Noam Chomsky’s ‘Responsibility of Intellectuals’ Revisited


February 14, 2017

Noam Chomsky’s ‘Responsibility of Intellectuals’ After 50 Years: It’s an Even Heavier Responsibility Now

Written amid rising opposition to the Vietnam War, Chomsky’s greatest essay has added resonance in the age of Trump.
By Jay Parini

http://www.alternet.org/visions/noam-chomskys-responsibility-intellectuals-after-50-years-its-even-heavier-responsibility

Nothing was quite the same for me after reading that piece, which I’ve reread periodically throughout my life, finding things to challenge me each time. I always finish the essay feeling reawakened, aware that I’ve not done enough to make the world a better place by using whatever gifts I may have. Chomsky spurs me to more intense reading and thinking, driving me into action, which might take the form of writing an op-ed piece, joining a march or protest, sending money to a special cause, or just committing myself to further study a political issue.

Image result for Noam Chomsky-The Responsibility of Intellectuals

The main point of Chomsky’s essay is beautifully framed after a personal introduction in which he alludes to his early admiration for Dwight Macdonald, an influential writer and editor from the generation before him:

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology, and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us.

For those who think of Chomsky as tediously anti-American, I would note that here and countless times in the course of his voluminous writing he says that it is only within a relatively free society that intellectuals have the elbow room to work. In a kind of totalizing line shortly after the above quotation, he writes: “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.”

This imposes a heavy burden on those of us who think of ourselves as “intellectuals,” a term rarely used now, as it sounds like something Lenin or Trotsky would have used and does, indeed, smack of self-satisfaction, even smugness; but (at least in my own head) it remains useful, embracing anyone who has access to good information, who can read this material critically, analyze data logically, and respond frankly in clear and persuasive language to what is discovered.

Chomsky’s essay appeared at the height of the Vietnam War, and was written mainly in response to that conflict, which ultimately left a poor and rural country in a state of complete disarray, with more than 2 million dead, millions more wounded, and the population’s basic infrastructure decimated. I recall flying over the northern parts of Vietnam some years after the war had ended, and seeing unimaginably vast stretches of denuded forest, the result of herbicidal dumps – 20 million tons of the stuff, including Agent Orange, which has had ongoing health consequences for the Vietnamese.

The complete picture of this devastation was unavailable to Chomsky, or anyone, at the time; but he saw clearly that the so-called experts who defended this ill-conceived and immoral war before congressional committees had evaded their responsibility to speak the truth.

In his usual systematic way, Chomsky seems to delight in citing any number of obsequious authorities, who repeatedly imply that the spread of American-style democracy abroad by force is justified, even if it means destroying this or that particular country in the effort to make them appreciate the benefits of our system. He quotes one expert from the Institute of Far Eastern Studies who tells Congress blithely that the North Vietnamese “would be perfectly happy to be bombed to be free.”

“In no small measure,” Chomsky writes in the penultimate paragraph of his essay, “it is attitudes like this that lie behind the butchery in Vietnam, and we had better face up to them with candor, or we will find our government leading us towards a ‘final solution’ in Vietnam, and in the many Vietnams that inevitably lie ahead.”

Image result for Noam Chomsky

Chomsky, of course, was right to say this, anticipating American military interventions in such places as Lebanon (1982-1984), Grenada (1983), Libya (1986), Panama (1989), the Persian Gulf (1990-1991) and, most disastrously, Iraq (2003-2011), the folly of which led to the creation of ISIS and the catastrophe of Syria.

Needless to say, he has remained a striking commentator on these and countless other American interventions over the past half century, a writer with an astonishing command of modern history. For me, his writing has been consistently cogent, if marred by occasional exaggeration and an ironic tone (fueled by anger or frustration) that occasionally gets out of hand, making him an easy target for opponents who wish to dismiss him as a crackpot or somebody so blinded by anti-American sentiment that he can’t ever give the U.S. government a break.

I like “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” and other essays from this period by Chomsky, because one feels him discovering his voice and forging a method: that relentlessly logical drive, the use of memorable and shocking quotations by authorities, the effortless placing of the argument within historical boundaries and the furious moral edge, which — even in this early essay — sometimes tips over from irony into sarcasm (a swerve that will not serve him well in later years).

Here, however, even the sarcasm seems well-positioned. He begins one paragraph, for instance, by saying: “It is the responsibility of the intellectuals to insist upon the truth, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective.” He then refers to the 1938 Munich Agreement, wherein Britain and other European nations allowed the Nazis to annex the Sudetenland — one of the great errors of appeasement in modern times. He goes on to quote Adlai Stevenson on this error, where the former presidential candidate notes how “expansive powers push at more and more doors” until they break open, one by one, and finally resistance becomes necessary, whereupon “major war breaks out.” Chomsky comments: “Of course, the aggressiveness of liberal imperialism is not that of Nazi Germany, though the distinction may seem rather academic to a Vietnamese peasant who is being gassed or incinerated.”

