Populist Democracy made cowards of us all.

February 24, 2012

Populist Democracy made cowards of us all

by Farish M. Noor (02-22-12)

The older I get, the grumpier and more cynical I become; and as I grow more cynical by the day, nothing gets my goat more than having to watch and read about the developments in Malaysia where the lowest common denominator rules the day.

On this occasion I find myself riled once again by the popular and populist demand for vernacular education, and to maintain a multi-track education system in the country. Again and again this issue bedevils our national politics, and again and again most, if not all, of the political parties in the country fall back to their safe positions while banking upon what they regard as their natural and safe political constituencies.

In this regard both the ruling coalition and the opposition coalition seem to be equally at fault: Neither side seems prepared to take the bull by the horns and do what seems simply necessary if we still going to entertain the notion that there is some form of nation-building at work in this country. Malaysia boasts of its uniqueness, but in this one regard it does seem to be unique indeed.

After more than half a century of independence we still cling on to the notion that an inclusive national narrative can come about through not one, but several vernacular education systems. Nowhere else in the world (or the developed world at least) can I think of an example of such an arrangement, where both the government and the opposition seem inclined to support the popular demand for vernacular-based education streaming.

 Nowhere else in the world would a plural society be made all the more alienated from itself by allowing kids to study in the company of those who are more culturally and linguistically closer to them. We lament, as we often do, the declining levels of inter-ethnic contact in the country; and we bemoan that the so-called ‘golden years’ of Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s are long gone. And yet we maintain this inane belief that by segregating children from an early age along linguistic-cultural lines we can still forge a Malaysian nation, together. How? And upon what basis would that shared sense of national belonging be found?

 We wonder how and why the religious functionaries in the country can make the pronouncements they do, but what do we expect if we allow a condition where children from the same linguistic-cultural background are kept in the company of people similar to them from primary to secondary education, and perhaps even beyond? I have said the same thing so many times by now that I am only thankful that the internet does not incur the waste of ink and paper: Yet today, in Malaysia, it is conceivable that a child of a particular linguistic-cultural group grows up in the company of similar children up to the age of 18, without ever having to shake hands with someone of a different ethnic, linguistic or religious background. So much for diversity then – how on earth can we expect Malaysians to integrate if the educational system keeps them apart for so long?

And while on the subject of comparisons, can we imagine a similar situation in any developed country, like the UK, Germany or France? Where would France and Germany’s minorities be if they were segregated from childhood in Arabic or Turkish schools? How could they hope to enter the mainstream of society that is still defined and shaped by the national language of those countries? On the contrary, while I was living in Germany I came across scores of German-Arab and Turks who wanted their kids to enter and succeed in the mainstream educational system, knowing that in that country that is the only path to higher education, and possible upward social mobility as well.

Yet what it takes for this to happen in Malaysia is political courage and the will to put forward radical proposals that may not be popular, in fact downright unpopular. It takes a politician with guts to say that Malaysian kids ought to be able to meet, study, compete and succeed in a singular national educational system that mirrors the reality of Malaysia’s plural and complex society. And it takes some courage to state that if any Malaysian parent wishes his or her child to study Mandarin or Tamil, he should be able to do so in the same singular national schooling system where these languages should also be taught as Malaysian languages – languages that have been spoken in the region for centuries.

But politicians tend to be timid in the face of democratic populism, and the will of the voter – no matter how uninstructed, how bigoted or biased – seems to hold sway over their own opinions. I have met politicians on both sides of the fence who have confided in me their fears and anxiety over where the nation-building process in Malaysia is heading, and who know that if this trend continues there will not be one Malaysia but several Malaysias, that live side by side but remain clueless about their neighbours. But these very same politicians seem captive to the ballot box and paralyzed when it comes to doing what is necessary, albeit unpopular. They cannot speak out for fear of losing their so-called ‘natural vote bases’, that happen to be ethnic and linguistic vote bases, reflective of our fractured society.

And so the charade continues, and we remain a nation that studies, and lives, apart. Thus has Populist Democracy made cowards of us all.

Malaysia’s Political Economy and the International Economic Crisis

February 24, 2012

Malaysia’s Political Economy and the International Economic Crisis

by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah*

Thank you very much for inviting me and for giving me this opportunity to address this very important and topical subject that is likely to affect the future of all of us.

The relationship between Malaysia’s political economy and the international economic crises is not an easy subject but a vast and complex subject which can touch on very sensitive issues.  But the urgency of the subject is such that we must think and speak about it.

Be that as it may, I have to state what I think is the heart of the problem of our political economy in view of the experience of the West which is unfolding at the moment. The full impact of what is happening in the West is yet to be revealed and it is possible that it will be a continuing process of revelation.

No Country is an Economic Island, or indeed a Political Island

It has been suggested by some political and economic observers that the crisis is likely to be the worst economic crises since the 1930s, and that it is bound to affect the entire world.  But there are some who believe that the effect on Asia will not be the same as in the West. That may or may not be true, but in this age, no country is an economic island or indeed a political island.  To emphasize the point, 30% of China’s economy is dependent on the well being of the European economy.  Any shrinkage in the West is bound to affect China.  This can be said of many Asian countries.

In trying to understand what is likely to happen to the Malaysian economy and its political consequences, it is important for us to understand the character of our own economy, and the similarities and dissimilarities with American and European capitalism. Western capitalism that is now accepted as a failure is a capitalism that has had a long history, with very strong political and cultural underpinnings, particularly in the Rule of Law. It is for this reason alone that Western capitalism, for all its faults, has lasted so long.  There are many lessons we can learn from Western capitalism – successes and failures.  While there are similarities, the Malaysian version of capitalism unfortunately does not have the long history of political and cultural foundation.  The significance of this cannot be underestimated.

Malaysia’s economy was a colonial economy.  Soon after independence, there was no real change of the colonial political economy.  In 1970 we made the first real attempt to change the political economy to address same urgent imbalances.

Malaysian Capitalism in the 1980s

I would like to open the discussion today by suggesting to you that the capitalism in Malaysia took a decisive change in the 1980s.  It is that change that we have to understand and deal with if we are to avert the same crisis as the West is going through.

It is my contention that the changes that took place in the 1980s were profound, pervasive, and influenced the value systems in public life.  It has also brought about structural changes in our society.  These structural changes – I don’t mean formal constitutional changes only – relate to the way that constitutional issues are being interpreted today. They relate to the way in which political parties have been transformed and the manner in which politics is being conducted today, both within and outside the political parties themselves. It has also brought about changes to the administration of the state apparatus – both unto itself and in its relations with the public.  Equally important is what I call public values; in other words, values associated with the public responsibility that goes along with the position that one assumes.  The sum total of the transformation and its influence will have serious consequence on the future of our country, as those changes are still with us in public life, particularly the politics of the day.

Before I explain the nature of the changes and its consequence, I would like to state briefly the political culture, understanding, and values that prevailed prior to the transformation, just in order to emphasize the contrast.  At the time of Independence, the problems of the country were those that we inherited from our colonial past.  The most striking aspect of it was the fragmented nature of our society in almost every aspect of public life, particularly in politics and the economy.  Race dominated the general view of both politics and the economy.  There was also extensive poverty, both in the rural and urban areas.  But the rural and the urban distinction had another aspect to it, and the rural economy was at subsistence level unlike the urban areas.  It had also a racial distinction.  But the distinctions of poverty levels carried also a racial distinction.  In the urban areas, the middle class also had racial characteristics.  Capitalism as practiced in the colonial period was clearly unsustainable to maintain a cohesive and united community within Malaysia.

Many of us who decided to be involved in politics soon after Independence were inspired by the challenges that the new nation faced in solving those problems.  The ideals were those that were prevalent at that time in Asia and inspired by thinkers of that time.  The ideals were for change in society to a more balanced and one where racial divisions will not be identified with politics or economy, and poverty, both in the rural and urban areas, would eventually disappear without the racial divide.  The objective was always the common good and to create a nation that was cohesive and modern.  This was to be achieved by economic changes in their nation’s economy and the lives of its people.

The best way in which I can illustrate the point is by drawing your attention to the ideals as expressed in the 1971 Second Malaysia Plan.  It is a quote that is worth repeating and remembering:

“National unity is the overriding objective of the country.  A stage has been reached in the nation’s economic and social development where greater emphasis must be placed on social integration and more equitable distribution of income and opportunities for national unity.”

It went on to state:

“The quest for national identity and unity is common to many countries, especially new and developing countries.  This search for national identity and unity involves the whole range of economic, social and political activities, the formation of educational policies designed to encourage common values and loyalties among all communities and regions; the cultivation of a sense of dedication to the nation through services of all kinds, the careful development of a national language and literature, of arts and music, the emergence of truly national symbols and institutions based on culture and tradition of society.”

The basic point is emphasized in the Rukun Negara:

“… from these diverse elements of our population, we are dedicated to the achievement of a united nation in which loyalty and dedication to the nation shall over-ride all other loyalties.”

What happened in the 1980s was a deviation from these ideals.  It had nothing whatsoever to do with the New Economic Policy.  It was something very, very different.  An economic policy of the kind that the Second Malaysia Plan envisaged would require a gestation period of more than a decade, optimistically.  It was intended as a social engineering policy.  It is in the nature of economic policies that results are not immediately evident and can only be achieved in the fullness of time.  The New Economic Policy unfortunately did not survive the leadership prior to 1980 and faded before the full impact of that policy could be seen.

Neo-Liberalism Malaysian Style

What happened from 1980 onwards was an intervention of a new form of capitalism that was not obvious but reflected in the way the leadership that came after the mid-1980s conducted itself in the implementation of economic policies and the exercise of political power.  The dominant economic thinking during the 80′s was economic policies which came under the category of neo-liberalism.  Neo-liberalism was an ideology and a political philosophy with its own values of public responsibility.  It had a very precise view of what the economic system should be and what kind of supporting financial system should underpin it.

The distinguishing feature of this policy is privatization of public ownership of utilities essential for public good, such as water, power, public transport, health and other services irrespective of whether they were efficient and must necessarily be owned by the State.  In order to assist the neo-liberal economic policy, it also encouraged low taxation, mobility of labour to keep wages low, unrestrained mobility of finance, and the rise of the stock market as a means of financialization of profit and capital to facilitate its mobility and accumulation.

It was within that new dominant ideology of neo-liberalism that the incumbent power realized that this new approach to economy opened up opportunities for those who had power and those whom they wanted to favour.  There was an understanding that in order to benefit from that new economic system, political power needed selective businessmen who would work together for their mutual benefit. The benefit to the nation was merely incidental and necessary to continue the new status quo that they were building.  Eventually, by this relationship, political power became a means to business and accumulation of wealth as a practice of those in politics and business; in other words, those in politics sought out business and businessmen sought out politicians who would work with them.  

This new feature came into existence gradually and had its peak in about the 90′s.  The character of capitalism changed and the values of some Malaysians also changed.  By privatizing the public ownership of what is economically called “public good,” the values that went with public good changed to private profit accumulation of wealth and greed.  The nature of public responsibility also changed.

