New uncertainty about missing Malaysian plane

March 18, 2014

New uncertainty about missing Malaysian 777 plane (MH370)

By Ian Mader
Associated Press

Pray for MH370The Missing MH380

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Amid Search for Plane, Malaysian Leaders Face Rare Scrutiny

Asia Pacific

Amid Search for Plane, Malaysian Leaders Face Rare Scrutiny


SEPANG, Malaysia — Malaysia’s governing elite has clung to power without interruption since independence from Britain almost six decades ago through a combination of tight control of information, intimidation of the opposition and, until recently, robust economic growth.

But worldwide bafflement at the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has challenged the country’s paternalistic political culture and exposed its coddled leaders to the withering judgments of critics from around the world.

Civilian and military leaders on Wednesday revealed that they had known for the past four days, but did not publicly disclose, that military radar had picked up signals of what may have been the missing aircraft. It appeared to be flying on a westerly course sharply off its intended flight path to Beijing.

If the radar readings were from the missing plane, it could mean a radical reinterpretation of where it ended up. And it was only under a barrage of intense questioning on Wednesday from a room packed with reporters who had arrived from many countries that officials acknowledged that the last recorded radar plot point showed the jet flying in the direction of the Indian Ocean — and at a cruising altitude, suggesting it could have flown much farther.

Continue reading the main story

Detecting a Plane

Two kinds of radar are used to keep track of air traffic from the ground.

Primary radar

Sends out radio signals and listens for echoes that bounce back from objects in the sky.


Secondary radar

Sends signals that request information from the plane’s transponder. The plane sends back information including its identification and altitude. The radar repeatedly sweeps the sky and interrogates the transponder. Other planes in flight can also receive the transponder signals.

That raised the question of why the information had not been released earlier.

“The world is finally feeling the frustration that we’ve been experiencing for years,” said Lee Ee May, a management consultant and a former aide to a Malaysian opposition politician.

Ms. Lee said she was embarrassed when the country’s Defense Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, the scion of a powerful political family, rejected a reporter’s assertion on Wednesday that the search for the airplane had been disordered.

“It’s only confusion if you want it to be seen to be confusion,” Mr. Hishammuddin said at a news conference that unfolded before an international audience.

Relatively free from natural disasters and other calamities, Malaysia has had little experience with handling a crisis on this scale. It is also an ethnically polarized society where talent often does not rise to the top of government because of patronage politics within the ruling party and a system of ethnic preferences that discourages or blocks the country’s minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, from government service.

Ethnic Malays, who make up about half of the population, hold nearly all top government positions and receive a host of government preferences because of their status as “sons of the soil.”

Authoritarian laws have helped keep the governing party, the United Malays National Organization, in power — and an ascendant opposition in check.

The day before Flight 370 disappeared, the leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, was sentenced to five years under a sodomy law that is almost never enforced. Critics called the case an effort to block the opposition’s rise at a time when the governing party’s popularity is waning.

Then on Tuesday, a court convicted Karpal Singh, another opposition politician, of sedition, a law enacted in colonial times.

“We call it persecution, not prosecution,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, a lawyer and the former head of the Malaysian Bar Council.

The government is accustomed to getting its way, and the crisis surrounding the missing plane is holding officials accountable in ways unfamiliar to them, Ms. Ambiga said.

“Malaysians have come to accept that their leaders don’t answer questions,” she said. “When you are not seriously challenged in any meaningful way, of course you get complacent and comfortable.”

For a relatively prosperous country of 30 million people that is less well known internationally than neighboring countries like Thailand and Singapore, the government’s confused efforts at finding the missing jetliner are an awkward and undesired appearance on the world stage.

The crisis has led to introspection about why the government has appeared uncoordinated and unable to pin down seemingly basic facts about the missing flight.

Officials insisted for three days that baggage was removed from the flight before takeoff when five passengers did not board. But the country’s chief of police on Tuesday said that was false: Everyone who checked in boarded the plane, he said. No explanation was given for the conflicting accounts.

Ibrahim Suffian, the Director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling company, said the response to the crisis had underlined a lack of precision both in government and in the society over all.

“There’s a tolerance for a lack of attentiveness to detail,” he said. “You have a tendency of not asking so much and not expecting so much.”

The crisis also highlighted a lack of competence in government that Mr. Ibrahim said was related to a deference to authority and reluctance to take initiative. “There’s always been a kind of wait-for-instructions-from-the-top attitude,” he said.

Yet amid the criticism of the rescue efforts there was also an acknowledgment that the plane’s disappearance was so unusual that perhaps no government would be fully prepared for it.

“This is almost a unique situation,” said Ramon Navaratnam, a Harvard-trained economist and a former Malaysian senior civil servant. “Anyone would be caught off guard.”

For now, the Malaysian authorities are stuck in the unenviable position of hearing many questions but having few answers.

“They have never faced pressure to perform like this,” said Ms. Lee, the management consultant. “But now international eyes are on them, and they have nowhere to hide.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 13, 2014, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: Leaders in Malaysia Face Unusual Scrutiny.

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. 


Why Malaysia Will Say Almost Nothing About the Missing Plane

Why Malaysia Will Say Almost Nothing About the Missing Plane

March 12, 2014

Hishamuddin HusseinWith an international team of investigators still seemingly baffled about what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which disappeared over the weekend, relatives of the passengers and diplomats from countries touched by the mishap have vented their frustration with the Malaysian government.

For days, it seems, Malaysian officials and the state-owned carrier have released almost no information about the flight or working theories of why it vanished. Malaysia Airlines did not even inform relatives for 15 hours that the plane had disappeared, sending the distraught families to a hotel in Beijing to wait, and Kuala Lumpur’s envoys still have mostly kept the relatives in the dark days later.

More than 100 friends and relatives of the vanished passengers signed a petition on Monday calling on the Malaysian government to be more transparent and answer questions. Several of the relatives threw bottles at Malaysia Airlines employees who came to speak with them in Beijing, where the missing plane had been headed, but mostly the officials maintained their tight-lipped approach.

The frustration felt by families of the missing is understandable and reasonable, but no one should have expected much better from the Malaysian government. Although theoretically a democracy with regular, contested elections, Malaysia has been ruled since independence by the same governing coalition that has become known for its lack of transparency and disinterest—even outright hostility—toward the press and inquiring citizens. For a relatively wealthy country, Malaysia is also unusually prone to corruption. Since the Sept. 11 attacks and the revelations that al-Qaeda members had convened planning meetings in Malaysia, the government has become intensely controlling of any information about potential terror threats while maintaining a liberal visa policy for arrivals.

Malaysia’s actual air safety record is, according to aviation experts, relatively strong. That achievement is unsurprising for a country with a per capita gross domestic product of about $10,400, which has become a global hub for electronics production and other high-tech manufacturing. Before the disappearance of Flight MH370, Malaysia Airlines had not suffered a fatal crash since 1995. Kuala Lumpur, where the plane originated, has an even higher GDP per capita than the rest of the country—about $18,000—and boasts a vast, modern skyline, efficient transport, and gleaming new suburbs.

But Malaysia’s politics have not kept pace with its economic expansion. The long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition has continued to win elections through massive gerrymandering, outright thuggery, and opposition parties’ inability to stop squabbling and make connections with rural voters.

In the most recent national elections, held in May 2013, the Barisan Nasional coalition won the largest number of seats in parliament, although the opposition actually won the popular vote; only gerrymandering, massive handouts to voters, and many election irregularities ensured the Barisan Nasional’s victory. In addition, the ruling party squeaked home by appealing primarily to the most hardline elements within its coalition, politicians and voters disdainful of the country’s multiethnic identity and the incremental freedoms of expression and social life that have developed in the past 20 years.

So even though Malaysia is far richer than neighboring Indonesia or the Philippines, those countries’ histories of democratic politics have made their politicians more accountable and more attuned to public expectations. Since independence in 1957, Malaysia has had only six prime ministers and the senior ranks of the ruling coalition have gained little fresh blood. In the current crisis, Prime Minister Najib Razak has made few substantive comments on the plane, while Malaysia’s major state-controlled media outlets, which in theory could have been ahead of the plane investigation story, have been very timid in their reporting.

This lack of accountability filters down, especially at state-owned enterprises such as Malaysia Airlines, which are notorious in Malaysia for insider dealing, corruption, and lack of transparency. Even before the crash, Malaysia Airlines’ parent company had lost money the last three years, including a huge loss of more than $350 million in 2013, in part because of its terrible management. One comprehensive study of government-linked companies, conducted by a group of economists in Australia and Malaysia, found that Malaysia state-run firms had worse corporate governance than publicly traded Malaysian companies not controlled by the state. Partly because investors understood that state-run companies were so poorly managed, the study found lower overall valuations on the Malaysian stock market. In other words, these state companies traded at a discount because of their mismanagement.

Malaysia’s lack of transparency and weak institutions have made graft and corruption endemic, making it easy for people to be smuggled in or out of the country, often on stolen passports.

The watchdog organization Global Financial Integrity has ranked Malaysia as one of the countries with the biggest illicit outflows of money in the world, while corruption monitoring organization Transparency International ranks Malaysia 53rd in the world in terms of clean government, below many poorer nations with fewer potential resources to combat graft.

At least two of the people on the vanished flight, and possibly more, apparently traveled on stolen passports and may have been migrants using people smugglers to get through Malaysia and on, eventually, to Europe. The Head of Interpol, Ronald Noble, has expressed surprise at how easy these people with stolen passports boarded the plane.

Malaysia’s fraught relationship with other Muslim-majority countries and the U.S. has made Kuala Lumpur’s leaders, never very transparent, even more opaque when it comes to intelligence-sharing and counterterrorism. Although no one seems to have determined whether the flight’s disappearance is related to terrorism, do not expect the Malaysian government to be the one providing any answers to the public if it turns out terrorism was involved. Malaysia has long had a relatively liberal visa policy toward Muslims from other countries, in part because it needed foreign workers and in part because this policy had traditionally been popular. (That policy, in part, is why Osama bin Laden recommended Malaysia as a place for terror operatives to meet and for wounded fighters to recover.)

But at the same time Malaysia has maintained a relatively liberal visa policy, it has cooperated closely with Britain and the U.S. on intelligence and security matters. This cooperation has always been extremely unpopular with the majority of Malaysians, and so successive Prime Ministers have worked hard to conceal it from public discourse. Unfortunately for the relatives of the vanished plane, the prime minister’s natural secrecy seems to have become so normal, for him and other government officials, that he cannot break the habit even in times of horrible tragedy.

Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government.

MH370: Really, who’s in charge?

March 12, 2014

MH370: Really, who’s in charge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard Operating Procedure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 10, 2014

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

by Koon Yew Yin (March 9, 2014)

Dr M

Malaysia’s Pathetic Attention Seeker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malaysia in 2014–A Perspective from Thailand

March 1, 2014

Malaysia in 2014–A Perspective from Thailand

Najib and Yingluck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiasco Looms for Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition

February 26, 2014

Fiasco Looms for Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition

Post-election public support drops steeply amid growing calls for PM Najib to take action

One of Malaysia’s most respected polling organizations is expected to release figuresRosmah and Najib over the next few days showing that support for the ruling Barisan Nasional from all three of the country’s major ethnic groups is dropping steeply, to the point where if an election were held today,  the national coalition would be buried in a landslide.

The loss of support is not just from ethnic Indians, whose approval figures for the Barisan have dropped from 45 percent to 30 percent, or the ethnic Chinese, only 8 percent of whom support the coalition, but from ethnic Malays, the mainstay of the coalition.  Support has dropped from 61 percent to 50 percent, according to sources who have seen the figures. In Penang, the poll reportedly shows that the Barisan wouldn’t win a single one of the 40 state seats and 11 parliamentary ones.

That has led to deepening concern over the performance of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, with growing calls for him to either step down in favor of another UMNO figure or to take dramatic steps to revitalize his leadership.  Even the mainstream press, all of it owned by Malaysian political parties, is becoming increasingly emboldened to criticize his performance.

Reportedly, according to political sources in Kuala Lumpur, he is increasingly being ignored within his own coalition, most recently by Sarawak strongman Abdul Taib Mahmud, who is stepping down as chief minister. Taib named his former brother-in-law, Adenan Satim, as his own replacement despite a promise during a meeting in London that he would heed Najib’s wishes in naming the new chief minister.

With both national and intraparty elections out of the way last year, Najib gambled that he could drastically cut subsidies for sugar, petrol and rice in a bid to put the country’s fiscal condition back into shape, with the fiscal debt running close to the maximum permissible limit of 55 percent.  But with the cost of living soaring upwards, he faces growing outrage.  He has since been forced to back away from a sharp rise in highway tolls.  And, while anecdotal evidence in the markets indicates that prices are climbing inexorably upwards, critics say the controlled press is continuing to report that there is no cost of living problem.

One of the issues that won’t go away is a government decision to ban use of the word Allah to mean God in Malay-language Bibles, which has infuriated Christians and moderates, who point out that throughout the Arab world, Christians use the word as a proper noun.  Najib has come under fire for making moderate statements when he is out of the country, but refusing to take a stand on the issue, or to rein in vocal Malay supremacy organizations such as Perkasa, headed by Ibrahim Ali, whose intemperate racial statements have increasingly poisoned the political atmosphere.

Within UMNO, Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, has become a lightning rod for those who see her as flaunting excess wealth including designer handbags, watches and jewelry at a time when the country is facing cost of living problems.  Many blame her for decisions that the Prime Minister is – or is not – making.

Najib is said to be shaking up his staff, replacing his long-time chief of staff with a younger, more dynamic individual. Reportedly he is also expected to call a party retreat to seek to convince party division chiefs and others within the United Malays National Organization that he has a plan to revitalize the political situation.  Party leaders complain that 10 months after the narrow parliamentary victory – and popular vote loss – that left the Barisan in charge, Najib has still not called for a post-mortem of the way the race was run.

With US President Barack Obama scheduled to visit the country on a state visit in April,  it is imperative to get moving, say political analysts in Kuala Lumpur.  Behind Najib is the ever-present specter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has taken no public position against Najib but who clearly has unleashed bloggers who are hounding the prime minister on all sides. Sources within the Mahathir wing of UMNO told Asia Sentinel that Mahathir is after Najib’s head.

the-man-behind-perkasa1It had been thought that, having emasculated Najib’s economic plans after the election, the Mahathir wing would be content to leave the weakened prime minister in his place until the next election.  The two most viable candidates to replace him would be Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who has reportedly said he is too old and tired for the job, and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is regarded even by many UMNO figures as too mercurial and polarizing for the job.

However, A. Kadir Jasin, former chief editor of the New Straits Times and a close confidant of the 88-year-old former premier, in his blog,”The Scribe,” on Saturday suggested that Muhyiddin might not be so tired, or that a third candidate, Hishamuddin Hussein, Najib’s cousin and the party’s third-ranking vice-president, might be a possible alternative.

Thus, despite denials on all sides, the political picture is beginning to resemble that in 2008 and 2009, when growing forces coalesced to drive Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, from the premiership. The growing drip of blog comments is an indication that Najib must take action or face a serious revolt.


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

February 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Controversial Muslim Thinker and Politics

February 23, 2014

Controversial Muslim Thinker sets the cat among the canaries, again

by Terence Netto@

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

kassim thinkerThe Controversial Muslim Thinker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ironies in history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interesting tack to take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malaysia in 2014–A Perspective from Singapore

February 22, 2014

Malaysia in 2014–A Perspective from Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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China taking Malaysia’s friendship for granted

February 18, 2014

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

by  Dr. Tang Siew Mun@

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 WashingtonThe 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

Remembering the Tunku

February 5, 2014

Remembering the Tunku Forum@ Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman

by Wan Saiful Wan Jan (02-04-14)@

tunku-abdul-rahmanThis Saturday 8 February marks the 111th birthday of Almarhum Tunku Abdul Rahman. Not only did he take our country to independence in 1957, he also led the coming together of four entities – Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya – to form the Federation of Malaysia.

The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) was launched on the same date back in 2010. We chose to launch IDEAS on the date of Almarhum Tunku’s birthday because we share the vision of this great Malaysian.

Back in 1957 in the Proclamation of Independence, and again in 1963 in the Proclamation of Malaysia, Almarhum Tunku affirmed that this nation shall remain as a democratic nation founded upon the principles of liberty and justice, and that the role of the state is to continuously seek the welfare and happiness of its people. IDEAS was founded to revive this very liberal vision of Almarhum Tunku.

Liberalism is not at all an alien concept to Malaysia. It is actually the philosophy that defined this nation when we were founded. It is our country’s founding philosophy. Some may have forgotten this, but a quick history lesson will tell us that that was what the Tunku proclaimed in 1957 and 1963 as the foundational principles of our country.

At IDEAS we have committed ourselves to reviving the Tunku’s ideals and vision. But we have been very careful to not fall into the trap of the typical “historical” approach. That is why we quote the Tunku only every now and then. Instead, what we want to do is to mainstream his vision in the context of contemporary challenges. We want his ideals to be implemented, not just quoted.

Now, as we prepare to hold a special event to commemorate the Tunku’s 111th birthday this Saturday, I can’t help but to wonder what he would say about Malaysia if he was still alive.

In a writing dated August 1975, he said “… there was too much emphasis being placed on Bumiputras, and not enough on Malaysians. Going about affairs this way makes it hard to instill Malaysian-mindedness in the hearts of the people. All the work being done to inspire patriotism among our polygenous population is being eroded as a result of this wrong approach.”

In 1983, he said “There are some, among the Malays, who want Malaysia to be a Muslim state. This would alienate the loyalty of non-Muslims as they would feel that they have no rightful place in Malaysia, being a State for Muslims alone. As the saying goes, a country divided must break apart and fall to pieces. Nobody wants this to happen to our country.”

In fact, some of his views are quite radical. He once even said “When I hear now of UMNO tdm1people shouting out at the top of their voices for Malay rights, it strikes me that the country is going back to where we started before Independence. It is a far cry from the time when we fought for our Independence and achieved success. So I think to myself, are we going ahead or are we slipping back?”

If he saw the increasingly aggressive tone used by some quarters in our society today, I doubt the Tunku would approve. Worse, I think he would be saddened to see the absence of leadership in defending the liberal values of tolerance and acceptance that he fought so hard to sow in our society.

As I reflect on what I observed over the four years that I run IDEAS, I must admit that I am becoming increasingly worried about the future of our country. Since Dato Sri Najib Tun Razak took over as Prime Minister, his administration focused on reforming the so-called low-hanging fruits. Now, it seems like the low-hanging fruits have all been plucked. The pace of reform is slowing down very quickly because there are political roadblocks everywhere. We are not moving forward as we should.In the midst of all that, PKR had just engineered an unnecessary by-election that is bound to stir emotions and create more rifts, when what we need is national reconciliation.

NAJIB_RAZAK_091213_TMINAJJUA_05_540_360_100We are in desperate need of leaders who are truly committed to reform the country. We need people who will ensure that Malaysia will progress and become a developed nation that is in line with what the Tunku envisioned – a nation based on liberty and justice that puts the happiness of its people as the primary aim. I am not sure who among our political leaders today really subscribe to these values

So, with that in mind, let me invite you to join us this Saturday, 8 February 2014, to commemorate the 111th birthday of Almarhum Tunku and the fourth anniversary of IDEAS. We are holding a free public event to mark this special day at Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman, Jalan Dato Onn, Kuala Lumpur, from 9.45am.

Our theme this time is “Is the government serious about reform?”. I promise you that I will try my best to provoke the speakers – Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, Tan Sri Ambrin Buang, Dato Seri Idris Jala and Dato Paul Low – to say something controversial!

More details can be found on our website ( Do come early because seats are limited. But even if you cannot find a seat, the Memorial itself is worth a visit on this special day.

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.