Fighting Corruption


December 13, 2018

Fighting Corruption

https://www.asiasentinel.com/econ-business/curbing-asia-corrupt-governments/

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Representatives of civil society organizations from nine ASEAN nations have been meeting for the past two days in Bangkok, seeking ways to fast-track implementation of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in what has to seem like an uphill struggle.

All nine countries have completed the first cycle of the convention against corruption, implementation review, covering criminalization and law enforcement and international cooperation, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which is hosting the event. Indonesia and Malaysia have completed the second cycle and Thailand, Vietnam and Laos are at work doing the same.

Unfortunately, the CSOs as the organizations are known are fighting against deeply entrenched corruption. The countries sending reformers to Bangkok are Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam. Except for Singapore, which has its own problems with authoritarianism, the record might make observers into skeptics.

Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017 finds little encouragement. “…Our analysis reveals little progress across the region,” according to the report. “In the past six years, only a few countries experienced small, incremental changes indicating signs of improvement.”

Unfortunately, according to Transparency International, “the 2017 index also shows that corruption in many countries is still strong. Often, when individuals dare to challenge the status quo, they suffer the consequences. In some countries across the region, journalists, activists, opposition leaders and even staff of law enforcement or watchdog agencies are threatened, and in the worst cases, even murdered.” The Philippines is among the worse regional offenders, the report says.

“While freedom of expression is under attack across much of the region, civic space is also shrinking severely. Civil society organizations in countries like Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and China are permanently under threat from authorities. In Cambodia, the government recently cracked down on civil society with the introduction of a restrictive law against NGOs. Cambodia is one of the worst-ranked countries in the region according to the CPI.”

Singapore is the highest-ranked East Asian country in the TI index, at 6th despite its propensity towards authoritarian government. (New Zealand and the Nordic countries rank highest as usual.)

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From there, it is a long drop, to 62nd place and Malaysia, which is coming off the biggest scandal in the country’s history, with the loss of untold billions of dollars in the 1Malaysia Development fiasco and the arrest of its Prime Minister, Najib Razak, and his wife, Rosicmah Mansor(pic above). Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan coalition, which took power in May, 2018  is now trying to deal with the vestiges of 60 years of cronyism and rent-seeking.

The 1MDB matter has become a veritable textbook case of global money laundering, with US authorities pursuing missing assets across the globe and the current prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, trying to reclaim vast sums for his country.

The net drop is another 29 places to Timor-Leste, ranked 91st. Indonesia and Thailand are tied at 96th, which seems optimistic, since both of them hopelessly corrupt.  Vietnam is ranked 107th, followed by the Philippines at 111th. Myanmar is at 130th, followed by Papua New Guinea and Laos, tied at 135th. Cambodia brings up the rear for the region at 161st of 180 countries.

The gloomy part about those rankings is that not a single country has moved up significantly from rankings in 2012, five years ago.

Thus it is jarring that the representatives of 27 civil society organizations are gathered in Bangkok, “working to support government accountability and transparency in various sectors, such as transparency of the judiciary, access to information, whistle-blowing systems, open data, innovative tools, wildlife and timber trafficking, access to justice, women’s rights or business integrity.”

The event, according to the UN office, “is an opportunity to equip CSOs to be ready to review the ongoing UNCAC Implementation Review Mechanisms in ASEAN countries, support their work on anti-corruption in Southeast-Asia, hold thematic sessions of particular interest to civil society, and mark the International Anti-Corruption Day 2018,” said Mirella Dummar-Frahi, UNODC Civil Society Team. In addition, the discussions of the roundtable aim to inform future activities for civil society work in the region.

According to the World Economic Forum, as part of the ‘Global Competitiveness Report,’ most countries in Asia are ranking in the bottom-half with regards to corruption, according to Julien Garsany, deputy regional representative for the UNODC Regional Office for Southeast-Asia and the Pacific.

This year, Garsany said, “we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), this is the occasion to measure progress in its implementation at the national level, and a lot remains to be done. In the ASEAN region, the only existing regional framework is the UNCAC, which makes it of critical importance to tackle corruption at both national and regional levels.”

Critical areas identified as regional trends in the preliminary findings include conflict of interests, asset declaration systems, public procurement, revolving doors, access to information and beneficial ownership.

“CSOs have an important role to play through investigative journalism, sharing of information, transparency and accountability initiatives,” he said, noting progress made towards the inclusion of liability of legal persons in domestic laws in ASEAN countries, which is a positive trend, and the role civil society can play: “If the civil society pushes civil action against companies known to bribe, that could be very powerful.”

A Tale of Two Malays


December 5, 2018

A Tale of Two Malays

by Tajuddin Rasdi

www. freemalaysiatoday.com

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In this article I present my views on the different responses and approaches of two Malay and Muslim educated leaders to raise questions about nation building. The two personalities  are Prime Minister Dr Mahathir. Mohamad and the “respected” mufti, scholar and academic Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin.

