Malaysia, the Philippines and ASEAN


December 7, 2016

Malaysia, the Philippines and ASEAN

by Trissia Wijaya

Will Malaysia and Philippines” tilt to China undermine ASEAN? Trissia Wijaya writes there are signs for optimism.

In the wake of a series of unprecedented statements from Prime Minister Najib Razak and President Rodrigo Duterte, many are casting doubt over whether ASEAN really does matter to its member countries.

The tilt of Malaysia and the Philippines towards China have reinforced the perception of China’s expanding influence in the region, stirring fresh concerns that Beijing will erode ASEAN and draw the organisation closer to its orbit.

Under Duterte’s administration, Manila’s approach towards China has changed dramatically, from previously fractious to now almost-kowtowing. Only a step behind Duterte, Malaysia has followed in embracing China, with Najib even calling himself a “true friend” of China and inking a naval deal that takes their relationship to “new heights”.

In light of these recent mind-boggling performances, it’s legitimate to ask whether this show of engaging China is the beginning of the end for ASEAN’s legitimacy in the region, particularly since Manila is about to take up the 2017 ASEAN chairmanship.

These changing regional dynamics and relationships set up a future with two foreseeable scenarios for ASEAN.

In the first scenario, ASEAN is imminently faced with a crisis of legitimacy and purpose. Although China’s chequebook diplomacy helps to fund regional infrastructure development, it could come at a price of fundamentally altering the power balance in ASEAN’s engagement with China

In the realm of realpolitik, Malaysia and Philippines’ shifts away from the US towards China may perhaps not be aberrant behaviour, as leaders generally assess the cost and benefits of their decisions. For both Duterte and Najib, the US pivot to Asia has been coupled with increasingly-troubled relationships with the superpower through the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia and the role of the US military presence in the Philippines.

Hence, mending fences with Beijing is less risky than holding onto long-standing maritime disputes against it. China issuing a “no-strings-attached chequebook” would indirectly support Najib in maintaining his grip on power amid the 1MDB crisis, and would allow Duterte to keep fuelling his war on drugs unchecked.

An old Chinese saying talks of “one bed, different dreams”. Throughout the years of ASEAN, despite each nation’s different dreams, members have at least slept in the same bed. Creating a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and engagement with China through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) during the early 1990s are some of ASEAN’s successes in its attempt to guide China to agree to a multilateral framework. When the South China Sea dispute became a principal agenda item for the first time at the 1997 ARF annual meeting, ASEAN’s confidence-building measures thawed China-ASEAN state relations. ASEAN successfully procuring China’s active participation in the ARF eventually resulted in the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, which reiterated Beijing’s commitment to prevent further escalation of tensions.

However, during the past few years, the inability of ASEAN to resolve maritime disputes has been challenging the “one bed” concept. The region is potentially about to be drawn closer to China, led on a rope to Beijing’s bed. In such a scenario, ASEAN is powerless, and the regional dynamic would be transformed into something akin to an imperial tributary system.

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Nonetheless, with Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory in mind, there remains room for optimism.

In the second foreseeable future for ASEAN, Duterte and Najib’s China lovefest could in fact strengthen ASEAN legitimacy. The pragmatic approach of Duterte could potentially lead to an important thawing of China-ASEAN relations. An ASEAN foreign policy independent from the US, a possible outcome of Trump’s isolationalist approach to the region, would be initially detrimental to balancing China’s assertiveness. However, as the next chair of ASEAN, this frees Manila to potentially bring China back on track – to the “bed of ASEAN” – in a manner similar to the early years of ARF, where ASEAN took the role of “policeman” in monitoring Beijing’s moves in the region.

Duterte and Najib’s engagement approach towards China could put pressure on that country to undertake a more benevolent policy approach to the region. China’s policy-making process has been traditionally reactive to the US’ presence at their doorstep. Despite years of criticism over China’s hostile expansionism, particularly in the case of the South China Sea, China would always defend their policy as a necessary defensive measure against an aggressive US presence. If Duterte and Najib are genuine about opposing US interference in the region, China’s assertive and expansionist policy has no legs to stand on, and ASEAN will understandably expect a shift in China’s policy dynamic.

Trump’s extraordinary victory may soon end the US’s rebalancing policy and downgrade the US presence in the Asian region. Thus, since China is likely to feel less contained, it may become more open to entertaining ASEAN’s dispute settlement mechanisms.

