitator of the Mindanao Peace Process which led to the signing of the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Oct 15, 2013.

Membership in the UNSC would allow Malaysia to continue promoting mediation as an approach towards peaceful conflict resolution. Malaysia would also be able to share its experience, knowledge and expertise as a mediator in resolving conflicts and disputes peacefully.

Malaysia has participated actively in over 30 UN Peacekeeping Operations since 1960, with deployment of over 29,000 peacekeepers from the Malaysian Armed Forces and Royal Malaysian Police.

In addition, Malaysia, through its Malaysian Peacekeeping Training Centre (MPTC), also provides pre-deployment training courses to many local and international peacekeepers.

Malaysia remains committed to and supportive of comprehensive efforts in reforming the UNSC. Malaysia firmly believes that the reform of the Security Council should take place in a comprehensive manner, both in terms of its working methods and expansion of its membership.

Malaysia has trained over 4,000 participants from 14 post-conflict countries since the establishment of the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme (MTCP). Membership in the UNSC would allow Malaysia to continue advocating peaceful means in the prevention of conflicts.

Recent achievements in bilateral relations

John+Kerry+Najib+RazakIn 2013 alone, Malaysia achieved significant milestones in terms of intensifying our engagement with key players at the global scene. The recent exchanges of high-level visits with Japan, China, Russia, France, and the US have contributed to further boost our political relations with these countries and augmented bilateral cooperation for mutual benefit. Malaysia has benefited immensely from these engagements, as new commitments were pledged and agreements were inked to create a win-win situation for all.

For instance, relations between Malaysia and China have been elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which marked new heights in bilateral relations.

Both countries have also embarked on a Five-Year-Programme for Economic and Trade Cooperation for the period of 2013-2017, with the aim of achieving an annual bilateral trade of US$160 billion by the year 2017.

As for Malaysia-Japan relations, both leaders agreed to expand theAbe-Najib enduring Look East Policy (LEP) to be more forward-looking. Thus, a Second Wave of the LEP will now embody a new focus on economic cooperation, particularly on investment, trade, technology, infrastructure, Islamic finance and promotion of the halal industry, in line with our economic transformation policies and priorities.

Even our traditional ties with the United Kingdom have received a recent boost and are currently at its best, driven by close personal relations and shared visions between our Prime Minister and Prime Minister David Cameron. We are immensely proud of the investment by a Malaysian consortium in the Battersea Project, which has breathed new life to the excellent bilateral relations.

Similarly, the recent US$5.1 billion acquisition by PETRONAS of a Canadian energy company — Progress Energy Resources Corporation — has made Malaysia the largest foreign direct investor in Canada. The project involves a US$35 billion plan to develop shale gas assets and build an LNG export terminal in British Columbia.

Ten years ago, who would have thought that Malaysia, a small developing country in Southeast Asia, could be the largest foreign direct investor in a Western developed country like Canada?

As for Malaysia-US relations, following the visit of our Prime Minister to the US in September 2013, both countries are exploring cooperation in strategic areas such as science and technology, information technology, and biotechnology.

Last year also saw several exchanges of visits between Russia and Malaysia at the ministerial level, including my official visit to the Russian Federation last July, which opened a new chapter in our bilateral relations. Russia, as one of the Permanent Members of the UNSC, has also given positive indication to Malaysia’s bid as the non-permanent member for the 2015-2016 term.

 Promoting moderation

 Testament to Malaysia’s success in its endeavour to promote GMM at the international level is the acceptance of the initiative by NAM, CHOGM, ASEM, D8 and OIC in their respective outcome documents.

Most significantly, moderation has been endorsed and accepted by ASEAN as a key ASEAN value. France has even expressed its hope that Malaysia could be the spokesperson on moderation at the UNSC, since Malaysia is vying for the UNSC Non-Permanent seat.

Malaysia will continue to propagate moderation as a useful tool in foreign policy, especially in dealing with conflicts. We believe that moderation can be practiced at the national level, it can direct regional policy and at the international level, moderation can guide our approach to the current global challenges.

The success of the approach was evident from Malaysia’s contribution as an honest broker in the peace process and national reconciliation of our neighbours in southern Philippines and southern Thailand.

Malaysia believes in a just, balanced and consistent approach in addressing the many issues affecting the regional and international community such as the Rohingya issue, situation in the Korean Peninsula, conflict in Syria, political turbulence in Egypt and the Palestinian cause. To this end, we steadfastly advocate a peaceful solution to end these crises through dialogue and negotiations.

At the national level, the moderation concept must also be practised by Malaysians in order to preserve unity and to avoid acts that would strain the diversity that is celebrated in Malaysia.

The special attribute of Malaysia as a microcosm of multiracial and multi-religious society means Malaysians should not lose sight of the importance of practising moderation at home. We need to end violence by rejecting extremism and instead, choosing mutual respect and inclusiveness, and strengthening the bonds between our different communities and faiths.

The Palestinian cause

Najid and AbbasFor more than four decades, Malaysia has been one of the staunchest supporters of the Palestinian cause at the bilateral, regional and international levels. Malaysia also supported Palestine’s bid to become a Non-Member Observer State of the UN on November 29, 2012.

We have been consistent in providing various forms of assistance to Palestine and its people, both in cash and in kind, bilaterally or via multilateral platforms such as the UN and the OIC.

Last year, Malaysia pledged a one-off contribution amounting to US$250,000 to UNRWA on top of our annual contribution of US$25,000 for the period of 2012-2017. Reflective of Malaysia’s long standing commitment and support for Palestine, Najib made the inaugural humanitarian visit to Gaza, Palestine on Jan 22, 2013. During the visit, Malaysia pledged to contribute US$6.5 million to finance the construction of four infrastructure projects namely a vocational school, a mosque, an office building as well as new wing at a children’s hospital.

