President Barack H. Obama’s Lecture on Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela


July 20, 2018

President Barack H. Obama’s Lecture on Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela

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On July 17th, former President Obama delivered the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, in Johannesburg, South Africa. The lecture came not long after Donald Trump’s press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. The talk was Obama’s most extensive reflection so far on the current political climate, though it did not once mention Trump by name. The lecture is edited, but not much.—David Remnick

When my staff told me that I was to deliver a lecture, I thought back to the stuffy old professors in bow ties and tweed, and I wondered if this was one more sign of the stage of life that I’m entering, along with gray hair and slightly failing eyesight. I thought about the fact that my daughters think anything I tell them is a lecture. I thought about the American press and how they often got frustrated at my long-winded answers at press conferences, when my responses didn’t conform to two-minute sound bites. But given the strange and uncertain times that we are in—and they are strange, and they are uncertain—with each day’s news cycles bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines, I thought maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try to get some perspective. So, I hope you’ll indulge me, despite the slight chill, as I spend much of this lecture reflecting on where we’ve been and how we arrived at this present moment, in the hope that it will offer us a roadmap for where we need to go next.

Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multiracial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible, and that it can achieve more peace and more coöperation in pursuit of a common good.–Barack H Obama

One hundred years ago, Madiba was born in the village of Mvezo. In his autobiography, he describes a happy childhood: he’s looking after cattle; he’s playing with the other boys. [He] eventually attends a school where his teacher gave him the English name Nelson. And, as many of you know, he’s quoted saying, “Why she bestowed this particular name upon me, I have no idea.”

There was no reason to believe that a young black boy at this time, in this place, could in any way alter history. After all, South Africa was then less than a decade removed from full British control. Already, laws were being codified to implement racial segregation and subjugation, the network of laws that would be known as apartheid. Most of Africa, including my father’s homeland, was under colonial rule. The dominant European powers, having ended a horrific world war just a few months after Madiba’s birth, viewed this continent and its people primarily as spoils in a contest for territory and abundant natural resources and cheap labor. The inferiority of the black race, an indifference towards black culture and interests and aspirations, was a given.

Such a view of the world—that certain races, certain nations, certain groups were inherently superior, and that violence and coercion is the primary basis for governance, that the strong necessarily exploit the weak, that wealth is determined primarily by conquest—that view of the world was hardly confined to relations between Europe and Africa, or relations between whites and blacks. Whites were happy to exploit other whites when they could. And, by the way, blacks were often willing to exploit other blacks. Around the globe, the majority of people lived at subsistence levels, without a say in the politics or economic forces that determined their lives. Often they were subject to the whims and cruelties of distant leaders. The average person saw no possibility of advancing from the circumstances of their birth. Women were almost uniformly subordinate to men. Privilege and status was rigidly bound by caste and color and ethnicity and religion. And even in my own country, even in democracies like the United States, founded on a declaration that all men are created equal, racial segregation and systemic discrimination was the law in almost half the country and the norm throughout the rest of the country.

That was the world just a hundred years ago. There are people alive today who were alive in that world. It is hard, then, to overstate the remarkable transformations that have taken place since that time. A second world war, even more terrible than the first, along with a cascade of liberation movements from Africa to Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, would finally bring an end to colonial rule. More and more peoples, having witnessed the horrors of totalitarianism, the repeated mass slaughters of the twentieth century, began to embrace a new vision for humanity, a new idea, one based not only on the principle of national self-determination but also on the principles of democracy and rule of law and civil rights and the inherent dignity of every single individual.

In those nations with market-based economies, suddenly union movements developed, and health and safety and commercial regulations were instituted, and access to public education was expanded, and social welfare systems emerged, all with the aim of constraining the excesses of capitalism and enhancing its ability to provide opportunity not just to some but to all people. And the result was unmatched economic growth and a growth of the middle class. In my own country, the moral force of the civil-rights movement not only overthrew Jim Crow laws but it opened up the floodgates for women and historically marginalized groups to reimagine themselves, to find their own voices, to make their own claims to full citizenship.

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It was in service of this long walk towards freedom and justice and equal opportunity that Nelson Mandela devoted his life. At the outset, his struggle was particular to this place, to his homeland—a fight to end apartheid, a fight to insure lasting political and social and economic equality for its disenfranchised nonwhite citizens. But through his sacrifice and unwavering leadership and, perhaps most of all, through his moral example, Mandela and the movement he led would come to signify something larger. He came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world, their hopes for a better life, the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs.

Madiba’s light shone so brightly, even from that narrow Robben Island cell, that in the late seventies he could inspire a young college student on the other side of the world to reëxamine his own priorities, could make me consider the small role I might play in bending the arc of the world towards justice. And when, later, as a law student, I witnessed Madiba emerge from prison, just a few months, you’ll recall, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I felt the same wave of hope that washed through hearts all around the world.

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Do you remember that feeling? It seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable. Each step he took, you felt this is the moment when the old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds that had so long stunted people’s lives and confined the human spirit—that all that was crumbling before our eyes. Then, as Madiba guided this nation through negotiation painstakingly, reconciliation, its first fair and free elections, as we all witnessed the grace and the generosity with which he embraced former enemies, the wisdom for him to step away from power once he felt his job was complete, we understood that—we understood it was not just the subjugated, the oppressed who were being freed from the shackles of the past. The subjugator was being offered a gift, being given a chance to see in a new way, being given a chance to participate in the work of building a better world.

During the last decades of the twentieth century, the progressive, democratic vision that Nelson Mandela represented in many ways set the terms of international political debate. It doesn’t mean that vision was always victorious, but it set the terms, the parameters; it guided how we thought about the meaning of progress, and it continued to propel the world forward. Yes, there were still tragedies—bloody civil wars from the Balkans to the Congo. Despite the fact that ethnic and sectarian strife still flared up with heartbreaking regularity, despite all that as a consequence of the continuation of nuclear détente, and a peaceful and prosperous Japan, and a unified Europe anchored in NATO, and the entry of China into the world’s system of trade—all that greatly reduced the prospect of war between the world’s great powers. From Europe to Africa, Latin America to Southeast Asia, dictatorships began to give way to democracies. The march was on. A respect for human rights and the rule of law, enumerated in a declaration by the United Nations, became the guiding norm for the majority of nations, even in places where the reality fell far short of the ideal. Even when those human rights were violated, those who violated human rights were on the defensive.

With these geopolitical changes came sweeping economic changes. The introduction of market-based principles, in which previously closed economies, along with the forces of global integration powered by new technologies, suddenly unleashed entrepreneurial talents to those that once had been relegated to the periphery of the world economy, who hadn’t counted. Suddenly they counted. They had some power. They had the possibilities of doing business. And then came scientific breakthroughs and new infrastructure and the reduction of armed conflicts. Suddenly a billion people were lifted out of poverty, and once starving nations were able to feed themselves, and infant mortality rates plummeted. And, meanwhile, the spread of the Internet made it possible for people to connect across oceans, and cultures and continents instantly were brought together, and potentially all the world’s knowledge could be in the hands of a small child in even the most remote village.

That’s what happened just over the course of a few decades. And all that progress is real. It has been broad, and it has been deep, and it all happened in what—by the standards of human history—was nothing more than a blink of an eye. And now an entire generation has grown up in a world that by most measures has gotten steadily freer and healthier and wealthier and less violent and more tolerant during the course of their lifetimes.

It should make us hopeful. But if we cannot deny the very real strides that our world has made since that moment when Madiba took those steps out of confinement, we also have to recognize all the ways that the international order has fallen short of its promise. In fact, it is in part because of the failures of governments and powerful élites to squarely address the shortcomings and contradictions of this international order that we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business.

