Imagine a Malaysia without Fear and Political Thuggery

August 29, 2012

Imagine a Malaysia without Fear and Political Thuggery

by Josh Hong (08-24-12)

Malays under attack; Islam under siege; mass deception of the Opposition.

Indeed, if one cares to read Utusan Malaysia or Berita Harian, or is so much at a loose end as to tune into RTM TV1 or UMNO-controlled TV3, one would be forgiven for thinking that Malaysia has never left Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s glory days.

And Mahathir seems so full of certitude that his excessively long tenure has done more good than bad for the country, conveniently overlooking the culture of fear and political thuggery that he had employed to keep himself in power.

Let’s consider Mahathir’s legacies: bloated bureaucracy, rising costs of living, overpriced and under-performing ‘national’ cars, chronic budget deficits, rampant corruption, brutal Police force, emasculated press, gutless judiciary, spineless government backbenchers, greedy ministers, his filthy rich sons and cronies… the list goes on.

I am pretty certain Malaysians who have survived his horrible regime of the 1980s through to 2003 can add much more.So, still better the devil you know?

To be frank, I have my strong reservations about the Opposition alliance. While the frogging season has started again in Sabah, I remain acutely aware Anwar Ibrahim was responsible for bringing UMNO into the Land Below the Wind in the early 1990s and altered radically the political landscape there.

Had this not happened, the Kadazan Dusun community would not have been as politically marginalised as it is today. Yes, blame not only Mahathir, but Anwar and Pairin Kitingan also, the latter eventually succumbing to the allure of power and abandoning the very people that he claimed to represent.

Moreover, Malaysian politics is largely driven by personalities. As far as Barisan Nasional is concerned, whatever promises of reform touted hinge very much on Najib Abdul Razak, with most of his cabinet colleagues – especially those from Umno – showing only lukewarm support.True to his opportunistic character, Najib simply steps back whenever the stakes are high.

The same is true of Pakatan Rakyat, as all hopes of its supporters are pinned on Anwar, Lim Guan Eng and Hadi Awang. We need to put more pressure on the Opposition parties to integrate their reform agenda into a broader framework of deliberation, contestation and accountability, and base it on firm and concrete political institutions. Rhetoric alone will never do the trick.

Inferior taxis

But there is no denying that the March 2008 general election has provided a golden opportunity for Malaysians to break the political mould set by UMNO since 1957. For the first time in more than four decades, Malaysians rediscovered the courage to dream dreams and to imagine a Malaysia without the omnipotent UMNO.

More crucially, we have been seeing great awakening even among Mahathir’s own constituents, as more and more Malays begin to question why we must pay more for cars that can be produced more cost-effectively, and why the government must continue to make the rakyat foot the bill for an illusive car industry that is anything but efficient.

Just visit Jakarta, Bangkok and Taipei, and one can immediately see the difference in the taxi service in these Asian cities: cars are often in good condition, clean and comfortable, while drivers are generally friendly and professional.

Yet most of the taxis plying the roads in KL are substandard Proton Iswara that are old and smelly, complete with a clanking noise all because the national car project has grown into a chimera that is too expensive to maintain but hard to get rid of.

Be that as it may, we must complete the new political process that was put in place by accident since 2008, cognisant also of the fact that the transition phase of democratisation is invariably fraught with pitfalls and entails great uncertainties, as Indonesia had experienced since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998.

However, it is a painful process that a semi-authoritarian country such as Malaysia must partake in so that we can one day be proud to say our political contestation is one that is rooted in fairness and transparency.

Creating a democratic consolidation

In other words, democratic consolidation cannot be attained without political transition. Those like Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew may want to think they have ensured a ‘democratic process’ by having regular elections, but what both Malaysia and Singapore actually have is nothing but procedural democracy, all for the purpose of window dressing.

The opposite of this is democratic consolidation that contains substantive elements, including guarantees of basic civil rights, democratic accountability and responsiveness, civilian control over the military, neutrality of the Police force, independence of the judiciary, impartiality of the media, democratic and constitutional checks on executive authority, and punishment of human rights abuses.

As Larry Diamond of the Stanford University argues, democratic consolidation only comes about when “political competition becomes fairer, freer, more vigorous and executive; participation and representation broader, more autonomous, and inclusive; civil liberties more comprehensively and rigorously protected; accountability more systematic and transparent”.

In the context of Malaysia, it means we are duty-bound to normalise our political process, in that everyone is equal before the law and no-one’s loyalty to the country or the community (religious, ethnic or else) should be questioned when he or she seeks to challenge the powers-that-be. For all this to happen, one must first remove the biggest obstacle, UMNO that is.

The expansion of democracy no doubt scares people like Mahathir, who have everything to lose should it come to pass, even ending up in jail. But Mahathir is only the least of my concerns here.

