The Political Risks in Malaysia are growing


April 1, 2015

This piece is a serious commentary on Malaysia by The Financial Times, NOT an April Fool joke.–Din Merican

The Political Risks in Malaysia are growing

The FT View (March 31, 2015)

Its reputation as a thriving Muslim democracy is under threat

Rosmah and Najib 1mdb

Malaysia has long been regarded as one of Southeast Asia’s success stories. With a population of 30m, it is the region’s third-largest economy with a relatively well-educated population. It is a rare example of a moderate and democratic Muslim state, one where the Islamic majority lives in reasonable harmony with the nation’s Chinese and Indian communities. But Malaysia’s delicate political and ethnic balance is starting to unravel as the country risks sliding into authoritarianism. This is a worrying development at a time when economic clouds are also darkening.

Ever since the British departed in 1957, Malaysia has been ruled without interruption by the United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO, which represents the Muslim Malay majority. In recent years, UMNO has been increasingly challenged by Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition. Often viewed as a maverick and a flawed figure, he has nevertheless said he wants to reform Malaysia’s ossified and corrupt political system.

At the 2013 general election, the Pakatan opposition won more of the popular vote than the UMNO-led coalition. Thanks to anomalies in the way constituency boundaries are drawn, it gained only 40 per cent of seats in the national parliament. Still, Mr Anwar’s performance at the polls was strong enough to trigger deep concern within UMNO about his chances of winning the next election to be called by 2018.

In February, the opposition was dealt a crippling blow when Mr Anwar was imprisoned for five years by a court on charges of sodomy. The case appeared at the very least politically motivated. This has now been followed by a sweeping series of arrests of opposition politicians and journalists. Human rights groups say that in the past week more than 90 people have been detained — many under a British colonial-era law that criminalises speech that has a “seditious tendency”.

This crackdown on civil society is dangerous for two reasons. First, it risks polarising Malaysian society, making the delicate balance between the country’s communities harder to sustain. Najib Razak, the Prime Minister, is a reformist figure who has declared himself to be committed to political liberalisation. But he himself is under pressure from a rightwing flank within UMNO that wants the opposition marginalised and is resistant to reforms that could erode the commercial privileges enjoyed by the country’s Malay majority.

The second concern is that if the political tension grows it could damage Malaysia’s economy. Malaysia had a robust 2014 with real GDP growth at a solid six per cent, the second-highest performance in Southeast Asia. But the country is a significant net exporter of energy, making it vulnerable to the fall in oil prices. Foreign bond ownership in Malaysia is high at more than 40 per cent — and bondholders could become jittery if there is any further deterioration in the country’s economic and political outlook.

This is a highly uncertain period politically for Southeast Asia. Indonesia has just completed a presidential election which saw a peaceful transfer of power. But Thailand has moved to military rule and in Myanmar there is uncertainty over whether and how the ruling junta will share power. Even in the Philippines, the region’s star performer, it is hard to predict the course of politics after President Benigno Aquino’s term expires. It is against this background that Malaysia will be keenly watched. If it is to retain the commitment of international investors it needs to provide reassurance about its future political stability.

Lee Kuan Yew and the Asian Model


March 31, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew and the Asian Model

by Martin Khor@www.thestar.com.my

Lee-Kuan-YewAn important legacy of Lee Kuan Yew was the formulation of one of the Asian models that have been driving successful Asian economies forward.

HUNDREDS of obituaries and articles have been written about Lee Kuan Yew, who was laid to rest last weekend.

The articles were overwhelmingly in tribute of the vision, leadership qualities and achievements of Singapore’s founding father, who left his imprint on so many aspects of the island state’s system and way of life.

The tributes were mixed with criticisms of the political authoritarianism that was mixed with the spectacular economic growth.

There will be many PhDs written, which would make judgments on his side of the story and that of the critics. As for Lee’s own assessment, he summed it up thus: “What did I achieve? A successful Singapore. What did I give up? My life.”

On the TV news of LKY’s passing, I was impressed by an interview with a young man who runs an Internet views service. He said this was the time to pay tribute to Lee and his achievements, after which would come a period of collective reflection on what happened in the past five decades and how Singapore should go forward.

The times have changed. Singapore too is changing and will doubtless change even more. One of LKY’s major achievements was to be a pioneer of combining the roles of the state and the market in a way that succeeded in generating and sustaining high economic growth, and with widespread social benefits. He did it in a way that was suitable, or that was adapted, to the situation of a nation with a small population, no natural resources and no significant market.

He opted for the model of being a “global city”, that used the world as a source of capital, technology and markets, with foreign companies providing the engine, the world’s population providing the market, and Singapore providing its geographical location and skills.

