Thanks, Zainah Anwar, for Your 2017 Toast to living honestly


December 5, 2017

Thanks, Zainah Anwar, for Your  2017 Toast to living honestly

by Zainah Anwar@www.thestar.com.my

Image result for Zainah Anwar

So to all those reading this column, do not allow regrets to paralyse your life. There is still time to make the choices you need to make to live the life you want, and not what others expect of you. So, here’s to a new year of living honestly.–Zainah Anwar

AS 2017 comes to a close and we head into yet another new year, I want to share this discussion I heard on radio on the subject of regret. It was based on a book by an Australian palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, on The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

The pain of those regrets were so huge that she said she knew she did not want to end up like that. It made so much sense and I thought what a good way to start the new year with a new resolve to live life with courage and to make conscious choices to make it worth living.

According to Ware, the most common regret of the dying is their lack of courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them.

Image result for On Wisdom from Socrates

This was the most painful regret because as they looked back, they realised that their lives were shaped and defined by others, and their dreams were unfulfilled because of the choices they had made, or not made. And the older you are, the more your regrets centre on the choices not made.

You regret because this was something that was within your control, but you made those choices to make others happy, instead of you happy.

Some years ago, I heard a radio interview with a gay rights activist who was pressured for years by his father to give up being gay (as if that was a choice) and to get married and have children.

One day, in yet another fight with his father, he said: “How many people must be unhappy in order for you to be happy?”

I thought that was a profound statement. Indeed, it was that statement that finally made his father see the light and accepted his son’s sexual identity. I admired him for his courage and honesty to be persistent and frank with his father and to make that difficult decision to be true to himself.

The second most common regret is, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”. I guess few people die wishing they had worked harder.

It seems this regret afflicted mostly men who missed out on their children’s youth and the companionship of their wives. They regretted that they had not honoured other aspects of their lives, like care giving and being there for their loved ones.

It’s good to know that many younger men these days make the time to care for their children and actually find joy in that.

Some friends even have regular “date nights” with their husbands, making sure that just the two of them go out for dinner to talk – to catch up with each other’s thoughts and feelings and ideas and plans.

The third most common regret is one that I thought only afflicted emotionally repressed Asians. But it seems everyone wishes they had the courage to voice their feelings. I bet many more women expressed this regret than men as women often suppress their feelings in order to keep peace with others.

These regrets are mostly over relationships. They regret for not speaking up in their own defence and not treating themselves with the kindness they deserve. They regret for not telling their children, partners, friends how much they loved them. They regret staying in, or leaving, or not pursuing relationships.

Such regrets can do damage to body and mind. At best, you feel like punching yourself for not having the courage to speak out against a hurt, an injustice; at worst people develop illnesses and suffer chronic stress because of bitterness and resentment bottled up for months, years or lifetimes.

Whenever I am angry or upset, I will always ask myself if this person or this incident is worth my time and my emotion getting livid over

Most of the time they are not; and if they are, I will set a time limit to my negative feelings. Usually not more than three days. Then life must go on. Either get the feeling out of your system, or get that toxic person out of your life. Although, I must admit that for those with spouses, this is easier said than done.

An activist friend who works with single mothers said she regretted crying for three years over the breakdown of her marriage. In hindsight, the man was worth just three days of tears. And she should have gotten on with her new life much earlier.

The fourth most common regret is, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” Families naturally go into grief in the presence of loved ones dying. But Ware said that person actually wants to live as fully as they can. They want joy brought to the bed, they want to hear laughter, and birds singing.

They want to know what’s going on outside. They don’t want to stop living until the body stops breathing. Old friends tell stories of a past their adult children are not a part of and this brings joy to the dying.

But there are friends who don’t know what to say to a dying person, except look on with grief that the person’s life is coming to an end.

Image result for socrates on death

I remember my father who passed away two months short of his 100th birthday expressing indignation when his surau friends came to visit and sat there in silence and sorrow.