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D.J. Trump will unbalance Asia

All in all, although ASEAN’s future remains a puzzle, Duterte and Najib’s developing relationships with China need not erode the legitimacy of the regional organisation as long as they play based on rules, where engagement is not “the end”, but the “process” to ensure China is still in the game. ASEAN’s engagement of China must be underscored by confidence that the member states’ tilts towards China are not simply about pursuing ‘interdependence’ at all costs. Instead, these tilts should be seen as ways to create cooperative relations, strengthen a rules-based process, and find new areas of agreement.

Trissia Wijaya is a MEXT¹s scholar at the Graduate School of International Relations at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan. Her research interests primarily lie in international relations in the Asia-Pacific and foreign policy.

http://www.newmandala.org/malaysia-philippines-asean/

 

Najib’s Vocal Defense of the Rohingya Backfire lacks credibility


December 6, 2016

Najib’s Vocal Defense of the Rohingya Backfire lacks credibility, given his domestic human rights record

http://thediplomat.com/2016/12/will-najibs-vocal-defense-of-the-rohingya-backfire/

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While Najib’s remarks at the Stadium Titiwangsa in Kuala Lumpur drew strong support from the Rohingya community in Malaysia, and marked the first time a Southeast Asian leader has condemned the Myanmar state’s actions in such strong terms, they should be treated with some caution.

A cynical reading of Najib’s address would see him reaching for the moral high ground at a time of immense domestic pressure. These, after all, have not been quiet months for Najib, who has battled corruption allegations over the 1MDB scandal since early 2015 – and has just emerged from a series of tense and highly visible protests led by BERSIH, a wide-reaching campaign for clean government. Despite winning a state election in Sarawak earlier this year, Najib’s ruling National Front has struggled to regain its former popularity, and was recently faced with allegations of human rights violations (from Laurent Meillan, acting representative of the UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia, no less) over the arrests of several activists at the Bersih rallies.

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In this light, there is little doubt that Najib’s statements are at least partly designed to shore up his human rights record and regain much-needed political capital. State violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar has taken place since at least 2012, and it’s hard to overlook the particular timing of Najib’s unprecedented response. In a pointed statement ahead of the rally, the President’s Office in Myanmar called it a “calculated political decision to win the support of the Malaysian public.’”

But this was not simply the case of the wrong person saying the right thing at the wrong time. Najib’s statements reflect several political dilemmas that lie at the heart of the refugee question in Southeast Asia, and three elements of his speech deserve closer examination. First, it is worth noting that he chose to frame the issue with a moral vocabulary that other Southeast Asian leaders have, thus far, kept at arm’s length. He emphatically referred to the abuses as “genocide,” and called them, “by definition, ethnic cleansing.” With a characteristic rhetorical flourish, he asked the crowd: “Do they want me to close my eyes? Want me to be mute? […] What’s the point of a Nobel Peace Prize?”

Such statements, which not only imply that he is acting on a universal duty of response – and holding Suu Kyi to the global ideals that are seen to underwrite her Nobel Prize – are a deliberate departure from the position, long held among Southeast Asian policymakers, that regional and local values hold sway in Southeast Asian contexts. Building on the “Asian Values” discourse, Southeast Asian leaders  and diplomats have previously stressed the region’s “incommensurable differences from the West” as reasons to question the universality of human rights. Najib’s statements suggest a clear pivot away from the default Southeast Asian position, and besides voicing indirect criticism at his own region’s lackluster human rights record, they may also imply that the global community (and the support it can offer) seems somewhat closer to Najib at this point than his immediate neighbors.

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The Rohingya Issue is an ASEAN and International Challenge

Second, Najib’s comments on the ASEAN Charter raise difficult questions about regional cooperation in a time of fraught relations. In response to the Myanmar government’s statement – which framed the planned protests as an external intervention in its internal affairs, and reminded Malaysia to adhere to ASEAN principles of noninterference –Najib said: “There is an article in the ASEAN charter that says ASEAN must uphold human rights. Are they blind? Don’t just interpret things as you choose.” In any case, he added, “this is not intervention. This is universal human values.”

