Peru: Make no bones– I reject Bumiputera-ism

July 31, 2017

Peru: Make no bones– I reject Bumiputera-ism

by Farouk A. Peru

Image result for The UMNO Mamaks

Saya kapal mari

I am a Malay. Constitutionally speaking. I am a Muslim, speak the Malay language and practise aspects of Malay culture so that makes me a Malay. My birth certificate bears the acknowledgement of my Malay-ness.

Ethnically speaking, some may question my Malay-ness though. That would be due to my Indian heritage. Colloquially and pejoratively, some may call me a mamak. Yes, I have endured jokes about my heritage since my schooldays.

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The UMNO Mamaks are champs at this Game

The irony is, I am one of the few among the Malays of my school batch who actually loves Malay media. I can quote songs and lines from Malay movies and TV all the way from the 1950s till the early 90s when I left the country.

I actually do love my Malay-ness very much. However, there is one aspect of Malay-ness to which I must draw the line: I refuse to be a Bumiputera.

Recently, when the Prime Minister (Najib Razak) said the government would study the request by Indian Muslims for Bumiputera status the community rejoiced. What about the rest of the rakyat?

While the mamaks become Bumiputera, joining the Indonesians, Myanmaris and Muslim Filipinos, the rest of the non-Muslim rakyat would never be accepted into that fraternity. This shows the political nature of Bumi-ness.

A  Bumiputera is, in the Peninsula at least, a Malay who is entitled to enjoy certain rights and privileges over the rest of the rakyat.

Every year, we read of non-Malay students who make stellar achievements in their school exams, were probably head prefects, presidents of this society or that club. Super Achievers who cannot possibly achieve anything more but who were still denied courses of their choice. Why? Every Malaysian will know this – due to their race.

As a human being, I cannot possibly overlook the sheer pain and utter dejection of these students. Usually they go on to Form 6 or simply resign themselves to the courses they were given.

On the rare occasion, some private body recognises their talents and takes them on board. These lucky few usually would shine throughout their academic lives and future careers. One or two even invent new products in their adopted home countries.

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Penang born Super Achiever Dr Danny Quah works in Singapore

Malaysia, on the other hand, chooses to waste their talent simply because they are not members of the chosen race. How can any thinking and compassionate person be part of that system? It would rip a hole in his conscience!

Supporters of Bumiputera-ism would point to our federal Constitution which states that the Malays’ “special rights” would be protected. This article, many would not know (including myself until recently), also exists in Singapore.

In both Singapore and Malaysia during its inception and early history, it was interpreted to mean that Malay culture would be continuously part of the fabric of the nation. There was no hint of any kind of economic provisions for the Malays.

If there was, the first Cabinet, led by Tunku Abdul Rahman himself, would have instituted it. Who better to have known what it meant than they? But they did no such thing. That in itself should be our first clue.

What has Bumiputera-ism done to our nation? It has created a race of privileged people with a sense of entitlement. People afraid of competition.

Remember the protest against non-Bumis entering a local university? What were those Bumis afraid of? That they would not be up to speed? What about the viralled video of a young Bumi graduate who whined that life was not surrendering her its crown jewels after only a few years of struggling? Where did that assumption come from?

No, I cannot be part of this. A species cannot evolve without some form of struggle. Being protected from the struggle merely weakens us and ultimately makes the nation stagnate.

We need to create equality in Malaysia. Only when the rakyat feel they are equal stakeholders can they give their all for the nation.

Najib Razak has betrayed Malaysia, says Scholar Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

July 31, 2017

Najib Razak has betrayed Malaysia, says Scholar Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

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2012 Alumni Award Winner from University of Strathclyde

Dr. Azeem has qualifications from a number of prestigious institutions such as the University of Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. He has also been awarded an honorary doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University, an Adjunct Research Professorship from the US Army War College, and was made a Fellow at the Macmillan Centre for International Area Studies at Yale University. Most recently Azeem was appointed a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy Understanding in the USA. For seven years until early 2006, Azeem was a reservist in the IV Battalion Parachute Regiment – the British army’s elite airborne infantry reserve where they are trained to be inserted by parachute behind enemy lines at short notice. He is a fitness fanatic keen on marathon and fell running, and speaks four languages.–University of Strathclyde

I have argued time and again that the greatest threat to the Muslim world is not the West, but rather, corruption and incompetence in administration in the Muslim countries themselves.