Malaysia’s role in the international community

Malaysia has a role to play in contributing towards the well-being of the general society, especially of its neighbours as a responsible member of the international community. Wisma Putra has been quick and forthcoming in responding to the needs of countries faced with humanitarian crises and natural calamities.

We have contributed through the deployment of search and rescue teams, medical aid assistance, as well as contribution in kind and monetary terms, to help alleviate the pain and suffering during times of crisis.

The most recent was Malaysia’s humanitarian assistance to the Philippines, following the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan, where Malaysia contributed basic necessities such as food and water, as well as financial, logistical, and medical assistance to the victims.

 Service and assistance to Malaysians

The function of Wisma Putra is by no means limited to diplomacy. The ministry’s consular service, or known as “citizen service” has often received the limelight in the media since it directly touches people’s lives and welfare.

With the increasing number of Malaysians travelling abroad and foreign expatriates making Malaysia their temporary home, consular achievement has now become one of the benchmarks to evaluate the effectiveness of our foreign service delivery system.

In dealing with consular crises, the ministry has been providing assistance to Malaysians abroad who are in need of help within limits of local and international law as well as assistance related to death, detention and distressed and missing Malaysians overseas.

Malaysia’s future direction in the international arena

Malaysia will continue to play an active role in the international arena in the coming years, especially through its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2015 and its bid for the non-permanent seat of the UNSC for the 2015-2016 term.

On Malaysia’s upcoming chairmanship of ASEAN, the year 2015 is particularly significant for the regional organisation, since it is the year the ASEAN Community is to be realised.

During its chairmanship of ASEAN, Malaysia wishes to see further strengthening of rules and norms to govern inter-state relations in the region, progress in the resolution of the South China Sea issue, as well as greater utilisation of ASEAN-led mechanisms and instruments related to peace and security such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia and the Asean Regional Forum (ARF).

Obama and NajibMalaysia is poised to project its prominent role in international diplomacy in 2014 when the country is scheduled to host several important world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and French President Francois Hollande. Such high-level visits are a clear endorsement of the importance of forging close bilateral ties with Malaysia and the Najib administration.

This year Malaysia and China are gearing up to celebrate our 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Both countries have agreed to adopt the theme “Malaysia and China Year of Friendly Exchanges”, which aptly reflects the direction in which both countries would collaborate further.

 Malaysia’s voice

Wisma Putra is entrusted to develop policy that is current, relevant and in step with evolving and changing political environments across the globe and present a clear and effective position in facing the exigencies in the region and farther afield.

China taking Malaysia’s friendship for granted

February 18, 2014

South China Sea: China testing Malaysia’s friendship and resolve

by  Dr. Tang Siew Mun@

FOR what is hyped to be a celebratory year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Malaysia and China, the mood is more cautious in the wake of yet another highly visible show of force by China in James Shoal.


Just as the Chinese community across the world was set to welcome the Year of the Horse, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA Navy) sent a three-ship flotilla to patrol the waters around James Shoal in the South China Sea.

The official news agency, Xinhua, reported that “soldiers and officials aboard swore an oath of determination to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and maritime interests”.

This was not the first, nor would it be the last of such visits. A similar incident took place in March last year. Malaysia should well expect these visits to be a recurrent Chinese feature and stratagem to reinforce their claim over the Malaysian shoal.

The latest intrusion into James Shoal could be interpreted in two ways. It could be a low-key way for China to reaffirm its interests in the area, and keep alive its claims of sovereignty. If these visits are confined to political speech acts of declarations, there is no immediate threat to Malaysian interests and regional stability. However, if these visits are a prelude to the old Chinese game of “creeping assertiveness” by testing Malaysia’s resolve, then the effect may be more destabilising and worrisome.

Even in the best case scenario where the repeated visits to the vicinity of James Shoal are transient and absent of any plans of escalation, Malaysia needs to provide a credible response.

James Shoal has clearly demonstrated the limits of Malaysian goodwill and “understanding” of what is essentially provocative Chinese moves toward Malaysian interests. We have to seriously ask ourselves, what does China hope to gain from these visits?

Malaysia had avoided megaphone diplomacy to register our concerns. Instead, we continue to put trust on our “special relationship” to avoid and minimise damage to one of our most important bilateral relationships.

Unfortunately, Beijing plays by different rules and proudly displays these acts openly and widely through their media agencies. This puts Kuala Lumpur in a delicate position. By holding firm to the preferred modality of quiet diplomacy, Kuala Lumpur runs the risk of being criticised of appeasing China.

Indeed, the oft-asked question is, why is Kuala Lumpur deferential to Beijing? These views are a poor representation of Malaysian diplomacy. Malaysia is vigorous in protecting its interests in the South China Sea, but does so in a productive and non-confrontational manner.

Chinese Naval ShipsChina needs to show Malaysia the same courtesy and respect that we have shown to them. Playing out delicate political-strategic issues in the media would only serve to inflame nationalistic angst and harden positions in both countries, and potentially setting the stage for a confrontation that neither Malaysia nor China wants.