I am more excited to see the day when transition of power happens on a regular basis while the politicians from both sides of the political divide can no longer hold themselves above the law.

We would not be regarded too kindly by the future generations should we choose to reverse a meaningful journey just because we are too timid to overcome transient pains.

On Diplomacy, Wisma Putra and our Foreign Minister

August 29, 2012

On Diplomacy, Wisma Putra and our Foreign Minister

by Norhaidi Che Dan (08-22-12) @

I refer to the article “‘Grounded’ Anifah should quit, says Pakatan by Hafiz Yatim which appeared in Malaysiakini on August 15, 2012. I am outraged at the unfounded statements and accusations that were made in the article and I feel compelled to clarify these claims.

It is clear that these accusations are politically motivated with malicious intentions as a personal attack on the ability of (Foreign Minister) Anifah Aman to perform his duties as Foreign Minister.

The article also casts aspersions on the competence of the Foreign Affairs Ministry to provide sound strategic advice to the government on the conduct of our foreign policy including on important issues like Syria and the Rohingya Muslims.

The Foreign Minister has been constantly defending and articulating Malaysia’s interests and position on various foreign policy issues as well as proposing ways and means to resolve myriad of issues with his counterparts.

So much could be said about certain Opposition leaders who continuously discredit the good name of our beloved country abroad, which the Minister eventually has to work hard to restore. These are done through the time-honoured practice of diplomacy.


Diplomacy is not carried out through the media or through megaphon diplomacy. In the conduct of diplomacy, there is an established decorum on how issues should be resolved taking into account sensitivities of nation states in safeguarding their sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.

There are overt and quiet actions in the conduct of diplomacy. Both ways are used and the Minister is not obliged to divulge every detail to the Opposition on how the Ministry conducts its work.

Nonetheless the public including Opposition members are kept informed of activities relating to foreign relations through press releases and statements. The Opposition could also raise questions in Parliament, in both Houses as they always do, and the Minister and Deputy ministers never failed to respond and explain.

Like all elected representatives, (Minister) Anifah too has obligations to his constituency, whichis in Sabah. But this does not distract him from discharging his responsibilities as Foreign Minister. Meetings with foreign dignitaries and ambassadors in Sabah were held at their request.

One such example is the recent visit of H.E. Yang Jiechi, Foreign Minister of China. In fact, this was an important meeting as Malaysia attaches great importance to its relations with China.

OIC Extraordinary Summit

This meeting was held at the same time the OIC Extraordinary Summit was held in Mecca, which accounts for the Minister not being able to attend the summit.

The insinuation of his absence at the summit reflects a sheer lack of understanding that summits are attended by Heads of State or Government.

While this may be the practice, there are instances where participation at international meetings may not be at the prescribed level due to many considerations which have been carefully deliberated upon by the government.

As Foreign Minister,  he is required to undertake numerous visits overseas that would take him away from the capital let alone his constituency.


If one had cared to follow the developments on Syria which have been flashed out in mainstream media, Malaysia’s position on Syria is evident. We have continuously articulated our position on Syria, either bilaterally or through multilateral processes such as the United Nations, Human Rights Council and most recently, the OIC Summit.

We are concerned with the developments in Syria. We call for an immediate cessation of hostilities.We support a comprehensive peaceful political solution in that country. We also maintain our position of not accepting unsanctioned interference or intervention by any external party.

The Rohingya Conundrum

Long before the Opposition realised they could politicise the issue of Rohingya Muslims in their political campaign, the Minister had been in contact with his counterpart in Burma soon after the flare up of the incident in Rakhine to categorically express Malaysia’s concerns and the need for Burma to address the plight of the Rohingya Muslims.

He also offered humanitarian assistance to Burma. We are glad to note that the Burmese government has extended an invitation to the OIC Secretary-General to verify the facts and assess what steps OIC can take to assist the Rohingya Muslims.

The South China Sea Question

The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is a territorial dispute of overlapping claims by several ASEAN countries and China. It is a sensitive and delicate issue that needs to be handled judiciously.

Malaysia has always asserted that the terms of such disputes should be addressed through dialogue amongst the countries concerned. Most recently, the minister engaged his counterparts from the Philippines and China on this matter.

Foreign affairs issues are the bread and butter of the Ministry and the team in Wisma Putra has shown their dedication in carrying out their duties to serve the nation.

The Minister takes exception to the suggestion that the Ministry merely handles evacuation of Malaysian students from troubled areas overseas. Consular duties and providing assistance to Malaysians in distress overseas are important but they are only one of the many other functions of the Ministry.

In conclusion, the unwarranted attacks on the Foreign Minister and the allegations against the Foreign Affairs Ministry reflect the shallow-mindedness of those who made these allegations with their simplistic understanding on the conduct of our foreign policy.

