Truth-telling in Singapore


November 19, 2018

Truth-telling in Singapore

by  Hamish McDonald.

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https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au

Tropical rain is bucketing down when P. J. Thum arrives for our meeting at a semi-outdoor Starbucks amid high-rise public housing flats on Singapore’s unfashionable north side. Seeking quietness, we move inside a nearby shopping mall to a cafe offering beverages of a local flavour: black tea with the option of evaporated or condensed milk – the tannin-laden, chalky legacy of long-gone British military men.

 

Podcast > The Bigger Picture > Live & Learn > Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

Thum Ping Tjin, Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford, and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia

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Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, a fellow Singaporean and Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford.

Thum – full name Thum Ping Tjin – is 38 years old, athletic and preppy in tortoiseshell spectacles and a pink shirt. From Singapore’s ethnic Chinese majority, he has an Oxford doctorate in history, is a former Olympic swimmer and has an unblemished military service record. All of which makes him the ideal candidate to go far in Singapore’s kind of meritocracy − perhaps joining the “men in white” of the People’s Action Party, in power since 1959.

Except Thum made the wrong career choice for that. As his history specialisation developed, he’d been thinking of a biography of Vespasian, the Roman legionnaire who, after invading Britain and quelling the Jewish revolt, was installed as emperor by acclamation of his troops and ended a period of instability.

“Then I thought, ‘There are other people who can do that, many people doing way better work on Roman history than I could,’ ” he tells me. “ ‘But who’s going to do Singapore history?’ ”

Soon after his return to a postdoctoral fellowship at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a historic windfall came his way: the British government declassified its archive for the tumultuous year of 1963 in Singapore and Malaya when the two self-governing former colonies were moving to join up in the new, pro-Western nation of Malaysia, standing against the communist tide sweeping South-East Asia.

It contained documents about Operation Coldstore, the sweep by Singapore’s Special Branch in February 1963 to detain more than 100 politicians, trade unionists and activists without trial, ostensibly to prevent the underground Malayan Communist Party instigating unrest to hinder the formation of Malaysia.

From these documents, Thum found the proof of what many had long suspected: that then Chief Minister Lee Kuan Yew mounted Coldstore chiefly to nobble the leftist opposition party, Barisan Sosialis, looming as a serious challenge to his People’s Action Party (PAP) in forthcoming elections. The archive shows Lee virtually admitting as much to British officials. It set a pattern of ruthless use of communist scares and preventive detention powers that Lee employed for decades.

As he wrote and talked about these findings, Thum soon got the answer to his question about who would write Singaporean history.

“Only someone brave or stupid enough,” he says. “Here it is almost career suicide to do Singapore history, because eventually you run into the problem of either you have to censor yourself in Singapore or you leave Singapore and you enter an industry which is not interested nowadays in this sort of niche history.”

Within a year, a senior NUS administrator pulled him aside. “I am not supposed to tell you this, but a directive has come down from the top,” the official said. “You’re blacklisted: no renewal, no extension, no new contract. You’d better make plans.”

Thum went back to Oxford, then returned to Singapore with funding from the Open Society Foundations of George Soros and other donations big and small to start New Naratif, a web platform for research, journalism and art in South-East Asia.

In Singapore he is not alone in myth-busting. In 2014, he contributed to the book Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, which queried many PAP narratives. It regarded meritocracy as a cover for elitism and groupthink; low taxes and migrant labour benefiting the wealthy and punishing ordinary locals; the purchase of government flats a trap rather than economic security.

The writers saw themselves as helping point Singapore to a more sustainable prosperity, explains co-author Donald Low, an economist and former finance ministry official, in what seemed at the time a new era of flexibility and contested policy on the part of the PAP.

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In 2011, in the economic doldrums after the global financial crisis, voters gave the party and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew – a severe shock. The PAP vote dropped by 6.5 points to 60 per cent, the lowest since 1963. The Workers Party gained six of the 87 seats, the best opposition result since Singapore broke from Malaysia in 1965. In a separate presidential election, a widely liked maverick came close to beating the PAP’s preferred candidate.

Lee responded with social policy reforms, hints of openness and some humble gestures, notably cutting his own salary by 36 per cent to $S2.2 million and that of his ministers to $S1.1 million. The PAP has long argued that these salaries, still the highest in the world for elected officials, are necessary to attract top talent and lessen corrupt temptations.

However, in 2015, Lee Kuan Yew died, aged 91. After an effusion of national mourning his son called a snap election, in which the PAP vote rebounded to nearly 70 per cent. “The result of 2015 removed whatever impetus or pressure there was, both within and without,” Low tells me, over beers and another local adaptation of British cuisine, crispy-toasted Spam. “The reform appetite has completely gone out the window in Singapore in the last three years.”

Dig deeper, he says, and Singaporeans are far from the “crazy rich Asians” of this year’s hit film set in the glittering south side of the island, with its heritage hotels, fusion cuisine and rooftop infinity pools.

For a few, the island is like this. A bungalow sold last month for $S95 million, reflecting the top-end wealth created by income tax rates that plateau at 22 per cent at $S320,000 a year and the absence of capital gains or inheritance taxes. IT start-ups are thriving. British inventor James Dyson has just chosen Singapore to manufacture his new electric car.

For the rest, things are pretty stagnant. Citizens are now only about 60 per cent of the 5.6 million population, their wages and job openings depressed by workers imported from the wider region. The 85 per cent living in Housing and Development Board flats that they have been persuaded to buy have seen values flatten. They are likely to decline steadily once their “ownership” gets to the halfway point of what are actually 99-year leases.

Low and Thum see few responses coming out of the PAP now.

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The fall of the similar-vintage United Malays National Organisation in Malaysia’s election this year has been a new shock. Under the returned Mahathir Mohamad, Kuala Lumpur is breaking its mould, ending capital punishment while Singapore steps up its hanging, winding back ethnic Malay privilege, and exposing how Goldman Sachs bankers, some based in Singapore, helped loot the 1MDB fund of billions.

It’s attracting some envy. “Because really we are the same country,” Thum said. “We just got split up by politicians who couldn’t get along. There are so many similarities that Singaporeans look north and see a society that looks so similar to ours but is heading in a different direction, with hope and vision, things that we lack.”

Singapore’s problem is ennui, not massive scandal. PAP leaders look back, arguing about who best embodies Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. In the 2015 election one even boasted about the lack of promises, since promises can be broken.

Lee Hsien Loong is only 66 and highly competent, but looks older than his years, after overcoming two types of cancer, then fainting while speaking at a national day rally two years ago. He has said he will retire at 70, so the next election, widely expected to be next year, will be his last before handing over.

But to whom? The consensus is that a third-generation Lee family member, such as the Prime Minister’s pushy second son Li Hongyi, an IT specialist, could be a risk, especially after a public family squabble about the disposal of Lee Kuan Yew’s old house that diminished the dynastic aura.

The alternative comes down to three candidates among younger ministers, with senior military rank and closeness to Lee Hsien Loong their main selling points inside the party. “They’re all bland, interchangeable, boring, uninspiring male Chinese,” Thum says. “The problem is compounded by the fact there is a clear, popular leader that Singaporeans want.”

This is current Deputy Prime Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 61. A former head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and later Finance Minister, he is credited with the post-2011 reforms that helped the PAP rebound in 2015. But he was then shifted into a vague coordinating role in cabinet.

There is more history here. In 1987, Lee Kuan Yew used internal security powers again, in Operation Spectrum, to detain 22 young Catholic social activists, some of whom, after soft torture, confessed on TV to having been unwitting tools of the communists. Studying at the London School of Economics, Shanmugaratnam had mixed with one of the detainees, and an exiled Singaporean leftist lawyer, Tan Wah Piow. “I can only speculate that the PAP feels that Tharman is a useful tool but he can’t be trusted to lead because he will take Singapore in a very different direction, especially one away from the Lee family,” Thum said.

And of course, he is of Tamil descent. As Flinders University political scientist Michael Barr wrote in his recent book The Ruling Elite of Singapore: “Today the ideal Singaporean is no longer an English-educated Singaporean, but an English- and Mandarin-speaking Chinese.” Lee Kuan Yew got the PAP hooked on the notion that only strong individuals, like the ideal Confucian junzi (righteous gentleman), could preserve the nation, not strong and independent institutions.

Meanwhile, the PAP leadership plays it by its time-tested book of legal action against opposition figures: for defamation, contempt and sometimes minute financial irregularities, such as using office stationery for private purposes.

Three MPs of the Workers Party are in court facing charges of financial laxity in the local council they also run, with the government-owned media breaking away from what Low calls its usual “Panglossian cheerleading” to give the trial reams of coverage.

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Even a stalwart of Lee Kuan Yew’s era, diplomat and “Asian values” proponent Kishore Mahbubani, fell foul of the system. His offence was an op-ed, after Chinese officials blocked the Hong Kong transit of Singapore armoured vehicles being shipped back from exercises in Taiwan, saying that small countries had to put up with such things. He was removed as dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.

In March, Thum himself appeared before the Singapore parliament’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, to argue among other things that a government defending Operation Coldstore had its own problems with truth. He found his academic credentials questioned for six hours in what was clearly a prepared ambush by the law and home affairs minister, K. Shanmugam, the government’s main political attack dog.

Still, history does have its rewards. After one talk, a man in the audience approached Thum. He had been a Coldstore detainee: the stigma of being a communist dupe had remained after his release. Now Thum had shown there was no such evidence. “The man said that because of my work, he can look his wife and children in the eye,” Thum said. “He said: ‘P.J., you’ve given me my pride and my dignity back.’ I will never forget the privilege to be able to make someone’s life better like that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 10, 2018 as “Singapore sting”.

 

Hamish McDonald  is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.

A Hundred Days of Prevarication


August 15, 2018

A Hundred Days of Prevarication

Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser

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The GE-14 election defeat of the BN which had ruled the country since 1957 was testimony to the determination of the Malaysian people and civil society who had opposed BN rule for decades. Sixty-one years of BN domination had included 22 years with Prime Minister Mahathir at the helm. The Malaysian people chose to cast their votes for the PH coalition because PH had promised in their GE14 manifesto to implement wide ranging reforms that made them seem radically different from the governance experienced under the BN.

In the first 100 days of the new PH government, we find that their report card scores around 20% based on their own promises alone. The flip flopping over the abolition of BTN and National Service shows the importance of civil society to voice our opposition to such bitterly toxic and noxious institutions in the country. Nor do their promises consider the more urgent comprehensive list of reforms that civil society has long argued is of higher priority. On top of all that, we have witnessed a disturbing trend of autocratic decision making and policies symptomatic of the old Mahathir 1.0 era.

Sacrifices at the altar of the trillion-ringgit debt mountain

The convenient opt out clause for the new government is to pile much of the blame on the previous administration including the accusation of them of having run up a debt of RM1 trillion, or 80% of our GDP and apparently stealing RM19 billion of GST refunds. That blame frame then provides the new government with an emotional basis for gaining sympathy by starting a ‘Tabung Harapan’ and appealing for donations. While the way in which this fund will be used remains unclear, it is probably the only fund in the world set up with the apparent aim of trying to plug a country’s debt hole. It is telling that while a little boy has contributed his piggy bank to the fund, the two richest men in the country who happen to sit in the “Council of Eminent Advisors” have not made a comparable sacrifice to the fund.

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As for the actual size of the national debt, there is dispute between economists depending on whether we include government guarantees and lease payments under public-private partnerships. The size of Malaysia’s government debt in international statistics for 2017 is actually 64% of GDP, compared to China’s 65%, Singapore’s 110%, US’ 108% and Japan’s 236%. Clearly, what is at stake is the country’s economic fundamentals, which the new Finance Minister assures us are still strong. It also depends on how the debt is financed since relying on overseas borrowing can carry higher risks. It also depends on the country’s prospects for economic growth. Japan has one of the largest public sector debts in the world but it also has a large pool of domestic savings on which to draw.

Nonetheless, this mythical “trillion-ringgit debt mountain” has become an altar on which promises made by PH in the GE14 manifesto are sacrificed – local government elections, new approved Chinese schools, minimum wage, abolishing highway tolls and postponing PTPTN loans. This is definitely not acceptable as an excuse for putting off these urgent election promises since PH had assured us that they could manage the economy once they had ousted BN.

But then the much-trumpeted review of all mega projects so as to reprioritise and reduce the debt mountain is not consistent with the approval of the Penang Transport Master Plan nor with the recently announced Proton 2.0 project by the PM. The Infrastructure Development Minister Peter Anthony has also announced that a dam costing RM2 billion will be built at Kampung Bisuang in Papar when Parti Warisan Sabah had promised to scrap the Kaiduan Dam project.

Back to privatising national assets and Proton 2.0

So far, the new PH government has not spelled out their fundamental difference in economic policy from the old BN regime. What we have heard so far is the alarming news of the return of the old discredited Mahathirist policies, namely, privatisation of our national assets in the name of Bumiputeraism and the revival of the national car, Proton 2.0.

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The PM has said that the sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah will be privatised for the benefit of Bumiputeras. Malaysians need to be reminded that during the financial crisis of 1997/98, it was Khazanah that had stepped in to take over the assets of the failed companies owned by the Bumiputra crony capitalists in Renong, MAS and TRI. After taking over the assets, Khazanah revamped these GLCs with professional managers and better rules of governance. Khazanah currently owns 51% of PLUS Expressways, with the EPF owning the other 49%. By end 2017, the net worth of companies under Khazanah was RM125.6bil. Thus, Khazanah is successfully achieving its purpose of creating a sovereign wealth fund for the benefit of ALL Malaysians. Its expressed purpose never has been to be privatised to Bumiputera crony capitalists.

Mahathir’s privatization drive during his first term (1981-2003) was a boon for private crony capital, especially those linked to UMNO. Malaysian tax payers were the losers since these erstwhile profitable public utilities were sold for a song to the private capitalists and we became captive to UMNO-linked monopolies, such as the North-South Highway operator. Furthermore, these failed crony capitalists had to be bailed out with our money during the financial crisis of 1997/98.

During these 100 days, the Prime Minister has also announced the revival of yet another national car, or Proton 2.0. After the fiasco of Proton 1.0 and the huge cost to Malaysian taxpayers, our public transport system and Malaysian consumers, it is unbelievable that such a failed enterprise could be supported by a PH leadership full of former critics of the first Proton project. Another national car project will surely fail with further losses to the national coffers and we will have to underwrite the losses. The PH government won’t have 1MDB to blame for that anymore. We should further note that one of Mahathir’s former crony capitalists, Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, owns a majority 50.1% in Proton Holdings through DRB-Hicom. This hare-brained idea to start another national car project reminds me of what somebody said about politicians: “Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnels…”

Back to Mahathirist autocracy

It is truly alarming that no Cabinet member nor “eminent person” in the CEF has voiced any objections to Mahathir’s proposed plans to privatise Khazanah and to start another national car. They will have to bear collective responsibility for the consequences in the event of its failure. We are witnessing the same “silence of the lambs” culture for which the DAP used to criticise the BN leaders under Mahathir 1.0 with the new ministers saying “We’ll leave it to the prime minister” and “I’ll discuss this with the prime minister to let him decide”, ad nauseum.

The PH manifesto prohibits the PM from also taking over the Finance portfolio but Dr Mahathir has in the 100 days taken over the choicest companies, namely Khazanah, PNB & Petronas under his PMO. It is the return to the old Mahathirist autocracy. Was the Cabinet consulted in the decision to start Proton 2, privatise Khazanah, Malaysia Incorporated and the revival of the failed F1 circuit?

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The appointment of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali to the board of Khazanah Nasional Berhad also goes against the PH manifesto promise of keeping politicians out of publicly-funded investments since it leads to poor accountability. Only by insisting on boards being comprised of professionals and on rigorous parliamentary checks and balances for bodies such as Khazanah can we ensure a high level of transparency and accountability. Mahathir’s response to this criticism was the old feudal justification: “I started Khazanah so why can’t I be in it?” In other words, “Stuff your high ideals and democratic principles!”