Looking ahead, Malaysia has to face up to some hard questions: FIRST, it should re-evaluate if the existing approach and its China policy is effective. If James Shoal is used as a barometer of China’s “friendliness” toward Malaysia, the future of Sino-Malaysian relations is not looking too bright;

SECOND, Malaysia should give more emphasis to political-strategic and security issues vis-à-vis China. As important as our trade and investment ties are with China, economics should not overwhelm strategic considerations. We need a balanced approach in our China policy;

THIRD, Malaysia should be more expressive and sharing with its views. As a democracy, the government has an obligation to inform and engage its citizens in its policy-making. More importantly, Malaysia needs to register its position openly but in a constructive manner. If Malaysia is hesitant to speak out for itself, how effective could Malaysia be when it assumes the chairmanship of Asean, and possibly serving as the Asia’s representative in the UN Security Council?;

FOURTH, Malaysia needs a Plan B. Our policy is premised on a benign and cooperative China. What if this worldview turns out differently? What if James Shoal is the harbinger of a nationalistic and expansionist great power in the making? Although we would want to believe (and hope) that the latter worldview will not become a reality, Malaysia needs to expand its strategic options. It would be irresponsible to base our China policy on the latter’s benevolence. There is no guarantee that this would be the case in the long term. In fact, James Shoal may just be the catalyst to nudge us toward contemplating the unthinkable; and,

FIFTH, we should not allow ourselves to be caught up in the euphoria and celebrations of the commemorative year, and avoid taking on hard and delicate issues. James Shoal (and the South China Sea dispute) is a tumour that if left untreated, could serve to damage the erstwhile good relations between Malaysia and China. Fundamentally, we should engage China to define the meaning of “friendship.” How would friends deal with problems and disputes? Certainly not by sending men-of-war to test the other’s

Friendships should not be taken for granted. Kuala Lumpur and Beijing need to work hard to maintain and to take the relationship to the next level. As we move toward paving new roads to deepening this friendship, we must also prioritise on repairing old ones.  At the same time, we must be careful not to put additional pressure on old roads to avoid reaching the critical point of collapse.

James Shoal is a test for China, as much as it is for Malaysia. If China is changing course, so too must Malaysia in crafting an appropriate response.

A Gramscian Take on Thai Politics

February 15, 2014

A Gramscian Take on Thai Politics

by Daniel Mattes (02-14-14)

At a dinner table in a common Isaan household, a spirit appears, asking, “What’s wrong with my eyes? They are open, but I can’t see a thing.”  The spirit’s appearance initially renders it a menacing threat, but it soon becomes clear that the spirit is the family’s guardian.  This scene takes place in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, alongside many other images of superstition and banal rural life in Thailand’s Northeast.

The film was produced at a moment of immense change in Thailand, as the military continually interfered in civilian political processes between 2006 and 2010, sometimes causing violence in the suppression of street protests.  The film, aware of its context, notes the country’s history of military interventions when the eponymous protagonist laments his past murder of communists under the false and exaggerated premise of nationalism.

The more recent military action that removed elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power in 2006 occurred along a polarized divide between the urban and the rural, between business and agriculture, and between the bourgeoisie and the poor.  The film’s threatening spirit guardian represents this rural working poor, who simultaneously form a foundation of Thai identity but stoke fear among urban elites through their electoral power.  Although 2006 saw the successful removal of Thaksin, the resumption of new street protests in recent months demonstrates the anxieties over rural power that still exist in Thailand.

Key elements within a “deep state” of military, royal and business elites have unsuccessfully offset the interests of rural peasants, even as they have utilized and managed support from civil society movements opposed to government corruption.  To shift the polarization in Thai society and politics, greater understanding of the historical experiences of the Thai subaltern – the rural and working poor – can bridge the divide.

TakshinAlthough the Shinawatra-associated parties of Pheu Thai [PTP] and previously Thai Rak Thai [TRT] won four elections between 2001 and 2011, the deeper powers of the Thai state have not necessarily shifted with the changes in government.  Rather, as McCargo has suggested in his work on the Thai network monarchy, the entrenched military, royalist and business elements have continued to operate the state at a deeper level than any superficial electoral shift.  Yet in the face of PTP’s continued electoral mandates for programs of healthcare provision and rural development loans, this deep state may no longer feel so empowered.

Through studies of bourgeois hegemony in his Prison Notebooks, the Italian communist leader, Antonio Gramsci, noted society’s role when a state lost control over politics.  As he noted, “When the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed…[as] a powerful system of fortresses and earthenworks.”  Thaksin’s mutation into a populist force outside the Bangkok establishment encouraged support among those that the leading Democrat Party had long ignored, including the geographically marginalized North and Northeast as well as the socioeconomically marginalized rural poor and migrant workers.  It was assumed Thaksin held ulterior motives, but corruption and cronyism were not new features of Thai democracy; what unnerved the urban elite to a greater extent was his ability to consolidate such wide support from the voting public, for this had the capacity to threaten future policymaking and their deeper interests.  This elite struggle resulted in and revealed the real forces within civil society taking part in street movements and fighting over sociopolitical hegemony: the urban bourgeoisie and the rural poor.  As the dominant bloc of political elites lost control over the government, bourgeois elites now fear losing hegemony over the rural and working poor.

Recent events in Bangkok have amplified the anti-rural noise, referring to potential PTP voters as either ignorant or susceptible to bribes.  Thongchai Winichakul has noted the discrepancy in criticizing vote-buying among rural populations but ignoring similar strategies of localized spending within the urban context.  The cynical discourse surrounding development in rural areas does not exist concerning commonly used tax breaks or transit improvements in Bangkok.

Andrew Walker has also argued that urban elites wrongly presume that money dispensed during elections will directly determine voting outcomes, an assumption that indicates not only urban bias but also urban ignorance of the realities and rational choices of rural populations.