So, we have to start by admitting that whatever laws may have existed on the books, whatever wonderful pronouncements existed in constitutions, whatever nice words were spoken during these last several decades at international conferences or in the halls of the United Nations, the previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away. They were never fully dislodged. Caste differences still impact the life chances of people on the Indian subcontinent. Ethnic and religious differences still determine who gets opportunity, from Central Europe to the Gulf. It is a plain fact that racial discrimination still exists in both the United States and South Africa. And it is also a fact that the accumulated disadvantages of years of institutionalized oppression have created yawning disparities in income, and in wealth, and in education, and in health, in personal safety, in access to credit. Women and girls around the world continue to be blocked from positions of power and authority. They continue to be prevented from getting a basic education. They are disproportionately victimized by violence and abuse. They’re still paid less than men for doing the same work. That’s still happening. Economic opportunity, for all the magnificence of the global economy, all the shining skyscrapers that have transformed the landscape around the world, entire neighborhoods, entire cities, entire regions, entire nations have been bypassed.

In other words, for far too many people, the more things have changed, the more things stayed the same.

And while globalization and technology have opened up new opportunities and driven remarkable economic growth in previously struggling parts of the world, globalization has also upended the agricultural and manufacturing sectors in many countries. It’s also greatly reduced the demand for certain workers, has helped weaken unions and labor’s bargaining power. It’s made it easier for capital to avoid tax laws and the regulations of nation-states—can just move billions, trillions of dollars with a tap of a computer key.

The result of all these trends has been an explosion in economic inequality. It’s meant that a few dozen individuals control the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity. That’s not an exaggeration; that’s a statistic. Think about that. In many middle-income and developing countries, new wealth has just tracked the old bad deal that people got, because it reinforced or even compounded existing patterns of inequality; the only difference is it created even greater opportunities for corruption on an epic scale. And for once solidly middle-class families in advanced economies like the United States, these trends have meant greater economic insecurity, especially for those who don’t have specialized skills, people who were in manufacturing, people working in factories, people working on farms.

In every country, just about, the disproportionate economic clout of those at the top has provided these individuals with wildly disproportionate influence on their countries’ political life and on its media; on what policies are pursued and whose interests end up being ignored. Now, it should be noted that this new international élite, the professional class that supports them, differs in important respects from the ruling aristocracies of old. It includes many who are self-made. It includes champions of meritocracy. And, although still mostly white and male, as a group they reflect a diversity of nationalities and ethnicities that would have not existed a hundred years ago. A decent percentage consider themselves liberal in their politics, modern and cosmopolitan in their outlook. Unburdened by parochialism, or nationalism, or overt racial prejudice or strong religious sentiment, they are equally comfortable in New York or London or Shanghai or Nairobi or Buenos Aires or Johannesburg. Many are sincere and effective in their philanthropy. Some of them count Nelson Mandela among their heroes. Some even supported Barack Obama for the Presidency of the United States, and by virtue of my status as a former head of state, some of them consider me as an honorary member of the club. And I get invited to these fancy things, you know? They’ll fly me out.

But what’s nevertheless true is that, in their business dealings, many titans of industry and finance are increasingly detached from any single locale or nation-state, and they live lives more and more insulated from the struggles of ordinary people in their countries of origin. Their decisions to shut down a manufacturing plant, or to try to minimize their tax bill by shifting profits to a tax haven with the help of high-priced accountants or lawyers, or their decision to take advantage of lower-cost immigrant labor, or their decision to pay a bribe, are often done without malice; it’s just a rational response, they consider, to the demands of their balance sheets and their shareholders and competitive pressures.

But too often, these decisions are also made without reference to notions of human solidarity or a ground-level understanding of the consequences that will be felt by particular people in particular communities by the decisions that are made. And from their boardrooms or retreats, global decision-makers don’t get a chance to see, sometimes, the pain in the faces of laid-off workers. Their kids don’t suffer when cuts in public education and health care result as a consequence of a reduced tax base because of tax avoidance. They can’t hear the resentment of an older tradesman when he complains that a newcomer doesn’t speak his language on a job site where he once worked. They’re less subject to the discomfort and the displacement that some of their countrymen may feel as globalization scrambles not only existing economic arrangements but traditional social and religious mores.

Which is why, at the end of the twentieth century, while some Western commentators were declaring the end of history and the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy and the virtues of the global supply chain, so many missed signs of a brewing backlash—a backlash that arrived in so many forms. It announced itself most violently with 9/11 and the emergence of transnational terrorist networks, fueled by an ideology that perverted one of the world’s great religions and asserted a struggle not just between Islam and the West but between Islam and modernity. An ill-advised U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t help, accelerating a sectarian conflict.

Russia, already humiliated by its reduced influence since the collapse of the Soviet Union, feeling threatened by democratic movements along its borders, suddenly started reasserting authoritarian control and, in some cases, meddling with its neighbors. China, emboldened by its economic success, started bristling against criticism of its human-rights record; it framed the promotion of universal values as nothing more than foreign meddling, imperialism under a new name.

Within the United States, within the European Union, challenges to globalization first came from the left but then came more forcefully from the right, as you started seeing populist movements—which, by the way, are often cynically funded by right-wing billionaires intent on reducing government constraints on their business interests. These movements tapped the unease that was felt by many people who lived outside of the urban cores, fears that economic security was slipping away, that their social status and privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders, somebody that didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray as they did.

And, perhaps more than anything else, the devastating impact of the 2008 financial crisis, in which the reckless behavior of financial élites resulted in years of hardship for ordinary people all around the world, made all the previous assurances of experts ring hollow—all those assurances that somehow financial regulators knew what they were doing, that somebody was minding the store, that global economic integration was an unadulterated good. Because of the actions taken by governments during and after that crisis—including, I should add, by aggressive steps by my Administration—the global economy has now returned to healthy growth. But the credibility of the international system, the faith in experts in places like Washington or Brussels, all that had taken a blow.

A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear, and that kind of politics is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist. I am simply stating the facts. Look around. Strongman politics are ascendant, suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained—the form of it—but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.

In the West, you’ve got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders but also on barely hidden racial nationalism. Many developing countries now are looking at China’s model of authoritarian control, combined with mercantilist capitalism, as preferable to the messiness of democracy. Who needs free speech, as long as the economy is going good? The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media—once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity—has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories.

So on Madiba’s one-hundredth birthday, we now stand at a crossroads, a moment in time when two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world. Two different stories. Two different narratives about who we are and who we should be. How should we respond?

Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with Madiba’s release from prison, from the Berlin Wall coming down—should we see that hope that we had as naïve and misguided? Should we understand the last twenty-five years of global integration as nothing more than a detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history? Where might makes right, and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions, and nations compete in a zero-sum game, constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out? Is that what we think?

Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multiracial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible, and that it can achieve more peace and more coöperation in pursuit of a common good. That’s what I believe.

And I believe we have no choice but to move forward, that those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell. And I believe this not just based on sentiment. I believe it based on hard evidence: the fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards and the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal that we talk about and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens.

The fact that authoritarian governments have been shown, time and time again, to breed corruption, because they’re not accountable; to repress their people; to lose touch eventually with reality; to engage in bigger and bigger lies that ultimately result in economic and political and cultural and scientific stagnation. Look at history. Look at the facts.

The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial, or religious superiority as their main organizing principle, the thing that holds people together—eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war. Check the history books.

The fact that technology cannot be put back in a bottle, so we’re stuck with the fact that we now live close together and populations are going to be moving, and environmental challenges are not going to go away on their own, so that the only way to effectively address problems like climate change or mass migration or pandemic disease will be to develop systems for more international coöperation, not less.

