Change in Malaysia–Fix the Civil Service Culture


June 1, 2018

Change in Malaysia–Fix the Civil Service Culture

by Firoz Abdul Hamid

http://investvine.com/change-in-malaysia-please-just-fix-the-saddle/

Reform – Separation of Executive – Legislative and Judiciary. These are some of the current buzz words in our political discourse in Malaysia these days. In the last three weeks since my country installed a new government with a new political party, after 61 years of the same, we have seen many revelations, many changes. We have witnessed heartbreaks, sighs of relief, and breaths of hope all in one. Yet there is only an undercurrent of cautious optimism for many with the new government – who are trying to get the country back on an even keel.  Optimism, I would conclude.

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The cautionary tale – in cautiously optimistic sentiment – will hinge on how it implements long term structural reforms. Whilst there are councils of many, magnitude ideas for change anew – there is yet a clear roadmap on HOW the change will be implemented; or at least one that the man on the streets can simplistically understand. We just know change of some form is on its way.

No one knows the how yet. Early days, some may argue.

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If we want civil service culture change, why is this KSN (Ketua Setiausaha Negara) hanging around, Dr.Mahathir?

Whilst ideas flow from gilded vases, note to self – the people who will be implementing these ideas and plans are the same – the 1.6 million civil servants. They were there in the reigns of the 4th, the 5th, the 6th and now the 7th Prime Minister bar those who left for natural reasons. The civil service culture that was censured during the recent election campaigns by the then opposition (now government) remains the same, because the people are simply the same. Yes, they have moved a few people here and there, but that does not culminate in cultural change. It does not change the belief system and it most definitely has not remolded the existing and prevailing value system. What has happened thus far is the riders have changed.

On a text book level culture is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviours shared by a group of people. These behaviours on an institutional level is usually moulded through how one is measured. People behave the way they are measured. The way they are rewarded. Hence a quote that says – “Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave”.

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Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi– Words are cheap by the dozen.

Why was Aung San Suu Kyi so inspiring to many as was Barack Obama? Why did South Africa see a President Jacob Zuma after the reign of a great leader like the late Nelson Mandela? Why?  Because we built a pedestal of expectation for these people. We thought Suu Kyi would do wonders for the less privileged and persecuted, for she was persecuted herself. But her silence in the face of thousands of persecuted Roghinyas left the world aghast and she was severely criticised. We could not understand her failure to act. Why?

When Barack Obama started his Egypt speech with “Assalamualaikum” – (peace be upon you in Arabic) – in Cairo in 2009, promising a new beginning  between the USA – Muslim world relations, the world and especially the Middle East was thawed and mesmerized by him. Simply put – in awe. The world could not get enough of him and yet, eight years later when he left office, US military forces have been at war for all eight years of Obama’s tenure. He launched air strikes or military raids in at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan (see here). He was said to have recorded most numbers of wars with Muslim countries compared to other US presidents and, yes, even compared to George Bush junior. It was during Obama’s reign that we had the 1% Movement, large bailouts of American Too-Big-to-Fail companies and the African American issues with law enforcement officers.

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The 45th President of the United States–Donald J. Trump

All of this somewhat culminated to a succession of a President like Donald Trump today. The same could be said about Mandela who was subsequently succeeded by the likes of Jacob Zuma, who was mired in corruption. How can such leaders who inspire awe in us be succeeded by leaders who many despise? Perhaps this is a rhetorical question. They inspired just that awe! And we were so awestruck by them that we did not closely scrutinize their on the ground action until it was perhaps too late.

Change is a mind boggling phenomenon. We want change, we call for change and then we list the kinds of laws and regulations that need to be implemented and/or repealed to ensure that change – yet the one thing we do not change are the people who are key to that change. We do not transform their skill sets, their thinking, their attitude and really their abilities to execute the lasting change. The current leaders in Malaysia have ordered civil servants to buck up. But how can they buck up when the skills are the same, the tools are the same and the means are the same? How can they buck up to compete with international players when all parameters remain the same?

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We need civil servants who can implement change. Great ideas, policies and programs will go to waste unless we have competent, honest, dedicated, and dynamic implementors, not clock watchers and yes men .

Today, we have high-level panels formed to review policies, laws and regulations that require changing. I am certain and know without a doubt the end product of all these councils and meetings will result in a gold gilded documents of great plans and strategies. But there is a real chance of these invaluable work being decimated if the mindsets of the people who will ultimately be implementing them are not concurrently changed, not synchronously upskilled.