To this argument there were a number of crucial pieces of evidence. First of all, there is a clear inverse correlation between corruption and economic development not just in the Middle East, but globally. Secondly, Muslim countries are among the most corrupt countries in the world, and this maps well to the problems we know well from the region.

In this sense, the abundance of natural resources has served to mask much of the problem, as per capita wealth in the region comes out as much higher than it would have been for a given level of corruption, and that distorts the perception of societal problems in these countries.

For another, that abundance of wealth can be used to buy off the acquiescence of the population to an otherwise questionable regime, as is the case with the benefits that these states lavish upon their population, or alternatively, can be used to fund extensive repressive police and intelligence apparatuses to keep the population in check, as was the case in Saddam-era Iraq.

Image result for Najib betrays MalaysiaYou did, stop denying what you did

But there was also plenty of converse evidence, specifically states on the periphery of the Islamic world which did not conform the region’s reputation for corruption. Most notably, we had the examples of Turkey and of Malaysia.

Malaysia is a secure and naturally wealthy country with a track record of success in development and is suffering entirely from self-inflicted wounds

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

In both the cases, the countries have inherited and sustained over the span of the 20th century an ethos of modernism and civic-mindedness which emulated that in the successful countries in the West. And they reaped the benefits of social and political stability, and economic development, both having been the most economically developed Islamic countries in international rankings.

But I fear we are about to be witnesses to a very cruel experiment, which I believe will prove my argument. It is yet too early to make a definitive judgement on the direction Turkey is heading in after the failed coup of the other week, even if the omens do not look good.

Breakdown of institutional functioning

In the case of Malaysia, we are already seeing the breakdown in institutional functioning and credibility which will likely see the country join the other Middle Eastern countries in the infamous club of corrupt and barely functioning states.

Malaysia has been betrayed not so much by its institutional traditions, as by its populist Prime Minister Najib Razak. He has ridden a wave of popular support into power on the back of promises for economic liberalization, and growth and opportunity, but has seemingly wasted no time in milking the state dry for his own personal gain and the gain of his family.

An ongoing Wall Street Journal investigation is looking into evidence that as much as $1 billion has been siphoned into the prime minister and his relatives’ bank accounts, most of it from the coffers of the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, allegedly started by Mr Razak soon after he took charge in the country in 2009. And a further $5 billion are unaccounted for.

Neither Turkey nor Malaysia can hide behind the usual excuses about Western intervention or historical colonial crimes. Both have come into the post WW2 world as confident, independent nations, and both carved a way in the world for themselves through hard work and diligence, efforts which have yielded a good life to the majority of their citizens.

Turkey currently finds itself in a complex political, economic and security crisis from which we cannot draw too many general conclusions. But Malaysia is suffering entirely from self-inflicted wounds. It is a secure and naturally wealthy country with a track record of success in development. But it has let its guard down, and has let corruption infest the highest levels of government.

Malaysian civil society must now take firm and immediate action to put the country back on track. If not, I fear that the country will tragically end up as the perfect case study into how the problems of the Islamic world stem primarily from domestic corruption.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Institutional Failure continues in Malaysia (aka Malusia)

July 31, 2017

Institutional Failure continues in Malaysia (aka Malusia)

by Dr. M.  Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

If Malaysian civil servants and politicians could not agree on solutions to basic problems, imagine the conflicts that would be triggered by disagreements over substantive matters.

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A strange partnership for a change

The conflict that was the consequence of the 1997 economic crisis pitted then Prime Minister Mahathir and his Deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. It ripped apart the nation, or to be more specific, Malays. That fissure is still deep and irreversible; Malays have yet to come to terms with it. Today we have the 1MDB mess. Only the players have changed; the underlying dynamics–unenlightened and unsophisticated Malay leaders–remain the same.

This lack of political wisdom and sophistication among Malay leaders (those in UMNO and PAS, to be specific–remember, UMNO is Malay, and Malay, UMNO–as well as the overwhelmingly Malay civil service) gets worse as we go down or laterally, as with our hereditary and religious leaders. The banality of the latter is exemplified by their current obsession with naming out-of-wedlock babies. You would think they would deliberate instead on how to prevent unwanted births and the care for those innocent babies with the dignity and love that they deserve.

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The Malay Rulers

As for Malay Sultans, consider the roles of Perak’s and Selangor’s during the political crises following the electoral tsunami of the 2008 general elections.

In Perak, the then Sultan proved unable to escape his feudal mentality. He treated the “People’s Representatives” in the state assembly as his handmaidens, to do his bidding. No surprise then that the political crisis there degenerated in short order. Instead of being part of the solution, the Sultan became enmeshed in the problem.

That Perak crisis demonstrated another key point. It is often assumed that if only we have qualified and experienced people in charge, then no matter how battered or inadequate our institutions are, those individuals would rise to the challenge. In Perak, we had a Sultan who by any measure was the most qualified and experienced, having served as the nation’s top judge and later, King. Yet his critical decision following the 2008 election, which demanded the most judicious of judgment, proved unwise and primitive. That is putting it in the mildest and most polite terms.

The protagonists there were Barisan Nasional’s Zamry Kadir, a Temple University PhD, and Pakatan’s Nizar Jamaluddin, an engineer fluent in multiple languages. With the defeat of the incumbent Barisan, Pakatan’s Nizar took over as Chief Minister. It was short lived. Through shady machinations, Barisan persuaded a few Pakatan representatives to switch, triggering a political tussle culminating in a constitutional crisis. All that could have been avoided by calling for a formal assembly vote of no confidence.

Instead, the Sultan decided which party had the Assembly’s confidence. From there it was but a short steep slide to seeing the Pakatan Speaker of the Assembly being manhandled and dragged out, with chairs thrown all round. The sultan’s representative was reduced to cooling his heels in an adjoining room, unable to address the Assembly because of the mayhem.

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Model  UMNO Malay Civil Servants–Of Integrity and Political Correctness–Your Obedient Servants (Kami Yang Menurut Perentah)

Equally pathetic and despicable were the behaviors of the permanent establishment; they too were ensnared in the mess through their partisan performances. Those civil servants should have acted as a conciliatory buffer.

The Judiciary too, failed. The ensuing lawsuit did not merit an expedited hearing and thus meandered through the judicial process. By contrast, the lawsuit triggered by the 2000 American presidential elections over the Florida ballots ended at the Supreme Court for a definitive decision in a matter of days, not months.

The credentials of the key players in the Perak mess were all impressive. In performance however, they were no different from street thugs. Their diplomas looked impressive only when hung on walls.

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“An Ivy League PhD. As can be seen, superior education does not always equal courage or integrity”.–Bakri Musa>

The latest failure of leadership, demonstrated to national and international shame, was that of Zeti Aziz, former Governor of Bank Negara. A few years earlier Global Finance named her as one of the top central bankers. Rather premature as it turned out. During the pivotal 1MDB crisis, she remained silent. She later used the excuse that she did not have the power beyond imposing fines! She bragged that she imposed the highest fine to date. That may well be. However, in view of the size of the loot, which was in the billions, a few millions in fine is but peanuts. She would have done a far greater public service had she spoken out and exposed the corruption.

Contrast her performance to her legendary predecessor Ismail Ali, the Bank’s first native Governor. A Queen’s scholar and Cambridge graduate, it would be unthinkable for any minister to even consider undertaking any financial shenanigans during his time.  Zeti’s qualification is no less impressive, an Ivy League PhD. As can be seen, superior education does not always equal courage or integrity.

A mark of a mature democracy, or any system, is the smooth and predictable transfer of power. Perak was a spectacular failure, an unnerving preview for Malaysia.

The transition in Selangor was no better, with the ugly spectacle of the destruction of official documents and the vandalizing of office equipment by the outgoing UMNO Chief Minister, one local-trained former government dentist, and his staff. That revolting display was made even more obscene when compared to the smooth transition in Penang, also the consequence of the 2008 elections.

The transfer of power there was from the Chinese-based Gerakan, a Barisan affiliate, to the also predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party. It was a model of civility, with the two leaders shaking hands. What a contrast to Selangor with the shift from UMNO to the also predominantly Malay Keadilan! No class, again reflecting the sorry caliber of the Malay political leaders.

This has not always been the case. I remember the 1950s and 60s when opposition leaders, Malays and non-Malays, would attend social functions hosted by then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. There were pictures of PAS leaders in their modern suits and ties at ronggeng (dance)parties at the Residency, and no one would raise a howl. Those PAS leaders did not feel that the revelry on the social occasion contaminated their piety.

Today I yearn to see such displays of decorum and civility among our leaders. I have seen DAP leader Lim Kit Siang at Mahathir’s Hari Raya “Open House,” but I have yet to see Nik Aziz give a sermon in a masjid full of UMNO members, or Abdullah Badawi, a self-proclaimed alim, in a mosque in Kelantan.

As for the civil service, in the 1950s and 60s it still had the aroma of prestige, a leftover from colonial rule. That however was more fantasy than reality. The inadequacies of the civil service then so well documented by Milton Esman are still evident today, only far worse. The civil service is now insular, inbred and most of all, highly corrupt and woefully incompetent. Far from being an essential instrument for the development of Malaysia, it is but an encrusted barnacle impeding the nation’s progress.

Revisiting the earlier Perak debacle, the then Crown Prince Raja Nazrin recently lamented on the quality of advice the Sultan (his father) received from senior officials. Dispensing with whether this was but a crude and shameless attempt at shifting blame, two things are worth noting. One, it took the prince this long to acknowledge those inadequacies, and two, his father (the sultan) obviously restricted his sources of counsel! And this Sultan was the nation’s former chief judge!

Hagiography instead of history

July 31, 2017

Hagiography instead of history

by Krishnan Srinivasan

Image result for the great game in afghanistan General Zia, Rajib

Kallol Bhattacherjee’s book is a specimen of breathless modern history told by someone who thinks he is scooping the world. His heroes are obvious — former US ambassador to India John Gunther Dean, Rajiv Gandhi, and former Indian ambassador Ranendra Sen to whom he invariably refers by his nickname, “Ronen”.

Through his contacts with Dean and to a far less extent, Sen, Bhattacherjee unfolds his version of Gandhi’s initiatives to stabilise the postconflict Afghan situation after the Soviet withdrawal, which never in fact added up to much and eventually collapsed.

The same narrative could be portrayed as another example of Gandhi’s naiveté as a novice in international diplomacy. It is unwise to rewrite history on the basis of hero-worship. The records used to justify Bhattacherjee’s thesis are from the US and Dean’s personal collection and as usual not from Indian archives, whose unnecessary closure defy efforts to arrive at an authentic version of India’s position.

The author posits Sen in the role of intelligence-cum-diplomatic vizier to Gandhi — though it is unlikely that Sen himself subscribes to this view —and astonishingly never cites any contact with MK Narayanan, who then occupied the key intelligence role, or MS Aiyyar, who was privy to Gandhi’s thinking on world affairs.

The closeness of Sen, Narayanan and Aiyyar to Sonia Gandhi as a result of their work with her husband brought them later appointments under successive Congress governments but that is another story.

The core argument is that Gandhi “connected all sides (USSR, US, Pakistan, the Aghan leadership) creating the contours of a political consensus” namely a non-aligned broad-based Afghan administration guaranteed by the major interested powers.

Despite the flaunted friendship between Gandhi and Reagan and Bush, the US let Gandhi down on the “bargain that they had made” on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s nuclear status, which meant that the “peace effort” was doomed.

The fall of Najibullah was another failure of Gandhi’s making. Rajiv Gandhi’s other diplomatic initiatives — disarmament, environment, third world economic cooperation —like his Afghan proposals came to nothing because they did not take into account that the world was changing to a US-dominated sphere.

What the author regards as Gandhi’s “talent for diplomacy” was in reality negligible. India was in no position politically or economically to play in the big league and being consulted by the US did not imply dining at the high table. It is fanciful to think that the US and USSR needed a go-between or “secret Indian channel” between the White House and Kremlin, and such claims suggest that the author’s informants sought to magnify their role.

The quid pro quo of India’s help to resolve the Afghan issue was the US reducing its arms supply to Pakistan, which has been a naïve Indian assumption of Indo-US amity ever since the 1950s.

As could have been foreseen, US arms to Pakistan continued even as the Soviet pullout was imminent, making Indian assumptions ridiculous. The author sadly concludes the “mujahideen were not willing to play by the rules” and the Americans “preferred the Pakistani leaders to India’s.” Bhattacherjee gives too much importance to backstairs intrigues and off the record talks and indulges in gross exaggerations.

He describes Sen and Dean “often coordinating on issues of interest on a daily basis” which is ridiculous to anyone who has worked at high levels in the government. He writes that Pakistan president Zia’s death/murder in an air crash could spark a nuclear war between India and Pakistan —more than a decade before India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons. He is fond of the word paranoia, used thrice on the same page.

He claims “it was obvious to Rajiv and his team that the USSR was not going to last long”, which would be news to everyone including the US and Gorbachev. The text is not free of absurdities; “As an ex-intelligence officer, he knew that news is often the best tool for private investigation.”

The author writes that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stopped over for an hour at Bombay airport in 1984 due to the murder of the UK top diplomat in that city, and the Maharashtra home secretary was “surprised” she did not mention the matter — which he regarded as sinister. Senator Charles Percy was Gandhi’s “secret lobbyist in Washington DC.” At another place, it is said that Zia “wanted to delay history.”

The editors at HarperCollins are generous with cli-chés, including the Great Game of the title and eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. They also do not know the difference between “defuse” and “diffuse”. In sum, this is an unconvincing book and a waste of considerable research that should have been put to better use. Also about Pakistan/Afghanistan but of a very different nature is Nate Rabe’s racy, fast paced novel,The Shah of Chicago, about a shambolic effort to enter the illegal narcotics trade.

The anti hero is an unattractive jive-talking American junkie of Pakistani origin who returns to his country of birth to get rich quickly. He is a criminal ex-convict murderer but a lover of ghazal and Bollywood.

While his narcotics enterprise bombs, a totally improbable love life with a high-society Pakistani woman flowers.

This whole text is so full of outlandish stereotypes that it strains credibility, as indeed does the strange name of the author. But it makes for easy reading as a spoof compared to Bhattacherjee’s distorted presentation of the Great Game.

(The reviewer is India’s former foreign secretary)


John McCain’s Act of Defiance

July 30, 2017

John McCain’s Act of Defiance

by Mark Singer

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Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona–An American Legislator, Patriot and Vietnam War Hero

I had agreeable disagreements with two friends yesterday, several hours before the Senate’s 1:30 A.M. vote on the Republicans’ scaled-down motion to repeal the Affordable Care Act. When the final vote was called, three Republican senators—Susan Collins, of Maine; Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska; and John McCain, of Arizona—drove a long knife through the cold heart of Trumpcare/McConnellcare/Ryancare.

Senators Collins and Murkowski had stuck their necks out much further than any other Republican politicians in the country. For this they had been trolled, slandered, subjected to sexist insults, and bullied—most prominently by the President of the United States, a career scam artist who ages ago lost his marketing mojo. They weren’t buying it. For at least a few hours this week, Ryan Zinke, the never-not-an-Eagle Scout Secretary of the Interior and, until January 20th, a Republican member of Congress, was running strong in the competition for the most despicable thug in Washington, after he reportedly called Murkowski to indicate that her state would suffer as a result of her no vote. (Beautiful, Zinke! Beautiful!) Senators Collins and Murkowski weren’t buying that, either. Nor was Senator McCain.

One of my friends had read my piece about the dilemma McCain confronted, and told me candidly that he wasn’t really buying my argument, either. “An action that merely avoids indecency,” he said, “has only the palest claim to decency.” My friend has worked for many years in many ways on behalf of social and—especially—economic justice. Though he respected Barack Obama, and had voted for him, he took a dim view of many of Obama’s more centrist or conservative policies.

For McCain my friend had no regard (though he forgives him); his sins of commission and omission were many. Sarah Palin, in his view, was the most egregious transgression (hardly a minority viewpoint), but there were others, largely sins by association. In general, my friend loathes what he perceives as the rapacious capitalist cynicism of all the money-grubbing liars who run the banks and grease politicians of both parties and shuffle in and out of corporate boardrooms and Presidential Cabinets and talk out of every side of their mouths as the nation’s and the planet’s wealth and resources and social-justice gaps grow beyond their already criminally negligent dimensions. He detested Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. As for Trump, why bother? For months last year, the Republican nominee, anticipating electoral defeat and extreme humiliation, whined and screamed about a “rigged” election, all the while sliming his way to the White House.