These remarks come in the wake of palpable friction among ASEAN members over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, and both the United States’ and China’s increasing involvement in the region. Noninterference by regional and global powers alike has been a core tenet of ASEAN’s institutional stability since its inception, and has been credited for promoting peaceful relations in Southeast Asia especially since the end of the Cold War. However, Najib’s comments have flagged up the uncomfortable truth that this insistence on traditional state sovereignty may be less and less tenable in the present global context, and especially with regards to transnational migration. From Malaysia’s perspective, with more than 56,000 Rohingya refugees already registered by the UN refugee agency within its borders, the question of what constitutes “external interference” seems especially urgent. Najib may have a point: that ASEAN’s ability to effectively tackle regional issues is not necessarily helped by its members’ sensitivities to others’ incursions on their turf.

Finally, Najib’s focus on the “root cause” of refugee flight – Myanmar’s internal abuses against the Rohingya – successfully presents the crisis as a national issue, and sidesteps the glaring evidence that countless refugees are trafficked across the region in horrific conditions, and fall victim to the combined effects of patchy law enforcement, organized crime, and Southeast Asia’s insatiable appetite for cheap labor. Many end up in Malaysia and Thailand, or in refugee camps in Indonesia; because none of these countries are signatory to the Refugee Convention, few enjoy the legal right to work or corresponding protections against abusive employers. In late 2015, the discovery of the mass graves of human trafficking victims in Malaysia brought the regional scale of the issue to global attention.

Najib’s call for Myanmar to cease crackdowns against the Rohingya, while valuable in itself, swept this wider incrimination of Southeast Asian governments, including his own, under the carpet. More than a choice of political convenience, it was perhaps a deliberate decision to downplay transnational aspects of the refugee question, and – by drawing on regional and global perceptions of Myanmar as a pariah state in transition – place the responsibility for regional crisis within the already-tied hands of an unstable administration. While raising his human rights credentials vis-à-vis his neighbors, thus, Najib simultaneously exempted them from adopting a concerted response.

For those concerned – as we should all be – about the increasingly dire situation facing the Rohingya in Southeast Asia, Najib’s decision to take the stage with firm words against the events in Myanmar offer limited consolation. Beyond achieving domestic political motives, his remarks have sharpened the existing tensions between global and local values, ideas of regional integration and national sovereignty, and questions of transnational and national responsibility. At best, we can hope that Najib continues to place valuable political capital behind his rhetoric. At worst, the ideals he has promoted may well be eroded by a failure to follow up with policy. It would not be the first time.

Theophilus Kwek is currently reading for a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University. He has served as co-editor of the Journal of Politics and Constitutional Studies, publications director of OxPolicy, and vice president of the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group.

Singapore: Multiculturalism and Race Relations


December 4, 2016

Singapore: Multiculturalism and Race Relations

More than 95% of the approximately 2,000 Singaporean residents surveyed agreed that diversity is valuable, and that all races should be treated equally and with respect. They also reported that they lived peacefully with those of other races, standing up for them and accepting them. While it is not possible to ascertain the depths of interactions, many respondents said they had friends of other races and attended their cultural celebrations.

By Mathew Mathews

The just-released Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies survey on race relations captures the reality of multicultural living in Singapore.

Broadly put, it sheds light on how Singaporeans have — or believe they have — interpreted and exemplified our shared ethos of multiculturalism. More than 95% of the approximately 2,000 Singaporean residents surveyed agreed that diversity is valuable, and that all races should be treated equally and with respect. They also reported that they lived peacefully with those of other races, standing up for them and accepting them. While it is not possible to ascertain the depths of interactions, many respondents said they had friends of other races and attended their cultural celebrations.

Perhaps the Singaporean Chinese, who constitute three quarters of our citizen population, should get some credit for positive race relations in Singapore.  Despite being an overwhelming majority, only a third of those surveyed supported the statement that “It is only natural that the needs of the majority race should be looked after first before the needs of the minority races”.

By not clamouring for majority rights, the Chinese have allowed the principles of meritocracy to gain substantial ground in Singapore. This is evident from the 89% of respondents across races in the survey who agreed with the statement that “Everyone who works hard, no matter what race they are, has an equal chance to become rich.”

But the strong endorsement of multicultural principles and relationships does not mean that our society is free from racism. About a quarter of respondents perceived themselves to be at least mildly racist while 38% of all respondents rated their close friends similarly.