I liken my argument to a beast rider. Without the beast we will not be going anywhere, without the rider we don’t know where we are going, and without the saddle the rider will fall off the beast and there is no journey. We have a new rider today and a healthier beast. But we need to fix the saddle. The civil service is the saddle in this analogy. In these stack of separation of powers – i.e. executive, legislative and judiciary – where exactly does the 1.6 million civil servants sit and exactly what are the separation of powers between them and the executive (politicians and law makers). That remains unclear and it is different to each democracy around the world. The General Orders for Public Service need to be reviewed. The structures of talent building and up skiling needs work. The whole agenda of integrity and work culture needs to be reawakened. Tracking of governance needs to have a place in this new environment.

Malaysia needs a strong and independent civil service that will function regardless of who takes the government tomorrow. The UK has successfully operated in the face of many changes in governments and referendums. The same can be said about many Western democracies. No matter the government, the civil service remained solid enabling the country to run smoothly. When President Trump took on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, they had officers there who stood up to him and were undaunted by his challenges – the most powerful man in the world. They stood for what was right by their job. In 2011 during the tenure of Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary at Downing Street (Chief Secretary–Ketua Setiausaha Negara) in the context of Malaysia), decided that Whitehall’s most senior civil servants will be given rights to inform the Cabinet secretary and the Prime Minister if a minister ignores their advice on procedures in their department The tightening of the rules was accepted by Downing Street after O’Donnell found a series of breaches of the ministerial code (see here).

During the campaigning of the 14th general elections in Malaysia, some civil servants and members of government-linked companies were clearly on the campaign trail. This was a clear breach of the General Orders for Public Service and yet they went ahead. It is acts like these that erode the trust deficit in our government. When trust is eroded, no matter what programmes and actions the government takes, there will always be an element of doubt on the part of general public.

When we have a culture that is driven by fear and favour, and not by honour, integrity, and pride, trust naturally erodes and the trust deficit in our civil service today is at its highest. It needs repairing. It needs fixing. The civil service and all the government-linked companies need repairing – in its culture. There is clearly two ways of doing this – one by order and the other organically. The former can be done fast but will only last to the next elections and eventually destroy the service altogether whilst the latter will build a robust service, even if it takes a bit longer to implement.

No amount of strategy to fix the country will work unless you fix the saddle – the Civil Service – failing which you risk failing and falling. As writer Peter Drucker famously said – Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch,  this will most certainly come to fruition for us here in Malaysia if we do not conclusively fix the culture and value system in our civil service at all levels. The strongest legacy this new Mahathir 2.0 government can leave behind is giving Malaysia its strong and apolitical civil service again failing which we will be left as awestruck towards as many leaders who have come and gone, with not much to show on the ground and our perennial problems continuing to haunt our next generation.

(Firoz Abdul Hamid is an Investvine contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)

See her full channel Ethics in Business.

The Art of the Korean Deal– US Foreign Policy Trump-Pence -Bolton Tag Team


May 27, 2018

The Art of the Korean Deal– US Foreign Policy Trump-Pence -Bolton Tag Team

by Bunn Nagara@www.thestar.com.my

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NO sooner had US and North Korean officials raced towards a first-ever summit than they competed to pull away from it. Is anyone in Washington and Pyongyang serious about a peace deal anymore?

After President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un exchanged insults throughout 2017 over the latter’s missile and nuclear arsenals, a thaw in inter-Korean relations began last February.

This led to real prospects of a first US-North Korean summit from March. Since they were the principals of the 1950-53 war that has yet to end formally, theirs would be the summit that matters most.

The talks would centre on the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula by ridding it of the North’s nuclear weapons. The terms and conditions for that are crucial.

Until early May, Pyongyang had agreed to the summit without preconditions. Even military exercises between US and South Korean forces, deemed a provocation by the North, did not hamper summit preparations.

Then as everyone looked forward to the historic summit in Singapore on June 12, something untoward happened.

Image result for mike pompeoAmerica’s Top Diplomat Mike Pompeo is in a quandary

 

US National Security Advisor John Bolton, and then Vice-President Mike Pence, said North Korea could go the Libya route. By 2003 Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya sought better relations with the US and offered to abandon its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes.

Without the threat from these weapons, the US and its allies attacked Libya and Gaddafi was murdered. It was a sobering lesson to all other countries in a similar position.