We have a better story to tell. But to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win. Because history also shows the power of fear. History shows the lasting hold of greed and the desire to dominate others in the minds of men. Especially men. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who look different, or worship God in a different way. So if we’re truly to continue Madiba’s long walk towards freedom, we’re going to have to work harder, and we’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to learn from the mistakes of the recent past. And so, in the brief time remaining, let me just suggest a few guideposts for the road ahead, guideposts that draw from Madiba’s work, his words, the lessons of his life.

First, Madiba shows those of us who believe in freedom and democracy we are going to have to fight harder to reduce inequality and promote lasting economic opportunity for all people.

Now, I don’t believe in economic determinism. Human beings don’t live on bread alone. But they need bread. And history shows that societies which tolerate vast differences in wealth feed resentments and reduce solidarity and actually grow more slowly, and that once people achieve more than mere subsistence, then they’re measuring their well-being by how they compare to their neighbors, and whether their children can expect to live a better life. When economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, history also shows that political power is sure to follow. That dynamic eats away at democracy. Sometimes it may be straight-out corruption, but sometimes it may not involve the exchange of money; it’s just folks who are that wealthy get what they want, and it undermines human freedom.

Madiba understood this. This is not new. He warned us about this. He said, “Where globalization means, as it so often does, that the rich and the powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and the weaker, [then] we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.” That’s what he said. So if we are serious about universal freedom today, if we care about social justice today, then we have a responsibility to do something about it. And I would respectfully amend what Madiba said. I don’t do it often, but I’d say it’s not enough for us to protest; we’re going to have to build, we’re going to have to innovate, we’re going to have to figure out how do we close this widening chasm of wealth and opportunity, both within countries and between them.

How we achieve this is going to vary country to country, and I know your new President is committed to rolling up his sleeves and trying to do so. But we can learn from the last seventy years that it will not involve unregulated, unbridled, unethical capitalism. It also won’t involve old-style command-and-control socialism form the top. That was tried. It didn’t work very well.

For almost all countries, progress is going to depend on an inclusive, market-based system, one that offers education for every child, that protects collective bargaining and secures the rights of every worker, that breaks up monopolies to encourage competition in small and medium-sized businesses, and has laws that root out corruption and insures fair dealing in business, that maintains some form of progressive taxation so that rich people are still rich, but they’re giving a little bit back to make sure that everybody else has something to pay for universal health care and retirement security, and invests in infrastructure and scientific research that builds platforms for innovation.

I should add, by the way, right now I’m actually surprised by how much money I got, and let me tell you something: I don’t have half as much as most of these folks, or a tenth or a hundredth. There’s only so much you can eat. There’s only so big a house you can have. There’s only so many nice trips you can take. I mean … it’s enough! You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say, “Well, let me help out. Let me look at that child out there who doesn’t have enough to eat or needs some school fees. Let me help him out. I’ll pay a little more in taxes. It’s O.K. I can afford it.” I mean, it shows a poverty of ambition to just want to take more and more and more.

It involves promoting an inclusive capitalism, both within nations and between nations. As we pursue, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals, we have to get past the charity mindset. We’ve got to bring more resources to the forgotten pockets of the world through investment and entrepreneurship, because there is talent everywhere in the world if given an opportunity.

When it comes to the international system of commerce and trade, it’s legitimate for poorer countries to continue to seek access to wealthier markets… It’s also proper for advanced economies like the United States to insist on reciprocity from nations like China that are no longer solely poor countries, to make sure that they’re providing access to their markets and that they stop taking intellectual property and hacking our servers.

But even as there are discussions to be had around trade and commerce, it’s important to recognize this reality: while the outsourcing of jobs from north to south, from east to west, while a lot of that was a dominant trend in the late twentieth century, the biggest challenge to workers in countries like mine today is technology. The biggest challenge for your new President, when we think about how we’re going to employ more people here, is going to be also technology, because artificial intelligence is here, and it is accelerating, and you’re going to have driverless cars, and you’re going to have more and more automated services, and that’s going to make the job of giving everybody work that is meaningful tougher, and we’re going to have to be more imaginative. The pace of change is going to require us to do more fundamental reimagining of our social and political arrangements, to protect the economic security and the dignity that comes with a job. It’s not just money that a job provides; it provides dignity and structure and a sense of place and a sense of purpose. So we’re going to have to consider new ways of thinking about these problems, like a universal income, review our work week and how we retrain our young people, how we make everybody an entrepreneur at some level. We’re going to have to worry about economics if we want to get democracy back on track.

Second, Madiba teaches us that some principles really are universal, and the most important one is the principle that we are bound together by a common humanity, and that each individual has inherent dignity and worth.

It’s surprising that we have to affirm this truth today. More than a quarter century after Madiba walked out of prison, I still have to stand here at a lecture and devote some time to saying that black people and white people and Asian people and Latin American people and women and men and gays and straights, that we are all human, that our differences are superficial, and that we should treat each other with care and respect. I would have thought we would have figured that out by now. I thought that basic notion was well established. But it turns out, as we’re seeing in this recent drift into reactionary politics, that the struggle for basic justice is never truly finished. So we’ve got to constantly be on the lookout and fight for people who seek to elevate themselves by putting somebody else down. We have to resist the notion that basic human rights like freedom to dissent, or the right of women to fully participate in the society, or the right of minorities to equal treatment, or the rights of people not to be beat up and jailed because of their sexual orientation—we have to be careful not to say that somehow, well, that doesn’t apply to us, that those are Western ideas rather than universal imperatives.

Again, Madiba anticipated things. He knew what he was talking about. In 1964, before he received the sentence that condemned him to die in prison, he explained from the dock that “the Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, the Bill of Rights are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world.” In other words, he didn’t say, Well, those books weren’t written by South Africans, so I can’t claim them. No, he said, That’s part of my inheritance. That’s part of the human inheritance. That applies here, in this country, to me, and to you. That’s part of what gave him the moral authority that the apartheid regime could never claim. He was more familiar with their best values than they were. He had read their documents more carefully than they had. And he went on to say, “Political division based on color is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one color group by another.” That’s Nelson Mandela speaking in 1964, when I was three years old.

What was true then remains true today. Basic truths do not change. It is a truth that can be embraced by the English, and by the Indian, and by the Mexican, and by the Bantu, and by the Luo, and by the American. It is a truth that lies at the heart of every world religion—that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That we see ourselves in other people. That we can recognize common hopes and common dreams. And it is a truth that is incompatible with any form of discrimination based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation. And it is a truth that, by the way, when embraced, actually delivers practical benefits, since it insures that a society can draw upon the talents and energy and skill of all its people. And, if you doubt that, just ask the French football team that just won the World Cup. Because not all of those folks look like Gauls to me. But they’re French. They’re French.

Embracing our common humanity does not mean that we have to abandon our unique ethnic and national and religious identities. Madiba never stopped being proud of his tribal heritage. He didn’t stop being proud of being a black man and being a South African. But he believed, as I believe, that you can be proud of your heritage without denigrating those of a different heritage. In fact, you dishonor your heritage. It would make me think that you’re a little insecure about your heritage if you’ve got to put somebody else’s heritage down. Don’t you get a sense sometimes that these people who are so intent on putting people down and puffing themselves up, that they’re small-hearted, that there’s something they’re just afraid of? Madiba knew that we cannot claim justice for ourselves when it’s only reserved for some. Madiba understood that we can’t say we’ve got a just society simply because we replaced the color of the person on top of an unjust system, so the person looks like us even though they’re doing the same stuff, and somehow now we’ve got justice. That doesn’t work. It’s not justice if now you’re on top, so I’m going to do the same thing that those folks were doing to me, and now I’m going to do it to you. That’s not justice. “I detest racialism,” he said, “whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”

Now, we have to acknowledge that there is disorientation that comes from rapid change and modernization, and the fact that the world has shrunk, and we’re going to have to find ways to lessen the fears of those who feel threatened. In the West’s current debate around immigration, for example, it’s not wrong to insist that national borders matter; whether you’re a citizen or not is going to matter to a government; that laws need to be followed; that, in the public realm, newcomers should make an effort to adapt to the language and customs of their new home. Those are legitimate things, and we have to be able to engage people who do feel as if things are not orderly. But that can’t be an excuse for immigration policies based on race, or ethnicity, or religion. There’s got to be some consistency. We can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life. For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognize that could be somebody in our family, that could be my child.