What he says about the gassed, incinerated victims of American military violence plucks our attention. It’s good polemical writing that forces us to confront the realities at hand.

What really got to me when I first read this essay was the astonishing idea that Americans didn’t always act out of purity of motives, wishing the best for everyone. That was what I had been taught by a generation of teachers who had served in World War II, but the Vietnam War forced many in my generation to begin the painful quest to understand American motives in a more complex way. Chomsky writes that it’s “an article of faith that American motives are pure and not subject to analysis.” He goes on to say with almost mock reticence: “We are hardly the first power in history to combine material interests, great technological capacity, and an utter disregard for the suffering and misery of the lower orders.”

The sardonic tone, as in “the lower orders,” disfigures the writing; but at the time this sentence hit me hard. I hadn’t thought about American imperialism until then, and I assumed that Americans worked with benign intent, using our spectacular power to further democratic ends. In fact, American power is utilized almost exclusively to protect American economic interests abroad and to parry blows that come when our behavior creates a huge kickback, as with radical Islamic terrorism.

One of the features of this early essay that will play out expansively in Chomsky’s voluminous later writing is the manner in which he sets up “experts,” quickly to deride them. Famously the Kennedy and Johnson administrations surrounded themselves with the “best and the brightest,” and this continued through the Nixon years, with Henry Kissinger, a Harvard professor, becoming secretary of state. Chomsky skewers a range of these technocrats in this essay, people who in theory are “intellectuals,” from Walter Robinson through Walt Rostow and Henry Kissinger, among many others, each of whom accepts a “fundamental axiom,” which is that “the United States has the right to extend its power and control without limit, insofar as is feasible.” The “responsible” critics, he says, don’t challenge this assumption but suggest that Americans probably can’t “get away with it,” whatever “it” is, at this or that particular time or place.

Chomsky cites a recent article on Vietnam by Irving Kristol in Encounter (which was soon to be exposed as a recipient of CIA funding) where the “teach-in movement” is criticized: Professors and students would sit together and talk about the war outside of class times and classrooms. (I had myself attended several of these events, so I sat to attention while reading.) Kristol was an early neocon, a proponent of realpolitik contrasted college professor-intellectuals against the war as “unreasonable, ideological types” motived by “simple, virtuous ‘anti-imperialism’” with sober experts like himself.

Chomsky dives in: “I am not interested here in whether Kristol’s characterization of protest and dissent is accurate, but rather in the assumptions that it expresses with respect to such questions as these: Is the purity of American motives a matter that is beyond discussion, or that is irrelevant to discussion? Should decisions be left to ‘experts’ with Washington contacts?” He questions the whole notion of “expertise” here, the assumption that these men (there were almost no women “experts” in the mid-’60s) possessed relevant information that was “not in the public domain,” and that they would make the “best” decisions on matters of policy.

Chomsky was, and remains, a lay analyst of foreign affairs, with no academic degrees in the field. He was not an “expert” on Southeast Asia at the time, just a highly informed and very smart person who could access the relevant data and make judgments. He would go on, over the next five decades, to apply his relentless form of criticism to a dizzying array of domestic and foreign policy issues — at times making sweeping statements and severe judgments that would challenge and inspire many but also create a minor cottage industry devoted to debunking Chomsky.

This is not the place to defend Chomsky against his critics, as this ground has been endlessly rehashed. It’s enough to say that many intelligent critics over the years would find Chomsky self-righteous and splenetic, quick to accuse American power brokers of evil motives, too easy to grant a pass to mass murderers like Pol Pot or, during the period before the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein.

I take it for granted, as I suspect Chomsky does, that in foreign affairs there are so many moving parts that it’s difficult to pin blame anywhere. One may see George W. Bush, for instance, as the propelling force behind the catastrophe of the Iraq War, but surely even that blunder was a complex matter, with a mix of oil interests (represented by Dick Cheney) and perhaps naive political motives as well. One recalls “experts” like Paul Wolfowitz, who told a congressional committee on February. 27, 2003, that he was “reasonably certain” that the Iraqi people would “greet us as liberators.”

Fifty years after writing “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Chomsky remains vigorous and shockingly productive, and — in the dawning age of President Donald Trump — one can only hope he has a few more years left. In a recent interview, he said (with an intentional hyperbole that has always been a key weapon in his arsenal of rhetorical moves) that the election of Trump “placed total control of the government — executive, Congress, the Supreme Court — in the hands of the Republican Party, which has become the most dangerous organization in world history.”

Chomsky acknowledged that the “last phrase may seem outlandish, even outrageous,” but went on to explain that he believes that the denial of global warming means “racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life.” As he would, he laid out in some detail the threat of climate change, pointing to the tens of millions in Bangladesh who will soon have to flee from “low-lying plains … because of sea level rise and more severe weather, creating a migrant crisis that will make today’s pale in significance.”

I don’t know that, in fact, the Republican Party of today is really more dangerous than, say, the Nazi or Stalinist or Maoist dictatorships that left tens of millions dead. But, as ever, Chomsky makes his point memorably, and forces us to confront an uncomfortable situation.

Image result for Donald J Trump

Intellectuals need to  take on this “dangerously ill-informed bully in the White House”and Malaysia’s most corrupt and intellectually challenged Prime Minister Najib Razak and other kleptocrats. Speak the Truth to Power–Din Merican

As I reread Chomsky’s essay on the responsibility of intellectuals, it strikes me forcefully that not one of us who has been trained to think critically and to write lucidly has the option to remain silent now. Too much is at stake, including the survival of some form of American democracy and decency itself, if not an entire ecosystem. With a dangerously ill-informed bully in the White House, a man almost immune to facts and rational thought, we who have training in critical thought and exposition must tirelessly call a spade a spade, a demagogue a demagogue. And the lies that emanate from the Trump administration must be patiently, insistently and thoroughly deconstructed. This is the responsibility of the intellectual, now more than ever.

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015.”

Recommended Read:

https://www.pdx.edu/challenge-program/sites/www.pdx.edu.challenge-program/files/KRANE-TheResponsibilityofIntellectuals.pdf

Najib, Trump is no fool


November 18, 2016

Najib, Trump is no fool

by Eric Loo

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Donald Trump may be your golfing buddy and may be so. And he may be no stranger to you. You said so in your congratulatory note. But you’re fundamentally wrong.

Trump did not win the US presidency because he appealed to “Americans who have been left behind – those who want to see their government more focused on their interests and welfare”.

Trump won because he unashamedly exploited the myopic mindsets of white Americans “without college degrees” and “white evangelical Christian” single issue voters who can’t see the forest for the trees. They see the world in black and white. They can only understand a globalised economy as one of ‘us against them’.

Trump played to the socio-economic angst and racist streak of the predominantly white demographics who longed for the good ole days of white sliced bread and peanut butter jelly, when America was ‘great’, when women stayed home as homemakers, when men were, well, macho men to be rightfully served by submissive women.

Trump’s repugnant rhetoric targeted the white Americans’ irrational fear and intense dislike of the establishment, of the elites, of the media, of non-Whites, and anyone who look like Muslims. (By the way, he said he’d ban immigration – and visits – by people from countries compromised by Islamic terrorism, and that includes Malaysia).

Image result for Najib and Trump

This is Barrack Obama, not President-Elect Donald Trump

Trump shows it’s okay to grope women, belittle people with disabilities, avoid paying federal taxes, and make a quick buck from other’s miseries and losses. Trump has basically normalised what many see and feel as overtly vulgar, deplorably racist and covertly sexist. Out of the woods will we see these folks emerge emboldened over the next four years.

Here’s where the irony’s striking in Najib’s pat on Trump’s back. As reported in Channel News Asia, Najib said: “I know him personally, and he’s not someone who’s a stranger to me.” Indeed.

Trump will begin his presidency amidst public conviction of his carnal transgressions and ongoing investigations into his financial frauds and tax evasion, just as Najib is being dogged by the 1MDB financial scandals and political implications from the murder of a Mongolian model.

Like Trump, Najib has so far have remained untouched. (I blame our mainstream journalists for their lack of tenacity in continuing to investigate and report on Najib’s transgressions in the public interest.)

Skeletons hidden in the closet

Despite that both Najib and Trump have skeletons hidden in the closet, Americans generally hope that the Trump campaign persona was just that – a Machiavellian persona. The world hopes that Trump will transform into someone worthy of occupying the White House in January.

In his congratulatory note to Trump, Najib said that politicians “should never take voters for granted”. Indeed, listen to your own counsel, Prime Minister. Bersih 5 is scheduled to take to the streets again on November 19. Are you listening to the rakyat? Why aren’t you listening to “those who want to see their government more focused on their interests and welfare”?

Yes, heed your own counsel, Prime Minister. There’s no need to grovel to Trump who your other golfing buddy Obama had described as “the guy who had spent 70 years on this earth showing no regard for working people”, the guy whose vision for America was “dark and pessimistic”, and the guy who was “insecure enough that he pumps himself up by putting other people down”. And, Trump’s “no stranger” to you?

Fact checks by the US media throughout the campaign had consistently shown that Trump had peddled falsehoods, blatantly lied and cajoled his audience for suckers. Trump’s character quirks, intellectual inadequacy and egomaniacal disposition played out in his three debates with Hillary Clinton.