Singapore also diversified from trade to oil refinery and industry and to being also a global financial centre. It is the combining of state and market that made it part of the East Asian models of development.

This strategy is based on having the state play the leading role not only in setting the overall framework for development but also sometimes playing a direct role in it.

By also involving the private sector in an important role, this model is different from the old state socialism, and by being based on the manifold roles of the state; it is also different from laissez faire free market capitalism. While most manufacturing companies are private and foreign-owned, the state in Singapore has played important roles in selected industries, in banking, in transportation and a range of other services.

Public housing was based on a combination of the state being the developer, construction being undertaken by private contractors, and the ordinary people being the owners by paying the mortgage through their salaries, the whole enterprise organised by the Housing Development Board and the Central Provident Fund.

The state’s overwhelming role in the social sector was based partly on subsidies but also significantly on self-financing by individuals, through the CPF scheme that includes withdrawals for housing and medical needs.

The Economist magazine in 2012 credited Singapore for starting what it called “the new kind of state capitalism” which it said had become the fashion in emerging markets and had come to be a major challenge to Western liberal capitalism.

In fact, there are important variations of this so-called “state capitalism”.Singapore relied on foreign companies to lead its industrial revolution (while the state focused on providing services). Japan and South Korea built their own domestic industries, with eventually world-beating private companies that were egged on by a lot of state assistance and nurturing.

In Malaysia, we have our own model, with the state taking over ownership of the once foreign-owned plantations and tin mines, through state-owned commercially run companies. It has its own national oil company and a production and benefit-sharing arrangement with the global oil multinationals and foreign companies predominant in several industrial sectors; while the state also has its own enterprises in banking, real estate development, telecommunications, utilities, agriculture and manufacturing, usually in competition with local and foreign private firms. The Malaysian model is a hybrid of state and private enterprises, often having both co-existing and competing in commercial activities.

China is said to have been inspired by the Singapore model. After Deng Xiao Ping’s visit to Singapore in 1978, he began the change in the old China model, which through many metamorphoses is now an evolving system of its own – a confusing and complex mixture of state and private enterprises, but always with the leading role of the state.

It has become its own unique hybrid model, combining the Singapore model of attracting foreign investors with the Japan-Korea model of establishing domestic enterprises and industries which dominate the local market and then increasingly penetrate the world market in trade and investment.

The Western countries which now espouse “free market economics” grew on the basis of “state capitalism” in their formative years. Indeed, often a much cruder form of it. Example: the East India Company owning economic sectors in many Asian colonies, supported by military colonial rule and massive economic subsidies.

Having helped their companies to grow into giants, it appears they now want to forbid others from taking policy measures to do so.Even now, the Western countries give massive financial and other forms of support to their agriculture sector. Free market economics is rejected by their states in sectors where they are unable to freely compete.

The East Asian models are now being challenged by Western attempts to de-legitimise the economic role of the state, the latest being free trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, in which the state’s policy space to set the rules in investment policies, government procurement and key services such as finance and telecommunications is being narrowed.

The TPPA also has a section not present in previous FTAs, which seeks to discipline how governments treat their state-owned enterprises (SOEs). It forbids the state from giving any advantages to these enterprises, and the SOEs are not allowed to give an advantage to locals when they buy or sell services and products.

The concept that the “free economy” is best and the state has no role except to enable it has been promoted in developed countries for export to developing countries as the recipe for development. But they did not practise it when they were developing and still do not practise it in areas where they cannot compete.

Martin Khor is Executive Director of the South Centre, a research centre of 51 developing countries, based in Geneva. You can e-mail him at director@southcentre.org. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

With Lee’s passing, Mahathir is the last of South East Asia’s Mohicans


March 31, 2015

With Lee’s passing, Mahathir is  the last of South East Asia’s Mohicans

by Eileen Ng

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Two of Asia’s best-known strongmen, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, had much in common — a streak of authoritarianism, little tolerance for dissent and vision that changed the face of their countries.

Lee and Dr. MahathirBut friends they were not, and the two rarely saw eye to eye. In fact one of their only agreements was to move their countries’ time — which was 7 ½ hours ahead of GMT — forward by half an hour to be in line with world time zones.

“”I am afraid on most other issues we could not agree….I cannot say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew, but still I feel sad at his demise,” Mahathir wrote on his blog on Friday.

With Lee’s death at age 91, Mahathir remains the last of a generation of old guards in Southeast Asia, which boomed economically under their authoritarian leadership and came to be known as the “tiger economies.” Indonesia’s Suharto, spoken in the same breath as these two, died in 2008.