Third, Madiba reminds us that democracy is about more than just elections. When he was freed from prison, Madiba’s popularity—well, you couldn’t even measure it. He could have been President for life. Am I wrong? Who was going to run against him? Had he chosen to do so, Madiba could have governed by executive fiat, unconstrained by check and balances. But instead he helped guide South Africa through the drafting of a new constitution, drawing from all the institutional practices and democratic ideals that had proven to be most sturdy, mindful of the fact that no single individual possesses a monopoly on wisdom.

No individual—not Mandela, not Obama—are entirely immune to the corrupting influences of absolute power, if you can do whatever you want and everyone’s too afraid to tell you when you’re making a mistake. No one is immune from the dangers of that.Mandela understood this. He said, “Democracy is based on the majority principle. This is especially true in a country such as ours, where the vast majority have been systematically denied their rights. At the same time, democracy also requires the rights of political and other minorities be safeguarded.” He understood it’s not just about who has the most votes. It’s also about the civic culture that we build that makes democracy work.

We have to stop pretending that countries that just hold an election where sometimes the winner somehow magically gets ninety per cent of the vote, because all the opposition is locked up or can’t get on TV, is a democracy. Democracy depends on strong institutions, and it’s about minority rights and checks and balances, and freedom of speech and freedom of expression and a free press, and the right to protest and petition the government, and an independent judiciary, and everybody having to follow the law.

And, yes, democracy can be messy, and it can be slow, and it can be frustrating. But the efficiency that’s offered by an autocrat, that’s a false promise. . . It leads invariably to more consolidation of wealth at the top and power at the top, and it makes it easier to conceal corruption and abuse. For all its imperfections, real democracy best upholds the idea that government exists to serve the individual, and not the other way around. And it is the only form of government that has the possibility of making that idea real.

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So, for those of us who are interested in strengthening democracy, it’s time for us to stop paying all of our attention to the world’s capitals and the centers of power, and to start focusing more on the grassroots, because that’s where democratic legitimacy comes from. Not from the top down, not from abstract theories, not just from experts, but from the bottom up. Knowing the lives of those who are struggling.

As a community organizer, I learned as much from a laid-off steelworker in Chicago or a single mom in a poor neighborhood that I visited as I learned from the finest economists in the Oval Office. Democracy means being in touch and in tune with life as it’s lived in our communities, and that’s what we should expect from our leaders, and it depends upon cultivating leaders at the grassroots who can help bring about change and implement it on the ground and can tell leaders in fancy buildings this isn’t working down here.

To make democracy work, Madiba shows us that we also have to keep teaching our children, and ourselves, to engage with people not only who look different but who hold different views. This is hard.

Most of us prefer to surround ourselves with opinions that validate what we already believe. You notice the people who you think are smart are the people who agree with you. Funny how that works. But democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours. And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you—because they’re white, or because they’re male—that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.

Madiba lived this complexity. In prison, he studied Afrikaans so that he could better understand the people who were jailing him. And when he got out of prison he extended a hand to those who had jailed him, because he knew that they had to be a part of the democratic South Africa that he wanted to build. “To make peace with an enemy,” he wrote, “one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.”

So, those who traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy, whether it’s on the left or the right, they make democracy unworkable. You can’t expect to get a hundred per cent of what you want all the time; sometimes you have to compromise. That doesn’t mean abandoning your principles, but instead it means holding on to those principles and then having the confidence that they’re going to stand up to a serious democratic debate. That’s how America’s founders intended our system to work: that through the testing of ideas and the application of reason and proof it would be possible to arrive at a basis for common ground.

I should add: for this to work, we have to actually believe in an objective reality. This is another one of these things that I didn’t have to lecture about. You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there is no basis for coöperation. If I say this is a podium and you say this is an elephant, it’s going to be hard for us to coöperate. I can find common ground for those who oppose the Paris Accords because, for example, they might say, Well, it’s not going to work; you can’t get everybody to coöperate. Or they might say it’s more important for us to provide cheap energy for the poor, even if it means in the short term that there’s more pollution. At least I can have a debate with them about that, and I can show them why I think clean energy is the better path, especially for poor countries, that you can leapfrog old technologies. I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is. I don’t know where to start talking to you about this. If you start saying it’s an elaborate hoax, where do we start?

Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda. We see it in Internet-driven fabrications. We see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment. We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders, where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. Politicians have always lied, but it used to be, if you caught them lying, they’d be, like, “Oh, man.” Now they just keep on lying. . .

I don’t think of myself as a great leader just because I don’t completely make stuff up. You’d think that was a baseline. Anyway, we see it in the promotion of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of science from leaders who find critical thinking and data somehow politically inconvenient. And, as with the denial of rights, the denial of facts runs counter to democracy. It could be its undoing, which is why we must zealously protect independent media. We have to guard against the tendency for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle, outrage, or disinformation. We have to insist that our schools teach critical thinking to our young people, not just blind obedience.

Which, I’m sure you are thankful for, leads to my final point: we have to follow Madiba’s example of persistence and of hope. It is tempting to give in to cynicism: to believe that recent shifts in global politics are too powerful to push back, that the pendulum has swung permanently. Just as people spoke about the triumph of democracy in the nineties, now you are hearing people talk about the end of democracy and the triumph of tribalism and the strongman. We have to resist that cynicism. Because we’ve been through darker times; we’ve been in lower valleys and deeper valleys.

Yes, by the end of his life, Madiba embodied the successful struggle for human rights, but the journey was not easy. It wasn’t pre-ordained. The man went to prison for almost three decades. He split limestone in the heat, he slept in a small cell, and was repeatedly put in solitary confinement. I remember talking to some of his former colleagues saying how they hadn’t realized, when they were released, just the sight of a child, the idea of holding a child, they had missed—it wasn’t something available to them, for decades.

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And yet his power actually grew during those years—and the power of his jailers diminished, because he knew that, if you stick to what’s true, if you know what’s in your heart, and you’re willing to sacrifice for it, even in the face of overwhelming odds, that it might not happen tomorrow, it might not happen in the next week, it might not even happen in your lifetime. Things may go backwards for a while, but, ultimately, right makes might, not the other way around. Ultimately, the better story can win out, and, as strong as Madiba’s spirit may have been, he would not have sustained that hope had he been alone in the struggle. Part of what buoyed him up was that he knew that, each year, the ranks of freedom fighters were replenishing, young men and women, here in South African, in the A.N.C. and beyond, black and Indian and white, from across the countryside, across the continent, around the world, who in those most difficult days would keep working on behalf of his vision. And that’s what we need right now. We don’t just need one leader; we don’t just need one inspiration. What we badly need right now is that collective spirit. And I know that those young people, those hope carriers, are gathering around the world. Because history shows that, whenever progress is threatened, and the things we care about most are in question, we should heed the words of Robert Kennedy—spoken here in South Africa—he said, “Our answer is the world’s hope: it is to rely on youth. It’s to rely on the spirit of the young.”

So, young people who are in the audience, who are listening, my message to you is simple: keep believing, keep marching, keep building, keep raising your voice. Every generation has the opportunity to remake the world. Mandela said, “Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.” Now is a good time to be aroused. Now is a good time to be fired up. And, for those of us who care about the legacy that we honor here today—about equality and dignity and democracy and solidarity and kindness, those of us who remain young at heart, if not in body—we have an obligation to help our youth succeed. Some of you know, here in South Africa, my foundation is convening over the last few days two hundred young people from across this continent who are doing the hard work of making change in their communities, who reflect Madiba’s values, who are poised to lead the way.