Ultra-hawk Bolton, champion of the US invasion of Iraq, had advocated the bombing of North Korea. His comment on the Libyan experience for Pyongyang prompted a rebuke followed by a summit recalibration in mid-May.

North Korea then declared it would not surrender its nuclear weapons even for economic aid. US officials wondered what could have changed North Korea’s attitude.

As South Korea frantically tried to place the summit back on track, the US and North Korea became cool to the prospect. Amid the uncertainty, Trump accused Pyongyang of hostility and last Thursday cancelled the summit.

Enter the pundits speculating over how the summit was really improbable from the start.

First it was said that both sides could not agree on what should be “on the table” and “what should not.”

It was then said that the US and North Korea were not in agreement on the precise meaning of “complete denuclearisation.” It was also said that there was no agreement on the necessary terms and conditions required: the steps needed from each side or the sequence of their occurrence.

It was further said that verification was a difficult and even unresolvable issue. How could anyone be certain that North Korea would fully comply with any agreement?

Equally, North Korea cannot be sure that the US would fulfil its end of the bargain, especially after it had just dumped the nuclear deal with Iran.

The reality on the ground however is that these issues are supposed to be the content of the summit negotiations, not stumbling blocks to holding the summit.

The day after Trump “cancelled” the summit he said it could be back on – without any delay. North Korea remained open to it, having shown goodwill by destroying nuclear testing tunnels on Thursday.

Both Trump and Kim are keen on the summit but want to avoid seeming too anxious. The sense is that the one who appears too keen may be signalling weakness.

In the world of first-ever summits, notably this one, a key factor is ego – or “face”. Meanwhile both leaders have to overcome the contrarian tendencies of their hawkish advisers. The conventional view is that Kim is the irrational and unpredictable party. In practice he and Trump are fairly well matched in unpredictability.

North Korean leaders, autocratic as they are, have been quite rational if their interests are understood.

For Kim as it was for his father and grandfather before, the main priority is national security with a credible defence. Pyongyang cannot simply switch off its preparatory war mode in the absence of a peace treaty.

Its other major state interest is national sovereignty. With the perpetual war footing, albeit with a decades-long cessation of hostilities, North Korea still fears destabilisation by South Korea or the US.

Another key state interest is national integrity. In relation to its powerful neighbours this means not being used by China or Russia, while trying to get what it needs from them.

Much has been said about North Korea’s newer generation of missiles and nuclear warheads. However, little has been asked seriously about what it needs them for.

In practice they cannot be for initiating any war in which North Korea is certain to lose most devastatingly. It would be decimated in a nuclear exchange with the US, or in attacking a US ally like South Korea or Japan that would lead to the same thing.

Neither can they be a ticket to becoming a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. Nor can they be a worthwhile means for boosting North Korea’s international prestige or even its national self-esteem.

However, nuclear weapons are seen as a means for deterring foreign invasion even with conventional arms – the same rationale used by virtually all other countries from major Western states to developing nations in the Third World.

That explains why the US failed to convince Kim that his country would be safer if he would only abandon his nuclear weapons first. The fall of Iraq and Libya serves as a stark and powerful reminder.

North Korea’s real concerns focus on a possible US attack, with or without South Korean assistance. Since the war has not officially ended, a Trump-Bolton bombing campaign is still not inconceivable.

Pyongyang’s interest thus lies in a formal peace treaty with firm and assured security guarantees. That should also be an interest shared internationally.

To fulfil both these objectives, a summit with the US is seen as a meaningful first step. This explains the summit’s importance to North Korea and Pyongyang’s willingness to ignore provocations along the way.

The standard international narrative sees North Korea buckling under international sanctions and pressure from China, thereby producing an agreement to denuclearise.

It then sees the promise of economic assistance to a vanquished North Korea as a soothing balm in ending the solitude of the “Hermit Kingdom.”

This narrative concludes with a rebooted US-led North-East Asia, as US allies South Korea and Japan are reassured, all having done so from a position of strength and enduring righteousness.

A problem with this narrative is that it does not apply to North Korea. Pyongyang’s parallel narrative is that, after multiple missile and nuclear bomb tests in recent years, it has perfected robust defence capabilities to the extent that major powers now have to negotiate with it.

Consequently the international community now has to enact a formal peace treaty with Pyongyang, which has triumphed from a position of strength without succumbing to pressure.

All this is further proof of its righteous and resolute leadership, whose legitimate longing for peace with national development has finally been achieved.

Whichever narrative one prefers, understanding that there are alternative narratives – and letting them be – are important steps on the way to enduring peace.

  • Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/behind-the-headlines/2018/05/27/art-of-the-korean-deal-the-muchpublicised-trumpkim-summit-has-run-into-some-expected-roadblocks-on-a/#fsMT5BZAXUooprPG.99

Foreign Policy Perspective: The Return of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in an Election Stunner


May 18, 2018

 

Foreign Policy Perspective: The Return of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in an Election Stunner

By Richard Javad Heydarian

https://www.cfr.org/blog/strategic-implications-malaysias-election-stunner

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Malaysia’s recent national election was a stunner for many reasons. Not only did the election return a nonagenarian to power, but it also ended the six-decades-long one-party hegemony of Barisan Nasional (BN). For the first time in Malaysia’s post-independence history, the opposition is in power. Crucially, long-time opposition leader and democracy activist Anwar Ibrahim has been pardoned and released from prison, enabling him to eventually take the helm of the Malaysian state, paving the way for deep political reforms.

Yet Mahathir Mohamad’s return to power is not only potentially transformative for Malaysian domestic politics. It also has far-reaching strategic implications. First of all, Malaysia may revisit its increasingly cordial, if not acquiescent, bilateral ties with Beijing, which heavily invested in upgrading relations with the previous Najib Razak administration.

Similar to the case of the Philippines during the Benigno Aquino III administration, domestic anti-corruption initiatives in Malaysia could have a significant impact on external relations with China. Former President Aquino III’s good governance reforms primarily targeted Beijing-backed projects launched under the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration. These anti-corruption efforts against China-backed projects, along with Aquino III’s tough South China Sea policy, led to an overall deterioration in Philippine-China bilateral ties, which reached its apotheosis in 2016 as the Philippines won a decision at an international tribunal in The Hague against Beijing’s claims to an expansive “nine-dash line” of territory in the South China Sea.

Malaysia under Mahathir may quickly implement anti-corruption reforms; he has already apparently barred Najib from leaving the country, and vowed that the government will reopen investigations into the 1MDB state fund scandal. A major issue driving the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan coalition victory was the nationwide uproar against the 1MDB corruption scandal.

The former Prime Minister and his associates have been accused of embezzling as much as $1 billion from the state fund. The 1MDB debacle also sparked international investigations into the Najib government, as the United States, Singapore, and Switzerland, among other countries, froze accounts and launched investigations against Malaysia’s investment fund body.

But as Western governments began threatening criminal probes against top Malaysian officials, Najib began to fortify strategic and economic relations with China, which became a key source of investments for Malaysia. And the former prime minister was unapologetic about it.

As the new Mahathir government moves towards potentially prosecuting Najib after placing him under a travel ban, greater scrutiny of Chinese investments could be coming. Before the election, Mahathir complained about the potential for rising housing costs for Malaysians triggered by an expansion in real estate projects by Chinese companies, and a potential influx of Chinese property buyers. “Here we gain nothing from the [Chinese] investment… [W]e don’t welcome that,” he recently lamented. Mahathir also has repeatedly expressed concerns about over-reliance on Chinese technology, engineering and labor for Malaysian infrastructure projects.

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Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad will review relations with Xi Jinping’s China

Among China-led projects that could be reconsidered is the $13 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) railway, connecting Kuala Lumpur with less developed eastern regions. Mahathir has indicated that he may scrap the whole project. He has also warned about the threat of a debt trap, citing the case of Sri Lanka, which was forced into humiliating debt-for-equity deals with China due to its inability to repay ballooning debts to Chinese state firms.

Secondly, Mahathir likely will take a stronger stance against China’s growing strategic assertiveness across Southeast Asia. Under the Najib administration, Malaysia remained reticent to openly highlight Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea, eager to maintain booming economic ties with China.

Under Mahathir, Malaysia’s policy of strategic acquiescence toward Beijing could change. Unlike Najib, Mahathir seemingly views China as a potential strategic threat. He has described the Xi administration as “inclined towards totalitarianism” and increasingly belligerent, a government that “like[s] to flex [its] muscles” and “increase [its] influence over many countries in Southeast Asia” in a “very worrisome” manner. Mahathir further has warned against growing militarization of the South China Sea, where Malaysia is one of the four Southeast Asian claimant states.