I would suggest that future comments and observations on the conduct of Malaysia’s foreign policy are done based on facts and not conjectures.

NORHAIDI CHE DAN is political secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister, Malaysia.

A Post-Industrial Future for Penang?

August 28, 2012

A Post-Industrial Future for Penang?

by Zairil Khir Johari

The advent of the digital era, characterised by seamless and instantaneous transfer of information and unprecedented levels of global interconnectedness, has seen a paradigm shift in social, political and economic strategies worldwide.

In fact, it is commonly said that the world has entered into “the knowledge revolution or knowledge economy”, which some have argued to be “the latest phase of capitalism”[1]. In this age of knowledge, mobile capital and the easy spread of technology have meant that the production of goods have increasingly shifted to low-cost countries.

“This is a natural progression, especially for developed economies,” notes international investment banker Julian Candiah. “As GDP per capita rises and countries gets richer, a lot of the lower-valued components of the economy have migrated to low-cost countries. We have seen this hand-off many times, first in the 1970s to the South-East Asian Tigers, and then in the 1990s to China, and now to Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. Even China is now moving up the value chain.”

As developed economies begin to decouple themselves from industrial production, it is suggested that future success would no longer be predicated upon traditional factors such as land, labour and raw materials, but upon the creation of value extracted from knowledge, skills and creativity.

In other words, future jobs in the so-called knowledge economy would require working with our brains and not with our hands. Soft power, and not hard power, would drive the world forward.

So how exactly has this experiment fared?


In 1997, Tony Blair was elected as Prime Minister of Britain on the wave of Cool Britannia and the promise of ushering in a new golden age. Having successfully rejuvenated and remodelled a now centrist, market-embracing Labour Party, the youngest British Prime Minister in nearly two centuries sought to catapult a then lagging Britain into the “forefront of the knowledge economy”.

According to Blair and other deindustrialisation advocates, this new knowledge-driven economy is the “equivalent of the machine-driven economy of the industrial revolution”[2].In other words, future British success would lie in the country’s ability to shift from an industrial economy to one based on services. To borrow Blair’s own words, Britain needed to transform the “workshop of the world” into the “e-commerce capital of the world”.

This premise, though an innovation, was not a new one. Margaret Thatcher had been the first, two decades before, to prescribe deindustrialisation as the cure for what she deemed to be an uncompetitive, manufacturing-based British economy. By articulating the “knowledge economy” in the context of a globalising world driven by ICT, Blair gave the strategy renewed direction.

For over a decade, the government pursued this policy, turning the British economy into the world’s second largest services exporter after the US. This was achieved on the back of creative services such as film, music, fashion and advertising, as well as other traditional services such as finance, computing and ICT. The picturesque vision of a knowledge economy looked set to come true.

Today, more than a decade later, Blair’s vision remains just that. Having experienced the largest deindustrialisation exercise in post-war Europe, in which the industrial share of the economy saw a decline from 30% in the 1970s to about 11% today, one would be hard-pressed to opine that the British economy is in a better shape than it was.

The British used to make cars, ships and engines for the world. They gave all that up to sell culture, tourism and financial advice, only to find that selling things simply cannot provide the same volume of employment that making things can. Unemployment is now at its highest level since 1995, while income inequality has reached a 30-year peak.

The British northeast, once the proud home to numerous factories, warehouses and dockyards, has now become the poster child of a post-industrial wasteland, sprawling with hollow buildings and muddy estates. Not only have the cacophonous activities come to an end, so too have the jobs, apprenticeships, local industries and support services that typically characterise an ecosystem built around making things. Meanwhile, the vacuum left behind remains vivid for a generation of displaced Britons.

Services-driven Penang?

Though it took a while, the same debate has now made its way to Penang’s shores. In recent times, certain quarters have spoken out about the need to reinvent Penang’s traditional economic base. Citing a fast-depleting land bank and competition from more cost-effective neighbours, they argue that the manufacturing sector has reached its zenith.

Their solution? To transform the services sector to replace manufacturing as the next engine of growth. According to them, Penang no longer has a comparative advantage in manufacturing, and should instead focus on building resources and talent in service industries such as tourism, healthcare, ICT and finance. After all, Penang is no stranger to economic change, having evolved from a free port into an industrial beacon. The question is, is it time to change?

Today, manufacturing remains the bedrock of the Penang economy, easily contributing more than half of Penang’s economic output. In the last two years, Penang has etched itself as the top destination in the country for manufacturing investment, notching RM12.2bil in 2010 and RM9.1bil in 2011. Of this amount, RM17.7billion came in the form of FDI, which means that the second smallest state in Malaysia had managed to attract nearly a third of total national FDI. At the rate the trend is going, there is nothing to indicate a need for a realignment of strategies.