Both Lee and Mahathir were English-educated leaders, who successfully delivered economic prosperity — to varying degrees — and gave international prominence to their countries. They were respected, but ruled with iron fists, curbing civil liberties and using harsh laws against political opponents.

Yet Lee and Mahathir leave starkly different legacies from their time in power. During his 31 years as Prime Minister, Lee transformed Singapore, a marshy island trading post with no natural resources, into Asia’s richest nation as measured by GDP per capita, five times higher than Malaysia. He crushed corruption at all levels, built a top-notch, efficient bureaucracy, set up an excellent education system and focused on creating world-class service industries that would be competitive in a global market.

Mahathir, meanwhile, fostered a patronage system by giving out contracts to his cronies, and his policies increased bureaucratic red tape. Despite having far more resources and a much bigger workforce, he promoted and protected inefficient industries such as steel and cars with tariff protection.

“Both men are equally Machiavellian in their methods. They are both alike in the kind of politics they employ but Lee Kuan Yew achieved much, much more than Mahathir despite having a lot less resources and capital,” said Malaysian political analyst Ibrahim Suffian.

Although the two were contemporaries — Mahathir is only two years younger — Lee shot to prominence much earlier. He was already the prime minister of Singapore when it became independent of British colonial rule in 1963. The same year the small island-nation joined neighboring Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia, believing it needed to be part of a bigger country to survive. Mahathir became a Parliament member in 1964, and that was the first time the two met.

“We crossed swords many time during the debates. But there was no enmity, only differences in our views of what was good for the newborn nation,” Mahathir wrote.

But the federation was a marriage that was doomed to fail. For one, the ethnic Malay leaders of Malaysia were suspicious of Lee, an ethnic Chinese. Soon ideological and political differences surfaced, and Singapore was expelled from the federation in 1965, leaving Lee to set his own course with a vision that until today defines Singapore.

He ensured that the country ran on meritocracy. He demanded the best prices and most efficient companies handle government projects. Government-linked companies compete for projects with private companies. Although ethnic Chinese are a majority in Singapore, and Malays and Indians form large minorities, nobody gets special preference.

“Despite his autocracy, Lee Kuan Yew was driven with building meritocracy that saw Singapore grow by leaps and bounds, but Malaysia is hobbled by its racial politics and insecurities,” Ibrahim said.

Mahathir, who became Prime Minister in 1981, championed an affirmative action program for the country’s Malay majority, which to this day is the root cause of deep disenchantment among the minority Chinese and Indians. Mahathir saw the Malays — with good reason — as downtrodden and gave them privileges in business, education and housing. He promoted race-based politics to ensure that his Malay party dominated politics. That legacy continues.

Lee faced criticism for the strict limits on free speech and public protest, which he insisted were necessary to maintain stability and order and to promote economic growth in his multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. Although his electoral politics to quash the opposition were questionable, his People’s Action Party, or PAP, has members from all races.

“Lee was an unshakeable bulwark against majoritarian tendencies that could have easily overwhelmed Singapore,” said Cherian George, a Singapore author, academic and commentator. “Lee went to the extent of amending the republic’s Constitution to stop any party from sweeping into power without minority support,” he wrote on his blog on Sunday.

Mahathir, a doctor-turned-politician and Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, helped turn the country from an agricultural backwater into a key trading nation during his 22-year rule before stepping down in 2003. With the help of massive petroleum and palm oil revenues, he oversaw grand infrastructure projects such as the Petronas Twin Towers, which once were the world’s tallest; he also built a technology hub, a new capital city and an F1 race track.

He also used a security law allowing indefinite detention without trial against political opponents and critics. And unlike Lee, he was no friend of the West. In fact, he lost no opportunity to criticize it, especially the U.S. war in Iraq.

Singapore’s higher wages, standard of living and merit-based system have drawn tens of thousands of Malaysians, mainly ethnic Chinese, to the city-state. A 2011 World Bank report said more than 1 million Malaysians live abroad and warned the outflow of skilled workers could hurt Malaysia’s economy.

Lee stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, but remained a commanding presence in Singapore politics and the region for decades. He also successfully groomed his son Lee Hsien Loong, who became Singapore’s Prime Minister in 2004.

Mahathir, however, failed to retain much clout after he resigned. Today he is seen by many as a former leader who rails against his successors and bemoans in his blogs the weak governance of a country he once dominated. A recent blog comment captured his ever-critical outlook: There’s “something rotten in the state of Malaysia.”

Editors and Executives of Malaysian Insider are arrested


March 31, 2015

Editors and Executives of Malaysian Insider are  arrested

The Police arrested the three editors from The Malaysian Insider on Monday evening, in connection with a March 25 article about a proposal to allow the strict enforcement of Islamic law, the publication said.