When they left, he turned to me and said, “Do they think I am dying?” He still wanted to live and to know what’s going on in the outside world.

The fifth regret, says Ware, is a surprising one: “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice, that life is a choice; and they did not exercise the choices they could have made.

Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content, that things were all right, when deep within, they longed to laugh heartily and loudly and feel a lightness of being.

We feel the biggest regrets over things that are within our control. That is why it is such a negative emotion.

So to all those reading this column, do not allow regrets to paralyse your life. There is still time to make the choices you need to make to live the life you want, and not what others expect of you. So, here’s to a new year of living honestly.

English in the National Schooling System: Time for a Policy Shift


November 30, 2017

English in the National Schooling System: Time for a Policy Shift

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

The past few weeks has seen renewed attention on the re-establishment of English medium schools (EMS) in the country.

A combination of concerned and highly credible stake-players has come out in favour of the return to what was previously not just a medium of national schooling for young Malaysians. EMS was also the source of most of the leadership capability in economy and society, and a major reason for the country’s high international standing.

Image result for hrh sultan of johor

Led by royalty in the person of HRH Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, the campaign for EMS is now supported by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan and concerned civil society leaders from the G25 group.

For a long time, it was the indefatigable Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE), whose group waged an often-lonely battle to promote the expanded use of English in our national educational system.

Image result for Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim

The indefatigable Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim

Today the drive to restore ECMs to similar status as Chinese and Tami schools in the national system has been expanded. But it needs to be taken up by our political leaders if it is to succeed.

For what has been standing in it way – and it continues today – has been basically politics which has triumphed over national interest and the freedom for parents to choose the medium of instruction they want for their children.

As pointed out by HRH Johor Sultan, there are politicians who are in “self-denial” and who choose to play politics with education by being “heroes of their races”.

“They talk about “nationalism” but they too send their children to boarding schools in Australia and the United Kingdom.”

HRH Sultan has also expressed confidence that “if we have an education system based on a single stream for students from a young age, we will be able to create a community which is more harmonious and can work together to face challenges in the future.”

Malay Disadvantage

Although all communities have been disadvantaged by the absence of English medium schools in the national system, it is beyond doubt that it is the Malay community which has been most handicapped or punished by the political policy and insistence by misguided cultural zealots for the Malay masses to be restricted in their choice of schools to Malay medium ones, or to Islamic schools where the medium of instruction is Arabic.

Should a study be undertaken of the class divide which has emerged in Malay society during the last two or three decades, it is very likely that it will find that a contributory – perhaps the major – factor has been the ability of upper class Malays to access English education either in the MARA system or through private English education medium schools locally and abroad.

Students in the national Malay medium schools and graduates from public universities with Malay as the medium of instruction are not only severely handicapped in local private sector employment where English language fluency is a prerequisite especially for higher end jobs. They are also increasingly marginalized in this era of global markets and competition where a command and mastery of the English language is indispensable to knowledge acquisition and upward mobility.

Malaysia needs to re-establish itself as a bilingual country

This fact of growing Malay disadvantage and deepening socio-economic inequality – should there be no policy change – was not spelt out by the influential G25 grouping in its recent press statement which supported the call by Johoreans for English medium schools.

But it was probably in the minds of G25 members as they seek a return to establishing Malaysia as a bilingual country with Bahasa Melayu as the national language, and English the second language as is found in many of the most advanced non-English speaking nations of the world.

In a press statement, G25 noted that as a trading nation Malaysia needs to have a workforce with a high proficiency in English.

“G25 supports the establishment of the EMS as an alternative stream under the national school system. English is a language for acquiring knowledge. We are in support of initiatives that will help in the growth of the economy and improve the well-being of Malaysians”

Taking Finland as an example, the group has argued that “Finland’s education success is based on ensuring that everyone has equal opportunities to study.”