We will have to wait for Lim Guan Eng’s memoirs in the future to see how he responded to Mahathir leaving him out of Khazanah. Did the PM even discuss this with him? After all, Khazanah is still under MoF Inc. If the finance minister is left out of the Khazanah board, how will he be privy to what the Khazanah board is doing? No doubt Mahathir knew that having given the DAP Secretary-General the Finance Minister post, he could get away with anything…

Consistency in the war on kleptocracy

The new PH government had pledged to wipe out kleptocracy and this promise was key to the victory at GE14. They have disappointed the people of Malaysia and especially Sarawakians who have seen the wealth of their state sucked dry by the rapacious greed of the kleptocrats there. The PH government has not yet acted to make the former Chief Minister Taib Mahmud declare all his assets and those of his spouse and family’s. The PH Government has shown us that where there is a political will in getting to the root of the 1MDB scandal, there is a way to get rid Malaysia of corruption and crony capitalism. However, by letting off his long-time ally in Sarawak, Taib Mahmud, arguably the richest man in Malaysia, the Prime Minister makes his campaign against the former PM Najib look like a personal vendetta. The Prime Minister has also failed to lead by example and declare his assets and those of his spouse and children’s.

Conflict of interest having corporate heads in Councils

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The Constitutional status of the appointed ‘Council of Eminent Persons’ has already been called into question especially when the Chairman of the Council, Daim Zainuddin is in a position in which he is able to call up judges and even represent the Government in negotiating with the Chinese Government over their investments in Malaysia. Now it has been reported that the Perak government has established the State Economic Advisory Council (SEAC) with corporate heads of MK Land Bhd, KL Kepong Bhd and Gamuda Bhd as “eminent advisors”.

There is gross conflict of interest with such arrangements when these corporate leaders still have interests in the local and international corporate scene. It is well known that Daim Zainuddin has corporate and banking interests all over the world. His business interests extend beyond banking to other key sectors of the country’s economy such as plantations, manufacturing, retailing, property development and construction.

Delaying urgent reforms is unacceptable

Using the excuse of the government debt to delay local government elections which have been suspended in our country since 1965 is not acceptable. It is a simple matter of abolishing a provision under the Local Government Act 1976 and reviving the Local Government Election Act in order to introduce local government elections. If the PH government is prepared to see billions going down the drain with the revived Proton 2.0 project, don’t tell us there is no money for running local council elections please.

It is equally absurd to tell Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary School graduates that their UEC certificate can only be recognised in five years’ time. The UEC certificate went unrecognised by the BN for 61 years even though it has internationally proven its efficacy with thousands of graduates since 1975. This is a serious breach of promise in the PH GE14 manifesto since more than 80 per cent of Chinese voters voted for PH because of this promised reform. The only steadfast decision made by the Education Minister so far is the decision that students will have to wear black shoes instead of white ones.

Many lawyers have pointed out that the repeal or review of our laws that violate basic human rights can be expeditiously accomplished within the first 100 days of the new PH government. These include abolishing laws that allow detention without trial, namely, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma), Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (Poca), and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) 2015.

It is alarming to hear the Law Minister Datuk Liew Vui Keong say recently that the PH government is now reconsidering its initial pledge to abolish several contentious laws including, the Sedition Act 1948, Prevention of Crime Act (Poca) 1959, Universities and University Colleges Act 1971, Printing Presses and Publications (PPPA) Act 1984 and the National Security Council (NSC) Act 2016. This is totally unethical backtracking on the PH GE14 manifesto.

The death penalty is a violation of human rights and must be abolished. Meanwhile, there ought to have been an immediate moratorium on all executions pending abolition and commuting the sentences of all persons currently on death row. The implementation of the Independent Police Complaints & Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) and other recommendations of the Royal Police Commission in 2005 is long overdue to ensure transparency and accountability by the police and other enforcement agencies such as the MACC.

During the 100 days under the PH government, we have witnessed the Sedition Act and the CMA still being used against activists and prevarication on the issue of child marriages. We have also seen the rule of law being flouted when a Minister in the PM’s Department can order the removal of portraits of LGBTQ Malaysians from an exhibition in Penang. Just as alarming is the statement by another Minister that cyanide used by gold miners in Bukit Koman is perfectly safe and non-hazardous to people or the environment.

Reneging on manifesto promises

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From the failure by the PH government to fulfil their election promises in the 100 days, it is clear that the GE14 manifesto was drafted in a slipshod manner in order to secure populist votes. These include the promises to abolish toll from the highways within the stipulated time promised; no firm position regarding the PTPTN loan repayments; wavering on the promise to pay a 20 per cent instead of 5 per cent royalty to oil producing states based on revenue from gross production; the deduction of a percentage from a husband’s EPF contributions to go into the accounts of his wife, etc. PH has so far implemented less than half of their election promises. Will the PM apologise for reneging on these election promises?