This new feature in Malaysian political life eventually became a powerful mode of thinking that permeated political parties and the institutions of the State.  Party politics, particularly, took a change in order to consolidate the status quo of power.  Changes in the constitution of political parties ensured continuation of leadership and political power.  But the leadership within the party and the political system became acceptable only because the benefits of business were also shared by those who supported the leadership.  A hierarchy of financial interest coinciding with the power structure was built within and outside the party.

These changes also created a corrupt form of public values which has very serious consequences and with which society is now burdened. The system became self-serving for entrenched political and business interests.  All those in the hierarchy of the system also benefited and, in order to maintain that system, they supported the centralization of power within the party leadership and the government.

With the changes in the political party system, particularly a political hierarchy supported by business, the centralized political power had to feed this combination of business and political hierarchy with business opportunities. The centralized power enabled discretionary use of political power to make decisions on public expenditure and privatization.The public expenditure that I am referring to is the public procurement contracts.  The money generated by the distribution of public procurements, contracts and privatization programme became a self-serving economic system to maintain power and accumulate wealth.

The volume of money generated in terms of public expenditure and private gain arising from this policy has never been properly audited or revealed to the public.  In order to avoid public controversy of the public procurement contracts and privatization, the Official Secrets Act was expanded to include contracts involving public procurements and privatization.

As a result, business and power became more and more entrenched and powerful.  The fear of losing power also equally became a matter to be avoided at all costs.  In these circumstances, money became a dominant political weapon in political parties and the entire electoral process.  This new culture of politics released forces within the political parties and the public arena unseen before.

This new focus of the political economy became less and less sensitive to the real socio-economic problems of the people and essential changes that were necessary were ignored or misconceived.

It is now generally accepted by those who understand economics that statistical evidence and economic reality are not the same. Nevertheless, the reliance on statistical evidence can lead us to make believe that all is well when it is not. I say this because the empirical evidence that is evident seems to suggest that over time the focus of growth was on accumulation of wealth rather than the realities of the socio-economic problems that the people face.

One example of this is the changes in the character of labour in Malaysia. The demand for labour has been seen as an opportunity to create a rentier political class from those who are part of the political apparatus .It has reached such proportions that there is an alarm that the employment opportunities have all been taken up by foreign labour.

The effect of the policies of making labour a commodity available to employers has many consequences, one of which is to squeeze out our citizens from gainful employment and the lower end of the economy, such as hawking, etc, as a means of living.

Be that as it may, this can be a turning point for our nation in a positive sense if we recognize the nature of our problems.  One of the major problems that would be in the way of meeting the consequence of the crisis will be the education and standards of skill of our people.  As a means of an economic recovery, we will require a fundamental change in the education system we provide for our citizens.  We need an education system that produces quality and skills. I would say that under the present system, it will be difficult for us to achieve that.  We need the moral courage to reform the entire education system that we have today.  I would also add, we need a massive adult education programme to ensure that the present generation is not left behind.

The objective of the adult education should be to provide the necessary language and technical skills and to involve as large a section of the population in non-formal educational programmes which will bring national cohesion and at the same time rejuvenate dormant areas of our economy, such as the agricultural sector.  We have enough land.  What we need is for those who are prepared to go into these areas of our economy to be equipped with the technical knowledge that is necessary to bring about a green revolution in our country.

Household Debt more than Household Earnings (More than 100%)

What is illustrative of the consequence of the economic policies of the 1980s and 1990s is the household debt of average Malaysians, which is about 75% and 40% of the household debts is beyond 100% of their earnings.  As a result of this, the average Malaysian generally lives under a very high social and economic tension within their families and within society struggling to make ends meet.  The household problem has many ramifications.  It has spawned wide-spread illegal money-lending (the true “Ah Longs”).  The consequences have been devastating on families and individuals.

The financial system as it is now does not seem to be geared to make the lives of ordinary people comfortable or to minimize social tension.  Part of the cause of rising debts among households is because of the structure of the financial system within which the ordinary citizen has to live, such as the romping speculation in housing, inflation in the goods of daily requirements, and the mortgage system on which the people depend for ordinary comfort.

Inequalities have widened

As a consequence of economic policies in the past, inequalities have also widened.Today, Malaysians suffer from a very wide inequality, and there is a suggestion that the inequality is higher than in Thailand and Indonesia.  This inequality cuts across racial boundaries. If the economy declines in the future, the problems that I have highlighted in terms of the household debt and the widening inequality will go into a deeper crisis of confidence among the people, particularly the young who feel alienated from the economic system.

Money Politics leads to a Dysfunctional Democracy

No democratic system, no institution as envisaged by our Constitution, can survive a political economy of this nature.  There is too much money in politics and it has become inseparable from power and the electoral process.  The corrupting influence of money in public life is obvious for any need for explanation.  While the economic and social problems accumulate, a divide has been created by those who benefit from the dysfunctional system and those who suffer from it.  It is no different from the experience of many counties in the Middle East.  Many who had enjoyed the benefits of incumbent power sustained the system and were reluctant to give up power or change.

The lesson we have to learn from the Arab Spring is that a dysfunctional democracy, however well dressed by public relations exercises or subsequently by media, cannot withstand the realities that are the natural consequence of abuse of power and wanton accumulation of wealth.  That is the most important message, I think, that the Arab Spring has conveyed and we must take cognizance of it.

The danger we face is that the conflation of business and politics has become so dominant that it has the same influence an ideology would have.  If we are to restore democratic ideals in our political discussions and the electoral process, have genuine political parties which can genuinely function in what they think is the interest of the people, and participate in the economy, then there must be a separation of business from politics.  Without this precondition, Malaysia’s economy can avoid a crisis worse than what we see in the West.

For business to play a responsible and major role in creating a viable economy, it must be freed from politics.  The economy of business must be returned to the people in order for them to develop.  It must be given the freedom to function without having to depend on political patronage. The right to do business as part of the national economy must be a fundamental right, not subject to favours by politicians or bureaucrats.

But that change will not come about until the public earnestly are allowed to discuss the dangers of conflating business and politics.  That includes the danger of allowing political parties that are in power to take advantage of their political power for financial benefit.  Parties must be strictly confined to democratic activities and political policies which they believe in and business must function autonomously from political parties.  Unfortunately for us, this has not been the debate in any of the elections in the last three decades.  We need to think urgently of the dangers of this unspoken reality of our politics.

If I am correct in my understanding that the ideology of business and politics had become fused with the neo-liberal ideology and as part of our political economy – by that I mean the process of thinking about economics, politics, policy, and leadership – then we have a lesson from the crisis in the West which is happening now where neo-liberal policies have failed not only as a financial system but in all its economic and political objectives.  It must send a signal for us to seriously examine whether in fact there is a fusion of money politics and neo-liberal ideology, that is the worst of both worlds.  And what can happen to us, not now but in the future is an urgent issue we have to deal with now, not when it happens.  The gestation period of misconceived economic policy is as long as good economic policies, but the longer we wait the worse the consequences and higher the price we pay.

One of the weaknesses we have as a nation is the absence of a critical mass of people who think in economic terms and can take a critical view of the realities of the economies that we face today as a matter of national interest above sectarian interest. The absence of this critical mass will make it easy for those who want to deviate from the real issues that we face.

My intention, in all that I have said, is for the purpose of reflection, and for us to grasp some realities that are urgent, and to think whether an economic system where money played such a dominant role in the functioning of the state and the constitutional system of democracy can survive.  The task of understanding the reality and dangers of a dysfunctional system based on money in the political process is urgent.  There is a role for all of us because the country belongs to us and we have a duty to save Malaysia from the trials, tribulations and agony that we see happening as a result of the failure of Western capitalism.

*Speech by Y.B.M. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah at the Royal Selangor Club Luncheon Talk on Thursday, 16.02.2012 at 12:30pm.

Revisiting Pol Pot’s Demokratik Kampuchea

February 24, 2012

Revisiting Pol Pot’s Demokratik Kampuchea

by Michelle Fitzpatrick from Phnom Penh

When the Khmer Rouge invited a pair of American journalists to Cambodia in the late 1970s for a rare glimpse of the revolution, they found empty streets and schools in a city with no laughter.

“There was nobody there. It was like walking into the Twilight Zone,” recalled one-time Washington Post correspondent Elizabeth Becker (left).

Invited by the hardline communist regime to visit the capital Phnom Penh in 1978, she jumped at the rare chance to see the secretive revolution in action and meet its leader Pol Pot.

But after a tense two-week trip, peppered with numerous staged photo opportunities in a filmset-like atmosphere, Becker left convinced of the regime’s insanity. And her British travel companion was dead.

More than three decades later, the now retired journalist has returned to put her photographs and recorded interviews with Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders on display in Cambodia for the first time.

She is also preparing to testify before Cambodia’s UN-backed court in a landmark trial against three top leaders – including Ex-Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, who arranged her visa for that fateful trip.

The three deny charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for their roles in the 1975-1979 regime, which is blamed for the deaths of up to two million people from starvation, overwork or execution.

Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, the hardline communist movement emptied cities, abolished money and religion and forced millions to work in huge labour camps in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.

Horrow stories

But the outside world understood little about what was going on in the closed-off country at the time.

By December 1978, in the final days of the regime, a Vietnamese invasion was imminent and the Khmer Rouge belatedly sought support to fend off the enemy – starting with positive press about the revolution.

“They had isolated themselves from the world and desperately needed friends or help,” Becker, now 64, said in a recent interview with AFP.

Becker, who began her career as a war reporter in Phnom Penh in the early 1970s, was invited with US journalist Richard Dudman, who had covered the Vietnam War.

The third guest was Malcolm Caldwell, a Scottish Marxist academic who had written a favourable book about the revolution.

That Becker was granted a visa is somewhat remarkable since she had already published several critical pieces about the Khmer Rouge, based on the horror stories that were trickling in from Cambodian refugees.

“Do not presume they were all-seeing and all-wise,” Becker said about the Khmer Rouge leadership. “The one thing people keep forgetting is how incompetent these people were. They were cruel and ruthless and incompetent.”

Throughout their stay, Becker said the three foreigners were “under the equivalent of house arrest”, escorted by armed guards at all times.

But the intrepid reporter “snuck out a couple of times” and behind the facade of freshly painted buildings and manicured parks in the capital, “they just left everything to rot”.

Surreal surroundings

Outings to model cooperatives in the countryside, where well-fed villagers were working in seemingly idyllic surroundings, proved no less surreal.

“I was alarmed by what I didn’t see,” she recalled. “You kept thinking you’re going to turn a corner and real life would show up but it never did.

“There were never kids playing on the street, there were never kids at school, there were never people at the pagoda, there were no markets, no laughing, nothing.”

On the final day, Becker and Dudman became the first and last Western journalists to interview Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge’s reign.