Image result for Najib and Trump

I was in a daze watching the live reports of the election. I was stunned when Trump’s electoral votes crossed the 270 mark. Just as I was elated when Barack Obama became the first black US President in 2008, I expected Hillary Clinton to be the first female US President.

I had planned to visit the US for a winter holiday leading up to the presidential inauguration in January. I won’t be visiting the US for a while.

That will be the day when Trump and his administration can demonstrate that they truly are a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – a sort of direct democracy as defined by the greatest Republican president of all time, Abraham Lincoln in his dedication to the soldiers killed during the civil war at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on Nov 19, 1863.

Here’s where the Electoral College voting system, which Trump himself said was rigged and a “disaster for democracy” could falter in truly representing the people’s voice. Hillary Clinton won more popular votes (by 280,646) than Trump. But with each state weighted by number of electoral votes under the Electoral College system, Trump culled 290 electoral votes (20 more than the 270 needed to win).

It brings back memories of 2000 when Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore lost to George W Bush.

The Electoral College voting system was set up to ensure a fair representative election outcome. But commentators are revisiting the inherent problems with the system given that Hillary Clinton had painfully lost the election despite winning the popular votes.

Trump’s victory had stunned the pollsters, the pundits, the media, the millennial Americans, and the world in general. Trump supporters were even unprepared. Some saw it as a miracle. ‘White Christian evangelicals’ believed it was an answer to their prayers.

Blind faith in Trump is indeed foolish, if not downright stupid. Trump’s no ‘answer to prayers’. If he was, he did not bear any fruits of the Holy Spirit during his campaign – “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Trump’s the antithesis of fundamental Christian values.

By contrast, Hillary had cited on numerous occasions during her campaign verses from Galatians 6:9 “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not give up.”

There’s a lingering hope, however, that some electoral college voters – the ‘faithless voters’ – would go rogue if they could see a better alternative, another Republican who is more worthy or rather less unpalatable to occupy the White House.

I wait for December 19 when, as CBS had reported “the final outcome doesn’t become official until Congress counts the votes in early January after electors in each state cast their ballots for president and vice president in mid-December.”

Anything’s possible in politics.


ERIC LOO worked as a journalist and taught journalism in Malaysia from the late 1970s to 1986. He is now Honorary Senior Fellow in Journalism at University of Wollongong in Australia. Email: eloo@uow.edu.au

My country MALAYSIA: Its PROBLEMS and SOLUTIONS


February 3, 2016

My country MALAYSIA: Its PROBLEMS and SOLUTIONS

By: Kassim Ahmad

I am a patriot, a plain Kassim Ahmad, who a long time ago politely refused an UMNO offer for a datoship.Being from a poor oppressed classed, I began early as a rebel (with causes, of course!) and soon became the leader of the Malayan People’s Socialist Party (1968-1984). In 1984, seeing the collapse of international socialism in the world I left the party and made a strong patriotic statement by joining UMNO in 1986. My aim of reform could not take off. I am still an UMNO member, albeit very critical of UMNO.

On the same day when my UMNO memberhip application was approved, my widely discussed book Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula was released. After two months of extensive discussions, including an ABIM-organized public dialogue, it was banned by the religious establishment in the country.

Several state muftis penned books to rebut my book, repeating their old and tired arguments, which I have already refuted in the first place. However, I wrote another book entitled, Hadis – Jawapan kepada Pengkritik (1992), briefly dismissing the muftis’ several books, but at the same time giving more details about the Quran.

This started the movement for the review of Hadith as well as for going back to the Quran, not only in Malaysia, but internationally. Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula has since been translated into English and Arabic. I am glad to say that today the Turkish Government is undertaking a major project of Hadith re-evaluation.

I admit that I was a rebel, and still is. At the core of Malaysia’s problems is  corrupt UMNO, the backbone of its ruling BN Government. In 1946 when UMNO was first formed it was a poor idealistic Malay party embraced en mass by the Malays in their enthusiasm and quest for Merdeka.

To cut the story short, via the bloody May 13, via great Razak’s Mageran (the Council for the  Regeneration of the Country) and his extraordinary vision, Malaysia is what it is today, one of the most progressive countries among the developing world.

At the same time, as it is wont in human affairs, deterioration sets in, as complacancy grows among the ruling elite. UMNO became corrupt, and has perhaps reached the point of no return today. In this atmosphere of gloom when financial scandles abound, pessimism is in the air. Oh Lord! Do we need a second Mageran, ask the thinking part of Malaysia?

The people ask, “What are we to do? Can anything be done? Such voices rise from the depth of the soul of the people, voiced by their intellectuals, the likes of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Dr. M Bakri Musa, HRH Sultan of Johor, HRH Sultan of Perak Dr. Nazrin Shah and HRH the Crown Prince of Johor Tunku Ismail.

Yes, indeed. What is to be done? Can corrupt UMNO be reformed? Can weak Pakatan Rakyat take over? Where is our Saviour? Where is our Imam Mahdi? When is the Second-Coming (of Jesus Christ)?

