South-East Asia’s future looks prosperous but illiberal


July 24, 2017

More money, less freedom

South-East Asia’s future looks prosperous but illiberal

Democracy is losing ground even as the region grows richer

Print edition | Asia

Image result for ASEAN Forging ahead --Economic Intelligence Unit

ASEAN–Peace, Stability and Economic Development First

THE young woman with the microphone cajoles, hectors and wheedles customers with the breathless enthusiasm of a livestock auctioneer at a county fair. She is standing behind a table stacked high with blue jeans; most of the milling crowd is dressed in lungyis, Myanmar’s skirt-like national dress. The fancy mall around them is anchored by a huge department store, dotted with banks and mobile-phone stalls and topped by a cinema and video arcade.

Myanmar has been growing so fast—by an average of 7.5% a year for the past five years—that the boom is reverberating in Mae Sot, just across the border in Thailand. Two years ago, says a longtime resident, the site of the mall was a swamp, and Mae Sot was a poky little border town with two small grocery stores. Today huge supermarkets, car dealers, electronics outlets and farm-equipment showrooms line the wide new road from the border into town, patronised by a steady stream of Burmese shoppers. Skeletons of future apartment blocks loom; the Thai government is building a new international airport. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) forecasts that Myanmar’s growth will hit 8% next year.

The region is full of such stories. Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam have been growing only slightly more slowly. Overall, the ten countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) grew at an annual rate of 5% over the past five years: not quite as fast as China or India, but much faster than Europe, Japan or America. The region’s 625m-odd people are growing richer and better educated; they will live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than their parents. Of course, plenty of poverty remains—most people in Myanmar are still subsistence farmers—but the region’s economic trends are promising.

Back from the red

It was not always obvious that the South-East Asian economies would do so well. Only a generation ago Myanmar was cut off from the world by despotic generals; Cambodia’s 25-year-old civil war was still sputtering; and Vietnam was only just beginning to experiment with some timid market reforms. The wealthier countries in the region, meanwhile, had seen their economies, and the underlying models of growth, shattered by the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

The crisis proved salutary. Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand all adopted sounder macroeconomic policies and made some effort to curb the cronyism that had accompanied earlier growth. Nominally communist Laos and Vietnam and autarkic Myanmar all embraced free markets, up to a point. The days of nationalisation and central planning seem to be over. In much of the region inefficient and coddled state-owned businesses endure, and rent-seeking, corruption and protectionism are all more common than they should be. But across South-East Asia, liberal economics has won the argument.

Politically, however, the region is moving in the opposite direction. The Asian crisis may have brought huge economic hardship, but it did at least unseat Suharto, Indonesia’s strongman of 32 years, and instigate political reforms elsewhere. In the years that followed, imperfect democracies in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand appeared to be gaining strength. And Myanmar, after years of isolation and repression, embarked on an unexpected transition to democracy.

But hoped-for openings never came in Laos and Vietnam, where the Communist Party has always been nakedly repressive. Singapore remains an illiberal, albeit effective, technocracy. The leaders of Malaysia and Cambodia, Najib Razak and Hun Sen, have proved depressingly adept at locking up critics and persecuting opponents. Cambodia’s most prominent opposition politician, Sam Rainsy, lives in exile to avoid imprisonment for a spurious conviction for defamation. Opposition figures in Malaysia find themselves in court on charges as varied as corruption and sodomy.

The junta that seized power in Thailand three years ago promises an election next year. Even in the unlikely event that it is free and fair, the constitution—which the army wrote and the new king signed in May—creates a junta-led Senate, imposes the generals’ 20-year plan on the country and provides ample grounds to remove any elected leader whom the army finds lacking. All this is designed to prevent voters from electing the “wrong” leaders, in the army’s view, as they have done at every opportunity over the past 15 years.

Image result for ASEAN Forging ahead --Economic Intelligence Unit

Democratic institutions are not yet quite that weak in the region’s two biggest countries, Indonesia and the Philippines, but in both liberals have more cause for fear than hope. Filipino voters, justifiably frustrated by the way that a few prominent families dominate politics, and by how recent economic growth has failed to reduce the high poverty rate, elected Rodrigo Duterte as president last year. Alone among the five candidates, he seemed to care about ordinary people; his brutal anti-drug campaign has appalled foreigners but is popular at home.

Mr Duterte reminisces fondly about the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and seems to crave dictatorial power himself. He has declared martial law on the southern island of Mindanao (see Banyan), and often muses about doing the same nationally. He veers between indifference and hostility to troublesome principles such as due process, the separation of powers and the rule of law—all of which need shoring up, not weakening.

An election for Governor of Jakarta in April, meanwhile, has harmed Indonesia’s reputation for religious tolerance (see next story). Islamist agitators campaigned against the Christian incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, falsely claiming that he had insulted the Koran. Anies Baswedan, one of his rivals, embraced their shameless attempt to stir up sectarian tension, and won. Prabowo Subianto, a tub-thumping nationalist who lost the presidential election in 2014, backed Mr Baswedan. The fear is that Mr Prabowo, inspired by Mr Baswedan’s success, will try to foster similar divisions at the national level.

But it is Myanmar that most encapsulates the region’s democratic reversal. When the army ceded power last year to Aung San Suu Kyi, its Nobel-prize-winning opponent of 30 years, expectations were astronomically high, even though the constitution the generals had written severely limited her powers. That has made her government’s craven and repressive acts all the more bewildering. It has charged more reporters with defamation than did her military-backed predecessor. She has been shamefully silent about the continuing persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, not even admitting, let alone trying to stop, the army’s well-documented campaign of rape, murder and destruction against Rohingya villages. It does not help that since Donald Trump became president, America, long the loudest champion of liberal values in the region, has more or less let the subject drop.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “More money, less freedom”–The Economist

 

A New Course for Economic Liberalism


July 17, 2017

A New Course for Economic Liberalism

by Sebastian Buckup

Sebastian Buckup is Head of Programming at the World Economic Forum.

How policymakers can manage the opposing forces of economic diffusion and concentration.

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The New Man in France–President Emmanuel Macron

Since the Agrarian Revolution, technological progress has always fueled opposing forces of diffusion and concentration. Diffusion occurs as old powers and privileges corrode; concentration occurs as the power and reach of those who control new capabilities expands. The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution will be no exception in this regard.

Already, the tension between diffusion and concentration is intensifying at all levels of the economy. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, trade grew twice as fast as GDP, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. Thanks to the globalization of capital and knowledge, countries were able to shift resources to more productive and higher-paying sectors. All of this contributed to the diffusion of market power.

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But this diffusion occurred in parallel with an equally stark concentration. At the sectoral level, a couple of key industries – most notably, finance and information technology – secured a growing share of profits. In the United States, for example, the financial sector generates just 4% of employment, but accounts for more than 25% of corporate profits. And half of US companies that generate profits of 25% or more are tech firms.

The same has occurred at the organizational level. The most profitable 10% of US businesses are eight times more profitable than the average firm. In the 1990s, the multiple was only three.

Such concentration effects go a long way toward explaining rising economic inequality. Research by Cesar Hidalgo and his colleagues at MIT reveals that, in countries where sectoral concentration has declined in recent decades, such as South Korea, income inequality has fallen. In those where sectoral concentration has intensified, such as Norway, inequality has risen.

A similar trend can be seen at the organizational level. A recent study by Erling Bath, Alex Bryson, James Davis, and Richard Freeman showed that the diffusion of individual pay since the 1970s is associated with pay differences between, not within, companies. The Stanford economists Nicholas Bloom and David Price confirmed this finding, and argue that virtually the entire increase in income inequality in the US is rooted in the growing gap in average wages paid by firms.

Such outcomes are the result not just of inevitable structural shifts, but also of decisions about how to handle those shifts. In the late 1970s, as neoliberalism took hold, policymakers became less concerned about big firms converting profits into political influence, and instead worried that governments were protecting uncompetitive companies.

With this in mind, policymakers began to dismantle the economic rules and regulations that had been implemented after the Great Depression, and encouraged vertical and horizontal mergers. These decisions played a major role in enabling a new wave of globalization, which increasingly diffused growth and wealth across countries, but also laid the groundwork for the concentration of income and wealth within countries.

The growing “platform economy” is a case in point. In China, the e-commerce giant Alibaba is leading a massive effort to connect rural areas to national and global markets, including through its consumer-to-consumer platform Taobao. That effort entails substantial diffusion: in more than 1,000 rural Chinese communities – so-called “Taobao Villages” – over 10% of the population now makes a living by selling products on Taobao. But, as Alibaba helps to build an inclusive economy comprising millions of mini-multinationals, it is also expanding its own market power.

Policymakers now need a new approach that resists excessive concentration, which may create efficiency gains, but also allows firms to hoard profits and invest less. Of course, Joseph Schumpeter famously argued that one need not worry too much about monopoly rents, because competition would quickly erase the advantage. But corporate performance in recent decades paints a different picture: 80% of the firms that made a return of 25% or more in 2003 were still doing so ten years later. (In the 1990s, that share stood at about 50%.)