Herein lies the paradox at the crux of the divide: the deep state of military, royalist and urban business interests view populist efforts as a threat to their wider support, but what truly threatens their grasp on power is their own mischaracterization of that wider public as threatening.  Instead, these elements should view the rural populations as a foundational spirit of their power.  The king once achieved his prominence and earned his wide appeal through years of concerted public engagement with rural farmers, for example.  However, the monarchy and its networks have presently come to fear the rural population’s intractable power and related support for the Shinawatras.

There is a distinct possibility — even probability — that Thaksin capitalized on the subaltern of rural farmers and urban poor in a clever attempt to assuage populist sentiment without true action.  Recent protests among Northern farmers still awaiting their promised subsidies reinforce this notion.  However, the opposition’s emphasis of this claim only aims to manipulate the subaltern for purposes of its own.  As such, Thai political and civil society regularly engage in debates that reinforce the status quo and protect the hegemony of the dominant bloc of the ruling class and the state.

The selective removal of Thaksin Shinawatra as a singular example of corrupt politics denotes not only the level of unease among elites in response to his continued support among the rural population and the working poor, but also the continued entrenchment of an elite class on either side of the political divide.  The monarchy’s Privy Council, the military and the courts – the structural tools of the deep state – only began to pursue Thaksin’s removal from office after his resounding 2005 re-election, after ignoring his and others’ corruption as a banal normalcy within Thai politics.

yingluck-shinawatra_4Thongchai Winichakul labels the events of 2006 “a royalist coup,” with the military and the courts as accomplices and with the support of an electoral minority but crucial element called “the people’s sector,” made up of activists, intellectuals, media outlets, and the business elite.  This sector, weighted towards the attitudes and interests of the urban bourgeoisie, has failed to appreciate those of rural citizens.  The lengthy movements of 2006 and 2008, the violence of 2010 and the renewal of action in recent months indicate the deep intractability of the divide that continues to separate the country.

The invention of “the people’s sector” has resurfaced in the past few months, as protestors have rallied against elections and called for the instatement of a “people’s council.”  The current protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, speaks of moral opposition to Thaksin’s corruption and his sister Yingluck’s leadership failings, even as he minimizes his own alleged involvement as the deputy Prime Minister who ordered the deadly military crackdown that killed 93 red-shirt supporters of Thaksin in 2010.  Such a selective memory extrapolates beyond Suthep’s personal evasion: his circle of elite and urban-based support has consistently justified the previous acts of violence perpetrated on the social movements that first caused the state to tremble (to use Gramsci’s phrasing).

What truly needs to change in Thailand is a shift in civil society; street protests evoke the vestiges of civil action, but they merely actualise the political gamesmanship on both sides of a purely political debate.  Understood as such, a Gramscian framework is more illuminating with regards to ongoing events in Thailand than the conventional analysis of democratization, which focuses too much on political power and policy.  The opposition is correct that Thailand needs more than new elections, but Suthep and other yellow-shirt elites have ideologically manipulated the discontent of their supporters for their own political entrenchment.  The series of trembles to the Thai state over the past eight years have revealed the cracked earthenworks of division and misunderstanding that lay between the key interests of society.

A Gramscian framework provides greater agency to the subaltern: “If yesterday it [the subaltern element] was not responsible, because ‘resisting’ a will external to itself, now it feels itself to be responsible because it is no longer resisting but an agent, necessarily active and taking the initiative.”

For subaltern elements to entrench their own sense of agency, they must resist the hegemony within their own ranks – red or yellow.  The alternative Gramscian framework has suggested they can accomplish this through direct emphasis on their own cultural strengths, ideological dominance, and incumbent moral superiority.  Modern Thailand faces the task of reconciling an increasingly polarized populace, divided by political ideology as much as geographic and industrial background.  Yet the battle is taking place and must continue to take place not within political society but within civil society.  Until urban elites interpret the incentives and interests of the rural poor not as a threat but instead as a foundational spirit, the hegemonic Thai system will continue to move forward blindly, as with open eyes that cannot see.

Daniel Mattes is a graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Book Review on South China Sea

February 12, 2014

Book Review on South China Sea

Jacket image for Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea – Chandos Publishing

Wu Shicun, Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea: A Chinese perspective [Hardcover], 1st Edition, Chandos Asian Studies Series, Chandos Publishing,Oxford,2013,ISBN 978-1-84334-685-2.

Reviewed by BA Hamzah.

Writing a book on the complex subject of the South China Sea is a challenge. A bigger challenge is to attempt to address all the issues, which border geo-politics, law, economics and history under two hundred pages.

However, to his credit, the author has succeeded to present China’s official views of the disputes over the overlapping maritime claims in the South China. Where he fails to provide a balanced view on contemporary issues, he makes it up by a thorough treatment of the historical events that led to the present conflict, albeit from the Chinese perspective.

For the non –mandarin speaking researchers, getting an official Chinese position on the conflict in the South China Sea is always a guessing work. Dr Wu Shicun’s book fills in the much-needed void.

The title of the book is a bit misleading. The book focuses on the overlapping claims in the Spratly although the title says, “Resolving Disputes for Regional co-operation and Development in the South China Sea.” While no one should judge the book by its cover, the message is clear: that China wishes to resolve the overlapping claims via some forms of regional cooperation. There is a slight change in the nuances. In the past, China was rather reluctant to enter into any kind of Joint Development Projects. Recent events seem to suggest a policy change, a new appetite to reduce tensions in the Spratlys.

By training, the author is an historian. He has contributed significantly to the body of knowledge on the South China Sea. His current position as President of the National Institute of South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) gives him a rare insight into the thinking of policy planners at Beijing. The author’s special relationship with policy makers at Beijing makes this book a valuable contribution to the literature on China’s official position on the South China Sea.

