Barack Obama is hypocritical on Human Rights abuses in Malaysia

November 22, 2015

Barack Obama is hypocritical on Human Rights abuses in Malaysia

by FMT Reporters

Obama shakes hands with Najib

Obama and his Golfing Buddy: US interests first

BERSIH leader Maria Chin Abdullah has spoken about US President Barack Obama’s balancing act, between US concerns about human rights violations in Malaysia and US concerns with its economic relations with the country.

“We will engage on business and trade, but we will also speak on civil liberties. Don’t think we can’t do both,”– Barack Obama

Her comment came after a meeting that civil society leaders had a private meeting with the US President at the US Embassy here.

Hours earlier, BERSIH had issued a press statement urging Obama and the US government not to appear hypocritical by supporting authoritarian leaders such as Najib for the sake of US interests while also preaching about human rights to the rest of the world.

Chin said civil society leaders at today’s meeting were told by Obama that “while the US recognised the civil liberties violation in Malaysia but at the same time they have to balance the issue with the economic ties they have with Malaysia”.

In remarks quoted by Malaysiakini, she said Obama had repeated the message twice. “So that tells you quite a bit,” she said.

Although Obama’s public statements have been muted, he had told the civil society leaders that he had raised several issues with Najib at their meeting yesterday. “We will engage on business and trade, but we will also speak on civil liberties. Don’t think we can’t do both,” Obama was quoted as saying.

Najib and ASEAN Leaders

ASEAN Leaders from left to right, Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino III, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Laos’ Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Myanmar’s President Thein Sein pose for photographs during opening ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday, November. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Obama said he had raised human rights issues, the jailing of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the treatment of political dissidents, according to former BERSIH leader Ambiga Sreenevasan.

“I also expressed that since we met last year, the current situation has deteriorated and he listened and appreciated that we are now facing some difficulties,” said Ambiga.

Civil society leaders had also raised issues such as the RM2.6 billion deposited in Najib’s personal bank accounts, attack on human rights, selective prosecution and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

The TPPA is the centrepiece of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” foreign policy in which he has sought to counter China’s growing political, economic and military strength by building economic and security alliances around the Pacific rim.

Dato’ Ambiga said Obama had assured them that the US ties with nations accused of abuses did not mean that his country was not concerned over the various issues raised against such governments.

“We raised what you would expect us to raise, which would be the corruption, 1MDB, TPPA, the arrests of civil society members…” Ambiga was reported as saying. “Since the last time he came here, things have got worse. We made that very clear… ” she said, according to the report.


A Lame Duck US President’s Foreign Policy Snafu

November 6, 2015

A Lame Duck US President’s Foreign Policy Snafu–Poor Handling of Najib Razak

by John Berthelsen

Hope turns hopelessHOPE turns HOPELESS

“Let’s face it – Najib is now an embarrassment to Obama and the world – and Obama wants to distance himself from Najib personally without screwing up our important relationship with Malaysia, the country itself,” said John Malott, the former US Ambassador to Malaysia who has become the country’s staunchest international critic.–John Berthelsen

When US President Barack Obama begins a November Asian swing from November 14 to November 22, the White House faces a dilemma –minimizing his face time with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has become an albatross around the US neck because of international publicity over massive scandals and a United Nations demand that opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim be freed.

The President is expected to participate in the G20 summit in Turkey and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Philippines as well as the US-ASEAN summit and the East Asia summit according to a White House statement, all of which will feature the Malaysian Prime Minister.

The scandals and criticism haven’t slowed down Najib. As the revelations have persisted and grown, he has continued to push critics out of the government and bring sedition and other charges against opponents, often on the flimsiest  of pretexts.

Maria Chin with AmbigaMaria Chin with Dato’Ambiga

Maria Chin Abdullah, the President of the BERSIH (Clean) election reform group, was arrested on November. 2 for failing to give proper notice for a two-day demonstration in August which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad,. Najib’s biggest opponent, is expected to be summoned for questioning over remarks he made at the same rally. On November 5, yet another opposition figure, Ng Wei Aik of the Democratic Action Party, was notified that he would be charged with sedition for an article he wrote in a Penang-based Chinese language daily nine months ago.

Despite the depth of the scandals, Najib seems secure in office for the foreseeable future. The opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance is fractured and impotent.  He can’t be touched by law enforcement and his own United Malaysia National Organization appears to be solidly behind him. The country’s sultans, after issuing a statement asking for a quick resolution of the investigations into the scandals, have gone quiet. Despite misgivings over the scandals, the sultans dislike Mahathir even more over his attempts to rein in their power during his years in office.

“Let’s face it – Najib is now an embarrassment to Obama and the world – and Obama wants to distance himself from Najib personally without screwing up our important relationship with Malaysia, the country itself,” said John Malott, the former US Ambassador to Malaysia who has become the country’s staunchest international critic. “It’s a tough situation. But – they put themselves in this mess, and now they are desperately trying to find a way out of it.”

John MalottAmbassador John R. Malott–Najib’s strident critic

“Based on my knowledge of how the government works, “Malott said, “I am sure that they all are trying to figure out how to minimize Obama’s physical and visual contact with Najib when he is in Malaysia and avoid meetings, conversations, photos, etc. – anything that would embarrass Obama by being seen with this guy and which would provoke questions from the US press corps.” 

The President needs Malaysia as one of the keystones in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade pact that Obama wants to make a signature achievement of his eight years in office, which ends at the end of 2016. With its economy  heavily geared to exports, Malaysia needs the pact as well.

For much of his presidency, Obama has regarded Najib as a key player and a strong force for democracy in an Islamic nation. He invited the Prime Minister to play golf with him in Hawaii at the end of last year, only to have two huge scandals blow up later in the year, with the apparent looting of the 1Malaysia Development Fund, which Najib chairs as chief economic advisor, and questions over how US$681 million ended up in his personal accounts in 2013. In addition, the New York Times, in a deeply detailed article, detailed vast properties in New York and Los Angeles apparently owned by Najib’s family. A US  grand jury is now probing property transactions purchased by his stepson, Riza Aziz.

The White House, Malott said, is probably “trying hard to figure out how to respond to aggressive US press inquiries such as ‘Just last December you were playing golf with Najib, but what do you think now, in light of the latest revelations from the UN group?’ In  response, we will get broad, vague, pro-forma answers about how much Obama loves democracy and human rights, etc. as well as references to his meeting with civil society reps in Malaysia a year ago. But there will be nothing specific about Najib, no specific criticisms, etc.”

The US government is conscious of the damage to relations between the United States and Malaysia that ensued in 1998 when then-Vice President Al Gore rebuked the Malaysian government at a meeting of Pacific Rim Countries for suppressing freedom and for the persecution of Anwar.  It won’t repeat that, especially now with the need for Malaysia’s participation in the TP.P.  The state department has already given Malaysia a pass in a human trafficking report, a pass it hardly deserves.

Malaysia-China relations–Leveraging the Business Connection

October 29, 2015

Malaysia-China relations–Leveraging the Business Connection

By Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

Although the solutions to our economic malaise have to be rooted in our own structural reforms – political and socio-economic – there is no doubt that the China connection can make a difference – a big difference!

The British-China relations–Triumph of Business Sense over Political Ideology

Malaysia does not need protection by or from any sheriff – old and new. But we badly need Chinese trade and investment if we want to grow our jobs and sustain our current consumption and lifestyle.–Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

The extraordinary British press coverage of Chinese President President Xi Jinping’s current visit to Britain is worth reading as to what the British are saying about themselves and the state of the world.It prompts us to take a serious look at ourselves today. It is about time we review our commercial relations with the rest of the world.

Many local media columnists in Britain were outraged that  David Cameron’s government was making such a big deal of the visit. As a Fortune magazine article succinctly put it:

Britain is sucking it up big time this week, having finally learned to kowtow after a 218-year trade relationship in which it has tended to be the one handing out the humiliations. ((Geoffrey Smith, A weakened Britain finally learns how to kowtow to Beijing)

Why did the British Prime Minister David Cameron, Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, Her Majesty The Queen and others – roll out the red carpet for the Chinese leader? Why did Her Royal Highness Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, wear a symbolic red gown in a banquet dinner in Buckingham Palace where Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Cambridge were said to have “showered Xi and his wife with the fairy dust of royalty ancient and modern”?

The Queen  Honoring XiKate and XiObviously, it is not because of any newfound love of the Chinese. Put it down to the realities of the global economy and Britain’s declining competitiveness.

Why the Need to suck up to China?

Veteran Labour MP Paul Lynn remarked in Parliament that Britain was behaving like a supplicant fawning spaniel that licks the hand that beats it. But the fact is that the British taxpayer has to pay for his salary and allowances; and the country’s treasury badly needs an injection from the world’s largest economy if the ordinary British citizen is to not bear the burden of higher taxes and continued loss of jobs.

The Chinese economy is now worth $17.6tn, marginally higher than the $17.4tn the International Monetary Fund estimates for the US. For the first time since 1872, when it overtook the UK, the US has been knocked off the top spot by China. The IMF calculated these figures by using purchasing power parity (PPP) which compares how much you can buy for your money in different countries.

And this is among the bag of goodies that Xi is bringing to Britain on this current state visit:

• £30 billion of business agreements, including a one third stake in the UK’s first nuclear plan for a generation.
• an expected big jump in Chinese tourists to Britain with easier visas. Each Chinese tourist typically spends £2,688 on an average visit, totaling about £500 million a year.
•further increases in Chinese student enrolment in Britain. Presently accounting for nearly 90,000 of the 310,000 higher education non-EU students, the fortune and health of many British higher education institutions, and their student-related housing and service industries, depends on the expansion in Chinese student numbers.

The Lesson for Malaysia—Not TPPA

U.S. President Barack REUTERS/Hugh Gentry

Secret Deals at Malaysia’s Expense–TPPA?

Here lies the lesson for us too in Malaysia as we face an increasingly bleak economic future with many analysts noting that the amber lights have been flashing for some time with the sharply devalued ringgit, decline in foreign investment, high levels of individual and household debt, rising cost of living, and falling business confidence.

Capitalizing on our China Connection

Although the solutions to our economic malaise have to be rooted in our own structural reforms – political and socio-economic – there is no doubt that the China connection can make a difference – a big difference!

Just as the British, and other nations, are attempting to strengthen relations with the largest market in the world, Malaysia can do much more to take advantage of China’s progress. And our policy makers do not need to reinvent the wheel or borrow from the British in establishing a higher level of Malaysia-China partnership and cooperation.

The following proposals on Malaysia-China relations, for example, are from the “Transforming the Nation: A 20 Year Plan of Action” report prepared by the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia (Huazong) in July 2012. They appear to have been largely ignored

• A comprehensive review of existing policy towards China in all sectors – economic and non-economic – with a view to broadening linkages and cooperation for the mutual benefit of both countries. This review should incorporate inputs from the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders.
• Inter-university exchange programmes to increase students’ knowledge and experience of the two countries. Scholarships and other forms of assistance should be granted by local foundations to sponsor students.
• Expansion of cultural tourism. Government’s role in the development of Malaysia as a halal hub aimed at attracting Muslim tourists from China should be expanded

It has been rumoured that some time later this year will see a visit from a high ranking Chinese leader to Malaysia – perhaps Xi himself. Will we see a round of mainly indifference or even China and Chinese bashing? Or will we capitalize on the rise of China to salvage our sinking economy the way the British are doing?

Fortunately our relationship with China – for a start – is not on the same level as the one which Britain has had. Our relations with China begun with the Second Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak’s visit to China and we have yet to fully capitalize on this ground breaking relationship.

Hopefully this observation from a British commentator on the Guardian website will give pause to our local hotheads blowing hot air on anyone or anything associated with their definition of pendatang:

He doesn’t need lil’ ole us to make him feel important. He’s president of the world’s biggest superpower. I hope he’s gone away feeling we did make an effort and the UK is a country worth bothering with. However much it seems to irk some people, there’s a new sheriff in town and I hope they’re nicer to us than we were to them when our star was in the ascendancy and we owned half the world (and went to war with them when they tried to stop buying the opium we liked flogging them.)

Malaysia does not need protection by or from any sheriff – old and new (and the TPPA). But we badly need Chinese trade and investment if we want to grow our jobs and sustain our current consumption and lifestyle.

Singapore is not an island

October 12, 2015

 Jason Chin answers DAP on Bilahari’s Article

“Dr Mahathir seems to have expected to exercise remote control even though he was no longer prime minister. Among his grievances with his successors were their warming of ties with Singapore, Mr Najib’s decision to settle the railway land issue, cooperation on Iskandar Malaysia (IM) and the refusal of both Tun Abdullah Badawi and Mr Najib to proceed with his pet white elephant: the “crooked bridge”. Dr Mahathir wants to replace Mr Najib with someone more pliable.”--Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large

Bilahari KBilahari Kausikan–An Astute Observer of Malaysian Politics

A lengthy, well-analysed and descriptive article was published recently in Singapore’s The Straits Times entitled “Singapore is not an island” by Bilahari Kausikan. Bilahari expressed his opinion on the current political climate in Malaysia and how it related to Singapore-Malaysia ties.

DAP’s Tony Pua was irked and responded in super quick time. ( The Opposition coalition is a perfect coalition you see. Nobody can speak negatively about them.

When the late Lee Kuan Yew criticized UMNO he was applauded by DAP. But when he questioned Pakatan, his views were deemed outdated and wrong. But Lee has not been the only one with reservations about Pakatan.

Earlier this year Dr. Bridget Welsh, a renowned political analyst who is a senior research associate at the Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University said that the Opposition coalition in Malaysia is starting to become irrelevant due to its internal quarrels, blaming not only the leadership of PAS but also the DAP for it.

Bilahari was spot-on when he said that Pakatan Rakyat, although in theory multiracial, “have nothing in common except the ambition to displace BN.” He added that in his opinion the new coalition of Pakatan Harapan was itself a ‘forlorn hope,’ and likely to fail.

In Tony’s response, he said that Bilahari’s views suggest that Singapore lacks a moral compass despite all its wealth and developed nation status.

In the first place, dear Tony, how morally encompassing is it for the DAP to now be in “alliance” with Dr Mahathir Mohamad? Malaysia does not need moral lessons from Tony Pua the DAP way. You, Tony, are in no position to accuse anyone of not having a moral compass.

In 2010, an Australian media group revealed that Singapore’s intelligent services and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had told the Office of National Assessments (ONA) in Australia that Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim ‘did indeed commit the acts for which he is currently in prison’.

When these revelations were made five years ago, PKR’s Tian Chua jumped to Anwar’s defence noting that the allegations were just “hearsay” and we could not depend on what foreign intelligence officials say. Fast-forward 5 years to 2015, and the same bunch of Opposition people are now heavily relying on what foreign reports have published. Double-standards, nay?

An online petition to the United States government was made to pressure President Barack Obama to prioritise the release of Anwar in the superpower’s policy towards Malaysia. When the British Prime Minister was due to come to Malaysia, the Opposition tried hard to get him to cancel his trip. When that failed, DAP’s lawmaker once again wrote an open letter asking the British PM to not support Najib’s administration. However, when the Chinese Ambassador came to Petaling Street and made an inference to the government’s administration, the Opposition chose to remain silent. Why is interference welcomed in one case but not in another?

Despite all the Opposition’s call for an international boycott of Najib’s administration, Malaysia is still involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) negotiations. So far, the Opposition’s call for a cut in international ties with Najib’s government have been in vain.

tony-pua-unta-1In his top-selling book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen Covey said that most people seek first to be understood; to get their point across. In doing so, they ignore the other person completely. They concentrate on a few selected aspects of what is being said. They focus only on the words, missing the meaning entirely.

Tony Pua is doing exactly that. Instead of digesting and properly deciphering Bilahari’s opinion, he knee-jerked to defence. This is exactly why most world leaders do not see any prospect in the Opposition pack in Malaysia.

Jason Chin is an FMT reader

With a firm belief in freedom of expression and without prejudice, FMT tries its best to share reliable content from third parties. Such articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. FMT does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by any third party content provider.

Dr P. Ramasamy of DAP responds to Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kasuikan

Dr. P RamasamySingapore’s Ambassador-at-Large, who is a retired Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and currently a Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy Studies, Bilahari Kausikan, seems to have caught the attention of Malaysians, particularly, those from the DAP for the wrong reasons.

His recent 3,000-word article entitled “Singapore is not island” which appeared on October 6, 2015, in the The Straits Times (Singapore) seems to have elicited critical comments from the DAP leaders.

In his article, Bilahari said that the Chinese in Malaysia are delusional in that they continue to miss the point that Malays would not give up their political dominance at any costs. And if there is Chinese challenge to Malay political power, there is possibility that UMNO would combine with PAS to defend Malay rights.

He went further to criticise the Chinese for not having learnt any lessons from the May13, 1969, racial riots. Bilahari thinks that the recent Bersih demonstration was entirely staged by the Chinese to challenge the Malays and that the counter-demonstration organised by the “red shirts” was a typical Malay response to the Chinese challenge.

Bilahari thinks that Chinese youths are delusional in that they don’t understand history and how the working relationship among the various ethnic groups were constituted in the aftermath of political independence in 1969. Finally, Kasikan cautions the Chinese not to be too delusional but to grasp the reality and to make peace with the Malays.

Bilahari is entitled to his views and they would not be challenged as long as they reflect the ground reality in Malaysia. However, Bilahari seems to go overboard in not understanding the Malaysian political and ethnic reality, but goes overboard in defending a political and racial system that is entirely problematic.

First, as the DAP veteran leader Lim Kit Siang pointed out, it is not clear whether Bilahari makes a distinction between Malay political dominance and supremacy. While political dominance seems inevitable due to demographic changes, the presence of powerful Malay political parties, the inevitability of the institutions of the royalty and other traditional features of the Malay community, Malay supremacy is something no sane or decent Malaysians would accept or condone.

So in this respect, Bilahari has failed to distinguish these two concepts and hence his own “delusional thinking” to understand the complex and unfolding features of the Malaysian political scene.

Not fair to say Chinese have been misled

Second, sorry, “delusional thinking” is not a pre-occupation of the Chinese in Malaysia, especially the young ones. I don’t think that Bilahari is fair to the Chinese to say that they have been misled or misinformed about what is good or bad for Malaysia.

Malaysian Chinese youth like the youths of other races, want a decent country with a decent political system, a system that stays far away from corruption and misdeeds and a system that will ensure justice and fair play for all Malaysians.

Is Bilahari fair to say that these needs can be interpreted as a challenge to Malay political power? And if the Chinese engage in these acts of political and social participation, are they deemed to have broken the racial pact that was hatched before political independence?

Third, for the information of Bilahari, the Malaysian political and social systems are not static. Sometimes, foreign observers and writers, despite their good intentions, make the mistake of “essentialism”.

In other words, they would think and act as though there are one or two features that would serve as the determining or causative factors. Thus, in the case of Malaysia, it would be race and in the case of India, it would be caste.

Those engaging in essentialism would tend to miss the nuances, complexities and the fast unfolding aspects of a country’s political, social and economic systems.

Bilahari’s major error in his analysis is the mistake of engaging in essentialism without the benefit of critical analysis of the fast changing political scenario of the Malaysian system. Thus, what he knows about the system might be far off from reality.

Fourth, Bilahari is equally guilty of ignoring the larger reality of Malaysian political life. He seems to think that Malay political parties, especially Umno and PAS, have the overwhelming support of the Malays. This is not the truth. He fails to realise that Malays, especially the urban ones, have left UMNO en bloc in the last 20 years or so. Even PAS, the so-called Islamic party, has lost its clout due to the purges and desertions by many good leaders.

So, what is happening in Malaysia is not Malay political dominance being reinforced, but rather, Malay dominance or supremacy being weakened due to various misdeeds, corruption and the lack of democracy and others.

While he thinks that PAS and UMNO might join hands to counter the Chinese “uprising”, he fails to note that they Malays in PKR and the newly-minted Parti Amanah Negara are together with the DAP in dismantling the BN-UMNO regime!

Fifth and finally, there is nothing to be learned from the May13, 1969, racial riots.Such riots should be avoided, not only to be giving in to the racist and supremacist demands of the Malay right wing forces, but challenging Malay supremacy as represented by UMNO and its affiliates.

Bilahari, again, by engaging in essentialism, thinks that the riots occurred because the Chinese challenged the might of the Malays. However, such a naïve view cannot be acceptable in the light of evidence about the riots that have come about in recent years.

P RAMASAMY is Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang and the state assemblyperson for Perai.

Singapore is not an island

Malaysia is undergoing a systemic change that has profound consequences for Singapore

by Bilahari Kausikan

Published The Straits Times, 6 Oct 2015Bilahari-Kausikan-Singapore2What do most Singaporeans make of recent events in Malaysia? Bersih. Pesaka. 1MDB. A Deputy Prime Minister sacked. Protests and counter-protests.

Are we so inured to commotions across the Causeway that they seem no more than the faint tolling of distant bells, evoking only bemusement and schadenfreude? Our system works, so shrug and tend our own garden. If this is the attitude, it is mistaken. We are indeed different. But I believe Malaysia may be on the cusp of a systemic change that could have profound implications for us.

Since 1957, first Malaya then Malaysia, was premised on a political and social compact that had Malay dominance as its cardinal principle. So long as this was not challenged, other races could have their own space. In political terms, this compact was reflected in a system structured around an alliance of race-based political parties with the dominant Malay party – United Malays National Organisation or UMNO – at its centre.

The Chinese were represented by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), later joined by Gerakan; the Indians by the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Two opposition parties, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS ), were in principle multiracial, but in practice largely Chinese and Malay and in any case were peripheral.

It was our refusal to accept the system’s cardinal principle that led to Separation from Malaysia in 1965. But it was a system that had its own coherence and until relatively recently, it did not serve Malaysia badly. And despite the complexities of bilateral relations and occasional periods of tension, over the last 50 years, it was a system we learnt to work with, while going our own way. That familiar system is now under immense stress. It is not certain that it can hold together.

Pressure Point

The pressure point is religion. Arab influences from the Middle East have for several decades steadily eroded the Malay variant of Islam in which adat or traditional practices coexisted with the Quran in a syncretic, tolerant synthesis, replacing it with a more austere and exclusive interpretation of Islam. This is one aspect of a broader process of globalisation which is a sociocultural and not just an economic phenomenon. It has changed the texture of Malaysian society, I think irreversibly.

It is impossible for any country to insulate itself from globalisation. Religion in Singapore is not immune from globalisation’s consequences, and not just in our Muslim community. Evangelical Christianity is one example. But Singapore is organised on the principle of multiracial meritocracy. So long as this is accepted by all races and religions as the foundation of our identity, the most corrosive political effects are mitigated. In the Singapore system, God – every God – and Caesar are separate and so all Gods must perforce co-exist, with the state playing the role of neutral arbiter.

The cardinal principle of Malay dominance is enshrined in the Constitution, which also places Islam as the first component in the definition of a Malay. This makes the mixture of religion and politics well-nigh inevitable. UMNO politicians have been unable to resist the temptation to use religion for electoral advantage. They are responding to the logic of the system as it has evolved.

najib-mahahthirIn 2001, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made a fundamental political error when he tried to undercut PAS by declaring that Malaysia was already an Islamic state. A constitutional controversy ensued. But the most damaging consequences were political not legal.

Tun Dr Mahathir’s incautious declaration gave a sharper political focus to the changes in the interpretation of Islam that were under way and catalysed a competitive dynamic in which those inclined to religious moderation were inevitably outbid and overwhelmed.

The result has been an increasingly pronounced emphasis on religion in UMNO’s political identity and a significant and continuing narrowing of the political and social space for non-Muslims.

Surveys show that Malaysian Malays privilege Islamic credentials over other qualities they look for in their leaders. A Merdeka Centre survey this year revealed that 60 per cent of Malaysian Malays polled identified themselves as Muslims first rather than Malaysians or even Malays. Demography accentuates the political impact of these attitudes. In 1957 the Chinese constituted 45 per cent of Malaya (West Malaysia). In 2010, they constituted only 24.6 per cent of Malaysia including East Malaysia. Malay fertility rates are significantly higher than both Chinese and Indians.

In the 2013 Malaysian General Election, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition got only 13 per cent of the Chinese vote. Two days after the election, Utusan Malaysia, an UMNO mouthpiece, pointedly asked “Apa Lagi Cina Mau?” (What more do the Chinese want?)

The question was provocatively phrased, but not entirely unreasonable. Prime Minister Najib Razak tried hard to win back Chinese votes but got almost nothing for his efforts. MCA won only seven seats. Gerakan was wiped out. The DAP won 38 seats, the largest number in the opposition coalition.

A New System in the Making?

The Chinese parties in BN had clearly lost the trust of Chinese voters. Can MCA win back Chinese votes? Doubtful. MCA is obviously powerless to stem the narrowing political and social space for non-Muslims; the fecklessness of its leaders exposed by constant scandals and internal bickering.

MCA in TattersIn 2013, BN lost the popular vote but retained its parliamentary majority because of the 47 seats it won in East Malaysia. Native East Malaysians are not ethnically Malay but are classified as bumiputera. Some in UMNO began to question whether it was really necessary to work with the Chinese at all. The declining numbers of Chinese in the Malaysian population will sooner or later make them electorally irrelevant to UMNO and BN had already retained power without their votes.

Nor can the opposition coalition of the DAP, PAS and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat – Pakatan Rakyat (PR) – form a new multiracial system. PR was always a motley crew. Although its component parties are in theory multiracial, they have nothing in common except the ambition to displace BN. Only Anwar’s charismatic personality and political skills held them uneasily together.

Anwar is now in jail and PR has fallen apart. PAS has left. Without Anwar, Keadilan’s future is bleak. The DAP is subject to the demo- graphic constraints of a falling Chinese population and is unlikely to make substantial electoral advances beyond its present strength, although it will probably retain what it now holds. PR’s successor – Pakatan Harapan – a coalition of the DAP, Keadilan and a minor breakaway faction from PAS, is a forlorn hope (pun intended).

PAS has purged its moderate leadership and is now led by the ulama. UMNO is increasingly relying on religion to legitimise itself. UMNO and PAS may eventually form some sort of de facto if not de jure alliance that could be the core of a new ruling system. There may be token ornaments of other races, but the Malaysian system will then comprise an overwhelmingly dominant Malay government with a DAP-led Chinese opposition. This will be potentially explosive.

I do not know if such a system will really replace the current system, but it certainly seems possible, even probable. It will not happen overnight. But the controversy over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) could well hasten its emergence. The recent demonstrations seem to foreshadow such a development.

Struggle for Power in UMNO

The anti-government Bersih demonstrations held in late August this year were, despite a sprinkling of other races, predominantly Chinese affairs. PAS, which had joined previous Bersih demonstrations, stayed away. The organisers claimed the demonstrations were apolitical, but the DAP with Keadilan clearly played significant roles.

Last month, a pro-government counter-demonstration was organised by Pesaka – a right-wing Malay group ostensibly devoted to silat, the Malay martial art. The demonstration was almost entirely Malay, positioned as defending Malay rights and marked by fierce racial rhetoric. Before the demonstration, posters were displayed, captioned “Cina turun Bersih, sedialah bermandi darah” (Chinese who attend Bersih, be ready to be bathed in blood) which depicted a Bersih supporter being slashed with a parang. A flier with a similar slogan was found at DAP headquarters.

UMNO denied organising the demonstration. Dato’ Seri Najib did not attend but said he had no objections to UMNO members doing so. The President of Pesaka is an UMNO leader. Another UMNO politician, who was one of the driving forces of the Pesaka demonstration, proudly admitted he was racist because it was under the Constitution.

Thankfully, violence at these demonstrations was avoided by the strong police presence. But the demonstrations certainly raised the temperature of an already racially fraught atmosphere.

Although the authorities denied it, the affray that broke out in July at Low Yat Plaza, a mainly Chinese shopping area in Kuala Lumpur, after a Malay youth was accused of stealing a mobile phone, was certainly racial. It exposed the tinderbox Malaysia had become.

Shortly after news broke about US$700 million (S$1 billion) believed to be from 1MBD being traced to what was alleged to be Mr Najib’s personal account, a Putrajaya spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has not taken any funds for personal use.”

UMNO has always operated through a system of patronage. If this is what the spokesman was hinting at, then Dr Mahathir’s accusations against Mr Najib ring hollow. Did he not preside over the same system and for far longer than any other Malaysian Prime Minister?

This system also means that Mr Najib is in no imminent danger of being forced from office so long as he holds the majority of UMNO divisions and retains Malay support. Frustration may account for Dr Mahathir’s attendance at the Bersih demonstration which I do not think has raised the good doctor’s standing with the Malay ground.

The 1MDB scandal is less about corruption than about a struggle for power within UMNO. Dr Mahathir seems to have expected to exercise remote control even though he was no longer prime minister. Among his grievances with his successors were their warming of ties with Singapore, Mr Najib’s decision to settle the railway land issue, cooperation on Iskandar Malaysia (IM) and the refusal of both Tun Abdullah Badawi and Mr Najib to proceed with his pet white elephant: the “crooked bridge”. Dr Mahathir wants to replace Mr Najib with someone more pliable.

The intra-UMNO power struggle is not over. Mr Najib retains his office but has been politically damaged. Dr Mahathir’s reputation may have been dented, but he still has a following within UMNO and the Malay public.

Mr Najib cannot allow himself to be outflanked on the right. Two days after the September demonstration, he attended a Pesaka gathering. He praised Pesaka members as being “willing to die” for the government and said “Malay people can also show that we are still able to rise when our dignity is challenged, when our leaders are insulted, criticised, shamed”, adding, “We respect other races. But don’t forget: Malays also have their feelings. Malays also have their limits.”

What Next?

A former minister, Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin, has said that “if Najib succeeds in uniting UMNO and PAS, then I am confident the Malays will forgive his grave mistakes”, adding that “after fulfilling this large and sincere task” he should step down and hand power to former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

I do not know if Mr Najib feels he has committed “grave mistakes”. But he certainly will not hand over power to a man he unceremoniously sacked. Still, Mr Zainuddin is probably not wrong about anyone who brings UMNO and PAS together becoming a Malay hero. It may not be Mr Najib, but the trajectory of political developments in Malaysia already seems to point in that direction.

Malaysia and Singapore are each other’s second-largest trading partner. Malaysia is Singapore’s sixth-largest investment destination and we are the top investor in IM. Every day tens of thousands of Malaysians commute across the Causeway to work in Singapore. It is in our interest to see Malaysia stable with a healthy economy.

Mr Najib understands that Malaysia and Singapore need each other. So far and unusually we have not figured very much in the controversies. Dr Mahathir did trot out his tired line about Singapore Malays being marginalised. But it did not catch fire. Did the government dampen the spark? No way of knowing for sure but if it did, it is one more black mark against Mr Najib in the old man’s book.

We, of course, have no choice but to work with whatever system or leader emerges in Malaysia. But some systems will be easier to work with than others. And the current heightened state of racial tensions suggests that we should not assume that the transition from one system to another will necessarily be peaceful.

It is my impression that many young Malaysian Chinese have forgotten the lessons of May 13, 1969. They naively believe that the system built around the principle of Malay dominance can be changed. That may be why they abandoned MCA for the DAP. They are delusional. Malay dominance will be defended by any means.

Any new system will still be built around this principle, and if it has some form of UMNO-PAS collaboration at its centre, enforcement of this principle will be even more rigorous with even less space for non-Muslims.

The respected Malay poet and writer Pak Samad recently warned “the way race issues are played up… it is not impossible that things will peak into a state of emergency”. Pak Samad is a member of the DAP and he was appealing to the government to take a more equitable attitude towards all races. But his views and those of some idealistic young urban Malays are exceptional and, during an intra-UMNO power struggle when the banner of Malay dominance is raised particularly high, utterly irrelevant.

Singaporeans should also note that no country’s domestic politics exists in a geopolitical vacuum.

Chinese Ambassador’s Remarks

In the midst of these unfolding developments, China’s ambassador to Malaysia made his way to Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Close to where only a few days previously the police had to use water cannons to disperse a potentially violent anti-Chinese Pesaka-led demonstration, the ambassador read out a statement that among other things pronounced the Chinese government’s opposition to terrorism, any form of racial discrimination and extremism, adding for good measure that it would be a shame if the peace of Petaling Street was disrupted by the ill-intentioned and that Beijing would not stand idly by if anything threatened the interests of its citizens and Malaysia-China relations.

Under other circumstances these sentiments would perhaps have passed notice. But the timing and context laid the ambassador’s words and actions open to disquieting interpretations. Was it just bad judgment? What was he trying to do? If the Ambassador was trying to help the Malaysian Chinese, then he failed miserably. He probably made things worse for them by confirming the worst suspicions of the Malay right wing.

But were the interests of Malaysian Chinese even a consideration? Was the intention to highlight a rising China’s clout? The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman defended the Ambassador’s visit to Petaling Street as “normal” and emphasised China’s adherence to the principle of non-interference. But this was of course what she would have said irrespective of China’s intentions.

More telling perhaps was the apparent confusion over whether or not the Chinese Ambassador should be summoned to explain himself. This should have been obvious. A retired Malaysian diplomat who used to deal with China pointed out the dangerous precedent that would be set if no action was taken. But different Malaysian ministers contradicted each other, with a clearly frustrated Foreign Minister Anifah Aman finally telling them all to leave it to Wisma Putra.

Was this the consequence of China’s influence? Possibly. In the end, some sort of meeting with Wisma Putra seems to have occurred. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi subsequently announced that the Malaysian Cabinet decided to “call in” the Chinese ambassador (he was careful to make clear the ambassador was not being “summoned”).

Lesson For Singapore

We cannot solve other people’s problems. Malaysians must work out their own destiny and we will have to live with their choices.

Are we completely immune to contagion from Malaysia? After 50 years, does our collective Singapore identity now trump racial identities? Maybe under some circumstances. Optimistically, perhaps even most circumstances. But under all circumstances?I doubt it. Let us wish Malaysia well and hope that the worst does not occur. But it would be prudent to take no chances and prepare ourselves as if it might. The first step is for all Singaporeans to understand what is happening in our neighbourhood and realistically appreciate our own circumstances.

Deterrence and diplomacy are necessary to reduce the temptation that some in Malaysia may have to externalise their problems and minimise the bilateral friction that will sometimes be unavoidable. Strong deterrence and agile diplomacy must be underpinned by national cohesion which in turn rests on a foundation of common understandings.

Of late it seems to have become fashionable for some sections of our intelligentsia to downplay or even dismiss our vulnerabilities. Some political parties tried variants of this line during our recent General Election. Are they blind and deaf to what is happening around us? Is their desire for notoriety or political advantage so overwhelming as to make them indifferent to the consequences?

Malaysia is not the only concern. The haze is a daily reminder that all is not well down south too. This is not the most salubrious of neighbourhoods.

The writer, a former Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, is now Ambassador-at-Large.

Malaysia-China Relations: A Storm in a Tea Cup

September 30, 2015

Malaysia-China Relations: A Storm in a Tea Cup

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai

Malaysia Dr Huang HuikangChina has again demonstrated its rising political clout in Southeast Asia—this time thumbing its nose at diplomats in Malaysia wanting to summon Beijing’s Ambassador in Kuala Lumpur over his alleged interference in domestic politics, according to diplomatic sources.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman had directed his officers last week to summon envoy Huang Huikang to seek an explanation over his statement that Beijing opposed any form of discrimination against races and would not tolerate violent demonstrations in Malaysia, which has been wracked by racially-charged events recently.

But Huang ignored the Foreign Ministry directive after private discussions with some Malaysian officials, reports said. Some see it as defiance and part of China’s growing assertiveness amid its rising economic and political influence in the region.

Huang made the eyebrow-raising statement last week when he visited a predominantly ethnic Chinese district of Kuala Lumpur as ethnic Malay supporters of the government of embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak threatened to march through the area to protest alleged abuses by ethnic Chinese traders.

The planned protest at the Petaling Street district was aimed at countering a mammoth rally which attracted many urban Chinese people calling on Najib, the leader of the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party in the ruling coalition, to quit over a corruption scandal.

While some believe Huang’s statement may have led the organizers to scrap the protest, they questioned the Chinese approach of disregarding basic diplomacy.

Move to reverse diplomatic protocol

anifah_amanUNWhen Malaysian Foreign Ministry officials contacted the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to summon Huang to the Foreign Ministry, his aides told them he was very busy, the diplomatic sources said.

Huang’s aides instead demanded that the Foreign Ministry officers go to the Embassy to see him in a bid to reverse a longstanding tradition in international diplomacy, the sources said.

Huang then went to lobby Ong Ka Ting, the special Malaysian envoy for China, and several Malaysian ministers, who decided to let Huang off the hook. One of the Ministers, Nazri Abdul Aziz, has “admitted he made a mistake,” saying he had no intention to interfere in the foreign ministry’s affairs, The Star daily reported Tuesday.

barack-obama-dan-khairy-jamaluddinIt was not clear whether the ministers had consulted Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly, about their action to roll back Foreign Minister Anifah’s decision, which has caused red faces among Malaysian diplomats taken aback by the sudden reversal by their political leadership.

Red Shirts-Pesaka“This is a big blow to Malaysia and national sovereignty,” said a diplomatic source. “The Chinese influence appears to have reached the top echelons of power.” Malaysian dailies reported that Huang met Domestic Trade Minister Zainuddin Hamzah for more than two hours on Monday and Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri for dinner a day earlier.

The local Sin Chew Jit Poh Chinese daily published a photo showing Nazri sitting opposite Huang at a rectangular dinner table, along with five other unidentified people.


Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Anifah, also in New York with Najib, is fuming over the move to rescind his decision. “I am disappointed that some cabinet ministers had decided to take certain actions and make press statements without consulting me first,” he said in a statement.  He said he had not canceled his instruction to call in Huang to the Foreign Ministry. “Unfortunately, their (the ministers) interference has caused a negative perception in the eyes of the public,” Anifah said.

“As a sovereign state, we should convey our stand clearly to China,” he said, stressing that he had consulted with Najib before making his decision. While Anifah said he stood by his decision, it is unclear whether the Foreign Ministry would indeed officially summon Huang.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Huang’s visit to Petaling Street during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival was a “normal” activity, stressing that Beijing “adheres to principles of peaceful coexistence” and “does not interfere in other countries’ domestic politics or intervene in other countries’ internal affairs.”

“China and Malaysia are friendly neighbors, we hope that Malaysia can maintain national unity and stability and ethnic harmony,” he said at a daily news briefing in Beijing , according to news agencies.

Growing ties

Najib and XiMalaysia-China relations have improved rapidly in recent years with bilateral trade burgeoning last year to US$101.98 billion, according to the Malaysian national news agency Bernama. Investments have also risen. But close bilateral business ties should not stop Kuala Lumpur from ticking off China over any unbecoming behavior, some leading Malaysian politicians say.

“We need not be afraid to express our feelings for fear of jeopardizing economic relations and other interests that we cannot reprimand them when they go against diplomacy norms,” Khairy Jamaluddin, the youth wing head of UMNO, was  quoted saying. He said Huang had no right to meddle in Malaysia’s “internal” affairs.

Sovereignty claims

Some Malaysian officials have also spoken against China’s increasing encroachment into Malaysian waters in the disputed South China Sea. Beijing’s increasingly assertive moves to press its sovereignty claims in the vast sea have raised concerns among its other neighbors and the United States too.