People like Abaas Mpindi, a journalist from Uganda, who founded the Media Challenge Initiative to help other young people get the training they need to tell the stories that the world needs to know.

People like Caren Wakoli, an entrepreneur from Kenya who founded the Emerging Leaders Foundation to get young people involved in the work of fighting poverty and promoting human dignity.

People like Enock Nkulanga, who directs the African Children’s Mission, which helps children in Uganda and Kenya get the education that they need and then, in his spare time, Enock advocates for the rights of children around the globe, and founded an organization called LeadMinds Africa, which does exactly what it says.

You meet these people, you talk to them, they will give you hope. They are taking the baton; they know they can’t just rest on the accomplishments of the past, even the accomplishments of those as momentous as Nelson Mandela’s. They stand on the shoulders of those who came before, including that young black boy born a hundred years ago, but they know that it is now their turn to do the work.

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Madiba reminds us, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and, if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.” Love comes more naturally to the human heart; let’s remember that truth. Let’s see it as our North Star, let’s be joyful in our struggle to make that truth manifest here on Earth, so that, in a hundred years from now, future generations will look back and say, “They kept the march going. That’s why we live under new banners of freedom.” Thank you very much, South Africa. Thank you.

  • Barack Obama was the forty-fourth President of the United

Do we really still need a council of elders?


July 19, 2018

Do we really still need a council of elders?

Image result for Anwar and Mahathir

QUESTION TIME | On May 11, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was sworn in at 9.30pm a day earlier as Prime Minister following the May 9 elections, announced a rather abbreviated list of key cabinet ministers which included just three others besides himself – Bersatu’s Muhyiddin Yassin as Home Minister, DAP’s Lim Guan Eng as Finance Minister and Amanah’s Mohamad Sabu for Defence.

Conspicuous by absence was any minister from PKR, the largest partner in the new ruling coalition with 48 seats, compared to 42 for DAP, 13 for Mahathir’s Bersatu and 11 for Amanah, indicating a schism already developing between Mahathir and PKR.

It will be two days later and after a meeting between Mahathir and de facto PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim before the latter’s wife, Wan Azizah Ismail was picked as Deputy Prime Minister.

Simultaneously, Mahathir announced a council of elders, which came to be known formally as the Council of Eminent Persons, headed by his old friend, the rather controversial former Finance Minister and UMNO Treasurer Daim Zainuddin.

It included as its members business tycoon Robert Kuok, former Bank Negara Malaysia Governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz, former Petronas CEO Hassan Merican and prominent economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram.

That sequence of events indicated that Mahathir was prepared to go it alone if he had to and the appointment of the council of elders probably came as surprise to the other parties in the Pakatan Harapan coalition, especially PKR who was already unhappy with losing the finance ministry to DAP on top of not being consulted.

Now here was a Jedi-like council which was going to hear representations from others and make recommendations. In Mahathir’s words at the press conference, these people (the council) will study a lot of things submitted to them from (events dating back to) 2009 until now because “we want to take action if necessary as quickly as possible. One thing we think is very important is the Ministry of Finance and Defence – we need to have them focus on that, and later Home Affairs have to be advised on what they need to know. That is the decision we have reached this evening.”

Two days after the elections and in the euphoria of the moment after ousting a kleptocracy, very few voiced any reservations and many welcomed the appointment of the council. But on further reflection, is such a council necessary? Or desirable even? Let’s see.

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Tun Daim Zainuddin enjoys the full confidence of Prime Minister because of his record of service as Finance Minister and problem solver.

One major concern about the council of elders is Daim himself and his past. Before Bersatu’s formation and entry into Harapan, Anwar had singled out Daim as one of the leaders who may be corrupt. In a recent interview after Daim’s appointment as head of the council, Anwar had this to say:

“He can contribute […] He must be aware that people are also expressing deep consternation that he has not been able to explain some of the major excesses of the past […] To me if you want to talk about democratic accountability, it must not stop at Najib […] although it does not extend to endless witch hunts.

“I discussed this with Guan Eng also, […] he (Daim) can assist, (but) there are major issues we have to address. He can contribute, I am not saying he should not. But he should be reminded and mindful […],” said Anwar.

Daim, however, in a reply at a press conference, said that “young fellows” were pushing Anwar. “I have met Anwar a couple of times. Anwar is a very polished politician, he knows the ground very well, he knew what the manifesto was.

‘[…] Pakatan Harapan offered Tun M as the Prime Minister for two years [… ] you have to honour the manifesto […] when you sell Tun M as the seventh prime minister you must honour that […] but the young fellows are in a hurry,” he said.

Not everyone happy

Clearly, not everyone was happy with Daim’s appointment as the head of the council of elders. Insiders say that while there are others in the council, all of whom have outstanding credentials, Daim does not listen sufficiently to alternative views. Thus, it may be possible that the final recommendations made would be vetted and diluted by Daim.

Also, committees have been set up under the council of elders to study things such as institutional reform and 1MDB but these reports have to be submitted to the council of elders and not directly to the prime minister or the cabinet, giving excessive power to this council and to Daim who heads it.

Quite alarmingly, the council appears to have forced the resignation of some people through intense questioning and questionable methods, contributing to a sort of witch-hunt under which people are made to feel that they must resign.

Apart from the resignation of Bank Negara Governor Muhammad Ibrahim, the most prominent example of this was when Daim was alleged to have forced the country’s two top judges, Chief Justice Mohd Raus Sharif and Court of Appeal President Justice Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin to quit.

According to a report in Malaysiakini, former Federal Court judge Gopal Sri Ram claimed it was “an open secret” that this occurred during a meeting at Daim’s private office. Sri Ram said Daim, who is also a lawyer, should not have demanded Raus’ and Zulkefli’s resignations, adding it was unconstitutional for anyone other than the Prime Minister to summon the head of the Judiciary.

“Daim is not the Prime Minister and even if he had been asked by the Prime Minister to do what he did, he should have declined and left it to the attorney-general, the prime minister and the cabinet to handle it.

“After all, we do not want to return to the old days when there was no respect for the separation of powers and the due observance of constitutional requirements,” Sri Ram said.

One wonders what was it that Daim said to obtain their prompt resignations when other calls before that for them to resign went unheeded.

Perhaps the most important question to ask is why have this council in the first place when a new government has been elected? The right thing to have done is to have appointed the cabinet as soon as possible, form committees in the various ministries to study issues, co-opt external experts as necessary and use civil servants who know the ground after many years of experience.

The reports can then be presented to the cabinet for discussion, further input and final approval. That way, ministers become fully responsible for their ministries and if these ministers are appointed with some wisdom and due consideration for their abilities, there is no reason why they can’t do a better job than a council of elders which may have tainted members.

Also, these ministers are eager to work, fresh, and many of them experienced. Barring at most three, the rest are untainted by previous hints of corruption or abuse of power.

In any case, that is what one would expect in a functioning democracy. The so-called council of elders is therefore unnecessary and ultimately it is a body that bypasses the role of the cabinet in the decision-making process of the country, giving advice directly to the PM.

The life of this council should not go beyond the hundred days allocated to it.

This is the third part in a series of articles on Malaysia post-GE-14. The others were:

Part 1: Mahathir’s patently unfair cabinet

Part 2: Did Mahathir win the general election?