Like all books, it is impossible to do justice to the subject matter, especially when the writer wishes to fill a wide canvass as he has attempted. In covering too wide a ground, the author inevitably misses some important details. For example, he gives only a glimpse examination on the Philippines’ decision in January 2013 to refer China to the United Nations Arbitration Tribunal.

Although China has refused to participate in the Arbitration process, the author should have, in my view, examined in some details the law and facts of the case from China’s vantage. A sneak preview of how China will deal with the issue should the Tribunal find the case, in absentia, against China. Leaving the matter hanging would invite all kinds of innuendoes.

The author has defended China’s “indisputable sovereignty over the entire South China Sea”. He claims that China’s position results from discovery, presence and history. In his view, China has demonstrated historic right over the South China Sea. He forgets to remind readers that in customary international law, mere discovery of a territory, gives the discoverer only an “inchoate title”. That is to say, it has only a temporary right to make an effective occupation. If, within a reasonable time, the area is not occupied, it is subject to appropriation.

The author has asserted that China has “exercised successive administration” (p50) over the features in the South China Sea since the Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD). While the assertion could be historically correct, modern international law puts greater weight on an interrupted, peaceful and continuous display of state authority to satisfy the legal requirement of effective jurisdiction.

China has not been able to demonstrate that it has exercised continuous and effective display of state authority on all the features it claims in the South China Sea. For example, Great Britain and France occupied some major features in the South China Sea, when China was weak. Japan occupied the major features in the Spratlys during WW 11 including the Paracels, Pratas and Itu Aba.

The author has ignored another occupation. In 1878, for example, Great Britain occupied Amboyna Cay (presently occupied by Vietnam and claimed by Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines). The British gave permission to the Central Borneo Company Limited to extract phosphates (guano) and to fly the Union Jack on the island.

Intriguingly, the author acknowledges that between the 1930s and 1950s the ownership of the features in the South China Sea were claimed by “France, Japan and occasionally by a private Filipino (p 4). However, he fails to impute any legal result that accrues from such occupation. By dismissing these claims, the author is at odd with state practice with respect to the means of acquiring of territories under modern international law.

The book deals at great length with China’s controversial nine-dash line map. The author refers to this map as the “U-shaped line”. The Nationalist Government of China (under General Chiang Kai- shek), first published the nine-dash line map (originally eleven dash-lines) in 1947. This controversial map was given a semi-official status in May 2009, when it was appended to China’s Note Verbale to the United Nations Secretary General. The Note Verbale was China’s diplomatic response to a joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam on their extended continental shelf to the UN Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) in May 2009.

The author cited four different interpretations of the controversial “U -shaped line”. In his view, Judge Gao Zhiguo’s explanation of the line as being “synonymous with a claim of sovereignty over the island groups…” including claim to historical right of fishing, navigation, and other marine activities is more acceptable to the “international audience”. The author warns that the debate over the U-Shaped line will continue, “If China remains silent and keeps its claim ambiguous.”

China policy makers should heed this advice.

The map that shows “the U-shaped line” is one of many maps that China could use to defend its title, according to the author. The author has also cited many ancient Chinese maps that incorporated the South China Sea as China’s territory. The legal status of these ancient maps under temporal international law is questionable and uncertain at best. While official maps often play pivotal role in international boundary disputes, the international courts have tended in the past to give little evidentiary value to ancient maps, especially those bereft of coordinates. For example, in the Burkina Faso/Republic of Mali Case (ICJ Reports, 1986) the Court finds that “the IGN map is not an official document” and the Court observes that, in general, “whether in frontier limitations or in international territorial conflicts, maps merely constitute information which varies in accuracy from case to case.” (italics added).

The author argues that the ambiguity of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) has led to different interpretations of its provisions. This ambiguity has made it difficult to put the conflicting territorial claims in its proper perspective. According to the author, the failure of UNCLOS to give recognition to the concepts of “historic rights” and “historic waters” under international law has not done justice to China’s claim.

The author also discusses in some details the bases of claims by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei to the features in the Spratly. Dismissing all these claims as illegal, the author offers joint development as a way out. In his view, for the JDA to take off, it has to be premised  on four principles:[1]

·     The ocean should be used only for peaceful purposes;

·    Incremental approach. Regional cooperation should commence with the less sensitive topics like marine environmental protection;

·    All inclusive approach. The projects must benefit all the stakeholders;

·Preservation of marine environment. The author has suggested that the exploitation of living and non-living resources in the South China Sea should not damage the marine environment.

Based on the above principles, the author has outlined the general areas for co- operation. They include:

·         Joint development for oil and gas. He cited the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) case (2004-2008) between the National Oil Companies of China, the Philippines and (later) Vietnam.

·         Joint management and conservation of fishery resources. He cited the China -Vietnam Agreement on Fishery Cooperation in the Biebu Gulf (2004) as an example.

·         Navigational Safety and Search and Rescue activities;

·         Combating international maritime crimes, and

·         Marine scientific research and marine environmental protection.

Interestingly, throughout the book, the author makes no mention of the claim by Taiwan. Although Taiwan claims the same area, as China’s and the bases of claims are similar, it deserves a fair treatment. After all, it has effectively occupied two large features in the South China Sea-the Pratas and Itu Aba.

The author’s discussion on Malaysia’s claim requires updating. Malaysia has relied on the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf to claim certain features in the Spratlys (known as Gugusan Terumbu Semarang since 2006). The area and the features claimed by Malaysia are contained in the 1979 Map on the Continental Shelf of Malaysia.

In 1978, Malaysia sent a team of officers from the National Mapping Directorate, the Royal Malaysian Navy and Army Engineers from the Line of Communication Unit to survey the area. The team found no trace of occupation of the features, except on Amboyna Cay. There, the team found a concrete structure with Vietnamese markings. However, at the material time, there were no Vietnamese soldiers or civilians on the island.

