Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society


November 7, 2017

Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society

by Kevin Hewison@www.newmandala.org

http://www.newmandala.org/illiberal-civil-society/

In the mid-1990s, there was a lot of enthusiasm for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the expansion of civil society in Southeast Asia. At the time, there was an efflorescence of activism as activists campaigned against trade agreements, foregrounded gender issues, worked to reduce poverty, improve health, protect the environment, advocated for workers and consumers, exposed corruption, bolstered human rights and agitated for democracy.

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The optimism of the decade was driven by a feeling of confidence that democracy was taking root in the region, growing on a foundation of thriving capitalist economies. The resonance of 1960s modernisation theory was palpable—the “Third Wave” of democratisation was said to be washing over the region. This was emphasised by the triumphs of popular uprisings in the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1987), Thailand (1992) and Indonesia (1998). These events were associated in the theory with the rise of the middle class and an expansion of civil society.

Two decades later, this optimism has faded. There is now more pessimism about civil society and democratisation. To understand these changing perspectives, it is necessary to give attention to recent political events, and rethink how we conceptualise civil society and its role in Southeast Asian politics today.

Civil society and democratisation

The notion of “civil society” has meanings embedded in the development of capitalism and the end of absolutism in Europe, and the consequent reduction of the weight of the state. The idea of a space relatively autonomous of the state developed quite late in colonial and postcolonial Southeast Asia. While anticolonial, socialist and communist movements, religious and educational organisations, trade unions and the like were established from the late 19th century, they were usually repressed.

When writing of civil society in late 20th century Southeast Asia, analysts tended to emphasise the non-state nature of civil society organisations (CSOs). Many have agreed with David Steinberg, who defined civil society as:

composed of those non-ephemeral organizations of individuals banded together for a common purpose or purposes to pursue those interests through group activities and by peaceful means. These are generally non-profit organizations, and may be local or national, advocacy or supportive, religious, cultural, social, professional, educational, or even organizations that, while not for profit, support the business sector, such as chambers of commerce, trade associations, etc.

The organisations mentioned can be formal or informal, may be charitable, developmental or political. Yet when considering democratisation, authors usually associate civil society with efforts to expand political space. Some authors identify a “political civil society,” where “non-violent … organisations and movements … seek to promote human rights and democratisation…”. Their efforts mean that the political space of civil society becomes a site of intense competition and struggle—including for the organisations that occupy this space.

Civil society and political conflict

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But this conceptualisation of civil society—one which views the groups making up civil society as only being non-violent and peaceful—is too limiting. Civil society and its political space is open to many groups, not just those considered “democratic” and “progressive”. That space can also be occupied by state-sponsored, right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-democracy activists, and many others considered nasty, fascist, and reactionary. That the groups occupying civil society’s political space will sometimes be violent, and will oppose other groups, should be no surprise when we consider that all societies are riven and driven by conflict over all manner of resources.

Thinking this way of political space and civil society is not uncontroversial. Much of conventional political science, heavily imbued with modernisation theory, has romanticised civil society as the natural domain of individual and group freedoms, and sometimes conceived of NGOs and CSOs as representative interest groups. Such a perspective treats conflict and division as pathological, and misses the fact that political space is created through contestation with the state and with other groups in society. It is a view that fails to give sufficient attention to how civil society groups have actually behaved.

Contestation within civil society

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Bersih Movement in Malaysia

When we think of civil society as a site of struggle, it becomes clear that it is not always a ballast for democratisation. Islamic militias in Indonesia, racist Buddhist gangs in Myanmar and right-wing ultranationalists in the Philippines and Thailand are not forces for a democratic society—yet each undoubtedly occupies the space of civil society.

Islamic militias have re-emerged at various times during Indonesia’s reformasi era and engaged in mobilisation and violence. While the use of violence might exclude such groups from the romanticised approaches to civil society, militias have occupied a space created by democratisation, even if their activities are meant to mobilise anti-democratic groups and against some freedoms. A recent example of such anti-democratic opposition was seen in the defeat of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in the 2017 Jakarta governor’s election. The Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) joined with several political parties to oppose Ahok in an acrimonious contest that involved the mobilisation of Islamic identity in huge demonstrations that targeted Ahok as a Chinese Christian portrayed as “threatening” Islam. Eventually, Ahok’s opponents gained the support of elements of the state to jail him on charges of blasphemy and inciting violence.

In Myanmar, religious groups have also engaged in racist and xenophobic activism. Radical Buddhists such as the ultra-nationalist 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha (Myanmar Patriotic Association) have been able to mobilise mass demonstrations against Muslims and have fuelled extreme communal violence since 2012. Such groups have also been supported by elements of the state and by elected politicians, all the while taking advantage of the expanded political space created by Myanmar’s political transition to mobilise and propagandise.