P GUNASEGARAM has nothing against the council personally, most of whom he has great respect and admiration for and has interacted with in the past. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

 

Anwar Ibrahim’s Presidency will give Parti KeADILan Rakyat a much needed boost


July 19, 2018

Anwar Ibrahim’s Presidency will give Parti KeADILan Rakyat a much needed booster

by Phar Kim Beng

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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No Malaysian leader has endured so much humiliation, pain and anguish in the cause of justice and freedom and no politician is better to be next Prime Minister of Malaysia  than Anwar Ibrahim. PKR will get a huge boost under his presidency. –Din Merican

https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/2148930/anwar-ibrahim-qa-malaysian-democracy-icon-prison-dissent-and

COMMENT | May 9 was not so much about the fate of Malaysian democracy per se but the extent to which Malaysians were willing to go along with PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was then still in prison, though that seems so distant now, to collectively undergo the spiritual politics of rejuvenation.

Since 1998, Malaysians who dislike the polarisation of the country, invariably into one versus the other, has had to keep their mouths shut. Instead of wanting both Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar to rekindle their dynamic economic partnership which saw the fastest GDP growth in the mid-1990s, at least prior to the dawn of the Asian financial crisis in 1998, Malaysians have had to go along with weaker successors of Mahathir.

The disastrous selection of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Razak only goes to prove this point. Between 2004 and 2017, Malaysia has lost 13 precious years.

Indeed, Anwar’s comeback into the presidential politics of PKR has nothing to do with partisanship. Rather, this an opening to the return to a golden era, where the best of the Malaysian leaders can stand shoulder to shoulder with one another, preaching and practising progressive and inclusive politics.

If Amanah has Mohamad Sabu, Salahuddin Ayub, Khalid Samad, Hanipa Maidin, Mujahid Yusof Rawa and Mahfuz Omar, all superb parliamentarians, then it is about time Anwar step up to the podium to claim his rightful place – at the top – in PKR too.

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Two Intellectual Giants of ASEAN–President B.J.Habibie and Former Malaysian Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim–enjoy strong bonds of friendship based on personal admiration, loyalty, and mutual respect.

One might recall that Anwar was among the first of the ministers of education to speak at the conference on “Islam and Confucianism” at the Crystal Crown Hotel in Petaling Jaya in 1996. One would vividly remember him taking down the notes when other speakers were speaking.

Professor Tu Wei Ming at Harvard University was there, as was the likes of Professor Osman Bakar, a top historian in Islamic science. The latter even claimed that it was impossible for the vast majority of Chinese not to have received at least some messengers from God. Thus, one should look carefully at the message of Taoism and even Confucianism. Perhaps, just perhaps, these two creeds contain some monotheistic codes that mirror that of Islam and other Abrahamic faiths. Osman’s edited book ‘Islam and Confucianism: A Civilizational Dialogue’ published by Universiti Malaya contained some of these reflections.

Interestingly, the experience in Malaysia must have had a deep and lasting impression on Tu from Harvard too. In 1998, when I was in his seminar on ‘Confucianism and the Chinese Classics’, Tu affirmed that “having travelled the world over, he has now come to the conclusion that there are people who saw themselves as Confucian Catholics, Confucian Jews, even Confucian Muslims.” Tu, then added his own criteria, on what made them Confucian.

One, such Confucians would have to have a love for humanistic ethics, invariably, the effort to refine the heart and mind without fail. Each and every word and action would be carefully measured and performed, in order not to offend anyone; as is demanded by the Confucian rites of “li” (polite decorum).

Two, concurrent to these efforts, the believer must also try to use the heightened spiritual and ethical awareness to help the reforms of their countries/communities, ultimately the world writ large. These are not easy duties to perform. But to be a Confucian, Tu argued, one has to be at the forefront of constant action, especially if the mind and spirit have been reconciled as one.

After 10 and a half years in prison, all of which have been pardoned on the ground of miscarriage of justice, it goes without saying that Anwar is ready to serve Malaysia and the world.

Deeper questions

Lastly, all Confucians, must at all points ask themselves what make their similarities common across all religious and spiritual realms. In other words, a Confucian is one who seeks peace and truth, but is constantly pulled to the fore to ask ever deeper questions that can transcend all humanities. It is this spirit of perpetual curiosity, invariably, humility, that makes a Confucian Confucian. Not power over others. But power over oneself, what Islam may call “jihad al-akbar,” the greater conquest of the inner soul.

Since Tu was speaking in a combination of refined English and Chinese during the Harvard seminar, there was no way that he was taking this line of thought lightly. In fact, having attended the Confucian seminar in Malaysia, then in Harvard, both by Tu, I knew that his own intellectual crystallisation on Islam had been touched by his encounter with Anwar. During seminars, Tu would often ask if Anwar was well.

If Tu were to meet Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Putrajaya, Tu would have found equally good things to say about Mahathir as well. Rare is a man of 93 returning to politics to correct what had been done before. This, too, would fall under the Confucian concept of “self-rectification.”

As things are, Tu has become the director of Yenching Institute in Beijing University. There has been no recorded encounter between Tu, Mahathir and Anwar as yet. And, if Tu and Anwar were to meet again, one can certainly be sure that they will immediately send intellectual sparks flying.

In seeking to be PKR president, Anwar has positioned himself in a good Confucian and Islamic light – he is ready to serve. Besides, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and Nurul Izzah have given Anwar much to be proud of. The focus is on getting to the policy and intellectual battlefront in Malaysia.

Thus, it makes perfect sense to see the return of the Confucian gentleman that is Anwar Ibrahim, whose famous words, “Wor men shi ii jia ren” (We are all one family) will always ring true, and never hollow.


PHAR KIM BENG is a Harvard/Cambridge Commonwealth Fellow, a former Monbusho scholar at the University of Tokyo and visiting scholar at Waseda University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Don’t Kiss the Hand that Beats You


July 12, 2018

Don’t Kiss the Hand that Beats You

by Fadiah Nadwa Fikri

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Fadiah Nadwa Fikri@Oxford

https://malaysiamuda.wordpress.com/2018/07/09/jangan-engkau-cium-tangan-yang-memukulmu/

“To be free does not and cannot mean to only be free from the visible concrete prison walls in our midst. Freedom must mean that we are collectively free from invisible walls that have long been erected to rob us of our dignity. To be free is to persistently and collectively stand up against and resist institutional dehumanization in all its forms.”–Fadiah Nadwa Fikri

Jangan Engkau Cium Tangan yang Memukulmu

 

Artikel versi Bahasa Melayu boleh didapati di sini.

Upon his release from prison, former Opposition Leader and Prime Minister in waiting Anwar Ibrahim shared his thoughts on his winding political journey and went on to say something that was exceptionally profound – that the value of freedom was the lesson he learned from prison life. Three years flew by. A man’s liberty was taken away and shackled to prison walls. To spectators of this political episode, Anwar’s incarceration felt like a long absence.

In his absence, ordinary Malaysians continued to deal with their everyday struggles amidst the mundane and intolerable suffocating reality. Some struggled to navigate and make sense of the meaning of freedom, having been forced to live in a bigger prison surrounded by impenetrable walls invisible to many.

When May 9 happened, the country went into immense shock. To witness the fall of an authoritarian government which had been clinging on to power for 61 years was not an impossibility. It is undeniable that the change of government enabled, among others, the release of the former Opposition Leader. The picture of Anwar, swarmed by a sea of journalists, held tightly in his family’s arms, finally free from imprisonment was a sight to behold. The celebration continued late in the night, where thousands of supporters assembled at Padang Timur to listen to his freedom speech.

While the majority of Malaysians were still immersed in the indescribable euphoria, trying to wrap their minds around the change and what it meant for the country, the internal power struggle among the political elite started to rear its ugly head. Realizing how fragile the transition was, some started to question the drama that was unveiling before the nation. There were voices who were quick to tell critics to bite their tongues and have faith in people occupying positions of power.

The terrain on which this internal power struggle was taking place was clearly off limits to ordinary people – including the very people who elected those who are now at the helm of the government. This is the harsh reality associated with representative democracy – a reality we rarely talk about and examine, in which political participation is mainly confined to the ballot box whose final outcome would subsequently be handed over to the ruling elite. In defence of this reality, people are often told to wait another five years if they wish to change the government. Who has the luxury to wait another five years? This question must not be left unanswered.