China has been accused in the past of using its extensive financial might over Cambodia, its key regional ally, to prevent any statement being adopted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the South China Sea that may be damaging to Beijing. “We hope Malaysia does not succumb to similar pressure,” said one diplomat who has been closely following the latest diplomatic spat.

China’s Ambassador Tells Malaysia to Stop the Racism

September 26, 2015

China’s Ambassador Tells Malaysia to Stop the Racism

by John

china_ambassador_huang_mugshot_tmiAmbassador Huang

Huang Huikang, the Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia, is expected to be summoned to the country’s Foreign Ministry on September 28 for a remarkable visit last Friday to the center of a Chinese area threatened by Malay-supremacy thugs to say the Chinese government is opposed to terrorism, extremism and any forms of discrimination based on race.

Such an action by an Ambassador, not just in Malaysia but anywhere, is virtually unheard of. By any measure, it constitutes unprecedented interference in domestic politics and is viewed by critics as a raw assertion of Chinese power. China is now Malaysia’s second-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting to US$28.2 billion in 2014 and may well be the largest, since Malaysia’s trade with Singapore is US$33.3 billion and Singapore acts largely as an entrepôt, shipping goods on to other countries including China.

Huang’s stroll through Chinatown was a clear indication that China would not tolerate any form of criminal intimidation. But it has also raised serious concerns in the ethnic Chinese community that what is regarded as mainland ham-handedness could make it worse for them rather than better.

Nonetheless, despite the allegations of affront, Huang’s visit to the Petaling Street area appears to have played a role in bringing to a halt, however temporary, growing threats and intimidation by so-called Red Shirts led by a United Malays National Organization Division Chief named Jamal Md Yunos against Chinese hawkers and merchants in the area, the epicenter of the urban Chinese community, home of the historic 127-year-old central market and to hundreds of Chinese street hawkers and traders. Police arrested Jamal Yunos and warned Red Shirt protesters against marching through the area. The Red Shirts had been scheduled to march through Petaling Street today, Sept. 26 amid outright threats of violence.

The Red Shirt protest is closely tied to Malaysia’s deteriorating political situation, in which critics say the Prime Minister is attempting to use a perceived threat by the Chinese, who dominate the economic landscape, to attempt to dominate the political one as well via the Democratic Action Party, the predominant ethnic Chinese party. Najib’s position is threatened by not just the domestic political equation, but by investigations into allegations of money laundering and corruption by the US, Swiss, UK, French and Singaporean governments. 

He and UMNO officials have responded by blaming an international conspiracy to bring down parliamentary democratic rule in Malaysia. Add that international conspiracy the Chinese community. On Aug. 29, the good government NGO Bersih brought hundreds of thousands of protesters against to the streets in a two-day rally dominated by the Chinese, giving UMNO the opportunity to characterize the rally as a DAP stratagem to wreck the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition.

As tensions have grown, the Red Shirts have flung insults including Cina babi, meaning “Chinese are pigs,” seemingly with the support of officials linked to UMNO. Last week, police had to use water canon to drive back Red Shirt protesters attempting to force their way into the Petaling Street area, allegedly to demand that authorities raid traders allegedly selling fake goods or running other illegal activities.

Mahathir Mohamad, the 90-year-old former prime minister attempting to bring down Najib, charged last week that Najib is paying the protesters to distract from charges that US$861 million had mysteriously appeared in his personal bank account in 2013. Some of the protesters have acknowledged that they have been paid although Najib, in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, denied he had done so.

Huang, wearing a batik shirt, presented mooncakes to the traders in recognition of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, which begins on Jan. 29. Reading from a prepared statement, he said that: “Nobody has the right to undermine the authority of the law or trample on the rule of law. The Chinese government has always pursued peaceful co-existence in international relationship and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. But with regard to the infringement on China’s national interests, violations of legal rights and interests of Chinese citizens and businesses which may damage the friendly relationship between China and the host country, we will not sit by idly.”

“I think Najib has brought (the Ambassador’s action) upon himself,” said Din Merican, a longtime academic and blogger now teaching at a university in Cambodia. “His racist rhetoric is raising international concerns since in a globalized world, there are many stakeholders. Najib must show that he can protect the interest of foreign investors who have stakes in Malaysia. Fanning the flames of racial hatred and Islamic bigotry is not an option for him. China is sending a message to Najib to stop going overboard with his racism.  The non-interference argument can no longer be used when human rights are being abused with impunity. The Red shirts are Najib’s paid proxies. The besieged Prime Minister is looking for a pretext to declare emergency rule to extend his political life. He knows that UMNO and Barisan Nasional will lose the general election in 2018 if he remains Prime Minister.”

Ambassadors “don’t do that,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist and fellow at the Penang Institute in Penang. “I find it extraordinary because Ambassadors don’t do things in public.You go make a call, you don’t leave a trace”. Wong pointed out that the Ambassador didn’t make a clear distinction whether he was speaking for Chinese nationals or Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese as well.

“That is a no-no in Malaysia,” Wong said. “Some ethnic Malays feel uncomfortable with the idea that a Chinese Ambassador is acting in a way that he appears to be representing the Chinese here. I would be offended myself if he is saying that. If he wants to express concern, he should be doing it privately.

Najib catches much of the blame from observers over Huang’s move, although Gerakan and the Malaysian Chinese Association, two ethnic Chinese component parties in the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition led by UMNO, come in for their own share of criticism.

“Najib is fomenting this to save his political skin,” said a Malay businessman who declined to be quoted by name. “But Gerakan and the MCA haven’t got the balls to stand up to him.”

“Malaysia views his remarks seriously,” a foreign ministry official told local media. “It is tantamount to interfering in Malaysia’s domestic affairs.”

Armand Azha Abu Hanifah,  a member of UMNO’s youth wing executive committee, demanded an apology from Huang for both the government and the Malaysian people.