Image result for Education in Finland

Image result for Education in Finland

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/ In Malaysia UMNO idiots meddle in Education while they send their kids to study abroad.

This is not the case in Malaysia where there is no level playing field between the private and national school systems and where parents who wish to have their children enrolled in English medium schools cannot afford the expensive fees that are the norm for private schools.

G25’s call needs be emphasized: “We need to learn from past mistakes, and ensure that the implementation of the English-medium schools follows a model with a proven track record”

The Moral Imperative of Quality Education


November 28, 2017

The Moral Imperative of Quality Education

by Peter Mutharika

Image result for Peter Mutharika PM of Malawi

Peter Mutharika–President of Malawi

Poor countries like Malawi are doing what they can to improve educational quality and access. But there is only so much that a country with modest means can achieve, which is why global leaders, when they meet in Senegal early next year, must recommit to investing in the education of all children.

 

BLANTYRE, MALAWI – In September, I was among a group of world leaders who gathered in New York City to discuss ways to improve access to quality education. Around the world, hundreds of millions of children are either not receiving basic schooling, or are attending schools but not learning. We gathered to devise a way forward.

The crisis that I discussed with heads of state from France, Senegal, and Norway, along with leaders from the United Nations and global education advocates, is not an abstract problem unfolding in a distant land. It is a crisis that has reached my doorstep in Malawi. The challenge of education is one that my government, like many in developing countries, grapples with every day.

Image result for  Education in Singapore

Quality schooling is key to helping people contribute to the development of their communities and their countries. Without a properly educated populace, it would take decades for developing countries like mine to overcome the profound economic, social, and health challenges that we face.

As one of the co-conveners of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity – which brings together world leaders to mobilize support for solutions to the education crisis – I have long focused on how to improve educational access. Quality schooling is key to helping people contribute to the development of their communities and their countries. Without a properly educated populace, it would take decades for developing countries like mine to overcome the profound economic, social, and health challenges that we face.

To ensure that we do not fail our children, or our country, my government is investing heavily to build a strong and sustainable education system. We have steadily increased education spending, which has risen from 12.5% of the total domestic budget in 2010 to 21% in 2015. This represents one of the highest percentages among developing countries anywhere, and I hope that our example will encourage leaders elsewhere to devote at least 20% of their national budgets to education.

But there is a limit to what economically struggling countries like Malawi can do alone. To make real progress in education, the generous support of wealthier partner countries and global institutions is essential. The momentum we have generated can be sustained only if donor support remains strong.

Malawi’s education sector has benefited greatly from balancing increased domestic investment with external support. For example, more Malawian children are enrolled in primary school than ever before, and the rate of boys and girls completing primary education has increased dramatically, from 59% in 2007 to 80% in 2014. Adult literacy has also improved, albeit more modestly, from 61% in 2010 to 66% in 2015.

Still, Malawi falls far behind the rest of the world on a several key education indicators. Among the list of challenges we face are derelict schools, high pupil-to-teacher ratios, and significant gaps in inspection and oversight capabilities. These and other issues make it hard for teachers to teach and for students to learn.

Image result for rihanna education

GPE Global Ambassador Rihanna at the Élysée, Paris, July 2017

When Rihanna, the pop artist and ambassador of the Global Partnership for Education, visited Malawi in January and met with students and teachers, she put a spotlight on the promise of education. Our country has been fortunate to receive funding in recent years from bilateral donors and international organizations like GPE, which helps countries like mine increase educational quality and broaden access.

Since 2009, GPE funding has enabled Malawi to conduct long-term planning and data collection, and has brought domestic and international partners together for a common cause. GPE’s support has helped us build more facilities, overhaul our curriculum, improve access for girls, and train more educators.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Malawi’s partnership with GPE has been transformative, which is why I am urging donor countries around the world to contribute generously to GPE at its upcoming financing conference in Senegal. By 2020, GPE aims to distribute more than $2 billion annually to help improve education in developing countries around the world.

