Obama is re-engaging with the region


November 22, 2012

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Obama’s Southeast Asia visit: re-engaging with the region

by Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Chulalongkorn University

Barack Obama’s visit to Southeast Asia, which started on Sunday November 18 and is culminating with his attendance at the East Asia Summit in Cambodia, underscores America’s stepped-up re-engagement in what is considered China’s backyard.

Under Obama’s watch, the United States has ‘pivoted’ or ‘rebalanced’ its foreign policy intentions and resources toward Asia for the 21st century. But domestic constraints and persistent problems in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere will hinder the United States’ ability to manoeuvre in Asia. The rebalancing is a smart strategy, but America’s resource constraints and geographical challenges will be its long-term spoiler.

The focus of the visit was mainland Southeast Asia, a sub-region that is pivotal to America’s pivot. America, a sea power with vast continental resources, wants to reclaim its place in a different fashion than when it was last there, during the Indochina wars of the last century. China has always been present in Southeast Asia geo-strategically, their historical influence having spanned centuries. The states that make up the region have hedged between the two giants.

Obama’s first stop was Bangkok. This is unsurprising, as Thailand is a friend of 180 years and was a treaty ally through the Cold War. He then headed to Yangon in symbolic support of Myanmar’s reform momentum.

His Yangon visit was designed to propel the democratic transition in what Obama’s predecessor labelled an ‘outpost of tyranny’. The Obama presence in Myanmar was the first step toward making up for years of sanctions, which placed the US government and private sector behind the curve, while China and ASEAN made deep inroads. Phnom Penh was the final stop, for the increasingly important strategic dialogue between the 18 members of the East Asia Summit.

Underpinning the Obama visit is the United States’ relatively small but symbolically significant US$50 million Lower Mekong Initiative, which aims to assist in infrastructure development and capacity building in mainland Southeast Asia. But despite this assistance, mainland Southeast Asia is increasingly leaning toward Beijing’s orbit in a new formation that can be referred to as ‘CLMT’ — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

A generation ago, the mainland half of ASEAN was known as the ‘CLMV’ — ‘V’ being Vietnam. But the conflict in the South China Sea, where China’s aggressive role is fiercely resisted and America’s presence is warmly welcomed by the ASEAN maritime states, has set Hanoi apart. At the same time, Thai ties to China have warmed inexorably. For example, Thailand’s position on the South China Sea has been that it is beyond the scope of ASEAN as a whole and should be settled bilaterally.

China and Vietnam have cooperated at the highest levels on trade, investment and diplomacy, but their rift in the South China Sea has trumped the bilateral relationship. The Philippines is even more confrontational vis-à-vis Beijing, and has leaned on the United States for backing and reassurance. The same might be said of other nations wary of China’s intentions in the contested seas, including Japan, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia. Through a new system of bolstered treaty alliances and strategic partnerships, the United States’ role and its maritime power is challenging Beijing’s dominance in maritime Southeast Asia.

Moreover, the interests and concerns of the maritime Southeast Asian states are increasingly divergent from those of CLMT. CLMT were either silent or supportive of Cambodia’s pro-China stance at the annual regional ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 (the meeting at which ASEAN failed to produce a joint statement due to the insistence of the Philippines and Vietnam on including language on the South China Sea disputes).

It appears that maritime Southeast Asia is increasingly leaning toward Washington, whereas mainland Southeast Asia is more influenced by Beijing.

Obama’s presidential foray should not set out to antagonise Beijing. China and the United States have significant relations and strong commercial ties. China is America’s largest creditor and America is China’s largest export market. Such cooperation is preferable to open rivalry.

Regional discussions and meetings on peace and stability in Cambodia should thus focus on regional architecture. The discredited notion of a G2, whereby Beijing and Washington would together dictate regional outcomes, should be revisited up to a point. A working regional framework must rely on mutual understanding and accommodation. The ASEAN states have more to gain from partial implementation of the G2 than a complete rivalry between the two superpowers.

If China moderates its South China Sea claims and the United States reassures Beijing that its rebalancing toward Asia is benign, maritime and mainland ASEAN states would not be caught between the two superpowers. Southeast Asia could then be a source of security and stability for all of Asia.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Brand Malaysia: “Orang Utans and Pandas don’t cut it anymore.”.


September 4, 2012

http://www.thestar.com.my

Brand Malaysia: “Orang Utans and Pandas don’t cut it anymore”.

by Dato Dennis Ignatius (08-30-12)
duta.thestar@gmail.com

According to Datuk Seri Idris Jala, Cabinet Minister and CEO of the Performance Management and Delivery Unit  (PEMANDU), the Government is in the midst of a major exercise to rebrand the country and promote a more vibrant image abroad.

A national branding unit with a RM30mil budget and a dedicated team of officers has been established in the Prime Minister’s Department to spearhead the project.

International management consultants have also been hired to give strategic advice and assist in the rebranding exercise.

Malaysia has undoubtedly had its successes. Dynamic development strategies, successful investment promotion, innovative tourism marketing, a reputation for racial and religious tolerance, an innovative foreign policy and world-renowned corporations like Petronas helped make Malaysia a respected name globally.

However, during the past decade in particular, a series of unfortunate developments has left brand Malaysia in tatters, as I noted in this column more than two years ago (“Brand Malaysia reeling from a thousand cuts”, February 4, 2010).

Racial and religious extremism, corruption scandals, significant outflows of local capital and talent, a lack of transparency and accountability, intense and highly divisive politicking and a perceived democracy deficit have taken a ruinous toll.

And all this at a time when it has become far more challenging to sustain national brands. In a world of real-time communications and social media, global opinions are shaped before local policy makers can even react.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for example, recently expressed concern that xenophobic comments and postings on the Internet by Singaporeans were damaging Singapore’s international reputation.

Furthermore, where previously national branding was centred mostly around tourism, today a cutting-edge global reputation hinges upon quality of life, business environment, justice and good governance as much as anything else. Orang utans and pandas don’t cut it anymore.

Malaysia has not fared too well in this new branding environment. We were ranked 43rd out of 113 countries that were measured for brand strength by FutureBrand, one of the branding industry’s pioneers and a collaborator in the Malaysian rebranding exercise.

With the exception of culture and tourism, Malaysia did not score highly in any of the other categories (value system, quality of life, good for business, etc.) that FutureBrand considers in assessing a country’s overall brand.

The Government’s move to take stock of how we are presently perceived by the world at large is, therefore, timely. We might also need to consider repositioning our nation beyond the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tourism specific brand that served us well these past years.

To be effective and productive, however, the rebranding exercise must be grounded in a realistic appreciation of what branding is all about.

Branding can help focus and project the essence of a nation, its values, its culture and the unique qualities it brings to the world. It cannot serve as a substitute for sound policy or camouflage obvious weaknesses. Merely developing a nice jingle or a catchy phrase by itself will not substantially improve a nation’s image.

It should come as no surprise that the countries with the best and most recognisable brand names are countries with free and open societies which have found a way to empower their people, ignite their creativity and marshal their talents.

As FutureBrand explains on its website, “from progressive politics to a sense of openness and freedom of speech, a country that is geared around its people … will always score highly”.

Countries like Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, the United States and Sweden, therefore, did well while Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Cambodia did poorly.

We don’t, of course, need expensive foreign consultants to tell us all this; it’s common sense and already obvious to most Malaysians. What we do need, more than anything else, is the political will to address the underlying causes of our declining national brand.

There can be no doubt that if we seriously tackle the very issues that regularly make headlines in our own media, our international image will improve dramatically. The unique and amazing strengths of Malaysia, after all, remain undiminished; they just need to be given proper expression.

We also need to keep in mind that building and sustaining a successful national brand requires long-term consistency, commitment and attention to detail, something that we don’t seem to be particularly good at.

Take, for example, the KL International Airport (KLIA). We spend time and money to promote it as a world-class airport only to see these efforts undermined by repeated heists at the airport. According to local media reports, there were three major heists at KLIA in the last few months alone.

It doesn’t take an expert to tell us that if KLIA is perceived as lacking in security, it will never realise its full potential as a competitive regional hub.

The bottom line, therefore, is that if we want a better international image we must start by cleaning up our own act. Foreign consultants can help with spin, packaging and presentation, but it is up to us to make the policy changes that alone can build and sustain a successful national brand.

 

Dr Dzul on Kerdau and Merlimau


March 7, 2011

After Kerdau and Merlimau–Reform or Face a National Revolt!

by Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad  (March 6, 2011)

I’m fully conscious of how the BN’s mainstream media (MSM) would demonise and ostracise me for what I’m about to say. I’m nonetheless going to say it in simple and unequivocal term. Simply put, if I were to call the shot in N28 Kerdau by-election, I would want my party to boycott the election. Period.

The BN’s MSM would then have a field day in making PAS their punching bag and would go to town for weeks on end on this huge political meal. They would be apparently vindicated for all their claims that the opposition is bankrupt of ideas and issues to fight them on any further political contestation.

On the back of the looming 13th General Election (GE) coming ever closer, the decision to boycott would arguably be a political suicide for PAS and the Pakatan. Political analysts might argue that the opposition has finally succumbed to the psychological war of the BN’s ‘propagandist firepower’. It doesn’t take a pundit to tell you that.

That’s the usual ‘in-the-box-kind-of-thinking’ that invariably ends up in political parties quite unwilling to brace drastic unconventional ideas and maneuvers. That’s the thinking that underpins the predictable decision of most political parties of whatever ideological persuasions in the face of challenging situation.

What’s my rationale for proposing this drastic action? Am I already conceding defeat on the 11th hours? Am I now perceived as mitigating the adverse impact of another PAS’ defeat? Say what you like.

I’ve been part of the strategic teams of many a by-election especially after the 12th GE. Some we have won and others we lost. The sweetest victory was of course Kuala Terengganu and the more bitter defeat was Galas. On both occasions power changed hands.

Quite contrary to the idea of running from defeat, I have a strange feeling that Kerdau is fast making me upbeat especially towards its finishing line. I’m not commenting on Merlimau as I’m not aware of the realities on ‘ground-zero’ in that BN’s state of Melaka.

Let me say it again. I’m not looking for an upset in Kerdau but is seriously hoping for a reduction of the majority the BN’s candidate secured in the last GE.

I’m not being wishful but given our campaign ‘blitz’ which put the Pahang’s MB defenceless to the finishing line, this writer is hardly surprised if the voters so decide to protest against UMNO-BN’s decades of malaise and negligence.

No one in his right frame of mind would miss noticing that Kerdau is a ‘cowboy’ town. After 53 years Kerdau has never got on to be in the radar of development. It’s the PM’s home state mind you. So simply said again, I’m not running from defeat.

However, this piece is at best purely academic as far as a boycott is concerned, as polling is well underway for both Merlimau and Kerdau, before this writer could publish or upload this piece.

But I felt the compelling need to say and share it with the entire nation, before the results are announced this evening. I’m dead serious. If anything this piece and the likes of this writing, if widely enough read and disseminated, could very well be the genesis of a pending ‘national revolt’, not quite like the middle-eastern turmoil now on world stage that Najib dreaded.

But strangely quite alike though, as it will also represent the utter disdain and hatred of the rakyat or the citizens, for what is here now dubbed in “Political Science” as an ‘Electoral Authoritarianism’ (EA). Malaysia is now listed as one by the author of ‘The Logics of Electoral Authoritarianism”, Professor Andres Schedler (2006).

Simply defined, EA is how government abuses power as to distort and contain a true electoral competition and denies equal access to the media of competing parties and subverts a free and fair election.

In the eyes of an enlarging enlightened sections of the Malaysian electorates and citizenry, Malaysia is indeed guilty of perpetuating ‘electoral authoritarianism’ with impunity. For that, Najib and his cohorts please take note!

If PM Najib wants to put the “Ben-Ali-Mubaarak-Gaddafi-type Revolt” at bay in our beloved land of Malaysia, act urgently to redress and reform the many excesses and sins on ‘electoral authoritarianism’ that has continued unabated for far too long in this country!

My arguments, with respect to a boycott call on Kerdau by-election and now urging immediate reform, are essentially premised on, but not limited to the following basis and evidences.

  1. Najib now infamous saying, “We don’t buy votes, but if you support us we can increase your allocation tomorrow or later. But show support for Barisan Nasional first”. Now that could only equal to his atrocious words of “You help me, I help you” in Sibu i.e his promise of delivering RM5 million on Monday if Robert Lau wins on Sunday now is iconised as the ultimate of ‘vote-buying’ in the lexicology of our local EA. If that is not vote-buying, what is?
  2. Najib began as early as on the second day of the campaign period to blitz Kerdau with ‘goodies’ and handouts as follows: RM400,000 for a hall in Kampong Seri Kerdau, RM150,000 for a Balai Bomba, RM100,000 for Hindu Temple and RM9.25millions on a water treatment plant in Batu Sawar. That’s a hefty RM10.4million, well exceeding the constituency budget allocation. Where are funds coming from? UMNO’s coffers or cronies’ or tax-payers’?
  3. Abuse of usage of public premises for party political campaign listed below:
    1. Public Field in Teluk Sentang,
    2. Mosques and Schools in Batu Sawar,
    3. Community Hall in Jengka 23 Felda,
    4. Broadband Centre for Jengka 25
    5. Community Hall in Kuala Tekal
    6. Kerdau’s Felda’s office.
  4. Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Ahmad Maslan’s announcement that the federal government will settle the CESS payment of RM13,000 for each settler in Jengka 22 next Monday is a surely a covert inducement for settlers to vote for BN come polling day for the Kerdau by-election on Sunday. (Cess payments are monies deducted from the sale of rubber for the purpose of replanting rubber plantations with oil palm. However, when settlers made the decision to switch from rubber to oil palm in 2004, cess payments worth RM12,000 that each settler had accumulated over the course of more than 20 years were not paid by Felda. Felda had paid the settlers RM5,000 each but the Land Development Authority still owes the settlers RM13,000 each, including interest). The bone of contention is why only pay those in the Jengka 22 in the N28 Kerdau constituency, while all Felda settlers Pahang have long been waiting for what are rightly theirs!
  5. The vicious and baseless attack on Dato’ Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, the Director for PAS’ Strategic Centre for the N28 Kerdau by-election by the MSM. The footage was widely covered and repeated by the BN’s TV channels including the ‘independent’  TV3.  This should be the last straw of it all. Seen and peceived by many as failing to respond to all the allegations of a failing Pahang state, as concertedly attacked by PAS’ election machinery, as depicted by Auditor General’s report, UMNO took the final hours of campaign to level a smear campaign on him, accusing him of abusing and capitalizing on a Felda settler’s financial hardship to his advantage. All these heinous hate campaign were fortunately clarified by those involved but wasn’t at all featured in the BN’s MSM. Abuse of MSM and denial of opposition’s right to MSM has become more rampant of late.

Based on a snap-shot of the abuses and excesses of a regime that practices “Electoral Authoritarianism”, I for one would not have hesitated to give the Election Commission and now Najib an ultimatum –Respond or face a National Revolt!

For the information of all well-wishers of democracy and in all fairness to us in PAS/Pakatan, we had submitted on 2 occasions, memorandum to the EC, MACC and the PDRM in protest of all these abuses and subversion of democracy.

It does not take a lawyer to be telling you that Najib and his cohorts are abusing the provision of the Election Offences Act of 1954 aimed at curbing abuses and corrupt practices of contending parties in an electoral process.

It is the conviction of this writer that Malaysia may not well see the equivalent of the Middle Eastern upheaval soonest. But if this regime persists and perpetuates “Electoral Authoritarianism” with little or no regards for the demands of electoral reform by both civil society and opposition political parties, Najib is indeed courting the like of another and bigger peaceful assembly of 500,000 protestors @well-wishers of democracy prior the 13th GE.

Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, Member, PAS Central Working Committee and Malaysia MP for Kuala Selangor.