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Buddhist monks walk during a prayer ceremony for the victims of the recent unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay, at Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar’s capital Yangon on Friday, July 4, 2014. (Reuters)

 

Indonesia and Myanmar demonstrate how extremists use the political space of civil society, and elements of electoral democracy, to oppose and challenge the freedoms that have come with democratisation. These groups are connected with some of the most regressive elements that continue to populate some state agencies. So far, they have not managed to destroy the political basis of these new democracies. But to see how the political space of civil society was used to re-establish authoritarianism in a Southeast Asian “democratic success story” of years past, we only need to turn our eyes to Thailand’s decade of high-octane political contestation.

Thailand: civil society for military dictatorship

 

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The Yellow and Red Shirts of Thailand

Thailand’s recent political mobilisations have been designated by the colours that define their motivations. Their massive street demonstrations mobilised many, including NGOs and CSOs. The broad Red Shirt movement and the official United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship bring together supporters of electoral politics, those opposed to military interventions, and supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirts, of course, developed to oppose the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt movement. The latter initially coagulated as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), wearing yellow to announce their royalism. Yellow Shirts tend to support the status quo, are anti-democratic, ultranationalist, and supported the 2006 and 2014 military coups.

In the 1990s, Thailand’s civil society, dominated by middle class interests, gained a reputation for opposing the military’s domination. NGOs and CSOs also tended to support the liberalising ideas that permeated the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997. When Thaksin was elected under the rules of this constitution in 2001, his government gained the support of many NGOs and CSOs. This support was forthcoming because of Thaksin’s initial nationalism, and his attention to grassroots issues and poverty eradication. That early support quickly drained away, with Thaksin coming to be viewed as authoritarian and corrupt.

The PAD, which was formed to oppose and bring down the popularly elected Thaksin, came to include many CSOs and NGOs which, at the time, would have been bundled into the broad category of “progressive civil society”. As the anti-Thaksin campaign expanded, the middle class, including spokespersons for civil society groups, began to denigrate the grassroots. The latter appreciated Thaksin’s “populist” policies and, especially in the north, northeast and central regions, voted for his parties in large numbers. Mobilised Yellow Shirts vilified this grassroots support for Thaksin, labelling those who voted for his party as ignorant, duped or bought.

As pro-Thaksin parties won every election from 2001 to 2011, the Yellow Shirts began an inevitable shift towards the denigration of the electoral processes itself, while declaring themselves the protectors of “true democracy”. The Yellow Shirts—the PAD and its clone, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)—emphatically rejected electoral politics, arguing that electoral victories amounted to a dictatorship of the majority. In the 2013–14, PDRC protesters opposed an election called by then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Yellow Shirts blocked candidate registration, prevented the distribution of ballot papers, and tried to prevent voting on polling day. The PDRC argued that no election could be “free and fair” until the “Thaksin regime” had been destroyed. Their ultimatum was that the Yingluck government had to be thrown out, replaced by an appointed government and an appointed “reform” committee to purge those associated with Thaksin’s rule.

Backed by Bangkok’s middle class, including CSOs and NGOs, PAD and the PDRC campaigned for a “democracy” that rejected voting and elections. They wanted a greater reliance on selected and appointed “representatives”, usually opting for a royally- appointed government of “good” people. This paternalism was taken up by protesters, who claimed to champion transparency and anti-corruption while begging the military for a coup. Such Orwellian doublespeak was also in evidence when the military responded and seized power in 2014. The junta defined a coup and military dictatorship as a form of “democracy”. One pronouncement called on:

all Thai citizens [to] uphold and have faith in the democratic system with His Majesty the King as Head of State. [The] NCPO [junta] fully realizes that the military intervention may be perceived by the West as a threat to democracy and a violation of the people’s liberty. However, this military intervention was inevitable, in order to uphold national security and to strengthen democracy (emphasis added).

The result has been more than three years of military dictatorship that has narrowed political space and heavily restricted much civil society activism. Red Shirts had championed electoral politics, arguing that winning elections should count for something and reckoned that electoral democracy was the appropriate platform for political reform. Under the military junta, they have been demobilised, jailed, and repressed.

Interestingly, most of the PAD and PDRC-affiliated NGOS and CSOs have either supported, or at least not opposed, the junta. Some have continued to receive state funds. However, the relationship with the junta remains tense, not least because the junta sees some of these groups as contingent supporters, worrying about their capacity for mobilising supporters and considering them more anti-Thaksin than pro-junta. Few high-profile leaders of these groups have expressed regrets about having supported the 2006 and 2014 coups.