Soon after the Malaysian survey team returned to their home base, the Vietnamese troops went back to reclaim Amboyna Cay. Similarly, the Philippines, which also claim Amboyna Cay (Pulau Kechil Amboyna), made hasty return to Commodore Reef (Terumbu Laksamana) soon after the Malaysian survey team left the Reef in 1978. The Philippines still maintains a military outpost on Commodore Reef.

The Malaysian Government published the 1979 map only after the survey team has physically established that the features were located on its continental Shelf as defined under the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf. To suggest otherwise is quite inaccurate.

The author also examines China’s trade-based ancient tributary political patronage system (with a strong China at its apex), which in his words, became “the dominant international order in ancient East Asia”. Although the author does not draw any implication from this tributary system in the book, the message that a strong China had kept peace and order in the region in the past is quite instructive. Is a strong China trying to replicate the trade-based political patronage system in the current multi-polar international structure is not quite clear? However, this point is worth noting as the countries in the region continue to engage China. 

In conclusion, it becomes obvious that China is desperate to reduce the tension in the South China Sea. Yet by continuing to insist that the entire South China Sea as its own sea and that it has indisputable sovereignty over the features within the nine-dash line map, gives little space and hope for other claimant parties to advance their claims. Compounding the jurisdictional problem in the contested- South China Sea, apart from China’s hard-line position, is the role of third parties, which China considers as unfriendly to its interest. Beijing views the presence of USA, Japan and India, who have no territorial claims in the South China Sea, as unhelpful.

China’ offer to consider joint development projects, with the claimant parties, as defined by China is an attempt to rebuild confidence. However, until such promises are met, they must be viewed with some circumspect. In my view, China is unlikely to negotiate its sovereignty claim. Nonetheless, it is prepared to co-exist by acknowledging the present status quo only if the claimant state makes no effort to undermine or belittle its claim. Taking China for arbitration over the territories in the South China Sea as the Philippines has done, for example, goes again the current modus operandi of China as a rising power. Similarly, China finds it odd why some claimant states have allied with the third parties, external to the region, against it.

Under the current geo-political circumstances, the challenge to China is to demonstrate to the region that it is a benign power with the capacity to keep peace in the Spratlys and the region beyond.

[1] Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said at the 8th East Asia Summit at Brunei (8-9 October 2013), “China and ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] have agreed that the disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully through consultations and negotiations between countries directly concerned.” Still, until a peaceful agreement is met, these are just words.


An Emergent US Security Strategy in Southeast Asia

February 12, 2014

east-west-center-asia-pacific-bulletinNumber 248 | February 11, 2014

An Emergent US Security Strategy in Southeast Asia

By Marvin Ott and Kenneth Ngo

The foundation of US security strategy in Southeast Asia since the end of World War II has been a “hub and spoke” system of formal bilateral alliances with four countries in the region: Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and, for a period, New Zealand. During the Cold War these alliances became the primary vehicle for US and allied governments to prosecute counterinsurgency campaigns against communist guerrilla forces. Both Manila and Bangkok allowed the Pentagon to establish major facilities that were critical to America’s largest counterinsurgency campaign in Indochina.

The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 signaled a sharp diminution of the US military presence in Southeast Asia and the end of the Cold War in 1991 removed the overarching strategic threat. Not surprisingly, the value assigned to the alliances both in Washington and in the region declined–most tangibly expressed in Manila’s readiness to allow the US lease at Subic Bay to expire. Meanwhile, Thailand turned to China for support in dealing with its ongoing communist insurgency and the Vietnamese army’s occupation of neighboring Cambodia.

For Southeast Asia more generally, the 1990s were a heady time of rapid economic growth and societal modernization–powerfully reinforced by the dramatic growth in China’s economy. Post-Mao China emerged as an ideal neighbor committed to a “peaceful rise” and a growing economic partnership with its southern neighbors. Under these conditions it is remarkable that the entire US alliance system did not just dissolve. It continued due, in part, to simple inertia, the efforts of Singapore to provide facilities for Pacific Command (PACOM), shared concerns over terrorism after 9/11, and the unique value of PACOM’s capabilities in disaster mitigation demonstrated in response to the epic 2004 tsunami. Nevertheless, the Southeast Asia alliance system as a whole remained at a low ebb in terms of public visibility and strategic priority.

All this began to change three to four years ago–and has continued to do so at an accelerating pace. The driver of this change has been China–specifically the perception that Beijing’s investment in military capabilities, particularly maritime and air, is excessive and disquieting. Moreover, China’s overt moves to seize control over land features and maritime space in the South China Sea are alarming. As the only country with the military capability to potentially deter and frustrate China’s apparent territorial ambitions, the United States has found itself facing a profound strategic choice.

Starkly put, should the United States signal that it will acquiesce to a de facto Chinese sphere of influence and security monopoly over the South China Sea and much of Southeast Asia or instead contest China’s geopolitical ambitions? During the George W. Bush administration’s preoccupation with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, strategic choices in East Asia were deferred.

President Barack Obama entered office determined to wind down these two military operations, making room for a refocus of US diplomatic, economic and military assets elsewhere, particularly in Southeast Asia. At a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in July 2010, US Secretary of State Clinton effectively committed the United States to a policy of contesting China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea–and by implication, China’s broader hegemonic posture toward Southeast Asia. This strategy resonated with modern US history where US involvement in World War I and II, as well as the Cold War, had the fundamental strategic purpose of preventing Europe and Asia from coming under the domination of a rival and hostile hegemon.