Malaysia is currently occupying multiple land features, including the Swallow Reef, a reclaimed island with its own naval base. Historically, China has been less assertive within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea than it has been in the economic zones of the Philippines and Vietnam, due to cordial bilateral relations with Malaysia. In recent years, however, Chinese navy and coast guard have been more active within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in the area. Nonetheless, the Najib administration adopted a softer tone than other Southeast Asian states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which filed an arbitration case against China.

Finally, Mahathir could place his country, once again, at the center of Southeast Asian affairs, where senior, high-profile figures tend to play an outsized role in setting the regional agenda.

 

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In fact, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional organization largely owes its existence as well as peaceful evolution over time to the efforts of powerful, often domineering regional leaders like former Singapore Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew as well as Mahathir during his previous two-decades-long stint as Malaysian Prime Minister from the 1980s to early 2000s Mahathir shaped ASEAN’s relations with great powers, including China, and its response to regional economic and strategic crises, especially the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Mahathir’s return to the center of power in Malaysia could also provide leadership and foster internal coherence within ASEAN, which has increasingly lost its way in recent years due to in-fighting among member states and the growing influence of China in Southeast Asia.

Mahathir is expected to build on the efforts of his predecessors, who managed to improve historically tense relations with neighboring Singapore, the current chairman of the ASEAN, over the past two decades. His personal gravitas, as a regional elder statesman, could also mean greater deference among his significantly more junior colleagues in the regional body.

“Notwithstanding his age (ninety-two years old) and his need to focus on domestic political challenges including the 1MDB scandal, rising inequality, and rebuilding political institutions, Mahathir’s return to the stage could give more purpose and substance to the ASEAN.”–Richard Javad Heydarian

In recent years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has a dominant figure within ASEAN. Yet Duterte has been mired in controversy, coming under fire for his human rights record and, especially, too cozy relations with China. Last year, with the Philippines holding the organization’s rotating annual chairmanship, ASEAN kept largely silent over South China Sea disputes as well as the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, probably the two largest regional challenges. As a result, ASEAN often appeared irrelevant in shaping regional affairs.

Notwithstanding his age (ninety-two years old) and his need to focus on domestic political challenges including the 1MDB scandal, rising inequality, and rebuilding political institutions, Mahathir’s return to the stage could give more purpose and substance to the ASEAN. Throughout the decades, Mahathir has been a constant fixture in regional meetings, seen as a regional bigwig and an indispensable source of strategic wisdom across Southeast Asia. Indeed, it is likely that Malaysia’s Prime Minister will once again try to leverage his influence within ASEAN to advance not only his country’s interests, but also make the regional body a more relevant player in addressing key challenges, including in the South China Sea. Mahathir’s unlikely and stunning return could be not only a game changer domestically, but for the whole Southeast Asian region.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a nonresident fellow at ADR-Stratbase Institute, Manila, and the author of The Rise of Dutere.

Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir creates Council of Elders led by Tun Daim Zainuddin


May 13, 2018

Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir creates Council of Elders and appoints a team of our truly outstanding Malaysians led by Former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has appointed a ‘council of elders’ comprising eminent persons who will serve as advisors to the government.

In a press conference today, he listed the former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, former Bank Negara Governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz, former Petronas President Mohd Hassan Merican, Yycoon Robert Kuok, and  Award winning Malaysian Economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram as members of the council.

“Many of us have little or no experience in running a government. We need some expertise on this.

“Of course, expertise must come from people with knowledge or previous knowledge of administration, or being in the government, or having held some responsible post. (That is why) we have decided to set up a council of elders, or rather a council of eminent persons,” Mahathir said in a press conference at the Bersatu headquarters today.

 

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Award Winning Malaysian Economist, Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram (right) seen with Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, Managing Director, Khazanah Malaysia Berhad

This council will conduct studies and prepare papers for the cabinet, he added, while ministries are being set up. It will also assist the new government in implementing its 100-day promises in its manifesto, and is expected to last for approximately the same duration.

“Eventually the papers for the cabinet will be prepared by the ministries, but in the interim, before we have proper ministries going, we need to do investigations into a lot of things.

“Some of these things may involve the ministries and the personnel themselves, so we need people who are not involved to be vetting and studying reports made, either by the ministries or by certain bodies which we will consult,” Mahathir explained.

Earlier in the press conference, he named Ministers for Finance, Defence and Home Affairs.

DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng was appointed Finance Minister, while the Presidents of Amanah and Bersatu, Mohamad Sabu and Muhyiddin Yassin, too the Defence and Home Affairs portfolios respectively.

 

Shock Election Outcome and Malaysia’s Future


May 11, 2018

Shock Election Outcome and Malaysia’s Future

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By the early morning of May 10, results from the Election Commission indicated that Malaysia’s opposition coalition had secured enough seats to prevail in the country’s general election, effectively marking the end of the world’s longest continuing ruling coalition, led by scandal-ridden premier Najib Razak, and putting the country’s longest serving leader, Mahathir Mohamad, back into office.

Though an opposition coalition win would no doubt be historic, the election result has also quickly cast the Southeast Asian state into a period of uncertainty and raised questions about not just the transfer of power, but the future direction of its domestic politics and foreign policy.

“...one should not forget that it was Mahathir’s authoritarian rule for over two decades that paved the way for some of the trends the opposition rails against – from the erosion of Malaysia’s institutions to the lack of reforms in decades-old affirmative action policies. These are serious problems that cannot be fixed overnight no matter who is in office, and they are easier to talk about than to actually address.”

The opposition’s tally in the country’s 14th general election is nothing short of historic. Though the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), had seen its support erode over the past decade under Najib – losing its much-prized two-thirds majority in 2008 and then the popular vote in 2013 – most had predicted BN would still nonetheless cling to power in GE-14 by employing its usual bag of political tricks, including gerrymandering and restrictions on the opposition. Instead, by early Thursday morning, results disclosed by the country’s Election Commission showed that the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition had surpassed the 112 of the 222 seats required in parliament with 121 seats, giving it an effective simple majority, with BN winning just 79 seats.

The result was above all an indicator of the high degree of frustration among the Malaysian electorate with the status quo. Najib’s declining popularity over the years had come amidst deep discontent – not just about the much-ballyhooed 1MDB scandal, but also policies such as the unpopular goods and services tax (GST) that hurt regular Malaysians.

GE-14 saw huge rallies for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition alliance during the election campaign, significant turnout by Malaysians, and record losses by BN in terms of parliamentary seats. The demand for change in Malaysia was clear for all to see.

Yet while the opposition victory might mark the end of a historic election race, it also represents the start of an age of uncertainty for the Southeast Asian state. Given the unprecedented nature of the opposition’s tally, the immediate focus was around whether or not there would be a peaceful transfer of power that would see Mahathir sworn into office again as Prime Minister and Wan Azizah, the wife of his former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim who he once deposed and is now behind bars, will be sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister.Whether or not this in fact occurs still remains to be seen.

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After Victory, what’s next?

During Najib’s first press conference since his party’s defeat on Thursday morning, he stopped short of conceding power, noting that no single party had received a simple majority – if the 121 seats are to be broken down by the 104 seats contested under the PKR logo along with 9 seats for the Democratic Action Party and 8 seats for Parti Warisan Sabah –  and that the King would have to determine who the next premier would be.

“…the deeper concerns lie in how the electoral outcome is likely to affect Malaysian domestic politics and foreign policy. As of now, things still look quite unclear on both fronts.”

Meanwhile, Mahathir’s swearing in, initially said to be set for Thursday, was delayed. The added period of uncertainty had the effect of feeding into rumors that BN may not accept an opposition win and raising concerns about the potential outbreak of violence.

Even if a peaceful transfer of power does occur, the deeper concerns lie in how the electoral outcome is likely to affect Malaysian domestic politics and foreign policy. As of now, things still look quite unclear on both fronts.

Domestically, the election campaign ahead of polls was dominated by a focus on personality attacks and cosmetic promises rather than substance, in spite of the fact that the country’s true challenges are structural and transcend party or person.

Amid the vilification of Najib, for instance, one should not forget that it was Mahathir’s authoritarian rule for over two decades that paved the way for some of the trends the opposition rails against – from the erosion of Malaysia’s institutions to the lack of reforms in decades-old affirmative action policies. These are serious problems that cannot be fixed overnight no matter who is in office, and they are easier to talk about than to actually address.

It would also be a mistake to conflate a historic electoral victory with sustained political dominance should the opposition go on to govern. As remarkable a triumph as the Malaysian opposition’s is, the fact is that it took a slow accumulation of several developments – including the deepening 1MDB scandal surrounding Najib, Mahathir’s unlikely re-emergence in Malaysian politics, and deep frustrations that translated into record turnout – to get to this historic outcome. Sustaining that kind of momentum will not be an easy task, particularly if and when the opposition transitions from campaigning to governing – with Mahathir claiming he will eventually step aside – and supporters of the defeated ruling coalition begin realigning post-Najib using their deep patronage networks and other levers of influence. The pendulum could well swing back in the direction of continuity after sudden change.

Things are equally unclear on the foreign policy side as well. Beyond shallow slogans and cheap talk from the two sides – from Mahathir’s promises to restrict Chinese investments to Najib’s self-congratulatory note on the relatively good state of Malaysia-Singapore relations – there was little substantive debate about the structural problems have eroded the exercise of Malaysian foreign policy and constrained the country’s maneuverability. These include a meager defense budget that limits Malaysia from addressing growing security threats to a more divided country that dilutes the support needed for the country to wage an effective foreign policy and preserve its sovereignty from outside threats from state and  non state actors.

“The immediate headlines so far have focused on the Malaysian opposition’s historic election tally, and deservedly so. But as the days and months progress, it will be equally important to pay attention to the country’s new period of uncertainty and what that means for how it conducts itself at home and abroad.”

Some might turn to Mahathir’s foreign policy record for a guide as to what might play out should the opposition indeed take the reins. But it has been a decade-and-a-half since he was in power, and the domestic, regional, and global realities that Malaysia confronts have changed significantly. It is also still unclear how the management of foreign relations will work under the opposition’s tenure, as well as the extent to which mulled changes will actually find their way through bureaucracies into implementation. For these reasons among others, doomsday scenarios, whether with respect to neighboring states like Singapore or major powers like the United States and China, are less likely to play out than subtler re-calibrations in the country’s key relationships.

The immediate headlines so far have focused on the Malaysian opposition’s historic election tally, and deservedly so. But as the days and months progress, it will be equally important to pay attention to the country’s new period of uncertainty and what that means for how it conducts itself at home and abroad.

Trump Destroys the Iran Deal—and a Lot More


May 10, 2018

Trump Destroys the Iran Deal—and a Lot More

After months of threatening, President Trump withdrew from the historic Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday, unraveling the Obama Administration’s signature foreign-policy achievement and putting the United States on a collision course with allies, as well as with Tehran. “This was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” the President said. “It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.” Trump also announced that the United States is re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran and, over time, on companies in other countries that do business with the Islamic Republic.

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President Donald Trump announced on May 08 that the US will withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and reinstate economic sanctions against Tehran. “We will be instituting at the highest level of economic sanction; any country that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be strongly sanctioned by the United States,” Trump said.

 

Trump said that he was prepared to negotiate a new deal, but it would have to cover several issues beyond Iran’s controversial nuclear program—including Tehran’s ballistic-missile program, its support for extremist groups, and other “malign” activities in the wider Middle East. In a rebuke to Trump, however, the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany expressed “regret” over Trump’s decision and vowed to remain in the pact, which also includes Russia and China. “We urge all sides to remain committed to its full implementation and to act in a spirit of responsibility,” they said. China also indicated that it would adhere to the accord.

In an initial reaction, Iran also appeared to reject new negotiations—and indicated that it might even stick to the original agreement, which curtails significant aspects of its nuclear program. President Hassan Rouhani said that his government would review the prospects of continuing to collaborate with the other five signatories of the pact, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A.

“If, at end of this short period of time, if we come to the conclusion that with the collaboration of five countries it is feasible to attain what the Iranian people wish, despite the views of the U.S. and Zionist regime and also the impolite remarks by Trump, we should see whether it is possible to just keep up with J.C.P.O.A. and also take steps in line with regional peace and tranquility,” he said. (Iran refers to Israel as “the Zionist regime.”) But Rouhani—who won office in 2013, on a platform of negotiating a nuclear deal with the United States and getting a reprieve from economic sanctions in return—also suggested that Tehran was prepared for “subsequent measures, if needed,” including “starting industrial enrichment without limitations.”

Trump’s decision means that, technically, the United States is the first nation to violate the accord. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has issued ten reports that Tehran is in full compliance with its obligations. Iran is under the toughest inspections and verification-inspections regime ever imposed in an arms-control deal. In a rare public comment on Trump’s foreign policy, former President Barack Obama noted that the right to inspections disappears if the agreement ends.

“Every aspect of Iranian behavior that is troubling is far more dangerous if their nuclear program is unconstrained,” Obama said. “Our ability to confront Iran’s destabilizing behavior—and to sustain a unity of purpose with our allies—is strengthened with the J.C.P.O.A., and weakened without it.”

Critics were scathing about the U.S. withdrawal. James Dobbins, a former U.S. Ambassador to the E.U., who negotiated with Iran after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and now works at the RAND Corporation, said that the decision “isolates the United States, frees Iran, reneges on an American commitment, adds to the risk of a trade war with America’s allies and to a hot war with Iran and diminishes the prospects of a durable and truly verifiable agreement to eliminate the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.”

Trump’s decision is likely to have far-reaching impact. The premise of diplomatic outreach was to create conditions for eventual coöperation with Iran on other flashpoints in the world’s most volatile region. Instead, danger looms for deepening tensions in hot spots such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen—countries where the United States and Iran have rival interests. “By forfeiting American leadership in the one successful multilateral deal in the volatile Middle East, Trump could possibly make a bad situation worse,” Wendy Chamberlin, a former career diplomat who is now the president of the Middle East Institute, in Washington, told me.

Tensions between Israel and Iran have increased recently over Syria, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have established footholds in three dozen military facilities during its seven-year civil war. Israel has launched more than a hundred air strikes on Syria, the majority on Iranian and Hezbollah targets. “Israel and Iran are headed toward a dangerous confrontation,” Chamberlin said.

The withdrawal from the agreement comes days before the U.S. moves its Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, another controversial decision that has inflamed anti-American passions. “Trump is pouring gasoline on a Middle East in flames already, with his Iran and Jerusalem decisions,” Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A., White House, and Pentagon staffer who is now at the Brookings Institution, told me.

Trump’s decision also undermines the transatlantic alliance, crafted after the Second World War, between the United States and Europe. The President defied a determined last-ditch pitch by America’s three most important European allies, made during visits by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.

Trump’s decision to nix rather than fix the deal fits his “America First” agenda. “Withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—alongside withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Accord [on climate]—completes Trump’s reneging on U.S. commitments and undermining of U.S. credibility,” Daniel Kurtzer, a former Ambassador to Israel and Egypt now at Princeton University, told me. “The United States used to be the leader, the convener, and the engine of international diplomacy. Trump’s actions have turned us into an untrustworthy and erratic diplomatic outlier.”

The Europeans are clearly hoping that the deal—the crowning achievement of the E.U.’s diplomacy as a continental body—will survive without the United States.

Re-imposing sanctions on Iran will create the greatest division between Europe and the U.S. since the Iraq War, Mark Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies office in Washington, told me. “Only this time it will be worse, since not a single European state sides with the U.S. on this matter.” Beyond Europe, American credibility worldwide “will go down the tubes,” he said. “Who will ever want to strike a deal with a country that, without cause, pulls out of a deal that everyone else knows has been working well? America will be seen as stupid, arrogant, and bullying. Pity the poor U.S. diplomats who have to explain this illogical decision to their host countries.”

Trump’s decision even benefits America’s adversaries, including Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. “We’re playing into Putin’s hand,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, now at Stanford University, said on CNN. “For Putin, it means that the U.S. is on the outside—and Putin is still on the inside. Why are we isolating ourselves when we need other countries to coöperate with on issues like North Korea?”

The U.S. decision will have fallout both economically and politically inside Iran, where foreboding about Trump’s long-threatened decision has already had a psychological impact. The value of Iran’s currency has plummeted by a third since December. The timing intersects with systemic change—and uncertainty—in Iran over dramatic demographic changes, aging leadership, and long-standing structural deficiencies. “The post-revolutionary baby boom is inching toward middle age, with nearly universal access to information and communications technology and after decades of thwarted hopes for economic improvements,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy-planning staffer now at the Brookings Institution, told me.

“I don’t see a revolution on the horizon, but I think we are witnessing the slow-motion metastasis of the revolutionary system that is echoing through the economy and the establishment,” she said. “I don’t think this is solely or even primarily provoked by the collapse of the deal but, rather, the culmination of a range of internal forces: long-simmering frustrations, the stalemate of two decades of gradualism, demographic pressures, communications technology, and the anticipated imminence of leadership succession.”

As dramatic as Trump’s curt announcement was, the repercussions of his decision—one of the most important of his sixteen months in office—may take months to play out in Iran, among allies, and even among adversaries. At a White House briefing, the new national-security adviser, John Bolton, said that the Administration will continue to talk with allies, starting on Wednesday, about ways forward. But the prospect of healing the policy divide with the world’s other five major powers—much less getting Iran to agree to a new deal—seems remote, at best.