Saving the Global Trading System


May 22, 2017

Saving the Global Trading System

By Editors,  Eastasiaforum.com

International trade and investment lift living standards. The evidence for this is irrefutable. And modern economic development is not possible without opening up to international markets, competition and capital.

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But the world is re-learning the hard way, through Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, that institutions and policies that protect the immediate losers from trade are needed to realise and sustain the benefits of open markets. Having a healthy and a well-functioning macroeconomic environment — one that delivers what economists call full employment — and a flexible labour market are crucial. So is having an effective social protection system.

When economic growth slows it is harder for the winners from globalisation to compensate the losers. The United States’ slow recovery from the global financial crisis, which hit close to 10 years ago, has brought these underlying structural problems into sharp focus. The social safety net is in tatters with the healthcare system, education system and redistributive policies exacerbating inequality — inequality in both opportunity and outcome — and bringing into question the American dream.

Australia, Japan, and many other countries have been able to avoid the retreat from globalisation thanks to well-functioning social protection systems. There may have been an inclination in many countries to adopt US institutions since it is the richest, most advanced and powerful economy in the world, but the lesson from Trump’s rise is a clear warning that now is the time to double down on the social safety net when embracing free and open markets.

When times are tough in any country there is immense pressure to put up barriers to foreign competition as a way to protect domestic producers. Protection may bring short-term relief to some parts of society and have short-term political appeal but is a cost to society as a whole, as well as to other countries.

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The global trading system has been stopping countries from committing self-harm for 70 years. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which later became the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was created in response to countries’ retreating to protectionism after the Great Depression. Countries voluntarily signed up to be bound by the rules and norms of that system and to have disputes with other countries settled within that system.

The 153-member WTO is far from perfect but it has underpinned successful globalisation. The large membership and diverse interests of the WTO have frustrated the completion of the Doha Round of trade negotiations. The WTO does not cover foreign direct investment and many other issues relevant to commerce in the 21st century. But its dispute settlement mechanism continues to function well and has resolved trade frictions that in an earlier time may have escalated into trade if not military conflict. High profile, geo-politically charged disputes such as the alleged Chinese rare-earth metal export embargo against Japan have been resolved peacefully in the WTO with China accepting the ruling against it.

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Three Amigos from of WTO, World Bank and IMF

In this week’s lead essay, Director General of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, reminds us that a ‘strong, rules-based trading system is essential for global economic stability’ and explains how that system can be re-energised.

Multilateral trade deals required all members to sign on to the entire agreement, called a single-undertaking, that made it harder to complete the latest round of negotiations, the Doha Round, as the issues became more complex and the number of countries increased. Azevêdo explains the WTO is ‘learning to be ambitious, but also to be pragmatic, realistic and flexible’, as well as ‘creative, finding innovative solutions and engaging in flexible formats’.

That is all good news for making progress on freeing up trade and reviving slumping global trade growth. But the bigger risk is that the WTO itself could be under threat from the United States, the very country that led its creation and which has underwritten the rules-based order for the past 70 years. The United States and Europe have provided a tailwind for the global economic system but have now turned to become the headwind against its forward movement.

President Trump has not carried through on many of his campaign promises and the world holds its breath in the hope that continues. While he withdrew the United States from the 12 member regional trade agreement the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he has not acted on tearing up existing trade agreements, starting a trade war with China or Mexico, or withdrawing from the WTO. But if jobs do not return in the American rust belt — perhaps as US interest rates rise and the dollar strengthens, or just because many of those jobs are gone for good — and Trump needs to demonstrate action on trade, the world will need to be ready to hold the line against following suit and to save the entire system.

Azevêdo explains that East Asia and the Pacific have a key role to play in boosting trade for jobs, growth and development. Asia will play the key role in saving the global trading system and global economy, if it is to be saved.

China is the world’s largest trader, a remarkable story only made possible with its accession to the WTO in 2001. The world, including the United States, has benefited greatly from China’s success. China’s economy is now the second largest in the world and still depends on open markets for development and its pursuit of prosperity. But China alone cannot lead the global fight against protectionism if the United States turns its back on globalisation.

South Asia and many countries in Southeast Asia need open markets to bring millions out of poverty and into the workforce. Japan and South Korea need open international markets to execute difficult reforms to manage shrinking populations. Asia is now a major growth engine in the global economy and has the interest, ability and responsibility to save the global rules-based order.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

New Economic Policy–Malaysia’s Deformative Action Progamme


May 20, 2017

Malaysia’s Deformative Action–Doing the Malays a Disfavour

Income-based benefits would work much better.

Najib Razak –A Spoilt Aristocrat and the Embodiment of Malaysia’s New Economic Policy introduced by his Father, Tun Abdul Razak and exploited by Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad to  retard and subjugate the Malays. Incentives Matter. Reward Performance and Discipline.–Din Merican

WHAT government would not like to reduce racial disparities and promote ethnic harmony? The tricky part is knowing how. One country that claims to have found a way is Malaysia. Since 1971 it has given preferential treatment in everything from education to investing to bumiputeras—people of indigenous descent, who are two-thirds of the population but poorer than their ethnic-Chinese and -Indian compatriots.

On the face of things, this system of affirmative action has been a success (see article). The gap in income between Malays (the biggest bumiputera group) and Chinese- and Indian-Malaysians has narrowed dramatically. Just as important, there has been no repeat of the bloody race riots of 1969, when Malay mobs burned Chinese shops in Kuala Lumpur, prompting the adoption of the policy. And the economy—typically an instant victim of heavy-handed government attempts at redistribution—has grown healthily.

Small wonder that some see Malaysia as a model. South African politicians cited it when adopting their plan for “Black Economic Empowerment” in the early 2000s. More recently Indonesian activists have been talking about instituting something similar there. Malaysia, meanwhile, keeps renewing the policy, which was originally supposed to end in 1991. Just last month Najib Razak, the prime minister (pictured), launched the latest iteration: the catchily named Bumiputera Economic Transformation Roadmap (BETR) 2.0, which, among other things, will steer a greater share of government contracts to bumiputera businesses.

Money for old rope

Yet the results of Malaysia’s affirmative-action schemes are not quite what they seem. Malays in neighbouring Singapore, which abjures racial preferences, have seen their incomes grow just as fast as those of Malays in Malaysia. That is largely because the Singaporean economy has grown faster than Malaysia’s, which may in turn be a product of its more efficient and less meddling bureaucracy. Singapore, too, has been free from race riots since 1969.

If the benefits of cosseting bumiputeras are not as clear as they first appear, the costs, alas, are all too obvious. As schools, universities and the bureaucracy have become less meritocratic, Chinese and Indians have abandoned them, studying in private institutions and working in the private sector instead. Many have left the country altogether, in a brain drain that saps economic growth.

Steering so many benefits to Malays—developers are even obliged to give them discounts on new houses—has created a culture of entitlement and dependency. Malays have stopped thinking of affirmative action as a temporary device to diminish inequality. As descendants of Malaysia’s first settlers, they now consider it a right.

The result is that a system intended to quell ethnic tensions has entrenched them. Many poorer Malays vote reflexively for UMNO, the Malay party that introduced affirmative action in the 1970s and has dominated government since then, for fear that another party might take away their privileges. With these votes in the bag, UMNO’s leaders can get away with jaw-dropping abuses, such as the continuing scandal at 1MDB, a development agency that mislaid several billion dollars, much of which ended up in officials’ pockets, according to American investigators. Minorities, in turn, overwhelmingly support parties that advocate less discrimination against them.

READ THIS:

http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21722208-government-reserves-even-mobile-phone-stalls-people-indigenous-descent-race-based

THERE is something odd about MARA Digital, a cluster of stalls selling laptops, mobiles and other gizmos on the second floor of a shopping centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s multicultural capital. No ethnic-Chinese or -Indian entrepreneurs are allowed to do business here. Spots in the market are reserved for Malays, the country’s majority race. The year-old venue was set up with subsidies from the government, which insists that its experiment in segregated shop-holding has been a big success. It has already launched an offshoot in Shah Alam, a nearby city, and talks of opening at least five more branches this year.

This project is just one recent outcome of racially discriminatory policies which have shaped Malaysian society for more than 50 years. Schemes favouring Malays were once deemed essential to improve the lot of Malaysia’s least wealthy racial group; these days they are widely thought to help mostly the well-off within that group, while failing the poor and aggravating ethnic tensions. Yet affirmative action persists because it is a reliable vote-winner for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malay party that has dominated government since independence. Malays are more than half of the population, so their views carry weight.

Last month UMNO launched a fresh batch of race-based giveaways. Harried by claims that it allowed billions to be looted from 1MDB, a state investment firm, and preparing for an election that may be called this year, the party looks disinclined to consider reform.

Affirmative action in Malaysia began shortly after the departure in the 1950s of British colonial administrators, who had opened the cities to immigrant merchants and labourers from India and China but largely preferred to keep Malays toiling in the fields. The practice accelerated after 1969, when a race riot in the capital killed scores. (Most of the victims were Chinese.) The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1971 had two goals: to reduce absolute poverty across all races, and to boost in particular the prospects of Malays, whose average income at the time was roughly half that of their Chinese compatriots.

A temporary eternity

Although the NEP’s authors believed affirmative action would be needed for only 20 years, the practice has continued ever since, as such “temporary” policies typically have in other countries. Malaysia’s bumiputeras, which means “sons of the soil” and which refers both to Malays and to a number of indigenous groups deemed deserving of a leg-up, have accumulated a panoply of privileges. Some of these are enshrined in legislation; others are left unwritten. These include quotas for places at public universities; preferment for government jobs; discounts on property purchases and access to a reserved slice of public share offerings.

Since the NEP’s inception Malaysia’s economy has grown enormously. Its people are now the third-richest in South-East Asia, behind only Singapore and oil-soaked Brunei. Affirmative action has helped to narrow the difference between the incomes of Malays and other races. But pro-bumiputera schemes are almost never means-tested, so their benefits have accrued disproportionately to already wealthy urbanites, allowing poverty among the neediest Malays to persist.

Meanwhile the lure of the public sector—which was expanded to create more posts for bumiputeras, and in which Malays are now vastly over-represented—has sapped entrepreneurial vigour among Malays, as has a welter of grants and soft loans for bumiputera firms. Race-based entry criteria have lowered standards at Malaysia’s public universities; so has the flight of non-bumiputera academics who sense that promotions are no longer linked to merit. These days Chinese and Indians largely end up studying in private institutions or abroad, in effect segregating tertiary education. Many of those who leave the country do not return.

None of this is lost on the ruling party. For some years UMNO was split between hardline supporters of affirmative action (like the demonstrators pictured above) and moderates dismayed by the distortions it has brought. In an unusually candid paper published in 2010, the new government of Najib Razak, the prime minister, admitted that affirmative action had created an “entitlement culture and rentier behaviour”. It mooted swapping race-based policies for action intended to lift the incomes of Malaysia’s poorest 40%, regardless of ethnicity. Yet within months that suggestion was quietly abandoned.

Since then the party’s thinkers have grown more risk-averse. UMNO almost fell from power at a general election in 2013, when minority voters abandoned its coalition partners. Since early 2015 it has been trying to distract attention from the theft of billions of dollars from 1MDB (American investigators allege that $681m of the state firm’s money was paid to the prime minister, a charge Mr Najib denies). Neither of these near-death experiences appears to have prompted much soul-searching. Instead the party is trying to preserve support among Malay voters by reinforcing pro-Malay policies and by building bridges with PAS, an Islamist opposition party that is growing more extreme.

Optimists argue that the government has not completely abandoned reform. An efficiency drive has called attention to the public sector’s bloated state, even if the material gains from the effort are unclear. And whereas UMNO’s leaders once boasted of their desire to create Malay millionaires, recent schemes are more likely to aid small and medium-sized firms. But this is all rather modest—particularly when ugly racial rhetoric is on the rise.

Malaysia’s failing system of race-based preferences will probably not attract the criticism it deserves in the run-up to the next general election, which Mr Najib may call later this year and which he is likely to win. Opposition parties are keen to show poor rural Malays that UMNO’s policies have shortchanged them, but tend not to openly bash the notion of race-based affirmative action. Egged on by bigots, some Malays have come to see their economic privileges as a right earned by their ancestors when they first settled the territory, not as a temporary leg-up. Meritocracy and the distribution of benefits based on need remain distant prospects.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Malays on the march”–The Economist
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The ambition to improve the lot of Malaysia’s neediest citizens is a worthy one. But defining them by race is a mistake. It allows a disproportionate amount of the benefits of affirmative action to accrue to well-off Malays, who can afford to buy the shares set aside for them at IPOs, for example, or to bid for the government contracts Mr Najib is reserving for them. It would be much more efficient, and less poisonous to race relations, to provide benefits based on income. Most recipients would still be Malays. And defusing the issue should pave the way for more nuanced and constructive politics. Perhaps that is why UMNO has resisted the idea for so long.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Deformative action”

What China’s Belt and Road has to learn from 1920s America


May 17, 2017

What China’s Belt and Road has to learn from 1920s America

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to resurrect the Silk Road must heed the lessons of a bygone era

By  Sourabh Gupta

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Perceptive China-watchers have observed that President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) has modelled his political mission on Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) – even if his methods bear a whiff of Maoism.

Deng put an end to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and engineered China’s transformation towards socialist modernisation. Xi’s sweeping reforms and anti-corruption crackdown aim to engineer an analogous transformation that will deliver China to the cusp of a “moderately prosperous” society by the time of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial founding in 2021.

In one notable respect though, Xi has broken with the Paramount Leader. Deng had counseled a 24-character strategy on his countrymen: “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” By contrast, Xi has not been shy to employ assertive diplomacy in support of an ambitious, long-term and strategic foreign policy.

No single political project personifies this more than the “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to resurrect the ancient Silk Road through infrastructure projects that will link Eurasian economies into a China-centred trading network. When two dozen or so heads of state assemble in Beijing for the Belt and Road Summit on Sunday and Monday, the magnitude of the imposing soft-power dimension of this “win-win” project that aspires to embed Xi’s “China Dream” within a “neighbourhood community of common destiny” will be on ample display. The BRICS Summit in Xiamen (廈門) this September will be a sideshow by comparison.

A variety of malignant motives, mainly economic, have been ascribed to the Belt and Road plan. It aims to channel Beijing’s allegedly manipulated reserve surpluses abroad, prop up the internationalisation of the yuan, unload China’s industrial overcapacity on neighbours, ensnare the recipient country in a cycle of debt, exploit the host country’s strategic resources and purchase their political affiliation along the way.

Steel pipes are loaded for export at Lianyungang port, Jiangsu province, China. Some critics see the Belt and Road as a way to unload China’s industrial overcapacity on neighbours. Photo: Reuters

While these claims contain merit, the redeeming arguments are more compelling. China’s hard currency reserves are better put to use in hard infrastructure projects in developing countries than deposited passively in New York’s financial market. At a time of volatility in liquidity provision in the international monetary system, yuan internationalisation and the rise of another issuer of safe, short-term and liquid instruments is to be welcomed. Moreover, the bilateral yuan swap lines and dedicated trade payments and securities settlement infrastructure that Beijing has rolled out over the past half-decade will enable recipient countries to denominate their borrowings in local currency, thereby limiting costs and exposures.

Transferring industrial capacity, improving infrastructure and reducing transaction costs on the other hand will enable developing countries to jump-start a dynamic upward spiral of growth and development in sectors where they enjoy latent comparative advantages – on lines similar to China’s own industrial jump-start in the 1980s. A comparison of China’s and the US’ Eximbank (Export-Import bank) loans to Africa, meanwhile, belie the oft-repeated claim that the former is directed solely at natural resources. China Eximbank has contributed to almost all 54 countries in Africa – resource rich or poor – and displays no perceptible pattern of favoured client state lending. US Eximbank loans, by contrast, are concentrated in energy and mining and confined to a favoured few.

Finally, with developing and emerging economies forecast to account for 59 per cent of world GDP in 2018 (neatly reversing the average 59 per cent accounted for by advanced economies from 1980 to 2007), as per the IMF, the rise of an alternate model of development financing that is leaner, cheaper, quicker and more flexibly attuned to host country systems and requirements should be welcomed, not stigmatised.

Development economics aside, the most consequential effects of the Belt and Road will be in international relations.

The Belt and Road’s storied predecessor, the Silk Road, two thousand years ago ushered in an age of commerce and civilizational exchange and afforded a set of loose principles of order and self-restraint. The Belt and Road’s ‘open regionalism’, likewise, will showcase Xi’s determination to practice a “new type of international relations” that binds China’s extended periphery as far out as Africa in a win-win embrace. Purposeful translation of his optimistic assessment for peace and development will realise the long-delayed promise of south-south cooperation in the post-colonial age. With luck, it will also confine the fascination with Great Power transition ‘traps’ – particularly the ‘Thucydides Trap’ (in which an established power’s fear of a rising power leads them into a vicious cycle of competition and eventually war) – to the armchairs of zero-sum-minded historians and think tank specialists.

Banners advertise the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Photo: AP

China’s re-emergence at the turn of, and the first few decades of, the 21st century bears remarkable parallels to America’s rise a century ago. Between 1890 and the early-1900s, the proportion of US manufacturers engaged in exports rose from less than a quarter to more than two-thirds, as the burgeoning surpluses of farms and factories were absorbed overseas. By the late-1910s and through the 1920s, the US became a prodigious exporter of capital as more than US$1 billion a year in loans surged out of New York. Nearly one-third as many foreign bonds floated on Wall Street as bonds of US companies.

As the Belt and Road becomes a conduit for the export of Chinese capital on as prodigious a scale as the US a century ago, its design and roll-out must also be informed by the cautionary lessons of that era. When boom had periodically turned to bust in the US economy and subjected many of her poorer hemispheric trade partners and raw material suppliers to simultaneous capital and commodity market shocks, Washington failed to provide the public goods (international development financing; recycling of capital flight; inter-governmental institutionalisation, and stabilisation loans, and so on) that could have placed a floor under the crash – and misery – overseas. China’s capital exports must avoid such boom-bust patterns and instead marry hard physical capital with soft technical know-how, managerial skills and local project ownership with purpose and patience.

During the next decade, China will replace the US as the world’s largest economic power. As it grows richer, it must assume the mantle of collaborative leadership and provider of global public goods. The Belt and Road is an appetising start but the proof of the pudding will be in its eating, as well as its ability to draw sceptical bystanders in the West and in Asia to the banquet

The G20’s Time for Climate Leadership since Donald Trump’s America won’t


April 30, 2017

The G20’s Time for Climate Leadership since Donald Trump won’t

by Teresa Ribera*

*Teresa Ribera, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) in Paris, was Spain’s Secretary of State for Climate Change.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/g20-climate-change-in-trump-era-by-teresa-ribera-2017-04

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At the start of 2016, the United States was well positioned to lead the global fight against climate change. As the chair of the G20 for 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been counting on the US to help drive a deep transformation in the global economy. And even after Donald Trump won the US presidential election, Merkel gave him the benefit of the doubt, hoping against hope that the US might still play a leading role in reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions.

But at Merkel and Trump’s first in-person meeting, no substantive statements were issued, and their body language made the prospect of future dialogue appear dim. Trump’s slogan “America first” seems to mean “America alone.”

By reversing his predecessor’s policies to reduce CO2 emissions, Trump is rolling back the new model of cooperative global governance embodied in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The countries that signed on to that accord committed themselves to sharing the risks and benefits of a global economic and technological transformation.
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“Trump’s climate-change policy does not bode for US citizens”–Teresa Ribera

Trump’s climate-change policy does not bode well for US citizens – many of whom are now mobilizing resistance to his administration – or the world. But the rest of the world will still develop low-carbon, resilient systems. Private- and public-sector players across the developed and developing worlds are making the coming economic shift all but inevitable, and their agendas will not change simply because the US has a capricious new administration. China, India, the European Union, and many African and Latin American countries are still adopting clean-energy systems.

As long as this is the case, businesses, local governments, and other stakeholders will continue to pursue low-carbon strategies. To be sure, Trump’s policies might introduce new dangers and costs, domestically and worldwide; but he will not succeed in prolonging the fossil-fuel era.

Still, an effective US exit from the Paris agreement is a menacing development. The absence of such an important player from the fight against climate change could undermine new forms of multilateralism, even if it reinvigorates climate activism as global public opinion turns against the US.

More immediately, the Trump administration has introduced significant financial risks that could impede efforts to address climate change. Trump’s proposed budget would place restrictions on federal funding for clean-energy development and climate research. Likewise, his recent executive orders will minimize the financial costs of US businesses’ carbon footprint, by changing how the “social cost of carbon” is calculated. And his administration has already insisted that language about climate change be omitted from a joint statement issued by G20 finance ministers.

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Congrats, Tan Sri  Dr. Jeffery Cheah of Malaysia and Prof. Dr Jeffery Sachs, The Earth Institute @Columbia University,  New York for this initiative. If we cannot take care of Nature, don’t expect Nature to protect us.–Din Merican

These are all unwise decisions that pose serious risks to the US economy, and to global stability, as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently pointed out. The US financial system plays a leading role in the world economy, and Trump wants to take us all back to a time when investors and the general public did not account for climate-change risks when making financial decisions.

Since 2008, the regulatory approach taken by the US and the G20 has been geared toward increasing transparency and improving our understanding of possible systemic risks to the global financial system, not least those associated with climate change and fossil-fuel dependency. Developing more stringent transparency rules and better risk-assessment tools has been a top priority for the financial community itself. Implementing these new rules and tools can accelerate the overall trend in divestment from fossil fuels, ensure a smooth transition to a more resilient, clean-energy economy, and provide confidence and clarity for long-term investors.

Given the heightened financial risks associated with climate change, resisting Trump’s executive order to roll back Wall Street transparency regulations should be a top priority. The fact that Warren Buffet and the asset-management firm Black Rock have warned about the investment risks of climate change suggests that the battle is not yet lost.

Creating the G20 was a good idea. Now, it must confront its biggest challenge. It is up to Merkel and other G20 leaders to overcome US (and Saudi) resistance and stay the course on climate action. They can count as allies some of the world’s large institutional investors, who seem to agree on the need for a transitional framework of self-regulation. It is incumbent upon other world leaders to devise a coherent response to Trump, and to continue establishing a new development paradigm that is compatible across different financial systems.

At the same time, the EU – which is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome this year – now has a chance to think about the future that it wants to build. These are difficult times, to be sure; but we can still decide what kind of world we want to live in.

Book Review: Scholarship and Engagement in SEA


April 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW

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Oscar Salemink, editor, Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast Asia, (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Andrew Alan Johnson

http://www.newmandala.org/book-review/review-of-scholarship-and-engagement-in-mainland-southeast-asia/

Thailand, for all its political stops and starts — or perhaps because of this — has unparalleled publically-engaged academics. Nidthi Eoseewong, Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thanet Aphornsuvan and many others relate academia to public life, pushing forward public discussion in a way that is enviable from a country (the USA, in my case) where scholarship is too often treated like either a business serving students or as a collection of irrelevant exotica.

Image result for Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast AsiaAchan Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University

Of Thailand’s public intellectuals, Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University looms large. Over the course of his career, Achan Chayan has worked to advocate for minority rights (risking death threats and accusations of treason) as well as building networks across Southeast Asian academic institutions. He exemplifies the best qualities of a Thai public intellectual, and thus it is no surprise that the essays in the liber amicorum, Scholarship and Engagement in Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by Oscar Salemink, are ringing with fond memories and praise for Achan Chayan across generations of scholars. Indeed, it is telling that even non-Thai-speaking scholars refer to Chayan as “Achan,” the Thai term somehow capturing this sense of Chayan’s public role in ways that “Professor” nowadays fails to.

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My engagement with Achan Chayan came 10 years ago, when I was a graduate student doing field research in Chiang Mai. Like the best of mentors, Chayan, rather than imposing his own idea of what was important about my project, helped me think critically about my own work in multiple ways. As Michael Herzfeld remarks in his conclusion to Scholarship and Engagement, it was only later, after having completed my book, that I realised the depth of Chayan’s inspiration.

Overall, the volume is well put together, although a few essays ramble, and could have used another pass to refine and sharpen their general points. The book’s three sub-sections, too, are awkwardly titled. For example, “Politics, Activism, and Cross-Border Politics in the Greater Mekong Subregion” is the second, and “Scholarly Activism in the Greater Mekong Subregion” the third. These sections roughly correspond to an overview of Chayan’s work, its impact upon historical and anthropological work, and the thorny issues surrounding policy and minorities.

Charles Keyes opens the volume with the first section’s solo chapter: a brief biography of Chayan’s work and its impact upon Thailand and Thai studies. In an era when most work on ethnic minority issues was done by foreigners, and in the face of pressure from official state organs, Chayan pursued a principle of “speak[ing] truth to power” (p 17), pushing for a vision of Northern Thailand as a multi-ethnic and environmentally sustainable society with links across the region. It was a work that, as Keyes notes, was not without risk, and his chapter empahsises the personal commitment that Chayan gave to his causes.

In the second section, Olivier Evrard gives an example of socially-engaged history of the sort inspired by Chayan. Looking at French and Siamese records, Evrard charts the changing status of Khmu migrant labourers in the early 20th century. At first, these workers were governed by treaties between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, but as colonisation set in (external in the case of Laos, internal in the case of Siam), old relationships and networks became something else from the viewpoint of the central state: labor recruiters became traffickers, and migrant teak workers turned into a threat.

Evrard reminds us that migrants, as a category, are in fact created by state policy. This theme of the mismatch between detailed awareness of local situations and top-down policy returns in Christopher Joll’s chapter on Thai policy-makers’ essentialist understandings of the conflict in the South as compared with a multi-causal approach of the sort emphasised in Chayan’s work.

Shigeharu Tanabe’s chapter also deals with the issue of social engagement, looking at Northern Thai Buddhist meditation practices aimed at extinguishing the self that nonetheless provide a vehicle for addressing social problems and resisting political repression. It’s a welcome rebuttal to too-simplistic characterisations of Buddhist meditation as entirely inwardly-focused (Tanabe takes a well-placed jab at Deleuze here) and shows how practice, especially in the Northern kuba tradition, can be focused on social as well as personal transformation.

Katherine Bowie’s chapter takes a very different turn to more historically-focused studies, focusing instead upon her own experience of engaged scholarship in the 1970s. In an account reminiscent of classic anthropological fieldwork memoirs (see Powdermaker 1966; Levi-Strauss 1955,;Descola 1996), she describes a problematic introduction into a post-military coup Northern Thai field site and the tangled web of village politics that she encountered. As she attempted to assist in the organisation of a mat-weavers’ cooperative, class and other tensions within the community came to the fore in ways that were productive both for her scholarship as well as – eventually — the mat weavers themselves.

In the final major section, contributors address the thorny ground of development interventions, which too often avoid a deep engagement with local civil societies. Rosalia Sciortino, the former Regional Director for the Rockefeller Foundation (among others), effectively shows that theory is not divorced from practice even on the development side. This was particularly so during the 1990s when new technocratic interventions (the sort of thing dreamed up in TED Talks or Thomas Friedman columns) based around quick solutions and neoliberal integration came to replace civil society-based, locally-informed ones.

This philosophy of intervention oddly recalls those from the 1950s that fetishised the power of Western scientific knowledge to divine all of the solutions to the developing world’s problems. Similarly, in Ronald Renard’s contribution, we also see the fallout from a move in policy away from community-based solutions. He looks at the end of opium eradication projects in the isolated Wa region of Myanmar that emphasisedthe social origins of opium cultivation and addiction solutions focused on improving conditions for farmers, and the rise of a new, top-down approach that focuses upon law enforcement.

Building upon this connection between the assumptions of international (and national) organisations about local communities, Oscar Salemink’s own contribution to the volume examines the issues surrounding Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Vietnam. Salemink argues that the discourse of ICH in Vietnam creates certain possibilities and limits others, giving ethnic minorities a space within the state but limiting their role (and, interestingly, forcing the state to promote practices that they had just a few years before denounced).

But this also applies to scholars — in a state where open opposition is unproductive or impossible, Salemink argues that scholars are forced to work within the limits of state discourses. In Myanmar, however, Mandy Sadan shows how both state and resistant approaches carry their own risks. State discourses that present minority studies as “traditional” and (Kachin) minority studies dominated by the Baptist Church and ethnonationalism both fail. As a corrective, Sadan advocates for an as-yet unrealised middle ground along the lines of Chayan’s Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) for the highlands of Myanmar.

Overall, these essays are largely productive in looking at the history and potentiality of engaged scholarship on (for the most part) ethnic minority issues in mainland Southeast Asia, a note driven home by Michael Herzfeld’s excellently-written conclusion. Some essays (Evrard, Tanabe, Saelmink) are useful additions to the scholarly field in their own right. Others (Sciortino, Sadan) are interesting insights into the deeply hierarchical nature of national and international interventions, and some (Joll, Keyes, Bowie) reflect implicitly or directly upon Achan Chayan’s own profound impact on scholarship in Southeast Asia. In addition to the topical focus of each chapter, the book will be of use to those studying activism, development, or fieldwork ethics in the region and beyond.

Andrew Alan Johnson is Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College

 

International Finance Ministers Discuss Growth Strategies at The George Washington University


April 26, 2017

International Finance Ministers Discuss Growth Strategies

GW-hosted event, “Growth Strategies in a De-Globalizing World,” brought finance ministers from Colombia, Indonesia and Paraguay.

Finance ministers Mauricio Cárdenas, Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Santiago Peña

Finance Ministers Mauricio Cárdenas, Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Santiago Peña discussed their countries’ growth strategies, including focusing domestically in an uncertain global market. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
April 20, 2017

 

https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/international-finance-ministers-discuss-growth-strategies

As the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group spring meetings loomed, the George Washington University on Wednesday hosted international finance ministers and other experts to discuss the global economic landscape and implications for countries trying to grow in a “de-globalizing” world.

The event—hosted by GW’s Institute for International Economic Policy, GW School of Business and the Growth Dialogue—brought together the current finance ministers from Colombia, Indonesia and Paraguay and was moderated by Danny Leipziger, GW professor of practice of international business and managing director of the Growth Dialogue.

“The world is not in a good place,” Dr. Leipziger said in framing the discussion, adding many “warning signs” show countries’ difficulties with growing their economies, particularly at a time when others, including the U.S., are questioning globalization.

Does that mean that countries’ development strategies need to shift? And if so, how? Many agreed that looking inward is important during times of global uncertainty.

“We have to rely on domestic forces,” said Mauricio Cárdenas, Colombia’s minister of finance and public credit, adding infrastructure and brokering national peace and stability are important factors in growing his country’s economy.

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Sri Mulyani Indrawati of Indonesia

Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s Minister of Finance, added that while increasing revenues is important for a country, so is a good spending plan when every dollar counts. “How you spend it, and how you spend it better, is going to also be very critical,” she said.

Looking at trade inter-regionally could also be an important tactic if engaging with the broader globe is difficult, said Santiago Peña, Paraguay’s minister of finance. Many countries in Asia have been able to do this and have coped better with global changes, he said.

Panelists also said growth worries are compounded by uncertainty surrounding some of the rhetoric and policy actions of the Trump administration with respect to globalization and declarations that certain countries have a trade surplus with the United States.

“I hope that GW is also playing an important role in this location because you have a moral responsibility to continue pushing back the policy trend which is worrying for many countries in the world,” Ms. Indrawati said.

Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, had some advice for the finance ministers with respect to engaging with the United States.

“One just has to assume for the next couple of years at a minimum that the U.S. is going to be, at best, a bad actor,” when it comes to trade and other international partnerships, he said.

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