Specific US national interests in Southeast Asia (and East Asia more generally) include the preservation of major sea lanes of communication through the South China Sea as a global commons and the credibility of still binding US alliance commitments in the region.

If “containment” was the overarching descriptor of America’s Cold War strategy, “pivot” and “rebalance” serve that function for Southeast Asia today. No one close to this effort, in the White House, the Pentagon, or the State Department, has any illusions about the magnitude of the challenge. China is a multidimensional great power on a rapid ascent toward superpower capabilities.

The nationalism fueling China’s regional ambitions runs very deep and the geographical distances involved in deploying US military power to the region are not insignificant. Moreover, China’s economic and demographic connections to Southeast are organic and profound.

That said; the “pivot” has several things going for it. First, fear and suspicion are natural attributes of small states dealing with a much larger, more powerful neighbor. Since the Peloponnesian Wars, states in such circumstances have looked to powerful friends from outside the immediate area for support. The United States seeks nothing more than a region that is stable, prosperous, autonomous, and accessible–objectives that coincide perfectly with the national interests of Southeast Asian states.

China’s territorial and hegemonic ambitions, however, are profoundly antithetical to these interests. This is most obviously true of the South China Sea claimant states–Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei–but distinct signs of unease with China’s assertiveness have been evident in such non-claimant capitals as Jakarta and Naypyidaw.

Second, the growing salience of multilateral arrangements centered on ASEAN has been a key feature of the region. ASEAN connectivity is valued as an engine of economic growth and a means of strengthening the region against external pressure and coercion. For the United States, multilateral security arrangements epitomized by the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) are a natural strategic supplement to the alliance system. China, however, has insisted that security issues, including maritime disputes, be handled bilaterally.

From a Chinese strategist’s perspective, a binary face-off between China and the United States in the South China Sea is far more promising than one that also involves several other regional actors. The more numerous the players and the more complex and dense the interactions the less China will be able to control outcomes.

It is far too early to provide a scorecard on the pivot. President Obama and other senior officials have signaled ongoing US commitment through frequent travel to Southeast Asia. The first steps of a redeployment of the US military to the region has been implemented and a tailored military strategy–air-sea battle–is being actively developed. Other strategic partnerships with Southeast Asian counterparts are becoming more robust. Game theory predicts that in a competitive arena with multiple actors, coalitions will form.

In Southeast Asia, we are seeing the emergence of an incipient coalition in support of US security strategy. The ultimate outcome of all of this is quite unclear. What is clear is that this will be the defining strategic contest of the first half of this century.

About the Author

Dr. Marvin C. Ott is Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University/SAIS. Dr. Ott can be contacted at  Mr. Kenneth M. Ngo is Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and can be contacted at

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

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Indonesia’s Foreign Relations: Policy shaped by the ideal of ‘dynamic equilibrium’

February 4, 2014

Indonesia’s Foreign Relations: Policy shaped by the ideal of ‘dynamic equilibrium’

Dewi F Aby Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Jakarta

We haven’t heard much about Indonesia’s ‘concentric circles’ Foreign Policy lately, a concept that gained currency when Mochtar Kusumaatmadja served as Indonesian Foreign Minister from 1978 to 1988 and continued to be popular until the end of the New Order.

The idea was that instead of pursuing a globalist foreign policy as President Sukarno had done when he tried to position Indonesia as a leading light among the ‘new emerging forces’ confronting colonialism and imperialism, President Suharto would pursue more modest foreign policy goals centred on Indonesia’s needs for security, stability and economic development.

Indonesia’s Foreign Policy priorities would be based on geographic proximity, with the inner circle encompassing ASEAN (seen as the cornerstone of Indonesian foreign policy), the second circle comprising major neighbouring countries in East Asia, the third circle the wider Asia Pacific region, with the outer perimeters being of diminishing importance. Thus the Asia Pacific was the focus of Indonesia’s foreign policy interests and strategic priorities throughout most of Suharto’s New Order period, while relations with countries and regions beyond were selective, on the basis of what they could offer Indonesia economically.

Since then new buzz words have emerged in Indonesia’s Foreign Policy practice, though the adherence to the ‘free and active’ foreign policy doctrine, introduced in 1948 as a means for Indonesia to strike an independent path in the face of the bipolar rivalry, has been reiterated from time to time.

Under the brief presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), between 1999 and 2001, then Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab, a professor of comparative religions, stated that Indonesia would follow an ‘ecumenical’ foreign policy with a strong trend towards globalism. This was reinforced by Gus Dur’s penchant for overseas travel — in the spirit of ecumenism he made a point of visiting countries at odds with each other, such as Cuba immediately after visiting the United States. After Gus Dur left office the concept of ecumenical foreign policy also went out of fashion.

In recent years President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) has asserted that Indonesia’sMarty Natalegawa Foreign Policy is based on ‘thousands of friends [later a million] and zero enemies’. And Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa (right) has popularised the so-called doctrine of ‘dynamic equilibrium’. Unlike in a more traditional adversarial ‘balance of power’ concept, a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ seeks to involve all the major relevant powers within a more cooperative framework as a basis for the development of an inclusive regional architecture.

In truth, despite the seemingly major changes in priorities and styles, there are also basic elements of continuity that mark Indonesia’s Foreign Policy, besides the emphatic adherence to the ‘free and active’ principle. Indonesian Foreign Policy under SBY has combined key elements from the earlier years, and nowhere are these more discernible than in the Asia Pacific region.

From the Sukarno era Indonesia inherits a strong sense of idealism and a missionary outlook that seeks to manage if not transform its strategic environment, projecting self-confidence even when lacking the means to carry out its policies effectively.