This is not to say that an over-reliance in manufacturing is without its pitfalls. In fact, Penang’s industrial, export-dependent economy is necessarily more exposed than other states to shifts in global economic trends. This was the case during the 2008 financial crisis, resulting in a GDP dip of over 10% in real terms (based on constant 2000 prices). In contrast, Malaysia’s GDP only fell by 1.6% during the same period. Manufacturing output in Penang also decreased by 20.2%, double the decline suffered nationally.

Global economic forces are of course hard to resist. That said, Penang managed to bounce back with a real GDP growth of 10% in 2010. And despite this rough patch, Penang’s GDP per capita had actually increased slightly over this period of time. This was achieved because, over the years and more so in recent times, Penang has been able to build up an industrial base that is not merely made up of low-skills and low value-added assembly lines but also cutting-edge technology with leading brands such as Intel, Motorola, Sony, Dell, Honeywell, Bose and National Instruments.

As Candiah says, “The trick is not so much to do ‘manufacturing correctly’, but to do ‘correct manufacturing’. The game must be value-added, high-productivity manufacturing. And to the credit of the folks in charge, they have managed to get it right so far.”

Today, Penang is moving towards high-end manufacturing such as solar panels, LEDs, medical devices and the like. Just last year, Singapore Aerospace Manufacturing opened a facility in Penang to produce precision components for the aviation and aerospace industry. Such value-added industries are exactly the kind that will provide the ingredients needed for Penang to move up the manufacturing value chain.

The myth of the services-based economy

But what about the developed countries that have managed to “graduate” into services-based economies? Singapore, for example, is typically used as an example of a successful former industrial power-turned-services provider. Should that not be Penang’s future direction?

Though widely accepted, the above hypothesis is not entirely accurate. Ha-Joon Chang, a leading Cambridge economist, has frequently pointed out that high income knowledge economies that appear to be services-based are in fact highly industrialised economies. For example, Switzerland, believed to be a post-industrial economy reliant on services such as the banking sector and tourism, in fact ranks as the country with the second highest manufacturing value-add (MVA) per capita[3] in the world. Singapore ranks third. And in the Competitive Industrial Performance Index, Singapore is the world number one.

What most fail to understand is that the success of countries like Switzerland and Singapore is based upon their industrial foundations. And it is from such a foundation that they are able to spin off a services supply chain encompassing research, design, engineering, legal, financial and sales. In other words, one first needs to make a product before one can add value to it and finally, consumerise it. The same trend is also evident in other high income Asian economies such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

As the world progresses, there can be no doubt that consumption of technological products will only increase. Economic downturns may temporarily dampen demand, but in the end, more rather than less manufacturing will be needed to cater to the growing market. Instead of reducing manufacturing, the strategy should be to leverage upon the existing base and focus on value-adds through technology, automation and productivity improvement.

Not what you produce, but how you produce

Years after sounding the clarion call for deindustrialisation, the British government is now talking about a “march of the makers”. In last year’s budget speech, the Chancellor of the Exchequer proudly proclaimed that the words “Made in Britain” will once again drive the nation forward.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has embarked on a manufacturing drive in a bid to revive the lacklustre American economy. In a recent speech by Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, at a conference aptly titled “The Renaissance of American Manufacturing”, it was pointed out that manufacturing is responsible for 70% of R&D in America, despite being only 12% of the economy.

Not only that, manufacturing jobs pay on average 25% higher than non-manufacturing jobs. Sperling then added, as if struck by an epiphany, that manufacturing would be the key to tackling the country’s ballooning trade deficit.

Whether it is too little too late remains to be seen, but the fact is that the US and Britain have finally realised the potential multiplier effect, in terms of jobs and services, that is inherent in manufacturing. What is understood to be a knowledge-based economy is in fact a corollary resulting from a mature industrial base. In other words, manufacturing is a prerequisite for innovation.

Closer to home, it is critical that we learn from the experiences of others before it is too late. To say that manufacturing has peaked is disingenuous. If anything, it holds even more potential today than it did a few decades ago. What is needed is not to replace manufacturing but to create depth and specialisation through innovation and technology. Moving forward, it will be about how we produce rather than what we produce.

“Today, the buzzword is ‘reindustrialisation’,” says the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) Deputy General Manager Iskandar Basha Abdul Kadir. “After playing an integral role in the industrialisation of Penang for 40 years, it is time for the PDC to facilitate the reinvestment and revitalisation that is currently being undertaken by most pioneer plants and facilities in our industrial zones.

“We cannot afford to lie around idly by while the whole world is moving. Besides attracting new, value-added industries, we also need to revitalise and reenergise the ‘old’ ones so they can become ‘new’ again.”