Real reforms we expect in “new” Malaysia

Within the first year of the PH administration, Malaysians expect serious transformational reforms that will reconstitute truly democratic institutions and improve the lives of the 99 per cent and especially the B40 Malaysians. Of the highest priority, we expect urgent initiatives to implement the 8 key reforms including:

1. An end to race-based parties and policies especially replacing race-based policies with needs-based measures that truly benefit the lower-income and marginalized sectors and basing recruitment and promotion in the civil and armed services strictly on merit;

2. Re-instatement of our democratic institutions including bringing back elected local councils and enacting a Freedom of Information (FoI) Act at federal and state levels;

3. Zero tolerance for corruption and political leaders who have been charged with corruption must step down while their case is pending in the courts;

4. A progressive economic policy that will renationalize privatised assets, especially land, water, energy, which belong to the Malaysian people instead of local and foreign capitalists, opening up GLCs to democratic control of the people and directing them to implement good labour and environmental policies;

5. Redistribute wealth fairly through progressive taxation on the high-income earners, their wealth and property and effective tax laws to ensure there are no tax loopholes for the super-rich;

6. A far-sighted and fair education policy with equal opportunities for all without any racial discrimination with regard to enrolment into all schools including tertiary educational institutions;

7. Defend workers’ rights and interests especially their right to unionise and a progressive guaranteed living wage for all workers, including foreign workers;

8. People-centred and caring social policies including an effective low-cost public housing programme for rental or ownership throughout the country for the poor and marginalized communities;

9. Prioritise Orang Asal rights and livelihood by recognizing their rights over the land they have been occupying for centuries, prohibiting logging in Orang Asal land and ensuring all Orang Asal villages have adequate social facilities and services;

10. Sustainable development & environmental protection by allowing all local people to be consulted before any development projects and all permanent forest and wildlife reserves are gazetted.

The lesson of the first 100 days of the PH administration teaches us that, as always, civil society must be ever vigilant to push for these reforms because the government of the day will drag its feet and renege on these election promises when they have the opportunity.

 

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ASEAN is a crucial balancing force in Asia for the United States


April 1, 2018

Foreign Policy: ASEAN is a crucial balancing force in Asia for the United States

by Gary Clyde Hufbauer,Peterson Institute for International Economics

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

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At the APEC Summit in November 2017, US President Donald Trump declared, ‘We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore … I am always going to put America first’.

 

Considering Trump’s ‘America First’ philosophy and his disdain for past trade agreements — sentiments proclaimed at the Da Nang APEC summit and on numerous other occasions — it’s reasonable to conclude that ASEAN plays no role in Trump’s world view. But Trump is President for a defined term. His views on US relations with the rest of the world neither represent mainstream opinion nor define the importance of ASEAN to the United States.

ASEAN, in fact, is vitally important to the United States for several reasons.Perhaps most importantly, ASEAN has successfully pursued good politics alongside good economics. At its inception in 1967, ASEAN was intended to put an end to guerrilla conflicts between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Owing in large measure to ASEAN, those conflicts have long since been relegated to the history books.

Today ASEAN serves both as an economic partner with China and as a bulwark against incremental Chinese expansion. None of the ASEAN countries individually carries much heft in geopolitical contests but collectively they represent a considerable force. The United States badly needs regional powers that can counterbalance China’s growing geopolitical footprint. The three most important powers in this respect are India, Japan and ASEAN.

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India’s Prime Minister Modi with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Malaysian PM Najib Razak in Manila. (ANI)

ASEAN has also fostered the explosive growth of supply chains, both among its members and with outside powers, notably China, the United States, Japan and Europe. No one in 1967 thought much about supply chains. Trade was dominated by natural resources on the one hand (such as oil, copper and other commodities) and finished products made by vertically integrated firms on the other (including clothing, furniture, steel and turbines).

The supply chain revolution has enabled the magic of comparative advantage to operate on a far grander scale since each component — of a good or a service — can now be produced or assembled in the best location. The revolution has greatly benefited the United States with less expensive footwear, TVs, computers, smart phones and many other products.

ASEAN’s success has served as a paradigm for troubled regions elsewhere. The United States has grown weary of its erstwhile role as ‘policeman of the world’, but fortunately the need for this service is greatly diminished when neighbouring countries get along. An immensely successful regional grouping, patterned after ASEAN, is the Pacific Alliance that joins Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico.

Groupings in Africa are less successful. The Arab Maghreb Union is perhaps the least successful, joining only on paper the North African states from Morocco to Libya. ASEAN can pride itself on providing a model for successful regional groups elsewhere and being an aspiration for the less successful groups.

ASEAN Summit meetings, at which leaders dialogue with external powers such as China, Europe, Japan, India, Australia and the United States, make it much easier for US political leaders to hold productive meetings with their regional counterparts. The time of senior ministers is their scarcest resource. The ability of US Secretaries of Commerce, State, Treasury and other departments to meet with all the leaders of Southeast Asia in a single week is highly valued.

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US President Donald Trump with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen in Manila (2017)

Future ASEAN integration could provide a strong lure for future US Presidents to reconsider membership in the renewed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Three ASEAN members — Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam — are already members of the CPTPP. Conceivably, over the next five years, the CTTPP will expand to include Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and perhaps one or two other ASEAN members.

Future US Presidents will have to reconsider the political and economic losses resulting from self-inflicted exclusion from such a powerful bloc. The case for US membership will be strengthened if the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is concluded between China, India, all of ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

By enlarging trade between its members, ASEAN has significantly raised standards of living across Southeast Asia. The United States prospers when the rest of the world prospers. The global expansion of trade and investment over the past 70 years has made an enormous contribution to levels of well being worldwide, especially in Asia.

Indeed, according to the pioneering analysis by Angus Maddison of economic growth over the very long term, the post-World War II period has been the best in human history. As part of this advance, ASEAN has dramatically improved the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of its people.

ASEAN leaders and observers should look beyond the shadow of neglect emanating from the current administration in Washington. Over the longer term, there can be no doubt as to the importance of ASEAN not only for US geopolitical goals in Asia but also for US prosperity through economic interdependence.

Gary Clyde Hufbauer is a Reginald Jones Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Washington DC.