“He was much more charismatic and handsome than I’d expected,” she said. Pol Pot lectured them about the threat of war with Vietnam, saying he wanted Nato troops to fight alongside Khmer Rouge soldiers.

“That’s how desperate it was, that Pol Pot would imagine Nato would join him,” Becker said.

Caldwell had a private meeting with the Khmer Rouge supremo. Hours later, he was shot dead in his guesthouse.Mystery surrounds the murder to this day although Becker, who briefly encountered the Cambodian gunman in the guesthouse where Caldwell was killed, simply blames the madness of the Khmer Rouge.

“To find some rational reason why Caldwell would be murdered when this was a regime that was irrationally killing its own people… I don’t know that that makes sense.”

On December 25, 1979, two days after Becker and Dudman left Cambodia with Caldwell’s body, Vietnamese forces invaded. By January 7, they had taken the capital and ousted the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot fled to the jungle from where he would continue to fight a guerrilla war. He died in 1998 without ever facing justice for his crimes against humanity and auto-genocide.

When her turn comes to take the stand, Becker does not expect to suffer from the recollection problems that have plagued some elderly defendants and witnesses.“I don’t have to rely on my memory,” she said. “I kept my notes, I kept my recordings. That’s the writer’s advantage.”


Spring Awakening in Egypt: A Memoir

February 24, 2012

The New York Times-Sunday Book Review


Spring Awakening
How an Egyptian Revolution Began on Facebook

By Jose Antonio Vargas (02-17-12)

In the embryonic, ever evolving era of social media — when milestones come by the day, if not by the second — June 8, 2010, has secured a rightful place in history. That was the day Wael Ghonim, a 29-year-old Google marketing executive, was browsing Facebook in his home in Dubai and found a startling image: a photo­graph of a bloodied and disfigured face, its jaw broken, a young life taken away. That life, he soon learned, had belonged to Khaled Mohamed Said, a 28-year-old from Alexandria who had been beaten to death by the Egyptian Police.

At once angered and animated, the Egyptian-­born Ghonim went online and created a Facebook page. “Today they killed Khaled,” he wrote. “If I don’t act for his sake, tomorrow they will kill me.” It took a few moments for Ghonim to settle on a name for the page, one that would fit the character of an increasingly personalized and politically galvanizing Internet. He finally decided on “Kullena Khaled Said” — “We Are All Khaled Said.”

“Khaled Said was a young man just like me, and what happened to him could have happened to me,” Ghonim writes in “Revolution 2.0,” his fast-paced and engrossing new memoir of political awakening. “All young Egyptians had long been oppressed, enjoying no rights in our own homeland.”

Ghonim’s memoir is a welcome and cleareyed addition to a growing list of volumes that have aimed (but often failed) to meaningfully analyze social media’s impact. It’s a book about social media for people who don’t think they care about social media. It will also serve as a touchstone for future testimonials about a strengthening borderless digital movement that is set to continually disrupt powerful institutions, be they corporate enterprises or political regimes.

An accidental activist, Ghonim tapped into a shared frustration that became immediately evident online. Two minutes after he started his Facebook page, 300 people had joined it. Three months later, that number had grown to more than 250,000. What bubbled up online inevitably spilled onto the streets, starting with a series of “Silent Stands” that culminated in a massive and historic rally at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. “We Are All Khaled Said” helped ignite an uprising that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and the dissolution of the ruling National Democratic Party. In turn, Ghonim — who was arrested during the height of the protests — reluctantly became one of the leading voices of the Arab Spring.

Ghonim’s writing voice is spare and measured, and marked by the same earnest humility he has displayed in media appearances. During the interview he gave on Egyptian television after his release from detention, when he broke down crying as a photo montage of young Egyptians killed in the protests played across the screen, he was quick to point out that “the real heroes” of the revolution were those who had been martyred. He resists being labeled an icon. He insists he represents just one story and says his online activism should be seen only in the context of “hundreds of other pages, Facebook accounts and Twitter profiles” dedicated to covering and organizing the Arab Spring.

And he’s right. But his individual story resonates on two levels: it epitomizes the coming-of-age of a young Middle Eastern generation that has grown up in the digital era, as well as the transformation of an apolitical man from comfortable executive to prominent activist.

The Middle East is home to roughly 100 million people ages 15 to 29. Many are educated but unemployed. Though only a fraction of Egyptians have Internet access, Ghonim writes, the number of Web users in the country increased to 13.6 million in 2008 from 1.5 million in 2004. Through blogs, Twitter and Facebook, the Web has become a haven for a young, educated class yearning to express its worries and anxieties.

Technology, of course, is not a panacea. Facebook does not a revolution make. In Egypt’s case, it was simply a place for venting the outrage resulting from years of repression, economic instability and individual frustration. Ghonim writes that in 2011, out of Egypt’s more than 80 million people, some 48 million were poor and 2.5 million lived in extreme poverty. “More than three million young Egyptians are unemployed,” he says.

A father of two, Ghonim comes from a relatively prosperous family. Though he places himself in “a small, privileged slice” of Egypt’s population, he once shared his countrymen’s indifference to politics. “Most of us shied away,” he writes, “believing that we could not do anything to change the status quo.” Connecting online with other young, educated Egyptians changed his mind.

The Internet, Ghonim says, was “instrumental in shaping my experiences as well as my character.” Like many who grew up with instant messaging, online video games and the here-comes-everybody ethos of sites like Wikipedia, he refers to himself as a “real-life introvert yet an Internet extrovert.” He met his wife, Ilka, an American Muslim, online.

Ghonim drew on his considerable skill and knowledge as an online marketer while running the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page. Early on, he decided that creating the page, as opposed to a Facebook group, would be a better way to spread information. More important, he knew that maintaining an informal, authentic tone was crucial to amassing allies. People had to see themselves in the page. “Using the pronoun I was critical to establishing the fact that the page was not managed by an organization, political party or movement of any kind,” he writes. “On the contrary, the writer was an ordinary Egyptian devastated by the brutality inflicted on Khaled Said and motivated to seek justice.”

He polled the page’s users and sought ideas from others, like how best to publicize a rally — through printed fliers and mass text messaging, it turned out. (“Reaching working-class Egyptians was not going to happen through the Internet and Facebook,” he notes.) He tried to be as inclusive as possible, as when he changed the name of the page’s biggest scheduled rally from “Celebrating Egyptian Police Day — January 25” to “January 25: Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment.” “We needed to have everyone join forces: workers, human rights activists, government employees and others who had grown tired of the regime’s policies,” he writes. “If the invitation to take to the streets had been based solely on human rights, then only a certain segment of Egyptian society would have participated.”

As the youth-led Tunisian upheaval further inspired young activists in Egypt, Ghonim was arrested by the secret police. For nearly two weeks, he was held blindfolded and handcuffed, deprived of sleep and subjected to repeated interrogations, as his friends, family and colleagues at Google tried to discover his whereabouts. That he was released as quickly as he was demonstrated the power of Revolution 2.0.

A year after Mubarak’s ouster, it remains to be seen exactly how and when — or whether — Egypt will transition to a better democracy. What Ghonim’s book makes clear, however, is that revolution begins with the self: with what one is willing to stand for online and offline, and what one citizen is willing to risk in the service of his country.

Jose Antonio Vargas has written for The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and The New Yorker. He is the founder of Define American, a multimedia campaign for immigration reform.

A version of this review appeared in print on February 19, 2012, on page BR12 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Spring Awakening.

MAS Vs Tajuddin Ramli Trial to begin in March, 2012

February 23, 2012


MAS Vs Tajuddin Ramli Trial to begin in March, 2012

by The Malaysian Insider

Former Malaysia Airlines System Bhd (MAS) chief Tan Sri Tajuddin Ramli failed today in his bid to block the national carrier and its two subsidies from suing him for breach of fiduciary duty.

High Court judge Rosilah Yop ordered the trial to start from March 12. The decision was made in chambers, state news agency Bernama reported. The judge also fixed next Monday to hear the government’s application to cancel Tajuddin’s RM500 million counterclaim against MAS and the federal government.

The 65-year-old had served as the airline’s executive chairman from 1994 to 2001 and was a poster boy of former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin’s now-discredited policy of nurturing a class of Malay corporate captains on government largesse during the Mahathir administration.

The main suit filed in 2006 by MAS and its two subsidiaries, MAS Golden Holidays Sdn Bhd dan MAS Hotels & Boutiques Sdn Bhd, charged that Tajudin and his four companies — Naluri Corporation Bhd, Promet (Langkawi) Resorts Sdn Bhd, Kauthar Venture Capital Sdn Bhd and Pakatan Permai Sdn Bhd — had intentionally breached his obligations and trust to win certain contracts that benefited him, using MAS.

Tajuddin has denied the charge, saying the MAS suit contained bare allegations, with no facts or circumstances cited to back them and was an abuse of the court system.

The Kedah-born businessman claimed that MAS had acted with malice and in bad faith in taking legal action against him to embarrass and tarnish his reputation.He added the airline’s report with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) against him was defamatory.

Tajuddin was represented by lawyer Lim Kian Leong; SM Shanmugam stood for MAS and Lailawati Ali acted for Putrajaya.

Earlier this month, Tajuddin settled out-of-court his debt owed to Pengurusan Danaharta Bhd (Danaharta) and several other government-linked companies (GLCs) for an undisclosed sum of money, despite a High Court decision in December 2009 ordering the ex-MAS chief to pay the state asset management manager RM589.14 million plus two per cent interest per year, backdated to January 1, 2006.

Mahathir and the Tajuddin Ramli-MAS Deal: No Explanation Required

February 23, 2012

Mahathir and the Tajuddin Ramli-MAS Deal: No Explanation Required

by Shannon Teoh@http://www.themalaysianinsider.com

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad brushed off today Datuk Zaid Ibrahim’s call that he “write a book” on why Malaysia Airline System (MAS) was privatised to Tan Sri Tajuddin Ramli in 1994, saying he was not in charge of the loss-making national carrier.

“I’m not in charge of MAS, how can I write a book? I can make some comments, that’s all,” the former Prime Minister told reporters today.

Zaid, who was de facto Law Minister in 2008, wrote in his blog today that Dr Mahathir must explain by “writing (a book) that is believable, that at least reflects the true situation surrounding the MAS saga that has still not been resolved until today.”

Zaid, who resigned from UMNO in September 2008 to join PKR but is now estranged from Pakatan Rakyat (PR), has backed the opposition’s criticism of recent confidential out-of-court settlements between Tajuddin and several GLCs.

“Since the settlement was conducted in secret, allow me to guess the terms of the deal: Tajuddin was not required to pay a single sen to Danaharta or any of the GLCs; instead, the government will pay Tajuddin RM6.5 billion (or half of what he had claimed).

“Tajuddin will then be generous in his contributions to the party coffers for the upcoming general election,” he said.

Tajuddin’s settlement with Pengurusan Danaharta Bhd (Danaharta) on February 14 came after a lengthy legal dispute following a High Court decision in December 2009 ordering the ex-MAS chief to pay the state asset management manager RM589.14 million plus two per cent interest per year, backdated to January 1, 2006.