Without GPE’s support, some 825 million young people risk being left behind without the education or skills to perform well in the workplace of the future. That could lead to growing unemployment, poverty, inequality, instability, and other factors that threaten not just individual countries or regions, but the entire international community.

Educating every child is a moral imperative and thus a universal responsibility. In today’s interconnected world, challenges and gains in low-income countries do not remain local.

When my colleagues and I met in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we recommitted to solving the challenges of educational quality and access. We now need the rest of the world to join us in addressing this global crisis head-on.

 

Why Socrates couldn’t hack it in today’s public schools


November 27,2017

Why Socrates couldn’t hack it in today’s public schools

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-socrates-couldnt-hack-it-in-todays-public-schools/2017/11/24/6a549974-c98a-11e7-8321-481fd63f174d_story.html?utm_term=.3762afd97241

Image result for Socrates

David R. Kahn retired in June from Sandy Springs Friends School in Sandy Springs.

Retired at last, after 36 years teaching at a private school just north of Washington, I’d like to offer some advice from “Mr. Chips.”

In June, when I taught Plato’s “Dialogues” to my last students in my last class, I told them that what Socrates said some 2,500 years ago is just as relevant today. Some of the definitions might have shifted a bit — what Socrates meant by “piety” is not quite what we mean today — but what lies behind the word choices is every bit as important.

Then it occurred to me that the old boy is probably better off dead.

What would happen, I wondered, if we hired Socrates to teach in a modern high school? He probably would get in trouble with the counselors for beating up on the students’ self-esteem — never giving them an answer, just pointing out where their arguments failed.

“If Euthyphro never experiences success, how can he ever come to understand piety? You need to ease up there, Soc.”

Image result for Socrates

Socrates did not run a student-centered classroom. It’s clear that Socrates was capable of dealing with only one type of learner. The learning specialists would be all over him for that.

When Phaedo asked about the nature of the afterlife, weren’t Socrates’ “questions” a bit . . . constrictive? Had Phaedo been allowed to write a poem, create a mobile, or cut out and paste up the front page of an imaginary newspaper that one might read when one gets . . . wherever . . . Socrates could have appealed to Phaedo’s “multiple intelligences ” and Phaedo could have “experienced success.”

Crito found it difficult to accept Socrates’ definition of justice. It’s a strict one, all right. No problem, says today’s academic adviser: Drop the class. You don’t want it lowering your grade-point average, and you don’t need the dialogue to graduate.

Charmides and Socrates discussed the meaning of self-control. That’s easy, says the school nurse: There is no such thing. Everything is biologically determined. Charmides can’t be held responsible for most of what he does. As soon as we get his medications figured out, maybe then. The counselor agrees. As does the learning specialist.

Timaeus would have been glad to write his three-page paper on the nature of the physical world, due today, but he had another paper due for his creative writing class and he hadn’t felt inspired. And he has a test tomorrow. Plus, those pesky college essays are hanging over his head, so his parents have called him in sick today. He will be in this afternoon for the soccer game, though.

Meno has his college essays done, has no tests or papers coming soon, and is ready and eager to talk about the nature of virtue. But he has a field trip, so he’ll be gone all day. But it’s Tuesday, a “B day,” so Socrates’ class doesn’t meet anyhow. Maybe tomorrow?

No — tomorrow Meno and all of the sophomores are meeting all day with the group from Spartans Are People Too! They’ll break up into small groups, form some affinity groups, paste some Post-it notes on the walls and publish their ideas online. Maybe we could ask Meno to come in after the game?

Nah. He’ll be tired. After all, he’s the goalie. The poor guy. All those balls coming at his head.