The scenario in question is the recent Seafield Sri Maha Mariamman temple incident. I do not view the temple incident as a racial one even though the police have established that the clash was between 50 Malay “hired thugs” and the devotees of the temple.

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From the excellent police report and Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s statement, we can gather that these Malays were hired to solve the problem of vacating the land in order for commercial development to take place. The company to which the land belongs has since denied it was involved in hiring thugs.

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I have heard whispers of this kind of thuggery being undertaken to resolve the problem of vacating people from state and private land. I have also heard whispers that police often turn a blind eye to such actions. I hope these whispers are not true but the glaring events at the Seafield temple have confirmed my personal fears that there may be truth to many of them.

Whatever the real and intended purpose of the Malay “thugs”, I am convinced it was not a racial conflict but a simple “Melayu-thugs-for-hire” one. But politicians, clerics and opportunists have grabbed on to this incident to colour it as a racial conflict. When I read that 70 Malays turned up later that day, I feared the worst but thankfully, our police force was at its best.

When Asri came out with a forceful statement about taking a harsh approach in dealing with “illegal temples”, I feared it would only aggravate the situation, especially with sentiments over the ICERD still strong.

Although Mahathir has reversed the government’s earlier decision to ratify the UN treaty, many, including the “respected” cleric, seem to be egging on a demonstration that I fear could pull this country apart. We know the damage that was done by the previous Jamal Yunos-led Red Shirts rally.

Here I wish to draw attention to the approach of Mahathir on the temple issue: he showed exemplary leadership in putting Malaysian, “Malaysianness” and nation building above the idea of “Malayness”, “Islamicness” and “Tanah Melayu-ness” of those in PAS and Umno, and now – sadly – Asri.

One excellent character trait of Mahathir that I admire is that he can stand firm, no matter what the ulama, royalty and politicians throw at him. From his writings, speeches I have heard and media statements, Mahathir does not come out as a simplistic “my race above all” thinker like Zahid Hamidi and Ibrahim Ali, nor does he comes off as an “Islam above all” thinker like Hadi Awang or Asri.

He has his own personal views of Islam which I have read, his own idea about Malaysia’s history as well as his own personal formula on how Malays should change. He even admitted his failure to change the Malays, giving as proof the vast corruption by Malay elites, including in UMNO and the civil service. He dumped UMNOo… twice! Yes, UMNO dumped him once, but he did it twice. He is even said to be engineering UMNO’s elimination and a reboot of his own version of “Malay-Malaysianess” in PPBM.

Personally, I think it will never work as he is too old and may not have time to train Malays in the new “Malay-Malaysian ideology” so that they become progressive and critical-minded Muslims with a Japanese work culture.

That model of “Malay-Malaysianess” never took off even when he was the leader of UMNO.

But what I admire most about the way Mahathir handled the Seafield issue is that he was decisive and humanitarian and he did it with a Malaysian finesse. The government has ordered the status quo to be maintained and for the rule of law to take effect.

The matter has been taken to the courts again by some devotees, and a few millionaires have started a campaign to raise funds to buy the land from the owner. I suspect Mahathir may have had a hand in the idea of buying the land.

Mahathir may have lost his credibility as a Malay, a Muslim and a leader among kampung-educated Malays, bandar-educated Malays and university-educated Malays. But he has won my respect and that of the non-Malays and the very, very few thinking Malays.

He has lost the Malay political mileage that is badly needed to restabilise Malaysia as well as prop him up as the PPBM and Pakatan Harapan leader. I think it is a costly price that he has paid personally, but Mahathir is no stranger to such sacrifices.

What matters to him is a clear and unadulterated vision of where Malaysia should be heading, a vision very few Malays understand and are willing to follow, both in the opposition and in the government. Mahathir has put his political career on the line for the sake of a peaceful Malaysia.

The same can be said about the ICERD issue. Many have criticised him for “backtracking” from his tough talk at the UN but I think it takes guts and a visionary leader to go against one’s “reputable standing” and make decisions within a dynamically changing socio-political scenario. Other politicians would have taken more time to weigh the political cost and delay their decision, but Mahathir was quick, decisive and clear over both the ICERD and Seafield issues.

In contrast, let us look at how Asri responded to the temple issue. A day after the reported clash, I was shocked to read his harsh statements encouraging the authorities to come down hard on the Indians with regard to the many “kuil haram” on land not belonging to that community. Although many Muslims I know will side with him in this very popular statement, I think it is selfish and immature with respect to the idea of nation building.

Although I have admired Asri for his academic and religious views framed in an intellectual stand on many issues, his statements suggest his stand on Indians is far from friendly. The first clue to this attitude was given in his Facebook posting about Hindus attacking Muslims in India as well as the burning of widows. He made those statements in defending controversial preacher Zakir Naik, who is wanted in India. I have also heard his veiled attempts at making Hinduism look bad by associating it with the abhorrent caste system.

I will answer his criticism of the Hindu religion by giving three points. Firstly, it is most difficult to discern the principles of a religion from the cultural practices of the adherents. Until I read 20,000 hadiths, I never knew that Malays were practising “Melayu-Islam” and not the Prophet’s Islam. When Asri criticised harshly many of the attitudes and practices of the Malays using hard textual evidence, many Malays despised him but I agreed 100% with what he said concerning this matter.

I have read the hadiths and so I know. Most Malays do not read and they depend on clerics like Azhar Idrus or Zamihan Mat Zin to fill them in on what Islam is. I am 200% behind Asri in his “war” against the Malays and their ethno-centric interpretation of Islam.

Having said that, I have to ask: does Asri know enough about Hinduism to separate the cultural practices or attitudes from the philosophical teachings of that religion? I have read several books on Hinduism, including the Bhagavad Gita and the meditative techniques stemming from that faith, and I find them filled with the wisdom of the ages.

Hindus dissected the self, the ego and the mind long before Prophet Muhammad was born. Much of the concept of “self” by Muslim scholars such as al-Ghazali and Rumi echo the same teachings – not because they have been “influenced” but because of the generality and universality of the messages.

Most Muslims have a narrow window, framed in the 1,400-year scholarship of Islam, and refuse to take a walk outside of that box into the world of human civilisation and strive to understand who they are and how best to behave or act in a community of communities.

Secondly, with respect to the caste system, most societies, even the Malays, practise them. Abdullah Munshi detested the difference in punishments meted out to peasants, guards of the Rajas, the bangsawan or aristocrats and the Rajas, saying they were un-Islamic. To him all men were equal under Allah. I have many Hindu friends and I have never heard of widow burning or the imposition of the caste system; neither have I heard them threaten people of other faiths.

Thirdly, if Asri considers all Hindus as terrorists for atrocities committed against Muslims by some, then what of the Islamic State fanatics bombing here and bombing there, using lorries and other vehicles to knock down and kill non-Muslim civilians? Certainly Asri would point out that Islam the religion is free from such heinous acts and that those who do these things do not reflect Islam which offers a message of peace.

If that is so, why can’t Asri see the “terrorist Hindus” as a party totally different from Malaysian Hindus such as P Ramasamy and P Waytha Moorthy who are fighting peacefully in the political arena for the betterment of their own race? Clearly Asri has not acted with wisdom or out of consideration for the peace and safety of the many Malaysians in making such statements. He thought only about his own race and faith.

Thus, in conclusion, we can see two sons of Malaysia, two sons of the Melayu culture and two sons of Islam having two divergent approaches and attitudes towards the idea of building a peaceful nation.

One of them cares about all life in Malaysia while the other seems to care only about those of his race and religion. One has a long view of Malaysia’s future in the global community while the other has views limited to what is important to his own faith.

Malays have to decide who they should follow.

* The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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South East Asian Cyberspace: Politics, Censorship and Polarisation


November 5, 2018

South East Asian Cyberspace: Politics, Censorship and Polarisation

On 12 April 2017, Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society issued what the Bangkok Post called “a strange government directive”. It prohibited anyone from following, communicating with, or disseminating information online from three outspoken critics of the government—or risk up to 15 years in prison. The statement seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and without any explanation. Does the act of “following” include reading these authors’ posts, or actually clicking the “follow” button on their profile? This was never clarified by the government.

The ambiguity of the Thai cyber laws prompted a local online newspaper, Prachatai, to publish information warning readers about how to avoid being charged with Thailand’s draconian Article 112, which prohibits defamation against the royal family. But the journalist responsible for the article was in turn interrogated by the Thai authorities for a possible computer crime herself. This deadly dose of opaque cyber regulations and an authoritarian political regime has made Thailand’s cyberspace one of the most restricted in Asia.

This combination, however, is growing more and more representative of the regional norm. In Southeast Asia, the liberating effects of the internet coexist in increasing tension with state anxiety about information control. Southeast Asian cyberspace is thus becoming more expansive, yet more restricted. On the one hand, the number of people who have come online for the first time has exploded: Myanmar, for example, went from 1% internet penetration in 2012 to 26% in 2017 thanks to an abundance of cheap mobile phones. Internet users across the region are increasingly spending time online to work, study, connect with friends, and participate in civic and political life.

On the other hand, Southeast Asian governments are growing wary of the potential for the internet to threaten political stability.

Cyberspace in Southeast Asia has evolved into a space for contestation over power and control between the state and its societal opponents, with the former exerting greater and more sophisticated control over the latter. As electoral contestation increases in some countries, feuding elites have sought to win the hearts and minds of the ever more engaged and wired citizenry through old tactics of divide and conquer, exploiting deep-seated ethnic, religious and racial cleavages. Social networking sites like Facebook have made it all too easy to spread hate speech and misinformation—further entrenching divisions in society, and inviting yet more state-led censorship.