“We do not think that the arrests were necessary, as they can meet the police any time to have their statements taken,” said Ho Kay Tat, publisher at The Malaysian Insider’s parent company, Edge Media Group, according to the news site. “We call on the police to release them immediately.”

Jahabar SadiqOn Tuesday, Mr. Ho was arrested, along with Jahabar Sadiq, The Malaysian Insider’s chief executive, the publication said. On the same day, a court denied a police request to continue holding the three editors, Lionel Morais, Amin Shah Iskandar and Zulkifli Sulong. The three were expected to be released Tuesday evening, according to Syahredzan Johan, a lawyer for the company.

All five men were arrested on suspicion of violating Malaysia’s Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act, Mr. Johan wrote on Twitter.

Malaysia’s government has recently pursued sedition charges against outspoken politicians, scholars and other figures, an effort that critics say is meant to intimidate the country’s opposition. In mid-March, Nurul Izzah Anwar, a member of Parliament and daughter of the imprisoned Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, was arrested and accused of sedition after questioning the independence of the country’s judiciary in a speech.

The investigation of The Malaysian Insider centers on a March 25 article that described a meeting of the Conference of Rulers, a body of Malaysian sultans, reporting that they had rejected an Islamist party’s proposal that would allow strict punishments under Shariah, or Islamic law. The conference said that it had never announced such a decision and pursued legal action against The Malaysian Insider, the publication said.

The Center for Independent Journalism, based in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, based in Bangkok, called the move against the publication “an assault on media freedom and an act of intimidation in using police powers of arrests and detention.”

If the March report was found to be untrue, it could be corrected without the need for police raids and criminal investigations, the groups argued.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/world/asia/malaysian-insider-arrests.html?ref=world&_r=0

The Islam Reformers vs. the Muslim Zealots


March 30, 2015

The Islam Reformers vs. the Muslim Zealots

by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

A Hirsi AliAyaan Hirsi Ali is a Fellow of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a visiting fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and founder of the AHA Foundation. She is the author of the newly published book “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.”

The ferment we see in the Muslim world today is not solely due to despotic political systems, and it is not solely due to failing economies and the poverty they breed. Rather, it is also due largely to Islam itself and the incompatibility of certain of that faith’s key tenets with modernity. That is why the most important conflict in the world today is between those who are hell-bent on preserving, and even increasing, these incompatibilities, and those who are bravely prepared to challenge them — not to overthrow Islam but to reform it.

Forget the crude distinction between “extreme” and “moderate” Muslims. Rather, we should distinguish among three groups of Muslims.

The first group is the most problematic. Those in this category envision a regime based on sharia, or Islamic religious law. They aim not just to obey the Prophet Muhammad’s teaching but also to emulate his warlike conduct after his move to Medina. Even if they do not themselves engage in violence, the people in this group do not hesitate to condone it.

The second group — which composes the clear majority throughout the Muslim world — is loyal to the core creed of Islam and worship devoutly but is not inclined to practice or preach violence. Like devout Christians or Jews who attend religious services every week and abide by religious rules in what they eat and wear, these “Mecca Muslims” focus on religious observance. Sometimes some members of this group are mistakenly termed “moderate.”

In the third group is the growing number of people who were born into Islam but who have sought to think critically about the faith in which we were raised. These are the Muslim dissidents. A few of us have been forced by experience to conclude that we could not continue as believers yet remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future. But the majority of dissidents are reformist believers who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of violence.

The first group — the Islamist zealots — poses a threat to everyone. In the West, the existence of this group promises not only an increasing risk of terrorism but also a subtle erosion of the hard-won achievements of feminists and campaigners for minority rights: gender equality, religious tolerance and gay rights. And anyone who denies that this threat is growing — not only in Europe but in North America, too — just hasn’t looked at the data on immigration and on Muslim immigrants’ attitudes.

But the zealots’ vision of a violent return to the days of the prophet poses an even bigger threat to their fellow Muslims. They are undermining the position of the majority who simply want to lead a quiet life. Worse, they pose a constant lethal threat to the dissidents and reformers. We are the ones who face ostracism and rejection, who must brave all manner of insults, who must deal with the death threats — or face death itself.

Western policymakers today are so fearful of being accused of Islamophobia that they generally won’t touch Muslim reformers with a 10-foot pole. They would much rather make nice with the self-proclaimed representatives of “moderate Islam,” who on close inspection often turn out but to be anything but moderate. For this reason, our leaders are missing the boat on the Muslim Reformation.

“It is not your job,” Western governments are told, “to help bring about religious change.” So Western leaders stick to their decade-old script: “Islam is a religion of peace.”

