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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Mishaps Mar Malaysia’s Handling of Flight Tragedy

Mishaps Mar Malaysia’s Handling of Flight Tragedy

Critics furious over crossed signals from government officials as search grows more confused

MH370 rescueMiscues and media gaffes are turning Malaysia into an object of anger and criticism in the aftermath of the disappearance early Saturday morning of a Malaysian Airlines jetliner carrying 239 passengers and crew. 

No trace of the craft has been found despite a search encompassing thousands of square kilometers.  On Wednesday, the day was dominated by confusion over reports that the aircraft might have attempted to head back toward Malaysia before it disappeared.

Malaysia’s air force chief told reporters very early Wednesday that the plane had veered off course. Later in the morning, the same officer denied the report sharply. By Wednesday afternoon, the government seemed to reverse itself again, requesting assistance from India in searching the Andaman Sea, north of the Malacca Strait, where the plane may have gone down far from the current search area off the coast of Vietnam.

Officials finally said the plane “may” have been heading toward the Strait of Malacca when it disappeared and that the search was now also concentrated in that area.

Hishamuddin HusseinOther countries have grown frustrated.  The Chinese, with 152 passengers on board, have complained about a lack of transparency over details. They have also complained that Malaysian Airlines staff handling relatives of the victims in Beijing have been short of information and in many cases don’t speak Mandarin.

From the start, according to critics, the Malaysians have treated the disappearance and ensuing inconsistencies as a local problem instead of one that has focused the attention of the entire world’s media on the tragedy. In a semi-democratic country with a largely supine domestic media, the government insists it has the situation in hand but that hardly seems the case.

Often, those giving press briefings about the affair communicate badly in English to an international press whose lingua franca is English.  Because of widely differing reports of where the aircraft actually disappeared, the picture being delivered is one of incompetence. Networks like the BBC and CNN are openly declaring that the post-accident situation is a mess.

Some of it isn’t Malaysia’s fault.  An initial report that two possible hijackers using fake passports somehow got through the country’s passport control because of lax surveillance turned out to be false.  While the two were traveling on false passports, apparently the stolen documents had never been reported to Interpol, which tracks such incidents.  The pair turned out to be Iranians seeking asylum in Europe.  

But that wasn’t helped by the fact that Malaysian authorities originally said erroneously that as many as four to five people could have been traveling with suspect passports, raising the possibility of a fully-fledged hijack gang aboard.

But five days into the loss of the aircraft and with no idea of where it could have disappeared, there is growing concern over who is in charge, coupled with the fact that Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has largely removed himself from the picture, allowing his cousin, Hishammuddin Hussein, the defense minister and acting transport minister, to deal with the affair. 

International treaties that allow for Malaysia to greatly expand the probe by calling in experts from foreign governments to help were not invoked until Wednesday, it seems, when it was reported that US and other foreign experts had finally been invited to take part in the formal investigation. It seemed again that valuable time had been lost.

Much of the problem is due to the fact that the Malaysian government has habitually handled information as a problem rather than as a means of communication. The mainstream news media are all owned by the ruling political parties and are used to being fed information the government wants them to hear.  Government-owned MAS at one point issued a press release only to recall it twice because of misspellings and misinformation.

In a deeply divided political culture, especially in the last year as the opposition has grown more effective, the government is finding it difficult to manage the flow of information on a disaster. In addition, in the midst of this flight crisis the government is seeming preoccupied by court actions to drive two opposition leaders, Anwar Ibrahim of  Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and Karpal Singh of the Democratic Action Party, out of Parliament.

At the start, the plane was characterized as having simply gone off the radar – until Wednesday, when a report carried in Berita Harian, a government-controlled Malay-language newspaper, quoted Air Force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud as saying Malaysian radar had tracked the missing Boeing 777-200 turning left from its last known location on radar. It then supposedly crossed Malaysia itself and disappeared over the Strait of Malacca.

The report set off a frenzy. CNN and the BBC carried maps of the new possible crash site as it was reported that the massive search for the wreckage had shifted to the waters between Malaysia and Indonesia instead of the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam.

Then the report was emphatically denied by Daud, who told a press conference that “I wish to state that I did not make any such statements as above.”

CNN, however,  quoted an unnamed “senior air force source” as saying the plane indeed had shown up on radar for more than an hour after contact was lost at around 1:30 a.m. Saturday. The craft was last detected, according to the official, near Pulau Perak, a small island in the Strait of Malacca.  

Has four days been wasted by a huge flotilla of airplanes and ships that have been scouring the South China Sea for wreckage while the plane might actually be somewhere 900 km. to the west?  The Vietnamese announced they were suspending their participation in the search. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Tuesday complained about the lack of progress in finding the plane, saying “We once again request and urge the Malaysia side to enhance and strengthen rescue and searching efforts.”  The Chinese government itself is starting to feel the heat, offering to deploy 10 satellites in the effort to find the plane.

The crisis wasn’t helped any by a sensational revelation from Australia by a young South African woman that she and a friend had once ridden in the cockpit of an MAS flight from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur at the invitation of the missing co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, and had pictures of themselves flirting with the pilots, who were even smoking in the cockpit, to prove it.

Since 9/11 in the United States, airline regulations forbid anyone not part of the crew from gaining access to the cockpit. If nothing else, the story and the pictures are an indication of lax flight deck discipline and raise questions if someone could have got into the pilots’ cabin aboard MH370. 


Stand Up for Democracy And Stand By Anwar Against Kelptocracy

March 7, 2014

Stand Up for Democracy,Freedom, Justice And Stand By Anwar Against Kleptocracy 

Stand Up for each other, Pakatan Rakyat.  Fight for freedom, democracy and justice. We have no option. Today’s Court of A Appeal decision makes Anwar the driving force for change in our country.  Let us not feel dejected. Our fight goes on against the dark forces of repression, arrogance, oppression; and like Badwawi’s supression, Najib will fall on the count of three.–Din Merican

by Josh

TDMBaruFor nearly 16 years now, Malaysian politics has been stuck in skullduggery just because one influential and popular individual by the name of Anwar Ibrahim was – and is – determined to challenge UMNO’s hegemony embodied by Mahathir Mohamad’s autocracy.

The sodomy issue is like a sword of Damocles that hangs forever over Anwar’s head. When he was acquitted for the first time over Sodomy II back in January 2012, some were quick to attribute the verdict to a restoration of judicial integrity. How premature the conclusion was, I would say.

Although there have been cases where justice was seen to be done, including a series of decisions against UMNO mouthpieces such as Utusan Malaysia and TV3, it would seem that the Judiciary remains very much beholden to the powers-that-be whenever the latter’s ultimate authority is severely challenged.

In other words, as long as the opposition adhered to the rules of the game laid down by UMNO and played its role within the permitted boundaries, it was allowed to survive but not to thrive.

Until, of course, the power of reformasi was unleashed by Anwar and turned the UMNO game upside down. Since then, the party that claims to represent the Malays has been fighting tooth and nail to stay relevant.

Still, neither Mahathir nor Najib Abdul Razak ever doubts the sodomy trump card that they have, alongside the advantages that UMNO holds as the ruling party. While Najib grudgingly accepted the not-so-splendid outcome of the 13th general election, he was privately relieved that more than sufficient time had been secured for him to say in power.

But Najib’s fortunes started to dwindle in no time as the costs of living were rising as a result of his hastily implemented economic measures.

At the same time, Mahathir and his cohorts cashed in on the increasingly discontents at the grassroots level by attacking Najib’s lacklustre performance, although the ex-dictator is never under the illusion that every act of defiance on his part is meant to soothe his immense grievances over his son’s failure to make it to UMNO’s top leadership.

So Najib was on the verge of repeating what Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had gone through – an ignominious exit that was.

Anwar-KajangAt this juncture, Anwar pre-empted Najib with the Kajang Offensive, seeking to regain the momentum that was clearly lost post-GE13.

All at a sudden, the public’s zeal for a regime change was aroused, posing a serious threat to UMNO’s legitimacy once again.

Should Anwar win big in Kajang, it would deal further blow to Najib’s diminishing authority within the party and nationwide.

Talk of reconciliation

Prior to this, there had been talk of reconciliation, with both sides of the political divides seemingly warming up to the idea.

I had chastised Anwar in no uncertain terms over the overtures that he had been making towards UMNO for the simple reason that the party that has ruined each and every public institution over the last 30 years and trampled on our national dignity time and again can never be trusted as a partner.

Then Anwar appeared to have changed his mind and decided to go on the offensive. But his Kajang strategy was interpreted by Najib as a betrayal on the consensus between them, which explains the rush to move the Sodomy II appeal forward to stop Anwar from getting closer to assuming a greater role in politics.