According to Iskandar, the premise for the future of the Penang economy is simple. “If we can successfully add value to our existing manufacturing capacity, then we will set off a chain of events that will produce higher value services and, ultimately, higher paying jobs.”

Penang’s  Intellectual Capital Incubator

[1] Rikowski, R. (2003), “Value – the Life Blood of Capitalism: knowledge is the current key”, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.1 No.1, pp. 160-178.

[2] Speech by Tony Blair at the Knowledge 2000 Conference,

[3] A basic indicator of a country’s level of industrialisation. The higher the MVA, the more industrialised the country.

Lim Guan Eng: We work for the People, not for Titles

August 28, 2012

Lim Guan Eng: We work for the People, not for Titles

by Nigel Aw@

DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng stressed today DAP is not in politics to pursue datukship, but declined to tread into politically-sensitive waters on whether the party will change its unwritten rule of not accepting such titles.

“This is a dangerous question. If I answer we will accept, it will appear as if we are in for titles; if I say will not accept, we will appear as if we are disrespectful to the royalty,” Lim told a press conference at the DAP headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.

He was responding to Sekinchan state assemblyperson Ng Suee Lim’s suggestion that party leaders accept such titles from the Malay rulers to prevent the party from being labelled as anti-Malay and anti-royalty.

Lim said the matter did not arise as no title was being offered to DAP representatives at present. “I don’t think there is any issue about us not respecting the royalty. The Sultans will need to award them first, so the matter does not arise,” he said.

Lim added that the party’s main purpose would still remain serving the rakyat, rather than for titles. “I am comfortable being called saudara (mister). Even after I retire, I will be comfortable with it,” said Lim, who is also Penang Chief Minister.

The issue of state titles arose in late 2010 after speculation that DAP’s Sungai Pinang state assemblyperson Teng Chang Khim was about to be granted a datukship. However, the party did not oppose Teng’s acceptance of the title after it was revealed that the award came directly from the recommendation of the Selangor palace for his role as Selangor state legislative assembly speaker.

‘Tokong matter has passed’

Lim also declined to comment on being called a tokong (deity) by Penang Deputy Chief Minister I Mansor Othman, stating that the matter had passed. He said DAP-PKR negotiations on seat allocation in Penang were not a “big issue”, but declined to speak further on this.

Mansor had allegedly uttered the word tokong in reference to Lim during an informal PKR meeting which, among others, discussed the seat allocation in Penang for the next general election.

On another matter, Lim said it was yet to be seen whether MCA’s relentless attack on DAP and PAS over hudud would have any impact on the electorate. “Let’s wait and see when the general election comes,” he said.

Among the top leadership of PAS and DAP, Lim added, it was still business as usual despite the hudud controversy.

Borneo’s Ecotourism Problem

August 28, 2012

Le Monde Diplomatique: Borneo’s Ecotourism

Borneo’s Ecotourism Problem

The idea was to use tourism to protect Borneo’s remaining virgin jungle and its wildlife, and reward locals for abstaining from illegal logging. It isn’t working out quite that way
by Clotilde Luquiau

“Borneo stays true to nature, far from the modern world.” “A soft adventure tour to meet the people and see the jungle wildlife of untamed Borneo.”

Copy like this and photos of animals with gentle eyes against a jungle backdrop are how French travel agent Asia entices tourists to the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo.

Once they get there, they understand the inherent contradictions of “authentic tourism”. Traditional shacks of rattan and palm leaves have been replaced by houses with zinc roofs and walls made of wood or (worse still) breezeblocks. Ecotourism is supposed to generate revenue for local populations, limit environmental impact and make everyone more environmentally aware. But the money spent by tourists who come to admire Borneo’s virgin forests and unspoiled landscapes helps to modernise the place; and what the locals gain in comfort and security, the tourists lose in picturesqueness. Because Malaysia is targeting higher-spending tourists, the modernisation is set to increase. But who will really benefit?

“Politicians are always talking about ecotourism. They say it will bring development, so it’s not surprising the villagers have high expectations,” said Annie (1), a consultant in charge of developing a new tourism plan in Sabah, a state in northern Borneo. The authorities consider economic, socio-cultural and environmental “sustainability” a must.

So the money tourists spend is supposed to help preserve the environment in the areas they visit; yet the very presence of tourists and hotels increases the pressure on the environment. “We must stop this promotion of natural areas, which brings in greater numbers of visitors,” said Annie. But restricting numbers to reduce the environmental impact of tourism would also mean less revenue.

The dilemma is clearest in the Lower Kinabatangan area, in Sabah. The presence of orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants and hornbills along the lower reaches of the River Kinabatangan led to the development of wildlife tourism during the 1980s.