Complicating “civil society”

The travails of electoral democracy in Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand are not unique in Southeast Asia. Certainly, any notion that increased national wealth results in a civil society that becomes a “natural” ballast of democratisation should be rejected. Democratisation does increase the space identified as civil society. However, this space is not always a stronghold of progressives. As a site of struggle, civil society can be occupied by groups that are anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist, and sectarian. As the experience of Thailand and other countries has made clear, much abstract talk of “civil society” runs the risk of crediting its constituent parts with a uniformly pro-democratic outlook that they manifestly do not hold.

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.

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

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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

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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)

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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

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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.

Populism and the “Masters of Mankind”


October 31, 2017

Populism and the “Masters of Mankind”

by Roger Farinha*

Author *Roger Farinha immigrated to the United States in 1981 to New York City where he was soon after naturalized, going on to earn his Bachelors in the History of Modern Philosophy from Brooklyn College and his Masters in Liberal Studies from Fordham University. He subsequently lived an itinerant, rambling and searching life, leading up to his book “The Socratic Trucker,” from which adventure writing experience he developed a vision for an American and ultimately global social revival at newamericanspring.org. Today, Mr. Farinha works as diligently as possible, while having to maintain his working class livelihood, to introduce society and the world to this vision.

https://newamericanspringblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/27/populism-and-the-masters-of-mankind/

If Dr. Noam Chomsky is correct in his book Who Rules the World?, that the movers and shakers of policy on the highest level of the state are merely acting on their deepest interests as the “Masters of Mankind,” their agenda of “all [of the world’s resources] for us and none for anyone else,” and I think he is indeed right, then this group exercises the highest level of influence on present global affairs. If the idea of “conspiracy theory” is beginning to flash in the reader’s mind, I ask him and her to graciously suspend disbelief for the short duration of this article as I logically unfold the implications of this insight which was, in actuality, thoroughly illustrated by Dr. Chomsky in his valuable work.

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The first premise of my essay holds that there is a natural state of inequality in society, from the inequality of talents and aptitudes of individuals, to the inequality of wealth distribution. Let’s begin with that group of human beings who happen, per this state of nature, to sit on the very top of the wealth ladder—which position, as the reader must allow, must necessarily be held. It is even likely that today’s wealth elite has an unbroken lineage from the families of historical wealth, albeit those who have managed to stay on top of the trends of social change and continue to wield control, as I am about to demonstrate in the context of our information age. But while this segment of our human race might actually hold the real reins of power and are therefore our operational social “Gods,” in power if not in truth, let me attempt to explain the constellation of our world today from the perspective of groups of people and their own competing power aspirations, nevertheless playing into the hands of these “Masters of Mankind,” hereafter referred to as “Masters” or “Social Gods” for succinctness. For the central driving force common to all human beings is our will to power.

This essay therefore paints a picture of our current global social constellation from the perspective of the general human will to power, in the context of a world in which wealth amounts to power, and in the environment of a state of social inequality of wealth and its implications for social control:

Due to our information and connectivity age, global populist sentiment is on the rise as the People find themselves able to enter a common culture like never before in human history. This sentiment is merely the open aspiration of the common folk or averaged person to achieve real control over his and her life, opportunity, and flourishing. This yearning is particularly meaningful in America which historically claims to be a nation Of, By, and For the People. President Obama and Trump, for those who have not already got it, were swept into office on waves of populist (of the people) sentiment via their broad based, grass-roots appeal, although Obama squandered his opportunity to truly champion the people’s cause by becoming prematurely globalist. The temptation Obama fell into, of joining forces with a ruling class (hereafter referred to as our ruling elite) who are attempting to move the world forward and into a newly envisioned, historic unity which is not grass-roots in nature, represents a grave mistake in aspirational global leadership. For underlying their vision is a distrust and even a disrespect of the capacity of the common folk of the world to actually transcend their social differences and create a unified world outside of governmental leadership and top down economic pressure. I put the words “ruling class” in quotes in order to suggest that although this group of people are the direct administrators of governmental power, in actuality they only serve the family of the “Masters” mentioned above, so that their elitist vision of a unified world is really only encouraged and made possible through the blessings of the “Social Gods” via the economic privileges they are granted which support their elitist conceits.

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Trump on the other hand, while raw and unpolished and handicapped by his wealthier background, is genuinely trying to advocate for the American people via his more aggressive trade re-negotiations, albeit less competent attempt to return America to a manufacture economy and generally, to its mid twentieth century place of international economic dominance. Economic populists represent the aspiration of the grass-roots of our world for the most practicable control over life and flourishing. Trump, however, similar to other populist candidates in Europe, also represents some of the things that the global ruling elite rightfully despise. For the appeal of economic populist candidates is partly due to the fear and anxiety of their grassroots base as the people experience a sense of being forced into accepting too many differences among one another. Racial, ethnic, class, national and many other boundaries are too radically being blurred, against the survivalist anxiety of the people. Therefore are we experiencing a present global state of populist resurgence, particularly in the traditional democratic states of the world, and it is CRITICAL that the ruling elite reconsider their approach to their admittedly noble aim of seeing a unified world.

The debut of the smartphone is responsible for a new shift in American and even global social consciousness as social media enables people to mentally masturbate with others of their own social-political persuasion. This is only the first, natural reaction of people to the new possibilities of a new reality. For human beings naturally hope that in experiencing new connectivity, they might find that all the world really shared their own, self-centered perspective. This is so because all individuals seek to draw the world into themselves in their ego wish to see themselves as the god of others, the impulse which is at the bottom of our will to power. Reality soon takes hold, however, and the common people soon realize that they must somehow unite under a new sense of group consciousness, our present-day populist manifestations. This consciousness however only grudgingly embraces the whole as sub groups continue to hope that they might magically find that they in fact represented the whole of humanity per their god-complex. The evolution of populism hopefully therefore continues to a truer and more organic unification as group limitations and the general need for compromise continue to manifest, but only if it is lead with vision and wisdom by a social leader of spiritual caliber, one able to speak to and challenge the general human god-complex. For in the absence of such vision, eternal sectional strife and disintegration are just as possible.

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The governing elite as mentioned above, for example, are just as guilty of the illusion that they are the rightful rulers of the world since they are usually more educated, seated above the ignorant rabble and freed of the survivalist struggle. They are the professional ruling class, i.e., higher government officials, mainstream journalists, politically active liberal AND conservative billionaires, etc. They are just as needful of overcoming their ego-auto-eroticism, equally responsible for the loss of the Democratic Party in 2016 due to Obama AND Hilary’s ignoring the economic and social (or populist) anxiety of the American people, as well as the Republican Party’s loss to Trump for the SAME REASON. Not to mention that were the people more intimately connected with their governing class in Europe and America rather than being effectively treated as peasants to be dominated, the disruptive tactics of geo-political thugs like Vladimir Putin would have no foothold in the people to stir the pot of populist discontent. Putin, Bashar Al-Assad, Kim Jong-il, Ali Khamenei and others of course represent the third kind of god-complexes: the aspiration to world leadership through brash force, vailed and unveiled manipulation. These are the “Dictator Types” or “Political Thugs.”

This geo-social constellation is not clearly visible due to the blindness inherent in peoples’ god-complexes. For example, the general human wish to dominate all others, in the context of our new connectivity age, is responsible for traditional, “objective” journalism taking a hit as print news outlets, already stressed by the new digital environment, experienced cancelling subscriptions whenever journalists failed to echo the god-complex-based bias of their consumers. I put the word objective in quotes, of course, because no human institution has ever achieved true objectivism. Therefore in order to survive, journalism had to become more partisan if they wished to secure their market base in an environment of dying print. Eventually, with “objective” journalism compromised and the mainstream news becoming ever more skewed along the most general line of partisanship in America, the liberal verses the conservative, the American people have also grown more and more rigidly partisan in a tragic, feedback loop. This dividing effect which results from our human wish to be the god of others must have played right in the hands of the true “Masters” of mankind, in that the more they encourage division among their inferiors in power, the more they secure their own domination, much as crabs which are higher up in the heap benefit from the competition of the lower. Hence they may well have encouraged general populist infighting among the common people by pulling the strings of the elitist news-editors, who in turn manipulated their beat reporters and journalists via the career carrot to accentuate social differences.

This is why we have been seeing American populist aspirations restricted along liberal verses conservative lines, from the Tea Party to Occupy, from Obama to Trump. This is also why the American people are not seeing genuine representation of their common peoples’ interests as they send ideologues to congress and the house who obstruct one another. The people’s separation also results in electing presidents who, in the context of this obstructionist environment, are impotent against more entrenched, special interests which continue to pillage American wealth to the detriment of the middle class, the very basis of American liberty itself. The usurpations of these “special interests,” by the way, constitute one of the main streams of wealth which continue to feed and maintain the domination of our Masters as the ultimate underwriters of these “interests.” Going forward, finally, I see no reason why this highest wealth class may not attempt to elevate their domination from America to the larger world, via the global economic opportunities available via NAFTA and, more generally, the neo-liberal movement.

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To sum up so far, we have identified four group players in our global social constellation: the Masters, the People, the Ruling Elites, and the Dictator types. There is one remaining group, however, the most malignant in that they are capable of serving as the very instruments of our common destruction. These are the Covert Military Fascists who believe that the world is only fit for domination by the dauntless, the supermen. You will find them at the buttons of our greatest weapons, even of mass destruction, just itching to flex their muscles via their own god-complex-desire to dominate, so that our very global destruction may well be an inescapable result, as inevitable as our heap of crabs must necessarily collapse!

So what can we make of all this? How can we fundamentally change the mad direction of our dog-eat-dog world which might destroy itself through a mindless, competitive miscalculation? As mentioned above, by heeding the leadership of such a person who might speak to the very root of our human cancer in our god-complex itself. May we discover such a voice of leadership as we have providentially found the insight in this essay! As its author, I suggest to you the social re-direction pointed out at NewAmericanSpring.Org.

Malaysia’s illicit financial outflows


October 20, 2017

Malaysia’s illicit financial outflows

By Jomo KS and Raisa Muhtar

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

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Illicit financial flows from Malaysia have been growing rapidly for over a decade. By encouraging Malaysian corporations to invest abroad, “legitimate outflows” have also been growing rapidly with financial liberalisation.

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It is generally presumed that illicit financial flows are related to tax evasion and corruption. Many international financial centres are involved in intense competition to attract customers by offering lower tax rates and banking secrecy. This has, in turn, forced many governments to lower direct taxes, not only on income, but especially on wealth.

With the official ambition for Malaysia to become another global financial centre in the face of premature deindustrialisation, the authorities have been promoting financial liberalisation, exposing the country to greater macro-financial risk.

Such financial flows are largely handled by financial service providers, accounting firms, law offices and companies with transnational activities, often involving investments in real estate and other assets abroad worth billions.

Besides governments enabling facilities and regulations, such firms and shell companies have been helping to accelerate these trends.

Illicit financial flows

A Global Financial Integrity (GFI) report has estimated that Malaysia lost up to about US$431 billion (RM1.8 trillion) in illicit outflows between 2005 and 2014. The Washington DC-based think tank estimated illicit financial outflows from Malaysia at around 6%-10% of the value of Malaysia’s trade of US$443.2 billion for the year 2014, ie. between US$26.6 billion and US$44.3 billion.

Malaysia was fifth among all countries for illicit capital flight, after China, Russia, Mexico and India, but took first spot on a per capita basis. Malaysia accounted for around 6% of total illicit flows of all developing countries.

In 2014, Malaysia’s illicit financial outflows were between 6%-10% of its total trade while such inflows were 7%-13% of the country’s total trade of US$443,210 million. About 87% of illicit financial outflows from 2005-2014 was attributed to fraudulent “trade mis-invoicing”.

Methodological criticism

GFI estimates have been subject to criticism, eg. for making unrealistic assumptions about trade-related transport costs and ignoring other factors that could account for “errors”. The main outflows for Malaysia involve trade mis-invoicing estimated from data inconsistencies.

Also criticised is the presumption that all unreported leakage in inflows and outflows is illicit. However, the GFI report acknowledges that there may be legitimate reporting errors in compiling balance of payments (BoP) accounts. But such leakages only account for a small fraction of total IFFs estimated by GFI, and do not appreciably affect its overall estimates.

Image result for Malaysia Illicit financial outflows

Illicit financial flows in developing countries may also be due to transnational criminal activities, which GFI estimates globally for 2014 as follows: counterfeiting (US$923-US$1,130 billion), drug trafficking (US$426-652 billion), illegal logging (US$52-157 billion), human trafficking (US$150.2 billion), illegal mining (US$12-48 billion), illegal fishing (US$15.5-36.4 billion), illegal wildlife trade (US$5-23 billion), crude oil theft (US$5.2-11.9 billion), small arms and light weapons trafficking (US$1.7-3.5 billion), organ trafficking (US$840 million-1.7 billion), and trafficking in cultural property (US$1.2-1.6 billion), totalling between US$1.6-2.2 trillion.

Such illicit outflows have to be seen in conjunction with legitimate outflows which have also been increasing rapidly. Besides the decades-old promotion of tax exemption for “free trade” or export-processing zones, some emerging market economies have also been promoting and enabling outward foreign investments, both direct as well as portfolio.

Not surprisingly, Malaysia is experiencing “premature deindustrialisation” while counting on growth of services, which have been subject to the highest rate of retrenchments.

Such capital outflows are supposed to balance greater portfolio investment inflows which have greatly increased foreign share ownership in Malaysia in recent years. But this provides no protection in the event of financial panic and a rush to exit, as in 1997-1998.

The push for more financial liberalisation and loopholes, ostensibly to become a major international financial centre, does not bode well for the future. Participating in this “race to the bottom” involves more concessions to the rich and powerful internationally. Meanwhile, rich countries have been selective in enforcing anti-bribery rules, and rarely take effective action, eg. as shown in last year’s Panama Papers revelations.

International cooperation urgently needed

The nature and scale of illicit flows mean that international cooperation is urgently needed. While the only progress has been at the United Nations, albeit slowly, cooperation of the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral institutions will be vital. If not, rich countries and powerful business interests will continue to “call the shots”.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission should work closely with national bodies like Bank Negara Malaysia, the Inland Revenue Board, the Royal Malaysian Customs and the Royal Malaysian Police to enhance tax collection, increase government transparency, improve natural resource control by the government and enable public scrutiny of revenues and other national budgets.

Such efforts will require the cooperation of all relevant parties. Ultimately, political will, especially to take on powerful vested interests, will make the difference.

Two decades after the 1997-1998 financial crisis, further international financial integration has resulted not only in growing financial outflows from Malaysia, but also in new vulnerabilities to unpredictable new sources of volatility and instability.

Jomo KS and Raisa Muhtar are Malaysian economic researchers.

 

The Demise of Dollar Diplomacy


October 17, 2017

The Demise of Dollar Diplomacy

by Barry Eichengreen*

http://www.project-syndicate.org

Pundits have been saying last rites for the dollar’s global dominance since the 1960s – that is, for more than half a century now. But the pundits may finally be right, because the greenback’s dominance has been sustained by geopolitical alliances that are now fraying badly.

WASHINGTON, DC – Mark Twain never actually said “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But the misquote is too delicious to die a natural death of its own. And nowhere is the idea behind it more relevant than in discussions of the dollar’s international role.

Pundits have been saying last rites for the dollar’s global dominance since the 1960s – that is, for more than a half-century now. The point can be shown by occurrences of the phrase “demise of the dollar” in all English-language publications catalogued by Google.

The frequency of such mentions, adjusted for the number of printed pages per year, first jumped in 1969, following the collapse of the London Gold Pool, an arrangement in which eight central banks cooperated to support the dollar’s peg to gold. Use of the phrase soared in the 1970s, following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, of which the dollar was the linchpin, and in response to the high inflation that accompanied the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

But even that spike was dwarfed by the increase in mentions and corresponding worries about the dollar starting in 2001, reflecting the shock of the terrorist attacks that September, the mushrooming growth of the US trade deficit, and then the global financial crisis of 2008.

Yet through all of this, the dollar’s international role has endured. As my coauthors and I show in a new book, the share of dollars in the foreign-currency reserves held by central banks and governments worldwide hardly budged in the face of these events. The greenback remains the dominant currency traded in foreign-exchange markets. It is still the unit in which petroleum is priced and traded worldwide, Venezuelan leaders’ complaints about the “tyranny of the dollar” notwithstanding.

To the consternation of many currency traders, the value of the dollar fluctuates widely, as its rise, fall, and recovery in the course of the last year have shown. But this does little to erode the attractiveness of the dollar in international markets.

Image result for The Future of the Dollar

America First–Then What is Future of the US Dollar in the Trumpian Era?

Central banks still hold US Treasury bonds because the market for them is the single most liquid financial market in the world. And Treasury bonds are secure: the federal government has not fallen into arrears on its debt since the disastrous War of 1812.

In addition, US diplomatic and military links encourage America’s allies to hold dollars. States with their own nuclear weapons hold fewer dollars than countries that depend on the US for their security needs. Being in a military alliance with a reserve-currency-issuing country boosts the share of the partner’s foreign-exchange reserves held in that currency by roughly 30 percentage points. The evidence thus suggests that the share of reserves held in dollars would fall appreciably in the absence of this effect.

This under-appreciated link between geopolitical alliances and international currency choice reflects a combination of factors. Governments have reason to be confident that the reserve-currency country will make servicing debt held by its allies a high priority. In return, those allies, by holding its liabilities, can help to lower the issuer’s borrowing costs.

Here, then, and not in another imbroglio over the federal debt ceiling this coming December, is where the real threat to the dollar’s international dominance lies. As one anonymous US State Department official put it, President Donald Trump “does not seem to care about alliances and therefore does not care about diplomacy.”

South Korea and Japan are thought to hold about 80% of their international reserves in dollars. One can imagine that the financial behavior of these and other countries would change dramatically, with adverse implications for the dollar’s exchange rate and US borrowing costs, were America’s close military alliances with its allies to fray.

Nor is it hard to imagine how this fraying could come about. President Donald Trump has painted himself into a strategic corner: he needs a concession from North Korea on the nuclear-weapons issue in order to save face with his base, not to mention with the global community. And, for all of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and posturing, the only feasible way to secure such a concession is through negotiation. Ironically, the most plausible outcome of that process is an inspections regime not unlike the one negotiated by Barack Obama’s administration with Iran.

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Visualizing the Size of the U.S. National Debt

How big is the U.S. National Debt?

The best way to understand these large numbers? We believe it is to represent them visually, by plotting the data with comparable numbers that are easier to grasp.

Today’s data visualization plots the U.S. National Debt against everything from the assets managed by the world’s largest money managers, to the annual value of gold production.

1. The U.S. national debt is larger than the 500 largest public companies in America.
The S&P 500 is a stock market index that tracks the value of the 500 largest U.S. companies by market capitalization. It includes giant companies like Apple, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, and many others. In summer of 2016, the value of all of these 500 companies together added to $19.1 trillion – just short of the debt total.

2. The U.S. national debt is larger than all assets managed by the world’s top seven money managers.
The world’s largest money managers – companies like Blackrock, Vanguard, or Fidelity – manage trillions of investor assets in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and more. However, if we take the top seven of these companies and add all of their assets under management (AUM) together, it adds up to only $18.9 trillion.

3. The U.S. national debt is 25x larger than all global oil exports in 2015.
Yes, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia make a killing off of selling their oil around the world. However, the numbers behind these exports are paltry in comparison to the debt. For example, you’d need the Saudis to donate the next 146 years of revenue from their oil exports to fully pay down the debt.

4. The U.S. national debt is 155x larger than all gold mined globally in a year.
Gold has symbolized money and wealth for a long time – but even the world’s annual production of roughly 3,000 tonnes (96 million oz) of the yellow metal barely puts a dent in the debt total. At market prices today, you’d need to somehow mine 155 years worth of gold at today’s rate to equal the debt.

5. In fact, the national debt is larger than all of the world’s physical currency, gold, silver, and bitcoin combined.

That’s right, if you rounded up every single dollar, euro, yen, pound, yuan, and any other global physical currency note or coin in existence, it only amounts to a measly $5 trillion. Adding the world’s physical gold ($7.7 trillion), silver ($20 billion), and cryptocurrencies ($11 billion) on top of that, you get to a total of $12.73 trillion. That’s equal to about 65% of the U.S. national debt.

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To get there, Trump’s administration will have to offer something in return. The most obvious bargaining chip that could be offered to make the North Korean regime feel more secure is a reduction in US troop levels on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia in general, With that, the US security guarantee for Asia will weaken, in turn providing China an opportunity to step into the geopolitical breach.

And where China leads geopolitically, its currency, the renminbi, is likely to follow.

*Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund. His latest book is Hall of Mirrors:The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses – and Misuses – of History.

The passing of Kassim Ahmad, the quiet Public Intellectual


October 16, 2017

NOTE:

This moving gut wrenching tribute to my late friend and public intellectual, Pak Kassim Ahmad who passed away October 10, 2017 escaped my attention. It is accounts for why its appearance on this blog was delayed. My sincere apologies for that.

Image result for kassim ahmad and din mericanAn Iconoclast and Quiet Revolutionist, Jebat and Rebel with a Cause but most of all a devout Muslim

 

Thayaparan is  an interesting writer who is known to say what he means in plain, very readable, and direct English. I enjoy reading his pieces in malaysiakini.com and thank him for this fitting tribute to a man who never forgot his roots from Malaysia’s Rice Bowl Kedah  with a passion for knowledge and ideas, a Malaysian who did his best to speak the truth to power. He single-handedly took on Malaysia’s bigoted religious establishment and won, and left an imprint in legal history. –Din Merican

The passing of a quiet Public Intellectual

by S. Thayaparan

http://www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT | For Kassim Ahmad, a discourse has no winners or losers, only people interested in discovering their faith.

“According to government data, the objectives of the NEP have yet to be achieved. But I think the Malays have this consensus… these special privileges that have made them comfortable. They have this comfort zone where they face no challenges. Because of this, they don’t see the necessity in putting in the effort to progress. So they are weak and lack competitiveness. It is better to end something that does no good to the people anymore.”

– Kassim Ahmad

There is this meme as to the kind of Muslim the late Kassim Ahmad was. To his admirers, the persecution of this public intellectual demonstrated the fear the state had to what he wrote and said, and this made him the poster child for the kind of Islam they believed was “acceptable” in a multiracial and multi-religious country like Malaysia.

To his detractors, he was a purveyor of falsity that threatened Muslim solidarity and he was a puppet of the “opposition” whose writings and speeches would cause the collapse of Malay/Muslim political and religious hegemony.

Indeed, some opposition supporters would be perplexed of some of the things he said about certain opposition politicians and the UMNO state would be perplexed at some of the positions he advocated after they had branded him a deviant and an “enemy” of Islam.

The truth was that Kassim Ahmad was a devout Muslim who believed that his faith was hijacked by interpreters who had agendas of their own that were not compatible with his own interpretation of what would lead to a liberated world.

He had many young followers of his work who often told me that what was inspiring of his interpretation of Islam was that it did not foster fear but hope and that through questioning of what they were told and taught, they would be liberated from the falsities that were all around them.

He encouraged dissent, especially on his own writings, and he was cognisant that ultimately this was a discourse that had no winners or losers, only people who were interested in discovering their faith.

 

Unfortunately for him, the world is a cruel place. Those who make the claim that theirs is really a religion of peace do not have the empirical evidence to support such a claim. Indeed, the persecution of Kassim Ahmad was evidence that thinking was verboten.

Image result for kassim ahmad and din merican

 

The duplicity, arrogance, and illegality of the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) in its persecution of this religious scholar is a matter of public record. Indeed, not only was Kassim Ahmad targeted but also his long-time advocate Rosli Dahlan.

There were things he said and wrote about that a person could disagree with. Depending on your own belief system, they were roads that Kassim Ahmad walked that you would have no desire to travel on but what separates Kassim Ahmad from the petty religious bigots that persecuted him was that he would never dream of imposing his beliefs on others.

Indeed, he welcomed discourse. He welcomed the challenges his ideas inspired. He wanted Muslims to think about their religion, but more importantly, think for themselves. His was a quiet revolution of the Muslim soul.

Blind faith

This is an example of what baffled him – “Malaysia happens to be a strong upholder of hadith(s). Sometimes the so-called experts, appearing on the Forum Perdana every Thursday night, quote the hadiths more than the Quran.

“Muslim scholars, Bukhari and five others, collected many thousands of so-called hadiths and classified them as authentic or weak 250 to 300 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad. These are collections of the Sunni sect. The Syiah have their own collections of so-called hadiths.

“To my mind, these fabricated hadiths are a major source of confusion and downfall of Islam.”

If ideology and religion is the lens through which some view the world, it is understandable (for those who know anything about Islam) as to why someone like Kassim Ahmad would find succour in this religion which has been weaponised here in Malaysia and the rest of the world. A religion he thought –  which is different from “believed” because he put in a great deal of effort and time into “thinking” about his religion – could be a salvation to the problems of the world.

Here is another snippet in his own words – “In the University of Malaya in Singapore, I joined the leftist Socialist Club and later joined the People’s Party of Ahmad Boestamam, and quickly became its leader for 18 years! Somehow or other, I did not feel real about the power and success of socialism. It was simply to identify myself with the poor to whom I belong.

“I was therefore critical of things I inherited from my ancestors. The first scholar I criticised was Imam Shafi’e for his two principal sources (Quran and Hadis). The book ‘Hadis – Satu Peniliai Semula’ in 1986 became the topic of discussion for two months, half opposed and half supporting me. After two months, it was banned.”

Anyone who has read what this scholar believed his religion was about, would understand that Kassim Ahmad’s sympathies for the marginalised were paramount in his belief structure. You could make the argument that his beliefs gave structure to what he eventually hoped rational Islam could accomplish.

Having the mindset of being critical of what you inherited from your ancestors is the most potent tool an adversary of state-sponsored repression could have. This was why they feared this quiet scholar who simply spoke of things that his interpretation of his religion inspired in him.

His intellectual contribution to Islam was anathema to people who believed that blind faith was true faith and his steadfastness in not disavowing what he said, his noncompliance to the diktats of the state was a wound that would not heal for those who wish to impose their beliefs on others.

When I read of how the state persecuted him, I understand why he posed such a threat. If Muslims realised that their interpretation mattered then the so-called scholars would lose their influence and their hegemony of the debate would vanish. Kassim Ahmad was a constant reminder of what would happen if people embraced a religion that they had thought out for themselves.

In a time when the Islamic world is suffering from a dearth of outlier voices, the passing of Kassim Ahmad is a great loss not only to Malaysians but to the other sparks in the Muslims world waiting to be ignited by people who choose not to subscribe to fear but who genuinely want to understand their religion.

I will end with this quote by Henry David Thoreau. Hopefully, it means something –

“On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfil the promise of our friend’s life also, in our own, to the world.”

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.