But Dr Mahathir, who was PM from 1981 to 2003, insisted today “the government is very sensitive to these things because it may affect the image of the government and the support in the next election.”

“If they have evidence that there was blatant abuse of power they can make a case for it,” he added.

Tajuddin, who was MAS chairman until 2001, was also a poster boy of former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin’s now discredited policy of nurturing a class of Malay corporate captains on government largesse during the Mahathir administration.

The case between Danaharta and Tajuddin arose after he executed a facility agreement on July 13, 1994 to borrow RM1.79 billion from a group of syndicated lenders to finance his purchase of a 32 per cent stake in MAS.

However, from 1994 to 1998 he failed to service the original loan, causing it to become a non-performing loan (NPL). In 1998, Danaharta acquired the NPL from the lenders but Tajuddin also failed to settle his debt to Danaharta until it was in default of RM1.41 billion as at October 8, 2001.

As part of a settlement agreement, Tajuddin was to pay RM942 million in four instalments over three years and that he was permitted to redeem his charged shares at a minimum price per share.

Tajuddin, however, defaulted in the payment of the quarterly interest payable under the settlement agreement and on April 27, 2002, the plaintiffs terminated the settlement agreement and demanded RM1.61 billion from him.

On April 29, 2002, Danaharta, together with its units Danaharta Urus Sdn Bhd and Danaharta Managers Sdn Bhd sold part of the charged shares consisting entirely of Technology Resources Industries (TRI) shares at RM2.75 per share, resulting in total proceeds of RM717.39 million.

As at December 31, 2005, the amount outstanding was RM589.14 million and on May 11, 2006, Danaharta and the subsidiaries commenced action to recover the money.

Tajuddin had alleged in his affidavit that it was Dr Mahathir and Daim who directed him in 1994 to buy a controlling stake in MAS to bail out the government.

Tajuddin claimed that his purchase was a forced “national service”, disguised as an arm’s length commercial deal, because the government wanted to appease the investment community and the public.

Dr Mahathir, however, denied in his autobiography published last March that he and Daim had forced Tajuddin to bail out MAS in 1994 for RM1.8 billion, claiming instead that Tajuddin was “elated” over his purchase.



Idris Jala can explain why a lenient out of court settlement for Tajuddin Ramli

February 23, 2012

Idris Jala can explain why a lenient out of court settlement for Tajuddin Ramli

by Aidila Razak@http://www.malaysiakini.com

PKR’s Subang MP Sivarasa Rasiah believes former Malaysia Airlines System chairperson Tajuddin Ramli may have a hold on “someone powerful in the government”, since no criminal charges have been preferred against him and he obtained a relatively lenient out-of-court settlement.

Speaking at a press conference in Tropicana, Sivarasa said the same could be asked of the lack of criminal action taken against Tajuddin, despite the several Police reports and a Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission report against him by the senior management of MASKargo in 2007.

“Who is this person who is so powerful in the Malaysian government, in the cabinet probably, that Tajuddin is able to squeeze so hard that he can do all this?” he asked.

“Two people who can start helping us answer this question are ministers in the Prime Minister’s Department Idris Jala and Nazri Abdul Aziz, who has been in the news talking about the settlements,” he said.

Sivarasa said Idris could shed some light as he took over as MAS CEO in 2007 and had, according to the MASKargo MACC report, briefed the then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on the alleged wrongdoings by Tajuddin in the same year.

Realism as Singapore cautions the United States

February 23, 2012

Realism as Singapore cautions the United States

by Bunn Nagara@http://www.thestar.com.my

The city state has begun to adjust to emerging regional realities while pivoting on its pragmatic impulses, as always, while steering a steady course between China and the US.

SINGAPORE’S political positions are nothing if not coolly calculated and calibrated. They are specially so when expressed in formal statements at high-level meetings.

In Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam’s keynote address to the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) gathering in Washington recently, US media reported him as “warning” the US against China-bashing rhetoric.

Words about containing China, particularly in the populist mood of a US election year, would he said cause a “new and intended reality for the region.” It was not the first time Shanmugam had said so, having previously cautioned against the futility of containing a rising China.

However, these statements do mark a shift from previous Singapore policies on the US and China. As a small country overwhelmingly dependent on international trade, finance and therefore regional stability, an unwritten rule for Singapore has long been to avoid making waves while sidling up to the largest kid on the block.

Neither the region’s pecking order nor Singapore’s guiding principles have changed, only the emerging realities on the ground. The wherewithal for continued US pre-eminence has largely flattened out without having yet declined, while China’s stature and substance continue to rise.

The Obama administration has lately pledged to boost the US regional presence, but the extent, duration and consistency of doing so are unclear. China, meanwhile, has no need to risk overstretching itself in East Asia because it is in the region’s centre.

At one level, Singapore’s latest statement confirms a shift from former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s pro-US slant following his retirement last May. For half a century, Lee had championed an alliance with the US over other powers like China, lately much of it because of a rising China.

At a more substantive level, Shanmugam’s statement well indicates Singapore’s new and belated efforts to woo an ascendant China. In seemingly different now, Singapore is merely reaffirming its standard pragmatism based on an acute sense of self-preservation.

For the region, Singapore’s new tack may be surprising at first but not unwelcome. It simply expressed the obvious when that needed expressing, even if in doing so it made Singapore look more pro-active than its neighbours in acknowledging China’s burgeoning gravitas.

Singapore’s advice to Washington also came on the eve of Chinese vice-president (and prospective president) Xi Jinping’s state visit. The timing had apparently turned up the volume of Shanmugam’s statement to US lawmakers and their constituents.

Like everyone else, the US had long perceived Singapore as a feisty independent state averse to China’s dominance, following its early struggle against ethnic Chinese leftists and then its break-up with Malaysia, while retaining a largely ethnic Chinese population.

Today, Singapore’s “new look” policy is effectively not only for Washington’s benefit or just to showcase a contemporary Singapore to China. It also serves as an oblique reminder to Beijing that any hostile US rhetoric now would be mere campaign posturing and therefore undeserving of a like reaction.

After all, China is also getting set for a leadership change, a time when new directions may be set in ways likely to appease the populace. Its decade-long leadership is more than twice as enduring as a US presidential term and its policy direction could be several times as significant as the US equivalent.

Still, news reports implying how tiny Singapore had “warned” the world’s sole superpower might have seemed strong, if not strange. It is a measure of Singapore’s new posture that far from denying such reports, Shanmugam proceeded to expand on his comments.

He noted with approval how Chinese media widely reported his comments approvingly. Singapore media were also not shy in lingering over the issue.

The Straits Times noted that “a power transition is under way” in the region. Singapore-based Channel News Asia noted how well Shanmugam’s remarks had played in China.

Nonetheless, many US Netizens were not as hospitable to the comments. Among the more common responses was the defensive argument that US rhetoric against China was free speech and so warranted no warning or censure.

Another common reaction was to despise China and its unfolding development even more. A zero-sum mentality prevailed on US-China relations, aggravated by a pervasive sense of a declining US economy in free fall.

The third common reaction among Americans commenting online was to attack the messenger. Thus Shanmugam was criticised for acknowledging China’s success and daring to warn the US over it.

Singapore’s revised articulation of regional realities does not surprise any serious onlooker in Asia. Its concerns are self-evident, its priorities apparent, and its assessment of the region timely.

A contrast comes with the Philippines, where rival claims with China over offshore territory has come to define their relationship. This amounts to allowing marginal interests to determine larger substantive ones: yet again, pragmatism distinguishes Singapore’s policies from the Philippines’.

Even so, Singapore’s recent assessment of regional realities sums up ASEAN’s understanding of them. What Washington will make of it, if anything, is anybody’s guess.

Republicans are particularly anxious to parade their conservative values, such as by defending US prerogatives, paramountcy and exceptionalism. This has encouraged emotive responses from Americans “in America’s interest.”

Democrats can only respond defensively by trying to match or pre-empt the Republicans’ US-centric aggressiveness. However much the Obama White House may prefer a more mature and measured response, it must also know that is far less likely to “sell”.

Thus Shanmugam’s counsel to Washington comes full circle. He spoke as he did because of the circumstances of the time, and it is those circumstances that now make him an easy target in the US.

As Americans brace for a presidential election in November, all parties can be just as prickly over any foreign reminders that the US needs to behave better. And it is practically a given that enraged US Netizens disconnected from reality will be given a better hearing in Washington than even the most thoughtful of allies in Asia.

A Message for Malaysian Political Leaders: Act Decisively and with Conviction

February 23, 2012

A Message for Malaysian Political Leaders: Act Decisively and with Conviction in the service of the country

This is reminiscent of the Geoffrey Howe-Michael Haseltine –Margaret Thatcher tussle for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Listen this speech by The Hon’ble Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, following Kevin Rudd’s resignation as Foreign Minister.

In the interest of fairness, also please listen to Mr Kevin Rudd. Now it is the choice of the Australian Labour Party members to decide between two protagonists, Julia and Kevin, who should lead them and meet the challenge of Tony Abbot and his Conservative Party in the next General Elections.

I can say that the incumbent Australian Prime Minister has guts, nerves of steel and conviction. In this speech, Prime Minister Gillard tells us what government should be and, that is, government must serve the people. In calling for a fresh vote for leadership of the Labour Party of Australia, she is putting her premiership on the line; she showed strength of character and resolve.That takes courage and she has my respect and admiration. I wish her all the best come next week.

There is a message for all our political leaders. Get serious about governing our country in the interest of all Malaysians. Less the rhetoric the better. Action matters more than public relations talk. Din Merican

Too Big To Jail

February 22, 2012

Too Big to Jail: It sounds familiar!

by Simon Johnson

Among the fundamental principles of any functioning justice system is the following: Don’t lie to a judge or falsify documents submitted to a court, or you will go to jail. Breaking an oath to tell the truth is perjury, and lying in official documents is both perjury and fraud.

These are serious criminal offenses, but apparently not if you are at the heart of America’s financial system. On the contrary, key individuals there appear to be well compensated for their crimes.

As Dennis Kelleher of Better Markets has argued, the recent so-called “robo-signing” settlement – in which five large banks “settled” their legal liability for carrying out fraudulent foreclosures on mortgages – is a complete sell-out to the financial industry.

First, there was no serious criminal prosecution – meaning that no one will be charged with a felony, and no one will go to jail. In terms of affecting executives’ incentives, this is the only thing that matters.

Even the terminology used to frame the discussion is wrong. Kelleher, an attorney with extensive experience in private practice and the public sector, tells it like it is: “‘robo-signing’ is massive, systematic, fraudulent, criminal conduct.” Alternatively, as he points out, we could just call it “lying, cheating, and stealing.”

Second, the civil penalties in this settlement – a form of fine – are minuscule relative to the size of the companies involved. As Shahien Nasiripour, one of the best reporters on this issue, dryly put it: “None of the five lenders have said they expect to incur a material charge due to the settlement.” In other words, from a corporate perspective, the penalty is a trifling affair.

Third, such fines are, in any case, paid by the companies’ shareholders, not by their executives or board members (all of whom carry insurance). In the rare cases in which fines have been levied on individuals, either their insurance policies picked up most of the bill, or the penalties were trivial relative to the cash compensation that they received while committing their crimes – or both.

As if all of this weren’t bad enough, the banks reportedly will be able to use government money to write down the value of mortgages, which amounts to subsidizing them to pay their own meaningless fines.

The Obama administration and its allies have worked hard to sell its roughly $20 billion settlement with the banks as one that will have a meaningful impact on the housing market. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Kelleher points out, the United States has “more than 10 million homes under water” (the outstanding mortgage exceeds the house’s value). “Twenty billion dollars doesn’t make a dent in that: one million homes at $20,000 loan forgiveness is it.”

In fact, the Obama administration’s settlement with the mortgage lenders is consistent with its track record on all of its policies related to the financial sector, which has been abysmal. But it is also puzzling. Why would the administration continue to bend over backwards to be lenient towards top bankers under these circumstances?

I honestly do not believe that the administration’s stance reflects any form of corruption – payments made to individuals or even to political campaigns. And, in this case, it does not even appear to reflect the lobbying power of big financial players. That power certainly explains why the Dodd-Frank financial reforms enacted in 2010 were not stronger, and why there is now so much opposition to effective implementation of that legislation (for example, there is currently a huge fight around the “Volcker rule,” which would limit proprietary trading by megabanks). But mortgage lenders’ criminal activities are another matter.

Indeed, at stake in the mortgage settlement are fundamental and systemic breaches of the rule of law – perjury and fraud on an economy-wide scale. The Justice Department has, without question, all of the power that it needs to prosecute these alleged crimes fully. And yet America’s top law-enforcement officials have consistently – and now completely – backed off.

The main motivation behind the administration’s indulgence of serious criminality evidently is fear of the consequences of taking tough action on individual bankers. And maybe officials are right to be afraid, given the massive size of the banks in question relative to the economy. In fact, those banks are bigger now than they were before the crisis, and, as James Kwak and I documented at length in our book 13 Bankers, they are much larger than they were 20 years ago.

Top bankers want to make a lot of money. They also want to stay out of prison. Political leaders can huff and puff as much as they want, but, without a credible threat of poverty and time behind bars, bankers have no reason to comply with the law. For them, it’s all about the trade – and you can be the sucker in public policy as easily as you can be the sucker in an individual loan agreement.

The message to bank executives today is simple: build your bank to be as big as possible – and then keep growing. If you manage to become big enough, you and your employees are not just too big to fail, but also too big to jail.The Obama administration has just made everyone else the sucker.

Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the IMF, is co-founder of a leading economics blog, http://BaselineScenario.com, a professor at MIT Sloan, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and co-author, with James Kwak, of 13 Bankers.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

Tajuddin-GLC Settlement: A Blatant Abuse of Power

February 22, 2012

Tajuddin-GLC Settlement: A Blatant Abuse of Power

by Hafiz Yatim@www.malaysiakini.com

The lack of transparency in last week’s settlement in court between former Malaysia Airlines System chairperson Tajuddin Ramli and government-linked corporations (GLCs) does not augur well for Malaysia’s standing, domestically and internationally.

NONETransparency International Malaysia chapter chairperson Paul Low (right) said the case indicated blatant abuses of power and a lack of prudence in the managing of the country’s finances, resulting in losses of public funds.

Low also warned that following the court settlement, Malaysia’s aspiration of having good governance has also come under scrutiny.

“His (Tajuddin’s) claim that the government (through the assurance given by the then Prime Minister and Minister of Finance) had indemnified him of any liability incurred in his purchase of the MAS shares from Bank Negara needed to be substantiated and disclosed by the institutions and the ministers concerned.

“We are extremely concerned as to the lack of public disclosure of the reasons for what seems to be a ‘arbitrary write-off’ of the RM589 million loan owed by Tajuddin relating to his purchase of MAS shares,” Low told Malaysiakini.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court had on December 7, 2009, ordered Tajuddin to pay RM589 million to Pengurusan Danaharta Nasional Bhd, which manages unpaid loans. The same court had earlier dismissed Tajuddin’s RM13 billion counter-claim.

tajudin ramli 1Last Tuesday, Tajuddin withdrew his appeal against Danaharta and other GLCs over the High Court decision.

The same day, Tajuddin also withdrew his lawsuit against numerous other litigants, including Telekom Malaysia Bhd, Naluri Corporation, Celcom (M) Bhd, Atlan Holding Bhd and CIMB Group.

Petaling Jaya MP Tony Pua has claimed that according to his sources, the RM589 claim has been written off as part of the settlement.

Blatant abuse of power

Low said said the court settlement indicated a blatant abuse of power and a lack of prudence in the stewardship of the country’s finances, resulting in substantial losses of public funds. “In view of the inconsistencies , from the explanations of the personalities involved, a public clarification needs to be done by the government,” he said.

“As the case involves a public listed company and GLCs, the opaqueness of the settlement will not augur well for Malaysia’s standing in the investing community, domestically as well as internationally.It shows a lack of consistency and seriousness in tackling corruption (defined as the abuse of entrusted power for person gains) at the higher echelon of the administration.”

Low pointed out that Malaysia’s aspiration to become a high-income economy would be impaired if public administration continued to lack good governance, accountability and public disclosure.

Open Societies and Spontaneous Orders

February 22, 2012

Open Societies and Spontaneous Orders

by Richard M. Ebeling (12-14-11)

[The following is a review of Popper, Hayek and the Open Society by Calvin Hayes (London/New York: Routledge, 2009) 284 pp. $150. It originally appeared in Freedom Daily (January 2012) published by The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia.]

Friedrich A. Hayek and Karl Popper were two of the most influential and internationally recognized critics of totalitarian collectivism in the twentieth century. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) and Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) helped change the intellectual climate at a time when it was presumed that various forms of socialism soon would completely triumph over limited government, free markets, and individual freedom.

Both Hayek and Popper were Austrians by birth, almost the same age, and graduated with doctoral degrees from the University of Vienna in the 1920s. But they never knew each other, even in the relatively small and interconnected intellectual circles of interwar Vienna.

Hayek left Austria in 1931 for a teaching position at the London School of Economics, and only heard about Popper when his fellow Austrian economist, Gottfried Haberler, suggested in 1935 that he read Popper’s recently published book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

With the darkening clouds of Nazism over Central Europe, Popper left Austria in 1937 for a teaching position in New Zealand. After corresponding during the Second World War, Hayek helped arrange a teaching position for Popper at the London School of Economics, as well.

In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek tried to show how the rise of socialist ideas in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Germany had prepared the political and economic foundations for the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s; and how similar socialist trends in Great Britain and the United States might, likewise, threaten those countries with political and economic tyranny.

Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies traced the origins of collectivist despotism to its ancient philosophical roots in the writings of Plato, who Popper considered to be the intellectual father of both communism and fascism. He also argued that Marx’s materialistic determinism closed the door to any political system of freedom.

Calvin Hayes’ recent book, Popper, Hayek and the Open Society analyzes what he sees as the strengths and weaknesses of their respective defenses of human freedom. Popper and Hayek, each in his own way, made a case for liberty on the basis of the limits of man’s knowledge.

Karl Popper and the Fallibility of Human Knowledge

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Hayes explains, Popper became disillusioned with his earlier attraction to Marxism. What bothered him was the fact that no matter what happened, the cleaver Marxist theoretician always seemed to be able to show that it “confirmed” and “proved” Marx ‘s predictions of the coming collapse of capitalism to be correct.

He also was bothered by some of the, then, current trends in the philosophy of science that argued that the truth of a hypothesis was corroborated by the method of verification. That is, the more times a hypothesis passes the rigor of scientific testing, the more we can be confident that it is correct.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) and Conjectures and Refutations (1963) Popper reasoned that no matter how many white swans one may search for and see, this in itself does not prove the hypothesis that all swans are white. The discovery of one black swan would prove the hypothesis to be wrong. Hence, the proper scientific method should be based on the construction of conjectures that are open to refutation and falsification.This, he said, should be considered the benchmark of intellectual integrity and honesty.

Such a view, by necessity, must result in us accepting the fact that all of our knowledge and beliefs are tentative and, in principle, open to being proven wrong or less than fully correct at some point in the future. Indeed, in his essays on The Poverty of Historicism, Popper had argued that predicting the future was logically impossible.

 If we make one reasonable assumption, that human knowledge grows over time, then there is no way for any human being to successfully predict the future, since that would require him to know “today” that which he will only learn, discover, and know “tomorrow.” You cannot already have “tomorrow’s” knowledge “today,” (otherwise it would already be part of “today’s” knowledge). Hence, you cannot fully know what you or others may do that ends up shaping the future, because that will partly depend upon knowledge that is only acquired over the process of time.

The “open society,” Popper reasoned, must be one that allows for error, reconsideration, and a multitude of minds at work in the pursuit of always potentially fallible knowledge. The collectivist social engineers, Popper insisted, suffered from an arrogance of presuming to know the truth required to reconstruct society “according to plan,” with little thought that their conceptions of a “good,” or “just,” or “perfect” society might be flawed or incorrect.

Friedrich Hayek and the Decentralized Knowledge of Society

Hayek’s focus in essays collected in Individualism and Economic Order (1948) and The Counter-Counter Revolution of Science (1955), and in his two master political works, The Constitution of Liberty (1960) and Law, Legislation, and Liberty, 3 vols. (1976-1979), was the fact that matching society’s division of labor is an inescapable division of knowledge. Hayes summarizes Hayek’s argument that human knowledge is multi-layered, often difficult to measure or fully articulate, and dispersed among the members of humanity in a way that cannot be collected, integrated or coordinated even by “the best and the brightest” of human minds.

Hayek concluded the only successful manner in which all this knowledge can be brought to bear so all in society might benefit and take advantage of all that other human beings know and can effectively apply in productive ways is to coordinate their actions through the competitive price system of an open, and functioning market economy. This, Hayek insisted, is why socialist central planning is inherently unworkable.

The Role of Tradition in Science and Society

Hayes also emphasizes that both Popper and Hayek considered that it is impossible to understand or analyze either natural or social phenomena without taking some aspects of the existing order as “given.” These serve as the starting points for studying nature or society. Thus, both of them argued that science and the study of society could not do without some sense of intellectual and cultural “tradition.”

In the study of nature, this is the “taken-for-granted” theories and hypotheses of science that form the starting points for critical investigations, including any new conjectures and attempted refutations challenging parts of the existing body of scientific knowledge.

Societal traditions, Hayek argued, represent the cumulative experience and wisdom of countless generations, out of which have evolved the “rules” and patterns of human association. They incorporate more knowledge than any one man or one generation could ever know or understand. They form the basis of the foundational elements of the “spontaneous order” of society, in the context of which each new generation lives, acts, thinks and innovatively changes things in incremental ways that transform those human institutions, but often in a manner that only will be appreciated or fully understood long after those changes have been at work.

The Limits of Human Knowledge and the Case for Freedom

A central element to Calvin Hayes’ analysis of Popper and Hayek is to ask how a “positive” case can be made for limits on government control, intervention, or redistribution on what are primarily “negative” arguments about the limits of human knowledge, in the way that both Popper and Hayek basically presented their defenses of freedom.

Hayes suggests that if it can be shown that these limits on human knowledge and knowing are inescapable to the human condition, then it might be justifiable to reason from an “is” to an “ought.” If, as Popper insisted, it is a fact that man cannot be certain of what he may learn tomorrow that might falsify what he believes today, then it would be wrong to replace an “open society” with a “closed” one that imposed a single totalitarian plan on society, under the presumption that some can know enough today to centrally direct everyone’s lives into the future.

 And if, as Hayek strongly argued, society is a “spontaneous order” that no one with their inescapably limited, individual knowledge, can ever fully understand or successfully redesign without leaving out much of the knowledge possessed by others that the planner can never hope to know or appreciate, then it would wrong to impose economic central plans or try to redistribute wealth according to some presumed God-like wisdom and knowledge of what would be “fair” in terms of some standard of each receiving their “just rewards” from a paternalistic government.

Thus, Hayes concludes, “negative” insights into the inherent limits of man and his mind, may provide a “positive” case for political and constitutional restrictions on the powers, duties and responsibilities of governments. And it may show, even more strongly, how insightful and important Popper and Hayek have been in the modern battle of ideas over freedom versus force in society.

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Malaysia at risk of losing its rich diversity

February 21, 2012


Malaysia at risk of losing its rich diversity

by  Iskandar Dzulkarnain, Malaysia Chronicle

More and more depressing news is cropping up as the days go by. Self-styled First Lady Rosmah Mansor is hogging the headlines for the wrong reasons over an honorary Doctorate of Law. So too is another well-educated and scandal-tainted UMNO woman bigwig – Shahrizat Abdul Jalil.

News that ex-Petronas Chief Tan Sri Hassan Merican has left to work for a huge company in Singapore made me feel both proud and sad at the same time. We all know which way the wind is blowing and it is not really in the right direction at all.

Unfair policy

Not too long ago, Deputy Education Minister Wee made the statement that the PDA scholarships for bright students have been abused. Many students with 10A’s are not offered PDA scholarships, while those with 4-5A’s managed to secure them. It shows that even our brainy, bright, young talents are being discriminated against and barred from a chance to further their education overseas.

These will a big loss to our country’s talent pool and to the nation’s future. What a sad state of affairs, when even being the best is not enough. Will an investigation be conducted as to who these beneficiaries are and whether they rightly deserve such coveted scholarships?

Although it may not be a serious controversy, our bright young minds and talented geniuses who cannot afford an overseas education without financial support will only contribute to the unstoppable brain drain of this nation. Our hopes to be a first world nation are dashed on the rocks. These are our future leaders who will chart the course and contribute to the grand design of this nation.

Driving talent away

Today, our pool of leaders are nothing to shout about. Some of them are a bunch of clowns and nincompoops. Every time they open their mouths, we can see through their idiotic minds, no matter how very hard they try to hide the fact that they are not very bright. Even some leaders have questionable overseas degrees. Without highly skilled intellectuals as our leaders who can see through the greed, corruption and inequality, it will be very difficult for Malaysia to attain First World status.

Malaysia seems less and less a ‘Promised Land’ to the non-Malays. With a mock democracy and an authoritarian system of government in place, Malaysians who cherish democracy, meritocracy, freedom of expression, equality and freedom of religion are discouraged from regarding Malaysia as their homeland.

Those who can afford it have to save to send their offspring overseas to further their studies and to seek employment. Once their offsprings have secured an education and employment in their host countries, many will apply for Permanent Residence to join them. Bringing with them all the wealth and talent to their host country. Malaysia continues to lose its wealth and its valuable intellectual capital.

Uphill battle

Talent Corporation is facing an uphill daunting task to encourage Malaysians to return and serve the country. Those who say it is another for-show hype by Prime Minister Najib Razak are right. Malaysia simply doesn’t offer a conducive environment for the highly skilled and talented to return and help build this nation. Current policies are a gross hindrance. Those who actually return mourn the rashness of their decision, and many cannot wait to leave again.

Malaysia could be such a lovely place to build an existence. Its citizens could have coexisted in peace and harmony. There is so much going for this country, but our leaders have made a terrible mess of it. The level of corruption is simply unacceptable. Equal opportunities are in shambles. Threats of racial conflicts and religious sensitivities still exist. Dinosaur leaders refuse to relinquish their powers and continue to overstay their welcome. Malaysians are humiliated and abused by the government that is supposed to serve them.

And now, these leaders continue to threaten the peace of this country by resorting to racial conflicts to split the nation. Non-Malays are constantly reminded that Malays own this country. Malay Supremacy should not be questioned and Islam is superior to all other religions – this is being shoved down their throats each day.

Unappreciated, they will leave

Non-Malays feel sidelined as 2nd class citizens, humiliated that they cannot be equal and even encouraged to leave the country if they are not happy. Barisan Nasional, who is supposed to be the only political coalition capable of serving this nation, stands blind and impotent, as the abuse continues unabated.

One day, we may see the exodus of the non-Malays from this country. When the last Chinese is gone, we will start to miss the pretty, miniskirted Chinese lasses, and the corporate-dressed Chinese executives. Gone will be the sound of Chinese music during Chinese New Year, the dragon dances, the firecrackers, the red ang pows, the Chinese operas and kung fu movies on TV. Left behind will be empty buildings from Chinese businesses and the friendly neighborhood sundry shops, whose owners used to chatter in ‘broken’ Malay. Gone will be the Chinatown in Petaling Street, with its cheerful bright lights, myriad of colors and all kinds of everything for sale amidst the incessant Chinese chatter.

When the Indians follow, there will be no more dark beauties in colorful saris, no more colorful temples, no more Hindi movies and the interesting Indian and Hindu culture. No more fiery chicken curries, tosai, tandoori and  papadam. And with it goes the Hindu culture with the carrying of the Kavadi and Chariots of the Gods of Thaipusam and Festival of Lights of Deepavali. No more laughter of happy Indian children playing.

With the Christians joining the exodus, there will be no more sounds of Christmas carols, green Christmas trees dressed in white cotton and decorations. No more Santa Claus in the Shopping Complexes and Shopping Centres. No more Christmas turkey dinners in hotels all over the country and no reason to celebrate the New Year, which Malay hardliners say is a Christian celebration.

Kuala Lumpur, as Malaysia leans to a more Islamic way of life, will see masses of people going to work all dressed in headscarves and Baju Melayu, with even your own sister hardly recognizable among the crowd. How boring it will be without the non-Malays to lend flair, culture, color, identity and fun to our way of life. Malaysia may one day be like ultra conservative Saudi Arabia. All work and no play or is the other way around -  all play and no work!

It will be really sad for Malaysia to lose all its ethnicity, diversity, its potpourri of culture and its identity. Aren’t we selling Malaysia as truly Asia? Why must the government continue to play with our sensitivities and keep tearing us apart?

If the non-Malays go, I will leave too. No sense hanging around and continue to be abused by these ‘half aliens’ even though they may be of the same race as me. Suddenly, New Zealand sounds very appealing. I’m sure they need average journalists like me with no sense of humor.

- Malaysia Chronicle

Mahathir-Jack Abramoff Link: Report made to MACC

February 21, 2012

Mahathir-Jack Abramoff Link: Report made to MACC

by Susan Loone@www.malaysiakini.com

PKR today lodged a report at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (Penang branch) on what they described as the misappropiation of funds by the federal government to pay an extreme lobbyist to boost the country’s image overseas.

Balik Pulau PKR parliamentarian Yusmadi Yusoff, who lodged the report, claimed the government under ex-premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad had paid millions to a lobbyist in America to boost his image in the international arena since 2005.

He alleged that the government had engaged “extreme” lobbyist like Jack Abramoff (left), who has been found guilty of illegal activities, to prop-up Malaysia’s falling global reputation.

“But since the MACC can only begin to investigate when a report is lodged, it is my responsibility to make the report now,” he told reporters before going into the MACC office.

“This issue may not have received much attention here but it is well known in America,” he added. Yusmadi was referring to a June 22, 2006, report titled ‘Gimme Five: Investigation on Tribal Lobbying Matters’, commissioned by the US Senate Committee of Indian Affairs.

The 300-paged report focused on a two-year investigation into the affairs of Abramoff, who had pleaded guilty for defrauding a number of Native American tribes who had sought his services in establishing their gambling operations.

The probe resulted in the discovery of documents relating to the lobbyist’s work for the Malaysian government. It is believed that the payment – made to bogus think-tank American International Centre – by the Malaysian Embassy in Washington DC was for Abramoff’s services in organising a meeting with former US President George W. Bush in 2002.

In February, 2006, when questioned on the matter, Mahathir (with George W. Bush right) admitted that US$1.2 million was paid to organise the meeting but denied the money came from the Malaysian government.

“I understood some people paid a sum of money to lobbyists in America but I do not know who these people were and it was not the Malaysian government,” Mahathir was reported as saying in the media.

Renewed interest in the case comes in the wake of criticisms against Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim’s statement supporting Israel in a recent interview with Asian Wall Street Journal.

Anwar said his statement supporting the security of Israel is contingent on the creation of an independent Palestine state and respecting the rights of its people based on the two-state solution.

Anwar’s supporters have been going on a campaign to prove the Malaysian government’s hypocrisy in condemning the former when it has trade relations with Israel.

Malaysia’s foreign policies not strategic

Yusmadi urged the MACC to investigate the case, saying that it is understandable if the government seeks foreign advisors to advice it on policy matters. However, he added, in doing so, the Malaysian government should at no time seek advice through “illegal, dubious or criminal arrangements”.

He criticised the country’s foreign policies as lacking in strategy and attraction, saying they do not benefit Malaysians but was more towards foreigners. One of the reasons for this, he added, was due to the government’s lack of interest in empowering its own civil service.

“The country has been put in a contentious state due to our dis-empowered civil service, that we need to seek advice from foreigners.The country’s policies can only be attractive to all if we have competent officers, with good policies, come good reputation,” he added.

NONEHe noted that under current Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak (left), several overseas appointments – special envoys – have been made for BN leaders such as former MCA presidet Ong Ka Ting (China), former MIC president S. Samy Vellu (India) and former Rompin UMNO MP Jamaluddin Jarjis (the US).

“Rest assured that if Pakatan Rakyat takes over Putrajaya in the coming general election, we will abolish all these positions, which is a wastage of public funds,” he said.