American Liberal Education: Lessons for Malaysia


November 6, 2017

American Liberal Education: Lessons for Malaysia

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa

Morgan-Hill, California

Western secular, humanistic liberal education may have many faults but it is still superior to what is being offered elsewhere. That is a good enough reason for Malaysia to embrace it.–Dr. M. Bakri Musa

Image result for allan bloom the closing of the american mind
Professor Allan Bloom–The Closing of the American Mind

 

My praise for American liberal education notwithstanding, there is no shortage of criticisms of the system. Allan Bloom may be among the earliest and harshest, but you could have a small library compiling books, monographs, and essays critical of the system. A few years ago The New York Review of Books carried an article reviewing eight such books, including one co-written by the former President of Princeton University.

Examine the typical American high school today; it is huge. The largest has an enrollment exceeding 5,000. As there are only four high school years, this means the graduating class would have about 1,250 students. That is less a school, more a huge human educational factory or warehouse. Many American schools now have policemen patrolling and metal detectors. Still that had not prevented great tragedies like the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 that shocked the nation

The physical challenges brought on by the sheer massive size of these institutions aside, there are other even greater non-physical crises. For the most part they are hidden and consequently become entrenched and pervasive.

Then there are the exorbitant and rising costs of college which defy rational explanations. They are then hidden by the ready availability of student loans. Those loans contribute to the problem as universities can now raise fees with impunity. Economists predict that the next financial crisis in America will be with student loans. The scale and impact would be much bigger than the current [2008] housing bust.

Then there is the faculty. At many universities especially the top ones, professors are more akin to full-time researchers, with teaching a chore to be avoided at all costs. Professors brag about “protected time” from teaching, that being the new badge of honor! Teaching falls increasingly on over-worked adjunct (part-time) faculty and graduate students.

More alarming, researchers at universities are mostly funded by industry or special interest groups, thus calling into question the integrity of their work. An alumnus of Harvard Business School related how the luminaries there were heaping praises on Royal Bank of Scotland’s management right up to the bank’s collapse. No surprise there as those professors were highly-paid consultants to the bank at the time.

At the other end of the spectrum is the corrupting influence of lucrative collegiate sports. On many campuses, the highest paid and most influential individual is not the president or the brilliant professors, but the football coach!

Those criticisms do not detract from the value of the American broad-based liberal education. It aims to produce “T” graduates, depth in one field with interest and general understanding across broad areas. In contrast, the Malaysian system we inherited from the British produces “I” graduates with narrowly focused skills and interests.

The world now recognizes the value of a liberal education. China, India, and Japan (indeed the world) send their best students to America. These countries are also busy enticing American colleges to set up branch campuses in their home countries. The greatest concentration of American colleges is in the Middle East, specifically the Gulf States. Within a generation this will prove transformational for the Arab world. Already in Egypt, the most prestigious university (where the elite send their children and where the graduates are highly sought after) is not the centuries-old Al Azhar but the American University in Cairo, established less than a hundred years ago. Likewise, despite the turmoil in Lebanon, the American University in Beirut remains the crown jewel of Arab intellectual achievement.

My concern is not with the American criticisms of its system, rather those coming from commentators and intellectuals of the developing world, specifically Malaysia. Those criticisms carry much more weight with local policymakers and parents.

To these Malaysian critics, American liberal education is devoid of “values” and geared only to serve the needs of the economic machinery of its capitalistic system. They hold up as exemplary the Islamic education system with its objective of producing “good” citizens inculcated with the “correct” moral values. To these critics, unless you believe in God, (not any God however, only the God that they pray to), you cannot be moral, ethical, or “good.”

These critics belittle the achievements of Western education in producing competent engineers and scientists, denouncing them as mere “tools” of the capitalistic economy. That may well be, but by being those “tools” these graduates are serving and contributing to the good of society. When American universities produce competent engineers who design safe jet planes, the whole world benefits; likewise when the system produces scientists who discover vaccines against major killers like polio. Those graduates fit the Islamic definition of being soleh.