Asked how racist most Singaporean Chinese, Malays and Indians were, nearly half of respondents classified each of these generalised groups as at least mildly racist. Respondents were even more likely to use the racist label when asked to rate new migrants from China, India and the Philippines. This finding can be explained by social psychological research, which has shown that people often view themselves more favourably. We judge others based on their actions but justify our own behaviour by pointing to our good intentions.

Nevertheless the survey showed that a significant number of people had seen racism on display by others, which reminds us that it still wields its head in our society. These racist behaviours are likely to be of a mild variety, for few of our respondents, including minorities, in the last two years, had experienced instances of insults, name calling, threats or harassment, which is the standard fare of racism in many societies.

In Singapore, perceptions of racism tend to be based on interpersonal actions which may subtly convey that one group is inferior. In this regard, more minorities compared to majority members agreed that they had experienced incidents where “People have acted as if they think you are not smart” or “People have acted as if they’re better than you are”. While two thirds of minorities who experienced such incidents attributed these differential experiences to race, quite a number at the same time also linked this to their educational or income level. This implies that sometimes it is difficult to tease out the exact source of bias.

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Another manifestation of the mild form of racism that respondents cited has to do with the presence of racial stereotypes.  Nearly half of respondents believed that people of some races are more disposed to having the negative traits such as violence, getting into trouble and being unfriendly. While stereotypes can be leveled at all groups, the effects of the stereotypes are different. Being labelled “enterprising”, “afraid to lose” and “money-minded”  may be regarded as necessary traits for success in competitive market environments. But to be viewed as “overly religious”, “boisterous”, “lazy” or “smelly” may have rather dire consequence in how one is treated and might inhibit entry and progress in a profession. It can sometimes also convey that one’s racial and cultural background is essentially second class and subject to derision.

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Some have contended that racism can also be seen when people prefer a member of their race to fulfill certain roles. The survey results confirmed that most people are more comfortable with someone who is racially similar when it comes to marrying into the family, sharing personal problems, managing one’s own business, and the appointment of the Prime Minister and President. Such preferences seem to be etched deep into our being with some recent research claiming that even babies demonstrate such in-group bias in choosing which other baby in their playgroup they will help.

However in-group bias is not always adaptive. Thus, many more minorities compared to majority respondents reported their acceptance for the majority race to fulfill many roles — only 38% of Chinese respondents would be accepting of a Singaporean Malay helping to manage their business while practically all Chinese respondents would accept a fellow Chinese in that role. However, 82% of Malay respondents said they would accept a Singapore Chinese in that role. This is because minorities who live in a space with many more majority members are aware that it is simply not tenable to expect only members of their race to fulfill important roles and relationships. But in our increasingly cosmopolitan city, majority members also should realise that it may no longer be useful even for them to accept only those who are racially similar to themselves in many relationships.

The character of racism that exists in Singapore was not shaped by acrimonious histories that have plagued a number of societies, where specific groups have been actively subjugated, sometimes through slavery and worse still genocide. Rather, the vestiges of racism here stem from our innate in-group preferences which have sometimes left us lacking in sensitivity and self-awareness when we interact with those who are ethnically different. If we are to overcome this we need to talk about our differences, as much as we talk about our commonalities. It is through this process of frank discussion and an openness to understand others that we can eliminate unfair stereotypes and biases. With that, we can go beyond simply agreeing with our multicultural ideals to actually realising them in practice.

 

Dr Mathew Mathews is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. He was the lead researcher in the CNA-IPS Survey on Race Relations.

This piece first appeared in TODAY on 19 August 2016.

Top photo from IStock.

 

Desperate Najib Razak resorts to Fear Tactics


December 4, 2016

Desperate  Najib Razak resorts to Fear Tactics— Emboldened and defiant Malaysians will fight on

by Bridget Welsh

This week’s UMNO meeting reflects rising paranoia. So far he has managed to hold on to power, but not without incurring serious costs. Growing authoritarianism, widening political polarisation, deepening ethnic tensions and discredited immoral leadership have damaged Malaysia’s social and political fabric. Najib’s mismanagement is also evident in the economy’s contraction and the depreciating currency. That thousands braved threats of arrest and thuggery to attend the Bersih 5 rally shows that many Malaysians are willing to fight on and will  fight on and will not be cowed. –Bridget Welsh

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This week Najib Tun Razak is beating the Malay chauvinist drum at his party’s annual general assembly (AGM). Meetings of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) have regularly followed this mode, but the use of racism and paranoia have taken on greater intensity in the face of its leader’s eroding political legitimacy.

For the past two years, Malaysia’s Prime Minister has been beleaguered by the 1MDB scandal that has involved not only nearly $700 million going into Najib’s personal account but also raised issues of criminal money laundering, embezzlement and economic mismanagement involving over $3.5 billion. The case is being investigated and prosecuted in over six jurisdictions, most notably by the US Department of Justice.  The scandal featured centre stage in last month’s Bersih 5 rally in which thousands went to the streets to protest corruption, economic mismanagement and systematic inequalities in the electoral process.

Despite public discontent, Najib has adeptly used a variety of tactics to stay in power, which is crucial if he is to avoid international prosecution. The most obvious of these involves a crackdown on political opponents. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed in 2015. Since then more than 10 opposition politicians have faced a variety of charges from sedition to challenges to ‘parliamentary democracy’. Last month whistleblower and parliamentarian, Rafizi Ramli, was convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act for releasing evidence associated with 1MDB. This week’s UMNO meeting has called for continued no-holds barred attacks on the opposition.

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The crackdown on dissent has also targeted civil society. On the eve of the 19 November Bersih 5 rally, its chairperson, Maria Chin Abdullah, was arrested. She was held in solitary confinement and charged as a ‘terrorist’ under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act. This follows a litany of attacks on other activists, cartoonists and artists, as well as ordinary citizens for ‘insulting’ posts on Facebook and WhatsApp. In 2015 there were 91 cases for ‘sedition’ alone. Human Rights Watch has detailed these in an October 2016 report.

The media has also been in the firing line. In 2015 the harassment of publishers led to the closure of The Malaysian Insider. Last month the online portal Malaysiakini was raided, and its editor Steven Gan was charged for simply publishing a video. This comes on the back of the Communication and Media Act being tightened in March. ‘Protection’ from insults has extended beyond Najib to those seen to be protecting him. The aim is to silence criticism of Malaysia’s most unpopular prime minister.

To complement these attacks, Najib’s government has deepened its use of racial chauvinism. From the 2013 elections onwards, it has depicted opposition to it as ‘Chinese’ and reinforced the view that Najib’s UMNO party, is the only viable protector of the Malays. This politicised framing lacks any grounding in reality as over 40 per cent of Malays voted for the opposition in 2013 and the most recent Bersih rally showcased the breadth of multi-ethnic opposition to Najib, especially among young Malays. Nevertheless, Najib’s strategy has increased ethnic tensions along political lines. His ratcheted war-like rhetoric at the UMNO meeting points to a willingness to tear the society apart for his own political survival.

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Scare tactics have extended to thuggery, most evident in the crass use of violence and intimidation by the UMNO-linked ‘red shirts’. Some of these political vigilantes – many of them allegedly paid to participate in hooliganism – have also been arrested but have clearly received favourable treatment. Despite official denials, the widespread perception is that thuggery is being promoted by the government.

Najib’s machinations also involve political manoeuvring. He has forged an alliance with conservative Islamist zealots. His government has allowed Wahhabi Islam to extend its extremist and intolerant tentacles through the unchecked and increasingly locally- and internationally-funded religious bureaucracy, with particular support from Najib’s close ally and 1MDB partner Saudi Arabia. Lacking moral authority of his own, Najib has chosen to ally himself with the discredited Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), led by Hadi Awang and his designer suit-wearing appointees. Perceptions of corruption and discriminatory land grabbing from indigenous people have corroded PAS’s public support, as Hadi has introduced a bill that hypocritically strengthens the punishment of ordinary Muslims for immoral activity. This bill, known as RUU 355, will open up opportunities for abuse by authorities in a government where the rule of law is not fairly practised and fuel ethnic tensions. It is no coincidence that bill was reactivated after the Bersih 5 rally.

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Most of Najib’s politicking has focused on maintaining the support of his own party. He has repeatedly paid off UMNO leaders for their ‘loyalty’ through patronage while also purging UMNO of its leading critics. Former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad resigned from the party earlier this year due to his opposition to Najib, while the party voted to expel former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, another prominent critic of the Prime Minister. Najib appointed the grassroots party-stalwart Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as his deputy, aiming in the short-term to deflect party challenges. He is seen to be holding off on the appointment of his favoured cousin, Hishammudin Hussein. But even within UMNO dissatisfaction remains high due to the realisation that Najib is an electoral liability and UMNO could lose. This is despite the attacks, divisions and lack of clear alternative leadership from the opposition.  The public shows of loyalty through dictator-like salutes of the leader at the UMNO AGM hide real unease among members and growing discontent between UMNO elites and the grassroots.

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It is therefore little wonder that Najib has increasingly relied on the levers of power to stay in office. His government has broadened gerrymandering and malapportionment in the 2015-2016 electoral redelineation exercise, conducting it without transparency and repeatedly dismissing the record number of challenges. He has also increased populist measures to buy support among Malaysia’s poorest citizens, a pattern that was replicated in the May 2016 Sarawak state elections. These measures have been introduced despite serious strain on operating budgets for government departments and widespread cuts to education and public services.

To compensate for the lack of funds and rising debt, Najib has turned to his new geostrategic ally – China – for money. Not only did China bail out Najib over 1MDB, but he also returned from a visit to Beijing at the beginning of last month bearing some $34 billion worth of deals, funds perceived to help greasing the patronage wheels ahead of the next elections to be scheduled before the end of 2018.

China has a vested interest in keeping a weak, dependent, autocratic leader in power. Little attention is being paid to the potential loss of Malaysian territory to the Chinese, to the unfavourable terms of these arrangements and their limited positive impact on Malaysia’s economy. Guarding against the possibility of electoral defeat, Najib has also established the new National Security Council, which came into effect in August and allows the prime minister to dictatorially declare a state of emergency through a body made up of his own appointees. At the same time, Najib has created a new special defence force and increased his personal protection.

While the Prime Minister has tried to use fear against his people, the person who has been the most afraid is Najib himself. This week’s UMNO meeting reflects rising paranoia. So far he has managed to hold on to power, but not without incurring serious costs. Growing authoritarianism, widening political polarisation, deepening ethnic tensions and discredited immoral leadership have damaged Malaysia’s social and political fabric. Najib’s mismanagement is also evident in the economy’s contraction and the depreciating currency. That thousands braved threats of arrest and thuggery to attend the Bersih 5 rally shows that many Malaysians are willing to fight on and will not be cowed. The test ahead will be the point when Najib’s fear campaign backfires more widely, and more Malaysians realize that the only thing they have to fear is Najib himself.

This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and debate.

Dr, Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate of the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University. She specializes in Southeast Asian politics, with particular focus on Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore. She has edited/written numerous books including, Reflections: The Mahathir Years, Legacy of Engagement in Southeast Asia, Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years, Democracy Takeoff? The B.J. Habibie Period, Awakening: The Abdullah Badawi Years (a Malay edition Bangkit was published in 2014) and The End of UMNO? Essays on Malaysia’s Dominant Party.  She is the Asian Barometer Survey Southeast Asia core lead, and is currently directing the survey project in Malaysia and Myanmar.

http://www.newmandala.org/40574-2/

 

ASEAN still the critical catalyst for China’s future


December 4, 2016

ASEAN still the critical catalyst for China’s future

by Kishore Mahbubani, Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School@NUS

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China is making some serious strategic mistakes in its dealings with ASEAN. It is sacrificing its long-term interests in favour of short-term objectives and its global interests in favour of regional concerns. And in the process, it is undermining a critical catalyst to its peaceful rise.

China’s peaceful emergence as the number two power in the world is a modern geopolitical miracle. In 1980 its share of global GDP in purchasing power parity terms, was 2 per cent—far less than the 22 per cent the US accounted for. By 2014, China’s share had overtaken the United States. Normally such great-power transitions are accompanied by competition and conflict. Instead, China emerged peacefully. Why?

 

Many factors were responsible. Deng Xiaoping’s wise geopolitical advice to ‘hide and bide’ China’s strength was a key factor. He also called on the Chinese ‘to swallow bitter humiliation’. This they did. But it is impossible to swallow bitter humiliation forever. It was inevitable that China would eventually lose its patience and lash out against perceived maritime provocations by Japan and ASEAN. We can only hope that these recent outbursts have had a cathartic and calming effect on the national psyche.

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Yet China’s actions with ASEAN show that the anger has not abated. It is commonly believed that Chinese pressure led Cambodia to veto the ASEAN joint communique on the South China Sea in 2012. Similarly, China likely persuaded Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to walk away from the agreed ASEAN statement, later indiscreetly leaked by Malaysia.

China is one of the more rational geopolitical actors today. Unlike the United States and Russia, China’s geopolitical actions are not commonly driven by emotional paroxysms. Yet China’s atypical emotional defence of the infamous ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea goes against its larger global interests.

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China is now the world’s number one trading power and has been since 2014. It is also the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods. Chinese toothbrushes and detergents arrive safely on African and Latin American shores because the world’s oceans are open to freedom of navigation and safe for commercial shipping. The US Navy is inadvertently doing the Chinese economy a big favour by keeping international sea lanes open. This has facilitated the near quadrupling of China’s global trade from US$600 billion in 2004 to US$2.2 trillion in 2015.

Yet in the same decade, when its reliance on freedom of navigation in the world’s oceans increased, China prioritised regional interests ahead of its global interests. The nine-dash line, which had remained dormant for decades, suddenly surfaced in the Chinese public consciousness and the Chinese media began to defend it passionately.

It is against Chinese interests to convert any international waterway into an internal lake. This is why Wei Zongyou of Fudan University has wisely advised that: ‘[t]o avoid a possible maritime trap that will not only be detrimental to China’s true national interests, but also negatively affect many other countries, China, as a major claimant, should think longer term and take steps to de-escalate the tension’.

The Chinese government has not decided to break up ASEAN. Indeed, it wants to strengthen ASEAN. Yet its actions have weakened ASEAN, a dangerous thing to do to an organisation that is inherently fragile—perhaps as fragile as a Ming vase.

More dangerously, China began to undermine ASEAN’s unity. In theory, China can afford to alienate the ten relatively weak ASEAN member states. In practice, China is shooting itself in the foot, since ASEAN’s exceptional success as a regional organisation has also facilitated China’s peaceful rise.

In the 1980s the strategic alignment of interests between ASEAN, China and the United States to reverse Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia enabled China to open up to the world. In the 1990s, after the West isolated China following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, ASEAN kept engaging with China. In the 2000s, ASEAN reacted enthusiastically to China’s proposal for enhanced economic cooperation, which also coincided with China’s entry into the WTO.

China has also been exceptionally generous towards ASEAN. It stunned the world by being the first major economic power to propose a free trade agreement with ASEAN, motivating other powers to follow suit. China has been equally generous in its aid programs and was the first economic power to commit to enhancing ASEAN’s infrastructure. As a result, there were, until recently, massive reservoirs of goodwill towards China in ASEAN. It’s a tragedy that these reservoirs are now drying up.

ASEAN had responded positively to China’s generosity. It facilitated China’s rise in other salient ways. By converting the Balkans of Asia into one of the most peaceful regions in the world, ASEAN helped to change the chemistry of the larger East Asia region. China should look carefully at how Russia has been troubled by challenges in Ukraine and Syria. If Southeast Asia had emerged, like the Middle East, as a more troubled region, China would inevitably have been distracted.

Instead, ASEAN created a geopolitical oasis which helped maintain peace in East and South Asia. The annual ASEAN meetings provided the only safe and stable geopolitical platform for regional and great powers to talk to each other regularly. Whenever relations between China and Japan broke down, their leaders turned to the ASEAN meetings to restore matters.

ASEAN has therefore been a critical catalyst for the decades of peace that we have seen in the region. This is why the time has come for China to radically recalculate its interests in regards to ASEAN. Is the defence of the nine-dash line the ‘core interest’ of China in Southeast Asia? Or is it the continued success of ASEAN as a regional organisation promoting the culture of peace and prosperity in the broader region?

The answer almost seems obvious. This is what makes China’s recent actions towards ASEAN truly puzzling. China is jeopardising its own interests in undermining ASEAN unity.

More importantly, as China’s leaders frequently emphasise, China has not arrived as a modern developed power. Its per capita income is still only 25 per cent of the United States’. China still needs a few more peaceful decades to complete the job.

Ultimately, Deng Xiaoping was right when he called on the Chinese people to be patient. He was right in saying that the problem of territorial disputes should be passed to future generations. The problem of the South China Sea should be put on the back-burner. China’s larger interests in peaceful regional chemistry should push it towards preserving and strengthening the critical catalyst that has facilitated China’s rise so far.

Kishore Mahbubani is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Managing China’.

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2016/11/29/asean-still-the-critical-catalyst-for-chinas-future/

Congratulations to the People of Thailand


December 3, 2016

Congratulations to the People of Thailand

by AFP

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn becomes Rama X of Thailand’s Chakri Dynasty, but will not formally be crowned until after his father’s cremation, which is expected next year.

King-Rama

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn became the King of Thailand late Thursday, opening a new chapter for the powerful monarchy in a country still mourning the death of his father.

The 64-year-old Prince inherits one of the world’s richest monarchies as well as a politically febrile nation, 50 days after King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death.

After weeks of complex palace protocols the Prince was invited by the head of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) to ascend the throne in an event broadcast on all Thai television channels.

“I agree to accept the wishes of the late King… for the benefit of the entire Thai people,” said Vajiralongkorn, wearing an official white tunic decorated with medals and a pink sash.

The sombre, ritual-heavy ceremony at his Bangkok palace was attended by the Chief of the NLA, junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha, and the powerful 96-year-old head of the privy council, Prem Tinsulanonda.

Red-jacketed courtiers looked on as a palace staff member, shuffling on his knees, presented the new King with a microphone through which he delivered his few words of acceptance.

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His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn then prostrated himself, hands pressed together in respect, to a small shrine topped by a picture of his father and mother —Her Majesty Queen Sirikit Kitiyakara.

He becomes Rama X of Thailand’s Chakri dynasty, but will not formally be crowned until after his father’s cremation, which is expected next year.

Bhumibol’s reign, which ended on October 13, spanned a tumultuous period of Thai history pockmarked by a communist insurgency, coups and street protests.

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It also saw breakneck development which has resulted in a huge wealth disparity between a Bangkok-centric elite and the rural poor.To many Thais, Bhumibol was the only consistent force in a politically combustible country, his image burnished by ritual and shielded by a harsh royal defamation law.

The United States offered its congratulations to the new King, saying it looked forward to strengthening ties with Thailand. “We offer our best wishes to his majesty and all of the Thai people,” the State Department said.

“His father, King Bhumibol, ruled the Kingdom of Thailand with vision and compassion for 70 years and was a great friend of the United States. The United States and Thailand enjoy a longstanding, strong, and multifaceted bilateral relationship, and we look forward to deepening that relationship and strengthening the bonds between our two countries and peoples going forward.”

Into the limelight

Monks chanted blessings at Buddhist temples to mark the new monarch’s ascension — an era-defining moment for most Thais who for seven decades knew only Bhumibol as their King.

His Majesty Vajiralongkorn does not yet enjoy the same level of popularity.He spends much of his time outside of the public eye, particularly in southern Germany where he owns property.

He has had three high-profile divorces, while a recent police corruption scandal linked to the family of his previous wife allowed the public a rare glimpse of palace affairs.

Thursday’s ascension ends a period of uncertainty since Bhumibol’s death prompted by the Prince’s request to delay his official proclamation so he could mourn with the Thai people.

Thailand’s constitutional monarchy has limited formal powers but it draws the loyalty of much of the kingdom’s business elite as well as a military that dominates politics through its regular coups.

Analysts say  His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn, untested until now, will have to manage competing military cliques.

In a brief televised address after the ceremony, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who as army chief led the 2014 coup, praised the new King “as the head of the Thai state and heart of the Thai people.”

The Thai monarchy is protected from criticism by one of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, carrying up to 15 years in jail for every charge of defaming the King, Queen, heir or regent.

That law makes open discussion about the Royal Family’s role all but impossible inside the Kingdom and means all media based inside the country routinely self-censor. Convictions for so-called “112” offences — named after its criminal code — have skyrocketed since the Generals seized power in 2014.

Experts say most have targeted the junta’s political opponents, many of whom support the toppled civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

The emergence of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin in 2001, a vote-winning billionaire seen by many of the rural poor as their champion, prompted the recent round of political conflict. The army and royalist establishment have toppled two governments led by the siblings, accusing them of nepotism and corruption.