But during the Cold War, no American president said: “Communism is an ideology of peace.” None said: “The Soviet Union is not truly communist.” Rather, the West celebrated and supported dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and Václav Havel, who had the courage to challenge the Soviet system from within.

Today, there are many dissidents who challenge Islam. Yet the West either ignores them or dismisses them as “not representative.” This is a grave mistake. Reformers such as Asra Nomani, Irshad Manji, Tawfiq Hamid, Maajid Nawaz, Zuhdi Jasser, Saleem Ahmed, Yunis Qandil, Seyran Ates, Bassam Tibi and Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari must be supported and protected. These reformers should be as well known in the West as Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Havel were generations earlier.

The reformers’ task will not be easy. Nor was that of the Soviet dissidents. Nor, for that matter, was that of the Protestant reformers. But the Muslim Reformation is the world’s best shot at a solution to the problem President Obama calls “violent extremism.” The time for euphemism is over. The time for reform of Islam is, at long last, now.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-islam-reformers-vs-the-muslim-zealots/2015/03/27/acf6de6c-d3ed-11e4-ab77-9646eea6a4c7_story.

A Response to Western Interventionism

Why Islamic Reform is Delayed

by Ismael Hossein-ZADEH

Recent geopolitical turmoil in the Arab/Muslim World, and the resulting proliferation of radical movements and groupings such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL, seems to have provide plenty of incendiary fodder for the propaganda mill of the proponents of the theory of “the clash of civilizations,” according to which the roots of conflicts in the Muslim world must be sought in Islam itself, in its alleged “incompatibility” with modernization and Western values [1].

Instead of calling the Charlie Hebdo or the 9/11 terrorist attacks mass murder criminal acts, proponents of this pernicious theory do not seem to be able to resist the politically expedient temptation of calling them acts of “war on our way of life” [2].

Although questionable, this explanation of terrorism and the concomitant justification of war and militarism harbor an element of dangerously misleading plausibility: once the public is convinced that the “hostile and irredeemable Islam or Islamists are out in force to drown our civilization,” pre-emptive war would be hailed as the logical response. The danger is further compounded because this explanation of terrorism possesses the power of self-fulfilling prophecy, the power to make what is theorized appear real.

Not only do such explanations tend to sow the seeds of hatred and ignorance, and are bound to poison international relations, but they also fail the test of history. The history of the relationship between the modern Western world and the Muslim world shows that, contrary to distorted popular perceptions in the West, from the time of their initial contacts with the capitalist West more than two centuries ago until almost the final third of the twentieth century, the Muslim people were quite receptive of the economic and political models of the modern world.

During that period of more than a century and a half, the majority of the political elite and/or national leaders viewed the rise of the modern West, and its spread into their territories, as an inevitable historical development that challenged them to chart their own programs of reform and development. Not only did the political elite, the intellectuals, and government leaders view reform and modernization as the way of the future, but so did many Islamic leaders and scholars, known as “Islamic modernizers” [3].

It was only after more than a century and a half of imperialistic pursuits and a series of humiliating policies in the region that the popular masses of the Muslim world turned to religion and the conservative religious leaders as sources of defiance, mobilization, and self-respect. This historical background indicates that for many Muslims the recent turn to religion often represents not so much a rejection of Western values and achievements as it is a way to resist or defy the oppressive policies and alliances of Western powers in the Muslim world. It also means that explanations of derailed and delayed historical transitions in the Muslim world, that is, of an Islamic reformation, rest more with the policies of the Western powers in the region than the alleged rigidity of Islam, or “the clash of civilizations.”

Early Responses to the Challenges of the Modern World

Not only did the early modernizers of the Muslim world embrace Western technology, but they also welcomed its civil and state institutions, its representational system of government, and its tradition of legal and constitutional rights. For example, the Iranian intellectuals Mulkum Khan (1833-1908) and Agha Khan Kermani (1853-96) urged Iranians to acquire a Western education and replace the Shariah (the religious legal code) with a modern secular legal code. Secular political leaders of this persuasion joined forces with the more liberal religious leaders in the Constitution Revolution of 1906, and forced the Qajar dynasty to set up a modern constitution, to limit the powers of the monarchy and give Iranians parliamentary representation [4].

Even some of the Ottoman sultans (kings) pursued Western models of industrialization and modernization on their own. For example, Sultan Mahmud II “inaugurated the Tanzimat (Regulation) in 1826, which abolished the Janissaries [the fanatical elite corps of troops organized in the 14th century], modernized the army and introduced some of the new technology.” In 1839 Sultan Abdulhamid “issued the Gulhane decree, which made his rule dependent upon a contractual relationship with his subjects, and looked forward to major reforms of the empire’s institutions” [5].