To counter such concentration, policymakers should, first, implement smarter competition laws that focus not only on market share or pricing power, but also on the many forms of rent extraction, from copyright and patent rules that allow incumbents to cash in on old discoveries to the misuse of network centrality. The question is not “how big is too big,” but how to differentiate between “good” and “bad” bigness. The answer hinges on the balance businesses strike between value capture and creation.

Moreover, policymakers need to make it easier for startups to scale up. A vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem remains the most effective antidote to rent extraction. Digital ledger technologies, for instance, have the potential to curb the power of large oligopolies more effectively than heavy-handed policy interventions. Yet economies must not rely on markets alone to bring about the “churn” that capitalism so badly needs. Indeed, even as policymakers pay lip service to entrepreneurship, the number of startups has declined in many advanced economies.

Finally, policymakers must move beyond the neoliberal conceit that those who work hard and play by the rules are those who will rise. After all, the flipside of that perspective, which rests on a fundamental belief in the equalizing effect of the market, is what Michael Sandel calls our “meritocratic hubris”: the misguided idea that success (and failure) is up to us alone.

This implies that investments in education and skills training, while necessary, will not be sufficient to reduce inequality. Policies that tackle structural biases head-on – from minimum wages to, potentially, universal basic income schemes – are also needed.

Neoliberal economics has reached a breaking point, causing the traditional left-right political divide to be replaced by a different split: between those seeking forms of growth that are less inclined toward extreme concentration and those who want to end concentration by closing open markets and societies. Both sides challenge the old orthodoxies; but while one seeks to remove the “neo” from neoliberalism, the other seeks to dismantle liberalism altogether.

The neoliberal age had its day. It is time to define what comes next.

 

ASEAN: The Meanings Behind Words


June 6, 2017

ASEAN: The Meanings Behind Words

by Bunn Nagara@www.thestar.com.my

AUGUST 8 this year is the 50th anniversary of ASEAN.

Image result for The ASEAN Charter

ASEAN season is already upon us, with member nations busily hosting international seminars, workshops and conferences about the regional organisation.

Some of these events were held in close succession in Kuala Lumpur recently. As a prime mover and founding member of ASEAN, how can Malaysia and Malaysians do any less?

Chief among these was ISIS Malaysia’s Asia-Pacific Roundtable (APR), the largest annual event of its kind in the world: a Track Two (non-official conference on official security matters) convention on current regional concerns.

Anything concerning ASEAN would involve concepts, terminology and inevitable layers of diplomatic nuances behind and between them. It is an established ASEAN sub-culture.

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Thus, the first APR session saw two former ASEAN Secretaries-General on the panel concluding by looking back on the term “constructive engagement.” One of them denied a suggestion that he had coined the term.

Participants seemed to have forgotten that “constructive engagement” was the positive spin President Ronald Reagan gave to continued US dealings with Apartheid South Africa, in the face of international criticism and calls for a boycott.

Later, when Western criticism was aimed at ASEAN members for dealing with the pariah nation of military-ruled Myanmar, ASEAN leaders replied by calling it constructive engagement too. Verbal jousting runs both ways.

However, this did not sit well with a younger and more idealistic generation of ASEAN leaders at the time. A cabal of younger ministers then, including the one on the recent panel, cast around for another term.

One called for ASEAN’s “constructive intervention” in Cambodia which seemed then to have a disintegrating coalition government. It was a bit much for ASEAN’s Old Guard, strictly abiding by the principle of non-intervention.

Another ASEAN leader called instead for “constructive interactions,” which would soften the interventionist element. However, it did not seem to go anywhere. Yet another ASEAN leader advocated “flexible engagement.” But then it seemed too wobbly to be effective.

Finally, ASEAN and its leaders settled on “enhanced interaction,” which contained all the right positive notes without any conceivable setbacks. And so the work of regional diplomatic wordplay was done.

However, the situation on the ground in Myanmar, Cambodia and elsewhere remained much the same. The problems abated only with time, and with these countries’ eventual accession to ASEAN membership.

More ASEAN terminology arose from attempts to bring ASEAN to the people of south-east Asia. ASEAN’s albatross had long been the closed intergovernmental nature of its being, operating essentially for elites to sustain the status quo.

In time, a sense of ASEAN’s mortality prompted efforts to make ASEAN “people-oriented” or “people-centred.” Unfortunately, undue confusion reigned.

Image result for The ASEAN Charter

A view persists that “people-oriented” came first, which then developed progressively with Malaysia’s urging into the more substantive “people-centred.” Another view presumes the opposite.

These terms originated in the recommendations of two separate panels appointed by ASEAN to provide inputs for the prospective ASEAN Charter: The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) and the High-Level Task Force (HLTF).

Some academic references add to the confusion by tracing these terms only to 2008. Others cite how several hopeful civil society groups responded positively by offering their views, but found the EPG indifferent and only the HLTF was encouraging.

A closer examination would reveal the opposite. The HLTF seemed officious while the EPG, chaired by former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam, was more positive.

The result was the 2006 EPG document “Report of the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter.” This 49-page report contains one reference to “a people-oriented ASEAN” and three subsequent references to “a people-centred organisation.”

This may have served to credit Malaysia for spearheading a humanistic approach to a new improved ASEAN. But it was also enough to worry undemocratic ASEAN regimes, only too mindful that their leaders were occupying positions that were not the will of the people.

These leaders could just about tolerate “people-oriented,” which would still mean top-down changes they could control, but “people-centred” would be too much for them. Ordinary citizens could well get the idea that they could choose their government.

Upon closer inspection, however, a serious tussle within ASEAN between the two terms did not develop into a full-blown affair. Documents such as the 2015 “Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-oriented and People-centred ASEAN” contain both terms.

The terms that would unite all ASEAN leaders, whether budding democrats, residual autocrats or hybrids somewhere between, relate to ASEAN’s “centrality” in occupying the “driving seat.”

This involves ASEAN’s aspirations to exert an influence outside its immediate region. Such ASEAN-led institutions as the 18-member East Asia Summit and the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum already exist for this purpose, even when sometimes seeming rudderless.

The problem may not be in the choice of metaphors, but in what the metaphors unwittingly imply, reveal or foretell.

Centrality (leadership) may not come with being in the driving seat, and driving the vehicle may not mean deciding on the destination. This is as true of a chauffeured VIP limousine as of a common taxi or a bus.

Passengers who pay decide where they wish to go, and passengers who pay more also decide on how to get there. Not least among ASEAN’s concerns is whether member nations have sufficient economic clout to decide on the region’s destiny.

South-East Asia as a region is a subset of the larger East Asia, where major global powers roam. How do AAEAN members measure up in a time of growing interest from China, Russia, India and Japan, besides the US?

Then came a term for this region not unique to ASEAN: “arms race.” Typically, it was from conference participants unfamiliar with the region’s security situation. Government officials everywhere dislike the term either because it calls undue attention to their arms trade, with or without shady deals, or it alarms and scares off investors for fear of regional instability.

But seriously, is there an arms race in this region? There are clearly increased defence budgets for several countries, but does that necessarily amount to an “arms race”?

The same question had been asked some 25 years before with even greater intensity. And the answer, from the late Australian security specialist Prof Des Ball, was a firm no.

I then published a paper in Singapore explaining why there was no arms race here. There is still none today, not even after half a century of ASEAN – perhaps partly because of Asean.

As some conference participants explained, increased defence budgets do not equate squarely to increased arms purchases. The bulk of defence expenditures typically pay for the salaries, allowances and benefits of personnel.

A “race” is a competitive relationship between two or more players. Even when arms purchases grow, the motivation could just be having more to spend, or some threat perception or contingency – whether justified or not.

Unless and until the sole or primary motivation is to outdo the other country or countries in arms acquisitions, there is no race to speak of. There is still no reason for such a race.

Even if all the 10 ASEAN countries can put their military strength together, and double it, that would still be no match for the major global powers in East Asia.

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

 

America and China–Managing the Possible


May 21, 2017

America and China–Managing the Possible

by Tan Sri  Dr. Munir Majid@www.thestar.com.my

Image result for Trump and Xi

The  Go It Alone Eagle and The  Globalist Dragon

THE contrast could not be greater. While United States President Donald Trump raves and rants – and belts this or that person – China’s President Xi Jinping looks measured and assured as he offers an alternative global future to the world.

Xi is no angel of course, as his political opponents would know, but his system conserves and protects him, as Trump’s would not. If only Trump were the leader in a centrally controlled political order – but even then his temperament would blow it apart.

Leadership, like politics, is the art of managing the possible. Trump does not understand this, and does not know how. Xi does, knows why, and knows how.He has a growing economy too behind him, whatever the hiccups. Trump only promises one, without any clarity or logic.

His plan to boost the American economy, based primarily on slashing corporate tax from 35 to 15%, is likely to flounder in an American Congress seriously concerned about its causing the fiscal deficit to balloon.

Already Trump has had to climb down from trying to secure funds from Congress for his dreaded border wall with Mexico in order to avoid budgetary shutdown in September.

The stock market has fallen back from the boost to the price of banks and industrial products following his election. Interest now has returned to what might be termed “American ingenuity stocks” such as Google, Apple and Microsoft on Nasdaq – a proxy for much that is great about America, which Trump’s immigration and closed-door policies threaten to destroy.

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Meanwhile Xi has been rolling out his “Belt and Road” plans – something he first envisaged at the end of 2013 – for greater world connectivity and development, committing funds from China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and engaging global financial institutions such as the World Bank.

Malaysia, for instance, will be an actual beneficiary with additional projects thrown in. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. But the US has not been a laggard, being Malaysia’s fourth largest trading partner. And indeed the US remains the largest foreign investor in Malaysia, both new investments and total stock.

A staggering statistic not often recognised is that total American investment in ASEAN is more than its investment in China, Japan and India COMBINED!

The point, however, is that this position is being eroded. Trump’s policies are hastening this process. Abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) means there is no American strategic peaceful challenge to the Chinese economic juggernaut in Asia-Pacific.

Balance is important to afford choice. Absence of choice means serious exposure to risk. Price, quality and after-service standards are affected, not to mention a new geo-strategic economic underlining.

Over-dominance by China in the region is a price not only countries in the region will pay, something that most probably is on Trump’s mind. It is a price that America too will sooner or later have to pay.

China’s Belt and Road proposition is not without its challenges, of course. India is deeply suspicious of the connectivity with Pakistan which cuts across India-claimed Azad Kashmir, about 3000km of it.

The link to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, in southwest Baluchistan on the shores of the Arabian Sea, is seen by India as a Chinese presence at the entrance to the Indian Ocean and a hawk eye on the Indian sub-continent. With the Chinese also in Sri Lanka, India is circumspect on China’s Belt and Road initiative.

There have also been commentaries on some uneconomic linkages which extend right across the English Channel.

All these reservations, however, do not take into account the benefit of connectivity to economies, the time it often takes to get those economic benefits and, most of all, the patience, persistence and long view of history of China and its leaders.

One of the most striking things about the Belt and Road map is that America is not there. Of course, Xi Jinping does not preclude America just as much as the US did not say that China was not permanently excluded from the TPP. And of course, in the Old Silk Routes and shipping lanes, the New World – America – had not been discovered.

But in their revival, led by now rising and then ancient China after 150 years of national humiliation to the present time, there is the irony that the last three quarters of a century of America world dominance is on course to be marginalised, if not supplanted, by the old Eurasian world centred in an ancient civilisation.

Trump does not seem to understand history. The art of the deal is purely transactional. Short-tempered and short-term gratification does not a strategy constitute.

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So we have leader, system and economic promise distinguishing the two leaders – and the two countries.

Instead of America first, what we are seeing is Trump hurrying America’s decline relative to a rising China. We are not seeing a world changed from people wanting to be like a kind of American to being people wanting to be a kind of Chinese. Actually, the Chinese people themselves want to be like a kind of American, with all that wealth, influence and power.

What we are seeing is China – not America – leading the way to that desired, if not always desirable, end. It is China that is driving the next phase in the evolution of world economic development.

Under Xi Jinping, China appears to be heroically moving towards an epochal point in its Peaceful Rise. With Donald Trump, America is being led backwards and inwards, with all the problems of its governance now all coming out. It is in grave danger of losing in the peaceful competition.

Not knowing how to play that game – certainly under its current President – there remains the danger of the status quo power lashing out against the rising one.

The Greek historian Thucydides observed: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” A Harvard professor has studied what is now called the Thucydides Trap and found in 12 out of 16 cases in which this occurred in the last 500 years, the outcome was war.

There are many potential flash points against the background of China’s rise – the North Korean Peninsula and the placement of THAAD missiles in the south, the South China Sea – where Trump may temperamentally find cause to lash out. This is the trapdoor he might take the world down because of failure to compete peacefully.

The End of the Left/Right Divide?


May 13, 2017

The End of the Left/Right Divide?

by Ian Buruma*

http://www.project-syndicate.org

*Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Year Zero: A History of 1945.

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Marine Le Pen defeated by Ensemble,la France

After the French Revolution of 1789, deputies in the National Assembly who supported the revolutionary gains sat on the left, while those who opposed them and hankered after the old order of monarchy and church congregated on the right. Hence the political terms “left” and “right.” Many commentators on the French presidential election have pointed out that these categories no longer fit contemporary politics in France – or, indeed, anywhere else. Emmanuel Macron prides himself on being neither right nor left.

Marine Le Pen, whose National Front is associated with the far right, disagrees: to her, Macron, who was a minister in a Socialist government, is a leftist. But, like Donald Trump, it was Le Pen who ran as the “voice of the people,” whereas Macron, like Hillary Clinton, was depicted as a puppet of bankers, cultural elites, and international plutocrats.

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So what do left and right still mean, if anything at all? There is little doubt that something shifted in the last decades of the twentieth century. Left-wing parties began to lose – in some countries more quickly than others – their base in the industrial working class. Redistribution of wealth became gradually less important than the social emancipation of ethnic and sexual minorities. The old alliance between intellectual idealists and trade unions gave way to rainbow coalitions of intellectuals, non-whites, feminists, and gays.

Meanwhile, right-wing parties, like the Republicans in the United States, paid lip service to the social conservatism, and sometimes outright bigotry, of less privileged voters in rural and provincial areas, while doing what was best for big business once they were in power.

What was good for big business – international cooperation, pan-national institutions, and openness to immigration – was not always against the interests of the evolving left-of-center parties. Big business benefited from cheap labor, and the left favored multiculturalism.

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The EU gets a reprieve from France’s Emmanuel Macron

It made some sense, then, that European social democrats frequently ended up in coalition governments with moderate pro-business conservatives or Christian Democrats. This trend was boosted by the collapse of the Soviet empire, because Western liberal democracies no longer had the same pressing need to counter the Communist model with egalitarian arrangements of their own. The electoral successes of Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the United Kingdom had much to do with their deliberate tilts towards the pragmatic, neoliberal, business-friendly center.

In this respect, distinctions between left and right have indeed collapsed. The old idea of a left representing the downtrodden proletariat against the interests of big business and the bourgeoisie is gone. One reason why the British Labour Party is in such disarray is that it is led by a man, Jeremy Corbyn, whose politics haven’t changed since the 1970s.

But the traditional distinction between left and right is not simply economic. There has been a deeper divide within the National Assembly in France, defined by that between the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards in the 1890s, or Léon Blum’s Popular Front and the Action Française in the 1930s. This division still holds in the age of Macron and Le Pen.

Defenders of the French Republic, who took Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity seriously, thought of citizenship as a legal concept, not one based on blood and soil. They believed in institutions more than in hallowed traditions, and in internationalism rather than chauvinism. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer falsely accused of treason in 1894, was such a polarizing figure in France because his opponents saw him as symbol of national decadence, of a nation whose sacred identity was being diluted by alien blood.

Anti-Semites, and others with a blood-and-soil view of society, invariably see “cold-hearted bankers” (Le Pen’s term for her opponent in the presidential debate) as the enemy of “the real people…the ordinary, decent people” (Nigel Farage’s words at a campaign rally for Donald Trump in Mississippi). In this sense, Macron, who was indeed once a banker for Rothschild, and who believes in open borders and international institutions, is a man of the left. And Le Pen, the champion of La France profonde, the “real France” of rural Christians and angry white people who believe that to be French and Muslim is a contradiction in terms, is a true descendant of the anti-Dreyfusards and the Action Française.

Macron managed to defeat Le Pen this time around. But the social-democratic left is still in a state of crisis. The UK Labour Party is moribund. The Dutch Social Democrats were wiped out. And Trump, an ignorant narcissist with no political experience, managed to become President of the US by whipping up popular resentment against educated elites, bankers, foreigners, immigrants, and international institutions.

The problem for social democrats nowadays is how to survive if large numbers of underprivileged people turn right instead of left. Is it possible for a new alignment to be forged? Can the growing gap between rich and poor bring at least some of the white working class back into the same tent as immigrants and other minorities? Is another New Deal feasible? How might this be reconciled with the interests of internationalist businessmen and bankers?

The crisis on the right, however, is no less serious. Trump may have surrounded himself with Goldman Sachs alumni and corporate titans, even as he claims to serve the interests of the common people. And many Republicans still cling to him in the hope of achieving their policy goals. But he has effectively hijacked the old conservative party of business and internationalism. Will his brand of chauvinistic, nativist populism be able to coexist with the kind of capitalism that thrives on continued immigration, freedom of movement, and global institutions?

While France has dodged the xenophobic bullet this time, the dust has not yet settled. Left and right may be in flux, but the old divisions that emerged after 1789 are still there, perhaps more than ever. Macron is full of good intentions. But if his politics fail, the latter-day anti-Dreyfusards will be back with a vengeance.

Malaysian Indians deserve Recognition, Respect and Reward, not Fawning MIC Politicians


May 12, 2017

Malaysian Indians deserve Recognition, Respect and Reward, not Fawning MIC Politician

by P. Gunasegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.”

– Maya Angelou

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If the government is truly serious about helping the Indian or any other minority oppressed group, then this is what it has to do. It has to come down hard on anyone who does otherwise and perpetuates the continued oppression of the minority community. It is never all about handouts. It requires genuine effort at inclusion – nothing else works.–P. Gunasegaram

QUESTION TIME | Perhaps the title should have been just “Apa India mahu?” because the word “lagi” implies that you have too much. The fact is that Indians in the country have too little of everything except for their relative shares in such things as the extent of gangsterism, number of people in jails, number of people killed in custody, unemployment and so on.

Although the per capita income of Indians in Malaysia is higher than that of the bumiputeras (includes Malays and others), they are the most disadvantaged group in the country as shown by other social indicators. In fact, even in terms of per capita income, Indians, who are now largely in the urban areas as opposed to bumiputeras in the rural areas, face higher living expenses. If this is adjusted for, they might become the most disadvantaged even in terms of income.

But who are the Indians?

Indians form about two million people accounting for some seven percent of the population in Malaysia with Malays about 50 percent, Chinese about 25 percent and other bumiputeras about 11 percent. But they are not a uniform community – many subgroups being far better off than the average in terms of income and social well-being.

Tamils from India (see table) form by far the vast majority, accounting for some 75 percent of those considered Indians and this is the group which has been the most disadvantaged largely because of historical and social reasons. They were exploited successively by the British, the Malayan and the Malaysian governments who gave and are giving scant attention to their predicament. This is the group that we are referring to here when we talk about disadvantaged Indians.

While Indians have a long presence in Malaysia, dating back over 2,000 years ago, most of them were brought in to work as indentured labour – a form of bonded labour which replaced slavery after it was abolished in the late 19th century. Bonded labour involved working to pay off a debt which is often not clearly specified with workers paid extremely low wages for very hard work.

Most of them worked in the rubber plantations and in labour intensive tasks such as building roads and railways. In fact, it would be true to say that in the years of British occupation and the early years of Malaysia’s independence, the Indians built not only the roads and railways, making Malaysian infrastructure among the best in developing countries, but made rubber the main export earner.

But their efforts were not rewarded despite them being organised in the plantation sector in 1954 under the National Union of Plantation Workers or NUPW, at one point one of the largest unions in the world. While their union leaders were chauffeured around in Mercedes Benzes and they did manage to bring some benefits to members, plantation workers remained mired in extreme poverty.

Eventually, the Indians, the majority of whom were then in estates, were dealt a severe blow when in the 80s, the government encouraged cheap illicit labour in the hundreds of thousands into plantations and other industries, halting any chance of higher income there.

A former finance minister and plantation owner, Tan Siew Sin, even said then that if illegal labour was removed from plantations, they would collapse. The NUPW, the MIC and the government stood by and watched this happen – a move that further impoverished an already impoverished community.

In fact, some in the government and in politics may even have clapped their hands perversely to watch this perceived Indian dominance of the plantation industry albeit at the labour level whittled away through the import of cheap, exploited Indonesian labour.

From the green ghettos, the Indians moved into towns and cities to earn a living, creating slums. Unemployment among them increased, they lived in squalor, they took whatever work they could get and as with any disadvantaged minority they took to crime as a means of living. They resorted to gangs for social inclusion and self-respect.

The MIB

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The Indians don’t deserve this extremist naturalised Malaysian Indian. He has become the Pope of UMNO Muslims

Now, on the back of an impending election, the government very publicly came up with a Malaysian Indian Blueprint, or MIB. The prime minister himself unveiled it. Considering that the government and the MIC have done precious little for the Indians, will the MIB make a difference?

From a brief look, the MIB is a pretty good blueprint in terms of identifying and documenting the Indian problem. It lists all the major problems backed with relevant statistics which show that Indian Malaysians are lagging behind and may slip further.

For instance, median household income for Indians per month rose 7.5 percent compounded annually (against 7.8 percent for Malaysia) for 44 years between 1970 and 2014 to reach RM4,627 compared to RM4,214 for bumiputeras and RM5,708 for Chinese.

Recall that Malays form about 50 percent of the population and that other bumiputeras form some 11 percent – the latter group includes indigenous people, and those from Sabah and Sarawak, are among the poorest in Malaysia. This could mean that Indian income is already lower than that of Malay income. I could not find standalone figures for Malay income.

The MIB also recognises that Indians in the top 60 percent of income bracket account for 83 percent of the Indian income. In the bottom 40 are 227,600 households or 1.14 million people; assuming five to a household – over half of Indians earn live with only 17 percent of the Indian share of income!

Here are some direct quotes from the MIB which starkly reflect the Indian predicament:

“In 2014, Indian families accounted for 21 percent of the total number of reported domestic violence cases. In that same year, a total of 518 Indian children or 12 percent of all reported cases were classified as children who are in need of care and protection. These statistics indicate a prevalent problem of dysfunctional family dynamics and broken family bonds.”

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The sacrifices of their hardworking ancestors mean nothing to these poorest among the poor in Malaysia

“It is estimated that about 70 percent of gang members in the country are Indians. Although some leave behind gang activities after their schooling years, field experts suggest that a number of them, particularly those from underprivileged and broken families, stay on in gangs and progress to more serious crimes. According to PDRM 2014 statistics, of all violent crime arrests, Malaysian Indians comprise 31 percent (against national population of 7 percent) compared to Malay and Chinese counterparts at 51 percent and 11 percent respectively.”

“The Malaysian Indian community has the challenge of ensuring its religious rights are preserved while working with the regulatory requirements and sensitivities of the majority group. At the same time, Indian religious institutions such as temples need to increase their contribution to their communities in areas such as education, values and welfare.”

“…while there are points of pride in being of Indian ethnicity, some aspects of Indian representation in Malaysian public life – such as associations to crime, gangs, alcohol abuse, violence, low education and poverty – impart a negative slant to the community’s overall image.”

And finally, for me the most important point the MIB makes: “If left unchecked, the economic, educational and social challenges highlighted above will solidify the existence of an Indian sub-class that is continually marginalised and excluded from the Malaysian mainstream. Not only is this a waste of human potential, it is a cost to the country’s economy and a threat to national inter-ethnic harmony.” Well said.

The 3Rs

But going beyond the thoughtful recommendations by the MIB, the Indian community has a far better chance of progressing if the government and the politicians are serious about helping them.

What is it that the Indians want and need? Apa lagi India mahu? Indians want to claim their right to this country through what I shall call the 3Rs – recognition, respect and reward.

Recognition means acknowledging the immense contribution of Indians to the development of the nation which was out of all proportion to their numbers through the growth and development of the rubber industry and infrastructure projects amongst others. This also means acknowledging that they worked under terribly unfair conditions and paid a major price for their systematic exploitation. It includes as well dealing once and for all with the issue of stateless Indians even as Muslim Indonesians, Bangladeshis and Filipinos are routinely given citizenship with few questions asked.

Trust this Prime Minister to faithfully implement MIB (Malaysian Indian Blueprint). I won’t even trust him with my cat. But I expect the Malaysian Indians to vote for him in GE-14. You want respect, start with self respect first. How about that. Remember the words, SELF RESPECT. Do not be like the UMNO Malays who are dependent on handouts.–Din Merican

Respect means to give them due consideration to practice their way of life without being ridiculed and discriminated against because of their colour, manner, background or way of life. It means honouring their religious tradition without being constantly harassed by fanatics who heap scorn on their beliefs and destroy their temples and places of worship. It means no stereotyping and attributing unfair cliches to Indians. Respect also means not being arrested at the drop of a hat, or being arrested, beaten up in the lock-up and sometimes killed.

Reward means to give them their due for the effort that they have put in by themselves to improve themselves. This means stopping racist administrators dispersed throughout the civil service who make it a point to make life difficult for some and routinely practice discrimination against other races and religions, and especially Indians. Reward means giving them their due without they having to constantly ask and fight for it in every sphere.

If the government is truly serious about helping the Indian or any other minority oppressed group, then this is what it has to do. It has to come down hard on anyone who does otherwise and perpetuates the continued oppression of the minority community. It is never all about handouts. It requires genuine effort at inclusion – nothing else works.

The Indian helped build this country, with his two bare hands. He wants to be recognised and respected for that. He wants to be given the opportunity for his children to progress beyond what he has been able to.

His ancestors and he himself have paid for that with their blood, sweat and tears. He is as good as any other Malaysian can be. If you deny him that, he will fight for it any which way he can for he has little left to lose.