People voted for a newer Malaysia, not racialised Politics 2.0


November 1, 2018

People voted for a newer Malaysia,  Ketuanan Melayu 2.0

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20th Century Mindset in A 21st  Century 4th Industrial Revolution Pluralist Era–The Kris Vs Technology and Innovation

“The voters in GE-14 voted for a new Malaysia. Equal opportunity in education, lessening of race-based politics, abolishing of tolls and whatever that was promised by the then opposition, the “Coalition of Hope” of the Mahathir-led campaign against kleptocracy and the materially, morally and ideologically corrupt regime of Najib.

At least that was the promise which then turned into a primarily false one, leaving the voters feeling lied to and short-changed”–Dr. Azly Rahman

Opinion  |
by Dr. Azly Rahman*

COMMENT | As we read about the “Operasi Lalang 2.0” or “Weed-Out-the-Corrupt Campaign of the New Regime” at play and in full throttle as in the McCarthyism of our cultural sensibility, as we see more leaders hauled up to be tried for grand theft, money-laundering and for bankrupting and corroding society, we ask: what next in this metamorphosis and game of political karma we are to see?

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All these against the backdrop of talks of the third car project, crooked bridge, political-party border-crossings, renewed demands to strengthen Malay rights, postponed promises, and to rebrand fundamentalist Islamic identity in preparation for the challenges posed by the super liberals and the LGBT. What will the new coalition transform into in a country whose political parties are addicted to a race-based ideology?

Then, there is the crucial issue of a newer UMNO and newer BN emerging, with talk of 40 UMNO MPs crossing over to Bersatu. There was also the latest statement by a minister that Ketuanan Melayu will end soon, replaced by the idea of making every Malaysian prosperous. Then the idea was immediately repudiated by another minister, a former Deputy prime Minister in the regime of the Najib Abdul Razak.

I have a sense that the latest developments in the continuing chaos produced in PKR, the seemingly silent DAP in addressing the issues the party once opposed, the talk of a new Indian party, and, of course, the strengthening and enlarging of Bersatu – all this points not only to the emergence of a BN reloaded, a 2.0 version of Malaysia’s race-based politics.

I might be wrong. We shall observe the developments. We may even see more “Kajang Moves”, cross-overs, and more intense struggle for power within and amongst the coalition parties.

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The voters in GE14 voted for a new Malaysia. Equal opportunity in education, lessening of race-based politics, abolishing of tolls and whatever that was promised by the then opposition, the “Coalition of Hope” of the Mahathir-led campaign against kleptocracy and the materially, morally and ideologically corrupt regime of Najib.

At least that was the promise which then turned into a primarily false one, leaving the voters feeling lied to and short-changed.

The hope for the non-Malays, non-bumiputera to stop being treated as second-class citizens in the land called Malaysia they and their parents and grandparents, too, toiled for will not be realised after all. The rhetoric of today’s new Malaysia is the same old rhetoric of keeping the status quo alive.

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DAP is the New MCA?–The Silent Partner in Pakatan Harapan

This means that there will be no push for the idea of “Malaysian Malaysia” and equal opportunities in education, especially for all non-Malays. Hope buried. When the new coalition has transformed into a newer version of the old politics, the non-Malays can expect another five decades of racialised politics affecting the future of their children.

This is not a grim view of what I see developing. I am sure some of my esteemed readers, too, share a similar perspective of a hope for the triumph of multiculturalism dashing. Unless the Harapan government can, in unison, with consistency and as a policy, state its commitment to make Malaysia a place in which no Malaysian will be left behind.

Where are we heading?

Back to Umno and its sudden death. The talk about more UMNO MPs leaving for Bersatu is of concern for those who voted for hope and for real change.

But what will replace UMNO in this time of a “new Malaysia” in which race and religion continues to be the strongest force for the current regime as well, to continue policies inspired by her own apartheid system of divide and conquer with wealth, power, hegemony, and ideology as the hybrid of authoritarianism, continue to glue the still-cognitively unliberated society?