This article appeared in the most recent version of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Why ASEAN Matters’.

Foreign Policy: Tenets of Thailand’s ASEAN Engagement


March 30, 2018

Foreign Policy: Tenets of Thailand’s ASEAN Engagement

by John Blaxland and Greg Raymond, ANU

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(L-R) Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia President Joko Widodo and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith join hands during a family photo before the 31st Asean Summit in Manila on Monday, November 13, 2017. AFP PHOTO

ASEAN member states have different perspectives on the significance of the grouping. As one of the founder member states, the second largest economy and a leading state within ASEAN, Thailand’s view is important. A survey of 1800 former and current Thai officials conducted from 2014–17 on Thailand’s relationship with great powers demonstrates that despite Bangkok’s reputation for hard realism in its foreign policy, ASEAN surprisingly seems to matter a great deal to Thailand in terms of regional security and prosperity.

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Thailand’s Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-ocha

Respondents considered ASEAN to be very important in terms of regional prosperity, with 72.3 per cent rating it eight or higher (very important) out of ten on the Likert scale. In terms of ASEAN’s importance to security and stability, the rating was not as high but still significant, with 67.36 per cent rating it eight or higher.

Positioned centrally among the mainland Southeast Asian states and with relatively advanced infrastructure, Thailand benefits from closer integration with its Southeast Asian neighbours. That benefit is shared across the region as the reach of transport and infrastructure projects increases.

Not surprisingly, Thai respondents saw the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 as a positive development. Intra-ASEAN trade is now bigger than trade with any single external partner. In Thailand’s case, exports to ASEAN are bigger than exports to China, the United States, Japan or the European Union. As ASEAN’s share of world gross domestic product continues to increase, this market of more than 640 million will offer opportunity to reduce reliance on external powers.

Security is a more complicated question. While the creation of ASEAN was never ostensibly about any form of mutual security pact, its formation always had a security dimension that was internal to ASEAN rather than external. After the US withdrawal from Vietnam (in 1975) and the consolidation of communist regimes in mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand decided to prioritise relations with its neighbours. For Thai policymakers, ASEAN has remained integral to Thailand’s security and is perceived as almost an article of faith.

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Yet this faith is not blind and Thai respondents frequently pointed out ASEAN’s shortcomings. There is no expectation that ASEAN will present a unified front to the world in political or foreign policy terms. A senior Thai prime ministerial adviser argued that ‘if ASEAN was a nation it would be very mixed. Brunei is a monarchy, others are communist. Some are democracies, some are not. Some are Buddhist, while others are largely Muslim or Christian’. Similarly, a serving Thai military officer declared that making progress on security, humanitarian assistance or even joint task forces would take time because of the differences in politics, economies and levels of prosperity.

Balancing the great powers is a key issue for Thailand. ASEAN now organises a wide range of meetings to help member states’ relations with external powers. One officer declared: ‘In ASEAN I speak with many people. They don’t want the superpowers to come in and dominate. That is the concept. There are various mechanisms to balance the powers’.

This task is complicated further by China’s growing influence across the region, notably in Cambodia and Laos. Like these two countries, Thailand is on a path of integration with the Southeast Asian mainland, including with southern China. The greater inter-connectedness with China impinges on member states’ perceived freedom of political and economic action.

History plays a role too. As noted by one senior intelligence official, the unity of ASEAN is ‘a little bit weak and shaken’ because of the past: ‘Thailand, for instance, used to invade Laos and Cambodia, and Myanmar invaded Thailand. That makes achieving consensus within ASEAN all the more difficult’. As suggested by the same intelligence official, ASEAN members will need to learn how to forgive and overcome past grievances if the organisation is to become ‘stronger and more united’.

Despite the enduring reasons for distrust and enmity, countries involved in various ASEAN-related forums remain eager to participate — in part to keep a check on each other’s intentions and initiatives. In the case of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) forum, the significant work undertaken by expert working groups feeds into the ADMM Plus summits and provides much of the detail for the practical application and development of ideas to enhance collaboration. Collaboration in the ADMM Plus realm covers the domains of cyber security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security, peace-keeping operations, and military medicine and humanitarian mine action.

Progress has been slow and steady but over time these groups have generated significant outcomes, including seminars, workshops, exercises and conferences. Combined, they provide an extraordinary range of opportunities for enhanced cooperation, increased mutual understanding and familiarity with other member states.

In essence, the Thai establishment sees ASEAN as a proto-great power. Thanks to the perpetuation of the notion of ASEAN centrality and despite its remarkable diversity, ASEAN gives comfort to its members that their otherwise relatively insignificant international roles amount to more than the sum of their parts. That sense of centrality, fragile though it is, has been perpetuated through the various forums that have ASEAN at their core. Thais argue that it remains in the interests of the member states for this centrality to continue. But in an era of growing great power contestation that may be increasingly difficult.

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and Director of the Southeast Asia Institute, The Australian National University.

Greg Raymond is a Research Fellow in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University, and co-editor of the journal Security Challenges.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, Why ASEAN matters’. John Blaxland and Greg Raymond’s research was funded by the Minerva Research Institute.

The Trump Factor in the New World Order


January 1, 2018

The Trump Factor in the New World Order

by Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

 

Image result for America First Donald TrumpThe Inward Looking President of The United States of America  has not changed the game in Asia or around the world: it has been changing for a long time and will continue to change regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. Trump should stop imagining that he can make a difference except to cede Asia to China.
 