Since 1997 the area has been protected by law with the support, first of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and, later, of other local and international NGOs such as Hutan (France) and Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP, US-Malaysia). In 2005 the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary was established. It covers 27,000 hectares, divided into 10 non-contiguous lots spread out over 200km.

There are two problems. The geographical fragmentation makes it difficult for wildlife to move between lots, and their genetic diversity and health are under threat from increasing consanguinity. And because the 1997 Wildlife Conservation Enactment prohibits hunting and harvesting in the sanctuary without special authorisation, the locals find that environmental protection benefits urban travel agents more than them. Many prefer to convert their land into small-scale plantations, deriving only a minimal income from tourists, through a homestay programme.

The sanctuary includes four villages that receive visitors: Abai, Sukau, Bilit and Batu Puteh. The sanctuary and the presence of major corporations make their inhabitants feel doubly dispossessed. Because of their indigenous status, the villagers are entitled by law to a small amount of land (while the big companies are able to buy up large tracts and create plantations covering several hundred hectares) but it’s too little for their children to be able to live off; those who have no land and depend on fishing, or temporary jobs in the city or on plantations, are even worse off.

Ecotourism was supposed to be their salvation. Villagers could offer accommodation, get jobs in hotels, put on traditional culture shows, or sell local crafts. Easier said than done.

Untrained, with little English

It’s hard to grow fruit and vegetables when monkeys, wild pigs and elephants raid crops; ordinary fences will not keep them out and only the big plantations can afford electric fences. Few villagers still have weaving and carving skills; rattan baskets were replaced by plastic housewares a long time ago. Traditional events are hard to organise when young people are losing interest in local culture. And in any case tourists are more interested in the wildlife.

The villagers run just two (basic) bed & breakfasts. The hotels, which the guidebooks and brochures call “ecolodges”, generally rent the land they occupy, which gives a dozen families a significant income. But just two or three employ only local staff: most find it cheaper to hire Filipino or Indonesian immigrants.

Mary, a former ecotourism coordinator for the WWF, was in charge of a bottom-up project that was supposed to take the villagers’ needs into account. She described the situation in the late 1990s, when there were still only five ecolodges: “The operators felt they had offered the locals an opportunity, but the locals hadn’t taken it up. They hired a few villagers, but complained that they didn’t turn up for work when there was a wedding to go to. …  The villagers say they are entitled to jobs because they are natives. But they should only get a job if they deserve it. Otherwise, someone better qualified should get it.” Untrained and with little English, the villagers rarely meet the job requirements, even if they are knowledgeable about nature. They complain about the working conditions and the lack of freedom that comes with being an employee. Many said they would rather be their own boss, even if it meant living off fishing alone.

It seems the benefits of ecotourism are not as great as the authorities suggested when they invited the villagers to help protect and commercialise Borneo’s natural heritage. “If tourism doesn’t bring us any benefits,” said a villager in 1996 (2), “we’ll kill the last few proboscis monkeys so the travel agent won’t have anything to show.” There was already a sense that the authorities were more concerned with protecting the animals from any inconvenience the villagers might cause them, than the other way around.

Protecting the environment has had many benefits for the tourist industry. Over 70,000 people visit the sanctuary each year and the number is rising steadily: new hotels are being built. But to get to the sanctuary, they must make a 150km journey through oil palm plantations, most of which belong to major corporations. “When my customers see the plantations, they burst into tears,” said Albert, who owns a travel agency in Kota Kinabalu and an ecolodge in Sukau.

The official line is that, over the last 15 years, illegal plantations have been destroyed, poachers have been arrested or dissuaded, and wildlife has been studied and protected. The elephant population density is rising and the areas of forest felled since the 1950s are growing back. Around the sanctuary and along the riverbanks, the landscape is starting to look the way the tourists expect, to the delight of the travel agencies. A sign of success is that tourist accommodation has evolved from a few basic tents in 1990 to around 340 hotel rooms, an annual capacity of over 200,000 person/nights. The 15 accommodation centres are concentrated around the villages of Sukau (population over 1,000) and Bilit (less than 200).

Martin is the initiator of the homestay project in Kinabatangan. An engineer by training, he fell in love with Borneo and has been working in tourism in Sabah since 1991, when he was shocked to find that some operators took tourists around villages without giving the villagers any share of the profit. If villagers demanded a share, the operators would move on: “There are plenty of villages, so it was easy to find another one.” This had no impact on the popularity of the tour. “The tourists were not naïve, but they didn’t know the history of the tour, and it all seemed so perfect.” So they continued to believe they had chosen a package that benefited the locals.

From the late 1980s, over-exploitation of the forest meant the natives of Kinabatangan were no longer able to get work as loggers in forest reserves, and they were criticised for resorting to illegal logging near their villages. Tourism was seen as an alternative to a way of life that was dying out. “In 1996,” said Martin, “I heard that the government was planning to fund some of the conservation work in Kinabatangan and was talking about village tourism projects. So I contacted the WWF. They had donors, and I had a village that wanted to try a different way of life, based on community development: Batu Puteh. Our plan did involve protecting biodiversity, but, from the villagers’ point of view, the aim was to find an alternative to illegal logging.”

The homestay idea seemed straightforward: a dozen villagers could simply club together, show that their area would be of interest to tourists, and convert their houses to comply with health and safety regulations. After discussions and training, the programme got under way. Batu Puteh served as a model and between 1997 and 2004 four such groups were set up in Kinabatangan, 16 in Sabah. Now all they needed was tourists, and the villagers would benefit from tourism directly.

Neat little houses with a TV

But things have not gone to plan. The poorest villagers can’t afford to improve their houses to the necessary standard. The training is free, but it is held near Kota Kinabalu, the Sabah state capital, 400km from Kinabatangan; it can cost a month’s income for a couple to travel there. And only one Australian agent specialising in adventure tourism and one Bornean agency, set up by the inhabitants of Sukau, will actually work with the homestays.

There is also a problem with the gap between the Malaysian city-dwellers who run the project and believe in comfort, and the western tourists, who want authenticity and adventure. Visitors who would like to play at being Indiana Jones find themselves put up in neat little houses where a television set takes pride of place in the living room. They can sit on the ground and eat with their hands; sometimes their mattress will be laid on the floor and, at night, wild pigs may forage among the stilts on which the houses are built. If they are lucky, the monkeys will put on a little show by stealing food from the kitchen, or elephants may show the tips of their trunks in the garden. But mostly it’s nothing like the image they have of life in the jungle — it’s a brave new world of washing machines, electric fans, mixers, karaoke machines, zinc roofs and cars.

The ecolodges are built of wood, close to the edge of the forest, and blend into the trees. They are some distance from villages, which limits the scope for commercial transactions between the tourists and the local population. The ecolodges’ skilful marketing and networks make them serious competitors for the homestays.

In 2008 the WWF encouraged five ecolodges to set up an association for environmental protection, by including an eco-tax in their charges. “The aim is to protect our investment,” said the association’s president. The jungle, the wildlife and the river are the ecolodges’ raw materials: without them, there would be no tourism. With the money raised through the tax, they intend to pay for security patrols, set up a common code of social and environmental best practices, and take part in local reforestation.

So even if the attempt at community development through ecotourism is founded on misunderstandings, it has involved a wider circle in the defence of the natural environment, by creating an economy that depends on it: everyone I met agreed that the banks of the Kinabatangan are better protected today than before the tourists arrived.

*Clotilde Luquiau is a geographer

(1) The names of people interviewed have been changed at their request.

(2) Heiko K L Schulze and Suriani Suratman, Villagers in Transition: Case Studies from Sabah, Sabah University of Malaysia, 1999.

The Sultan’s Daulat Is A Myth

August 27, 2012

The Sultan’s Daulat Is A Myth

by M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California
(First of Three Parts)

Book Review: Ampun Tuanku. A Brief Guide to Constitutional Government. Zaid Ibrahim. ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2012. ISBN 9 789675 266263 256 pp.

As a youngster in 1960 I had secured for myself a commanding view high atop a coconut tree to watch the funeral procession of the first King, Tuanku Abdul Rahman. My smug demonstration of my perched position drew the attention of the village elders below. They were none too pleased and immediately ordered me down.

“Sultans have daulat,” they admonished, “you cannot be above them.” Apparently even dead sultans maintained their daulat. I did not dare challenge my elders as to what would happen once the king was buried; then we all would be above him.

To put things in perspective, this attribution of special or divine powers to rulers is not unique to Malay culture. The ancient Chinese Emperors too had their Tianming, Mandate from Heaven. That however, was not enough to protect them.

Even though it has deep roots in Malay society, this daulat thing is a myth. The Japanese, despite their own “Sun Goddess” tradition, had no difficulty disabusing Malay rajas and their subjects of this myth. The surprise was not how quickly the sultans lost their power and prestige, or how quickly they adapted to their new plebian status during the Japanese Occupation, rather how quickly the Malay masses accepted this new reality of their rajas being ordinary mortals sans daulat.

Only days before the Japanese landed, any Malay peasant who perchance made eye contact with his sultan, may Allah have mercy on him for the sultan certainly would not. When the Japanese took over, those rajas had to scramble with the other villagers for what few fish there were in the river and what scarce mushrooms they could scrape in the jungle. Nobody was bothered with or took heed of the daulat thing. So much for it being deeply entrenched in our culture!

To pursue my point, had the Malayan Union succeeded, our sultans today would have been all tanjak (ceremonial weapon) and desta (headgear); they would have as much status and power as the Sultan of Sulu. Across the Strait of Malacca, hitherto Malay sultans are now reduced to ordinary citizens. They and their society are none the worse for that.

Today’s slightly better educated Malay sultans and crown princes (there are no crown princesses, let it be noted) would like us to believe in yet another myth, this time based not on our culture but constitution. They believe that it provides them with that extra “something” beyond their being mere constitutional head.

This new myth, like all good fiction, has just a tinge of reality to it. The Reid Commission had envisaged the Conference of Rulers to be the third House of Parliament, after the elected House of Representatives and the appointed Senate. It would be a greatly reduced House of Lords as it were, to provide much-needed “final thought” to new legislations.

That assumption had considerable merit, at least in theory. As membership is hereditary, those rulers would be spared from having to pander to the masses as those elected Members of Parliament, or please their political patrons as with the senators. Additionally, this third house would be non-partisan.

An expression of this “Third House of Parliament” function is that all senior governmental including ministerial appointments have to be ratified by the Conference of Rulers. However, unlike the transparent deliberations of the “advice and consent” function of the United States Senates where senior appointees are subjected to open confirmation hearings, the proceedings of the Conference are secret. We know only those who have been accepted, not those rejected or why.

Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku. A Brief Guide to Constitutional Government addresses what should be in his view the proper role of sultans in the Malaysian brand of constitutional monarchy, specifically whether they have this “something extra” beyond what is explicitly stated in the constitution. As a lawyer Zaid is uniquely qualified to write on the matter. He is no ordinary lawyer, having once headed the country’s largest legal firm and served as the nation’s de facto Law Minister.

The title notwithstanding, this highly readable book is more persuasive than descriptive; more political science treatise, less legal brief. The expository flow is smooth, logical and highly convincing. It is refreshingly free of legal jargon or references to court cases that typically pollute commentaries by lawyers. To Zaid, the constitution does indeed grant Malay sultans that something extra, but not in their capacity as the titular head of the government, rather as their being head of Islam and defender of the faith.

Zaid explores the many wonderful opportunities possible as a consequence of this second function without having to invoke additional “special powers.” I will pursue his novel ideas and wonderful suggestions later. At 40 pages, his chapter on this issue (“The Rulers and Islamization”) is the longest, and deserves careful reading especially by the royal class. He puts forth many innovative ideas that if pursued would benefit not only Malays but also all Malaysians.

With active and enlightened engagement by the rulers and Agong, Islam would emancipate Malays just as it did the ancient Bedouins, and in the process enhance race relations. That would be a pleasant if somewhat radical departure from the current environment where Islam not only deeply polarizes Malays but also sows much interfaith and interracial distrust.

In all other aspects the sultans and Agong are bound by what is explicitly stated in the constitution. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, Zaid stresses, and our sultans and Agong must abide by the wishes of the rakyat as expressed through their elected representatives in the executive branch. If citizens have made their wishes clear through an election that they would prefer a certain party and individuals to lead them or certain legislations enacted, the sultan must abide by that decision regardless of where his personal sympathy lies.

In short, there are no penumbras of rights and privileges emanating from those hallowed clauses of our constitution. The matter is clear: Sultans are bound by the law. Sultans cannot claim a penumbra of power based on daulat or divine mandate, as the Sultan as well as the Raja Muda of Perak tried to argue recently. Daulat is fiction.

This principle is central and must be defended against any incursion or erosion. Zaid is rightly distressed, for example, when the Sultan of Trengganu (who was also the Agong at the time) prevailed in making his choice of Ahmad Said as Chief Minister when the citizens had explicitly elected the state UMNO leader Idris Jusoh.

This erosion was possible only because of the weak leadership of then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. Similar incursion occurred in Perak, this time on a much more blatant and ugly level.

The situation in Perak is particularly instructive. Before becoming sultan, Raja Azlan Shah once served as the country’s Chief Justice. As Zaid reminds us in his book, in that capacity Raja Azlan clearly articulated that the powers of the Agong are well circumscribed by the constitution. As sultan however, he claimed his “special powers.” That was his justification for imposing his solution on the state’s political crisis during the post-2008 election crisis to favor the Barisan coalition.

Such palace incursions and our acquiescence undermine the very principle of our democracy. On a more practical level, if that proves to be the new norm, our chief and prime ministers would then be beholden to their Sultans and Agong, not the rakyat. Our ministers (menteris) would then revert to their role in feudal Malay society, as hired hands of the palace and not the people’s chief executive.

In a democracy, daulat (sovereignty) resides with the people, not the rajas. Our constitution is clear on that point, as Zaid repeatedly reminds us. We must constantly defend this principle lest it be eroded.

Next: Part Two:  Origin of the Daulat Myth