Malaysia-Singapore: 50 Years of Contentious and Prickly Relations

February 3, 2014



by Din Merican

Malaysia-Singapore: 50 Years of Contentions, 1965-2015 by Kadir Mohamad

Kadir Mohamed's book2

I just completed reading Ambassador (Tan Sri) Kadir Mohamad’s Malaysia Singapore Fifty Years of Contentions, 1965-2015. By presenting his thoughts and views in the form of an excellent book, Ambassador Kadir, who was Secretary-General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Wisma Putra) and Special Foreign Affairs Adviser to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, joins a select group of former Malaysian diplomats like Tun Ghazalie Shafie, Kamil Jaafar and Razali Ismail ,among others, who have shared their experiences with us. It is heartening to note that our public officials are making their contribution to our collective memory of Malaysian history since Independence.

His book is a timely contribution on the history of Malaysia-Singapore relations. In my view he is the first among them to deal in such great detail with the contentious and prickly relations between the neighbours since the republic’s “expulsion” (Kadir makes no apologies for using this word to describe what happened ) on August 9, 1965 from Malaysia. It is a serious book for the discerning student of foreign policy and international relations. It is not a memoir nor a ” last dispatch” of sorts that one encounters from some  recent writers on the subject.

Ambassador Kadir has “relied heavily on historical records, the works of other authors and contemporary writings by scholars and other public commentators for the facts”. His personal recollections and copious notes and other materials have also been employed to add value and excitement to the drama of diplomatic encounters on numerous issues  (in seven chapters) between Malaysia and Singapore over the last five decades.


In Chapter 8, the author gives us credible evidence of how Lee Kuan Yew single-handedly prescribed Singapore’s policies towards Malaysia, even after he relinquished his premiership to Goh Chok Tong in 1990. In his role as Senior Minister and later as Minister Mentor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr. Lee, the micro-manager of Singapore, was able to exert strong influence on Singapore’s foreign, economic and social  policies. Singapore’s Cabinet served as his proxy, says Ambassador Kadir.

Even after his retirement following the 2011 General Elections, his  personality, political dexterity, intellectual brilliance and moral authority (after all, he is a Philosopher-King and Confucian Mandarin) loom large over the blue skies of Singapore.  Here is an amazing Mr. Singapore, a view shared by his admirers and detractors.

Throughout the book on bilateral issues, Mr. Lee’s statecraft is present.

“Singapore negotiators in the past always had Lee Kuan Yew looking over their shoulders like a taskmaster; and they had to prove themselves constantly in the eyes of the taskmaster….Lee Kuan Yew is absolutely one of a kind.”

I wish to add that Mr. Lee taught Singaporean ministers and negotiators how to conduct “Janus faced diplomacy” (Lily Zubaidah Rahim), and to quote Ambassador Kadir again,” in which the business of foreign relations is conducted without sentiment, ideology or illusion, particularly where it concerns  Singapore’s security. That was the way it was in the last 50 years”.

The book by Ambassador Kadir then goes on to support this thesis with Malaysia Singapore relations  from 1965-2015 as a case study. In Chapter 2, Kadir tells us of the acrimonious discussions between the Malaysians and Singaporeans on Water that went on over several years till 2004 without any agreement.

A large part of reason of the failure to reach agreement until today was Lee Kuan Yew’s intervention in the negotiation process between 2000 and 2002. The water issue remains a national sore point in Malaysia”.

There is a perception here in Kuala Lumpur that the Republic is raking enormous money by selling treated water to third parties, namely to ships berthed in Singapore harbour. The 1961 Agreement expired in 2011,while two other agreements are in force until 2061. Let us hope by then, we in Johor and Malaysia can get an equitable deal for our water.

Bilateral negotiations on the status of Pulau Batu Puteh (Pedra Branca), as discussed in Chapter 3, made no progress during 1993 and 1994. The talks stalled when Singapore opted to adopt Mr. Lee’s preference for the dispute to be settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. The matter was finally adjudicated by the ICJ in 2008 in favour of Singapore, after some 18 years. It was, however, not a unanimous decision. This point was not known to the Malaysian public. Only 12 out 16 judges voted in favour of the decision.

In the case of Middle Rocks, 15 to 1 judges ruled in Malaysia’s favour. The ownership of South Ledge will be made after a delimitation of the territorial sea in the area surrounding Pulau Batu Puteh/Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge.

Chapter Four  deals with Points of Agreement. The issue was finally settled in 2011 by the Najib Administration. Finally, Mr. Lee was able to get KTMB to move to Woodlands and the Malaysian keris was finally removed from the heart of Singapore. This was because some commercial deals deemed favorable to both countries were made by Khazanah Nasional (Malaysia) and Temasek Holdings with some details yet to be finalized.

Another issue, raised in Chapter Five, was very difficult  which  was resolved by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi when the construction of the crooked bridge to replace the Causeway across the Straits of Johore was aborted, much to the consternation of former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed.Chapter 6 deals with Singapore’s Land Reclamation Project. It was the first time Malaysia took Singapore to international arbitration and got a judgment that in general was in its favour.

Chapter 7  deals with the Defence of Singapore. It makes a very interesting read on military strategy and security. It is Mr. Lee’s real legacy. How valid are his assumptions about its neighbours in South East Asia, especially Malaysia, in  the 21 century? Both countries are members of ASEAN and are bound by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Both have chosen in 50 years of their prickly and often contentious relations to resolve their differences through diplomacy and peaceful means. Surely, there must be better times ahead for Malaysians and Singaporeans.

I agree with Ambassador Kadir that Malayia is not a threat to Singapore’s security. So he rightly says:

” Indeed, Singapore need not be thinking like Israel because Singapore is not in the same situation as Israel. Israel has experienced actual military attack from outside while Singapore has not. Except for a few irrational acts of selective sabotage during Konfontasi, no country  has ever mounted a military attack against Singapore. A large part of the lingering problem is the teaching by Lee Kuan Yew that Singapore should never trust its neighbours. Such distrusting mind-set tends to imagine enemies everywhere and perceive threats where none exists.”

In the final chapter titled The Next Fifty Years, Ambassador Kadir isAfter 18 years, Kadir’s search for letter still goes on optimistic about our relations with Singapore. And why not? A new generation of leaders on both sides to the Causeway have taken over from their elders who fought colonialism, survived the two World Wars, gained independence and withstood the Cold War. These young leaders have new lenses on bilateral relations. Bitterness of the past should now be behind us.

Yes, Ambassador Kadir, as you say,

“…the logic for neighbouring countries is quite simple that they must cooperate. They can progress better by cooperating with each other instead of hindering one another. In fact, for Malaysia and Singapore the fundamentals already exist for establishing a new era of beneficial cooperation between themselves… Such cooperation is possible even if differences of opinion and approach continue to persist in some areas.”

In other words, let us put end to  50 years of contentious and prickly relations.

Impeaching YingLuck Shinawatra

January 16, 2015

Impeaching YingLuck Shinawatra

by KhemthongTonsakulrungruang

This impeachment is merely the latest in a series of attempted legal abuses by the elite establishment. With prejudiced minds and no legal grounds, the NLA is jeopardizing the rule of law, not upholding it as claimed…It is no secret that the junta-appointed NLA, who will determine Yingluck’s fate, is comprised mostly of her enemies.– Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang

YingluckLast Friday, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (left) testified before the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) in her impeachment hearing. The decision will be announced by the end of January. To many spectators, the junta tirelessly bullies the Shinawatra network.

This impeachment is merely the latest in a series of attempted legal abuses by the elite establishment. With prejudiced minds and no legal grounds, the NLA is jeopardizing the rule of law, not upholding it as claimed.

From which position will the NLA remove Yingluck? In the past fourteen months, she has dissolved the Lower House, has been dismissed from the premiership by the Constitution Court, and has been ousted by the coup d’état. The ultimate goal of the NLA must go beyond impeaching a woman with no political title. Thailand’s impeachment is quite unique in its punishment. Not only will it remove elected politicians or high-ranking officers from office, but also punish them with a five-year ban from politics. The latter is probably the real objective of this impeachment.

Because of the partiality of the legislative body itself, the impeachment seemed to be over before it began. It is no secret that the junta-appointed NLA, who will determine Yingluck’s fate, is comprised mostly of her enemies. One member of the NLA even criticized Yingluck for reading her remarks before the Assembly even though others have done the same. But bias is most evident in the NLA’s official justification of the impeachment. Since the 2014 Interim Charter does not mention the impeachment process, the NLA claimed that it was implying such jurisdiction from provisions of the 2007 Constitution, which has already been abolished by the junta. This action drew criticism that the NLA might be acting outside the scope of the Interim Charter.

Absence of impeachment provisions in the Interim Charter indicates that it might not be a part of the junta’s original plan. However, the move to impeach received strong support from the junta. With blessings to proceed from the junta itself, the hearing appears especially politically targeted.

The accusation also reveals bias in other government agencies that are purportedly politically neutral. The basis for Yingluck’s impeachment is corruption within the rice-pledging scheme which cost the government millions of baht. But, interestingly, although the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) accused her of corruption, the NACC failed to substantiate the claim and charge Yingluck with corruption. Instead, the NACC tried to impeach the former premier in a process in which the standard of proof is less stringent and the criteria for deliberation is more arbitrary. One need not be guilty in order to be impeached. The NACC’s enthusiasm in pursuing Yingluck’s case is in contrast to their apathy to the Democrats’ similar rice subsidy scheme. After much stagnation, the NACC decided to drop the investigation, claiming that most evidence had been lost during the great flood of 2011. Impeachment might be the ideal solution for a biased and incompetent NACC that investigates only political targets and fail to prepare a stronger case.

Even with the lowered standard of proof, the half-elected Senate could not historically gain the three-fifths majority required for impeachment. That was how Somchai Wongsawat and Noppadon Pattama escaped the sanction. Somchai, the then Prime Minister, was accused of ordering a violent crackdown on anti-government protest, resulting in two deaths. Noppadon, in the capacity of the Foreign Affairs Minister, was accused of signing a Joint Communique with Cambodia that put Thailand’s territory at risk. But in the currently non-partisan assembly, reaching consensus is not difficult. Yingluck’s chance of survival looks bleak.

In the foreseeable future, impeachment might be invoked more frequently. The Interim Charter mandates that an impeached politician or official be banned for life. In the Constitution Drafting Committee’s blueprint, the new constitution offered two tracks for impeachment. If an accused survives the two-fifth vote in both houses, his or her name will still be put on a list for the public to vote for impeachment. Impeachment would then become an ever more convenient, yet lethal, tool with which to harass the political opposition. Contradicting its public claims, the junta’s new constitution will create more political instability.

It is true that the rice-pledging scheme was economically unsustainable, but Yingluck should have been held accountable for her policy through a vote of no confidence or a loss in the general election, both of which are normal political processes of checks and balances. By invoking impeachment, the NLA is playing a dangerous game with its own support base. Should it impeach Yingluck, it will deepen resentment among pro-Shinwatra parties. Yet once the hearings have been initiated, the NLA could not spare Yingluck without risking the wrath of its anti-Shinawatra supporters. The outcome of the hearings may not only decide Yingluck’s fate but also the NLA’s.

No matter how the impeachment hearing will conclude for either the political future of the Shinawatra family or the popularity of the administration, the NLA’s arbitrariness has continued to jeopardize any remaining legitimacy of laws and public institutions in Thailand. It brings further destruction to the rule of law. This damaging legacy will last long after the current members of the NLA leave office.

Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a constitutional law scholar in Thailand

Wisma Putra summons US Ambassador for his remarks on Sedition Act, 1948

December 11, 2014

Wisma Putra summons US Ambassador for his remarks on Sedition Act, 1948 (12-10-14)

J Yun
The government has called in United States Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Yun (pic above) to explain remarks he made in an interview with Malaysiakini.Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said the remarks against Malaysia’s decision to retain the Sedition Act are “unwarranted and disappointing”.

Yun said the decision to retain the Act, used against opposition politicians, activists and a journalist in the past months, raises human rights concerns.

“The Sedition Act 1948 does not hinder a vibrant democracy. The Act is a preventive measure to ensure that no parties would incite religious and racial tension that could jeopardize peace and stability in the country,” Anifah said in a statement late today. He said Malaysia also wants the US to stay out of Malaysia’s internal affairs and let Malaysia take measures to ensure stability within its borders.

The Foreign Minister added that it is the government’s prerogative to retain the Sedition Act and any comments by foreign parties will be deemed as interference.

PM’s U-turn

In an interview with the portal, the US Ambassador said the government must have a good reason to make such a volte face on the Act, which has direct impact on basic freedoms.

“This is something really an internal affair in this country. And I mean, clearly for the government to have this change of position on an issue that is important to basic freedom, freedom of speech and dealing with the very plural society of Malaysia, there must be a good reason,” Yun said.

He said Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s U-turn on his promise to repeal the Sedition Act at the recent UMNO General Assembly is of concern to the US because Sedition Act, if wielded “too far”, would infringe on human rights. Najib had in 2012 promised to repeal the Act.

Malaysiakini‘s interview with Yun:

PART 1: US envoy: No country an island, not even M’sia

PART 2: ‘Prosecution must be free from political influences’



Joe Biden and Malaysia’s Sedition Act

December 6, 2014

COMMENT: Can we assume that Mr. Biden’s comments onNajib and Obama twitter reflect the official stance of the United States on Malaysia’s use of the Sedition Act against the political opposition, civil society activists, university students and academics. Is this view shared by Najib’s good friend, President Barrack Obama?I am not sure if that is the case.

I think a strong statement from the White House or the State Department is called for at this stage. Is that statement forthcoming? Not likely in my view, since the US is now considering visa free entry for Malaysians. The US is also very careful not to offend the Najib Administration since Malaysia is considering to become a signatory to the TPPA.  Until we have a strongly worded official statement from the Obama Administration, Mr. Biden’s views should be taken with a pinch of salt. It is well known that the US always acts in its national interest (which includes supporting rogue regimes and dictators) and right now, it can only make muted comments which are at best not helpful. Can anyone in the US care to comment?.–Din Merican

US President Joe Biden raises concerns over Sedition, Rule of Law and Human Rights in Malaysia

by The Malaysian Insider–December 5, 2014


The United States today expressed its concern over Malaysia’s use of the colonial-era Sedition Act to clamp down on voices of dissent even as ties between both countries continue to flourish.

United States Vice-President Joe Biden highlighted Putrajaya’s use of the Sedition Act 1948 to stifle opposition, saying it was concerned with the Rule of law.

“Amid growing US-Malaysia ties, Malaysian government’s use of legal system & Sedition Act to stifle opposition raises Rule of Law concerns,” he said in a tweet earlier today.

This follows Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s announcement at the recently-concluded UMNO General Assembly that the Sedition Act will be maintained (and in fact strengthened), reneging on his promise made two years ago to repeal it.

Najib had said during the UMNO General Assembly that the Act would be fortified with additional provisions that would make it a crime to insult Islam and other faiths, but insisted that he had not retreated from his moderate position, noting that the law was to cater to all Malaysians rather than his core support base, the Malays.

Despite many quarters slamming the Prime Minister over his broken promise, Biden, however, noted that Putrajaya still had a chance to redeem itself with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy appeal.

“Anwar Ibrahim’s appeal gives Malaysia a vital chance to make things right and promote confidence in its democracy  and Judiciary,” he said in another posting on Twitter.

Biden had signed off both posts with “vp”, indicating that it was the vice-president himself tweeting the statements.

Anwar, who is the Opposition Leader, is facing a five-year jail sentence after he was convicted of sodomising his former aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, six years ago.

The Federal Court, which recently heard his appeal, is currently preparing its judgement and is set to deliver it in a yet-to-be announced date.

In October, the US reminded Putrajaya to keep its promise to repeal the draconian law through a statement issued by the United States embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

“The United States remains concerned with the Malaysian government’s use of sedition laws. We welcomed Prime Minister (Datuk Seri) Najib Razak’s announcement in 2012 of his intention to repeal the Sedition Act and encourage the government to follow through on that commitment,” the statement said.

The superpower also said its officials have and would continue to raise concerns about the Rule of Law and Human Rights with the Malaysian government.

However, the Malaysian government told Washington to stay out of the debate on the matter, saying that it was an issue to be solved by Malaysians.

Najib had first announced the plan to abolish the act in June 2012, to be replaced by a National Harmony Act. The Sedition Act was amended five times with the last one in 1975.

But, Najib’s plan to abolish the Act faced objections from UMNO leaders and right-wing Malay groups. In his speech at the recent UMNO General assembly, Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin had said that Malaysia would be ruined without an Act that punished people for committing sedition.

Succumbing to pressure from within his party, Najib made a U-turn decision and said that the Sedition Act would stay and would be further strengthened to include a special provision to protect the sanctity of Islam, while other religions also cannot be insulted.

Following that, the Prime Minister came under fire from various parties, including the Opposition, social activists and NGOs who have been urging the government to repeal the Act given that many, apart from politicians, have been hauled up under this legislation. –

US Ambassador Joe Yun speaks to Malaysiakini

Malaysia as seen from Washington DC

October 29, 2014

Malaysia as seen from Washington DC

By Kean Wong, Special to the Malaysian Insider

 The White HouseThe White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had just outlined the robust prospects for Malaysia’s economy and was busy posing for photos with Malaysia’s new Ambassador to the United States Datuk Awang Adek and various Manhattan dignitaries on stage when a few visiting Malaysians and an American businessman familiar with what he called the “heyday of Mahathir’s Malaysia” opened up around the coffee stand about the challenges that needed trouncing today if the weather was to clear up in the weeks and months ahead.

Like President Obama – who considers PM Najib a close Asian confidante, andNajib and Obama according to Washington insiders, a “most reliable friend” amid an anxious region – the Prime Minister has sought comfort in foreign policy wins over the often thankless and truculent realities of domestic politics.

So the ringing global endorsement of Malaysia as a new UN Security Council member next year that handily coincides with its much-awaited chairmanship of ASEAN (after Cambodia’s recent vexed leadership) is justly deserved and celebrated, avers a veteran former Asian diplomat now at the United Nations in New York.

Razali IsmailThanks to Malaysia’s “inspired and markets-friendly” global leadership during the Mahathir years, and fondly remembered diplomats like Tan Sri Razali Ismail, Malaysia still glows on the world stage.

The country represents a “necessary and useful” example and plays an international role as a globalised, Muslim-led country at a time of fraught Western relations with the Muslim world, notes a senior American diplomat echoing a common view at Washington-based think-tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

In the current campaign against Isis and its unravelling of Iraq and Syria, where the Obama administration has been desperately keen on stitching together a better “coalition of the willing” (Muslim) nations to combat such extremism, the Najib government is a stalwart ally.

Despite American concerns raised over the alleged use of the Sedition Act to crackdown on Malaysian dissent and an expectation that this week’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim trial will turn out poorly for the opposition leader, there is a prevailing Washington agenda about terrorism, China’s rise and related trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – not necessarily in that order – that should not be derailed.

John KerrryAs a senior US State Department official explained in a briefing ahead of Secretary John Kerry’s series of bilateral meetings in Jakarta following President Joko Widodo’s inauguration, “at the top of the list (is) the international effort to degrade and ultimately destroy (Isis)… we hope that the individual countries can do more and cooperate more to ensure that, in the first instance, Southeast Asia remains immune to the proselytizing efforts of Isis; and secondly, that these countries assist effectively beyond what they’ve done already to rebut the false ideology.”

“Of course, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore are also members of the TPP negotiations. That’s a topic that is likely to be touched on (in bilateral talks),” Kerry said. “Malaysia, I would flag for you, has just won a seat on the UN Security Council circa 2015 and will take over from Burma in 2015 as the next chair of ASEAN. So there’s a lot of good work to be done in the meeting with Prime Minister Najib.”

Yet it was the mixed results so far of Najib’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) and worries over the Prime Mminister’s political future that coloured the backdrop of conversations accompanying a slew of Malaysian leaders over the past month of American visits.

For one traveling Malaysian businessman, speculating about life after a Najib Prime Ministership was apparently commonplace among his peers. He was concerned that the “many good ideas and sincerity” of the Prime Minister’s team in pushing Malaysia forward could be jeopardised by the various UMNO-linked pressure groups like PERKASA and ISMA, which “did not understand” how the globalised Malaysian economy worked.

Perhaps surprisingly, his American businessman friend was more adept at working out the realpolitik, contrasting Washington’s acute polarisation of politics and culture by going through Malaysia’s possible list of successors, and echoing what some in UMNO Youth have argued is the ascendancy of leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin to break political deadlocks (and stasis).

But as another visitor remarked, where does that leave the present incumbent? With looming defeat expected at next month’s polls for the Democrats – where losing control of the US Senate means souring prospects for Obama’s domestic agenda and legacy – perhaps navigating past lame-duck leaders will be the corporate world’s biggest challenge on both sides of the globe.

Yet the bilateral relationship between Malaysia and the US has “never been better”, Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, pictured in 2010greased along by a “strong” personal bond forged between the Prime Minister and President Barack Obama, explained a diplomat travelling with Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to Washington last month.

As a measure of the depth of bilateral ties, and in time for the current campaign against Isil and related security threats, Zahid was feted across Washington in long meetings with key Obama administration officials such as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, CIA Director John Brennan (where Zahid spent three hours at the Langley HQ), and Attorney-General Eric Holder.

Zahid later explained at a Malaysian Embassy dinner that our “strong ties, trust” will also help propel along the likelihood of Malaysians being granted coveted visa waivers to the US, in another sign of the strengthening “people to people” links that are a key feature of bilateral ties.

In an embassy reception marking both Hari Merdeka and Armed Forces Day, Zahid as a former Defence Minister also listed in his speech the various ongoing Pentagon-funded programmes and regional exercises where Malaysia plays a key part, that was as much a legacy of Malaysia’s anti-communist Cold War role as today’s delicate exigencies over the South China Sea.

The Minister waved away concerns over domestic politics by referring to the “national interest”; moreover, as a senior officer working for the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs staff saw it, Malaysia’s domestic uncertainties paled by comparison to the jostling ASEAN faces in the South China Sea with China and there was “much to look forward to with Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship”.

J YunAt a discussion a few nights later at nearby American University, the visiting US Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Yun (left) also echoed the Home Minister’s celebration of our American relationship, and explained that Malaysia was on track to join the US visa waiver programme as our “5% visa refusal rate” trends down towards a 3% criterion.

While the US envoy was perhaps more circumspect than usual in deference to the Malaysian Ambassador in the audience, Yun did note American concerns over the “social, political challenges” that included vexed differences over religious issues and the ‘politicised’ TPP negotiations.

The audience chuckled along when both envoys agreed the Malaysian government faced such dilemmas in a polarised atmosphere “just like Washington”, blaming much of it on “hard to control” social media and the Internet.

Yet as the former US Ambassador to Malaysia, John Malott, points out, strongambassador-john-malott bilateral ties notwithstanding, Malaysia has been a skilled diplomatic player in an increasingly anxious region, which knows its interests may be between that of the US, China and Asean over immediate issues like the South China Sea – and the need to recalibrate responses to China as it asserts its economic weight and ambitions.

“I find it amazing the US puts so much store in the TPP with Malaysia when there are other economic and trade interests that are just are important to American companies, when American companies don’t get a fair shake because of the problems of corruption, a lack of transparency in such areas as ‘no bid contracts’,” Malott said.

Perhaps a more attractive future Malaysia shimmered into view a week later when the increasingly popular Yuna took the stage at George Washington University’s Lisner auditorium downtown. As the gaggle of so-called “hijabsters” danced, clapped and swayed in the aisles, Yuna charmed the rest of us with her mix of polished pop tunes and modest tales between songs about her experiences as a Malaysian taking on the Los Angeles music world.

In the crowd queueing for photographs and autographs afterwards, the Malaysians who turned out in force for their homegirl merged seamlessly with the wider America on display. The future seemed within grasp for now.


A Commentary :Jokowi’s new Cabinet

October 28, 2014

A Commentary :Jokowi’s new Cabinet

by Rashid Yusof, NST Deputy Group Editor

Joko and JusufTHERE are Malaysian connections in the Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) cabinet that was announced on Sunday. Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister M. Nasir, who is, in fact, newly appointed as rector of the Diponegoro University, has a PhD from Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Marwan Jafar, the Development of villages, underdeveloped regions and transmigration Minister, obtained his PhD from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Rector of Gadjah Mada University, Pratikno, is now the Cabinet Secretary, while Yohana S. Yambise of Papua is Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister. She was also plucked from academia, having been a professor at Cenderawasih University. Likewise Culture, and Elementary and Secondary Education Minister Anies Baswedan was the president of Paraminda University.

As for the Malaysian angle, Indonesia’s first female Foreign Minister, Retno Retno MarsudiMarsudi (right), will enjoy greater name recognition here because of the nature of her job. She is a career diplomat, who, until the announcement, was Indonesia’s Ambassador to the Netherlands. Hanif Dhakiri, the manpower minister, may gain some visibility in Malaysia, too, as the issue of maids has unfailingly exasperated many Malaysian households.

The traditional universal response or refrain to a new leader’s decision — “mixed”, “cautious” — greeted the line-up of 34 ministers, which featured eight technocrats.

Emblematic of the attitude of every decision being potentially flawed, some international pundits looked at the presence of academics in the line-up, concluding, sadly, that there is a dearth of such talent in Indonesia. An international media outlet added for good measure that even if there was outstanding talent, the appointee might turn out to be the wrong choice for a government role. This is a bewildering take.

Jokowi is not the leader of any political party. That is an advantage, as he is free, to a certain extent, to appoint the best available talent. The party that fielded him for the July 9 presidential election, PDI-P (the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle) is in a coalition. Realistically — in fact, it is a given — the President will have to appoint representatives of PDI-P and its coalition partners.

Conversely, it was always going to be daunting to honour pledges of appointing a Cabinet made up of an entirely brilliant cast.In reality, the Jokowi Cabinet features some promising appointments.

A Barclays’ emerging markets research bulletin said the team should facilitate policy implementation, and alluded to the five key economic posts of finance, economics, energy, trade and state-owned enterprises going to technocrats.

“President Jokowi took the unprecedented but sensible step of asking the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to vet his shortlist.” Barclays applauded the appointment of Bambang Brojonegoro as Finance Minister ahead of the fuel subsidy reform along with tax reforms and broader fiscal consolidation.

“At 48, Bambang is one of the youngest Permanent Secretaries (or vice-ministers) in the Indonesian civil service, and well regarded as an economist. He is international in his outlook, having managed the Fiscal Policy Office and Debt Management Office — two portfolios in the Finance Ministry which entail frequent interactions with professional investors.” Bambang has a PhD in urban and regional planning from the University of Illinois.

Rachmat Gobel, Head of the Panasonic Gobel Group, is the new Trade Minister. He graduated from Chuo University, Tokyo, in 1987 with a Bachelor’s degree in International Trade.

Arief Yahya, Chief Executive Officer of state-owned telecommunications company Telekomunasi Indonesia (Telkom), named Marketeer of the Year 2013, is Tourism Minister. The Marine and Fisheries Minister is Susi Pudjiastuti, who started off as a fishmonger and whose business expanded gloriously that in 2004, she acquired two Cessna Caravan planes to fly lobsters from South Java to Jakarta. That was the genesis of Susi Air.

Kereta Api Indonesia Head Ignnasius Jonan, credited with the transformation of rail services in Java and Sumatra, is Transport Minister. He had been overseeing, among others, the 780km double-tracking project on the Jakarta- Surabaya line. Sofyan Djalil is the Co-ordinating Economics Minister.

PDI-P is headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri. Rini Soemarno, the daughter of Soemarno, a former central bank governor, and reportedly a confidante of president Sukarno, was made a minister when Megawati was president. Rini was also made head of the Jokowi transition team. Now, Rini has been appointed state-owned Enterprises Minister. A retired general, Ryamizard Ryacudu is Defence Minister, while Tjahjo Kumolo is home minister. hese three are reportedly Megawati nominees.

Jokowi’s Cabinet has been dubbed Kabinet Kerja (Work-oriented Cabinet). That Jonan, of Kereta Api Indonesia, had routinely slept in trains was mentioned by Jokowi at the announcement. He was also impressed with the marketing credentials of the Tourism Minister, and singled out ministers who had authored books.

Of an immediate interest to Indonesians, and the region, would be the upcoming announcement on the fuel subsidy revamp. Realistically, that would be the real tangible test of the Jokowi brand of leadership.