Image result for anwar ibrahim and the sultan of johor

Any attempt to break the fortress built around this existing system in order to democratize the space for people to assert their political existence is often met with harsh criticism and rebuke. As a result, the power to shape the future and direction of the country remains in the hands of the privileged few, thus further alienating the voices of the many, in particular the marginalized. Genuine democracy which seeks to place people at its heart therefore remains out of reach.

The unending internal power struggle reached a whole new level when the picture of Anwar, bending down, kissing the hand of the Sultan of Johor emerged on the internet. Given the Prime Minister’s strained relationship with the monarchy, there are no prizes for guessing why the Prime Minister in waiting did what he did. What is disquieting about the act captured in the picture is the indefensible feudal culture it’s embodying and the catastrophic consequences it’s transmitting.

It bears reminding that to most of the rest of the world, monarchy was rendered obsolete a long time ago. History has shown that the absurdities on which the institution was built can no longer be tolerated, defended, and justified. To situate a class of people above others by virtue of their aristocratic birth could not be more revolting a notion – a notion that stands in contradiction to the concept of freedom and human dignity.

As people constantly rise to reclaim the meaning of freedom and human dignity in a world that is plagued with institutional dehumanization, this indefensible notion of subjugation raises a number of questions which demand answers. Why do people who bleed red just like everyone whom unconditional submission is forced upon deserve such privilege? Why do people who perpetually live off the backs of those who are struggling to survive and live a dignified life deserve god-like treatment and adoration? Why are people who are unilaterally endowed with immense power and wealth extracted from people they subjugate immune from accountability?

The answers to these questions lead us to one inevitable conclusion: not only is the monarchy anti-democratic, it is also a direct assault on our very dignity which is inherent to our existence as human beings. While proponents of this feudal relic would argue that the monarchy as it exists today is nothing but a neutral constitutional adornment, the fact however demonstrates the contrary. One must look beyond what is written in the Constitution in order to understand the politics this institution practices, whose interest it truly represents, and whose side it is on.

Image result for The Crown Prince of Johor

One month before the recent general elections, the Johor Crown Prince, popularly known as TMJ, unreservedly told the whole nation not to bring down the government – the government which had been ruling the country with an iron fist for 61 years. The Crown Prince’s act of uttering these words shortly before the elections, while many people were engulfed in simmering anger, struggling to escape the oppressive situations they had been subjected to for so long, was indeed a calculated move.

The act was clearly executed out of fear of the unknown – fear of losing the privilege and power accorded to the monarchy by the oppressive government who was complicit in subjugating the people, should a change of government become a reality. This particular event which is in no way an anomaly is proof that the institution has never been neutral. It’s as clear as day that the side of the people is the side it has never been on.

As for believers of this archaic institution who contend that it is a symbol of unity, standing on the side of the oppressor while many are denied the right to good life in a country that is structured by domination, inequality, and exploitation only speaks of one kind of unity: unity in oppression.

Image result for Anwar Ibrahim and The Sultan of Selangor

To be free does not and cannot mean to only be free from the visible concrete prison walls in our midst. Freedom must mean that we are collectively free from invisible walls that have long been erected to rob us of our dignity. To be free is to persistently and collectively stand up against and resist institutional dehumanization in all its forms. As Judith Butler puts it:

“Indeed, if resistance is to bring about a new way of life, a more livable life that opposes the differential distribution of precarity, then acts of resistance will say no to one way of life at the same time that they say yes to another. For this purpose, we must reconsider for our times the performative consequences of concerted action in the Arendtian sense. Yet, in my view, the concerted action that characterizes resistance is sometimes found in the verbal speech act or the heroic fight, but it is also found in those bodily gestures of refusal, silence, movement, refusing to move, that characterize those movements that enact democratic principles of equality and economic principles of interdependency in the very action by which they call for a new way of life more radically democratic and more substantially interdependent.”

 

 

 

The Fight for Democracy in Asia Is Alive and Well


July 3, 2018

The Fight for Democracy in Asia Is Alive and Well

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For decades, Asian values, under the guise of Confucianism, have been used by the region’s autocrats to ward off criticisms, mainly from the West, about their undemocratic ways. This argument’s most artful proponents are Singapore’s former Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, and Malaysia’s Dr. Mahathir Mohamad during his first stint as the country’s leader.

With the region in the thrall of dictatorships – from Korea’s Park Chung-hee in the north to Indonesia’s Suharto in the south – there seemed to be a seductive ring to the uniqueness of the Asian political culture.

But there is nothing quite like a few revolutions, mainly peaceful ones, to debunk the no-democracy-please-we’re-Asians theory. Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Myanmar, Mongolia, and Thailand overcame repressive governments to establish democratic systems. The extent of reform may be limited, as in the instance of Myanmar, or has backslid, as in Thailand. But the trend toward democratic change has been unmistakable.

Image result for Democracy in Malaysia

The New Democrats in Malaysia headed by former Asian Values proponent, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad took over Putrajaya after resoundingly defeating UMNO-BN in GE-14

The most recent example is, of course, Malaysia where after 61 years of one-party rule, Malaysians staged an electoral revolt of their own and sacked the Barisan Nasional government.

So, have Asian peoples jettisoned Asian values and adopted Western ones? Of course not. Remember that for the better part of the last two centuries, much of Asia toiled under the subjugation of Western colonialism, where the concepts of freedom and universal suffrage were as alien as the languages imposed on the natives.

The truth is that, regardless of the part of the world they inhabit, man has always sought to lord over his fellow beings. But it is just as ineluctable that the masses will, at some point, rise up to show despots the boot and claim their freedoms.

To avoid sounding simplistic, however, let me point out that the factors contributing to the demise of autocratic regimes in Asia are varied. Distressed economic conditions in the Philippines and Indonesia contributed massively to the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto. In Taiwan and South Korea, it was the burgeoning educated middle-class that grew intolerant of the oppressive military regimes.

Even so, these revolutions were not a result of spontaneous combustion. There were years of relentless campaigning and sacrifice by individuals who saw the need for change and, more importantly, found the courage to stand up and rattle the authoritarian cage. Regional organizations like the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, a body comprising political parties (both ruling and opposition) committed to advancing democracy in Asia, have been keeping freedom’s agenda on the front burner.

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The 1998 Reformasi paved the way for Malaysia’s New Democracy of 2018

Again, take the most recent case of Malaysia. Those who cried reformasi and fought corruption and abuse of power did not just surface during the historic elections this year. It was a struggle that spanned two decades, one which saw the opposition leaders and activists harassed, humiliated, and jailed. In the end, like in the other countries, the democrats prevailed.

The mother of all ironies is that it was Mahathir, the leader of the opposition coalition that toppled incumbent Najib Razak, who wrote in 1995 that Asia’s rejection of democracy came from the “Eastern way of thinking.”

Image result for CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Lee Hsien Loong

Singapore’s current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, unwilling or unable to read history, continues this charade. In a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he denied that his administration is repressive. Politics in Singapore, he insists, is the way that it is because Singaporeans voted for it. Of course, he did not mention that he had to change the rules for the presidential elections so that only his party’s nominee qualified as a candidate. There are elections and there are free and fair elections.

The not-so-hidden message for autocrats and democrats alike is that the mood in Asia has irrevocably altered. The idea that democracy is ill-suited to the Asian mind has been exposed for the propaganda that it is.

No wonder the fight for democracy is alive and well.

Chee Soon Juan is the secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party and former chairperson of CALD.  