The question remains: what kind of Malaysian Malaysia do we wish to see? How will a rebranded Umno be an obstacle to this?

The key to dealing with any rot from happening is to educate for change. If the change we wish to see is for a Malaysia for all Malaysians, education, as the only means for a sustainable cognitive, cultural, personal and social progress should be the one taking lead.

When politics continues to travel the trajectory of ethnocentrism and only pays lip-service to multi-culturalism and the restructuring of society through a philosophy of education based on a truly Malaysian reconstructionism, we will fail as a people.

Education needs to step in and correct the political conveyor belt, changing course. As it is now, we are not seeing the Ministry of Education committed to producing such a change to reverse the major aspects of discrimination in the various levels of schooling. The issues of class, caste, race, religion and privilege is not addressed systemically.

Like many, I am concerned with the disjuncture between politics, education, economy, and national unity. There is an unhealthy development in the way party-politics is moving.

Our concerns may turn into fear of yet another wave of chaos as parties and followers and consumers of ideology and real and fake news alike prepare for another general election that will only bring stagnancy, not change.

Where are we heading? What then must we do to drum into the new regime that race-based politics should no longer be allowed to rear its ugly head?


*Dr. AZLY RAHMAN is an educator, academic, international columnist, and author of seven books available here. More writings here.

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

Longing for a kinder, compassionate, more humane and freer Malaysia.


September 7, 2018

Tough Love: Longing for a kinder, compassionate, more humane and freer Malaysia.

by Zainah Anwar

http://www.thestar.com.my

THIS time last year, I wrote about my longing for a better Malaysia, and how my utter belief that this was possible would always triumph over my many moments of despair. There was just too much good in this country for us to ever give up hope.

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And this year, as we celebrate our 61st year of Merdeka, I am simply thrilled. Thrilled that what most people thought was impossible, became possible. Malaysia bucked the global trend and voted into power a reformist government, throwing out a kleptocratic government and a ruling party that had held uninterrupted power since independence in 1957.

The election of a reform-minded government that believes in an inclusive Malaysia and eschews the use of race and religion for political gain does not of course mean we are home free. It is important that we who voted for change remain vigilant that the Pakatan Harapan government delivers on its promises of transformation. And to do this transparently and in consultation with stakeholders.

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Malaysia’s autocrat turned reformer: at 93 can he deliver?

Politicians and voters now realise the power of the ballot box. It cannot be business as usual, replacing one set of economic and political elites with another set whose priorities will be to divide the spoils of victory.

As we welcome the first Merdeka and Malaysia Day under this new Malaysia, I have many wishes for the kind of country I want to live in.

First, I wish to see our ministers summon the political will and courage, and build their knowledge and strategies on how to deliver their reform agenda. And not least, how to stand their ground and defend what is just and what is right, in the face of opposition. We in civil society are tired of seeing too many ministers over the decades retreating in the face of criticism from ideologues, instead of defending a principled position.

Many NGOs, activists, academics, professionals who have long been working on issues such as human rights, women’s rights, education reform, poverty eradication, and economic justice, stand ready to support this government with the kinds of data, analysis, policy instruments, arguments and strategies needed to deliver on the reform agenda and build public support for this urgent necessity for change.

We want to see this government succeed in making this country a just home for all. We pray this government does not squander that goodwill.

Second, I wish to live in a kinder, compassionate, more humane Malaysia. It pains me to see the frenzy of hate, attacks, violence, demonisation of the LGBTIQ community in the country. Why this obsession with another citizen’s sexual orientation and gender identity? The debate is not about same-sex marriage or even about the halal or haram of their sexuality. It is about the right of LGBTIQ people to freedom of movement, their right to work, to health and to live a life free from violence. Why should that be contentious? They are citizens of this country and entitled to the same fundamental rights that other citizens enjoy.

It is obvious that the issue has been whipped up as a political tactic to generate hate and fear, spearheaded by those opposed to the reform agenda of the new government. So they stir up controversies in order to rebuild lost ground. And politicians fearful of losing popular support cave in, so quickly, so easily, so thoughtlessly.