Yusmadi was accompanied by pro-PKR NGO Jingga 13 who carried placards with photos of Mahathir and Bush, and carried them silently outside the MACC building before the report was lodged.

Penang Jingga 13 representative Amizuddin Amat urged the MACC to probe the matter “seriously, diligently, and courageously”. “If they fail to do so, we might have to make a trip to the US to see if we could dig up more details on this case,” he added.

Project Amanat Negara 2012: A View from the Stands

February 21, 2012


Project Amanat Negara 2012: A View from the Stands

by Syazwan Zainal

I count myself blessed to have been able to attend Projek Amanat Negara 2012 in London recently. It never occurred to me that such an event, stimulating though it might have seemed to many of us in the UK, would be illegal if it were organised in a Malaysian varsity. But that is an article for another day.

I was very interested in Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz’s speech on intellectual arrogance. At a glance, the title does suggest that the writer is an arrogant airhead living in his own bubble. But after consulting the dictionary, I thought the word “criticism” was apt.

This article is a humble attempt to point out what appears to me to be the faults of Islamic practices in Malaysia whilst trying to keep my feet planted firmly on earth.

A few examples are given. Needless to say these are non-exhaustive. This is not a comprehensive assessment of Islamic practices in Malaysia. It should also be noted that these are not “Islamic” practices per se, but rather an anti-intellectual culture that is embedded in our psyche as axiomatically non-Islamic.

It is not the intent of the writer to leave out our fellow Malaysians who are non-Muslims. I am merely concerned that a substantial number of Muslims are allowing these dangerous idle practices to foster. Indeed I think it would do the nation good if our non-Muslim friends would give us constructive criticism and if need be, slap some sense into us.

Christmas Day is haram

At a time when Europe is fiercely atheistic, it is laughable that some commentators still invoke Christianity as the justification for the complete ban on Muslims to celebrate Christmas. If you want to make a case against something, at least make sure that the case would be able to withstand public scrutiny. It might appear that you are merely doling out these edicts and invoking the most convenient stereotype as an excuse.

Personally I do not see anything particularly wrong with joining in another faith’s celebration as long as one’s faith is not compromised. I hardly think that to have a Christmas tree inside your house and to exchange presents on December 25 each year counts as a radical departure of faith.

Besides, Christianity is probably the last thing on the minds of many of the people who celebrate Christmas each year. Christmas is wildly popular in Japan and China even though, Christianity is merely the minority religion in both countries.

As I have stated above, many Europeans are atheists yet they still celebrate Christmas. The celebration then is not a manifestation of their faith in Christianity but rather to have a festival where they can celebrate together as family and friends.

Intellectual discourse

We seem to put certain quarters of society on a pedestal; beyond criticism. This indeed is a dangerous development. I concede that insult and criticism should be clearly distinguished. When the American legal system ruggedly protects the right to insult (which I personally disagree with), some quarters in Malaysia unfortunately are even curtailing criticism based on intellectual discourse.

Even though this is done merely through societal pressure and not via legal sanctions, I would argue that this is dangerous, as it would stifle debate. Quite a number of us Muslims for example seem to think that just because an individual holds an opinion dissimilar to an ulama, it becomes an act worthy of condemnation.

I remember a particularly controversial moment during the Projek Amanat Negara. A participant pointedly dismissed Zainah Anwar (right) as unworthy of commenting on Islamic law simply because she did not have an Islamic Law degree.

At first glance, this may seem like an understandable criticism on the part of the participant. But it does give us an indication that there is a notion existing amongst society that there are certain things beyond our discussion and debate (note that I am not talking about insults here but rather intellectual discourse).

Zainah’s answer — I thought — was simple and all encompassing. She responded by arguing that if Islam is to become a source of law or public policy, then its different interpretations must also be open to debate and discussion with the public as a whole.

Before any zealots out there start wielding their knives and get ready to run amok at the audacity of such a statement, it should be noted that even Khalifah Umar al-Khattab (may Allah’s blessings be upon him) allowed public criticism of his policy and went on to change it.

It was reported that when Umar wanted to put a maximum cap on the amount of Mahr for marriages, a woman stood up and invoked a verse from the Quran establishing that the Mahr is the right of the woman, hence the Caliph had no authority or power to put a cap on the amount of Mahr. Umar immediately agreed and discontinued the policy.

All Muslims can attest based on the countless stories and anecdotes that Umar and the rest of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. are all Islamic intellectuals in their own right. It would seem that by extension, criticism of a government policy, even if it is based on an Islamic injunction, is not wrong per se.

Indeed it is pertinent for the development of society to have completely free and informed discussion of all issues involved. Insult of course should be discouraged. But it would be gloom and doom if one cannot even discuss an issue that is of public interest openly and in an intellectual manner.

The bigger picture

I concede I may be wrong in my opinion, but that is unimportant. Truthfully the only reason why I write in the first place is to spark debate and discussion. Nothing more.

The day when we as Malaysians in general and Muslims in particular, concede our right and obligation to think and debate on our two feet is the day when we cease to become functioning servants of God and citizens. So intent are we at ensuring that the details of the majestic portrait is not missed that we fail to grasp the beauty of the picture as a whole.

The Summing Up: Time to Buck Up, Wisma Putra

February 20, 2012

The Summing Up: Time to Buck Up, Wisma Putra

by Din Merican

What started as a criticism of a vacuous piece in The Star by Tan Sri Radzi Abdul Rahman, Secretary-General of Wisma Putra, unleashed an unprecedented number of comments. Dennis’ article in The Star further added to the lively debate. In the process an inept High Commissioner to the UK, Zakaria Sulong, was exposed by the Bruno Manser Foundation for intemperate comments on the Penans of Sarawak.

A total of 300 comments were received. Though some comments missed the point or tried to shoot the messenger, most were constructive.  Several retired ambassadors and civil servants too contributed by way of useful suggestions.

My blogging friends and associates and I had hoped to see a robust reply from Wisma Putra. But what we got was a shoddy, shallow and thoughtless cut-and-paste piece by Ahmad Rozian, Undersecretary for Information and Public Diplomacy, replete with factual errors.

That he couldn’t get the facts right about Ambassador Hamidon’s tenure as Chair of UN Fifth committee is simply inexcusable particularly since Hamidon is still serving in Wisma Putra as Chairman of the Chemical Weapons Convention, probably a few doors away from Ahmad Rozian.  To add to the embarrassment, Hamidon had to write a letter to The Star to make the correction.

Such gross lapses undermine our faith of the public in the veracity and credibility of Wisma Putra’s information, not to mention public diplomacy. It erodes confidence in our diplomats and our diplomatic service.  If the Undersecretary for Information and Public Diplomacy cannot even get such simple things right how then are we to believe in anything that Wisma Putra says? If Radzi and the Foreign Minister think that such lapses and Zakaria Sulong’s guff are small and should be excused, they are wrong. It shows incompetence and reflects poorly on their leadership.

Wisma Putra in Crisis

Mind you, Embassies here in Kuala Lumpur, including those from ASEAN countries, and chancelleries overseas and governments, and international organisations including NGOs read this blog and know that Wisma Putra is a pale shadow of what it was in the past. Today, it is punching well below its weight.

Clearly Wisma Putra is in crisis. Its leadership needs to approach things as in crisis management.  Crises are opportunity.  It needs an enlightened leadership to recognise the faults and weaknesses of an organization.  A crisis leader needs to be an innovator. A critical ingredient of innovation is openness to receiving and trying out ideas.

In our early days when I was still working under Tan Sri (later Tun) Muhammad Ghazali Shafie, I know that Wisma Putra was open to outside ideas. Working on an outdated playbook is certainly not the way forward.  Wisma Putra needs to be bold to try new ideas.  Here is where Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, Radzi (and his immediate predecessor, Rastam Isa) and Rozian have failed, and failed miserably.

Rozian’s response

Rozian’s reply is full of empty phrases that lack credibility.   It reinforces the views expressed by observers here and abroad who say that Malaysia today has no foreign policy, it only has attitude. And our media and the academia tend to be culpable. Wisma Putra’s response or rebuttal shows limited understanding of the realities of regional and world order as pointed out by a former outstanding Ambassador who analysed Rozian’s response and raised many questions. The politicians in Putrajaya dictate  policy and right now, Malaysia is being perceived as leaning heavily towards Obama’s vision of the global order.

For example, Rozian claims “There has indeed been regular foreign policy reviews to respond to domestic realities and the changing external environment. The emphasis now is more on substantive relations and less on the rhetoric. With the dynamic and ever-changing realities of the interdependent and borderless world, there is no denying that Malaysia’s foreign policy continues to be resilient in adjusting and adapting to the country’s domestic policies and external environment.”  What is the meaning of this?   If I were to give an example of rhetorical statement, this one is a classic!

Broad Observations

Bilateral Relations

Let’s look into how Malaysia’s foreign affairs have been conducted.  Our bilateral relations seem to be conducted through private and back door channels.  Successive Prime Ministers have built up Wisma Putra, but the current leadership has scant use for professional advice, relying on Khazanah Nasional to deal with Singapore and Dato Seri Jamaluddin Jarjis (left with Obama)to handle the United States.

 Our deals with Singapore in respect of KTMB land and water issue are lopsided and a proper all-party debate in Parliament is urgently needed.

Furthermore why have we not resolved the status of South Ledge as ruled by the ICJ in The Hague some three years ago? Why did Wisma Putra not prevent the trading of 434 acres of KTM land in Singapore for very little in return?  Why has Wisma Putra not pursued the demolition of the Causeway and replace it with a straight (not crooked) bridge?

Why is Wisma Putra doing nothing to revise the price of water being sold to Singapore at 3 cents per 1000 gallons for another 50 years until 2061? These few questions pertain only to one of the neighbours. Many more questions can be asked about relations with the other neighbours.

Bilateral relations with other ASEAN partners too haven’t been great.  Why hasn’t the Philippines President visited Malaysia yet?  Is it a result of the insensitive remarks by the wife of our Ambassador in Manila? Apparently, she had insulted Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Filipino people. And what did Wisma Putra do? It maintained “elegant silence” on this matter.

We are pleased to note that our relationship with the United States is a vast improvement from its lows reached during the Dr Mahathir administration. However in what way is Malaysia benefiting from this improved relationship?  Why did we agree to send soldiers to Afghanistan when others were pulling out?  Is it a case of trying to make amends to the US for our “bad” behaviour in the past?

While we have been grovelling without a plan in our head, our neighbours like Singapore have been playing a sophisticated game. Singapore and the US recently signed a Joint Vision Statement on New Political Framework. The statement says “This cooperation will be in support of regional institutions including the East Asia Summit, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and other regional organizations and initiatives”.  What are we doing?


We have repeated ad infinitum that ASEAN is the cornerstone of our foreign policy.   But going by Rozian’s reply it is evident that Wisma lacks understanding of ASEAN. He says a “true” ASEAN Community would emerge in 2015.  In the case of ASEAN, is there a “false” ASEAN Community?  It’s no good saying that the ASEAN Community will become a reality in 2015.  What is it for the ordinary men and women?  Can Wisma Putra start by articulating its vision of the ASEAN Community?