Unfortunately, all these wailings are of no avail. Man has been created as God’s vicegerent on earth, to rule the earth and change it to His liking. Oh Man! Rise up to your calling! “I created you free,” God said. So wait no more! Act!

Enumerate the things you must do in order of importance. First, you must reform UMNO. Once the difficult task of reforming of UMNO is over, all other problems will be resolved: wastage in manpower in Government, increasing productivity by optimum use of assets, trimming the Government, the need for good governance, increasing salaries of lower-rung Government servants, overcoming periodic floods in some states, eliminating traffic jams by decreasing private cars and increasing and improving public transport, and doing away with tolls, and such like actions to make life more comfortable for all Malaysians.

KASSIM AHMAD is a Malaysian author. His website is www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com

Malaysia: US President met Civil Society Leaders


November 21, 2015

READ THIS: http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/320493

Malaysia: US President met Civil Society Leaders

President Barack Obama meets Malaysian civil society leaders

US President Barack Obama was familiar with the problems facing Malaysia including corruption and the erosion in the Rule of Law, said civil society leaders who met with him today.

Negaraku patron Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan said they sought to raise as many issues as they were able in the brief time allotted, but said she believed that Obama already knew the salient points of the topics they discussed.

In the Gallery


  • White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice (second right) joins President Barack Obama in a roundtable with civil society leaders, including National Human Rights Society’s Ambiga Sreenevasan (from left), Nisha Ayub of Justice for Sisters and Malaysian Bar Council’s Steven Thiru, in Kuala Lumpur, Nov 21, 2015. — Reuters pic

She said Obama also assured them that the US’ dealings with nations accused of abuses did not mean that his country was not concerned over the various issues raised against such governments.

“We raised what you would expect us to raise, which would be the corruption, 1MDB, TPPA, the arrests of civil society members…” Ambiga said when pressed to divulge the topics broached during the rare meeting.

BERSIH 4.0 Chairman Maria Chin Abdullah then interjected to explain that the arrests they had complained about were those involving civil society groups as well as local lawmakers.

Chin said the arrests were of concern given the proximity of the next general election, claiming that such arrests would prevent the federal and state lawmakers from contesting.

In Malaysia, only convictions that result in prison terms of over 12 months or fines of above RM2,000 result in disqualifications from becoming a lawmaker.

Ambiga also said that they impressed upon Obama the deterioration of institutions and Rule of Law in Malaysia, citing the alleged interference in the investigations into 1Malaysia Development Bhd, among others.

She said they had pointed out the manner of Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail’s removal as Attorney-General as well as alleged meddling into the proceedings of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the Public Accounts Committee, among others.

“Since the last time he came here, things have gotten worse. We made that very, very clear… ” she said.

Bar Council Chairman Steven Thiru, who was also in the meeting, said he had informed the US President of Malaysia’s regression in the Rule of Law, and that of many of the institutions vital to a healthy democracy.

He said the US could not sit idly by while countries undergo regressions in this area. “I made a very strong point to him that what we see here today is the unparalleled erosion of the Rule of Law by people who talk about the Rule of Law, but really what they mean is rule by law,” he told reporters after the meeting.

Earlier, Chin said she had also highlighted the incongruity between Putrajaya’s globally professed moderation and its actions at home that appeared to encourage extremism, including the tacit support for the pro-Malay “Red Shirts” rally here on Malaysia Day.

Obama met today with several leaders of Malaysian civil society, during which he said the “US stands behind the important work that they are doing on a day-to-day basis.”

http://www.themalaymailonline.com

Latest from Sarawak Report on The One that refuses to go away– Najib’s RM2.6 billion


October 8, 2015

Latest from Sarawak Report on The One that refuses to go away– Najib’s RM2.6 billion

by The Sarawak Report (Latest)

http://www.sarawakreport.org

The Fake SheikhThe Fake Shake?

Who is the mystery father and son alleged to have met with Zahid and others and who goes by the name Saud Abdulaziz Majid al-Saud?

Sarawak Report can exclusively reveal the alleged identity of ‘His Highness’ the ‘royal donor’, which was given to AmBank as the source of several payments, including the US$681 million received into Najib’s account just before the last election. The name given was ‘His Highness Saud Abdulaziz Majid al-Saud’.

We have ascertained that this identity was first provided to explain an original payment of US$100 million, which was passed into Najib’s AmPrivate Banking account in Kuala Lumpur back in February 2011.

The bank had required details of the sender from the agent who was managing the transfer on behalf of the Prime Minister and a letter was purportedly then sent from the office of this individual to the bank.

Our sources tell us that this letter, which has been retained by the bank, was sparse on details but alleged to be from the ‘Private Office of Saud Abdulaziz Majid al-Saud’, without giving an address or telephone number. The letter was signed by ‘Saud Abdulaziz al-Saud’.