Brader Anwar Ibrahim stands Up for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan


July 1, 2018

Brader Anwar Ibrahim stands Up for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

by Amanda Hodge Southeast Asia Correspondent

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/anwar-defends-his-praise-for-turkish-strongman-erdogan/news-story/1bf2cdb743b5441121aa38efd552318b

 

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Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s democracy champion and the country’s most famous former political prisoner, had barely tasted five weeks of freedom when he flew to Ankara last week and stood beside Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayipp Erdogan to praise his “commitment to democracy”.

“There are about four or five Anwars running around in his head,” said Professor Kessler. “He means well to everybody but he doesn’t know how to choose between contradictory positions. He can talk to any audience and people go away delighted, thinking ‘he thinks like us’. But put him in a situation where his actions can have a significant effect and he will always be a gift to people like Erdogan.”

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A Mandela of the East (Yusmadi Yusof) or a Janus-Faced Malay Muslim Politician (Clive  Kessler/Bridget Welsh)

Mr Erdogan’s election victory last Sunday, which critics say brings him ever closer to one-man rule, was a “victory for the Islamic world in portraying a modern and progressive face of Islam that embraces change while not compromising on the values of our faith and the fundamental teachings of the Holy Prophet”, Mr Anwar declared on his return home.

 

The comments by Malaysia’s Prime Minister-in-waiting have triggered alarm at his apparent disregard for the deterioration of human rights and democracy in Turkey, and wider international concern over what to expect from an Anwar-led government.

Mr Anwar yesterday defended his praise for Mr Erdogan, saying he supported Turkey’s democratic transition under Mr Erdogan after decades of military rule, but acknowledged “institutions need to be fortified”. “I emphasised democratic accountability in my remarks,” he told The Weekend Australian. “That would include the rule of law and an end to all draconian measures. I’m confident that Turkey would evolve into a more mature democracy. Despite some valid criticisms against his rule, Erdogan persists on a democratic agenda.”

Mr Anwar also accused Western nations of being “somewhat ambivalent, if not hypocritical” in dealing with the numerous attempted military coups in Turkey.

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Anwar Ibrahim I knew in 2007-2009.I respect his loyalty to his friend Erdogan. That is not the issue. More importantly, has he changed? Can he be trusted to pursue his Humane Economic Agenda and his Asian Renaissance  Vision? That is the lingering question in my mind? I am not sure anymore.–Din Merican

Southeast Asia expert Bridget Welsh — who taught at Turkey’s Ipek University until the failed coup in 2016 triggered a crackdown and purges against the civil service, academics and media — says Mr Anwar’s praise for Mr Erdogan could at best be seen as poor judgment and at worst a worrying portent for Malaysia under his future leadership. “He should have shown much more prudence before making this visit and even greater prudence before making those remarks,” she said.

“He has raised serious questions in the international community about the future of his leadership and whether or not he is actually a democrat. I think it’s deeply troubling and sends worrying signals for those concerned about reform in Malaysia.”

Asked if he believed such criticism was valid, Mr Anwar said he remained “consistent in my views against any excesses and would encourage (Mr Erdogan) to respect the rule of law”. “My commitment is for democratic accountability,” he said.

But Mr Anwar’s comments have also caused discomfit within his People’s Justice Party (PKR), part of the ruling Pakatan Harapan government under Mahathir Mohamad since the four-party coalition toppled the government of Najib Razak in a shock election victory last month.

Under a deal struck between Mr Anwar and Dr Mahathir, two former political foes, Dr Mahathir, 92, will serve half a term as prime minister before stepping aside for the 70-year-old.

PKR Vice-President Tian Chua said he believed Mr Anwar had been stating a personal opinion and not that of the party when he praised Mr Erdogan.

“When Anwar started his political career, Erdogan represented the hopes for the Islamic world to bring about a democratic system,” Mr Chua said. “No doubt he is an improvement from the previous military system, but … Erdogan has, during his time, tailor-made the constitution for his own power base and that is not the behaviour of a democrat.”

Last year, Mr Erdogan narrowly won a referendum allowing him to abolish the prime minister’s office and grant the president executive authority to effectively rule by decree.

Whereas Western nations see Mr Erdogan as an illiberal leader bent on subverting democracy to amass power, and as an increasingly problematic NATO ally, many in the Muslim world — including in South and Southeast Asia — see a modern champion.

Pakistan rushed to congratulate Mr Erdogan on his victory this week, as did separatist leaders in Indian Kashmir. Indonesian President Joko Widodo also praised Mr ­Erdogan’s victory, although in more measured tones, saying the Turkish people would be “more prosperous under your wise and measured leadership”.

Mr Anwar’s enthusiastic endorsement of Mr Erdogan is puzzling, not least because it ignores the tens of thousands of citizens in jail on spurious charges — a fate Mr Anwar shared for more than a decade.

Mr Erdogan’s measures to consolidate his power also resemble those of the Malaysian government, which Mr Anwar spent two decades fighting.

On his release last month, Mr Anwar told The Weekend Australian Canberra’s “muted” response to the oppression of the former Najib government had been “painful for democrats, those who are struggling for freedom in their countries”. “Those countries that are supposed to be beacons of democracy must rise up to the occasion and be seen to be playing a role and not just working with people who are known to be corrupt and authoritarian,” he said.

Dr Welsh says many Pakatan Harapan politicians have romanticised Mr Erdogan’s early ­victories and failed to fully comprehend what is happening in Turkey, and the parallels between how Mr Erdogan and Mr Najib maintained support.

“But the fact that Anwar would choose to go to Turkey and effectively campaign for Mr Erdogan speaks to a fundamental lack of a sense of principles of democratic governance. He didn’t speak up for one moment about the 200,000-plus people imprisoned in Turkey — many of them much more vulnerable than Anwar ever was — and, in fact, was supporting their jailer,” she said. “I think Anwar is blinded by personal loyalties and is focused on himself and not the bigger challenges the country faces.”

While Mr Anwar insisted his visit was based on “long-term friendship” and not politics, he endorsed Mr Erdogan before last Sunday’s election, calling him the “one leader who shows courage against the powers in the world” on the Palestinian issue and the plight of Rohingya Muslims.

Mr Anwar noted with gratitude that the Turkish President would “remind (Najib) about my release” at every meeting, but did not mention that it was to the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur he turned in 2008 when facing a second spurious sodomy charge.

National University of Malaysia associate professor Muhammad Takiyuddin bin Ismail believed Mr Anwar knew well the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey, but felt praising Mr Erdogan was the practical thing to do for the sake of securing his image in the Muslim world. “Erdogan, Anwar and Mahathir are widely seen as leaders who can confront and, at the same time, bridge the gap between Muslim and Western countries,” he said, adding both Malaysia and Turkey believed in the idea of “our way of democracy”.

“From a layman’s perspective, of course, it is poor political judgment to support an authoritarian leader like Erdogan, especially in the era of the ‘New Malaysia’, but Anwar must also appease the segments within the Muslim world who see Erdogan as someone who can represent their view.”

It is not the first time Anwar has shown such poor judgment and let what University of NSW emeritus professor Clive Kessler calls his “soft Islamist sentimentality” overshadow democratic principles. He was among the first foreigners in 1980 to go to Tehran to congratulate Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following the Iranian revolution.

Professor Kessler last month noted that, as Deputy Prime Minister in the 1990s, Mr Anwar “often proved a facilitator for harder-line Islamists” and could again “succumb to the same temptations”.

Mr Anwar’s supporters believe experience and hardship has moderated the former firebrand, and refined his ambitions for an Islamic renaissance in which the religion’s main tenets are harmoniously incorporated into a democratic system.

“There are about four or five Anwars running around in his head,” said Professor Kessler. “He means well to everybody but he doesn’t know how to choose between contradictory positions. He can talk to any audience and people go away delighted, thinking ‘he thinks like us’. But put him in a situation where his actions can have a significant effect and he will always be a gift to people like Erdogan.”