A calculative politician, Najib most probably decided to finish Anwar off by sending him to jail so that he gets to keep Putrajaya, while simultaneously appeasing Mahathir.

Yes, the Kajang Move has clearly backfired and one can go on arguing whether it was ethnical or justifiable from the very beginning. However, the very cruel reality remains that Umno is so arrogant and powerful that judges must disregard all the evidence and convict its opponents on the shakiest grounds.

Mahathir is the happiest man for now, but the country and the people will eventually pay for his and Umno’s perfidy unless a new generation of Malaysians are prepared to rise up against all the injustices.

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

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, India and Indonesia–Building Trust Amidst Hostility

February 21, 2014

east-west-center-asia-pacific-bulletinNumber 249 | February 18, 2014


China, India and Indonesia–Building Trust Amidst Hostility

By Vibhanshu Shekher     

Amidst the prevailing atmospherics of aggression, hostility and uncertainty, rising powers of the Indo-Pacific are also making efforts towards building trust and exhibiting their willingness to come to terms with each other’s rise. Three such efforts were made in October 2013 by China, India and Indonesia during the high-level visits of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Jakarta, October 3; Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Jakarta, October 10-12; and again by Prime Minister Singh to Beijing, October 22-24. The significance of these visits lies in the introduction of a somewhat calibrated approach towards dealing with each other’s rise, strengthening relations as major powers, and opening up of new channels of communication in their troubled areas of relations. No matter how small these efforts for collaboration are, their significance should not be lost amidst the cacophony of doom and gloom that some reports claim are prevalent throughout the region.

The official statements from these visits offer a glimpse into how these three states are acknowledging the significance of each other in the evolving regional order. Though the United States remains the paramount power in the region, mutual acknowledgement of each other’s interests and stakes between these three second-tier rising powers could create conditions for stability in an otherwise unstable multipolar Indo-Pacific. The visits produced commitments in three major areas of diplomacy: assertion of strategic partnerships including defense cooperation, deepening of cooperation in economic and other softer areas of relations, and introduction of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) to diffuse tension. First, while consolidating their relations, these Asian powers laid out road maps for cementing ties, and acknowledged each other’s role and importance in the region. The first signal came from Jakarta where Indonesia and China decided to elevate their bilateral cooperation to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership. While Beijing acknowledged Jakarta as an emerging market with global and regional influence, the latter characterized their partnership as an epochal moment in the history of their bilateral relations. Defense and security cooperation–specifically in the areas of maritime security, military exercises, defense industry–figured prominently in their joint statement.

India and Indonesia, bereft of any major sore point in their relations in comparison to either Sino-Indian or Sino-Indonesian relations, attempted to add more substance and speed to their otherwise thin and slow-paced strategic partnership. The two countries identified five focus areas to strengthen their bilateral ties: strategic engagement, defense and security cooperation, comprehensive economic partnership, cultural and people-to-people linkages, and cooperation in responding to common challenges. The content of their joint statement highlighted the intent of the two rising powers to go beyond the bilateral context of cooperation towards a pan-Indo-Pacific orientation. Both the Indian Ocean and the G-20 were added as important regional and global agendas for bilateral cooperation.

On the other hand, the Sino-Indian joint statement, entitled “A Vision for Future Development of India-China Strategic and Cooperative Partnership” aimed to project broad-based consensus between the two powers over issues of regional and global concern. The two countries signed nine agreements/Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with the two-pronged focus of developing confidence-building measures to address areas of bilateral dispute and deepening cooperation in areas of mutual benefit.

Second, these visits reflected an infusion of substantive economic cooperation into their partnerships and an emphasis on strengthening cooperation in other less contentious areas, such as education and culture. In addition to the signing of a currency swap agreement worth $16 billion, China and Indonesia agreed to implement the commitments of the China-Indonesia Five Year Development Program for Trade and Economic Cooperation to reach a bilateral trade target of $80 billion by 2015. The Chinese leadership tried to allay Indonesian misgivings in the economic sector by agreeing to enhance direct investment in the infrastructure and development sectors and to promote balanced trade. At the 2013 Bali summit of APEC, both China and Indonesia pushed for greater economic integration, better connectivity and greater market access within the region.

India and Indonesia signed six MoUs, which entailed greater collaboration between institutions of the two countries in the areas of health, natural disasters, drug-trafficking, intelligence training, and research. In a similar fashion, the Sino-Indian joint statement focused on linkages in the softer areas of cooperation. They signed an MoU on reviving the ancient Nalanda University and also agreed to celebrate the six decades of the Nehruvian doctrine of Panchsheel–Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence–as a symbol of post-colonial Sino-Indian friendship. The ASEAN Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership initiative figured for the first time as a potential agenda of bilateral economic cooperation. Both India and China are not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. These agendas of cooperation reflect on decisions of the two countries to widen the audience and stakeholders of their relationship by strengthening people-to-people relations.

Experts on Sino-Indian relations would have found it unpalatable to imagine a few years ago that Myanmar, which has remained a source of Sino-Indian rivalries, would figure as a connecting link in their efforts towards building ties. This welcome trend was evident from the joint statement of India and China that mentioned Myanmar as a likely participant in their celebration of six decades of Panchsheel.

Finally, these visits saw attempts to build confidence over long-standing bilateral disputes by introducing these sensitive issues into the official agenda of negotiation. Major strides came from the most troubled equation of this strategic triangle–Sino-Indian relations. New Delhi and Beijing signed a border defense cooperation agreement that underscored the necessity of maintaining peace along the border through information sharing and laid out elaborate mechanisms for both periodic meetings as well as emergency communications. Moreover, India and China, for the first time, brought trans-border river management into the official agenda of negotiation with the signing of an MoU on strengthening cooperation on trans-border rivers and the Chinese consent for data sharing.

The predominant culture of strategic autonomy in India and Indonesia seems to be dictating their economically beneficial and tension-reducing exercises of cooperation with China. Jakarta as an autonomous actor, once again, holds the key in this new-evolving triangle of relationships. Nevertheless, it is yet to be seen whether these three powers are able to shoulder the responsibility of building a stable regional order or if they will inevitably push the region towards greater instability as their individual power and ambitions grow.

About the Author

Dr. Vibhanshu Shekhar is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. He was previously a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. He can be contacted via email 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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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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Pehin Sri Taib remains an indispensable force : Keeping UMNO out of Sarawak

February 7, 2013

Pehin Sri Taib remains an indispensable force : Keeping UMNO out of Sarawak

by Terence Netto (02-06-14)@

It must be a matter of some irony that the last time Abdul Taib Mahmud felt pressured to quit, one half of the pair from the Peninsula that had piled it on is now under duress himself.

It is unlikely that the Sarawak Chief Minister, who completes 32 years in office next month, will choose to meditate on the vicissitudes of fate when he addresses two important political meetings in Kuching this weekend, though he is in what can be regarded as a reversal of predicaments vis-a-vis Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Taib is shaping up to indicate when he will bow out which is different to Najib’s situation where the latter is warding off being shown the door.

Almost three years ago the PM, with Deputy Muhyiddin Yassin in tow, descended on the Sarawak capital to impress upon Taib, then completing his third decade as CM, the need for him to quit before upcoming polls in the state.

Taib was regarded as a liability to the state BN heading into the election just as Najib is now viewed by sections in UMNO as certain to lose BN the next general election four years down the road.

In March 2011 when the UMNO top two met up with Taib in Kuching, Najib was finishing his second year as the national CEO, still flush in his newfangled premiership. Taib, in contrast, was besieged with corruption allegations and as having grossly overstayed his welcome as CM.

It was time for Taib to go. The PM and Deputy had come to town on a Saturday morning for a friendly chat with Taib. They had hoped to nudge the man in the direction of the exits coupled with a suggestion as to who ought to be his replacement.

A gingerly change of pace, one would have thought, from what would have been a hectic day had the UMNO top pair been on the Peninsula where the political weekend is usually given over to shoring up the home base or reinforcing the national agenda.

Not quite relishing the task of alone convincing Taib to go, the PM had required the shoring up presence of his Deputy, renowned then as author of a subversive tone of public remonstrance that had made short shrift of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s forlorn attempt to stave off party pressure to quit as Prime Minister which happened two years prior to the Najib-Muhyiddin mission of similar intent to Kuching.

One-half of BN’s fixed deposit

If Najib felt that the DPM’s presence would make easy work of inducing Taib to retire, what with a state election imminent and the need for a new-broom PM to make a clean breast of things in Sarawak as well as in the rest of the country, he was unpleasantly surprised.

Already in his mid-70s, Taib fended off the UMNO duo’s overtures, arguing the case for his staying on with a vigour that belied his years. All Najib and Muhyiddin would receive for their pains was agreement that the BN slate of candidates, studded with Taib’s relatives, would be shorn of them, coupled with an assurance that a time frame would be offered for the CM’s withdrawal from an arena he presided over with gravity-defying longevity.

A fortnight after the visit, the Sarawak state assembly was dissolved. Taib then hinted he would retire two or three years into the new term he was seeking. He duly got the new term and although his party, PBB, make a clean sweep of the 34 seats it had contested, their Chinese-based ally SUPP suffered stinging losses to the DAP.

But this was not enough to heighten the pressure on Taib to leave sooner than he had himself suggested, as two years later he lodged PBB’s 14 parliamentary seats safely in the overall tally of federal BN’s, solidifying the now conventional wisdom that Sarawak was one-half of BN’s Borneo fixed deposit.

Now that that time frame on Taib’s withdrawal has just about run out, the news that two political meetings in Kuching this weekend – Saturday’s of  PBB, and Sunday’s of Sarawak BN – has a triggered a flurry of speculation that he is about to make an announcement about his future.

Most of the speculation expects he would announce a date for his retirement or even of his relinquishment of his post, with a possible elevation to the governorship of the state, a role its current occupant vacates on February 28.

But a survey of the candidates being bandied about as probables for Taib’s post suggests that each is short on one or the other of the three qualities deemed as necessary in the role. One is command and control ability over what can sometimes be a fractious state BN, bearing in mind the now critical factor that Sarawak is a vital part of federal BN’s fixed deposit.

The other requisite is an adequately competent performance either as state minister and/or federal minister. And the third requirement is wide acceptability by the ethnic mélange that is Sarawak – no fewer than 26 ethnicities make up the mosaic.

Keeping UMNO out of Sarawak

None of the five probables being touted – Adenan Satem, Alfred Jabu, Abang Johari Openg, Awang Tengah Hassan, and Effendi Nawawi – has all what it takes. Adenan comes up the least short but the 69-year-old has had a pacemaker installed.

Jabu is unacceptable to the majority Dayak community as he is seen as a toady and Awang Tengah is short on popularity, besides being disapproved of by Putrajaya who don’t want any replacement to attract the same allegations of corruption that Taib does.

Effendi Nawawi’s only qualification is that he is Melanau, the community that has supplied two of Sarawak’s four CMs since its merger with Malaya in 1963.This leaves Abang Johari (left) who is Putrajaya’s favourite but he is considered pretty short on ability. Johari’s chief shortcoming would be the perception that he would allow UMNO to take root in the state.
In the eyes of Sarawakians, Taib’s paramount achievement is in keeping UMNO out of the state. He has been cagey in the way he has worked to prevent that.

Sarawakians look to Sabah and shake their heads at what has happened to that state after UMNO’s entry, in the early 1990s, into the politics of that place.

The majority Dayak community in Sarawak feels that despite their lack of progress compared to the Muslim bumiputeras of the state, they are still better off than their ethnic cousins in Sabah, the Kadazan-Dusun-Muruts, once the majority in their state who from the mid-1990s on – after an influx of illegals from surrounding countries – suffered a demographic downgrade, with adverse ramifications to their economic and social standing.

Keeping UMNO out and maintaining state government equanimity about Christian Dayaks’ freedom to use the term ‘Allah’ for God in Indonesian and Iban language bibles have placed Taib in a good light vis-à-vis Putrajaya’s squeamishness over the issue of Christians’ use of the same term on the peninsula.

On these two issues, Taib, who will be 78 in May, is seen by the average Sarawakian as wise and steady and, more importantly, able to maintain the status quo. It is no secret that UMNO is angling for entry into Sarawak’s politics, if only to ensure the state endures as federal BN’s fixed deposit.

For that reason, the state BN is likely on Sunday to endorse a concept where Taib may propose a caretaker chief minister-ship with him in a tutelary role as prelude to his eventual exit from office.

Thus while shaping to go he gets to monitor what goes on under his attenuated watch, an unusual device for the end of an extraordinary career.

TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for four decades. He likes the profession because it puts him in contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them.

Japan has a dark past in the Far East

February 3, 2014

Japan has a dark past in the Far East

BA Hamzahby BA Hamzah, DSDK

Drawing some similarity between what happened before WW1 broke out in Europe with the contemporary situation in the Far East, between Japan and China, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, called on the world community to stand up to China. Clearly, Abe- san was worried that another World war could break out, presumably because the global community lacks interest in rolling back China’s quest to become a strong military power. Although he did not suggest it, but his message is quite clear: Japan will rearm to protect itself and ostensibly, to prevent a strong China from becoming belligerent.

Faced with a similar strategic uncertainty in the 1930s, Japan abandoned the Washington Treaty (1921-1922) and the London Naval Treaties of 1930 and 1936, which imposed a limit on the number of new hulls and tonnage for its growing Imperial Navy. Subsequently, a rearmed Japan waged a long war, including the second invasion of Manchuria in 1937, prior to the establishment of the theater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in South East Asia.

Some parallels have been inaccurately drawn between China and Japan with the preceding years before WW1 in Europe. Tensions were building up mainly between Germany and England leading to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro- Hungarian Empire in June 1914.

The tensions in Europe were driven mainly by ideological differences, rising nationalism in Germany and most importantly, in my view, the desire on the part of Kaiser Wilhelm 11 and his Ministers to dominate Europe and to project power overseas. Backed by a robust economy and a strong army, Germany mistakenly thought it could defeat the naval supremacy of Great Britain. The rest is history.

The current political situation between China and Japan is nowhere what the world witnessed in 1914 and 1930s.The quarrels are of a different nature. Contrary to what some critics have suggested, the arms race between China and Japan is incomparable with what Germany and England experienced, preceding WW1.

While history may not repeat itself, as Mark Twain writes, it does rhyme. There is fear that the war that gripped Europe for more than four years (1914-1918), may resonate to our part of the world if the international community fails to reign in China.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chose Davos to vent anger at China over the unresolvedShinzo Abe ownership of some islands in the East China Sea to serve a calculated dual purpose. Firstly, to gauge the international barometer of support, to see which nations would be willing to confront China?  Secondly, with the Japanese audience in mind, whose support he needs to revise the 1947 Constitution to renounce war and to maintain a strong military.

As the most right wing, conservative second- time Prime Minister in recent years, to assert authority, Abe -san has to appear macho to his people, just like Kaiser Wilhelm 11 in 1914. There is a difference, though. Unlike Kaiser Wilhelm, Abe-san is not under the control of the military-not yet. Nevertheless, Kaiser Wilhelm wanted war and he got one. If Abe-san aspires the same, he will also get one. This is how history will rhyme.

Revising Article 9 would allow Japan to re-arm, maintain a military and renounce peace as a national policy. Abe -san plans to raise the defence spending by almost five per cent over the next five years marks the turning point from the post war the policy. His decision to beef up the Japan Self Defence Force is disturbing, although they come amidst uncertainties in the region. Currently, the JSDF has 250,000 soldiers in active service plus 60,000 reservists. With more than 50,000 American troops in Japan, the number of armed military personnel in Japan is relatively large.

At one per cent of its GDP, the budget for the JSDF (including the US forces) is large. At US$60 billion (in 2012), Japan spends more than India or Germany on defence; but US$3 billion less than the military budget in the UK but more than France in 2012. Both UK and France are nuclear states. By comparison, the military budget for the 10 Asean countries in 2012 was only US$23 billion.

The JSDF is well equipped and well led too. The Maritime Self-Defence Forces of Japan boast more frigates, submarines and mine warfare craft than the British Royal Navy or the French Navy. Japan has more ships in its merchant marine fleet and a more advanced ship building industry than the UK or France.

Japan has a slight edge over the UK and France in terms of sea-power capability. Japan may lack the naval capability to project power as its counterparts in the UK or France, but its sea power assets are impressive. These assets include the merchant marine, the ship building industry, marine science education, oceanography expertise, maritime technology, and the maritime enforcement agencies like the Japan Coast Guard. Like all other states, Japan needs these assets to develop a coherent national ocean-cum-sea power policy.

The Japanese land forces have more towed artillery pieces than the land forces of the UK or France. Similarly, its air force boasts more aircraft than those in the inventory of the French Air Force or the Royal Air Force.

A proper assessment of the quality of defence planning and capability of the JSDF must account for the dynamic factors, which is outside the scope of this article. Flawed though this bean-counting method is, it does provide base-line data for comparison. This article merely points out the number, not the quality, of the assets, in the JSDF

Admittedly, the future shape and size of the Japanese military is very much contingent on domestic politics and its assessment of the fast changing regional geo-political dynamics and their impact on its security. Within this overall context, the JSDF will play a more prominent role in Japan’s foreign policy under Abe-san now more determined than ever to change its defensive character. Under Abe-san, the JSDF will be equipped with the state -of- the- art -offensive conventional weapon systems including drones and missiles.

Some experts believe Japan can assemble a nuke bomb in ninety days! Worried by the increasingly isolationist policy in the US, following debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan and a more assertive China, Japan needs,a comprehensive defensive posture that can completely defend our nation”, as a hedge against an uncertain future (read China). However, by revising the 1947 Constitution Abe-san has deliberately released the dreadful “military Jeanie” whose dark past will be difficult to erase, forgive or forget.

When America Becomes Number Two

January 27, 2014

When America Becomes Number Two

by Kishore Mahbubani(01-21-14)

professor-kishore-mahbubaniKishore Mahbubani is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and author of “The Great Convergence: Asia, the West and the Logic of One World.” 

In 2019, barely five years away, the world will pass one of its most significant historical milestones. For the first time in 200 years, a non-Western power, China, will become the number one economy in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms. America will become number two. Yes, it will take longer for China’s economy to overtake America’s in nominal terms but the trend line is irresistible. And in PPP terms, China’s economy could be twice that of America’s by 2020.

The big question for our time therefore is this: is America ready to become number two? Sadly, it is not, even though Bill Clinton wisely tried to wake up his fellow Americans as far back as 2003. In a very subtle speech at Yale, he asked whether “we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military political economic superpower in the world.”

Unfortunately, Bill Clinton was too subtle. He was trying to hint to his fellow Americans that America should create a model of rules-based behavior that would then serve as a model for China when it emerged as the number one power in the world. His hint was ignored. Hence, few Americans today are aware that America’s national interests change dramatically when it becomes number two in the world. When it is number one, it is in America’s interests to see that the number one power has complete freedom to do whatever it wants to do. When it is number two, it is not in America’s interests to see that the number one power has complete freedom to do whatever it wants to do. Catch the difference?

Why have American leaders failed to prepare the American population for this significant change of interests? There are at least three reasons. Firstly, it is political suicide for any American politician in office to speak on America as number two. As I document in The Great Convergence, no serving American politician can use the words, “If America is number two…” or “When America becomes number two…” In the land of free speech, there is no effective freedom for serving politicians to speak undeniable truths.

Secondly, most American intellectuals continue to indulge in wishful thinking. In their minds, there is a deep ideological conviction that democracy represents the future and Communism represents the past. Since China is still run by the Chinese Communist Party, it can only represent the past, not the future. Many American intellectuals also believe that since they live in the world’s freest society, they cannot possibly be prisoners of any ideology. This is massive self-deception. When it comes to understanding China, Americans have allowed ideology to trump mountains of empirical data. This is why they cannot even conceive of China becoming number one.

Thirdly, and very sadly, China’s emergence is taking place at a moment of great political paralysis and disunity in the American body politic. If Nixon and Kissinger were managing American foreign policy today, they would have focused on the most critical challenge that America faces and found ingenious ways and means of implementing the wise advice that Bill Clinton offered in 2003 and prepared for a new geopolitical environment. The days of wise foreign policy management are long gone in Washington, DC. Furthermore, with Washington, DC being completely divided and polarized, the challenge of dealing with becoming number two is the last thing on the minds of American policymakers.

Sadly, the last thing on the minds of American policymakers will come true in five years. Will America wake up to this new reality before or after it happens? 

Japan in East Asia: Challenges and Opportunities for 2014

January 16, 2014


Number 247 | January 14, 2014


Japan in East Asia: Challenges and Opportunities for 2014

By Kei Koga

Kei Koga, Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technical University Singapore explains that, “Japan’s diplomacy in 2014 requires strategic patience, and there are three diplomatic steps that help achieve it.”

Shinzo AbeJapanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, 2013, has further complicated East Asian regional politics and not only with China and South Korea, but also other states in the region and beyond. The United States expressed that it was “disappointed” and Singapore voiced “regret.” For these states, the degree of Abe’s political “inconsiderateness” is the major source of concern, rather than the actual visit itself. Tensions are already heightened in the region after China’s unilateral establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea last November and South Korea’s continuous castigation against Japan on the comfort women issue during World War II.

Admittedly, Japan’s relations with the United States and Southeast Asian countries will remain relatively strong. For the United States the political damage is relatively limited, as it acknowledges and welcomes Abe’s efforts to restructure Japanese economic and security policies, including new Japan-US defense guidelines and the Futenma Replacement Facility on the island of Okinawa. Regarding ASEAN, Japan can continue to build on its successful ASEAN diplomacy initiated throughout 2013. Bilaterally, Abe made a point of being the first Japanese prime minister to visit all ten ASEAN member countries where he outlined a vision for enhanced bilateral political, economic, and security cooperation with each member state. Multilaterally, Japan has participated in all ASEAN regional meetings, including the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus and East Asia Summit (EAS), and these efforts culminated in the ASEAN-Japan commemorative summit in December 2013. In short, Japan’s 2013 diplomacy with the United States and ASEAN states has laid a solid foundation for future cooperation.

This, however, does not allay concerns regarding the potential for instability in Northeast Asia which in turn could have a negative effect on the entire Asia-Pacific region. The United States does not want to see any deterioration in relations between Japan, China and South Korea, as intensification of rivalry might replace constructive cooperation agendas with precarious balance of power politics. Likewise, ASEAN states have no desire to become entangled in great power politics, which could potentially force them to choose sides. The unfortunate fact is that after Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit, it is now even more difficult for Japan to hold bilateral summits with South Korea and China. South Korea’s National Assembly issued a stern resolution condemning Abe’s visit and President Park Geun-hye now faces strong domestic pressure to eschew a bilateral summit with Japan. China’s official statement that Abe “shuts the door on talks with Chinese leaders” also showed its unwillingness to hold a bilateral summit with Japan. These Northeast Asia intraregional political differences only further consolidate US concerns and ASEAN’s fears.

In this context, Japan’s East Asian diplomacy becomes a critical factor in shaping the East Asian strategic landscape for 2014. The challenge is for Japan to realistically improve relations with China and South Korea which in turn will reassure the United States and ASEAN that it will not further increase antagonism with its neighbors. This is a very difficult task as both China and South Korea have now become more skeptical about every Japanese action, particularly pertaining to security policy. Japan’s diplomacy in 2014 requires strategic patience, and there are three diplomatic steps that could help achieve it.

First, Japan needs to proactively conduct a policy of engagement diplomacy towards China and South Korea. It is true that Abe has already and continuously stated that “the door to dialogue is always open” to both neighbors, but the Yasukuni Shrine visit has made it only more unlikely that either China or South Korea will accept such an offer in the immediate future. Under these circumstances, an option for the Abe administration is to reiterate its position on Japanese war-time actions. One step in this direction would be to continuously reaffirm a commitment to the 1995 statement of Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama when he solemnly pledged that Japan would “never repeat the errors in our history.” If nothing else this could help signal Japan’s political intention to South Korea and China, while simultaneously reassuring the United States and ASEAN.

Second, Japan should make the most of existing ASEAN multilateral frameworks to engage with China and South Korea. While bilateral political cooperation at the summit level is unlikely to happen in the immediate future, action-based cooperation can be achieved through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ADMM Plus. As ASEAN-led forums have been rigidly institutionalized, Japan, China, and South Korea can regularly conduct diplomatic and military cooperation. Particularly, ADMM Plus is a useful framework for this purpose for two reasons. Firstly, as illustrated in the 2013 ADMM Plus Expert Working Groups (EWGs) HADR/Military Medicine Exercise and despite the intensification of regional territorial disputes, China successfully conducted joint military exercises with both the Philippines and Vietnam. Secondly, given Asian vulnerability to natural disasters and Northeast Asian militaries comparative advantage in responding to such disasters, there is a real need for increased regional HA/DR cooperation. Utilizing ASEAN-led institutions as a diplomatic hub Japan can encourage enhancement of such cooperation, while simultaneously being able to contribute its airlift and surveillance capabilities to enhance Asian response to natural disasters.

Third, Japan should further endeavor to explain development of its national security policy to the international community. Too often international and domestic media reports tend to connect Abe’s conservative agenda with Japan’s security policies. As a result this creates skepticism about Japan’s overall policy development. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine will only strengthen this skepticism, specifically pertaining to Japanese security policy. However, Japan’s current defense posture represents more continuity than change. Recent Japanese security documents–the National Security Strategy (NSS) report, the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), and the Mid-term defense program–are all a continuum of the 2010 NDPG under the Democratic Party of Japan and designed to comprehensively but modestly develop Japan’s military capabilities to deal with “gray zone” contingencies and non-traditional security threats. Therefore, further enhancement of Japan’s transparency is crucial in clarifying its overall security policy. In addition, the bottom-up approach, such as Track-II diplomacy would be another effective way to deepen understanding of the core problems when issues such as Yasukuni Shrine are too controversial at the government level.