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My friend is certainly not alone in seeing that we are in a Hobbesian present. The United States as a nation of laws, as he sees it, is over. Certainly for the time being, and likely forever. The U.S. as a governable nation, also over. The U.S. as a world power bringing (mostly) democracy and goodness to others—over. And so on. My friend is a wholly decent, patriotic citizen of a country he no longer recognizes, even as the view from his window remains a rural New England pasture.

My other friend shared an equally jaundiced view: she had always thought of McCain as a conventional company man. “His sincere fidelity is to the institution,” she said. “It’s not an issue of humanity, or even a lack of humanity.” So, as an Annapolis graduate and a Navy pilot, and, likewise, as a prisoner of war, he behaved as he thought he should. McCain had been equally a creature, especially in recent years, of a Republican Party that moved further and further to the right, and further away from the bipartisan comity that he had for decades claimed to revere. “Let’s agree that a part of his biography is a tale of heroism and selflessness,” she said. “But if we’re talking about motivation, that’s far more banal.”

I agree with some of my friends’ sentiments. But, in my understanding, as the hour of the vote approached, John McCain elected not to be a company man. The institution that he had belonged to and loved for thirty years, the U.S. Senate, had become intolerable. Dishonorable.

For weeks and months, a burgeoning-until-overwhelming majority of Americans told their senators and congressmen that they did not want Obamacare declared null and void, its knotty flaws notwithstanding. Many of the forty-nine Republicans who cast votes in favor of this repeal knew that those votes bore the stench of unforgivable betrayal of the once-American ideal: equal treatment under the law, due process, and the unwritten imperative for a common purpose. Or perhaps they recognized that in their heads but were blind in their hearts—to their everlasting shame.

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John McCain, bearing scars ancient and new, acutely aware of his mortality, humble but standing a very tall five feet nine, approached the hour when he had to choose. He chose to vote with his soul—in defiance of the bottomless soullessness that, when the ultimate moment arrived, he rejected.

Mark Singer, a longtime contributor to the magazine, is the author of several books, including Character Studies.

Testing time for ASEAN

July 30, 2017

Testing time for ASEAN

by Bunn Nagara

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The South China Sea is experiencing what the Straits of Malacca did – overcrowding by big external powers, making the case yet again for stronger Asean representation

THE Straits of Malacca was once a narrow, shallow and crowded waterway with increasing volumes of international shipping – and little security protection.

It also happened to be a vital West-East maritime corridor. As a conduit for massive fuel shipments and global maritime trade, it was a great strategic prize whose vulnerability to attack raised the stakes all-round.

It was seen as a natural target for pirates, terrorists and other nefarious elements bent on upsetting the established order. It was both strategic asset and prospective liability, whose hopes for continued peace could not be assured.

Thus the venerable Straits, for millennia a key portal for intercontinental trade giving rise to the Malacca Empire, had been reduced in our troubled times to a ticking time bomb just “waiting” for a colossal international outrage.

How long would the safe and peaceful times last? Shipping agents were on edge, insurers were tense, the relevant authorities were vigilant over the Straits as a “war-risk zone.”

Scenarios sketched included hijackings for ransoms, coordinated attacks on ships with deep draughts negotiating the narrower channels, and the commandeering of tankers turned into huge bomb-laden torpedoes.

That was just over a decade ago. Speculation spiralled, setting off alarm bells in the region – and among external major powers. The US, with its massive Pacific Fleet already on standby, wanted to wade in.

And so would China, and consequently India, Japan, Russia and any great power with pretensions to even greater influence. That was a second round of alarm for the littoral states of ASEAN.

Peace would be disrupted with any attack, any unilateral response to or pre-emption of it by an external major power, or any entanglement among the major powers streaming into the Straits.

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The result was one of the swiftest actions within ASEAN: Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore hastened to form the Malacca Strait Patrols (MSP) on the water and in the air, with logistical coordination and intelligence sharing.

Thailand soon joined. The multilateral operation pre-empted violent criminal action as well as unsolicited meddling by major powers.