Compliance issues at AmBank?

ambankAmbank–The now infamous bank

The matter raises immediate questions about the regulatory andcompliance procedures of AmBank, which is 23% owned by ANZ Bank (Australia New Zealand Bank) as the largest shareholder.

The CEO of AmBank, Ashok Ramamurthy, who was on attachment from ANZ Bank, stepped down in January following a compliance audit  of several billion ringgit of loans to 1MDB – the issue remains subject to major criticism by opposition politicians.The fact that the Prime Minister was able to receive huge private donations with such a  cursory scrutiny of the donor certainly presents a major problem for the bank.

Najib Tipu MelayuMalaysia’s Billionaire Prince Najib al-Razak

In particular, Sarawak Report has established that anti-money laundering and anti-terror legislation in Saudi Arabia (given the Saud name) means that all its citizens are required to provide passport verification for any individual involved in the transfer of substantial sums.  This includes any citizen who is using a BVI off-shore company.

A letter without a contact address and no accompanying identification documents represents a laughable verification check and one can only assume it was let through by the bank because the recipient was the Malaysian Prime Minister, who nevertheless comes under a high category of concern as a politically exposed person. For several years, AmBank has flourished as the bank of choice for the Prime Minister’s own accounts and also for several state-controlled concerns, including 1MDB.

ambrin-buangWhere’s is this character now?

We have learnt that at least four payments were received into the Prime Minister’s account accompanied by the same sender identification between 2011 and 2013, including the two totalling US$681 million, revealed by Sarawak Report in July.

The second transfer was for a sum of US$200 million, meaning that a total of a billion dollars was transferred by this alleged Saudi royal philanthropist supposedly in favour of UMNO into Najib’s account.

This information was corroborated by the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission (MACC) in July, when officials stated they had seen four letters from the same donor to the bank. It indicates that this alleged donor had been passing huge sums of money to Najib far in advance of the General Election, the original reason given, for wider purposes that remain unclear.

The matter envelopes a growing circle of international regulatory authorities in Malaysia’s escalating financial scandal, since both Australia and New Zealand as well as Saudi Arabia are now faced with a flouting of their basic banking rules and anti-terrorism laws.

Fake Sheikh?

Meanwhile, our enquiries into the identity of this ‘Saudi Royal’ figure have drawn an interesting blank. Saud Abdulaziz Majid al-Saud appears to be a variation on a common royal name, but does not actually refer to any specific individual.

Yet the newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi claimed to have met a Middle Eastern “King and Prince” from the alleged “donor family”, shortly after taking over from Muhyiddin Yassin, who had questioned the donation before being sacked  by Najib:

He [Zahid] said the “king and prince”, whom he did not name, had donated the money because of Malaysia’s commitment in fighting terrorism, and being a moderate Muslim country with a plural society….

“Those were the answers given to me when I asked them the reason for their donation. They also told me that Malaysia was not the only country they have donated money to.

“They have also helped other Islamic countries,” he said .. The UMNO Vice-President, elaborating.. said the donors were an “Arab king and prince” and the family decided to make the huge donation also because of Datuk Seri Najib’s anti-Jewish stance..

“Because of that, the Arab king, Arab prince generously made the political donation for use during the 13th General Election,” Malaysian Mail Online quoted him as saying.

Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid also said the donor wanted to keep UMNO and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in power. [Straits Times]

Likewise, the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission reported officials had been introduced to individuals purporting to be the donor who had sent the letters they had seen at AmBank:

In a statement, the commission said it had found out about the donors’ details through bank documents.

“MACC has obtained explanation from the donors who originated from the Middle East and they have verified the donation.

“The RM2.6 billion donation has no connection at all to 1MDB,” the anti-graft commission said in the statement.

According to MACC, it had found four letters that were given to the bank when the RM2.6 billion amount was deposited into Najib’s account, with the bank documents stating that the contribution was a “donation”. [Malaysian Mail Online]

The MACC statement clearly conflicts with the bank documents obtained by Sarawak Report, which refer to the transfer of US$681 million from Tanore Finance Corporation as a “payment” rather than a donation.

So their eventual findings should present the exact identity of the so-called King and Prince, who they have so far accepted as genuine donors.

The wealth factor

This story of the Saudi donor becomes even harder to believe after a basic wealth check of Middle Eastern royals and the Saudis in particular. There are few ruling Kings and Princes in the Middle East – and the Saudi King Abdullah, who was alive at the time of the ‘donations’ had died in January before the time the so-called meetings took place in July with the likes of Zahid Hamidi.