Condolence to Syed Hussein Alatas
Professor Dr. Syed Hussein Alatas
Image result for The Myth of The Lazy Native by Dr Syed Hussein Alatas
 

There was one critic worthy of special mention because of the wide reception of his views especially in the Muslim world, the acclaimed sociologist Professor Dr. Syed Hussein Alatas. He accused the Western system of education of perpetrating “intellectual imperialism,” imposing its views on students and scholars from the developing world. They, in turn, are guilty of having a “captive mind,” which he defined as an “uncritical and imitative mind dominated by an external source, whose thinking is deflected from an independent perspective.” That external source is of course Western scholarship

I commend Dr. Syed Hussein’s take on the social sciences but when he tried to extend his observation to the natural sciences, he was on “thin ice,” to use an English metaphor. To him, my using that metaphor reflects this Western intellectual imperialism. Otherwise, he would presumably argue, I would use a different metaphor, like stepping on a banana peel. That would be more in tune with our tropical environment, quite apart from being more readily understood by those from the tropics.

Image result for The University of Malaya in the 1960s
The University of Malaya, Pantai Valley, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia circa 1960s

 

That aside, Dr. Syed Hussein’s observation carries considerable truth. In the early years of the University of Malaya, its leaders and policymakers were more obsessed with replicating a jungle version of Oxford and Cambridge than making a university of Malaya, meaning one that would serve the specific needs of the local society.

Far too often what goes on at local campuses bears little relevance to the surrounding reality. Malaysia desperately needs English teachers, yet not one local university has a Department of English. Likewise, rubber and tin are our two major resources, yet there is very little research into either commodity done on Malaysian campuses. The same goes for endemic local parasitic diseases like dengue.

Dr. Syed Hussein was correct in citing the lack of creativity of students from developing countries who have had the benefit of superior education at Western universities.

I once asked a Malaysian professor why he had not contributed any original published work since getting his doctorate from an Ivy League university. When he noted that I was not impressed with his ready excuse of heavy administrative burdens, he tried others, such as inadequate support facilities like libraries. He obviously had not heard of the Internet. Indeed, many journals and research institutions now give free membership (and thus access to publications and research findings) if you identify yourself as a scholar or faculty from the developing world.

I agree with Dr. Syed Hussein when he chastised Third World graduates and scholars who have had the benefit of superior education afforded at leading Western universities for exhibiting “captive minds” and not demonstrating creativity when solving local problems. I disagree with him however, when he faulted those institutions and their faculties.

Many of the innovations and creative thinking in the developing world today are the products of minds nurtured at leading Western universities. The good Dr. Syed Hussein was Exhibit One, as he had a Phd from the University of Amsterdam. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syed_Hussein_Alatas ).Those “captive minds” that Dr. Syed Hussein condemned are more likely to be the products of Third World universities including such leading ones as Al Azhar. I cannot think of any innovation, Islamic or otherwise, that emanates from that institution.

Western secular, humanistic liberal education may have many faults but it is still superior to what is being offered elsewhere. That is a good enough reason for Malaysia to embrace it.

 

ASEAN: Politics, Censorship, Polarisation and Cyberspace


November 6, 2017

ASEAN: Politics, Censorship, Polarisation and Cyberspace

by Aim Sinpeng

ww.newmandala.org/southeast-asian-cyberspace-politics-censorship-polarisation/

On 12 April 2017, Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society issued what the Bangkok Post called “a strange government directive”. It prohibited anyone from following, communicating with, or disseminating information online from three outspoken critics of the government—or risk up to 15 years in prison. The statement seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and without any explanation. Does the act of “following” include reading these authors’ posts, or actually clicking the “follow” button on their profile? This was never clarified by the government.

The ambiguity of the Thai cyber laws prompted a local online newspaper, Prachatai, to publish information warning readers about how to avoid being charged with Thailand’s draconian Article 112, which prohibits defamation against the royal family. But the journalist responsible for the article was in turn interrogated by the Thai authorities for a possible computer crime herself. This deadly dose of opaque cyber regulations and an authoritarian political regime has made Thailand’s cyberspace one of the most restricted in Asia.

This combination, however, is growing more and more representative of the regional norm. In Southeast Asia, the liberating effects of the internet coexist in increasing tension with state anxiety about information control. Southeast Asian cyberspace is thus becoming more expansive, yet more restricted. On the one hand, the number of people who have come online for the first time has exploded: Myanmar, for example, went from 1% internet penetration in 2012 to 26% in 2017 thanks to an abundance of cheap mobile phones. Internet users across the region are increasingly spending time online to work, study, connect with friends, and participate in civic and political life.

On the other hand, Southeast Asian governments are growing wary of the potential for the internet to threaten political stability. Cyberspace in Southeast Asia has evolved into a space for contestation over power and control between the state and its societal opponents, with the former exerting greater and more sophisticated control over the latter. As electoral contestation increases in some countries, feuding elites have sought to win the hearts and minds of the ever more engaged and wired citizenry through old tactics of divide and conquer, exploiting deep-seated ethnic, religious and racial cleavages. Social networking sites like Facebook have made it all too easy to spread hate speech and misinformation—further entrenching divisions in society, and inviting yet more state-led censorship.

More internet, more censorship

Viewed globally, the Southeast Asian experience is not an aberration. Freedom House’s Net Freedom Report, which ranks the degree of cyber openness around the world, has recorded the sixth consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom. More than two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where criticism of governments gets censored.

The present reality stands in stark contrast to early optimism about the positive, liberating role the internet could play in bringing about political change in authoritarian regimes—a sentiment which flourished following the “Arab Spring”. The utopian idea that social media could spell the end of despots has now been muted by users’ frustration with increasing crackdowns on the internet and the chilling effect brought on by continued persecution of politically active social media users. Indeed, in 2016 a total of 24 countries restricted access to popular social media platforms and messaging apps—an increase of 60% compared to the previous year. 27% of internet users live in countries whose authorities have made arrests based on social media posts.

So where does Southeast Asia fit in this global picture? Despite varying degrees of internet penetration—ranging from 19% in Cambodia to 82% in Singapore—national internet environments in Southeast Asia share three key similarities.

First, there is an overall consecutive decline in internet freedom, which measures the degree to which access is unrestricted. The Philippines stands as the only country in the region that receives a score of “free” according to Freedom House (Figure 1). The rest of Southeast Asian internet users enjoy partial to little freedom in surfing the net.

Figure 1: Net Freedom Scores, 2016

Image result for Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2016

Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2016

 

In all the “partly free” and “not free” states, ordinary internet users have been arrested for their online activities and user rights have been repeatedly violated. Measures to censor critical opinions about authorities can include blocking of websites, content removal, and in some cases arrests and persecution—the latter of which has been taking place more recently, as authorities across the region pay closer attention to social media and chat app content.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoch Nhu or “Mother Mushroom” was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017 for “conducting propaganda against the state”, after she wrote on issues relating to policy brutality, land rights, and freedom of speech. A Thai man has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for Facebook posts the authorities deemed critical of the royal family. This follows the 2016 arrest of eight internet users who ran a satirical Facebook page mocking Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. In Singapore, whose leaders prefer slapping lawsuits upon critics over arresting them, blogger Roy Ngerng was sued for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in posts on his blog. Even a democratic government in Indonesia has sought to censor same-sex emojis from messaging apps and has banned several gay dating apps.

Second, many Southeast Asian states have in recent years sought to institutionalise online information controls through new laws and regulations, typically citing concerns for national security. Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Law openly permits criminalisation of internet activism or communication that are considered “dishonest” and “untruthful” by the regime. Cambodia has had several drafts of the cybercrime law, with each one eliciting grave concerns from rights groups. Article 35 from the 2012 draft, for instance, would criminalise civil society organisations deemed to endanger the security, morality and values of the nation. A 2017 amendment to Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act worsened an already repressive internet law by giving authorities wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone who might be spreading information that would be against the (vaguely-defined) national interest. Indonesia’s newly amended Electronic Information Transactions Law (UU ITE) was criticised by internet rights groups for creating chilling effects online and curbing of freedom of expression. Indeed, the majority of cyber laws in the region are written in vague terms on purpose: they give power to authorities to interpret what is critical to the nation’s security and public safety.

Third, the varying degree of filtering on issues of social, political, and national security importance gives some indication of the country’s priorities on internet control. Censorship is most severe when it comes to criticism against the state (Figure 2). While the growth of internet usage across Southeast Asia caused concern about information control among all of the region’s governments, reasons for such concern vary. Indonesia and Thailand focus their internet censorship efforts on social issues—particularly online pornography—whereas Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar (and to some extent Thailand too) have gone to some lengths to crack down on cyber dissidents deemed a threat to regime stability.

Figure 2: Key internet censorship issues, 2016

Image result for Net Freedom Scores, 2016

Source: Adapted from the 2016 Net Freedom report, Freedom House

Highly developed Singapore, with its hegemonic party rule, has one of the world’s highest internet penetration rates. Instead of practicing cyber surveillance and filtering, its leaders prefer to rely on non-technological means to curb online commentary perceived to be a threat to social values and religious and ethnic harmony. These “second generation” control mechanisms—such as lawsuits, steep fines, and criminal prosecution—act to deter “inappropriate” online behaviour.

Divide the people, conquer the discourse

But political elites, even if they could, would not want to control the flow of all information. They need the web to be sufficiently open to allow a perceived sense of online freedom of expression, and the proliferation of engaged online discussion. This provides ruling and competing elites alike with opportunities to divide electorates and mobilise their support base against their adversaries. The Oxford Internet Institute’s research on computation propaganda has highlighted how state-sponsored “cyber troops” and trolls are commonplace around the world as means of manipulating public opinion, particularly in support of ruling elites.

The Philippines—the only country whose internet environment is regarded as free—has witnessed a high density of “cyber troops” since populist maverick Rodrigo Duterte came to power. Duterte’s online army is reportedly paid to flood Facebook with pro-Duterte propaganda, sometimes masking as grassroots activists. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who has a huge social media following, found himself denying buying influence on Facebook after reports that only 20% of his 3 million likes originated from Cambodia (the rest largely being from India and the Philippines). That a septuagenarian former Khmer Rouge leader, who has been in power since the 1980s, felt the need to pay for Facebook likes is telling of the extent political leaders go to in order to construct digital legitimacy, even if it means spreading online propaganda.

But the most prominent example of the potential power of the above-mentioned “divide and conquer” strategy was the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. After ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or “Ahok” made controversial comments about the Quran, anti-Ahok rallies, mobilising over 500,000 protesters at their peak, were led by a coalition of Islamic groups. These religious groups were long unhappy with Ahok in power but did not surge in popularity until Ahok’s blasphemy case came to the fore (Figure 3).

Figure 3: FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)

Image result for FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)Source: author analysis

 

The hard line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) more than tripled their support base on Facebook following Ahok’s comments, and figured prominently in the months-long campaign against him. Witnessing the rise of the FPI and other Islamist groups gaining prominence as anti-Ahok movement garnered force, Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan, long seen as a secular Islamic politician, shifted gear to appeal to those sympathetic to the FPI campaign. The online sphere became deeply polarised: a network analysis of those who commented on Ahok’s and Anies’ Facebook posts in the month of December in 2016 (Figure 4) shows that only 16 people cross-commented on both pages out of a total of 9,000 comments.

Figure 4: Network Visualisation of Commenters on Ahok’s (Blue) and Anies Baswedan’s (Red) Facebook Page

Image result for Source: author analysis. Data are drawn from the period from December 1 to 31, 2016

Image result for tifa foundation

This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation.