July 23, 2014
The Guardian view on what the election of Joko Widodo will mean for Indonesia
The Guardian, Tuesday 22 July 2014 19.55 BST
July 23, 2014
The Guardian, Tuesday 22 July 2014 19.55 BST
July 21, 2014
by Farish A. Noor@www.nst.com.my
TOMORROW will mark the decisive moment when Indonesians will know who will be the country’s next president. The mood in the country — already anxious and tired after a long wait and a hard-fought contest — is one of anticipation and also concern about what will happen next.
It is interesting to note that despite the fact that both candidates have refused to concede defeat, cracks have begun to show among some of their supporters already: Abdillah Toha, one of the founding leaders of the Peoples’ Trust Party (PAN), has appealed to the Prabowo Subianto-Hatta Rajasa camp to admit defeat and to accept the results, whatever the outcome may be.
Unfortunately, it is not likely that this stalemate will be resolved any time soon. For starters, the final margin between the two candidates proved to be much smaller than hoped for, by both sides.
The Joko “Jokowi” Widodo-Jusuf Kalla camp had signalled that it expected, and wished for, a lead of more than 10 per cent. This has not happened, and after the quick count results came in two weeks ago, it appeared that the lead enjoyed by Jokowi-Kalla’s camp was less than five per cent. A smaller number of quick count agencies suggested that the Prabowo-Hatta camp had gained the lead, but again, with a margin of less than five per cent.
Thus, there is the likelihood that whoever wins the race by tomorrow would have done so by the narrowest of margins and, thereby, opening up the opportunity for the other side to dispute the results and, perhaps, even take the matter to court. Hopeful though many political analysts are at the moment, it seems that tomorrow will not see a final, neat, clean conclusion to what has been a messy race.
Then, there is the question of how the new President of Indonesia will be able to gain support within the Peoples Assembly, or DPR. At the moment, the parties that dominate DPR happen to be aligned with Prabowo’s Gerindra and Hatta’s PAN. The Gerindra-PAN-led alliance totally dominates DPR at the moment, and should Jokowi-Kalla manage to win, the next president of Indonesia will be faced with the challenge of having to push for laws and reforms against what may well be a hostile assembly.
But, the uncertainty does not stop there, for the Gerindra-PAN alliance may also face its own internal difficulties if some of the parties aligned with it now decide to jump ship and hop over to PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party — Struggle)-led alliance. Over the past week, voices of discontent have emerged among the ranks of Golkar, in particular (that is currently part of the Gerindra-PAN alliance), where members have called for a serious rethinking of their current position. Golkar has never been in opposition, and should it turn out that Jokowi-Kalla wins after all, some of the leaders of Golkar have called for the party to join the ruling and winning coalition.
All this is taking place amid a society that has grown bored and tired with sensational politics, and where everyone seeks a quick and neat resolution. What is worrisome, however, is that already there is talk of parties sending out thousands of members and supporters to “safeguard” (mengamankan) the election results and announcement of the new president tomorrow. When analysts note that this may well be Indonesia’s most serious challenge and test so far, they were not exaggerating. Indonesia’s fate may well be decided by tomorrow, and the rest of ASEAN will feel the impact as well.
July 20, 2014
This would be the cornerstone of his new administration – a radical approach in ‘soft diplomacy’. One designed to defuse tensions with America’s former adversary and pave the way for warmer ties. This was a monumental undertaking, but with a young and vibrant president now in the White House, it looked like it might actually have a chance of succeeding.
In Geneva in March 2009, we witnessed what appeared to be an initial thawing in relations between America and Russia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and with the cameras of the world looking on, she presented him with a big red button made out of plastic.
The word ‘reset’ was prominently stenciled on it, accompanied by a Russian translation. However, in an unfortunate gaffe – perhaps an omen of things to come – Clinton’s aides had messed up the Cyrillic words on the button.
Instead of ‘perezagruzka’, which would have been the correct translation, the one that was used instead was ‘peregruzka’, which meant ‘overcharged’. It was an embarrassing mistake, but Lavrov appeared to be a good sport, laughing off the error.
Good start short-lived
Around the same time, President Obama noted that Vladimir Putin (below) had recently stepped down as President of Russia, and in his place, Dmitri Medvedev had ascended to the highest office in the land. Like Obama, Medvedev was a former academic and of a similar age.
Naturally enough, Obama perceived the new Russian President to be a transformational figure, and it was in that spirit that he wrote a secret letter and instructed a trusted aide to hand‑deliver it to Moscow. In the letter, Obama expressed a willingness to make American concessions in return for Russian goodwill.
In an age of wireless communication, this unorthodox approach was a throwback to simpler times. Nothing short of remarkable. In Malaysian culture, we might call this ‘giving face’.
In July 2009, Obama, encouraged by Medvedev’s optimistic reply, flew into Moscow for his first official visit to the nation. The two leaders met in congenial fashion. They seemed like a natural fit for each other. And a grinning Obama took the opportunity to solidify America’s commitment to a reset in relations with Russia. All in all, it looked like an unqualified triumph for hope and change. Not bad for a president who had been in office for barely six months.
Russian reset in tatters
Five years on, however, Obama’s Russian reset is in tatters, and the world we find ourselves in now is a far cry from that buoyant period. Since 2012, Vladimir Putin has regained presidential power, and he is currently pursuing an agenda of ultra-nationalist expansion. A former KGB officer in his youth, he has spent a lifetime perfecting the black arts of murder and intimidation.
As a result, Russia today has become a nightmarish country. It’s a place where free speech is crushed, political dissidents are assassinated, and government‑sanctioned thugs roam the streets, attacking everyone from homosexuals to foreign students.
Putin has placed the whole of Russia under his iron will, and he is now driven to expand its influence abroad. Soft diplomacy is not what runs in this man’s veins. Rather, he craves the aggressive projection of power, Soviet‑style. The invasion by proxy of Eastern Ukraine and the senseless shoot‑down of Flight MH17 serves as a testament to his vision.
While the world mourns this horrific tragedy, President Obama, for his part, is looking increasingly haggard. Right‑wing critics have savaged his attempt at soft diplomacy with Russia, calling it naive and idealistic. They claim it never should have been attempted in the first place. The Russians, it would seem, have perceived Obama’s overtures as a sign of weakness, and they have since exploited it to the fullest.
Malaysia blissfully ignorant
In Malaysia, most of us have remained blissfully ignorant of the storm that’s been brewing for the past couple of years. Even as Putin’s brand of ultra-nationalist fervour has taken hold, we have chosen to invest in the Russian aerospace, oil and gas industries. We have sent our children to study the Russian health sciences. And even after the crisis in Ukraine erupted, our political leaders did not respond with a note of protest. No one had the gumption to call a spade a spade.
But now, like it or not, we have been drawn into Vladimir Putin’s dysfunctional world order. It’s not what we asked for. It’s certainly not what we wanted. But innocent blood has been spilled; hundreds of civilians have been murdered with no warning.
And to make the atrocity worse, Putin loyalists have interfered with the site of the crash, making a fair and transparent investigation all but impossible. In this time of grief, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. With the failure of soft diplomacy, who will now bring Putin’s Russia to account? Who will choose to look at the crime instead of averting their eyes?
JOHN LING is a Malaysian‑born author based in New Zealand. You can find out more about him and his work at johnling.net
July 2, 2014
–The Malaysian Insider
Former Malaysian defence staff assistant, who is wanted for sexual assault and burglary in New Zealand, will be sent there to assist in the investigation. Wisma Putra said today. Second Warrant officer Muhammad Rizalman Ismail will be accompanied by a senior military officer from the Ministry of Defence. Putrajaya’s decision to extradite Rizalman was conveyed by Foreign Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman to his counterpart Murray McCully.
June 30, 2014
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.
In 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 Malays 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 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.
June 4, 2014
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak recently met with Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe in Tokyo in conjunction with the annual symposium organised by the Nikkei, one of Japan’s leading newspaper. The summit meeting covered various topics including Japanese security policy, coastal protection, the missing MH370, the South China Sea (SCS) dispute, and Malaysia’s goal to be a high-income nation by 2020. Enhancing the cooperation for a ‘Second Wave of Look East Policy’ (LEP) was also agreed as a framework to deepen bilateral relations. The meeting nevertheless appeared lacklustre with the two Premiers appearing in the same press conference but talking about totally different agendas: Japan underscoring the importance of security while Malaysia stressed on the economic cooperation.
Wither “Second Wave of LEP”?
Malaysia-Japan relations have always been depicted as special by academics and diplomats who frequently refer to the LEP as a symbol of cultural, economic and ethical ties. When talking about the LEP, it is important to remember that this policy was the product of a congruence of strategic thought among the key players in the two countries more than three decades ago. In 1982, the LEP was launched by Mahathir Mohamad in response to a proposal by the Japan Malaysia Economic Association and Malaysia Japan Economic Association. The LEP would mean many things: the emulation of the Japanese model; a way to attract Japanese capital; to put Malaysia on the track to heavy industrialisation; but would also uplift the economic status of Bumiputeras.
Japan in the 1980s, on the other hand, was in the process of expanding its identity from just a member of the West to that of the growing Asia Pacific region as developed countries faced economic stagnation after the second Oil Shock, and as Japan confronted a protracted trade conflict with the US. Thus, the LEP was formulated between a developed country looking for new investment opportunity to decrease its trade surplus with the US and reduce production cost on one hand, and a developing country trying to court much-needed foreign investment. Bolstered by an appreciated Yen – following the Plaza Accord – the LEP eased the inflow of Japanese capital, with the amount of direct investment from Japan to Malaysia increasing by more than seven times for the next decade.
Three decades later, Najib calls for upgrading the LEP. The intent was clearly stated when he asserted that the LEP can address new priority industries such as energy-saving and green technology, healthcare and education— key areas of development included in Najib’s Economic Transformation Program (ETP). However, it is unclear if the ‘Second Wave of LEP’ gives a new thrust to the bilateral relations. In the 1980s to 1990s, “Look East Policy”, “Mahathir” and/or “developmental state” were catch-phrases attached to Malaysia among the Japanese business class and policy-makers. Today, neither “Second Wave of LEP” nor “Najib” are buzz words among the same circle in Tokyo. Rather, it is “middle-income trap”, “weak government” or “dragging its feet in the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP)” that the Japanese audience is talking about.
Dominant party systems in decay: experience of LDP and BN
The notion of a “weak Malaysian government” is depicted by the declining power of the Barisan Nasional (BN). For some Japanese commentators, the developments surrounding the 13th Malaysian General Election was reminiscent of Japan in the late 1980s to early 1990s when Japan’s own dominant party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), saw its control over government diminishing and eventually lost.
At that time, financial deficit had become normalcy and government debt kept on soaring as LDP expanded expenditure for public works and social spending for the elderly to consolidate its support. One of the decisive moments of LDP losing its dominance was the introduction of 3% of Consumption Tax in 1989 as a means to broaden revenue base, after years of hesitation in fear of losing voters. Indeed, this decision – to introduce the consumption tax – was derided by voters who were already angered by the LDP-led government’s profligate public spending. Another and bigger cause of LDP’s decay was the corruption scandals involving top party leaders including then Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. These scandals revealed the pervasiveness of money politics within the party and the government. The recurring scandals prompted voters, especially those who resided in urban areas, to discard the LDP. Not surprisingly, the party lost the majority of the Upper House in 1989. In 1993 the LDP lost power for the first time since 1955 to a coalition of small parties that consisted of former LDP members and socialists in the Lower House elections of that year. The “1955 system” ended.
Like the LDP dominated Japanese government, the dominant party government in Malaysia has behaved in the similar way for decades, and especially since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. BN has tried to boost or maintain support for the party, especially under the Najib administration, through expansionary fiscal policies. To draw support from the business sector, the government has increased expenditure for infrastructure projects. To gather support from lower income groups, BN has disbursed cash benefits under the 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M). Moreover, an increase in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was put on hold in the run-up for the last general election.
The similarity between the LDP and BN does not end there. Prolonged control of government by the BN has blurred the boundary between public and private interest, resulting in the series of high profile corruption allegations involving top party leaders. Even the result of GE13 – in which BN managed to secure a simple majority of the Dewan Rakyat (Lower House) through heavily-weighted rural votes – reminded many Japanese of the strategy of the LDP in Japan to maintain its dominance in equally testy times in the past.
Though the BN managed to retain majority control of the Dewan Rakyat despite losing the popular vote against the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, not a few Japanese observers have reflected on whether a change in the federal government in the near future will ensure better or a more effective government. This question is relevant in the Japanese context given the fact that post-1993 governments have been short-lived, unable to push forward their reform agenda, and in the case of the Democratic Party of Japan that was in power from 2009 to 2012, bungled on key concerns that include Japan-US relations and the management of the 3.11 disaster (referring to the triple earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima disaster).
Stalled structural reform
While the effectiveness of the future Malaysian government is yet to be known, what is clearly understood by the Malaysia-attentive Japanese audience is that the BN government is weak and can barely maintain its autonomy given heightened social pressure. This is made evident most clearly in the TPP negotiations.
While the TPP draws controversy in Japan, especially with its impact on the agricultural sector, Malaysia’s demands on the TPP is also often highlighted in the Japanese media. For example, Malaysia is known to oppose the institution of investor-state dispute settlement and intellectual property rights that affects access to generic medicines. But much more highlighted in the Japanese media is Malaysia’s demand to exempt Government-Linked Companies (GLCs) and government procurement from TPP coverage. For those who are familiar with Malaysian domestic affairs, this is understandable.
GLCs play too big a-role in the Malaysian economy, and also as the major investor in Najib’s flagship Economic Transformation Programme (ETP). Further, government procurement is an essential means to distribute resources to GLCs and eventually to Bumiputera SMEs. Given the result of GE13 where Bumiputera votes somewhat enabled BN-UMNO to remain in power, the already limited room for the Government to make concessions to external negotiating parties in these areas has narrowed even further.
Malaysia’s rather defensive posture in the TPP negotiation is seen, especially by the Japanese business sector, as a reflection of the weak power of the government vis-à-vis pressure groups and a stalled reform agenda. For this group, liberalisation under the TPP is one of the primary means to further advance structural reform and increase the competitiveness of Japanese economy. This same group knows that Malaysia remains – now for almost two-decades – caught in a “middle-income trap”. Many also argue that a failed conclusion of TPP, with the creation of ASEAN Economic Community just around the corner, would negatively affect Malaysia’s path to become a high-income nation.
The misgivings of the Japanese business sector is also anchored on the belief that the BN cannot be expected to exercise strong leadership given its increasing dependence on the Bumiputera constituency and the relative increase in the power of UMNO within the governing coalition. They somehow expect that it will take an even bigger electoral jolt, similar to what the LDP experienced in 1993, before the Malaysian government takes a more serious effort in pushing required reforms through. Looking back, it was only after LDP lost its power that Japan embarked on a series of important reforms. For instance, administrative and fiscal reform was pursued since the mid-1990s, and more seriously since 1996 when the LDP came back to power as a major coalitional partner.
Based on the lessons learned, LDP-led governments shifted to a more liberal orientation where the government drastically decreased government spending, rationalised government financial institutions, and embarked upon series of privatisation including Japan Post, Highway Public Corporation and other financial institutions. In light of these Japanese experiences, a number of Japanese naturally expect that a reform that pushes Malaysia out of the trap would come only after change in the federal government.
Japan’s security agenda and Malaysia’s ambiguity
While Japanese business players have not been impressed with scenes from the Malaysian political economy, the current Japanese government puts much value on Malaysia. This is demonstrated by the frequent official visits of Ministers between the two countries. In particular, Prime Minister Abe’s renewed interest in Malaysia, as well as ASEAN, comes with a clear agenda: regional security.
Abe grabbed a landslide victory and brought the LDP back to power again in the 2012 Lower House election touting a “Take Back Japan” that focused on “intrusion into Japanese territory by foreign forces” as one of his main campaign slogan. Since then, Abe has had official visits to ASEAN countries and even hosted the Japan-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in 2013. All this in the hope of cementing Japan’s relationship with Southeast Asian countries in various areas including regional security given China’s growing naval power and its increasing assertiveness over territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. In the summit meetings with Malaysian counterpart, Abe highlighted the issues such as maritime security and the newly introduced Air Defense Identification Zone declared by Chinese government in November 2013 as common concerns between the two countries.
The Japanese Premier’s effort is also directed toward securing support from ASEAN countries for his long-cherished goal of a “departure from the post-war regime,” enabling Japan to play a bigger role in regional security among others. His security policy self-labelled as “proactive pacifism” includes changing the interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution to allow the country to exercise the right to collective self-defense. This agenda has always been included in the summit meetings with ASEAN countries including Malaysia.
However, the timing and context do not seem right. In the mid-1990s, it was Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir that often urged Japan to loosen the legal constraints on the use of force to play a significant role in regional and global security. The Socialist Party dominated coalition government, however, did not positively receive this prodding. Now, as the Abe government pushes for a reinterpretation of Article 9, the conditions that will generate support for such change from countries like Malaysia has changed. China has grown powerful, economically and militarily, and disputes over territories have become more intense with increasing competition over natural resources and nationalistic sentiments among the general public in the conflicting countries. In this new regional context, Malaysia has shown a somewhat reserved reaction to Abe’s agenda.
Although Malaysia has expressed concern over the overlapping territorial claims in the SCS and the absence of an effective regional Code of Conduct, the fact that China is its largest trading partner has led Malaysia to stick to its traditional position: not to regard China as a threat. This explains Najib’s rather indifferent attitude towards Abe’s expressed concern on China’s aggressive actions in disputed territories. In one meeting, Najib was reported to have indicated that the SCS issue should be dealt by ASEAN through a multilateral approach, indicating his weariness to link disputes in SCS and East China Sea.
While the Malaysian government carefully but steadily deepens security cooperation with the US as a hedge against a rising China, it obviously sits on the fence with Abe’s new agenda. Such a posture by Malaysia is often taken as a reflection of the country’s “pro-China” position by some Japanese whose picture of contemporary East Asia is a region where two major countries – Japan and China – are competing for influence in the region.
The dissonance between Abe and Najib in their latest bilateral meeting is explained by the fate and current status of their long dominant parties in the context of changing regional security dynamics. Abe, the leader of Japan’s former dominant party that recently regained control of government due to the ineptness of the opposition, confidently pursued his hawkish agenda. Najib is at the helm of a dominant party whose acts are tied down by the reality that their support base has declined. Najib also has to balance his responses to regional issues as Malaysia – a middle power – is in a delicate position in the rapidly changing big power relations in the region. Thus, a significant ‘Second Wave of LEP’ underpinned by strategic congruence between the two countries will simply have to wait.
June 1, 2014
by Prime Minister of Malaysia Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak@www.nst.com.my
JOURNEY OF GOODWILL: This is the full text of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday
FORTY years ago, my father set out on what he called a ‘journey of goodwill, to sow the seeds of mutual understanding and trust’.
That journey led him here, to Beijing, and to this very hall. It was here that he signed an agreement with Premier Chou En-lai, formally establishing diplomatic ties between our countries.
It was here that we began a new chapter in our relations. And, it is here today that I feel not just the responsibility of government but the responsibility to my father — to continue his legacy and ensure the deepening of Malaysia-China ties.
Our nations are joined by a history that spans a thousand years. The friendship that began during the Song dynasty flourished under the Ming, as a relationship built on trade was strengthened by blood — as Chinese families made the Straits of Malacca their home. From Zheng He and the Peranakans to Sun Yat Sen in Penang, our nations’ stories share the same cast.
It should not have been a surprise, therefore, that Malaysia was the first Southeast Asian country to establish relations with China. Yet, some allies advised my father, prime minister Tun Abdul Razak, against the decision.
Alone among the members of ASEAN, he held firm, and extended a hand of friendship to the People’s Republic of China. As a university student in 1974, I asked my father why did you make that journey and establish diplomatic relations? He replied, and I quote, ‘because Chou En-lai is a man I can trust’. At a time of upheaval and uncertainty, Malaysia and China laid the foundations of trust for a relationship which has advanced and flourished.
Over the past four decades, as our nations have developed, we have grown closer together. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner, and Malaysia is China’s largest trading partner in Asean. We formed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for prosperity and growth. And, last year, we signed a Five-Year Development Programme for Economic and Trade Cooperation.
As our economies grow, so, too, do the bonds between our people. Thousands of our students have made the journey to learn in a different culture, my own son included. The ties of family and language which were forged in the 15th century grow deeper with time. There is perhaps no better symbol of our friendship than the recent arrival from China of two giant pandas, which have become an instant hit with the Malaysian people.
Like all friendships, ours is sometimes tested. Malaysia was deeply saddened by the tragic disappearance of flight MH370, with 50 Malaysian passengers and crew, and 154 Chinese passengers on board. Facing a mystery without precedent, we were grateful for the support of the Chinese government, which has spared no expense in the search effort. We will not rest until the plane is found.
I believe that, with time, we will grow even closer together. Good relations are easy when times are good; but true friendship is forged in difficulty. In his speech four decades ago, my father stressed that ‘this goodwill that exists between us must be carefully nurtured’.
It is in this spirit that I come here to China. And, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the government of the People’s Republic of China for the hospitality and warmth extended to us on this visit, and particularly, to Premier Li Keqiang for attending today.
The joint communiqué we have signed further broadens and deepens cooperation in all areas of mutual benefit — economic, tourism, financial services, political, cultural and military.
We have agreed to increase our level of trade and investment, enhance people-to-people relations and to preserve peace and stability in the region.
Today, we renew the bonds of friendship that were established four decades ago. And, as Asia assumes a greater role in the world, we look forward to greater cooperation in the service of common goals.
In years to come, we will remain partners for prosperity; connected by history and firm in our commitment to peace. The ties that bind us will bring stability for our region and opportunity for our citizens.
For as the Chinese proverb says: ‘If people are of one heart, even the yellow earth can become gold’.”
May 12, 2014
Having bashed Malaysia over the missing flight, China is now making up
May 10 2014 | KUALA LUMPUR, The Economist | From the print edition
THERE will be no let-up in the efforts to find the missing Malaysian Airlines jet Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, vowed on May 5. Despite his promise, however, there is growing acceptance that it will take months even years to find any trace of flight MH370, which disappeared on March 8. Hopes that any of its passengers might still be alive must also be cast aside. The new search area in the Indian Ocean will alone cover 60,000 square kilometres (23,000 square miles)—and that is on top of the 4,600,000 square kilometres already scoured.
Because the focus of the search-and-rescue mission has now moved to the west coast of Australia, Malaysians have some breathing space to reflect on a traumatic two months in the glare of the world’s attention. The country has taken a battering, but the longer-term damage is another matter. The saga has emphasised how much Malaysia matters in the geopolitics of the region: the two Pacific superpowers, America and China, have both come to play big roles in the search for the missing plane, if in very different ways.
In any reckoning, Malaysia’s handling of the loss of MH370 has been a public-relations disaster. The tone was set during the first week by the authorities’ confusion, stonewalling and contradictory messages. One of the gravest flaws has been a deep reluctance to release information, however innocuous. This antagonised the victims’ families. And the problem persists.
On May 1 the Malaysian government published a much-heralded report on the disappearance of the plane. This turned out to consist of just five pages, containing little new information. But, as one government adviser admitted: “If we had got this out there in the first week, there wouldn’t have been a nine-week drumbeat of everyone calling us lying bastards.”
Opposition politicians and critics of the government say that the damage to Malaysia’s reputation is a result of the country’s poor governance. Malaysia, the argument goes, is more authoritarian than democratic, with little transparency or accountability in government. There is some truth to that. But government officials are justified in feeling frustrated that the failures of communication have overshadowed their success in efficiently putting together an extraordinary coalition of countries to look for the plane.
On the technical side, many acknowledge that Malaysia has done an adequate job with the relatively limited means at its disposal. It has also gone beyond the call of duty in opening up to its search partners, sharing sensitive details of its military radar system, for example, with the Chinese.
One person who has stood up for Malaysia over MH370 is Barack Obama. During a recent long-scheduled visit to Malaysia, the American President went out of his way to laud the country’s leadership of the search operation. America has contributed a vast amount of equipment, man-hours and money to the search for the missing plane, out of all proportion to the three Americans (out of 227 passengers) lost on the flight.
This has brought the two countries closer, at a time when America is searching for new and reinvigorated alliances in the region. Historically, there has been a good deal of anti-Americanism in Muslim-majority Malaysia, but for the time being that seems to have been stilled. Mr Obama got a hero’s welcome from everyone.
That in turn may help account for the zigzag course of China in the MH370 affair. The flight was en route to Beijing, and over half the passengers were Chinese. But rather than support the Malaysian government in the first month or so, China seemed to incite the distraught families into ever fiercer, often histrionic, criticism of Malaysian officialdom, perhaps to deflect attention from the possibility that the plane might have been downed by home-grown terrorists. The Chinese did nothing to dispel some of the alternative, wilder conspiracy theories circulating in Beijing.
In recent weeks, however, the tone has changed. The Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia has told the Chinese-language press in Kuala Lumpur that his country accepts that the disappearance of MH370 was not some dark conspiracy and that Chinese-Malaysian relations are unaffected.
The wave of criticism in the official Chinese press has largely abated. Perhaps China feels, in the regional battle of wills with America, that it needs good relations with Malaysia and that these were threatened by its attacks.
Malaysia is China’s largest trade partner in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). It also has a large ethnic-Chinese population, and thus could be helpful in its disputes in the South China Sea with other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, both firmly backed by America.
Mr Najib makes an official visit to China at the end of this month, marking the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries, initiated by Malaysia’s then prime minister, Abdul Razak, Mr Najib’s late father. With power so finely balanced in the region, China will strive to make the visit go smoothly, including keeping angry families at a face-saving distance.
May 3, 2014
What lousy timing: I was in the USA when Obama was traipsing through our backyard. I kept up with what was going on by reading online, with the local newspapers seemingly disinterested in the goings of a small third world country of no consequence.
Where are you from? Malaysia … you know, where that plane disappeared? Oh yes, of course. I remember the plane, but I forget the name of the country. Oh, well.
Finally, on April 28, there was a photograph of Obama and a bunch of excited teenagers on page A6 of the NYT with a report on the visit In Malaysia, Obama Works to Mend Troubled Ties.
Why did Obama decide to come to Malaysia, anyway? We are a nothing country in their scheme of things, a fourth division or non-league player. Anyway, that was the impression I got from reading three American newspapers daily for the ten days I was there. Could Obama’s visit be due to the way China has been flexing its muscles in the region?
This was abundantly clear during the MH370 search; nobody wanted Chinese ships in their territorial waters! Or could it be due to our shaky human rights record? Even Myanmar appears to have moved ahead on that front. The TPP could have been another reason but, seriously, are we the only country standing in the way of this predatory trade agreement?
It didn’t add up. The bulk of the NYT story was about the niceties and platitudes that heads of states exchanged publicly when they visited one another, making plenty of meaningless noises. (We don’t know what they spoke about during private conversions, though.)
NYT reported Obama saying things like, “We are working more closely together than ever before,” ‘treading gingerly on human rights issues, and saying’, “The Prime Minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia still has some work to do on these issues, just like the United States …”, pleading lack of time and not lack of concern for not meeting with opposition leaders … and yadda, yadda, yadda: typical non-statements and plenty of soft shoe dancing that we have grown to expect during visits of presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens, and others representing them, besides the fake pomp and pageantry. (Some would simply call it bullshit.)
Obama’s comment about non-Muslims was reported, although I would argue that ‘no country in world can afford to ignore half its population, men and women of any religion, and still succeed’ would have been a better way to put it. Especially, if the ignored ones are the people paying the rent.
On Sunday, President Obama visited Malaysia to underscore how much has changed in the last 16 years (since Al Gore’s visit) — not the lest in this country’s attitude towards the United States, which has evolved from deep seated suspicion to a cautious desire for cooperation.” Really?
Perhaps, if NYT reporters had looked out of their windows, they might have noticed some protesters and placards on the streets. Maybe, they were too preoccupied with Syria and Ukraine to bother. In truth, nothing much has changed in the last 16 years. If anything, the situation is now worse. True, we do not have a vituperative leadership spewing bile at the US at every turn like 16 years ago, but merely one that’s unready, unwilling and unable. And perhaps, clueless.
There was one bit in the story that I found quite interesting, though. (And the NYT does have a reputation for having the inside track on some White House thinking). The newspaper said, “White House officials liken Malaysia to a “swing state” in Southeast Asia, falling somewhere between the free-wheeling democracy of the Philippines, and the rigid one party authoritarianism of Laos. Encouraging Malaysia’s evolution into a more open society, could make the country a model for the rest of the region.” Whoa!
Now, this is making sense, and becoming scary. Is that why Obama thought it necessary to visit Malaysia? Are these are our choices: either become a shining democracy or a failed state, a rigid dictatorship? There is no need to guess which way the US will lean, but one can’t help but wonder if they are underestimating Sauron’s army again. It has a whiff, too, of the the domino theory all over. If we fail, will we destabilise the entire region? Will it become an excuse for China to try to fill the vacuum? Will Malaysia become the new US battleground for world democracy?
When I was in school in the sixties, I remember Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos being crowned the King and Queen of Asia by the western press. Philippines was the ‘darling’ country of the Asian continent, the sign of progress. It took only 20 years for it to be reduced to a basket case, surviving by exporting their women around the world to wash other peoples’ dirty clothes.
Is this a lesson? Yes, but one we’re likely to avoid learning anything from. In Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, master miniaturists deliberately blind themselves with needles so as not to be influenced by change or reality that might affect their ‘perfect’ paintings. And certainly not by any truth or knowledge. Jose Saramago, too, used a similar metaphor of political vision control quite devastatingly in his novel, Blindness.
Well, things do change fast, and failures come quickly.
May 1, 2014
Facing political opposition and diminished Chinese support, Hun Sen government seeks greater regional integration
Cambodia’s foreign relations map has undergone dramatic shifts in the past six months. In the aftermath of Cambodia’s elections in July 2013, Beijing promptly recognized the results and congratulated Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party for their victory.
However, as anti-government protests led by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party grew in the weeks that followed, with protesters condemning the elections as fraudulent and calling on Hun Sen to step down, China has since largely remained silent and kept the prime minister at arm’s length.
At the same time, the Cambodian government in the past few months has moved to consolidate its relations with Vietnam following several years of deteriorating ties between the two neighbors. Phnom Penh made this move despite the anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia fed by Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy that has gained traction since the elections.
An ongoing political crisis and China’s apparent hedging on Hun Sen are behind this emerging geostrategic realignment.
Hun Sen is struggling to deal with growing opposition to his rule and grievances from the public on labor rights and governance at a time when Cambodia is at a critical political and economic crossroads. The country is seeking to become more integrated with the rest of Southeast Asia and the world in the years ahead. Cambodia’s youth are increasingly more educated and exposed to democratic norms and the outside world.
Hun Sen, whose strong-arm tactics largely worked in the past, now faces what is perhaps the most serious challenge to his rule in decades and is seeking outside recognition to boost his domestic legitimacy. The truth is, even if his party manages to win the next elections, Hun Sen must continue to deal with growing demands for greater transparency, better rule of law and more democracy.
China, until recently Cambodia’s most important patron, has not been willing to offer Hun Sen much political backing. While the two governments continue to maintain high-level meetings and exchanges, there has been a shift in Beijing’s policy toward Cambodia. Shortly after Hun Sen announced he would not step down in the face of opposition-led protests, an article in China’s state-controlled Xinhua in late December quoted Khmer analysts calling for national referendum on whether to organize new elections.
Chinese leaders probably will not give Hun Sen the cold shoulder anytime soon, but they seem to be charting a middle course and slowly moving away from their past policy of wholeheartedly endorsing his government.
The social and political changes taking place in Cambodia have not been lost on Beijing. Chinese leaders could be hedging their bets on Cambodia’s political future to avoid the kind of strategic blunders they made in Myanmar in recent years. Beijing long threw its support to Myanmar’s military regime and was taken unaware by the sweeping reforms President Thein Sein launched in 2011. Chinese leaders did not begin to face up to the new political reality in Myanmar until Thein Sein suspended construction of the multibillion dollar Chinese-backed Myitsone dam.
As part of its new policy, China is engaging different actors in Myanmar’s emerging political scene, from parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann and army chief Min Aung Hlaing to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Chinese leaders who have largely given Thein Sein the cold shoulder are now considering an official invitation for Aung San Suu Kyi to visit China. Neither President Xi Jinping nor Premier Li Keqiang made a stop in Myanmar during their diplomatic blitz across Southeast Asia in 2013. Interestingly, Cambodia was not included in that itinerary either, despite being a staunch ally and a popular investment destination for Chinese businesses.
Meanwhile, relations between Vietnam and Cambodia have blossomed during the past few months. Hanoi has provided Hun Sen with much needed outside recognition and a boost to his legitimacy. In late December, Hun Sen visited Vietnam ahead of the 35th anniversary of the ouster of the Khmer Rouge by Hanoi’s troops, and Vietnamese leaders lavishly congratulated him for his role in rebuilding Cambodia.
Two weeks after Hun Sen’s trip, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Cambodia, where the two leaders co-chaired a bilateral trade and investment conference – the largest since 2009 – and pledged to boost economic ties in banking, finance, agribusiness, tourism and telecommunications. At the end of 2012, Vietnamese businesses had invested around $3 billion in nearly 130 projects in Cambodia, making Vietnam one of the country’s top foreign investors. China, in comparison, invested a total of $9.17 billion in the country between 1994 and 2012.
Hanoi is closely watching the political turmoil in Cambodia, but still jumped at the chance to patch up ties with Phnom Penh following several years of irritation over border demarcation and Cambodia’s siding with China over the South China Sea disputes. In the foreseeable future, Hanoi still has an interest in sustaining regime stability in Cambodia and the ruling party’s grip on power given how overtly anti-Vietnamese Sam Rainsy has shown himself to be.
For instance, Rainsy has recently declared that Vietnam is encroaching on Chinese territory in the South China Sea, in the same fashion that he alleges the nation is grabbing Cambodian territory.
Offering Hun Sen political support when he most needed it, as well as strengthening bilateral economic ties, seemed like a logical choice for Vietnamese leaders. Hanoi is also concerned about the increasingly anti-Vietnamese rhetoric among the Cambodian population. Launching the new Cho Ray Phnom Penh Hospital, a joint venture between Vietnam’s Saigon Medical Investment and Cambodia’s Sokimex, was perhaps an effort to soften anti-Vietnamese sentiment through joint cooperation in the health sector.
But realistically, Hanoi’s support alone is insufficient to assure Cambodia’s and Hun Sen’s autonomy among foreign powers. Beijing’s noncommittal stance in recent months might also have prompted Hun Sen to look for support beyond his traditional patrons. For instance, he shrewdly used Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Cambodia in November 2013 to boost his domestic legitimacy – by asking Abe for advice on electoral reforms – and his position vis-à-vis China.
Hun Sen and Abe issued an unusual statement on bilateral maritime security cooperation, underscoring the need to settle disputes peacefully and according to international law. The two countries agreed to boost military ties, with Japanese experts, including those from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, expected to provide training to Cambodian military personnel for future United Nations peacekeeping operations. And in stark contrast to what happened at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh in 2011, Cambodia did not object to tabling a discussion on China’s Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea during the Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo in December 2013.
Cambodia is evolving quickly, both politically and economically, and it remains to be seen whether Hun Sen can retain power for several more election cycles. Beijing’s new strategic calculus in Cambodia has suddenly left Hun Sen feeling vulnerable, at least for the moment. This has prompted Hun Sen to work to boost his standing among other regional actors, particularly Japan, Vietnam and ASEAN, by offering them his support on issues of contention with China such as territorial disputes in the East and South China seas.
(Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with the CSIS Sumitro Chair.)
For anyone in Southeast Asia with an interest in fair, honest and even-handed government, the disappointing visit of President Barack Obama to Malaysia is a victory for political expediency that largely glossed over growing discontent over racial tensions, corruption and abuses of judicial power by the ruling coalition.
Obama, according to most reports, walked a careful line on such issues, roaming the stage at a town meeting with students to tell them the country can’t succeed if minorities are suppressed.
But the President also continued to call the Prime Minister a friend and reformer. What kind of friend is this exactly?
The fact is that Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak was a willing perpetrator as Defense Minister in the looting of the public purse to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars – in bribery and kickbacks from the French munitions maker DCN over a US$1 billion submarine deal, as well as other deals involving patrol boats that were never delivered, Russian Sukhoi jets that cost vastly more than what other countries paid and other equally dubious transactions that have been repeatedly exposed by the opposition and printed on opposition websites, to no avail.
On top of that, Najib heads a country that is slipping backwards fast on human rights issues, with its most prominent opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, facing jail for the second time on what are clearly bogus charges of sexual deviance and another, Karpal Singh, who was about to be railroaded out of parliament on specious sedition charges when he was killed in a car accident.
Other Opposition leaders also face sedition charges in what Ambiga Sreenevasan, the former head of the Malaysian Bar Council, recently called “Operation Lalang by the courts,” a reference to a 1987 crackdown on dissidents that sent more than 100 people, most of them opposition leaders, to jail without trial.
Obama’s decision not to meet with Anwar “in and of itself isn’t indicative of our lack of concern, given the fact that there are a lot of people I don’t meet with and opposition leaders that I don’t meet with,” he told reporters in response to a question by CNN.
Anwar does get an April 28 meeting with Susan Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, but the message on human rights was clear – the issue takes a back seat to geopolitics in Kuala Lumpur and perhaps to a desire to prop up Najib for fear of empowering more conservative elements inside his long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) or to gain his support for the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Obama either appears to have been hoodwinked by Najib, or decided that diplomatic niceties demanded a waffle. In response to a question, the president said in a press conference that … “the prime minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia still has work to do,” that he “came in as a reformer and one who is committed to it, and I am going to continue to encourage him as a friend and a partner to making progress on that front.”
Najib’s lukewarm commitment to economic reform vanished in the wake of the May 2013 election, in which the opposition won a narrow popular-vote victory but lost parliament due to gerrymandering, and the subsequent ascendancy of the hardline UMNO wing led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his long-running ally Daim Zainuddin. The modest reforms Najib had put in place to reverse parts of the disastrous race-based New Economic Policy were washed away last September in an array of new economic benefits for ethnic Malays.
Najib, whatever his personal beliefs may be, is clearly in the thrall of such Malay chauvinist organizations as PERKASA, which preaches astonishing hatred towards Malaysia’s minority races. Nobody, including Najib, has ever spoken of reining in such groups. Minority and opposition politicians who raise an outcry over racial issues are often met with threats of sedition charges.
To anyone deeply familiar with Malaysia, the statement that Najib is committed to reform is laughable. None of Malaysia’s online news sites, which form the credible journalistic opposition, were invited to the Najib-Obama joint press conference. So while Obama was extolling Najib’s reformist credentials, Malaysia’s most trusted news organization Malaysiakini was shut out of the press conference.
UMNO is a kleptocracy that continues to loot the country’s assets with impunity. The latest, for example, was the award – without an open bid ‑ earlier this month of a RM1.6 billion contract for the building and maintenance of a hospital whose entire board of directors was drawn from the youth wing of UMNO, and whose managing director is a close friend of Khairy Jamaluddin, the head of UMNO youth.
These contracts are signed on a regular basis. Any suggestion that Najib doesn’t know they benefit his own political party is silly. He has participated personally in this kind of theft, which has resulted in his ostentatiously wealthy wife flaunting her riches worldwide to the anger of many people back home.
The party’s continuing use of fundamentalist Islam has nothing to do with true religious fervor but rather a specious use of faith to shore up its rural base at election time. The decision to ban the word “Allah” in Malay-language Christian Bibles is an example. The word was banned for Bibles in mainland Malaysia, where Malays outnumber other races, but allowed to stand in Bibles in East Malaysia, where indigenous tribes are mainly Christians who support the ruling national coalition at the polls.
According to the New York Times, Obama’s visit underscores a change in Malaysian attitudes toward the United States, “which has evolved from deep suspicion, verging on contempt, to a cautious desire for cooperation.”
But the fact is, as the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur knows well and surely told the President, is that despite Mahathir’s heated rhetoric during his years on office, the country has remained firmly in the western camp. Indeed, as the late Barry Wain illustrated in his book, Malaysian Maverick, while Mahathir was delivering speeches about American imperialism, he was quietly allowing the US military to train in Malaysian jungles. He was also sending his own children to American universities for their education.
While Malaysia recognizes its future with China as its biggest trading partner, it is hardly the fulcrum of influence for or against the US in Asia. It is nice for the US to have it as a strategic partner, as Obama stressed. But it is one that should be kept at arms’ length.
April 27, 2014
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The last time a top American official visited this Southeast Asian nation was in 1998, when Vice President Al Gore rebuked its leaders for suppressing freedom and embraced “reformasi,” the rallying cry of a student-led protest movement.
On Sunday, President Obama visited Malaysia to underscore how much has changed in the last 16 years — not least in the country’s attitude toward the United States, which has evolved from deep suspicion, verging on contempt, to a cautious desire for cooperation.
Citing negotiations for a trans-Pacific trade accord, a formal agreement to cooperate in halting the spread of nuclear parts, and the desperate search for the missing Malaysian jetliner, Mr. Obama said, “we’re working more closely together than ever before.”
White House officials liken Malaysia to a “swing state” among Southeast Asian nations, falling somewhere between the free-wheeling democracy of the Philippines and the one-party authoritarianism of Laos. Encouraging Malaysia’s evolution into a more pluralistic society, officials said, could make it a model for the rest of the region.
In some ways, though, Malaysia remains the same work in progress it was in 1998, blessed with an industrious, multiethnic population but an often corrupt political system, ruled by an entrenched Malay elite that does not hesitate to deal with its detractors through what the opposition considers trumped-up charges.
Speaking at a news conference with Prime Minister Najib Razak, Mr. Obama treaded politely into these issues. He said he pressed Mr. Najib during their meeting about Malaysia’s civil liberties and human rights record, which has come under fresh scrutiny in recent weeks because of the legal travails of an opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
“The Prime Minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia has still got some work to do on these issues, just like the United States, by the way, has some work to do,” Mr. Obama said.
“Prime Minister Najib came in as a reformer, and one who is committed to it, and I am going to continue to encourage him as a friend and as a partner to make sure we’re making progress on that front,” he said, as the Malaysian leader looked on gravely.
But Mr. Obama did not meet Mr. Anwar, a former Deputy Prime Minister whose January 2012 acquittal on sodomy charges was thrown out by an appeals court last month, putting his political comeback in jeopardy. Mr. Anwar’s first trial in 1999, which ended in a conviction and six years in jail, was widely condemned as politically motivated.
Mr. Obama did not offer a reason but said his decision was “not indicative of a lack of concern, given the fact that there are a lot of people I don’t meet with, and opposition leaders I don’t meet with, but that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about them.”
As a consolation prize, Mr. Anwar will get a meeting with the national security adviser, Dr. Susan E. Rice, on Monday. Some human rights activists said that was not enough.
“Anwar, to Malaysia, is almost as important a figure as Aung San Suu Kyi is in Burma,” said Andrew Khoo, a human rights lawyer here, referring to the country also known as Myanmar. “If President Obama took the time to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, it is a little odd that he wouldn’t meet with Anwar.”
Later, he presided over a town-hall-style meeting with young people from around Southeast Asia, where he shared stories about his own political development and offered advice on how countries emerging from repression, like Myanmar, should deal with ethnic and religious strife.
As societies open up, Mr. Obama said, these conflicts often bubble to the surface. He cited both the legacy of ethnic strife in Malaysia, with its Muslim majority and Chinese and Indian minorities, and Myanmar, where the Muslim Rohingya minority faces persecution.
“Malaysia won’t succeed if non-Muslims don’t have opportunity,” he said, roaming the stage at the University of Malaya in a relaxed style that recalled some of his early campaign events. “Myanmar won’t succeed if the Muslim population is repressed.”
For all its flaws, administration officials said Malaysia could still develop into a model Muslim-majority country with a diverse population. Mr. Najib is a far less authoritarian figure than Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister who dominated Malaysian politics for a quarter-century and who often railed against the United States.
“President Obama and I are both equally concerned about civil liberties as a principle,” Mr. Najib said at the news conference, citing legal reforms Mr. Najib initiated when he came into office in 2009.
Human rights activists credit Mr. Najib with reformist instincts early in his tenure. More recently, though, they say he has been pulled back from a path of moderation by reactionary elements in his party, which represents the country’s Malay majority.
Mr. Obama, however, has clearly developed a level of trust with him. After their meeting, Mr. Obama went out of his way to express sympathy for the government’s so far fruitless search for the Malaysian plane, which has exposed Mr. Najib to criticism.
“Obviously, we don’t have all the details of what happened,” Mr. Obama said. “But if, in fact, the plane went down in the ocean in this part of the world, that is a big place.”
April 27, 2014
Good evening. Selamat Petang.
Your Majesty, thank you so much for those warm words. To you, Her Majesty, Madam Rosmah, Prime Minister, distinguished guests and friends – thank you for the extraordinary hospitality that you’ve shown me and my delegation.
And on behalf of my country, I want to thank the Malaysian people for the wonderful welcome that you extended to us today. I’m delighted to make this historic visit. As some of you may know, it has been nearly 50 years since an American President visited Malaysia.
In his memoirs, Lyndon Johnson wrote of how impressed he was by the “extraordinary vitality and eagerness” he saw in the faces of people here and throughout Southeast Asia. And I’m eager to see that same boleh spirit tomorrow – (applause) – when I have the opportunity to speak with young people from across Southeast Asia at the University of Malaya.
Mr. Prime Minister, I look forward to our work together, and I pledge to infuse our efforts with that same spirit. Tonight, I simply want to express my gratitude for the generosity that you’ve shown us today – a generosity the people of Malaysia have extended to my family since I was elected.
As some of you may know, two years ago, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia hosted an exhibit that showcased some of my mother’s batik collection. Now, my mother loved batik. I remember when I was a boy growing up in Jakarta, she’d come home from village markets with her arms full of batik and she’d lay them around the house and look at them, and make dresses out of them. And I was a young boy so I wasn’t as excited as she was.
And they weren’t particularly fancy or expensive – although later in life, she would get some antiques that were extraordinary – but for my mother, batik wasn’t about fashion. It was representative of the work and the livelihood of mothers and young women who had painstakingly crafted them. It was a window into the lives of others – their cultures, and their traditions, and their hopes. And it meant so much to her and it was part of her spirit, and so I’m deeply grateful to the people of Malaysia for celebrating that part of my mother’s life. It was very kind of you.
And I tell this story because my mother believed, and I believe, that whether we come from a remote village or a big city, whether we live in the United States or in Malaysia, we all share basic human aspirations: To live in dignity and peace. To shape our own destiny. To be able to make a living and to work hard and support a family. And most of all, to leave the next generation something better than was left to us.
These are the aspirations that I believe illuminate a new era of partnership, of “berkerja sama” between the United States and Malaysia. For while we may be different as nations, our people have similar hopes and similar aspirations. And we can draw strength in both our nations from our ethnic and religious diversity. We can draw hope from our history. And we dream of a brighter future for all of our children.
So I would like to propose a toast: To the strength of our relationship, the power of our friendship, the peace and prosperity of our peoples, and the good health of Their Majesties the King and Queen.
Terima kasih banyak. Thank you very much. – The White House.gov, April 27, 2014.–http://www.themalaysianinsider.com
* Remarks by President Barack Obama at the State Banquet at Istana Negara on April 26, 2014, in conjunction with his visit to Malaysia.
April 26, 2014
KUALA LUMPUR – When Barack Obama lands in Malaysia this weekend, his two-day stopover will be the first visit by a US president since 1966. Unfortunately, human rights will probably not be on the agenda. Even as Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s government pursues yet another politically motivated case against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the United States, by refusing to schedule a meeting with Anwar, has signaled that it will not stand up for justice in Malaysia.
In fact, the Obama administration has refused to treat Malaysia like a normal country and engage leaders from all sides – a stance that has emboldened Najib to move against Anwar, whose coalition received a higher proportion of the popular vote in the May 2013 election than Obama did in the 2012 US election. And the many serious challenges to human rights and governance in Malaysia do not end with politicized convictions of opposition leaders. Just days after Obama declared last October that Malaysia was a model of “diversity and tolerance,” Malaysian authorities denied non-Muslims the right to use the word “Allah” in the practice of their own faiths – a decision condemned throughout the Muslim world for its negative portrayal of Islam.
Moreover, members of Najib’s government endorse hudud, a class of penalties within sharia law that could imply strict limitations on Muslims’ right to choose how they practice their faith. According to the US State Department’s own human-rights reports, curbs on religious freedoms have included demolition of Hindu temples, bombings of Christian churches, and a ban on the practice of Shia Islam, to which some 15% of the world’s Muslims adhere. Likewise, according to the Pew Research Center, Najib’s government has “very high” restrictions on religious freedom.
International measures of press freedom and corruption reveal persistent deficits as well. Malaysia’s mainstream media, owned and controlled by the ruling coalition in power since 1957, regularly fabricate stories. Most recently, coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has blamed the US, effectively belittling the support of American personnel and other resources in the search effort. And, in its latest report, Global Financial Integrity ranked Malaysia second in the world for illicit capital movements, reflecting years of outflows from a massive informal economy tied to corruption.
Malaysia’s institutional problems extend to elections. The Electoral Integrity Project ranked the 2013 election 66th for polls held worldwide last year – placing it firmly in the lowest tier, below Pakistan and Iran. Indeed, the government lost the popular vote and took power with a margin of parliamentary seats that was lower than the number of constituencies where serious irregularities were reported. And, given the country’s politicized judiciary, most electoral petitions were summarily dismissed on technical grounds, with many candidates denied even the right to present their cases. (The Najib government promised to address the irregularities; a year later, no investigation has begun.)
Rather than strengthening democracy, Najib has chosen to increase cash handouts, straining government finances with a $10 billion expansion of a race-based affirmative-action program that favors Malays. And he is accommodating his party’s chauvinist elements, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Racist discourse – tinged with anti-Western rhetoric that Najib has ignored – has reached fever pitch, with right-wing groups openly advocating intolerance and racial hatred. Not surprisingly, this has compromised much-needed economic reforms and is causing deterioration in the business environment.
Malaysia’s economy is caught, moreover, in the middle-income trap, unable to “graduate” to advanced-country status. In an effort to attract much-needed foreign capital, Najib has introduced the Goods and Service Tax (GST) and cut back on subsidies; but this has not been accompanied by fiscal prudence or effective measures to stanch the leakages from corruption and cronyism.
Citizens have been hard hit by rising inflation and record-high household debt, which now stands at 80.5% of GDP. The government is failing to provide an adequate supply of even basic necessities, with water rationing now in effect.
As a result, the government’s popularity has plummeted, contributing to the Najib government’s inability to muster public support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed mega-regional trade agreement with the US and ten other Pacific Rim countries. The government has already issued a statement that Obama’s visit will not yield progress on the TPP, indicative of the prevailing lack of confidence in the measure.
America’s role in Malaysia is highly polarizing. The Malaysian government has already interpreted Obama’s visit as an endorsement of Najib’s leadership, while opposition activists accuse the US of abandoning its democratic principles and whitewashing the government’s growing authoritarianism.
This does not serve America’s long-term interests in Asia, where it is viewed increasingly negatively – particularly in Malaysia. According to the latest Asia Barometer Survey, only 30% of Malaysians – the lowest share in Southeast Asia – view the US favorably, with negative sentiment most highly concentrated among young people and Muslims. A visit by Obama that fails to address Malaysia’s fundamental political and economic challenges will erode America’s standing further.
Such a visit will also raise further questions about what Obama actually stands for. From Egypt to Ukraine and beyond, there is a deepening global perception that America’s commitment to fighting racism and intolerance, defending human rights, upholding good governance, and promoting free and fair elections has faltered under Obama. This week’s long-overdue trip will carry enormous symbolism. That is why it could haunt America for years to come.
April 26, 2014
When U.S. President Barack Obama visits Malaysia this weekend, he will be the first American President to do so since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. Kuala Lumpur will seek to take advantage of the much-anticipated trip to showcase Malaysia as a moderate Muslim-majority democracy, a model of interracial and interreligious diversity heading for developed-nation status by 2020. It will present itself as an ally in combating arms proliferation and transnational crime, and friend of the U.S. in Asia.
President Obama should not accept this fiction or defer to the Malaysian government because of regional security concerns. Instead, he would do well to note the sorry state of its human rights and call for greater respect for civil liberties.
Since the last general election in May 2013, when Prime Minister Najib Razak’s governing coalition was returned to power but lost the popular vote, racial and religious extremism has been on the rise. Pro-government extremist groups have responded to self-perceived slights and insults against the ethnic Malay majority and Islam by declaring that they are prepared to shed blood to defend their honor and sanctity.
These groups have made direct references to May 13, 1969, an infamous date in Malaysian history when race riots between Malays and Chinese led to killings in several cities and towns, and emergency rule. A 1996 fatwa forbidding the practice of Shia Islam has recently received renewed attention, leading to raids on and arrests of Shia adherents. Followers of the Ahmaddiya Islamic sect have also lately been targeted. Their prayer sessions and religious activities have been interrupted by Muslim religious authorities enforcing the state-sanctioned version of Islam.
A Malaysian Court of Appeal held in October 2013 that a Roman Catholic Church newspaper could not use the Arabic word “Allah” to refer to God. According to the court, use of the word was exclusive to Islam and not intrinsic to the practice of Christianity in Malaysia. Language has become a flashpoint in Christian-Islamic tensions. One Muslim group even suggested that using the Malay language to advertise an Easter concert meant that Christians were attempting to convert Muslims, which is an offense. The group openly questioned the very celebration of Easter, calling it un-Islamic.
Freedom of speech is also under threat. In an attempt to improve Malaysia’s human rights, a coalition of civil society groups submitted recommendations to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights back in September 2013. In January 2014, the government called these “haram,” or sinful, and declared the coalition unlawful.
Additionally, the government has renewed its use of the Sedition Act, a colonial-era law that makes it unlawful to “cause disaffection” against the government or the hereditary rulers. It has been used on everyone from politicians to social media commentators.
Clearly the public wants genuine reform. There was tremendous clamor for clean, free and fair elections in 2012, when hundreds of thousands risked tear gas, water cannons and arrest to participate in the BERSIH 3.0 peaceful protest in Kuala Lumpur. Yet the government has hardly been receptive.
Recent changes in legislation introduced by Prime Minister Najib Razak are the opposite of needed reform. They include outlawing street demonstrations, requiring a 10-day prior notification period for public assemblies, and introducing two-year without-trial detention orders, renewable indefinitely, for those alleged by the government to be involved in serious criminal offenses.
Individuals facing trial for unlawful assembly from the 2012 rally and subsequent protest gatherings have been predominantly political opponents of the Malaysian government. The most notable dissident is former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, recently convicted for sodomy, which many saw as a trumped-up charge.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has promoted Malaysia internationally as a leader in a global movement of moderation. But these actions show the government is anything but moderate. Mainstream newspapers, many of which are owned by political parties within the government, brazenly promote such double-speak. Those who dare to criticize put themselves at risk of vituperative attacks from extremist groups, police investigation and politically motivated prosecution.
President Obama needs to deftly use his public appearances and statements to demonstrate concern about what is happening in Malaysia –and to say what many Malaysians fearfully cannot. The usual mantra of moderation can no longer conceal the escalation of extremism and repression.
Mr. Khoo is co-chair of the Malaysian Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee. He writes in his personal capacity.
April 26, 2014
DEAR Sir, the last time a US President (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) came to town was 48 years ago. He was the 36th President and you are the 44th. How time flies. And, what a long wait for us.
In 1966, Planet Earth was inhabited by 3.4 billion humans, 6.3 million of them Malaysians. I was in Form One in a village school some 28km from the nearest town.
That was the year of the Beatles, the first episode of Star Trek, Truman Capote’s notorious book, In Cold Blood, genetic engineering was born, the mini skirt was a craze, the US Food and Drug Administration officially declared that “the Pill” was safe for mass consumption, the Vietnam War was yet to escalate and Indira Gandhi was appointed Prime Minister of India.
Malaysia was three years old back then and, in a historic moment in Bangkok, we signed an agreement with our neighbour Indonesia with whom we share history and tradition ending the Konfrontasi (Agitation) started by President Sukarno. 1966 was three years away from the worst racial conflict in the country. Malaysia was still an agricultural country where poverty was rampant.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson came in October that year, we showcased a communal scheme better known as Felda, which was hardly seven years old. It was an ambitious programme to eradicate poverty especially among the indigenous community. We proudly named what was formerly known as Felda Labu Jaya as Felda L.B. Johnson.
Malaysia has certainly come a long way. We have achieved a lot over these 48 years. We are an industrial force to be reckoned with. And a manufacturing haven. We are a great trading nation now. We pride ourselves as a Third World nation with a First World ambition, though most times we succumb to a Third World mentality. We are not perfect. But within those imperfections, we have improved by leaps and bounds.
We learned the hard way in many areas. In most cases we are better off than most nations that were granted independence by their colonial masters at about the same time. But in some cases, we have fallen far behind some of those countries which were once at par with us.
You, too, have gone a long way. In fact 11 years before Johnson came here, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American woman triggered a civil rights movement in your country. Back in December 1955, no one in Montgomery, Alabama would have believed 54 years later, the US would have an African American as President. In fact, it was a far-fetched notion even among the most bullish and optimistic Americans back then.
You changed not only the history of your nation but that of the world, too. We rejoiced when you became President. You came at the right time.
You are a game-changer. More importantly, we trust you more than any other president of your land. We believe you are “different” and rightly so, too. You understand better about deprivation, about stigma, about being the “Other” and about marginalisation. And you understand what it means to be a real citizen of the world.
You came from a culture of diversity. Just like us. In fact you have lived among “us” during your formative years. That has certainly brought a different prism and perspective in your life. It is an asset unlike any other to deal with the East, Islam and the real world. The planet is getting smaller by technological advancement. And you are the leader of the Free World. That makes you the most powerful man on Planet Earth. That goes without saying.
But, might is not always right. You have known that since your university days. And you know that better as President. You came in when American nerves were still frayed by the events of 9/11. We understand the trauma and we hope Americans understand the feelings of others who were traumatised by American policies and occupations, too.
Malaysia has always been consistent on that score — that we believe in the middle path — wassatiyah, as our Prime Minister would want to label it. You can’t fault him for trying to promote a global movement of the moderates in times of living dangerously and when Islamophobia is rearing its ugly head.
We know you have tried to bridge the divide between Muslims, Americans and the world. It is a daunting task. Only you have the capacity to do that. We were elated with your speeches in Cairo and Jakarta. Those were given with conviction and utmost sincerity and, I am sure, with the best of intent. Two speeches can’t change the world. But we are hopeful it would heal some lacerations and pains.
Only that you need to do more. We are living in a difficult world. But let’s not dwell on the negatives.
We have work to do, together. With your leadership we can solve many problems, though we understand it is easier said than done. But at least the people of Palestine can see a light at the end of the tunnel, so, too, many others in the world that can be better off with your policies and vision.
Let’s start with your own phrase, “the audacity of hope” to make the world a better place. We, too, subscribe to your notion of a free, prosperous and peaceful world. When you meet the young from ASEAN nations in a town hall session at the historic hall of the oldest university in the land, I am sure you will speak about things that you care about — hope, choices and their future. And, convince them you will not fail them and us in your pursuit of a better future for mankind.
“...the visit will help showcase Malaysia as a moderate and progressive Muslim nation. Najib will be able to impress upon Obama that Malaysia is a force for good in this world. Its successful brokering of peace to create Bangsamoro in Mindanao is one testament to its growing stature as a country that believes in peace and harmony and in solving problems in a conflict-ridden world“–
IT was the darkest hour in an otherwise bright relationship between Malaysia and the United States. On November 18, 1998, after his hectoring speech, Al Gore, then the Vice-President of the US, rudely walked out of the official dinner hosted by Malaysia on the occasion of the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum.
Since the ensuing diplomatic furore, relations between the two countries have become friendlier with each successive Prime Minister; with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak being the friendliest.
President Barack Obama’s visit to Malaysia is the first in almost 50 years and second by a US President after President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s in 1966.
Following closely the 2010 bilateral meeting between the two leaders at the White House, the President’s visit will further cement the cordial relations between the two countries.
In some ways, Obama’s visit resonates with the remarks of President Johnson when he landed in Subang: “But though I feel that I know you, I have come here to learn from you. I know that your nation is a model of what may be done by determined and farsighted men in Southeast Asia, and in other parts of the world.”
Obama’s trip comes on the heels of the US’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region amid China’s military modernisation and rising influence in this region. China’s aggressive pursuit of its claims over disputed territories equally claimed by Japan and the Philippines and its harassment of Vietnamese and Philippine fishing vessels are scary.
If it is to be a bulwark against Chinese aggression, then this tilt to Asia carries a grave risk. China might harden its stance with potentially damaging consequences to this region and US-China cooperation. But there is more than the China factor in the US’s strategic policy shift. The much-delayed visit is also timely on many counts.
FIRST, accounting for close to 10 per cent of Malaysia’s global trade, the US is one of its top five trading partners. In a larger context, the Asia-Pacific region — of which Malaysia is active in trade and diplomacy — is becoming increasingly significant in the world economy and trade.
The region is fast integrating as an economic powerhouse — faster than any other region. Modelled along the European Union (EU), minus a common currency, the Asean Economic Community is envisaged to come into being next year.
The Asia-Pacific trading zone, including prospective countries to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), is 40 per cent larger than the EU. And over the next five years, half of all growth outside the US will come from this region. This has implications to US exports, jobs and economic growth.
SECOND, the TPP remains still on paper when it was due for agreement last year. Both Malaysia and the US, including the other signatories — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam — will enjoy a number of economic benefits upon endorsing the agreement.
The TPP will increase access to the growing markets of Asia. It will stimulate export and investment growth. Accordingly, it will generate employment and prosperity.
With trade reaching double our gross domestic product, Malaysia is one of the world’s most trade-dependent economies. TPP will serve as an added platform to further fuel our trade. Likewise, TPP will be Obama’s legacy in the field of trade and investment.
The visit will, therefore, accord the two leaders a unique opportunity to take stock of the progress in gaining consensus over contentious issues such as government procurement, intellectual property rights, position of state-owned enterprises, and labour and environment. It will accord a first-hand opportunity to convey our concerns. And both leaders can find ways to expedite agreement on these issues.
It will also be an opportune moment for Malaysia to seek an assurance from Obama that any agreement reached will not be in vain. Obama has yet to secure a fast-track authority to conclude the TPP agreement.
Congress, which has jurisdiction over trade agreements, might nitpick on provisions crafted through the spirit of compromise. That might cause to unravel the delicate balance of interests of all negotiating parties. If so, it would be akin to pronouncing death to the TPP.
THIRD, comprising over one-third of the US$39 billion (RM127.53 billion) foreign direct investment flows into the country last year, the US remains our top investor. Obama will surely promote SelectUSA, a programme that promotes investments in the US. We, too, should take the opportunity to ensure that Malaysia continues to be the preferred destination of US investors. Our Economic Transformation Programme will be ever the stronger for such a promotion.
FOURTH, the visit will help showcase Malaysia as a moderate and progressive Muslim nation. Najib will be able to impress upon Obama that Malaysia is a force for good in this world. Its successful brokering of peace to create Bangsamoro in Mindanao is one testament to its growing stature as a country that believes in peace and harmony and in solving problems in a conflict-ridden world.
Friendship is never a smooth journey. But as a wave that with each gentle swash pushes the watermark higher ashore, this visit, too, will push Malaysia-US relations to an even higher plane.