1MDB-RM42-Billion-Thank-You-For-Your-SupportThank You MCA

It means that if the alleged donor family were lesser royals the likelihood of them being in a position to fork out such enormous secret sums of money becomes ever more remote.We have found no one of the Arab top 50 rich list with a name remotely similar to the supposed signatory of the donation letter ie Saud Abdulaziz Majid al-Saud and the individual at number 50, Saudi Arabia’s Ayman Hariri, has a relatively modest fortune of just US$2 billion, according to Arabian Business.com.

Would a man with US$2 billion or less really be willing to part with half of it to Najib Razak because of his stance on this or that, let alone to pay for other similar begging leaders also? Or is this supposed donor from a royal family a secret entity of some kind?

Prince-Charles-Prince-Alwaleed-at-Kingdom-Tower-Feb-2014-E-1

Certainly, the top richest Saudi, Prince Alwaleed has made clear that at some point he intends to give all his money to good causes and he has been held up as an example of the sort of Middle Eastern who was favouring Najib by BN stallwarts.

Enquiries at the Saudi Embassy in London have produced further questions.Their protocol department has pointed out that while the name presented to AmBank is similar to certain Saudi royal names, it lacks certain crucial formalities – the name should contain ‘bin’ we were told, along the lines of ‘bin Abdulaziz’ and ‘bin Majid’, giving the impression of a serious lack of authenticity in the name of our sheikh and the title of his Private Office.

It has been pointed out that the royal figure whose name most matches that of Saud Adulaziz Majid al-Saud is that of a former Governor of Medina, Abdulaziz bin Majid, a grandson of a former Saudi King.

This royal figure does have a son similarly named Prince Saud bin Abdu Aziz bin Majed Al-Saud. However, there has been no evidence that these are a family of prominent donors nor do they appear on the Arab rich list as owning over US$2 billion.

So, please step forward the mysterious  and alleged billion dollar donor, unless of course one accepts the inevitable conclusion that we are dealing with a fake sheikh with sparse identification, drummed up to explain a series of astonishing payments into the Prime Minister of Malaysia’s private bank accounts?

What is Wrong with Malaysia today?


September 14, 2015

Malaysia: Do we have the audacity to really change and reform?

by Tan Sri Dr. Lin See Yan@www.thestar.com.my

For us, much of the answer must lie with the current politically charged, irreducible uncertain situation (brought on by events surrounding 1MDB) that has permeated Malaysian society and made everyone anxious and cautious, even fearful of what the future may bring.–Dr. Lin See Yan

Lin See YanDr Lin See Yan

THE world remains in a big mess. So is Malaysia. Many readers ask: What are we to do? I retort with this challenge: Do we have the audacity to really change and reform?

Sure, we already have a credible economic transformation program (ETP) – including strategies on how and where we need to change: we also have elaborate tactical road-maps and NKEAs on where we need to go, what to do and how to get there.

These are all well and good. Pemandu has done well so far. But not far enough. These blueprints are well-intentioned plans but they have one basic flaw – they all point to reaching a target income per capita within a specific time frame – US$15,000 by 2020.

That’s just a means to an end. Specifically, the end-game is to reach a much higher (and more sustainable) standard of living. This simply means we need to look at the income level in terms of its international purchasing power. What’s the use of a higher income if it does not translate into being able to acquire more and better goods (and wealth instruments) and services in the world markets.

So a depreciating ringgit in the face of a higher income is not good enough – it’s still sub-optimal. A growing and consistently stable economy backed by a strong exchange rate policy thus becomes critical, indeed essential.

A cheap currency won’t get us there. It only sets us back. The only way I know how to get there is through consistently rising productivity. This can only come with creativity and innovation. Rising productivity will make us more competitive – domestically and globally.

Albert EinsteinSolid Education is Fundamental–Dr. Lin See Yan

There is no other way. That’s why a good, solid education is fundamental. A well-educated, healthy, and skilled workforce becomes necessary to get us there. It is only in such an environment that creativity and innovation will derive and thrive. Without them, we are doomed to be caught in the middle-income trap of mediocrity. That’s not what we want or aspire to become.

Feedback loop

What’s wrong with Malaysia today? We are told the economy grew 4.9% in Q2’15 and for the year as a whole, 4½-5%. Realistically, closer to 4% than 5%.

Activity is being driven largely by private consumption – much of it through the build-up of more debt. We are told such growth is already the envy of most. But ask around, people don’t feel this growth.

Now that the ringgit has fallen 23% against US dollar so far this year on top of the 6% depreciation in 2014, the international purchasing power of the ringgit has fallen so much that most of us feel that much poorer.

Never in my wildest dream would I imagine that I would need to pay up to RM3.10 to buy S$1! We definitely don’t deserve such a rate of exchange!!

Sure, China has slowed down; so has Japan. Europe is said to be growing but ever so slowly that our exporters don’t really feel its rising demand (if any). The US economy continues to blow hot and cold with the key metrics sending in mixed signals.