In 2009, al-Qaeda called for strikes at important maritime chokepoints. The next year intelligence picked up terrorist “chatter” about Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) considering attacks in the Straits.

By then, the MSP was in full swing. Attacks in the Straits, along with major power play, had become harder to launch than ever before.

Today, the Malacca Strait is even more important because of the indigenous security regime by the four ASEAN countries. Their security cooperation is unprecedented for nations long sensitive about their respective borders and sovereignties.

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Can the same be said soon for the South China Sea? The US and China have lately made strategic waves lapping on the shores of this region and beyond.

The year started with a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric submarine surfacing in Kota Kinabalu. It was enough to set US and Indian pundits’ fancies aflutter.

In March, Japan announced a “test” of its largest warship, the Izumo, in the South China Sea. The nine-helicopter carrier would tour the region on its way to India for US war games in Japan’s biggest military venture here since invading South-East Asia.

Indian strategists soon wanted a slice of the “action” also. In April, sources in New Delhi announced India’s expectation of joining the MSP, quite oblivious to the sub-ASEAN group’s other purpose besides deterring unlawful activity.

However, statements can and do substitute for actual action. Privately, Indian defence sources say there is no capacity for naval assets to venture much beyond the Andaman Sea.

Nonetheless, China is not having everything its way in the South China Sea either. In a hiccup in Beijing-Manila relations, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his navy in March to grill Chinese survey ships on their presence in waters around Benham Rise claimed by the Philippines.

A week later, Manila announced plans to file a firm protest against China’s construction of a radar station on Scarborough Shoal. The Justice Ministry indicated that Beijing’s clumsiness had forced Manila to work closer with Washington, again.

In April, Duterte ordered a stronger military presence in all Philippine-held islands and outcrops in the South China Sea. Later that month senior Philippine officials paid a high-profile visit to Thitu, the second-largest of the disputed Spratly Islands.

Predictably, China protested. Days later, it launched its first China-built aircraft carrier, expected to be fully operational in two years and still relatively unsophisticated.

While some of Duterte’s orders on military manoeuvres might have been short on details, they still shored up Manila’s bargaining position for talks in Beijing in May.

For all his bluntness, Duterte’s position on his country’s defence relationship with the US has shifted subtly yet significantly. Now, his complaint sounds like that of a disa­ppointed ally who had been left in the lurch.

At another level, there was always more hype than substance in his supposed shift in alliances. Even at the height of his bluster, he conceded that he wanted a change in Philippine foreign policy but not in its defence policy, posture and partnership with the US.

How that would work in practice is still an unknown, including to Duterte himself. Still, he is not the only politician to hold two seemingly inconsistent positions at the same time.

In his meeting with Xi Jinping in May, Xi pledged continued friendship but not at the cost of China conceding any claimed territory. Duterte told Xi of plans to drill for oil in the area, and Xi told him China would go to war if it had to.

That was Xi’s version of a double bind: a velvet gauntlet with a silken wallop. Then he took it further with Duterte by raising the prospect of joint exploration in the South China Sea.

Far from resolving anything for anyone, that accentuated the double bind for Manila within Asean. In what only seemed like a trophy for Duterte from his talks in Beijing, it became a diplomatic impasse.

With at least three other ASEAN members with claims in the disputed area rattled, Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano said Manila would consult all other Asean countries before taking any decision.

As a former prosecutor and mayor, Duterte must know the dodgy implications and obligations of agreeing to joint activity with a rival claimant. Like it or not, Manila remains at the forefront of dealings with China over disputed territories involving four ASEAN countries.

Meanwhile, US military forces continue to defy China’s disputed claims and demarcations. A US spy plane flew over the East China Sea in May, US bombers flew over the South China Sea in June, and a US warship sailed near the Paracel Islands early this month.

Not to be left out, Britain announced two days ago that it would also engage in military exercises in the disputed area next year. After joining Japan in limited military exercises last year, a warship and up to two aircraft carriers may be dispatched in 2018.

Like the Straits of Malacca before, the South China Sea is getting uncomfortably crowded. Once more, ASEAN nations should be motivated to act.

There are additional challenges as the situation is more complex, which only makes the case for a credible, predominant Asean role more compelling.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.