If you visit the East West Centre website you will read about “ASEAN Matters for America. http://aseanmattersforamerica.org/about-the-project .This is part of a broader project called Asia Matters for America. The aim of this project is to ensure that Asia remains an important foreign policy objective for America. It is a comprehensive and multi-activity effort to demonstrate and track ASEAN’s importance to the United States, and the United States’ importance to ASEAN.  Guess who is collaborating with the East West Center on this project – the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) of Singapore. So while we simply talk Singapore is positioning itself as the main intellectual leader of ASEAN.

Wisma’s institutions

We seem to twiddling our fingers while our neighbours are moving ahead.  Have we hosted any important initiatives with key institutions elsewhere?  Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) is a power house when it comes to research and publication. What has our Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Policy (IDFR) done for example?  We have the Southeast Regional Centre for Counter Terrorism (SEARCCT)?  What has it done?  New ideas brought forward, such as the creation of Council on Foreign Relations to provide a second opinion on matters of foreign policy, were simply shunted aside by Wisma Putra. Why?

Language and Thinking Skills

Our diplomats have demonstrated time and again, their inability to hold a conversation in the English language.  Zakaria Sulong is one unfortunate evidence.  He could have better delivered his message had he been more conversant in the language.  Yet Wisma has decided that internal communications are to be in Bahasa Malaysia. We too are patriots and we too want to see Bahasa Malaysia strengthened. Wisma Putra is being complacent by damaging its own ability to conduct business in English.  When a crisis strikes that’s when we will realise that our diplomats are no longer able to rise to the challenge.

Diplomats like academics have to constantly practice their analytical and writing skills. Diplomats must be encouraged, if not forced to write.  They should write articles and ideas in journals or even the press.  Some readers on this blog challenged our diplomats to write in leading journals and magazines such as the Foreign Affairs and Foreign policy. We should also encourage retired ambassadors to also do the same.

Wisma Putra’s Public Face

The consular service and its website are among others constitutes Wisma Putra’s public face.   Both are ugly.   While some improvements have been noted there are far too many grouses about poor service by our diplomats overseas.

The ministry’s website can be improved vastly.  The material on it is pathetic.  It is unclear and not helpful.The so-called Strategic Review is not easy to find on the website. Further one suspects that it wouldn’t be of any use either since academics such as Dr Johan Saravanamutu who wrote about Malaysia’s Foreign Policy in the last 50 years found the report to be anything but strategic .

Diplomacy is not for Amateurs

I would like to quote Ernst Sucharipa, whose paper, 21st Century Diplomacy,appeared on this blog on February 13 as follows:

Quote: The globalization of international relations, the internationalization of national policy areas and the growing awareness, that global problems require global solutions signify new important functions for diplomacy. Diplomats have become”managers of globalization”; they are tasked to manage the”global village” in which we live.

The modern diplomat must in the first instance be a coordination expert. He or she must be able to meet the demands posed by globalization and be able to draw the right conclusions and policy recommendations from international developments, which are more often than not interwoven and mutually supportive. The diplomat must be able, also in small teams, to motivate and show leadership. She or he must be a public relations expert and must have a sound knowledge in foreign policy issues in general as well as in global issues. The diplomat must also be well versed in languages. This”generalist” will also need a sound background in economics and should be a seasoned negotiator in theory and practice. In short, our”generalist” is a”specialist” in the art of diplomacy.

However, in particular in the case of smaller foreign services this will not suffice: If we want to recognize the dire reality of scarce resources of available personnel and funding, we must have our diplomacy specialist, also trained to be a true specialist in one particular domain: e.g. multilateral diplomacy, international law, economic integration, environmental issues or development cooperation. And he or she would expect over the course of the career to be able, more than once, to have a posting where this special knowledge can also be put to use.

The 21st century promises to be crowded and contentious. It will need a Foreign Service, which is a repository of the history of civilization; it will need wise and able negotiators and conciliators. It will need the diplomat on the spot, in danger or in calm, who can say what will or what will not work, who can foresee problems and solve them. Ideally, he is the man who is “in control of the occasion” as Demosthenes described the Athenian diplomat, “the man on whose wisdom, steadiness, goodwill, integrity and faithful account policy must rely.”Service, which is a repository of the history of civilization; it will need wise and able negotiators and conciliators. It will need the diplomat on the spot, in danger or in calm, who can say what will or what will not work, who can foresee problems and solve them. Ideally, he is the man who is “in control of the occasion” as Demosthenes described the Athenian diplomat, “the man on whose wisdom, steadiness, goodwill, integrity and faithful account policy must rely.”-Unquote

We need to revamp Wisma Putra so that it can become the driving force for better relations with the rest of the world. This is a matter of top priority, one that cannot be taken lightly. The consensus from my readers is that our diplomacy is ineffective because we lack diplomats who can represent our country on the world stage and command the respect of the rest of the international community for our consistency and clarity of purpose in projecting our national interest. Listen to the message with humility. The message is a simple one: Wisma Putra, it is time to buck up or you, as Dennis said, will be  adrift.

* I wish to express my thanks to commenters, friends and former diplomats who willingly shared their views and expressed their opinions with no malice. We have no axes to grind. We all want our country to be respected for our talent and creativity. After all, we are very talented people. As usual, I remain solely responsible for the contents of the article.

The End of American Intervention

February 2o, 2012

NY Times Opinion


The End of American Intervention

by James Traub

FOR the last 20 years we have lived amid the furious clangor of war — and debates over how to wage it. The intense and urgent clashes in the 1990s over “humanitarian intervention” gave way to pitched battles over “regime change” and “democracy promotion” after 9/11, and then to arguments over “counterinsurgency strategy,” a new battle for hearts and minds, as Barack Obama ramped up the war in Afghanistan.

The foreign policy debate has often felt like an ideological cockfight. And now, although we have not yet realized it, that era has come to an end.

For proof, you need look no further than the Pentagon’s new “strategic guidance” document, issued last month in the wake of Mr. Obama’s pledge to cut $485 billion from the defense budget over the coming decade. It repeats many of the core objectives of recent American national security strategy: defeat Al Qaeda, deter traditional aggressors, counter the threat from unconventional weapons.

But it also states, “In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize nonmilitary means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations.” It goes on to note that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”

With this paragraph military planners signaled an abrupt end to the post-9/11 era of intervention. Only a few years ago the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — wars of occupation, nation-building and counterinsurgency — looked like the face of modern conflict. Now they don’t. Americans don’t believe in them and can’t afford them anymore.

The strategic guidance hit one other very new note: While American forces will continue to maintain a significant presence in the Middle East, the planners wrote, “We will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region.” This is bureaucratic code for “we will stand up to China,” which, the Obama administration has concluded, has superseded Al Qaeda as the chief future threat to American national security.

To say this is not merely to assert that one region has taken precedence over another but that the traditional threat of the expansionist state has supplanted the threat of the stateless actor that emerged after 9/11. Of course, global problems like climate change, epidemic disease, nuclear proliferation and terrorism won’t go away. But in matters of war and peace, we seem to be returning to a more familiar world in which great powers maneuver for advantage.

We left that world behind, or so we thought, with the end of the cold war, which deprived America of its traditional enemy and thus raised the question of whether and when we would resort to force.

The answer came in the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration felt compelled to respond to political chaos in Haiti and mass violence in the Balkans. Force could be used in the pursuit of justice. During the 2000 election campaign, George W. Bush vowed to put an end to these moralistic enterprises and to focus instead on great-power relations.

But 9/11 turned those plans upside down. Indeed, the Bush administration’s 2002 national security strategy asserted that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.” Mr. Bush, far more than Mr. Clinton, yoked the use of force to a transcendent principle, insisting that America “must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere.”

Those were fighting words, and not just abroad. The debate over the war in Iraq revived many of the old debates from the Clinton era. Liberal internationalists like the British prime minister, Tony Blair, joined American neoconservatives like William Kristol and Robert Kagan in arguing for the use of force to bring about transformative political change, while “realists” on the left and right warned of the danger of reckless adventures.

The era we have now entered will be a less ideologically charged one. The questions raised by China’s growing ambitions are categorically different from those provoked by 9/11. China is an emerging power, and once having found their footing, emerging powers usually seek to expand at the expense of their neighbors.

he world is accustomed to dealing with this kind of problem, which involves persuading the bumptious power that its interests lie in cooperation rather than in confrontation. And there is a fair amount of consensus in policy circles about how to deal with it. Conservatives have been sounding alarms about China’s military ambitions for several years, and the Obama administration has now begun to execute a “pivot” to Asia. On a visit to the region, President Obama announced that America would station 2,500 Marines in Australia, even as it decreased military commitments elsewhere.

WHATEVER policy the Obama administration or its successor adopts toward China, the broader East Asian region, unlike the Middle East, is filled with stable, and largely democratic, states. The United States does not have to defend liberty and justice there. Regime change, democracy promotion and nation-building will be off the table. So, for that matter, will war.

America is not about to go to war with China, or with anyone else in Asia. The struggle to balance Chinese ambition will be left mostly to the Navy and Air Force, and our allies in the region. And it will not be a metaphysical one: the very complicated relationship with China is much less a clash of worldviews than of interests.

Finally, there is the elemental fact that America can no longer afford its own ambitions. The failure of last year’s bipartisan effort to solve the deficit crisis triggered automatic cuts that are supposed to double the half-trillion dollars already scheduled to be sliced from the Pentagon budget.

In his 2010 book, “The Frugal Superpower,” Michael Mandelbaum argued that the contraction of the American economy meant that “the defining fact of foreign policy in the second decade of the 21st century and beyond will be ‘less.’ ” Mr. Mandelbaum, himself a leading realist, suggested that the chief victim of the new austerity will be “intervention.”

It may be so, though the NATO air campaign in Libya shows that humanitarian intervention is neither defunct nor doomed to failure. Such ventures, however, will be very rare, as the current stalemate over Syria implies. The coming years may well be a period of at least relative austerity, modesty and realism. Should we feel relieved?

It is easy enough to say that the United States should no longer fight wars of occupation in the Middle East, or seek to promote democracy through regime change, or undertake counterinsurgency campaigns on a massive scale. But in a world of weak and failing states, are we also to abandon ambitious hopes to help build stable and democratic institutions abroad? Is foreign aid to wind up on the junk heap of failed dreams?

America has been and can continue to be a force for good in the world. But those of us who have championed an idealistic foreign policy have been deeply chastened by the failure of so many fine hopes and have been forced to recognize both how much harm the United States can do with the best of intentions and how very hard it is to shape good outcomes inside other countries. So we must accept, if uneasily, the future which now seems to lie before us: We will do less good in the world, but also less harm.

James Traub is a columnist at foreignpolicy.com, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation and the author of “The Freedom Agenda.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on February 19, 2012, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: The End of American Intervention.