More dramatic, however, were the modernizing and/or secularizing programs of Egypt’s renowned modernizers Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) and his grandson Ismail Pasha (1803-95). They were so taken by the impressive achievements of the West that they embarked on breakneck modernizing programs that were tantamount to trying to hothouse the Western world’s achievements of centuries into decades: “To secularize the country, Muhammad Ali simply confiscated much religiously endowed property and systematically marginalized the Ulema [religious leaders], divesting them of any shred of power” [6].

In the face of dire conditions of underdevelopment and humiliating but unstoppable foreign domination, these modernizing national leaders viewed reformation not only as the way out of underdevelopment but also out of the yoke of foreign domination.

Not only the secular intellectuals, the political elite, and government leaders but also many Islamic leaders and scholars, known as “Islamic modernizers,” viewed modernization as the way of the future. But whereas the reform programs and policies of the political/national leaders often included secularization, at least implicitly, Islamic modernizers were eclectic: while seeking to adopt the sources of the strength of the West, including constitutionalism and government by representation, they wanted to preserve their cultural and national identities as well as Islamic principles and values as the moral foundation of the society. These Islamic modernizers included Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), Qasim Amin (1863-1908), and Shaikh Muhammad Hussain Naini in Egypt and Iran; and Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) and Muhammad Iqbal (1875-1938) in India.

To be sure, there was resistance to change. But, by and large, nationalist reformers in many Muslim countries did manage to pursue vigorous agendas of social, economic, and political change. John Esposito, one of the leading experts of Islamic studies in the United States, describes the early attitude of the political and economic policy makers of the Muslim world toward the modern world of the West:

Both the indigenous elites, who guided government development programs in newly emerging Muslim states, and their foreign patrons and advisers were Western-oriented and Western-educated. All proceeded from a premise that equated modernization with Westernization. The clear goal and presupposition of development was that every day and in every way things should become more modern (i.e., Western and secular), from cities, buildings, bureaucracies, companies, and schools to politics and culture. While some warned of the need to be selective, the desired direction and pace of change were unmistakable [7].

Distorted, Derailed and Delayed Reformation

Resistance to change is not limited to Muslims or the Muslim world; change almost always generates resistance. In fact, the Christian Church’s nearly 400-year resistance to capitalist transformation in Europe was even more traumatic than that of the Muslim world. The resulting travail of transition created more social turbulence than has been observed in the context of the Muslim world. Whereas the Church of the Middle Ages anathemized the very idea of gain, the pursuit of gain and the accumulation of property are considered noble pursuits in Islam.

Opponents of transition to capitalism in Europe not only tried (and almost hanged) Robert Keane for having made a six-percent profit on his investment and “prohibited merchants from carrying unsightly bundles” of their merchandise, but also “fought for the privilege of carrying on in its fathers’ footsteps” [8]. As Karen Armstrong, author of a number of scholarly books on religious fundamentalism, points out, during the nearly 400 years of transition, the Western people often “experienced . . . bloody revolutions, reigns of terror, genocide, violent wars of religion, the despoliation of the countryside, vast social upheavals, exploitation in the factories, spiritual malaise and profound anomie in the new megacities” [9].

Muslim societies, like less-developed societies elsewhere, are expected, or compelled by the imperatives of the world market, to traverse the nearly four hundred-year journey of the West in a much shorter period of time. Furthermore, the travails of transition in the case of these belatedly developing countries (vis-à-vis the case of early developers of the West) are often complicated by foreign interventions and imperial/colonial pressures from outside.   External pressure has included not only direct colonial and/or imperial military force, but also covert and creeping pressure exerted from the more subtle market forces and agents such as the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and credit rating agencies like Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s.

Despite its turbulence, the painful process of transition to capitalism in the West was largely an internal process; no foreign force or interference could be blamed for the travails of transition. And the pains of transitions were thus gradually and grudgingly accepted as historical inevitabilities. Not so in the case of belatedly developing countries. Here, the pains of change and transition are sometimes perceived not as historical necessities but as products of foreign designs or imperialist schemes. Accordingly, the agony of change is often blamed (especially by the conservative proponents of the status quo) on external forces or powers: colonialism, imperialism, and (now) neo-liberalism.

Actual foreign intervention, realizing and reinforcing such perceptions, has thus had a retarding or delaying impact on the process of reform in the Muslim world. For intervention from outside often plays into the hands of the conservative, obscurantist elements that are quite adept at portraying their innate opposition to change as a struggle against foreign intrusion, thereby reinforcing resistance to reform, especially religious reform. Today, for example, U.S. and European interventions in the internal affairs of many countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Turkey, and Nigeria far from facilitating the process of reform or helping the forces of change in these countries, are actually hurting such forces and delaying reform as they plays into the hands of their conservative opponents and strengthens the forces of resistance.

Contrary to the rising political influence of “radical Islamists” in recent years/decades, radical Islamic circles of the earlier periods did not sway much power over the direction of national economies and policies. Their opposition to Western values and influences was often in the form of passive “rejection or elusion” [10]. They simply refused to cooperate or deal with the colonial powers and their institutions (such as modern Western school systems) spreading in their midst: “They did not attempt to assume direct political control but used their position to preserve tradition as best as they could under the rapidly changing conditions of the time.” And while they “remained an important factor in influencing public opinion . . . , they basically used their position to encourage obedience to those in power” [11].

To the extent that conservative Islamic figures or groups actively opposed policies of change, such obscurantist challenges were almost always defeated, coerced, or co-opted by the modernizing, reforming, or revolutionary secular nationalist leaders. Thus, in all the major social movements of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century (that is, in the anti-colonial/anti-imperial national liberation movements as well as in the subsequent radical reform movements of a “non-capitalist” or “socialist-oriented” character of the 1950s and 1960s) national leadership and economic development programs lay with secular nationalists.

Those programs were fashioned either after the U.S. model of economic development, as in the case of the Shah of Iran and the King of Jordan, or after the Soviet model of “non-capitalist development,” as in the cases of Nasser’s Egypt, for example. While it is now relatively easier to see, in hindsight, the shortcomings and the failures of those development programs, such programs did at the time hold promises of lifting the respective societies out of dependence, poverty, and underdevelopment.

As long as the hopes and aspirations that were thus enlivened remained animated, the appeals of vague promises of an “Islamic alternative” were not strong enough to challenge the rule of the secular nationalist leaders and their development programs—and that meant, as mentioned earlier, the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, it became clear that the largely US-sponsored industrialization and development programs in the Muslim (and other less-developed) countries were highly selective, extremely uneven and mostly geared to the interests of transnational corporations and their elite comprador allies in the host countries. All the propitious factors and circumstances that had until then nurtured the dreams of economic progress, democratic rights, and political sovereignty seemed unreal and disappointing. And as those hopes and dreams turned sour, the promises of an “Islamic alternative” began to sound appealing—hence, the resurgence of “political Islam” since the 1970s.

In brief, historical evidence refutes the claim that Islam and/or the Muslim world are inherently incompatible with modernization, and that, therefore, the rise of an Islamic militancy in the last several decades, and the violent reactions such as the Charlie Hebdo and 9/11 terrorist attacks, are essentially manifestations of “the clash of civilizations.” Close scrutiny of the Muslim world’s early responses to the challenges of the modern West reveals that, despite sporadic resistance, the overall policy was moving in the direction of reform and adaptation. That policy of adaptation and openness continued from the time of the Muslim world’s initial contacts with the modern world in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries until approximately the last third of the twentieth century. The recent resistance to Western values and the quest for a return to the Islamic ethos—and the concomitant delay in the Islamic reformation—are therefore more the products of interventionist geopolitical policies of Western powers than the purported rigidity of Islam.

Ismael Hossein-zadeh is Professor Emeritus of Economics (Drake University). He is the author of Beyond Mainstream Explanations of the Financial Crisis (Routledge 2014), The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism (Palgrave–Macmillan 2007), and the Soviet Non-capitalist Development: The Case of Nasser’s Egypt (Praeger Publishers 1989). He is also a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion

References

[1] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone Books, 1997); Bernard, Lewis, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[2] This essay draws heavily on Chapter 5 of my book, The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism (Palgrave-Macmillan 2007).

[3] John O. Voll, Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World, Second ed. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994).

[4] Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (New York: The Modern Library, 2000).

[5] Ibid., p. 150.

[6] Ibid., pp. 150-51.

[7] John Esposito, The Islamic Threat (NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 9.

[8] Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. 35.

[9] Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (cited above) p. 145.

[10] Wu Guying, “Middle East: The Roots of Conflict,” Asia Times (22 November 2002): <http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/DK22Ak05.html&gt;.

[11] John O. Voll, Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World (cited above), p. 94.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/02/09/why-islamic-reform-is-delayed/

Lee Kuan Yew was sui generis


March 29, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew was sui generis

by Terence Netto@www.malaysiakini.com

Asia’s generation of independence-gaining leaders knew little or nothing of how to get the economies of their countries going.

Lee-Kuan-Yew India’s Jawarharlal Nehru, Indonesia’s Sukarno, and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh succeeded in freeing their countries from the colonial powers, but their triumphs were Pyrrhic. The euphoria of independence turned out to as evanescent as morning dew, their countries falling away after gaining freedom, stymied either by the ethnic and religious hatreds that had long bedeviled them, or hobbled by the choice of growth-stifling economic systems, or worse, caught up as proxies in the Cold War rivalry between the West and the communist bloc.

Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore – the names are interchangeable as no founding leader has stamped his mark on his country like Lee did – avoided the fate of these countries and their larger-than-life progenitors.

From scratch in 1959 when Singapore became self-governing, Lee built up the city-state to become an an economic and technological cynosure. He did this through the practice of a capitalism that emphasised no corruption, hard work, meritocracy, low taxes and high savings. And he held the line on the utility of the English language for upward mobility.

The upshot was phenomenal: Singapore rose from an economy whose gross domestic product (GDP) was US$427 per capita in 1960 to US$55,000 in 2013. This increase is stupendous by any measure, more so considering Singapore is without natural resources save a good harbour.

Lee achieved this transformation via methods that scorned the Western view that democracy was the last word in human political development. He was harsh on opponents, jailing them without trial if not bankrupting them with libel suits, and his view of the press was that they should not presume to tell him how Singapore should be governed.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the historian Francis Fukuyama espoused the theory of the “end of history” owing to the triumph of “liberal democracy”. Fukuyama said that the natural wish of humans to be free from repression would eventuate in their choice of a liberal democratic system of governance.

Fukuyama saw that communism’s fall cleared the way for the flowering of a system that believed in limited government, respected individual rights, allowed for free and fair elections, and encouraged governance by informed consent of the governed.

That this theory does not enjoy traction in Confucian societies was suggested, first, by Park Chung-hee in South Korea and, then, by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, and, later still, by Deng Xiaoping in China.

A Preference for order over disorder

The reason why an authoritarianism that was not draconian fostered growth and order in these Confucian societies was because of the ethos inculcated by the ancient Chinese sage which instilled a preference for order over the disorder of uninhibited political competition, placed family and social obligations to the kin group above individual rights, and encouraged respect for authority if it was reasonably exercised.

In Confucian societies, a quasi-authoritarianism is no reason for resistance, provided there are opportunities for people to become rich, educated and industrious. Rights are secondary to obligations and order is valued more than individual fulfillment.

Lee Kuan Yew understood this ethos which was why he always maintained, in the face of criticism of his heavy-handedness, that he knew his society better than the critics of his methods. Implicit in Lee’s approach was his confidence that Singaporeans would  applaud his quasi-authoritarianism when they see its economic outcome: the transformation of a resource-bereft and vulnerable geographic crossroads into a world hub of transport and trade. Singapore’s GDP was US$1 billion in 1960; in 2013 it was US$298 billion.

SingaporeSingapore’s spectacular economic growth has made Lee’s advice on how to govern much sought after, especially among leaders of countries keen to transform their backward economies.

India has declared a day of national mourning and its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a devotee of the economic-growth-as-panacea school, will attend Lee’s funeral in the island-state today, surely a mark of his determination to emulate the Singaporean model of development.

Singapore’s phenomenal economic progress gave Lee the platform to advice even the big powers on matters of geopolitical and strategic interest, with the former US President Richard Nixon an admirer who wryly observed that the “engine was too big for the boat”, by which he meant Lee’s intelligence and ability ought to have had an impact on a widely beneficial scale than just the tiny island he led from obscurity to economic powerhouse.

This brings us to the inevitable question of the what-might-have-been had Lee and Singapore not been, in his words, “turfed out” of Malaysia in 1965. The whole question of Singapore’s merger and separation from its 1963 federation with Malaya and Borneo is so vexed a matter that even after a half-century the subject is suffused with emotion that hinders objective assessment.

It will require a historian of Olympian detachment to unpack the tangled strands and allow the judgmental chips to fall where they may. If history is the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another, that definition implies a changing standard which may not be as impressed with Lee’s achievements as they presently rate on history’s scales.

Late 20th century and early 21st century truisms about economic-growth-as-panacea may not hold for long as the idea of progress takes in a more comprehensive view of human beings finding fulfillment in civil society, unhindered by any idea that the state knows best.

If standards come to that, Lee Kuan Yew’s ratings will waver from its present lofty levels, but then he may contend that history’s scales are fairly bogus in any case and that what matters are the here and now.

READ THIS:

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/what-you-think/article/lee-kuan-yew-an-appreciation.-he-broke-the-model-danny-quah

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/obituary-lee-kuan-yew-the-benevolent-dictator