We are now told by IMF/OECD that the world has indeed slackened in H1’15 and expect it to further slow down. Also, expect US interest to rise this year – even though gradually (and in small bites).

Still they don’t fully explain why the ringgit is so weak – with no end in sight. For us, much of the answer must lie with the current politically charged, irreducible uncertain situation (brought on by events surrounding 1MDB) that has permeated Malaysian society and made everyone anxious and cautious, even fearful of what the future may bring.

Reminds me of what US President Roosevelt (FDR) said in March 1933 during the depth of the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Today, seven years after the 2008 great recession and now, in the midst of continuing intrigues surrounding what has come to be known as the “1MDB scandal,” many are feeling what Americans were feeling then – fear, causing growing paralysis as risk aversion sets in: as individuals restrain their spending (latest retail sales are reported to be significantly down) and enterprises withhold investments (bank loan applications are sharply down) despite loads of readily accessible liquidity.

As a result, the economy starts to weaken, confirming their fears and leading them all to further restrain spending. As the downturn deepens, a vicious circle of anxiety (even despair) begins to take hold. I sense we are now caught in this rather emotional cycle.

As fear turns into fact – the continuing flow of wild rumours doesn’t help – the anxiety worsens and so does the performance. As this mood gets set in motion, it generates a life of its own and becomes difficult to stop.

Economists call this the “feedback-loop” – often in reference to electronics. I particularly like economics Nobel Laureate Shiller’s description of this phenomenon: If a microphone is placed in front of a loudspeaker, eventually some disturbance or disruption (like the 1MDB scandal) will cause the system to produce a painful wail as sound loops from the loudspeaker to the microphone and back, over and over.

The sociologist Robert Merton popularised the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” to refer to such a situation. I admit it’s not easy for many people to fathom that this is happening now. Surely, economic weakness has to reflect something more tangible than the “feedback-loop.”

Believe me, this is in fact happening. Well, think of it this way – despite rock bottom interest rates and loads of liquidity around, why investment is not booming?

And, why housewives and the millennials are not spending? Fear and uncertainty are permeating all over.

Reform

The 1MDB saga has exposed some real weaknesses in the economy – raising a sense of urgency to reform the underlying economic structure, as the old toolbox of pump priming investments to stimulate the economy has outlived its effectiveness.

The nation has long used up the low hanging fruits of cheap land, cheap labour, cheap technology and conventional manufacturing systems and methods.

The ETP haven’t as yet fulfilled promises to allow markets to become more determinate; to overhaul the legal system including labour markets; to unlock the potential of digitalisation in services (finance, healthcare, education, logistics, travel and of course, government) to drive an innovation-based economy; and to loosen far-reaching economic constraints including reducing protectionism.

Essentially, the ETP is still far-off in creating a level playing field for all local enterprises. The role of government is still too heavy-handed. Indeed, it has yet to stop propping up – and creating new, SOEs (state-owned enterprises) with favourable policies and subsidies.

Much of the population’s savings are still channelled into many large “projects” that are costly and inefficient.

But, above all, it must be recognised that sustainable growth has to reflect: (i) an accountable, transparent and corruption-free government; (ii) a professional and competent civil service; (iii) a skilled labour force with excess capacity to create and innovate; (iv) a responsible civil society that is inclusive, and (v) legislative transparency and predictability.

In the final analysis, they bond together as a cohesive whole to foster the vital inculcation of confidence, so necessary (and also a sufficient condition) to get us out of the middle-income trap.

Politics, as we know it today, risks becoming a zero sum game where a few do very well, while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie. That’s already happening. In truth, the links between growth and public policy are seldom so neat; certainly not linear.

And even when they do work in unison, they do little to significantly raise middle-class wages. There was a time in our short history when hard work was reliably rewarded with economic security. Politics and technology have changed all that. Gigantic shifts are underway – mostly man-made. They may be unstoppable.

Still the 1MDB scandal has brought to the forefront for most, serious issues of accountability, transparency, discipline and governance. The saga has discredited and destabilised the Government, and damaged investor confidence in the nation’s future growth prospects. Ultimately, the key issues are political in nature.

But is there a firm political will and resolve to restore confidence? One thing I have learnt about Malaysian politics is that ordinary people want to believe what they want to believe. And, facts or no facts (even hybrid ones) are not going to stop them.

That’s simply because people are different with different values, and they make different choices. Indeed, I also learnt that there are domains in which expertise is not possible – like in political strategic forecasting.

Here, the economics Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman acknowledges it’s been shown that experts are just no better than a dice-throwing monkey. Anyone care to predict the outcome of the 1MDB scandal by year-end? Good luck.

Former banker, Harvard-educated economist and British chartered scientist Tan Sri Lin See-Yan is the author of ‘The Global Economy in Turbulent Times’ (Wiley, 2015). Feedback is most welcome; email: starbiz@thestar.com.my