 

How much difference has US President Donald Trump made to America’s standing in the world? Despite the almost daily awe and horror that has accompanied media coverage of the first year of his presidency there is a view that Trump has barely made a dent on the structural trends that are paring back America’s influence in Asia and around the world. That influence was well on the wane before Trump took the keys to the White House, says Evan Feigenbaum. Hugh White sees President Trump as merely accelerating America’s inevitable retreat from Asia in the face of China’s rise.

Trump has created uncertainty in the global system in spades — with his loose play in the North Korean crisis, his assault on the international trading system and his retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — but he is responsible neither for China’s rise nor for the recent shifts we have seen in Asian alignments. After the global financial crisis, traditional export-led Asian economic strategies could no longer count on robust growth from American demand. Domestic demand was called in as a new driver of growth and as an intra-regional hedge against uncertainty. The structural changes now working in China’s favour — some at America’s expense — all pre-date Mr Trump. He has not changed the game in Asia or around the world: it has been changing for a long time and will continue to change regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

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If Trump has a strategy, it is to accept America’s diminished global reach and to protect against the rapacity of China and the rest. That is the game he was dealt, not the game he has delivered (so this argument runs).

Trump may be more a symptom than a cause of America’s problems. Bernie Sanders was symptomatic of a similar retreat from global leadership on the Democratic side of US politics. A stagnant median income, growing inequality and the lack of a social safety net or adequate social protections has led to most Americans missing out on the benefits of an open and innovative economy. Those structural problems will get worse before they get better with the tax bill to which Trump and the US Congress recently gave the green light.

Leadership in Asia demands an economy that can be translated into strategic power. Japan, Australia, all of East Asia and India are now deeply integrated economically with China. There may be ambivalence about the rise of China, and economic integration is yet to translate into comprehensive political security between China and its partners. But the United States is going about deploying its diminished economic heft in a counterproductive way and the TPP was never going to rebuild America’s geo-economic dominance in the face of China’s growth and continued openness.

Nor does China’s newfound economic heft automatically translate into strategic weight — much less into regional or global leadership.

Leadership in Asia needs an overarching strategic framework that leverages economic, military and diplomatic power together towards a grand strategic goal. Trump’s answer to America’s new predicament is to abandon the grand US strategic goal that has engaged the world’s multilateral assets over three-quarters of a century and instead to opt for the reasserting the use of bilateral power at a time when America has lost its economic muscle and is limited in critical theatres to an Armageddon military option. This is a curious response to America’s new diminished circumstance.

In this week’s lead, David Camroux says that the United States could once have plausibly been described as the world’s ‘indispensable power’. ‘Perhaps thirty years from now we will look back on US President Donald Trump’s first official visit to East Asia as the moment when the United States abandoned a superpower role in Asia and grudgingly accepted that hegemonic power in the region would be shared with China’.

For Camroux, this is not an accidental outcome delivered by a leader swept haplessly along in the vast currents of our times. ‘The breakdown of [America’s] Asia foreign policy status quo involves a combination of wilful negligence and discreet sabotage’.

‘Abandoning the TPP fell into the first category, while the hollowing out of the US State Department is a combination of both. Ten months after Trump’s inauguration, many senior positions in the State Department still have not been filled. Some one hundred senior diplomats have left and the threat of a one-third budget cut remains. The Trump administration’s gratuitous assault on multilateral institutions and agreements such as the WTO, UNESCO and the Paris Climate Change Agreement is being conducted in the same vein’, says Camroux.

Camroux sees Trump’s November 2017 trip to East Asia as a demonstration that his administration had largely abandoned two of the three pillars of America’s bipartisan foreign policy edifice. In relation to North Korea there was a bellicose reaffirmation of the US commitment to playing sheriff, while the multilateral economic and soft power dimensions were substantially abandoned.

US proposals for bilateral trade deals were greeted with polite silence. Given the Trump administration’s drive to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and the US–Korea Free Trade Agreement as part of its ‘America first’ agenda, US credibility as a trustworthy trading partner has been severely compromised.

While ‘the United States has been seeking to weaken the international institutions it helped establish, China has been creating new international institutions to further its aims’. The most visible in Asia is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It is by no means clear that the objective of Chinese leadership is to supplant existing institutions with its new initiatives like the AIIB and the Belt and Road Initiative. ‘Still, in terms of articulating a long-term vision, China’s Belt and Road dwarfs anything that Trump seems capable of offering’, says Camroux.

The fear that a new world order might evolve into a Chinese creature of influence has gone mildly viral in countries which thus far have put all bets on the alliance relationship with the United States. This is not to be unexpected: security communities struggle to justify alliance relationships that have been injected with such uncertainty by Mr Trump.

As Camroux concludes, the world we see today is far less open to hegemonic influence — China has a powerful interest in appealing to multilateralism (as in its 19th Party Congress pledges) in order to manage its many problems in the world. How the world is ordered in the future will much depend on whether other powers (in Asia and elsewhere including the European Union) can compensate for the US vacuum and help to preserve and promote an open multipolar international environment.

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The ‘United States Factor’ in Southeast Asia: The Philippine and Singaporean (Re)assesments


December 31, 2017

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Number 408 | December 27, 2017

ANALYSIS

The ‘United States Factor’ in Southeast Asia: The Philippine and Singaporean (Re)assesments

By Ithrana Lawrence

Despite reports on the unpredictability of Washington’s Asia policy, the Trump Administration, through telephone diplomacy, high-level bilateral visits, attendance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), East Asian Summit (EAS) and bilateral meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines, has displayed a “post-pivot” US commitment to the region and its multilateral initiatives. This aside, its engagement framed by collective action on North Korea, and a lack of specific concrete regional cooperatives, plays into Southeast Asia’s long-term anxiety.

This anxiety is addressed by Southeast Asian  leaders recalibrating their external engagements, including relations with the United States, in their strategic pursuit of policy maneuverability, autonomy, and prosperity. The cases of the Philippines and Singapore highlight how regional countries are coping with “The United States Factor”.

The Philippines’ Realignment under President Rodrigo Duterte

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Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ perception of the US role in the region has changed. Although recognized as a major non-NATO US ally since 2003, the Philippines increasingly views China as an important and economically attractive source of support, and Manila has shown an increasing willingness to accommodate Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS). Despite a 66 year-old alliance, the Philippines is diverging from the United States on issues of security and governance.

Duterte’s announced “separation” from the United States and refusal to visit Washington despite Trump’s invitation are efforts to chart an independent foreign policy. Distance from the U.S. is a price President Duterte seems eager to pay. Although the Obama-Aquino administrations’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) allowing US military forces and weapons to be stationed in the Philippines was ruled constitutional and has not been abrogated, Manila is wary of implementation. For example, the Philippine Defense Secretary remarked it was “unlikely” that the United States would be allowed to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) from the Philippines “to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions” as the “US can fly over there coming from other bases.” Similarly, Duterte downplayed US assistance in Marawi despite the US Embassy in Manila reporting a donation of planes, weapons, technical assistance, and humanitarian aid worth $56 million in 2017 – recognizing instead the contributions of China and Russia on the same day Secretary of Defense Mattis arrived in Manila.

Doubts about US commitment of the United States to defend the Philippines in the event of a conflict with China in the South China Sea have driven President Duterte to chart an engagement strategy avoiding over-reliance on Washington. China’s symbolic $14.4 million arms package was delivered as the US Congress disapproved a sale of assault rifles for the Philippine National Police (PNP) due to concerns of state sanctioned human rights violations in the ‘war on drugs’. The Philippines has leveraged competition in the region, securing Beijing’s pledge of $24 billion in infrastructure (including free infrastructure) projects in Davao and Manila, and $22.7 million in Marawi; alongside Tokyo’s $8.8 billion “maximum support” to rebuild Marawi.

Duterte’s Philippines has shown selective accommodation to China’s assertiveness as it recognizes the opportunities of engaging a rising China. Recent examples include the removal of a hut on a sandbar upon Beijing’s protest, not openly protesting territorial incursions, and allowing Chinese ships to survey within Philippine territory. That being said, the Philippines remains committed to its territorial sovereignty, with the Philippine Navy deployed to guard current claims.

The Trump administration’s generally absent rhetoric on human rights, and praise for the war on drugs has improved bilateral leadership camaraderie. All anti-US outbursts over the year aside, President Duterte’s ‘karaoke diplomacy’ at the ASEAN Summit gala dinner signals an affinity for the commander in chief of the United States.

Singapore’s Longstanding Alignment

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Despite China’s growing economic significance, political assertiveness, and security provocations in the SCS, Singapore’s alignment responses have been different than those of the Philippines. Singapore is partnering closer with Washington than with Beijing on most issues, and the United States is still viewed as an indispensable partner, significant to the development and security of the island state. While Singapore boasts a high degree of military technology, interoperability, and physical infrastructure to host the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s logistics command, its refusal to be recognized as a major non-NATO US ally reflects the island-state’s maintenance of a public non-aligned strategic engagement.

Although China is the island-state’s top trading partner, the United States remains its largest foreign investor with stock totaling $228 billion and an annual bilateral trade surplus. Singapore’s open support of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 2016 ruling and non-claimant concern over freedom of navigation in its regional waters faced high-cost pressure from Beijing: seizure of military equipment in Hong Kong en-route from exercises in Taiwan, cancellation of the 2016 high level Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) and apparent non-invitation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Although showing resolve to face China’s growing pressure, a subsequent delegation of high-level officials to Beijing followed by Prime Minister Lee’s own visit is symbolic of Beijing’s growing significance as a partner not to be openly defied. Singapore looks to harness China’s economic engagement with the region specifically as a global financial services hub for the Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

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Singapore remains a strong advocate for US engagement in the region, with a pledge to facilitate initiatives for regional counter-terrorism efforts upon assuming ASEAN Chairmanship in 2018. Bilaterally, Prime Minister Lee’s pledge to extend to 2018 his country’s support for the anti-IS coalition in the Middle East (the only Asian country to contribute personnel) and deployment of helicopters to hurricane relief efforts in Texas are symbolic of Singapore’s activism and the leadership’s institutionalized affinity for the United States. The progressive deepening of defense cooperatives also witnessed the first bilateral naval exercise taking place off the coast of Guam, following the deployment of the Singapore Air Force (RSAF) there for joint training in April.

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The lack of transparency on Malaysia’s deals with China is worrying

 

The Philippine and Singaporean alignments demonstrate models that can be expanded to other Southeast Asian countries. There are signs countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are reassessing the traditional role of the United States and to a certain extent adjusting their external engagements as the systemic conditions that placed the United States as the key security protector, economic patron, and diplomatic partner at the end of the Cold War are changing. Future research on asymmetrical alignment under uncertainty should examine these states.

About the Author

Ithrana Lawrence, is a former Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington. She can be contacted at Ithrana.L@gmail.com

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

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The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

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