More internet, more censorship

Viewed globally, the Southeast Asian experience is not an aberration. Freedom House’s Net Freedom Report, which ranks the degree of cyber openness around the world, has recorded the sixth consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom. More than two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where criticism of governments gets censored.

The present reality stands in stark contrast to early optimism about the positive, liberating role the internet could play in bringing about political change in authoritarian regimes—a sentiment which flourished following the “Arab Spring”. The utopian idea that social media could spell the end of despots has now been muted by users’ frustration with increasing crackdowns on the internet and the chilling effect brought on by continued persecution of politically active social media users. Indeed, in 2016 a total of 24 countries restricted access to popular social media platforms and messaging apps—an increase of 60% compared to the previous year. 27% of internet users live in countries whose authorities have made arrests based on social media posts.

So where does Southeast Asia fit in this global picture? Despite varying degrees of internet penetration—ranging from 19% in Cambodia to 82% in Singapore—national internet environments in Southeast Asia share three key similarities.

First, there is an overall consecutive decline in internet freedom, which measures the degree to which access is unrestricted. The Philippines stands as the only country in the region that receives a score of “free” according to Freedom House (Figure 1). The rest of Southeast Asian internet users enjoy partial to little freedom in surfing the net.

Figure 1: Net Freedom Scores, 2016

In all the “partly free” and “not free” states, ordinary internet users have been arrested for their online activities and user rights have been repeatedly violated. Measures to censor critical opinions about authorities can include blocking of websites, content removal, and in some cases arrests and persecution—the latter of which has been taking place more recently, as authorities across the region pay closer attention to social media and chat app content.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoch Nhu or “Mother Mushroom” was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017 for “conducting propaganda against the state”, after she wrote on issues relating to policy brutality, land rights, and freedom of speech. A Thai man has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for Facebook posts the authorities deemed critical of the royal family. This follows the 2016 arrest of eight internet users who ran a satirical Facebook page mocking Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. In Singapore, whose leaders prefer slapping lawsuits upon critics over arresting them, blogger Roy Ngerng was sued for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in posts on his blog. Even a democratic government in Indonesia has sought to censor same-sex emojis from messaging apps and has banned several gay dating apps.

Second, many Southeast Asian states have in recent years sought to institutionalise online information controls through new laws and regulations, typically citing concerns for national security. Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Law openly permits criminalisation of internet activism or communication that are considered “dishonest” and “untruthful” by the regime. Cambodia has had several drafts of the cybercrime law, with each one eliciting grave concerns from rights groups. Article 35 from the 2012 draft, for instance, would criminalise civil society organisations deemed to endanger the security, morality and values of the nation. A 2017 amendment to Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act worsened an already repressive internet law by giving authorities wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone who might be spreading information that would be against the (vaguely-defined) national interest. Indonesia’s newly amended Electronic Information Transactions Law (UU ITE) was criticised by internet rights groups for creating chilling effects online and curbing of freedom of expression. Indeed, the majority of cyber laws in the region are written in vague terms on purpose: they give power to authorities to interpret what is critical to the nation’s security and public safety.

Third, the varying degree of filtering on issues of social, political, and national security importance gives some indication of the country’s priorities on internet control. Censorship is most severe when it comes to criticism against the state (Figure 2). While the growth of internet usage across Southeast Asia caused concern about information control among all of the region’s governments, reasons for such concern vary. Indonesia and Thailand focus their internet censorship efforts on social issues—particularly online pornography—whereas Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar (and to some extent Thailand too) have gone to some lengths to crack down on cyber dissidents deemed a threat to regime stability.

Figure 2: Key internet censorship issues, 2016

Highly developed Singapore, with its hegemonic party rule, has one of the world’s highest internet penetration rates. Instead of practicing cyber surveillance and filtering, its leaders prefer to rely on non-technological means to curb online commentary perceived to be a threat to social values and religious and ethnic harmony. These “second generation” control mechanisms—such as lawsuits, steep fines, and criminal prosecution—act to deter “inappropriate” online behaviour.

Divide the people, conquer the discourse

But political elites, even if they could, would not want to control the flow of all information. They need the web to be sufficiently open to allow a perceived sense of online freedom of expression, and the proliferation of engaged online discussion. This provides ruling and competing elites alike with opportunities to divide electorates and mobilise their support base against their adversaries. The Oxford Internet Institute’s research on computation propaganda has highlighted how state-sponsored “cyber troops” and trolls are commonplace around the world as means of manipulating public opinion, particularly in support of ruling elites.

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The Philippines—the only country whose internet environment is regarded as free—has witnessed a high density of “cyber troops” since populist maverick Rodrigo Duterte came to power. Duterte’s online army is reportedly paid to flood Facebook with pro-Duterte propaganda, sometimes masking as grassroots activists. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who has a huge social media following, found himself denying buying influence on Facebook after reports that only 20% of his 3 million likes originated from Cambodia (the rest largely being from India and the Philippines). That a septuagenarian , who has been in power since the 1980s, felt the need to pay for Facebook likes is telling of the extent political leaders go to in order to construct digital legitimacy, even if it means spreading online propaganda.

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But the most prominent example of the potential power of the abovementioned “divide and conquer” strategy was the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. After ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or “Ahok” made controversial comments about the Quran, anti-Ahok rallies, mobilising over 500,000 protesters at their peak, were led by a coalition of Islamic groups. These religious groups were long unhappy with Ahok in power but did not surge in popularity until Ahok’s blasphemy case came to the fore (Figure 3).

Figure 3: FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)

 

The hard line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) more than tripled their support base on Facebook following Ahok’s comments, and figured prominently in the months-long campaign against him. Witnessing the rise of the FPI and other Islamist groups gaining prominence as anti-Ahok movement garnered force, Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan, long seen as a secular Islamic politician, shifted gear to appeal to those sympathetic to the FPI campaign. The online sphere became deeply polarised: a network analysis of those who commented on Ahok’s and Anies’ Facebook posts in the month of December in 2016 (Figure 6) shows that only 16 people cross-commented on both pages out of a total of 9,000 comments.

Figure 6: Network Visualisation of Commenters on Ahok’s (Blue) and Anies Baswedan’s (Red) Facebook Page

Here, Facebook played an important role in catapulting the hard line FPI into mainstream politics. This then contributed to a more polarising political environment in which more Indonesians were politically active online than ever before, but not necessarily engaging with opposing views.

Confronting the challenge to a free internet

Digital rights and digital literacy are the biggest challenges to Internet users in Southeast Asia now and going forward. While global trends suggest that the increasing tide of state surveillance, monitoring and censorship online will not dissipate, Internet users must build greater resilience to protect and defend basic human rights in the digital world, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and privacy.

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Civil society groups, bloggers, human rights advocates, students, journalists, and academics should band together to build the technical and legal capacity needed to defend internet rights within the region against the growth of government surveillance, as well as corporations seeking to capitalise on the plethora of personal information online. Public awareness about digital rights and their importance to a vibrant democratic society is crucial to building digital resilience.

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This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation.

De Tocqueville and the French exception


August 14, 2018

Liberal thinkers

De Tocqueville and the French exception

The gloomiest of the great liberals worried that democracy might not be compatible with liberty

 Print edition | Schools brief

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HE IS the most unusual member of the liberal pantheon. Liberalism has usually been at its most vigorous among the Anglo-American middle classes. By contrast, Alexis de Tocqueville was a proud member of the French aristocracy.

Liberalism tends to be marinated in optimism to such an extent that it sometimes shades into naivety. Tocqueville believed that liberal optimism needs to be served with a side-order of pessimism. Far from being automatic, progress depends on wise government and sensible policy.

He also ranks among the greats. He wrote classic studies of two engines of the emerging liberal order: “Democracy in America” (1835-40) and “The Old Regime and the French Revolution” (1856). He also helped shape French liberalism, both as a political activist and as a thinker. He was a leading participant in the “Great Debate” of the 1820s between liberals and ultra-Royalists about the future direction of France.

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In 1849 he served briefly as foreign minister (he died a decade later). He broadened the liberal tradition by subjecting the bland pieties of the Anglo-American middle class to a certain aristocratic disdain; and he deepened it by pointing to the growing dangers of bureaucratic centralisation. Better than any other liberal, Tocqueville understood the importance of ensuring that the collective business of society is done as much as possible by the people themselves, through voluntary effort, rather than by the government.

Tocqueville’s liberalism was driven by two forces. The first was his fierce commitment to the sanctity of the individual. The purpose of politics was to protect people’s rights (particularly the right to free discussion) and to give them scope to develop their abilities to the full. The second was his unshakable belief that the future lay with “democracy”. By that he meant more than just parliamentary democracy with its principle of elections and wide suffrage. He meant a society based on equality.

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The old regime was predicated on the belief that society was divided into fixed classes. Some people are born to rule and others to serve. Rulers like Tocqueville’s family in Normandy inherited responsibilities as well as privileges. They were morally bound to look after “their people” and serve “their country”. Democratic society was based on the idea that all people were born equal. They came into the world as individuals rather than as aristocrats or peasants. Their greatest responsibility was to make the most of their abilities.

Terror and the state

Many members of Tocqueville’s class thought that democratisation was both an accident and a mistake—an accident because cleverer management of the old regime could have prevented the revolution in 1789, and a mistake because democracy destroyed everything they held most dear. Tocqueville thought that was nonsense—and pitied his fellow blue-bloods who wasted their lives in a doomed attempt to restore aristocratic privilege.

The great question at the heart of Tocqueville’s thought is the relationship between liberty and democracy. Tocqueville was certain that it was impossible to have liberty without democracy, but he worried that it was possible to have democracy without liberty. For example, democracy might transfer power from the old aristocracy to an all-powerful central state, thereby reducing individuals to helpless, isolated atoms. Or it might make a mockery of free discussion by manipulating everybody into bowing down before conventional wisdom.

Sir Larry Siedentop, an Oxford academic, points out that Tocqueville’s contribution was to identify a structural flaw in democratic societies. Liberals are so preoccupied by the “contract” between the individual on the one hand and the state on the other that they don’t make enough room for intermediate associations which acted as schools of local politics and buffers between the individual and the state. And, he was the first serious thinker to warn that liberalism could destroy itself.

Tocqueville worried that states might use the principle of equality to accumulate power and ride roughshod over local traditions and local communities. Such centralisation might have all sorts of malign consequences. It might reduce the variety of institutions by obliging them to follow a central script. It might reduce individuals to a position of defencelessness before the mighty state, either by forcing them to obey the state’s edicts or making them dependent on the state’s largesse. And it might kill off traditions of self-government. Thus one liberal principle—equal treatment—might end up destroying three rival principles: self-government, pluralism and freedom from coercion.

Tocqueville feared his own country might fall into the grip of just such an illiberal democracy, as it had in the Terror, under Maximilien Robespierre in 1793. The French revolutionaries had been so blinded by their commitment to liberty, equality and fraternity that they crushed dissenters and slaughtered aristocrats, including many members of Tocqueville’s family. His parents were spared, but his father’s hair turned white at 24 and his mother was reduced to a nervous wreck.

He was worried about more than just the bloodshed, which proved to be a passing frenzy. The power of the state also posed a more subtle threat. The monarchy had nurtured an over-mighty state, as French kings sucked power from aristocrats towards the central government. The revolution completed the job, abolishing local autonomy along with aristocratic power and reducing individual citizens to equal servitude beneath the “immense tutelary power” of the state.

By contrast, the United States represented democracy at its finest. Tocqueville’s ostensible reason for crossing the Atlantic, in 1831, was to study the American penal system, then seen as one of the most enlightened in the world. His real wish was to understand how America had combined democracy with liberty so successfully. He was impressed by the New England townships, with their robust local governments, but he was equally taken by the raw egalitarianism of the frontier.

Why did the children of the American revolution achieve what the children of the French revolution could not? The most obvious factor was the dispersal of power. The government in Washington was disciplined by checks and balances. Power was exercised at the lowest possible level—not just the states but also cities, townships and voluntary organisations that flourished in America even as they declined in France.

The second factor was what he called “manners”. Like most French liberals, Tocqueville was an Anglophile. He thought that America had inherited many of Britain’s best traditions, such as common law and a ruling class that was committed to running local institutions.

Of liberty and religion

America also had the invaluable advantage of freedom of religion. Tocqueville believed that a liberal society depended ultimately on Christian morality. Alone among the world’s religions, Christianity preached the equality of man and the infinite worth of the individual. But the ancien régime had robbed Christianity of its true spirit by turning it into an adjunct of the state. America’s decision to make religion a matter of free conscience created a vital alliance between the “spirit of religion” and the “spirit of liberty”. America was a society that “goes along by itself”, as Tocqueville put it, not just because it dispersed power but because it produced self-confident, energetic citizens, capable of organising themselves rather than looking to the government to solve their problems.

Sleeping on a volcano

He was not blind to the faults of American democracy. He puzzled over the fact that the world’s most liberal society practised slavery, though, like most liberals, he comforted himself with the thought that it was sure to wither. He worried about the cult of the common man. Americans were so appalled by the idea that one person’s opinion might be better than another’s that they embraced dolts and persecuted gifted heretics. He worried that individualism might shade into egotism. Shorn of bonds with wider society, Americans risked being confined within the solitude of their own hearts. The combination of egalitarianism and individualism might do for Americans what centralisation had done for France—dissolve their defences against governmental power and reduce them to sheep, content to be fed and watered by benevolent bureaucrats.

Tocqueville exercised a powerful influence on those who shared his fears. In his “Autobiography” John Stuart Mill thanked Tocqueville for sharpening his insight that government by the majority might hinder idiosyncratic intellectuals from influencing the debate. In 1867 Robert Lowe, a leading Liberal politician, argued for mass education on the Tocquevillian grounds that “we must educate our masters”. Other Liberal politicians argued against extending the franchise on the grounds that liberty could not survive a surfeit of democracy. In the 1950s and 1960s American intellectuals seized on Tocqueville’s insight that mass society might weaken liberty by narrowing society’s choices.

More recently intellectuals have worried about the rapid growth of the federal government, inaugurated by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programme. Transferring power from local to the federal government; empowering unaccountable bureaucrats to pursue abstract goods such as “equality of representation” (even if it means riding roughshod over local institutions); and undermining the vitality of civil society tends, they fear, to destroy the building blocks of Tocqueville’s America. A recent conference, organised by the Tocqueville Society and held in the family’s Normandy manor house, dwelt on the various ways in which democracy is under assault from within, by speech codes, and from without, by the rise of authoritarian populism, under the general heading of “demo-pessimism”.

It is worth adding that the threat to liberty today does not stem just from big government. It also comes from big companies, particularly tech firms that trade in information, and from the nexus between the two. Gargantuan tech companies enjoy market shares unknown since the Gilded Age. They are intertwined with the government through lobbying and the revolving door that has government officials working for them when they leave office. By providing so much information “free” they are throttling media outfits that invest in gathering the news that informs citizens. By using algorithms based on previous preferences they provide people with information that suits their prejudices—right-wing rage for the right and left-wing rage for the left.

Today’s great rising power is the very opposite of the United States, the great rising power of Tocqueville’s time. China is an example not of democracy allied to liberty but of centralisation allied to authoritarianism. Its state and its pliant tech firms can control the flow of information to an extent never dreamed of. Increasingly, China embodies everything that Tocqueville warned against: power centralised in the hands of the state; citizens reduced to atoms; a collective willingness to sacrifice liberty for a comfortable life.

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Before the revolution in France in 1848, Tocqueville warned that the continent was “sleeping on a volcano…A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon.” Today democracy in America has taken a dangerous turn. Populists are advancing in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Authoritarians are consolidating power. The most pessimistic of great liberal thinkers may not have been pessimistic enough.

Read more on classical liberal values and thinkers at  Economist.com/openfuture

This article appeared in the Schools brief section of the print edition under the headline “The French exception”

Tribute to ‘legal lion’ Sir Eusoffe Abdoolcader


August 12, 2018

Tribute to ‘legal lion’ Sir Eusoffe Abdoolcader

British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell describes the late judge Eusoffe Abdoolcader as an individual the country should be incredibly proud of.

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KUALA LUMPUR: British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell has hailed the late Eusoffe Abdoolcader, one of the senior judges suspended during the 1988 judicial crisis, as a man of integrity and said he was held in high regard not only in Malaysia but also internationally.

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British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell at Kinokuniya, Kuala Lumpur

She said Eusoffe, who died in 1996, was a witty and wise man. “Integrity, wisdom, humour, passion, romance are the words I came up with (to describe Eusoffe),” Treadell said at an event to pay tribute to the late judge at Kinokuniya Book Store’s Merdeka month celebration.

Eusoffe was lauded as “The Legal Lion of the Commonwealth”, first coined by The Times of London. The “The Legal Lion of the Commonwealth: Judgments” book is the first in a series to revive the history of a man who has been called “Malaysia’s greatest judge”.

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Malaysians, Treadell said, should be “so incredibly proud” of Eusoffe as his judgments were also respected by the international legal community.”

As a jurist, Eusoffe – who graduated with First Class Honours from University of London – was “second to none” and his laser-like intellect and photographic memory would often put someone on the spot.

Treadell also pointed out that Eusoffe was the first Malayan to be given the Keys to the City of London in 1950. “I can assure you not everyone is given the Keys to the City of London. He must have stood out.”

Treadell went on to talk about how Eusoffe was a courageous man who was prepared to stand up to the government of the day or to senior figures in the government.

“If he felt the government had strayed beyond their constitutional place, he was not afraid of doing so and pointing out that actually, they were breaching the constitution and the law.”

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This Judicial Crisis was created by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in his capacity as Prime Minister No. 4 in 1988. Sir Eusoffe was one of the 5 Judges. After that, the Judiciary became an appendage of the Executive Branch

Eusoffe was among the five Supreme Court judges who were suspended after granting the then Lord President Salleh Abbas an interim order against a tribunal for misconduct.

This after Salleh opposed a bill – that sparked the judicial crisis in 1988 – which sought to divest the courts of the “judicial power of the Federation”, giving them only such powers as Parliament granted them.

 

Salleh went on to express his disappointment with the then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in a letter that was addressed to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and other state Rulers. Salleh was suspended two months later before being removed as Lord President in August of that year.

Inspired by Eusoffe’s life and legacy, his judgments will be used as a teaching tool for young people in a series of human rights writing workshops called “VastWords”, part sponsored by Think City, a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional.

Between Nov–Dec 2018, the VastWords programme will train 400 students in Kuala Lumpur.The best essays from the initiative will be published in a book, promoting diverse opinions and giving voice to young people’s perspectives on human rights issues in Malaysia.

 

Fact-checked journalism must endure


August 12, 2018

Fact-checked journalism must endure

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“There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn’t mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing.”–CNN’s Christiane Amanpour

 

COMMENT | If the media are to be socially constructive, they must rely on the journalist’s intelligent understanding and reporting of issues. This can only come about if journalists are themselves intelligently informed.

That’s the basic premise of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) seminar on media training in Kuala Lumpur in June 1973.

Journalism has changed radically since then – from the makeup and digital literacy of the readers to the multitasking required of journalists to write for a newspaper and produce an online package for the same story on the same day.

Journalists are no longer the main purveyor of news. Readers are now able to circulate their version of the same story on social media sites, which add another level of complexity to today’s journalism – the tussle between “journalistic truth” and “fluid truth”, “real news” and “fake news”. Do we even care about the truth these days?

The line separating “truth” and “falsehoods” is constantly shifting, depending on who you ask. And, the difference between real and fake news is unclear – so vague that “fake news” has become a catch-all term to mean anything that we don’t like, particularly information that strikes at our core values.

US President Donald Trump (photo) has appropriated the term to demonise the media that are hypercritical of his presidency. Trump has wilfully engaged in deceptive political tweets to mislead and disinform, as do many conspiracy theorists.

POTUS 45 is the Slayer of American Journalism–Putting Josef Goebbels to shame

Rookie and poorly trained journalists are not immune to the fake news phenomenon either. J–ournalists do misinform when they report inaccuracies because they did not do their research or quote a source out of context.

But when sources knowingly circulate false information and dress it up to look like real news to mislead and manipulate, that’s disinforming.

That’s pandering to the inherent biases we hold of particular issues and people. Herein lies the “fake news” menace – to deceive for political ends.

The spread of disinformation has caused the ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Information (AMRI) to jointly declare on May 10 a framework to stem the flow of “fake news”.

The Poynter Institute has also initiated an International Fact-Checking Network to counter the “fake news” phenomenon .(https://ifcncodeofprinciples.poynter.org/ )

April 2 was even named as a global fact-checking day. Computer programs are being designed to help readers sieve falsehoods from the “truth”.

Restoring public trust

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Ultimately, fact-checked and research-based journalism must endure, especially in the Malaysian media context. Pakatan Harapan’s ousting of decades of BN rule has given our journalists a shot at doing their job better.

The nascent freedom to speak truth to power, the freedom to critically report and boldly investigate should ideally lead to a positive change in Malaysian journalism. Greater freedom, however, does not necessarily lead to quality journalism.

 

Higher standards can only be achieved if the editorial leadership and newsroom environment are firmly committed to fair, accurate, contextual and investigative reporting. Journalists must be led by the facts. Only then can the mainstream media reclaim what they have lost – their public trust and credibility – during decades of acting as BN’s lapdogs.

Image result for Malaysiakini under attack

Malaysiakini–Malaysia’s Foremost Web-Paper–refuses to be intimidated by Najib Razak’s UMNO-BN Government

Decades of BN’s hold on the media and political affiliations of the top brass in the mainstream media have for too long stifled the advancement of Malaysian journalism. For too long, the mainstream media have aligned its op-eds and narratives with the BN agendas. They have pandered to the interests of those in power rather than address the concerns of the people.

Returning media to people

Which reminds me of what the former rural affairs editor of Indian newspaper The Hindu, P Sainath said about returning the media to the people.

I met Sainath at his home many years ago in Mumbai during one of my research trips. In a 2016 lecture he gave in New Delhi, he said: “We have a media (in India) that is driven by revenue, not by reality; by commerce, not by community; by profit, not by people; by narrow corporate greed, not by news judgement. Media, journalism, art and literature did not come out of corporate investments, they came out of communities and societies, we need to return them to the people.”

To return Malaysian journalism to the people, the first step is to appoint an internal readers’ advocate, or a “public editor” as The New York Times once named it. The advocate will act as an internal media watchdog of fair, ethical and accurate reporting.

 

He or she will receive and examine complaints of unfair reporting from readers and assess such complaints. The news organisation will then publish the assessment in either the letters or op-ed page.

The advocate will write a monthly summary to be published by the respective paper, and at the end of the financial year in the annual report to inform their shareholders. That’s a form of media audit.

The second step is to integrate stringent fact-checking into the daily news reporting and production. True, reporters are expected to check their stories, and have them checked again by their news editors.

With the fast turnover of news, however, this task should be delegated to fact-checkers. Their main job is to check the veracity of statements, claims and opinions of various sources multiple times. Self-regulation in the newsroom is certainly preferred to government legislation – and it works better in raising standards.

Malaysian journalists should also undergo continual professional training to enhance their skills in critical observations and analyses of issues to serve the public interest.

Training should focus on developing proactive reporting or solutions-oriented journalism, probing interviews, fact-checking, data analyses, and in depth research. An in-house training curricula can be designed alongside local and regional media training organisations.

If the mainstream media initiate these internal reform measures, we may see some improvements in the quality of news coverage and analyses. The media will in good time earn back the public trust, and consequently maximise its profitability.


ERIC LOO is Senior Fellow (Journalism) at the School of the Arts, English & Media, Faculty of Law Humanities & Arts, University of Wollongong, Australia. He is also the founding editor of Asia Pacific Media Educator.

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