Under current political conditions, furthering Japan’s diplomatic efforts with strategic patience is a necessary condition to alleviate uncertainties. Japan’s diplomatic challenge in early 2014 is thus to patiently pursue constructive engagement in East Asia. This will contribute to achieving Japan’s own objective–”proactive contribution to world prosperity and peace”–which also benefits stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

About the Author

Kei Koga is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Global Affairs with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University. He can be contacted via email 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.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington.
APB Series Coordinator: Damien Tomkins, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contact

East-West Center | 1601 East-West Road | Honolulu, HI | 808.944.7111

East-West Center in Washington | 1819 L Street, NW, Suite 600 | Washington, DC | 202.293.3995

The Future of East Asia: Four Risks to Long-Term Stability

December 22, 2013

East Asian Insights

Vol. 8 No. 4 | December 2013

The Future of East Asia: Four Risks to Long-Term Stability

by Hitoshi Tanaka, Senior Fellow, JCIE

Earlier this year, I wrote about the opportunity that the ascent to power of a cadreS. Abe of leaders around the region—Shinzo Abe in Japan, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang in China, and Park Geun-hye in South Korea—presented for a reset of relations among East Asian countries. To achieve a reset, countries in the region need to overcome their confrontational postures. But the opportunity for a reset among the new leaders has been squandered. Rather than utilizing their honeymoon periods to move regional relations in a positive direction, confrontational postures have become even more deeply entrenched.

This situation presents a significant risk not just to the short-term stability of East Asia, where miscalculations can lead to violent conflict, but also to the medium to long-term cooperative efforts that are needed to ensure that the evolution of regional order is locked into a peaceful and stable trajectory.

Now it is clear that the years leading up to 2020 will be key for shaping the future of the region. This is when Japan is set to host the Olympic Games in Tokyo and when China has set for itself the target of doubling its 2010 GDP and per capita income for both rural and urban residents. In particular, four main risks demand our attention: the regional policies of the United States and China, the nexus that has developed in the region between domestic politics and foreign policy, the rising tide of nationalism, and North Korea.

American and Chinese Regional Approaches

The regional policies of China and the United States (including US-Japan alliance coordination) will have long-term ramifications dictating the way in which competition is managed and cooperation is deepened on shared interests.

Xi JinpingFor the last two decades, the strategy espoused by Deng Xiaoping—for China to keep a low profile (tao guang yang hui) in international affairs—has been a key guiding principle of Chinese foreign policy. However, around 2010, just before it overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy, China appeared to disregard Deng’s dictate in favor of a more confident, assertive approach.

This was prominently displayed at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi that year as China attempted to keep territorial disputes in the South China Sea off the agenda. Ongoing tensions with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, the banning of fish imports from Norway in 2010 as retribution for awarding Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize, the blocking of banana imports from the Philippines in 2012 as punishment over the Scarborough Shoal dispute, and most recently China’s abrupt declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, which overlaps with Japan’s own ADIZ and covers the Senkaku Islands, are also indicative of this trend.

The United States should respond appropriately in order to deter aggressive and unilateral behavior, but it should do this while engaging and not containing China. This is further complicated by the fact that the United States must figure out how to rearrange its military posture as it seeks to extract itself from Afghanistan and Iraq and reduce its defense spending. To this end, the United States has declared its “pivot” to Asia—which it has since renamed a “rebalancing” so as to avoid any perception of containment—and joined the East Asia Summit.

From a Japanese perspective, however, there is concern that a significant gap in US and Japanese thinking may emerge regarding the best approach to China. Recently the United States has been distracted by domestic political gridlock. Additionally, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in a November 20 speech at Georgetown University, referred to “operationaliz(ing) a new model of major power relations” with China, which has been misinterpreted in the Japanese media as US accession to the G2 concept. This has sparked concern that the United States may agree to China’s own definitions of Chinese “core” interests and it may become too accommodating toward China in the future.

The recent statements by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Secretary of State KerryChuck Hagel affirming that the Senkaku Islands are covered under the US-Japan Security Treaty and voicing deep concern regarding China’s announcement of an ADIZ in the East China Sea, as well as the dispatch of B-52 bombers to the ADIZ, have made some progress toward assuaging Japanese concerns. But it is crucial that when the United States expands its cooperation with China, as it rightly must do, it conduct US-Japan alliance consultations ahead of time to prevent misunderstandings and ensure that new modes of cooperation are compatible with alliance structures.

The Domestic Politics–Foreign Policy Nexus

The trend of domestic politics undermining bilateral cooperation and becoming increasingly irreconcilable with regional goals has become a risk to the medium and long-term stability of East Asia.

In the United States, the polarization of domestic politics has manifested itself in US foreign policy in decidedly negative ways. The culture of filibustering and the gridlock surrounding Obamacare, the debt ceiling debate, and budget deliberations, which prevented President Obama from attending the APEC meetings and East Asia Summit in Indonesia and Brunei in October, have undermined the credibility of US leadership in the region. Moreover, political deadlock seems to be contributing to the decline in public support for President Obama.

Despite the reforms that were pledged at the Central Committee’s Third Plenum in November, China still faces an array of domestic political challenges including rapidly growing income inequality, low living standards among the estimated 260 million rural migrant workers, widespread corruption, food safety issues, air pollution, the de-leveraging of the financial sector, and the lack of structural reform to shift to sustainable growth.

The failure to address these domestic political challenges has the potential to seriously derail the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Under this scenario there is an increased risk that Beijing could be tempted to become adventurous in its foreign policy in order to divert attention from its domestic governance shortcomings, focus public frustrations on an external enemy, and thereby achieve domestic cohesion.

In Japan, the economic situation appears to be improving with the initial successes of Abenomics. However, the risk now is that while the first two arrows (aggressive monetary policy and flexible fiscal spending) have hit the mark, the follow-through on the third arrow of growth strategy, which needs to have the greatest impact if Abenomics is to be successful in the long term, has been underwhelming. While Prime Minster Shinzo Abe has been relatively pragmatic until now, an economic setback could tempt him to push conservative and nationalistic policies, which would further worsen Japan’s already tense bilateral relations with China and South Korea.

In South Korea, the constitutional court ruled that the denial of South Korean victims’ ability to pursue compensation for damages suffered during Japanese colonial rule was a violation of human rights and unconstitutional. Even though this court only has domestic jurisdiction, the ruling is in conflict with the overall thrust of South Korean foreign policy and the 1965 Japan-ROK diplomatic normalization agreement. Under that treaty, Japan and South Korea settled all legal claims between the two countries and Japan provided South Korea with US$500 million in economic assistance. Thus this domestic action strikes at the very underpinnings of the Japan-ROK bilateral relationship and has raised tensions unnecessarily.

The Rise of Nationalism

Also, nationalism has been on the rise around Northeast Asia, and its growing spillover into policymaking in the region is compounding the challenge of reconciling the domestic politics–foreign policy nexus.

China’s national narrative, as seen through a CCP lens, emphasizes the role of the Communist Party in overcoming suffering at the hands of Japan’s military during the Pacific War. As such, China’s period of national humiliation and anti-Japanese sentiment lingers at the forefront of the Chinese national consciousness. Now that China has risen to become the second biggest economy—and the second-largest defense spender—in the world, it is starting to regain its national confidence.

As part of the internal debate in China, questions are now being raised about the long-term relevance of Deng’s low-key approach, and pockets of conservative nationalists on one side appear to be in favor of jettisoning the principle once China is firmly situated as a major power. Given this situation, greater efforts are needed to guard against unilateral changes to the status quo and to bring China into the fold as a responsible regional stakeholder and as a partner of the United States and Japan.

The optimism surrounding the amazing speed with which Japan rose from the ashes of defeat of World War Two, and rebuilt itself as an economic powerhouse, has turned to frustration. In the decades since its asset price bubble burst in the early 1990s, economic growth plateaued and Japan failed to take decisive action to revitalize its economy. Japan’s demographic challenges have also exacerbated the sense of frustration. As such, public opinion in Japan has gradually become more questioning about Japan’s postwar pacifist posture, and the rise of China and the threat posed by North Korea have become easy targets for the venting of frustrations. Recent polling shows that 90 percent of the Japanese public have negative feelings toward China and vice versa.

Park and ObamaMeanwhile, South Korea’s history as a country caught at a geopolitical crossroads between China, Russia, and Japan has fostered an exceptionally strong sense of national identity.

South Korea has gone on to achieve remarkable economic growth, become an OECD member, and undergo a stunning process of democratization. But its continued focus on history issues and the wrongs that Japan committed in the first half of the 20th century, in a manner that inhibits present-day cooperation, reflects a highly volatile national consciousness. This trend has even gained strength under President Park Geun-hye, who much to Japan’s dismay and against normal diplomatic protocol, has criticized Japan in third countries, rather than bring her complaints directly to Japan in a bilateral summit.

The narrative that is increasingly shaping Northeast Asian countries’ national identities is problematic given the highly insular mentality it feeds and the antagonistic postures it encourages. Greater efforts are needed to promote national narratives within the broader framework of regional cooperation and give focus to the shared peace and prosperity and intertwined destiny of the region.

North Korea

The situation in North Korea, in terms of both its domestic politics and external Kim Jong-unrelations, also presents a significant risk to the future of East Asian regional stability. Since Kim Jong-un took over power from his father two years ago, Korea watchers have intently looked for signs to gauge the extent to which Kim Jong-un has consolidated power. The canny efforts of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung in creating an intentionally opaque political system that stamps out expressions of criticism against the regime and prevents them from ever becoming public make the situation tremendously difficult to judge from the outside.

However, while Kim Jong-un has been dubbed Supreme Leader, he does not appear to wield power in as outright a manner as his father or grandfather. Moreover, recent South Korean intelligence reports of Jang Song-thaek—Kim Jong-un’s uncle and the vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission—being dismissed from his posts, as well as reports of numerous purges of high-ranking Korean People’s Army personnel, suggest that Kim Jong-un’s transition may not have been as smooth as surface-level indicators would have us believe. So while a grassroots movement against the government is still extremely unlikely, the need for Kim Jong-un to keep the military on his side and the risk of a backlash from disgruntled purged former generals and their supporters remains.

It is clear that North Korea wants dialogue with the United States, but the two sides disagree on preconditions to be satisfied before any meeting can take place. This is a result of the United States, Japan, and South Korea feeling cheated in past denuclearization negotiations. Thus they want North Korea to demonstrate that it is serious this time around, and they also desire assurances from China that it will give its full backing and cooperation to any deal. China’s unique position as North Korea’s only de facto backer means Chinese support is crucial to ensure any future potential agreement is implementable in reality.

Additionally, the situation in the Middle East—and getting a nuclear deal with Iran right—is critical to the North Korean situation. A successful Iran deal will show North Korea, which is wary of how Libya was steamrolled after giving up its nuclear program, that a denuclearization deal can lead to a win-win situation for all parties. At the same time, focusing excessively on the Middle East and neglecting North Korea would be a mistake. As unpalatable as negotiations with North Korea may seem, strategic patience is not a realistic alternative as it just gives North Korea more time to refine its nuclear development. Moreover, in the absence of negotiations, North Korea is likely to begin the cycle of military provocations again, including through further missile or nuclear tests or via stealth attacks utilizing its asymmetrical advantage along the contested Northern Limit Line that demarcates the two countries’ western maritime border.

We have already missed one golden opportunity, but if the confrontational postures that have emerged in the region become entrenched, there is the risk that the future regional order may be derailed. Over the coming years leading up to 2020, there is a need for increased efforts to convince the respective publics in East Asian countries of the importance of regional cooperation and for intensive discussion between leaders for the mutual promotion of brave leadership that does not succumb to the temptation of short-term domestic political gains at the expense of long-term regional cooperation.

Policymakers must be more conscious of the medium to long-term evolution of regional order and focus regional cooperation in order to overcome nationalism, defang domestic political dynamics that undermine bilateral cooperation, and pursue domestic objectives that are compatible with regional cooperation and the goal of shared peace, prosperity, and stability in East Asia.

Hitoshi Tanaka is a Senior Fellow at JCIE and Chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd. He previously served as Japan’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Vietnam in ASEAN and ASEAN in Vietnam

November 24, 2103

east-west-center-asia-pacific-bulletinNumber 242 | November 21, 2013

Vietnam in ASEAN and ASEAN in Vietnam

By Le Dinh Tinh and Hoang Hai Long

Vietnam is increasingly looking to ASEAN as a main pillar for its foreign policy. A landmark shift occurred when Vietnam chaired ASEAN in 2010 and important regional issues such as community-building, economic connectivity, and the South China Sea were discussed and membership for the United States and Russia to the East Asia Summit was granted.

Today, the overriding theme in Vietnam’s foreign policy is international integration; earlier, the country emphasized only domestic economic growth and integration. Acknowledging that economic integration remains the core policy goal of Vietnam, security and regional politics are now also beginning to take a more prominent role.


Vietnam recognizes that by working with ASEAN it can have a greater impact on regional and global events, rather than by just acting alone. ASEAN is Vietnam’s bridge to the wider world and a safety net when the country faces global and regional problems. Economically, ASEAN offers substantial benefits to Vietnam. Bilateral trade was almost $38 billion in 2012, a ten percent increase from 2011 and accounted for 17 percent of Vietnam’s total trade. ASEAN is Vietnam’s third-largest market for exports after the United States and the European Union, ahead of Japan and China. Vietnam’s exports to ASEAN exceeded $17 billion in 2012, a 26 percent increase from the previous year. Singapore and Malaysia are Vietnam’s 7th and 8th largest export destinations, totaling $1.5 billion and $2.8 billion, respectively. Vietnam’s agricultural exports to ASEAN totaled almost $4 billion in 2012, a four-fold increase since 2000.

It is anticipated that intra-ASEAN trade will total 35 percent of ASEAN’s total trading volume by 2020 after implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015. In addition, over a fifth of the total foreign direct investment that Vietnam receives comes from ASEAN members, almost $47 billion at the end of 2012, with Singapore and Malaysia the largest ASEAN investors. Another growing market is tourism and people-to-people exchanges. Overall, the mutual Vietnam-ASEAN economic benefits continue on an upward trend.

On the geostrategic stage, Vietnam has membership benefits in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), partly because it is a member of ASEAN. Other benefits of free trade agreements, including the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), is that they have enabled Vietnam to meet international standards for macro-economic policies, tackling corruption and stimulating home-grown enterprises.Vietnam policy makers need to focus on a peaceful and stable security environment. For the sake of long-term development, Vietnam must be a fully active participant in the evolving security and political architecture currently unfolding in the region.

ASEAN is not only a logical starting point for this venture; it is the anchor for the region’s future. First, ASEAN provides an open venue for smaller countries to come together and establish new relationships and cement existing ones on the basis of mutual interests. With ASEAN, small member countries can align their interests, thus supplementing their relationships with major countries. As the Asia-Pacific attracts more attention, major countries are proactively seeking to strengthen bilateral ties with various actors in the region.

Taking advantage of this new opportunity, Vietnam has reciprocated positively, deepening relations with all permanent member countries on the UN Security Council, along with other important partners including India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

However, as the security climate in the region becomes more complicated, a vortex of constantly shifting interests and alliances is unfolding due to the maneuvering of major powers. Vietnam is naturally seeking an enhanced web of interlocking interests with its immediate neighbors and despite its flaws ASEAN has proven to be a transparent, inclusive and effective partner for Vietnam. This partnership creates, among other things, added leverage for Vietnam to boost relationships with major countries, for instance, via the ASEAN+1 (China) and ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea) mechanisms.

Second, ASEAN helps magnify Vietnam’s ability to politically integrate into the larger Asia-Pacific region. The East Asia Summit (EAS) is the key framework for regional leaders to discuss political and strategic issues while the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is developing into an inclusive multilateral security forum. The ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) enables ASEAN member to interact with major powers and provides a high-level venue to discuss transnational defense-security cooperation.

These forums and their success to date have proven ASEAN’s value as an honest broker and mediator for all parties in sensitive security issues. ASEAN’s centrality in regional security architecture cannot be underestimated and this relevance, vitality and influence will continue well into the future.

Why Vietnam?

ASEAN’s strength has always been the unified and combined strength of its members, and in order for ASEAN to be strong and cohesive its members have to be economically prosperous and secure. Vietnam’s successful economic development is certainly due in part to its ASEAN membership, and in turn Vietnam has also made many positive contributions to the strength of ASEAN as an institution.

After more than 20 years of reform and opening up, also known as the era of “Doi Moi” (renovation), Vietnam has made significant achievements on all fronts, including economic growth, social progress and political stability. From an import-based economy, Vietnam has exerted herself onto the global stage in trade and investment. Recently, Vietnam has risen to the status of a lower middle-income economy and is working to achieve a per capita income level of $3,000 by 2020.

Vietnam has already achieved the majority of its Millennium Development Goals ahead of the 2015 deadline, most notably in eradicating poverty and extreme hunger, and reducing child and maternal mortality rates. The country is also set to meet universal education targets by 2015.

Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh, who is also Vietnam’s current and longest-serving ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) leader, often explains that it is strategically important to create an ASEAN community that applies its dynamism toward creating a shared peace, security and prosperity for the region and beyond. Vietnam’s market is 90 million, the third largest in ASEAN, with approximately 70 percent of the population between 15 and 64 years old.

Vietnam’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2010 is a vivid example of Vietnam acting as an able and committed member when it comes to translating ASEAN goals into real and tangible results. Vietnam needs ASEAN and ASEAN also needs Vietnam. Vietnam-ASEAN interaction is increasingly inter-twining the two entities’ destinies and identities together into one, to mutual benefit.

About the Author

Mr. Le Dinh Tinh is Deputy Director General of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.Hoang Hai Long is a B.A. Student in the Department of Political Science at Depauw University. Mr. Le Dinh can be contacted via email at and Mr. Hoang 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.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Damien Tomkins, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contact

East-West Center | 1601 East-West Road | Honolulu, HI | 808.944.7111

East-West Center in Washington | 1819 L Street, NW, Suite 600 | Washington, DC | 202.293.3995

Lee Kuan Yew: Unwavering Dedication to Singapore

November 19, 2013

MY COMMENT (November 20, 2013):  Political, businessdato-din-merican and civil society leaders have always fascinated me. They are very special people. Over the years I have read about and observed them from a distance and have come to the conclusion that they are special because they have character, moral courage, and integrity.

That is why I have maintained a sustained interest in Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore. He came to my attention when I was a teenager in 1959 when the PAP government was formed. Since that time I have read every article and book written about this great leader from our part of the world including Mr Lee’s memoirs and his other books. I respect his intellect and his many achievements. Mr. Lee was a strong and dedicated leader of his people and Singapore.

President Richard Nixon who wrote about political leaders in his book, Leaders, made this comment:

“All of the really strong leaders I have known have been highly intelligent, highly disciplined hard workers, supremely confident, driven by a dream, driving others. All have looked beyond the horizon. Some have seen more clearly than others… The years ahead will require leadership of the highest order. It has been said that those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it and, conversely, that if the leaders of one age see further into the future than did their predecessors, it is because they stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before”.

Mr Lee is a student of history and learned lessons of history to be able to lead his country from 1959-1990 with great skill and passion. He is today a statesman whose counsel is sought by present day leaders around the globe. I congratulate Minister Heng Swee Keat on his excellent article about his former boss and mentor. –Din Merican

Lee Kuan Yew: Unwavering Dedication to Singapore

Heng Swee Kiatby Heng Swee Keat

The first time I met Lee Kuan Yew in person was in March 1997, when he interviewed me for the job of Principal Private Secretary (PPS). His questions were fast and sharp. Every reply drew even more probing questions.

At the end of it, he said: “Brush up your Mandarin and report in three months. We have an important project with China.”

I realized later that, among other things, it was perhaps when I replied “I don’t know” to one or two questions that I made an impression. With Lee, it is all right if you do not know something. But you do not pretend and lie if you do not know. Integrity is everything.

I had the privilege of working as Lee’s PPS from mid 1997 to early 2000. This was the period of the Asian Financial Crisis, and Lee was writing his memoirs. Lee’s world views are comprehensive and consistent. Three stand out for me.

That Yin-Yang tension

The first is about Singapore’s place in the world. His view is that a small city state can best survive in a benign world environment, where there is a balance of powers, where no single state dominates, and where the rule of law prevails in international affairs.

A small city state has to stay open and connect with all nations and economic powerhouses. To prosper, Singapore has to be relevant to the world. We must be exceptional.

Second: His views about human nature, culture and society. Human beings have two sides to our nature — one that is selfish, that seeks to compete and to maximize benefits for ourselves, our families, our clans; the other that is altruistic, that seeks to cooperate, to help others, and to contribute to the common good.

A society loses its vigour if it eschews excellence and competition; equally, a society loses its cohesion if it fails to take care of those who are left behind or disadvantaged. Lee believes that this tension between competition and cooperation, between yin and yang, is one that has to be constantly recalibrated. Within a society, those who are successful must contribute to it and help others find success. We must share the fruits of our collective efforts.

Third: His views about governance and leadership. As a lawyer, Lee believes deeply in the rule of law and the importance of institutions in creating a good society. But institutions are only as good as the people who run them. Good governance needs leaders with the right values, sense of service and abilities. It is important to have leaders who can forge with the people a vision for the future and to forge the way forward.

Above all, leaders are stewards. They should develop future leaders and, when their time comes, they should relinquish their positions, so that the next generation of leaders can take us to greater heights.

His favourite question: “So?”

While Lee’s world views are wide-ranging and widely sought, when I worked with him, I had the privilege of learning how his views are so coherent, rigorous and fresh, and how he put his agile mind in the service of the Singapore cause.

Lee’s favorite question is “So?” If you update him on something, he will invariably reply with, “So?” You reply and think you have answered him but, again, he asks, “So?” This forces you to get to the core of the issue and draw out the implications of each fact.

His instinct is to cut through the clutter, drill to the core of the issue, and identify the vital points. And he does this with an economy of effort.

I learned this the hard way. Once, in response to a question, I wrote him three paragraphs. I thought I was comprehensive. Instead, he said: “I only need a one sentence answer, why did you give me three paragraphs?” I reflected long and hard on this, and realized that that was how he cut through clutter. When he was Prime Minister, it was critical to distinguish between the strategic and the peripheral issues.

Persuasive, but also persuadable

On my first overseas trip with Lee, Mrs Lee, ever so kind, must have sensed my nervousness. She said to me: “My husband has strong views, but don’t let that intimidate you!”

Indeed, Lee has strong views because these are rigorously derived, but he is also very open to robust exchange. He makes it a point to hear from those with expertise and experience. He is persuasive, but he can be persuaded.

A few months into my job, Lee decided on a particular course of action on the Suzhou Industrial Park, after deep discussion with our senior officials. That evening, I realized that amid the flurry of information, we had not discussed a point. I gingerly wrote him a note, proposing some changes. To my surprise, he agreed.

One-man intelligence agency

lkyLee’s rich insights on issues come from a capacious and disciplined mind. He listens and reads widely, but he does so like a detective, looking for and linking vital clues while discarding the irrelevant.

Once, he asked if I recalled an old newspaper article on United States-China relations. I could not — this was several months back and I had put it out of my mind — but a fresh news article had triggered him to link the two developments.

I realized that he has a mental map of the world where he knows its contours well. Like radar, he is constantly scanning for changes and matching these against the map. What might appear as random and disparate facts to many of us are placed within this map and, hence, his mental map is constantly refreshed.

A senior US leader described this well — Lee is like a one-man intelligence agency.

Every moment about Singapore

The most remarkable feature of the map in Lee’s head is the fact that the focal point is always Singapore. I mentioned his favourite word, “So?” Invariably, the “So?” question ends with, “So, what does this mean for Singapore?” What are the implications? What should we be doing differently? Nothing is too big or too small.

Singapore- No Tolerance for CorruptionI accompanied Lee on many overseas trips. The 1998 trip to the US is particularly memorable. Each day brought new ideas and, throughout the trip, I sent back many observations for our departments to study. It might be the type of industry that we might develop or the type of trees that might add colour to our garden city.

This remains his style today. His every waking moment is devoted to Singapore, and Lee wants Singapore to be successful beyond his term as Prime Minister.

From the early 1960s, he already spoke about finding his successor. During my term with him, as Senior Minister, he devoted much effort to helping then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong succeed.

He refrained from visiting Indonesia and Malaysia as he wanted Mr Goh to establish himself as our leader. Instead, he fanned out to China, the US and Europe to convince leaders and investors that Mr Goh’s leadership would take Singapore to new levels of success.

As Senior Minister, he worked out with Mr Goh areas where he could contribute, and I will share three key projects that not only illustrate his contribution but, more importantly, how he develops insights and achieves results.

Single-minded about results: Suzhhou

Suzhou Industrial Park.

The Suzhou Industrial Park project was one of the areas in which Mr Goh asked Lee to stay actively involved. Two years into the project, we ran into teething problems: Local Chinese officials promoted their own rival park.

Some felt that such startup problems and cultural differences were expected and would be resolved over time. But Lee drilled deep into the issues and held many meetings with our officials. He worked with intensity that I did not expect of someone who was then 75 years old.

He concluded that the problem was much more fundamental. China had (and still has) a very complex system of government, with many layers and many interest groups, some formal, some invisible. The interests of the various groups at the local levels were not aligned with the objectives that the central government in Beijing and Singapore had agreed upon. Unless this was put right, the project would not go far.

Instead of hoping that time would resolve this, Lee raised issues at the highest levels and made the disagreements public. He was unfazed that going public could diminish his personal standing.

He proposed to the Chinese, among others, two radical changes: To swap the shareholding structure so that the Chinese had majority control, and to appoint the CEO of the rival park to head the Suzhou Industrial Park. Lee was proven right — the changes created the necessary realignment and put the project back on track.

Next year, we will be witnessing the 20th anniversary of the Suzhou Industrial Park. From all accounts, it has been a success story, not just in its development, but also in how it has enabled a new generation of leaders from both sides to develop a deeper understanding of each other, and in paving the way for further collaboration.

I learned a valuable lesson. If things go wrong, do not sweep them aside. Confront the problems, get to the root of the difficulties, and wrestle with these resolutely. Go for long-term success, and do not be deterred by criticisms.

Adversity into Opportunity: Financial crisis and reforms

My second example, on the revamping of the financial sector, shows how Lee is constantly looking out for how Singapore should change, and how he turns adversity into opportunity.

The 1997/98 Asian Financial Crisis hit the region hard. Many analysts attributed it to cronyism, corruption and nepotism. Lee read up on all the technical analyses and met with our economists. I was amazed at how, at the age of 75, he would delve deeply into the issues.

He concluded that the reason was more basic — investors’ euphoria and the weak banking and regulatory systems in the affected countries had allowed a huge influx of short-term capital. These weaknesses had their origins in the political system. Cronyism exacerbated the problems, but was not the cause. Years later, many bankers would tell me that Lee’s analysis was the best they had heard.

Lee was convinced that though Asia’s economic growth would be set back temporarily, dynamism would return. In the short term, we had to navigate the crisis carefully but, for the longer term, we should turn this adversity into opportunities. While investors fled, we should use the crisis to lay the foundation for a stronger Singapore in a rising Asia.

Lee took the opportunity to review the long-term positioning of Singapore’s financial sector. With the permission of then-Prime Minister Goh, he met experts from different backgrounds as well as the chairmen of local banks.

An Act of boldness

For years, Lee had believed in strict regulation and in protecting our local banks. While this protected the banks from the crisis, it had its cost. Our stringent rules, while appropriate in the past, were now stifling growth, and the banks were falling behind.

Lee was persuaded that our regulatory stance had to change.I was struck by his systematic and calibrated approach. His reputation is that he is impatient for results, and drives a fast pace. This is true, but he is also wise in distinguishing between things that change slowly and things that ought to change swiftly. Instead of one big bang, he was in favour of a series of steps which added up to a significant shift of direction.

Lee discussed with and sought Mr Goh’s approval on a broad plan to revamp the financial sector. Mr Goh agreed with the plan, and later appointed then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in January 1998. Lee Hsien Loong did a review of major policies and reoriented the MAS’ organizational culture. Remarkably, within a few years, the MAS was transformed. By 2006, when I became Managing Director of the MAS, I inherited an organization with a new set of regulatory doctrines and a deeper pool of talent.

The global financial crisis of 2007/08 tested our system severely. We not only withstood the shock, but also emerged stronger after the crisis. Singaporeans’ savings were well protected and businesses recovered rapidly.

If Lee had not initiated the changes in the late 1990s and sought to turn adversity into opportunities, we would not have become a stronger financial center today. To prepare to open up our financial system in the midst of one of the worst financial crises is, to me, an act of great foresight and boldness.

Advocate for collaboration

My third example relates to how Lee expanded our external space by being a principled advocate of collaboration, based on long-term interests. Today, we are remarkably well-connected, but this did not come by accident. Over the years, Lee has worked hard at this.

His strategic world view has projected Singapore onto the global stage and created opportunities for Singaporeans. In all his years as the face of Singapore, Lee also made fast friendships with senior world leaders who appreciate his view of things and respect Singapore’s principled stance on international issues.

This was driven home to me at two meetings. In 1999, relations between the US and China were very tense. China’s negotiations with the US on its entry to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) had failed, there were tensions between the two countries over US bombs that had hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and President Lee Teng Hui in Taiwan had pronounced his “two states” concept.

In July 1999, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan were in Singapore for the ASEAN Regional Forum. It was quite tense, and many of our officials believed there could be a flare-up at the forum. Both figures met Lee separately.

Lee gave each side his reading of their long-term strategic interests. His advice to the US was that it was not in their interest to be adversarial towards China or regard her as a potential enemy. To China, he suggested that it should tap into the market, technology and capital of the US to develop its economy. They should look forward, and search for areas of cooperation, such as China’s entry into the WTO.

Sitting in these meetings, I was struck by how Lee approached this delicate situation. He did not say one thing to one and sing a different tune to another. If they had compared notes later, they would have found his underlying position inconsistent.

What made him persuasive was how he addressed the concerns and interests of each side. I could see from the way both reacted that his arguments struck a chord, and one of the guests asked a note-taker to write the notes verbatim for deeper study later on. In 2000, a few months after this meeting, I was very pleased to witness China’s entry into the WTO at the Doha meeting.

The pragmatic Idealist

What is Lee like as a person? The public persona of Lee is a stern, strict, no-nonsense leader. But deep down, he is energized by a deep sense of care for Singaporeans, especially for the disadvantaged.

He does not express this in soft, sentimental terms — his policies speak louder, and he is content to let them speak for themselves. He distributed the fruits of Singapore’s progress in a very significant way, by enabling Singaporeans to own their flats. Apart from the investment in education, he donated generously to the Education Fund to provide awards, especially to outstanding students from poor families.

He is a firm advocate of a fair and just society. But he demands that everyone, including those who are helped, put in their fair share of effort.

Many regard Lee as a pragmatist who does not hesitate to speak the hard truths. I think he is also an idealist, with a deep sense of purpose. He believes one has to see the world as it is, not as one wishes it to be. Fate deals us a certain hand of cards, but it is up to us to make a winning hand out of it. Through sheer will, conviction and imagination, there is always hope of progress.

Man is not perfect, but we can be better — Lee embraces Confucianism because of its belief in the perfectibility of man. No society is perfect either, but a society with a sense of togetherness can draw out the best of our human spirit and create a better future for our people.He is, to me, a pragmatic idealist.

A close-knit family

During my term as PPS, the Prime Minister of a Pacific Island nation asked to call on Lee. Given his very tight schedule, I thought Lee would not be able to meet him. To my surprise, he said he would make the time.

He explained that this young Prime Minister’s father had been a comrade-in-arms, fighting the British for independence, and he owed it to his father, who had passed on, to offer whatever advice might be useful.

Lee and his family are closely knit, and he was particularly close to Mrs Lee. On overseas trips, I had the opportunity to have many private meals with Mr and Mrs Lee. It was heartwarming to see their bantering. Lee has a sweet tooth, and Mrs Lee would, with good humour, keep score on the week’s “ration”.

But when it came to official work, they drew very clear lines. Mrs Lee travelled with him whenever she could. Once, in Davos, she came into the tiny room where Lee was giving a media interview. She found a stool in a corner and sat there, listening unobtrusively. Twice, I offered her my more comfortable seat near Lee. She said to me: “You have work to do. I am just a busybody — don’t let me disturb you!”

Mrs Lee was supportive without intruding — she was certainly not “just a busybody”, and anyone who had the chance to observe them together would know just how close a couple they were, and how much strength her presence gave to her husband.

An unwavering dedication

We live today in a different world that demands of us new ideas and approaches. But there is one quality of Lee’s that we can, and need to, aspire towards: His unwavering and total dedication to Singapore, to keeping Singapore successful so that Singaporeans may determine our own destiny, and lead meaningful, fulfilling lives.

Singapore’s survival and success are Lee’s life’s work and his lifelong preoccupation. History gave him a most daunting challenge — building a nation out of a tiny city state with no resources and composed of disparate migrants. He cast aside his doubts, mustered all his being and has given it his all.

His most significant achievement is to show the way forward in building a nation. There were, and still are, no textbook answers for achieving this. Lee and his team analyzed the issues from first principles and had the courage and conviction to do what was right and what would work for the country.

Lee is an activist. He and his team would try, adapt and experiment, to get on with the job of making Singapore a better home for all. In the same way that he asks himself, we need to always be asking ourselves, “So?” So, what does this mean for Singapore? So, what should we do about it? And act on it.

Of the many qualities I have observed in him, this is the one that leaves the deepest impression on me — the one I hope we can learn to have. We take inspiration from the courage and determination of Lee and his colleagues. The task of creating a better life for all Singaporeans — through expanding opportunities and through building a fair and just society — never ends. –, September 17, 2013.

* Heng Swee Keat is Singapore’s Education Minister and this is an abridged version of his speech from the conference “The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew”, organized by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in celebration of Lee’s 90th birthday.