Evidently, the emphasis in Indonesian regional policy has moved away from the confrontational character of the Sukarno years and has been replaced by close cooperation with neighbouring countries to the extent of forming a regional community.

Still, the desire to promote norms and values that would allow Indonesia and other similarly situated countries in the region the autonomy to be their own masters, instead of merely followers of more powerful states, has remained strong. By itself and through ASEAN as the cornerstone of its foreign policy, Indonesia has consistently tried to carve a bigger role in designing and shaping the regional order, at least within the inner concentric circles.

President-Susilo-Bambang-YudhoyonoDespite the current strong emphasis on good neighbourly relations and economic pragmatism (a legacy of the New Order, discussed below), the strong nationalism and jingoism of the Sukarno period still flares up occasionally. Nationalistic passion is naturally aroused when a foreign country is seen to be slighting Indonesia’s national pride — something that happens with rather regular frequency with Indonesia’s closest neighbours and regional partners, Australia and Malaysia.

Nevertheless, while calls for ‘konfrontasi’ can still be heard when bilateral tensions flare up — as with recent revelations that Australian spies tapped the phones of President Yudhoyono, the first lady and several other cabinet members in 2009 — pragmatism has mostly acted as a brake.

A strong dose of pragmatism, utilitarianism and desire for a safe neighbourhood in Indonesian Foreign Policy — compelled by expectations that foreign policy initiatives bring concrete benefits to the wider public beyond international prestige — remains a legacy of Suharto’s New Order period.

The dominant themes of the New Order’s Foreign Policy have undoubtedly continued to colour Indonesia’s regional and international outreach, though new themes have also emerged, such as the promotion of Indonesia’s soft power assets as the world’s third-largest democracy and the largest majority Muslim nation.

Although it is no longer explicitly stated, Indonesia has in fact continued its concentric circles foreign policy approach with much national time and energy devoted to the realisation of the ASEAN Community by 2015. Beyond ASEAN, priority has been given to relations within the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea), the East Asia Summit and APEC.

Within these circles it is important to note that, as in the earlier period, concerns for security based on relationships with immediate neighbours predominates; for countries in the outer circles, Indonesia’s emphasis is more on securing and safeguarding economic interests. Also demonstrating where Indonesia’s Foreign Policy priorities lie is the fact that almost all of the strategic and comprehensive partnerships that Indonesia has entered into are with Asia Pacific countries, though in the past few years Jakarta has also become more active on the global stage.

With the end of the Cold War and the onset of a more pluralistic democracy in Indonesia, it is important to acknowledge that the brief Gus Dur interregnum has also left an indelible mark of ‘ecumenical’ foreign policy as Jakarta now sets out to befriend everyone (at least normatively) and play the role of a ‘unifier’. This stands in contrast to the ideologically driven aspects of Sukarno’s and Suharto’s foreign policies (the former vehemently anti-colonialism and -imperialism — read the West — and the latter virulently anti-communist).

In the current multipolar world order Indonesia can exercise its ‘free and active’ foreign policy with much greater flexiblity than during the Cold War — though risks of great power conflicts still exist, particularly in the Asia Pacific where US and Chinese interests contend. Espousing the concept of a dynamic equilibrium — and inviting all the relevant great powers into the East Asia Summit, where no one power dominates — Jakarta is indeed trying to be a champion of foreign policy ecumenism in the region.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar is Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs to the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia and Research Professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly,‘Indonesia’s choices’.

Anwar protests against deportation from Tokyo

January 20, 2014

19th JANUARY 2014

Anwar Protests Against Deportation from Tokyo


I arrived at Narita International Airport at 6.45 this morning from Kuala Lumpur but was barred from entry by the Japanese immigration authorities and was told to board the first flight back home or face deportation.

When I asked why I was not allowed to enter, they told me that it was because of my previous conviction in 1999. I told them this could not be a valid reason on account of the fact that prior to this I had already entered Tokyo without hindrance on three previous occasions in 2006, 2009, and 2012.

I told the immigration authorities there must be some mix-up in this matter and protested that it was not proper for them to bar me from entering the country without a bona fide and valid reason. As I persisted in asking for an explanation, they finally told me that they had to take this action “because of a latest report” possibly in 2013.

I then had no choice but to take the next flight home at 10.45 am.I had gone to Tokyo on a personal invitation by Mr Sasakawa, Chairman of the Nippon Foundation, to present a paper on Muslim Democrats. As a routine pre-travel procedure, my office had made inquiries with the Japanese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur last week and was informed that there would be no issues outstanding which would be an impediment to my entering the country.

I protest in the strongest terms this unwarranted action of the Japanese government in refusing me entry and denying my legitimate rights to travel freely without let or hindrance. It is indeed inconceivable for one of the world’s leading democracies to take this unprecedented action under such tenuous grounds and leaves me with the impression that hidden hands may be at work here.

In this regard, I demand an explanation from the Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs, in particular, as to what role Wisma Putra has played in this scandalous episode in respect of the so-called “latest report” that has purportedly led to my being forcibly evicted from Japan.


Wisma Putra responds (01-20-14)

AnifahAmanWisma Putra has denied any involvement in Japan’s decision to bar opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from entering the country.

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman said today that according to the Japanese authorities, Anwar was denied entry as they found him “undesirable”. He said under the country’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, it is stated that they have every right to deny entry to anyone who has been convicted of a violation of any law of Japan or any other country.

Speaking to reporters at a press conference at the the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations in Kuala Lumpur, Anifah explained that the Malaysian consulate in Japan had made enquiries with the authorities there after Anwar had accused Wisma Putra of having a hand in this issue.