How could a small, oppressed, and discriminated community who actually live in fear on a daily basis, and who long to live in peace and dignity ever pose a threat to Malaysian society? How could an all-knowing compassionate God ever condone cruelty against his own creations just because they are different? So let’s be confident in our faith and believe that if God really wanted all of us to be the same, he would have done so.

Third, I wish to see an end to corruption that has been long fuelled by the intricate web of business and politics in this country. Professor Terrence Gomez’s just released research findings on Government in Business reveal a mind-boggling labyrinth of thousands of GLCs at federal and state levels, most of them unlisted and thus, unscrutinised. There are of course GLCs that are professionally run. But many also serve as tools of patronage and as vehicles to provide politicians with monthly directors’ fees to support their political ambition – at best.

At worst, official investigations and media revelations of outright corruption, criminal breach of trust, and asset stripping display a spectacle of unbelievable greed and betrayal of trust.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed himself has called such GLCs “monsters” that have deviated from their original noble intention of helping the poor.

The Head of the Council of Eminent Persons, Tun Daim Zainuddin, has promised that this time the government wants to get it right in delivering its bumiputra empowerment policy.

We all wait with bated breath, for this country cannot endure, economically, politically and socially, yet more decades of affirmative action on the basis of race rather than need, and all the consequent distortions and abuses that had benefited the economic and political elites.

Fourth, I wish to live in a country where the political leaders and the citizens embrace our diversity as a source of strength, and not a threat. And to walk the talk. It is imperative that the new government sets the tone that it will not tolerate further manufacturing of a siege and crisis mentality among the Malays and supremacist speeches in the name of race and religion to incite hatred and fear of “others”.

This country was on the verge of implosion, and it was the wisdom of the rakyat that saved us, when with courage we voted into power a reformist party.

I was in Bangkok last week to give a talk on identity politics in South-East Asia together with speakers from Indonesia and Myanmar. They were depressed about the political developments in their countries, and my optimism on Malaysia was tempered by the reality that they too had earlier voted in reformist leaders who have now succumbed to the politics of race and religion in order to remain in power.

But I would like to believe that Malaysia is different as we have strong antecedent resources that will put us in good stead in moving forward on a reform agenda. Most importantly is the entrenched belief that this country cannot survive nor prosper without the three major races accepting each other and learning to give and take in sharing equitably the wealth of the nation. It can never be a winner take all game in Malaysia.

Second, we have a significant minority population. This means there is a limit to how far the majority group can use race and religion to serve the interest of the ruling elite, before paying a high political cost for its relentless transgressions, or complicity in its inaction and silence.

Third, while things are far from perfect, our long record of economic growth, poverty reduction, and strong state apparatus put us in good stead that a more open and robust democracy will not be destabilising, and can lead to a more inclusive Malaysia.

Moreover, a large educated Malaysian middle-class and a strong business community eschew any hint of violence or chaos or extremism, and there is a growing critical mass of voters, not least from among the young, who expect their freedoms and rights to be upheld.

And more than anything, the rakyat feel very precious about what we have achieved. As much as we are willing to give Pakatan Harapan the support it needs and the time, too, to deliver on its reform agenda, we have learnt from the mistakes made in the past. We are no longer willing to acquiesce in silence in the wrongdoings and abuses in powerful places, in return for stability and prosperity.

This is the new Malaysia where it will be tough love for all.

Our Infant Information Revolution


June 15, 2018

Our Infant Information Revolution

 

In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that advances in computers and communications would lead to the type of centralized control depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. Today, billions of people have eagerly put Big Brother in their pockets.

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CAMBRIDGE – It is frequently said that we are experiencing an information revolution. But what does that mean, and where is the revolution taking us?

Information revolutions are not new. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press launched the era of mass communication. Our current revolution, which began in Silicon Valley in the 1960s, is bound up with Moore’s Law: the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every couple of years.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before, for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations and non-profit organizations to criminals, terrorists, and informal ad hoc groups.–Joseph S. Nye

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, computing power cost one-thousandth of what it did in the early 1970s. Now the Internet connects almost everything. In mid-1993, there were about 130 websites in the world; by 2000, that number had surpassed 15 million. Today, more than 3.5 billion people are online; experts project that, by 2020, the “Internet of Things” will connect 20 billion devices. Our information revolution is still in its infancy.

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The key characteristic of the current revolution is not the speed of communications; instantaneous communication by telegraph dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. The crucial change is the enormous reduction in the cost of transmitting and storing information. If the price of an automobile had declined as rapidly as the price of computing power, one could buy a car today for the same price as a cheap lunch. When a technology’s price declines so rapidly, it becomes widely accessible, and barriers to entry fall. For all practical purposes, the amount of information that can be transmitted worldwide is virtually infinite.

The cost of information storage has also declined dramatically, enabling our current era of big data. Information that once would fill a warehouse now fits in your shirt pocket.

In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that the computers and communications of the current information revolution would lead to the type of centralized control depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Big Brother would monitor us from a central computer, making individual autonomy meaningless.

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Instead, as the cost of computing power has decreased and computers have shrunk to the size of smart phones, watches, and other portable devices, their decentralizing effects have complemented their centralizing effects, enabling peer-to-peer communication and mobilization of new groups. Yet, ironically, this technological trend has also decentralized surveillance: billions of people nowadays voluntarily carry a tracking device that continually violates their privacy as it searches for cell towers. We have put Big Brother in our pockets.

Likewise, ubiquitous social media generate new transnational groups, but also create opportunities for manipulation by governments and others. Facebook connects more than two billion people, and, as Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election showed, these connections and groups can be exploited for political ends. Europe has tried to establish rules for privacy protection with its new General Data Protection Regulation, but its success is still uncertain. In the meantime, China is combining surveillance with the development of social credit rankings that will restrict personal freedoms such as travel.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before, for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations and non-profit organizations to criminals, terrorists, and informal ad hoc groups.

This does not mean the end of the nation-state. Governments remain the most powerful actors on the global stage; but the stage has become more crowded, and many of the new players can compete effectively in the realm of soft power. A powerful navy is important in controlling sea-lanes; but it does not provide much help on the Internet. In nineteenth-century Europe, the mark of a great power was its ability to prevail in war, but, as the American analyst John Arquilla has pointed out, in today’s global information age, victory often depends not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins.

Public diplomacy and the power to attract and persuade become increasingly important, but public diplomacy is changing. Long gone are the days when foreign service officers carted film projectors to the hinterlands to show movies to isolated audiences, or people behind the Iron Curtain huddled over short-wave radios to listen to the BBC. Technological advances have led to an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty”: an abundance of information leads to scarcity of attention.

When people are overwhelmed by the volume of information confronting them, it is hard to know what to focus on. Attention, not information, becomes the scarce resource. The soft power of attraction becomes an even more vital power resource than in the past, but so does the hard, sharp power of information warfare. And as reputation becomes more vital, political struggles over the creation and destruction of credibility multiply. Information that appears to be propaganda may not only be scorned, but may also prove counterproductive if it undermines a country’s reputation for credibility.

During the Iraq War, for example, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay in a manner inconsistent with America’s declared values led to perceptions of hypocrisy that could not be reversed by broadcasting images of Muslims living well in America. Similarly, President Donald Trump’s tweets that prove to be demonstrably false undercut American credibility and reduce its soft power.

Public diplomacy and the power to attract and persuade become increasingly important, but public diplomacy is changing. Long gone are the days when foreign service officers carted film projectors to the hinterlands to show movies to isolated audiences, or people behind the Iron Curtain huddled over short-wave radios to listen to the BBC. Technological advances have led to an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty”: an abundance of information leads to scarcity of attention.–Joseph S. Nye

The effectiveness of public diplomacy is judged by the number of minds changed (as measured by interviews or polls), not dollars spent. It is interesting to note that polls and the Portland index of the Soft Power 30 show a decline in American soft power since the beginning of the Trump administration. Tweets can help to set the global agenda, but they do not produce soft power if they are not credible.

Now the rapidly advancing technology of artificial intelligence or machine learning is accelerating all of these processes. Robotic messages are often difficult to detect. But it remains to be seen whether credibility and a compelling narrative can be fully automated.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author of Is the American Century Over?

 

The Unending Journey towards being Malaysian


May 24, 2018

by Zairil Khir Johari

The Unending Journey towards being Malaysian

...in Malaysia today there seems to be a renewed prejudice towards migrant communities, even those who have settled for generations and should no longer be considered anything other than part of Malaysian society. Instead of treating our fellow citizens as one of our own, there are efforts to ban Malay words from being used by non-Malays, as well as the unconstitutional suppression of rights of non-Malays to religious expression.–Zairil Khir Johari

Nearly 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Muhammad and his small band of followers left Mecca, where the fledgling Muslim community was increasingly persecuted and oppressed, for Yathrib (later renamed Medina), a city 320km to the north.

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God Help Malaysia if these guys are our warriors inherited from the Najib Era

This journey has come to be known as the Hijrah, an epochal event that not only marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar, but also the consolidation of the first Muslim community. It was from the success of this migration that the small community was able to grow and blossom into what it is today – representatives of the world’s second largest and fastest-growing religion.

Taken literally, hijrah means migration, the physical movement of people from one place to another. But hijrah also carries a spiritual and existential meaning, connoting a search for something better – be it to further one’s career, to develop one’s talent, to seek a better life and, in some cases, even for something as basic as survival. In other words, hijrah can be taken to mean a journey towards betterment, whether personal or collective.

Hijrah is not a concept removed from our own society and civilisation. South-East Asia is a maritime region consisting of 25,000 islands and with a peninsula peppered by vast riverine networks, and so our forefathers were constantly on the move. If today’s world is said to be borderless in the metaphorical sense, the Malay Archipelago could be said to be one in the literal sense.

The Inclusive Malay World

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The 1Malaysia Bugis Warrior

In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say that society back then had no historical need or cognisance of borders. This conclusion can be gleaned from studying the literary manuscripts of yore, such as Hikayat Hang Tuah, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, the Malay Annals and Misa Melayu, among others. There may have been a complex and mature network of international trade, and along with it constant interaction with sailors and merchants from all corners of the world, but nowhere in the writings is there a reference to the notion of orang asing, or foreigners – at least not in the way we understand it today.

Instead, the term used to describe migrants or people who had journeyed from other territories was orang dagang. While one may ascribe this expression to mean merchants, the classic texts actually use the term saudagar for that purpose. Thus, orang dagang refers not to transient traders, but travellers who, having settled in a new territory, assimilate themselves by contributing their work, energy and loyalty to the collective social and economic development of their new community. In short, migrants were very much embraced as part of society and not seen as outsiders or the proverbial “other”.

This concept has its modern parallel in what we would describe today as citizenship, albeit in a more progressive and encompassing way. A citizen after all is someone who, in addition to being an inhabitant of a particular state, is also a legally recognised member of that state and therefore subject to whatever incumbent rights, duties and obligations that are provided for. But as modern states did not exist then, recognition of the orang dagang was less legalistic and not so narrowly defined. Rather, they were simply accepted as productive members of the community.

Indeed, there were also no real political borders. While there did exist the concept of hamba raja, which refers to a ruler’s liege subjects, it was not a permanent relationship because people were free to shift their loyalties to another ruler, depending on where they happened to be. Kingdoms had no defined borders and a ruler’s territory only stretched as far as his influence.

Now, there was indeed a term used to describe outsiders, but it did not refer to foreign travellers or traders who offered their wares and services – these as we have established were the orang dagang. Instead, if we are to use Hikayat Hang Tuah as an example, the term orang luar is used in every instance to refer to invaders, namely the Portuguese who were also called the Ferringi. These orang luar were seen as arrogant and unwilling to honour local culture and customs. They were therefore cast in negative light, as the following excerpt shows:

“Seketika juga maka Feringgi itu pun habislah; yang ada hidup semuanya habis lari terbit keluar kota. Maka diturut bunuh oleh segala orang luar itu, habis mati semuanya Feringgi itu.” Hikayat Hang Tuah Tuah, 524:38

The passage above speaks of the defeat of the Ferringi (Portuguese), with survivors having fled the city of Malacca. The remaining orang luar (outsiders), who were the Portuguese, were then wiped out.

A Region of Migrants

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It is also interesting to note that in the Malay language, people are central to the concept of territory. In fact, the Malay term for region or territory, i.e. rantau, includes elements of migration and mobility. When rantau is conjugated as a verb, merantau, it takes on the meaning of traveling. Hence, the word rantau refers to both geography and the movement of people – something that has no English equivalent.

Although the concept and practice of merantau is often said to be particular to the Minangkabau community of West Sumatra, in truth it was normal practice throughout the entire Malay Archipelago, as we have already explored through the etymology of the term orang dagang.

It should come then as no surprise that the establishment of the famed Malacca Sultanate had its origins in the migration of asylum seekers. If we recall our history lessons, the founder of Malacca, Parameswara, was in fact an exiled prince of Palembang who after failing to establish a safe haven in Temasek (now known as Singapore) had no choice but to merantau further to finally settle in Malacca.

 

Learning from History

History is full of lessons for us to draw from. To be sure, circumstances then and now differ vastly, and the borderless societies that fabled characters such as Hang Tuah and Parameswara lived in have long been replaced by modern nation-states with clear borders and complex legal regimes.

However, by deconstructing some of these key concepts, we find that the ancient Malay world was in fact a very inclusive one – a far cry from the narrow and shallow narratives that pervade our country today. Migrants or orang dagang were welcomed and accepted, so long as they chose to contribute to the society. The only people who were considered to be real outsiders were aggressive invaders who sought to impose foreign values at gunpoint.

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Gurney Drive, Penang, where pendatangs hang out

Unfortunately, in Malaysia today there seems to be a renewed prejudice towards migrant communities, even those who have settled for generations and should no longer be considered anything other than part of Malaysian society. Instead of treating our fellow citizens as one of our own, there are efforts to ban Malay words from being used by non-Malays, as well as the unconstitutional suppression of rights of non-Malays to religious expression.

It must be stressed that these bigoted actions are not only wrong but also antithetical to Malay culture. In fact, it goes against the very grain of Malay history, which paints the Malay world to be a migrant one, where even the Malay identity itself is a very fluid concept. According to great scholars of Malay studies such as Anthony Milner, Malayness is not defined so much by descent or bloodline than it is by culture and civilisation. In other words, Malayness is not an ethnicity but a culture, and a very liberal and accommodative one at that.

A Never-ending Journey for Improvement

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In the year 622 AD, the original Muslims who followed the Prophet Muhammad on the Hijrah did so to seek greener pastures. They did so for their own survival, and for better opportunities. But the Hijrah did not end when they settled in Medina. In fact, it can be argued that it has not really ended – that it is a continuous journey, a migration in search of improvement, be it physical or spiritual.

And so the journey goes on for us here in Malaysia. In keeping with the traditions of our forefathers, we should continue to derive strength from the ever-evolving diversity of our society. This fact should be celebrated and not exploited as a cause for division. Whatever our roots, whether we have indigenous ancestry or whether we are descended from migrants or orang dagang, we are all Malaysians.

Zairil Khir Johari is Senior Fellow of Penang Institute.

 

 

A sweetheart tax deal — for the Trumps


December 22, 2017

A sweetheart tax deal — for the Trumps

by Eugene Robinson Opinion writer

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-sweetheart-tax-deal–for-the-trumps

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President Donald Trump with his fawning Republican legislators celebrating the historic Tax Deal

 

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the massive, slapdash tax bill that President Trump and Republican lawmakers celebrated at the White House on Wednesday will be, wait for it . . . President Trump. What a coincidence!

The rest of Trump’s wealthy family will benefit lavishly as well, including his son-in-law and all-purpose adviser, Jared Kushner. And, of course, it’s not a coincidence at all. The chance that this President would preside over a revision of the tax code without lining his own pockets was zero. Anyone who believed Trump’s claim that the tax bill would “cost me a fortune” hasn’t been paying attention.

It is not possible to calculate precisely how much money the President will save, because he — unlike all other recent presidents — refuses to release his tax returns. But the figure is surely in the millions, assuming Trump is anywhere near as wealthy as he claims. His extended clan will have plenty of liquidity for Donald Jr. and Eric to jet off to Africa and kill more leopards and water buffaloes; for Jared and Ivanka to disappear on ski trips whenever they need to claim deniability regarding the latest administration outrage; and for the president himself to consume as many Big Macs, Filet-o-Fishes and chocolate shakes as his constitution can bear.

Trump says he is worth $10 billion; Forbes estimates his wealth at $3 billion, and some analysts think the true figure is lower. Any way you look at it, however, he’s a wealthy man — and the tax bill, which awaits only Trump’s signature to become law, is designed to make the very rich even richer.

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Republicans celebrate tax wins as Trump fumes over FBI Russia probe

Like all 1-percenters, Trump will benefit from the lowering of the top tax rate from 39.6 percent to 37 percent. But that’s just for starters. As is always the case with the tax code, the devil is in the details.

Trump conducts his business affairs through hundreds of “pass-through” companies whose income is taxed at the personal rate, not the corporate rate. The House wanted to dramatically slash the pass-through rate across the board, but the Senate initially balked. At the last minute, however, the Senate wrote into the final bill a 20 percent deduction for pass-through income. If a taxpayer had, say, $100 million in pass-through earnings, he or she would be taxed on only $80 million; the rest would be tax-free.

t first, senators sought to limit this sweetheart deal to companies with large numbers of employees or high payrolls — unlike Trump’s pass-through businesses, which are mostly paper entities. But the final legislation gives the full deduction, regardless of the number of employees, to pass-through companies that own a lot of depreciable property, such as commercial real estate. Which just so happens to be the president’s livelihood.

It would be hard to craft a measure more tailor-made to enrich Trump and his family. If he wanted to avoid even the appearance of corruption, of course, Trump could decline to take this tax break or donate an equivalent amount to the treasury. Somehow I doubt either of those things will happen.

Trump also gets to continue using a frequently abused tax loophole called a “like-kind exchange.” Usually, if you sell a piece of property at a profit, that profit is considered income and is taxed. Creative accountants and tax lawyers came up with ways to structure sales so that they technically qualified as trades, meaning that as far as the IRS was concerned, there was no income to tax. This practice is now ending for all types of property — except real estate. Another coincidence, I’m sure.

Oh, and most businesses will be negatively affected by a measure capping the amount of interest expenses they can deduct — except real estate investors and hotel operators, which are explicitly exempted. If this were a movie, lobbyists and lawmakers would have hammered out this last provision in a back room at the Trump International Hotel.

On the flip side, Trump’s ability to deduct the state and local taxes he pays in New York would be drastically limited. But that is nothing compared to the likely upside.

Join me in a thought experiment. Imagine that the legislature of some other country — Brazil, say, or Mozambique, or Thailand — decided to rewrite the tax code, with no public hearings or expert testimony, in a way that benefited the rich overall, with maximum financial gain for businesses like that of the sitting head of gov ernment.

What would you say?I’m pretty sure you’d use the word corruption. And you would be right.

 

Singapore in 2017 and challenges ahead


December 22, 2017

Singapore in 2017 and challenges ahead

by Michael D Barr, Flinders University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/12/19/singapores-government-embroiled-in-domestic-crisis-management/

2017 was a horrible year for Singapore’s government — and for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in particular.

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It began with an open and vocal stoush with China. Late in 2016 the Chinese government confiscated millions of dollars’ worth of Singapore’s military hardware passing through the port of Hong Kong. The action was in part retaliation for Lee’s vocal endorsement of the US position on China’s militarisation of the South China Sea.

China released Singapore’s military hardware in late January, but then sent a new message of displeasure — Singapore was not welcome at Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Forum in May 2017. While Lee did not attend the Forum, he later led high-level delegations to both Beijing and Washington, successfully recovering much lost ground.

Singapore’s ongoing balancing act between China and the US will continue in 2018 with a new factor in play — it is Singapore’s turn as Chair of ASEAN. This position puts Lee on the front line of regional attention. Awkwardly for this balancing act, Lee’s first statement as incoming Chair was a declaration of hope that the United States would continue its engagement with ASEAN and the region.

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Recovering lost ground in foreign policy might be a modest achievement. But domestically, the government is in a state of perpetual crisis management interspersed with misguided political judgements.

The first domestic crisis of 2017 erupted in June when Lee’s brother and sister, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, turned to foreign media and social media to reveal ongoing legal disputes over their father’s will. The dispute was not over money but rather over control of the family home. Prime Minister Lee wants to turn it into a national monument to his father, but his siblings want to follow their father’s wishes by bulldozing it.

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This family argument over inheritance became a national issue when the siblings accused Lee Hsien Loong of abusing his power as prime minister to build a family cult around his father’s name — all to bolster his own standing and to smooth the eventual rise to the prime ministership of his son, Li Hongyi. This unresolved dispute has damaged both the Lee brand and Li Hongyi’s prospects of entering politics.

A second major crisis erupted in October when the regular pattern of train breakdowns on the Mass Rapid Transport system escalated into a major episode — a pumping station in a tunnel failed during an ordinary storm causing an entire train line to be closed by flooding for 20 hours. The cause of the problem proved to be mundane — maintenance work had been neglected and work sheets falsified.

The Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan magnified the damage by unilaterally exonerating both the government and the senior management of Singapore Mass Rapid Transit Corporation. He was particularly singled out for exonerating its CEO Desmond Kuek, whom he thanked as a ‘volunteer’ — a role for which he is paid S$1.87 million (US$1.39 million) per year. Khaw went on to praise him for having his ‘heart in the right place’.

This episode of ordinary mismanagement was politically significant because it highlights an established pattern of widespread administrative failures and deteriorating government services under Lee’s watch. It also confirmed the perception that highly paid ‘establishment’ figures are protected from the consequences of their actions. Back in 2008 Lee offered similar protection to former deputy prime minister and minister for home affairs Wong Kan Seng when he let an alleged terrorist escape police custody. Wong retained his positions in Cabinet for another three years because Lee stated he had only made ‘an honest mistake’.

The government has also made several political missteps in 2017. Such missteps included Lee’s odd selection of topics for his National Day Rally Speech in August — a speech equivalent to the US State of the Union address. With Singapore facing challenges on many fronts — managing Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, the South China Sea, rising protectionism, trains, the economy and challenges to Singapore’s role as an air hub — he lectured the population on the dangers of diabetes, which seems to have left most people nonplussed.

Singaporeans had also been anxiously awaiting new developments on Lee’s successor since he announced in 2016 that he intended to step down as prime minister in 2020. In a country where both the populace and the markets expect long lead times for prime ministerial succession planning — generally a warning of five years or more is given — concern is starting to grow that no clear successor has either been named or emerged.

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Perhaps Lee’s greatest misstep was his handling of the presidential election. The government’s preferred candidate for president was almost defeated in the 2011 elections by popular Chinese rival Tan Cheng Bock. Tan was planning to run again and so the government excluded him by restricting eligibility for election to ethnic Malays under the rather thin cover of enhancing multiracialism.

This was effective in removing any challenge from Tan, but left just one candidate in the race after two of the three Malay candidates were excluded on other grounds. The episode left a widespread impression that the constitution and the electoral rules are just the plaything of the government, and has done significant damage to both the standing of the presidential office and the government.

While Singapore’s government has made some positive steps in terms of foreign policy in 2017, its handling of domestic issues has been sub-par. It was a particularly messy year for a government that claims to be preparing for a generational handover in 2020, and it does not bode well for the longevity of the Lee Kuan Yew model of governance.

Michael D Barr is an Associate Professor of International Relations in the College of Business, Government and Law, Flinders University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead