Policy-induced premature deindustrialisation in a high-income aspirant: Malaysia

October 13, 2015

Policy-induced premature deindustrialisation in a high-income aspirant: Malaysia

Jayant Menon, Thiam Hee Ng


Singapore: In search of Singaporeanness

October 13, 2015

Singapore: In search of Singaporeanness

by Patrick Sagaram


Lee Kuan Yew-LeaderBefore sovereignty, Singapore was a nation of immigrants, meaning that there was no ‘Singaporean nationalism’. Instead there was an excess of rival ethnic (Chinese, Malay, Indian) and national (Malayan) sentiments.

Void of a mythical, legendary past and lacking the elements of a romantic struggle against oppression, Singapore did not possess the resources for the psychological creation of a national imagined community in which the people are connected to their land and each other through shared heritage.

To counter this, the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) race categorisation in Singapore was designed, cultivating a system of cultural representation and giving impetus to the myth of Singaporeaness.

This origin story is based on a shared identity whereby members of the country’s various ethnic communities are progressively integrated into the wider population and become Singaporeans not only by law but also in their hearts and minds.

It is the government’s pluralist approach to managing cultural differences and ensuring inter-racial harmony and authentic ‘Asianess’ (whatever that may mean).But like most categories, CMIO is starting to come under scrutiny, particularly when challenged by the complexities of the 21st century and an increasingly global world.

Speaking at a conference last week, Professor Chan Heng Chee, a former Ambassador to the United States, argued against scrapping the categorisation. She claimed that that jettisoning the category would be a cause for contention among the minority races even today.

“The majority community doesn’t feel uncomfortable. It’s the minority community where you have to keep emphasising its equal language, religion, culture and race,” she told the audience. Professor Chan argued that CMIO, an umbrella identity created through housing, education and national service policies, assures minority races that their place in society is not under threat. However, to truly share a common identity, Singaporeans must  think about ourselves in terms of nationhood rather than ethnicity.

One of the problems of CMIO is that every Singaporean is racially classified at birth. A child is assigned his father’s ‘race’ and other ambiguities are not taken into account. Additionally, the state recognises every citizen as a ‘hyphenated Singaporean’. For example, every Singaporean citizen is identified as Singapore-Chinese, Singapore-Malay.

The problem with this classification is that it encourages Singaporeans to only associate with their own culture and ethnicity. The paradox of this logic is that there is no culturally defined notion of Singaporeanness.

We should also consider making adjustments to our policy of bilingualism in education. Rationalised as a means for students to preserve their cultural connection the policy has been criticised fortifying ethnic autocracy. Once presented as a celebration of genuine cultural heritage, this policy is an unauthentic construct of Singapore’s cultural outlook.

As Chua Beng Huat states in the article Multiculturalism in Singapore: an instrument of social control, the notion of a ‘mother tongue’ automatically assumes that both parents are from the same racial group. With more inter-racial marriages among Singaporeans, children adopt the father’s race by law and may take the mother’s language as their second language in school. This choice may be motivated by economic factors.

But most disquieting is the fact that elite Chinese students have enjoyed an added advantage in the education system through the Special Assistance Plan (SAP). Launched in 1979, SAP schools are extremely prestigious secondary schools that place a strong emphasis on Chinese culture. In 2008, the Ministry of Education introduced enhancements and opportunities for SAP schools to deepen their learning of Chinese language and culture.Similar Malay or Tamil elite schools were not created.

This perpetuates an intellectually superior ‘Chinese Singapore’, and such inequalities are undoubtedly inconsistent with the spirit of what Professor Chan terms as ‘CMIO Singaporeans’.

It is arguable that our brand of racial categorisation can be considered both as ‘faux’ and ‘manufactured’ – both the government and the people are sycophantic about Singapore as a multicultural/multiethnic society.

While liberal democratic traditions such as Canada and Australia allow issues such as race, ethnicity and identity to be open to consistent debates and deliberation, Singapore’s stance on these issues tend to languish in a pristine ideological space.

The late Mr S Rajaratnam, who penned Singapore’s national pledge, was a strong proponent of creating a ‘race of Singaporeans’. A society that is able to transcend the estrangement of primordial sentiments.

From a pragmatic standpoint, it would be arduous and even seemingly impossible. But, at least we should try. Because in years time to come, we would have created something close to a truly Singaporean Singapore. 

Patrick Sagaram lives and works in Singapore  as a teacher.

Malaysia: Putting University Research under the Microscope

October 13, 2015

Malaysia: Putting University Research under the Microscope

by Murray Hunter


Why we are laggards compared to Universities in Asia:

  • We have a very low standard in the English language proficiency here in Malaysia and it is considered to be at a critical level which actually affects the well-being and international prestige of this country.
  • We have also a deficiency when it comes to thinking and solving problems. Analytical and critical thinking skills are very important as they help us to evaluate the problem and to make good decisions.
  • We tend to have mind-sets and value systems that are closed. By having a closed mind-set, we will not be able to accept feedback and learn from what others have to offer. We are not exposed to challenges or high standards and this is what makes us unable to cope with diversity.
  • Our poor communication skills also causes a breakdown in our productivity and this creates a poor work environment.

Malaysia is spending about 5.9 per cent of GDP on education and 1.13 per cent of GDP on research and development. However as at 2015, no Malaysian universities have made the top 100 of the THES global or Asian university rankings, or QS World University Rankings. This is in great contrast to universities with a similar start-up time frame in Singapore, Hong Kong, China, India, and even Saudi Arabia, making the top 100 in the Asian rankings over the last few years.

Although Malaysia’s ranking is high (33rd place) in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) world innovation index in 2014, the level of resident patent applications and grants is still relatively low, being ranked 44th. Patent applications have grown from 218 applications in 1999, to 1,199 in 2013, with only 39 granted in 1999, growing to 288 patent grants in 2013. When considering that 10 per cent of these applications have been made by only 10 companies in Malaysia, there is still a long way to go for Malaysian university research to have the impact that some feel within Malaysian Government circles is due.

Malaysian university researchers, according to a Malaysian Government bibliometric study in 2012, recorded an output of 29,815 papers, although these figures may have gone up since then. This placed Malaysia in 45th position in the world, but only 50th based on citations, which is a good guide to the usefulness of knowledge presented. In terms of the research impact measured by citations per paper, Malaysia only ranked 136. This is in contrast to Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan, which were ranked 46, 75, and 84th respectively. Even papers produced in Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia had greater citation rates per paper than Malaysia.

Malaysian University Research

There are a number of probable reasons contributing to this poor performance. The first reason stems from the organisational structure of the Malaysian research community itself. Research has been organised into clusters with top down priorities formulated by ‘unknown sources’ within particular ministries. These priorities are not always in line with market or community needs. Most often, like the biotechnology plan, the lead time to create commercial and bankable projects is too long.

A Government corporation like the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation, controlled by bureaucrats is put in charge, where market needs often don’t make sense to the administrators. Projects are often kept in the hands of these corporations rather than commercialised, just to show the bureaucrats are doing their jobs.

Malaysian research is hindered by a lot of unnecessary costs, and bureaucracy. Although agencies like the corridor authorities were set up with the view to decentralising research and development, most initiatives are still top down and controlled by bureaucracy. These authorities are notorious in not talking to local community groups and develop strategies like paddy estates that local communities cannot accept, thus becoming ‘white elephants’. In more sinister terms, many of these research and development projects turn over community assets to government linked companies (GLCs), with little or any community benefit.

The second major problem is the nature of Malaysian academia itself. Research is a prerequisite to promotion within the Malaysian University system. This requires academics producing papers to apply for senior faculty positions. In some of the newer Malaysian universities, entering prototypes and products into technology and invention exhibitions is a way around producing papers. Consequently a large proportion of research funds go into making up promotion materials, travel, and accommodation, rather than actual research. Having a research grant is seen by many researchers as a means to travel, be it to an exhibition or conference in some exotic part of the world.

As a consequence, much university research output has little community or market relevance. The paper or prototype was produced to achieve a publishing KPI, or gain a medal at any of the international exhibitions around the world. Paradoxically, Malaysian researchers are travelling the world, but actually producing little, if any output of any commercial nature, even with the awards they are winning.

Many researchers with the above objectives in mind tend to work in isolation to industry and the community. Unlike Thailand, universities in Malaysia don’t have the same need to outreach to the community, so there are very few research projects undertaken within local communities. There is also very little collaboration with industry. This is probably not the complete fault of the researchers as industry in Malaysia, tends to be still unsophisticated when it comes to university collaboration.

As a consequence very few production prototypes ever get scaled up to commercial production. Even if there are willing parties, university bureaucracies often stall efforts to commercialize research with high financial demands, and lack of time due to other responsibilities like teaching by the researchers.

Many complex areas of research today, say in biotechnology, require teams of specialists to make specific disciplinary contributions to research. However, although in Malaysia we see many papers with multiple authors, most of them passengers. Deans, Vice Chancellors, or senior members of faculty are often put into paper authorships to curry favour for promotional purposes.

Malaysian universities have tended to put emphasis on producing large quantities of papers, rather than quality. Many academics are practicing ‘chequebook academia’ by paying to place articles in journals that can publish them within a month or so from submission. The quantity of paper output rather than academic weight is the prime KPI of Malaysian universities today.

In addition, many of the papers produced originate from the work of students, who may or may not have their name on the paper as co-author. The author has witnessed the ludicrous situation where many a Malaysian academic delivers a paper at a conference, but is unable to answer questions from the floor during question time. Some Malaysian academics are producing over 30 papers per year from this method.

Malaysian academics are very hesitant to take up alternative methods of research, such as ethnography and narrative in the social sciences. This is a symptom of a general will to innovate in the area of research. The preferred route is a safe one where other research tends to be duplicated within a Malaysian context. So in an engineering conference or invention expo, one will tend to see lots of solar panel concepts that have been revamped into new contexts, as an attempt to be novel.

Malaysian academics tend to follow local leads. If for example, Balanced Scorecard is popular at a particular university, then one will see a number of faculty members doing their PhD thesis on Balanced Scorecard.

Innovation is desperately needed in Malaysian university research, but the panels who vet research grants tend to be bitterly conservative and penalise any academic who tries to be innovative.

Malaysia needs to look at what China is doing with university research. It is quickly becoming a powerhouse, looking at contemporary problems and issues with strong research teams. The language barrier is being broken with good editors employed to work up papers to international standard.

Malaysian university research needs a paradigm change. Instead of following national agendas instituted by bureaucrats, bottom up thinking needs to be appreciated and accepted. Most technologies already exist, and don’t need to be re-invented. What is needed is applying these technologies to community and industrial problems that exist outside local universities.

Citations to research need reward rather than the production is raw papers. A realisation is needed that patenting concepts and products that have no commercial value is a futile pursuit, although it fulfills a university KPI.

Grant panels need to practice meritocracy, and grant fund to the most innovative rather than conservative.

Although overall research output is increasing from universities within Malaysia, emphasis must now be put on producing quality research, if Malaysia is not to continually fall behind its other ASEAN neighbours.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Another National Consultative Council?

October 13, 2015

Malaysia: Can Another National Consultative Council (NCC2) Happen?

by Lim Teck Ghee

Nazir Razak at Khazanah Megatrends

Recently at the Khazanah Megatrends forum, CIMB supremo, Dato’ Seri Nazir Razak spoke on the need for “creative disruption” in the country’s socio-economics and politics. He provided a point of view on current affairs which he alluded to as probably bordering on the X-rated, and not deemed to be suitable by the “adults” in the country who make the decisions on these matters.

In his speech in which he pointedly avoided mention of his brother, the Prime Minister and the 1MDB scandal, the eminent banker expressed concern that the country was facing a challenge equal to that faced in the aftermath of May 13, 1969.

According to him, we are also losing in the realm of international economics which determines the fate of the nation’s economy because of the failure to undertake structural reform and also because of the elephant of “politics and the socio-economic structures that have evolved in tandem over the years”.

To meet this challenge he proposed that the country borrow a leaf from history by bringing together the best and brightest to huddle together in a national consultative council (NCC) to formulate a new socio-economic and political re-engineering plan for the country.

Although he emphasized that his views are still evolving on how the NCC2 could proceed, he identified six areas for re-caliberation.  These are:

  1. Constitutional reforms;
  2. Electoral reforms;

  3. Economic reforms – affirmative action, role of government;

  4. National unity and the social contract;

  5. Preserving and strengthening the integrity of the federation; and

  6. Institutional integrity – checks and balances between various branches of government and within government itself

So what is the possibility of this wide-ranging reform proposal which covers all the major hot button issues – save that of religious reform, a subject which Nazir Razak perhaps deliberately avoided for fear of being castigated by the religious right – that have emerged during the past few years.

Will this NCC2 proposal by one of the country’s foremost business leaders be taken seriously by the “adults” or political elite in power running the country? Without wanting to sound unduly pessimistic, I would say that the prospects of it making to what in the American game of baseball is considered to be the first base of policy consideration – for now – is practically nil.

Big Brother Knows Best

Firstly, it is clear from past events that Nazir’s brother, the Prime Minister, has little regard or time of the day for his youngest sibling’s moderate and often enlightened views on politics and other contentious issues in the country. The age difference of 13 years and early loss of their father possibly indicates a lack of brotherly closeness. It may also explain the political divide.

Rosmah Mansor2

Whatever normal brotherly relationship between the two also seems to have worsened recently – if the scandal rags are to be believed – as a result of the family antipathy towards the Prime Minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.

Rumours of the growing rift between the two brothers have especially escalated after January 2014 when Nazir wrote a remembrance piece of his father, Tun Abdul Razak, the country’s second Pime Minister. Titled “Remembering My Father, Tun Razak.” it was seen as a rebuke to the flaunting of wealth by the Prime Minister’s wife and an appeal to the government to act to ensure national unity.

Since then, Nazir has been increasingly at political odds with his brother with his not too cryptic critical messages on developments in the country’s economics and politics in the social media sphere. Perhaps the most widely reported and disseminated message was on July 5 recently when he made a plea to unnamed individuals to put the country’s interests before their own during these “dark political times”.

In his Instagram posting of a picture of the national monument, he wrote:

“They gave their lives so we could build a nation. In this darkest of political times we must remember to place the country & the rakyat first. Not personal interests, not personal loyalties, not even party politics”.

Speaking directly to his Prime Minister brother on the lack of accountability by national leaders would have been a more effective way to convey his message. But perhaps the two may not be saying very much to each other or even be on talking terms which explains the resort to Twitter and Instagram and the plea to uphold the family honour.

For now, Prime Minister Najib Razak is too preoccupied with holding on to his precarious perch and fending off the incessant attacks on his leadership to give much attention to the perilous state of the nation.

What may ultimately force his hand though in taking up the NCC2 or other similar proposals of radical reform that his brother and other concerned Malaysians have been advocating may be the unleashing not of creative destruction but of uncreative destruction.

Red Shirt MalaysWhat’s Next?

The first NCC was preceded by much turmoil and bloodshed. Is the Prime Minister waiting for a similar tragedy to strike the country before he finally acts to right the ship of state?

Martin Khor on TPPA

October 13, 2015

Martin Khor on TPPA


FINALLY, the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement have concluded. But that’s not the end of the story. It will be many more days before the text is made public. Until then, there will still be so many questions unanswered.

Martin KhorEnough is known, from media reports and some leaked texts and analyses, to make some preliminary comments. First, trade is only one part of the TPPA. As important, or more important, are other issues including investment, intellectual property, government procurement, state-owned enterprises, labour and environment.

These other issues are at the heart of the country’s socio-economic structures and policies.On these issues, the TPPA may have problematic elements for Malaysia. The Malaysian negotiating team has been fighting to lessen the adverse impacts of the main proposals.

It says it won concessions. But what these are, whether they are enough, and the effects are still not clear. What is clear is that “policy space” (a country’s freedom to formulate its own policies) would be very significantly narrowed as a result of the TPPA.

On intellectual property, the blow is perhaps the most obvious. Most patents filed in Malaysia are owned by foreigners. So when patent laws are made stronger, it will benefit foreigners who are the patent holders.

The enhanced monopoly given to patent holders will have adverse effects on Malaysian consumers who will have to pay higher prices and Malaysian companies which cannot make or import generic versions during the patent term.

Mustapa-Mohamed-TPPA-300x202The renowned medical group, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), condemned the TPPA as the “worst trade agreement for access to medicines”. Patients and treatment providers in developing countries will be the TPPA’s big losers as it will raise the prices of medicines by extending the monopolies enjoyed by the big drug companies and further delaying price-reducing generic competition, according to MSF.

The term of the patent may be lengthened (by adding time taken to register the medicine or approve the patent). Data exclusivity is to be granted for five years (or possibly for more than that, for the new drugs known as biologics), during which the generic companies are not allowed to rely on the test data of the originator firm.

On investment, the TPPA opens the road for foreign companies to be treated as well or better than locals, thus giving them rights of entry and ownership, and free transfer of funds, while prohibiting the host state from imposing performance requirements such as local content, technology transfer and joint ventures.

The TPPA also contains the investor-state dispute settlement system (ISDS), which enables foreign investors to sue the Government in an international tribunal.

Changes in government policies can lead to claims that this is unfair treatment and the foreign investor can ask for compensation for loss of expected future profits.

According to press reports, the TPPA has some safeguards such as diluting the ability of companies to make frivolous claims. Exactly what these are, is not known. The ISDS in any case remains intact as a powerful tool for foreign investors and puts Malaysia in a defensive position.

On government procurement, the space that Malaysia has had to make policies on how the Government does its procurement will be curbed. The preferences given to locals will now give way to national treatment for foreign companies.

Malaysia has been negotiating for more exceptions in terms of the “threshold” of level of expenditure or project value where preferences for locals can still be given, and an exception for bumiputra policy. Details of the final agreement are still not known.

On state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the TPPA will impose disciplines and rules on how these SOEs operate, the subsidies they can or cannot get, and their need to be non-discriminatory when purchasing materials (they cannot give preference to local companies).

The advocates of the SOE chapter seem to want to curb the advantages that SOEs may have, and enable the foreign companies to more effectively compete and take some of their market share. Malaysia has also been fighting for exceptions for some of its SOEs. The final outcome of this is not yet known.

Investment policy, government procurement, SOEs and access to medicines are right at the heart of Malaysia’s political economy and socio-economic structures.Policies that have been at the centre of the country’s economic and political development have now to be defended as exceptions and flexibilities, and there is a limit to what the other TPPA partners will accept.

The chapters on these issues are bitter pills to swallow and the debate will continue on whether they are worth swallowing. The direct trade aspects of the TPPA should have such enormous benefit that they more than offset the disadvantages of the other issues. Otherwise, why join the TPPA? However, Malaysia’s tariffs are on average higher than those of the United States, the main country with whom we do not yet have a Free Trade Agreement.

If tariffs go to zero through the TPPA, Malaysia will thus have to cut its tariffs by more than the US. Whilst we may gain extra exports through the TPPA, we will also have to import more. There is no guarantee that the TPPA will lead to a better trade balance, and there could be an opposite result.

The debate on the TPPA will intensify now that the negotiations have ended. The text should be made available as soon as possible, so that the discussions can be based on the agreement itself. After the TPPA, it will take another two years for the agreement to be ratified and come into force.<

Thus, the TPPA is not a “done deal” and the real debate may only be beginning now. It is unfortunate that till now the text is not available.

Martin Khor (director@southcentre.org) is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

Singapore is not an island

October 12, 2015

 Jason Chin answers DAP on Bilahari’s Article


“Dr Mahathir seems to have expected to exercise remote control even though he was no longer prime minister. Among his grievances with his successors were their warming of ties with Singapore, Mr Najib’s decision to settle the railway land issue, cooperation on Iskandar Malaysia (IM) and the refusal of both Tun Abdullah Badawi and Mr Najib to proceed with his pet white elephant: the “crooked bridge”. Dr Mahathir wants to replace Mr Najib with someone more pliable.”--Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large

Bilahari KBilahari Kausikan–An Astute Observer of Malaysian Politics

A lengthy, well-analysed and descriptive article was published recently in Singapore’s The Straits Times entitled “Singapore is not an island” by Bilahari Kausikan. Bilahari expressed his opinion on the current political climate in Malaysia and how it related to Singapore-Malaysia ties.

DAP’s Tony Pua was irked and responded in super quick time. (http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2015/10/11/bilahari-tonys-crudity-says-it-all/) The Opposition coalition is a perfect coalition you see. Nobody can speak negatively about them.

When the late Lee Kuan Yew criticized UMNO he was applauded by DAP. But when he questioned Pakatan, his views were deemed outdated and wrong. But Lee has not been the only one with reservations about Pakatan.

Earlier this year Dr. Bridget Welsh, a renowned political analyst who is a senior research associate at the Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University said that the Opposition coalition in Malaysia is starting to become irrelevant due to its internal quarrels, blaming not only the leadership of PAS but also the DAP for it.

Bilahari was spot-on when he said that Pakatan Rakyat, although in theory multiracial, “have nothing in common except the ambition to displace BN.” He added that in his opinion the new coalition of Pakatan Harapan was itself a ‘forlorn hope,’ and likely to fail.

In Tony’s response, he said that Bilahari’s views suggest that Singapore lacks a moral compass despite all its wealth and developed nation status.

In the first place, dear Tony, how morally encompassing is it for the DAP to now be in “alliance” with Dr Mahathir Mohamad? Malaysia does not need moral lessons from Tony Pua the DAP way. You, Tony, are in no position to accuse anyone of not having a moral compass.

In 2010, an Australian media group revealed that Singapore’s intelligent services and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had told the Office of National Assessments (ONA) in Australia that Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim ‘did indeed commit the acts for which he is currently in prison’.

When these revelations were made five years ago, PKR’s Tian Chua jumped to Anwar’s defence noting that the allegations were just “hearsay” and we could not depend on what foreign intelligence officials say. Fast-forward 5 years to 2015, and the same bunch of Opposition people are now heavily relying on what foreign reports have published. Double-standards, nay?

An online petition to the United States government was made to pressure President Barack Obama to prioritise the release of Anwar in the superpower’s policy towards Malaysia. When the British Prime Minister was due to come to Malaysia, the Opposition tried hard to get him to cancel his trip. When that failed, DAP’s lawmaker once again wrote an open letter asking the British PM to not support Najib’s administration. However, when the Chinese Ambassador came to Petaling Street and made an inference to the government’s administration, the Opposition chose to remain silent. Why is interference welcomed in one case but not in another?

Despite all the Opposition’s call for an international boycott of Najib’s administration, Malaysia is still involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) negotiations. So far, the Opposition’s call for a cut in international ties with Najib’s government have been in vain.

tony-pua-unta-1In his top-selling book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen Covey said that most people seek first to be understood; to get their point across. In doing so, they ignore the other person completely. They concentrate on a few selected aspects of what is being said. They focus only on the words, missing the meaning entirely.

Tony Pua is doing exactly that. Instead of digesting and properly deciphering Bilahari’s opinion, he knee-jerked to defence. This is exactly why most world leaders do not see any prospect in the Opposition pack in Malaysia.

Jason Chin is an FMT reader

With a firm belief in freedom of expression and without prejudice, FMT tries its best to share reliable content from third parties. Such articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. FMT does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by any third party content provider.

Dr P. Ramasamy of DAP responds to Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kasuikan


Dr. P RamasamySingapore’s Ambassador-at-Large, who is a retired Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and currently a Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy Studies, Bilahari Kausikan, seems to have caught the attention of Malaysians, particularly, those from the DAP for the wrong reasons.

His recent 3,000-word article entitled “Singapore is not island” which appeared on October 6, 2015, in the The Straits Times (Singapore) seems to have elicited critical comments from the DAP leaders.

In his article, Bilahari said that the Chinese in Malaysia are delusional in that they continue to miss the point that Malays would not give up their political dominance at any costs. And if there is Chinese challenge to Malay political power, there is possibility that UMNO would combine with PAS to defend Malay rights.

He went further to criticise the Chinese for not having learnt any lessons from the May13, 1969, racial riots. Bilahari thinks that the recent Bersih demonstration was entirely staged by the Chinese to challenge the Malays and that the counter-demonstration organised by the “red shirts” was a typical Malay response to the Chinese challenge.

Bilahari thinks that Chinese youths are delusional in that they don’t understand history and how the working relationship among the various ethnic groups were constituted in the aftermath of political independence in 1969. Finally, Kasikan cautions the Chinese not to be too delusional but to grasp the reality and to make peace with the Malays.

Bilahari is entitled to his views and they would not be challenged as long as they reflect the ground reality in Malaysia. However, Bilahari seems to go overboard in not understanding the Malaysian political and ethnic reality, but goes overboard in defending a political and racial system that is entirely problematic.

First, as the DAP veteran leader Lim Kit Siang pointed out, it is not clear whether Bilahari makes a distinction between Malay political dominance and supremacy. While political dominance seems inevitable due to demographic changes, the presence of powerful Malay political parties, the inevitability of the institutions of the royalty and other traditional features of the Malay community, Malay supremacy is something no sane or decent Malaysians would accept or condone.

So in this respect, Bilahari has failed to distinguish these two concepts and hence his own “delusional thinking” to understand the complex and unfolding features of the Malaysian political scene.

Not fair to say Chinese have been misled

Second, sorry, “delusional thinking” is not a pre-occupation of the Chinese in Malaysia, especially the young ones. I don’t think that Bilahari is fair to the Chinese to say that they have been misled or misinformed about what is good or bad for Malaysia.

Malaysian Chinese youth like the youths of other races, want a decent country with a decent political system, a system that stays far away from corruption and misdeeds and a system that will ensure justice and fair play for all Malaysians.

Is Bilahari fair to say that these needs can be interpreted as a challenge to Malay political power? And if the Chinese engage in these acts of political and social participation, are they deemed to have broken the racial pact that was hatched before political independence?

Third, for the information of Bilahari, the Malaysian political and social systems are not static. Sometimes, foreign observers and writers, despite their good intentions, make the mistake of “essentialism”.

In other words, they would think and act as though there are one or two features that would serve as the determining or causative factors. Thus, in the case of Malaysia, it would be race and in the case of India, it would be caste.

Those engaging in essentialism would tend to miss the nuances, complexities and the fast unfolding aspects of a country’s political, social and economic systems.

Bilahari’s major error in his analysis is the mistake of engaging in essentialism without the benefit of critical analysis of the fast changing political scenario of the Malaysian system. Thus, what he knows about the system might be far off from reality.

Fourth, Bilahari is equally guilty of ignoring the larger reality of Malaysian political life. He seems to think that Malay political parties, especially Umno and PAS, have the overwhelming support of the Malays. This is not the truth. He fails to realise that Malays, especially the urban ones, have left UMNO en bloc in the last 20 years or so. Even PAS, the so-called Islamic party, has lost its clout due to the purges and desertions by many good leaders.

So, what is happening in Malaysia is not Malay political dominance being reinforced, but rather, Malay dominance or supremacy being weakened due to various misdeeds, corruption and the lack of democracy and others.

While he thinks that PAS and UMNO might join hands to counter the Chinese “uprising”, he fails to note that they Malays in PKR and the newly-minted Parti Amanah Negara are together with the DAP in dismantling the BN-UMNO regime!

Fifth and finally, there is nothing to be learned from the May13, 1969, racial riots.Such riots should be avoided, not only to be giving in to the racist and supremacist demands of the Malay right wing forces, but challenging Malay supremacy as represented by UMNO and its affiliates.

Bilahari, again, by engaging in essentialism, thinks that the riots occurred because the Chinese challenged the might of the Malays. However, such a naïve view cannot be acceptable in the light of evidence about the riots that have come about in recent years.

P RAMASAMY is Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang and the state assemblyperson for Perai.

Singapore is not an island

Malaysia is undergoing a systemic change that has profound consequences for Singapore

by Bilahari Kausikan

Published The Straits Times, 6 Oct 2015Bilahari-Kausikan-Singapore2What do most Singaporeans make of recent events in Malaysia? Bersih. Pesaka. 1MDB. A Deputy Prime Minister sacked. Protests and counter-protests.

Are we so inured to commotions across the Causeway that they seem no more than the faint tolling of distant bells, evoking only bemusement and schadenfreude? Our system works, so shrug and tend our own garden. If this is the attitude, it is mistaken. We are indeed different. But I believe Malaysia may be on the cusp of a systemic change that could have profound implications for us.

Since 1957, first Malaya then Malaysia, was premised on a political and social compact that had Malay dominance as its cardinal principle. So long as this was not challenged, other races could have their own space. In political terms, this compact was reflected in a system structured around an alliance of race-based political parties with the dominant Malay party – United Malays National Organisation or UMNO – at its centre.

The Chinese were represented by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), later joined by Gerakan; the Indians by the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Two opposition parties, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS ), were in principle multiracial, but in practice largely Chinese and Malay and in any case were peripheral.

It was our refusal to accept the system’s cardinal principle that led to Separation from Malaysia in 1965. But it was a system that had its own coherence and until relatively recently, it did not serve Malaysia badly. And despite the complexities of bilateral relations and occasional periods of tension, over the last 50 years, it was a system we learnt to work with, while going our own way. That familiar system is now under immense stress. It is not certain that it can hold together.

Pressure Point

The pressure point is religion. Arab influences from the Middle East have for several decades steadily eroded the Malay variant of Islam in which adat or traditional practices coexisted with the Quran in a syncretic, tolerant synthesis, replacing it with a more austere and exclusive interpretation of Islam. This is one aspect of a broader process of globalisation which is a sociocultural and not just an economic phenomenon. It has changed the texture of Malaysian society, I think irreversibly.

It is impossible for any country to insulate itself from globalisation. Religion in Singapore is not immune from globalisation’s consequences, and not just in our Muslim community. Evangelical Christianity is one example. But Singapore is organised on the principle of multiracial meritocracy. So long as this is accepted by all races and religions as the foundation of our identity, the most corrosive political effects are mitigated. In the Singapore system, God – every God – and Caesar are separate and so all Gods must perforce co-exist, with the state playing the role of neutral arbiter.

The cardinal principle of Malay dominance is enshrined in the Constitution, which also places Islam as the first component in the definition of a Malay. This makes the mixture of religion and politics well-nigh inevitable. UMNO politicians have been unable to resist the temptation to use religion for electoral advantage. They are responding to the logic of the system as it has evolved.

najib-mahahthirIn 2001, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made a fundamental political error when he tried to undercut PAS by declaring that Malaysia was already an Islamic state. A constitutional controversy ensued. But the most damaging consequences were political not legal.

Tun Dr Mahathir’s incautious declaration gave a sharper political focus to the changes in the interpretation of Islam that were under way and catalysed a competitive dynamic in which those inclined to religious moderation were inevitably outbid and overwhelmed.

The result has been an increasingly pronounced emphasis on religion in UMNO’s political identity and a significant and continuing narrowing of the political and social space for non-Muslims.

Surveys show that Malaysian Malays privilege Islamic credentials over other qualities they look for in their leaders. A Merdeka Centre survey this year revealed that 60 per cent of Malaysian Malays polled identified themselves as Muslims first rather than Malaysians or even Malays. Demography accentuates the political impact of these attitudes. In 1957 the Chinese constituted 45 per cent of Malaya (West Malaysia). In 2010, they constituted only 24.6 per cent of Malaysia including East Malaysia. Malay fertility rates are significantly higher than both Chinese and Indians.

In the 2013 Malaysian General Election, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition got only 13 per cent of the Chinese vote. Two days after the election, Utusan Malaysia, an UMNO mouthpiece, pointedly asked “Apa Lagi Cina Mau?” (What more do the Chinese want?)

The question was provocatively phrased, but not entirely unreasonable. Prime Minister Najib Razak tried hard to win back Chinese votes but got almost nothing for his efforts. MCA won only seven seats. Gerakan was wiped out. The DAP won 38 seats, the largest number in the opposition coalition.

A New System in the Making?

The Chinese parties in BN had clearly lost the trust of Chinese voters. Can MCA win back Chinese votes? Doubtful. MCA is obviously powerless to stem the narrowing political and social space for non-Muslims; the fecklessness of its leaders exposed by constant scandals and internal bickering.

MCA in TattersIn 2013, BN lost the popular vote but retained its parliamentary majority because of the 47 seats it won in East Malaysia. Native East Malaysians are not ethnically Malay but are classified as bumiputera. Some in UMNO began to question whether it was really necessary to work with the Chinese at all. The declining numbers of Chinese in the Malaysian population will sooner or later make them electorally irrelevant to UMNO and BN had already retained power without their votes.

Nor can the opposition coalition of the DAP, PAS and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat – Pakatan Rakyat (PR) – form a new multiracial system. PR was always a motley crew. Although its component parties are in theory multiracial, they have nothing in common except the ambition to displace BN. Only Anwar’s charismatic personality and political skills held them uneasily together.

Anwar is now in jail and PR has fallen apart. PAS has left. Without Anwar, Keadilan’s future is bleak. The DAP is subject to the demo- graphic constraints of a falling Chinese population and is unlikely to make substantial electoral advances beyond its present strength, although it will probably retain what it now holds. PR’s successor – Pakatan Harapan – a coalition of the DAP, Keadilan and a minor breakaway faction from PAS, is a forlorn hope (pun intended).

PAS has purged its moderate leadership and is now led by the ulama. UMNO is increasingly relying on religion to legitimise itself. UMNO and PAS may eventually form some sort of de facto if not de jure alliance that could be the core of a new ruling system. There may be token ornaments of other races, but the Malaysian system will then comprise an overwhelmingly dominant Malay government with a DAP-led Chinese opposition. This will be potentially explosive.

I do not know if such a system will really replace the current system, but it certainly seems possible, even probable. It will not happen overnight. But the controversy over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) could well hasten its emergence. The recent demonstrations seem to foreshadow such a development.

Struggle for Power in UMNO

The anti-government Bersih demonstrations held in late August this year were, despite a sprinkling of other races, predominantly Chinese affairs. PAS, which had joined previous Bersih demonstrations, stayed away. The organisers claimed the demonstrations were apolitical, but the DAP with Keadilan clearly played significant roles.

Last month, a pro-government counter-demonstration was organised by Pesaka – a right-wing Malay group ostensibly devoted to silat, the Malay martial art. The demonstration was almost entirely Malay, positioned as defending Malay rights and marked by fierce racial rhetoric. Before the demonstration, posters were displayed, captioned “Cina turun Bersih, sedialah bermandi darah” (Chinese who attend Bersih, be ready to be bathed in blood) which depicted a Bersih supporter being slashed with a parang. A flier with a similar slogan was found at DAP headquarters.

UMNO denied organising the demonstration. Dato’ Seri Najib did not attend but said he had no objections to UMNO members doing so. The President of Pesaka is an UMNO leader. Another UMNO politician, who was one of the driving forces of the Pesaka demonstration, proudly admitted he was racist because it was under the Constitution.

Thankfully, violence at these demonstrations was avoided by the strong police presence. But the demonstrations certainly raised the temperature of an already racially fraught atmosphere.

Although the authorities denied it, the affray that broke out in July at Low Yat Plaza, a mainly Chinese shopping area in Kuala Lumpur, after a Malay youth was accused of stealing a mobile phone, was certainly racial. It exposed the tinderbox Malaysia had become.

Shortly after news broke about US$700 million (S$1 billion) believed to be from 1MBD being traced to what was alleged to be Mr Najib’s personal account, a Putrajaya spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has not taken any funds for personal use.”

UMNO has always operated through a system of patronage. If this is what the spokesman was hinting at, then Dr Mahathir’s accusations against Mr Najib ring hollow. Did he not preside over the same system and for far longer than any other Malaysian Prime Minister?

This system also means that Mr Najib is in no imminent danger of being forced from office so long as he holds the majority of UMNO divisions and retains Malay support. Frustration may account for Dr Mahathir’s attendance at the Bersih demonstration which I do not think has raised the good doctor’s standing with the Malay ground.

The 1MDB scandal is less about corruption than about a struggle for power within UMNO. Dr Mahathir seems to have expected to exercise remote control even though he was no longer prime minister. Among his grievances with his successors were their warming of ties with Singapore, Mr Najib’s decision to settle the railway land issue, cooperation on Iskandar Malaysia (IM) and the refusal of both Tun Abdullah Badawi and Mr Najib to proceed with his pet white elephant: the “crooked bridge”. Dr Mahathir wants to replace Mr Najib with someone more pliable.

The intra-UMNO power struggle is not over. Mr Najib retains his office but has been politically damaged. Dr Mahathir’s reputation may have been dented, but he still has a following within UMNO and the Malay public.

Mr Najib cannot allow himself to be outflanked on the right. Two days after the September demonstration, he attended a Pesaka gathering. He praised Pesaka members as being “willing to die” for the government and said “Malay people can also show that we are still able to rise when our dignity is challenged, when our leaders are insulted, criticised, shamed”, adding, “We respect other races. But don’t forget: Malays also have their feelings. Malays also have their limits.”

What Next?

A former minister, Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin, has said that “if Najib succeeds in uniting UMNO and PAS, then I am confident the Malays will forgive his grave mistakes”, adding that “after fulfilling this large and sincere task” he should step down and hand power to former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

I do not know if Mr Najib feels he has committed “grave mistakes”. But he certainly will not hand over power to a man he unceremoniously sacked. Still, Mr Zainuddin is probably not wrong about anyone who brings UMNO and PAS together becoming a Malay hero. It may not be Mr Najib, but the trajectory of political developments in Malaysia already seems to point in that direction.

Malaysia and Singapore are each other’s second-largest trading partner. Malaysia is Singapore’s sixth-largest investment destination and we are the top investor in IM. Every day tens of thousands of Malaysians commute across the Causeway to work in Singapore. It is in our interest to see Malaysia stable with a healthy economy.

Mr Najib understands that Malaysia and Singapore need each other. So far and unusually we have not figured very much in the controversies. Dr Mahathir did trot out his tired line about Singapore Malays being marginalised. But it did not catch fire. Did the government dampen the spark? No way of knowing for sure but if it did, it is one more black mark against Mr Najib in the old man’s book.

We, of course, have no choice but to work with whatever system or leader emerges in Malaysia. But some systems will be easier to work with than others. And the current heightened state of racial tensions suggests that we should not assume that the transition from one system to another will necessarily be peaceful.

It is my impression that many young Malaysian Chinese have forgotten the lessons of May 13, 1969. They naively believe that the system built around the principle of Malay dominance can be changed. That may be why they abandoned MCA for the DAP. They are delusional. Malay dominance will be defended by any means.

Any new system will still be built around this principle, and if it has some form of UMNO-PAS collaboration at its centre, enforcement of this principle will be even more rigorous with even less space for non-Muslims.

The respected Malay poet and writer Pak Samad recently warned “the way race issues are played up… it is not impossible that things will peak into a state of emergency”. Pak Samad is a member of the DAP and he was appealing to the government to take a more equitable attitude towards all races. But his views and those of some idealistic young urban Malays are exceptional and, during an intra-UMNO power struggle when the banner of Malay dominance is raised particularly high, utterly irrelevant.

Singaporeans should also note that no country’s domestic politics exists in a geopolitical vacuum.

Chinese Ambassador’s Remarks

In the midst of these unfolding developments, China’s ambassador to Malaysia made his way to Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Close to where only a few days previously the police had to use water cannons to disperse a potentially violent anti-Chinese Pesaka-led demonstration, the ambassador read out a statement that among other things pronounced the Chinese government’s opposition to terrorism, any form of racial discrimination and extremism, adding for good measure that it would be a shame if the peace of Petaling Street was disrupted by the ill-intentioned and that Beijing would not stand idly by if anything threatened the interests of its citizens and Malaysia-China relations.

Under other circumstances these sentiments would perhaps have passed notice. But the timing and context laid the ambassador’s words and actions open to disquieting interpretations. Was it just bad judgment? What was he trying to do? If the Ambassador was trying to help the Malaysian Chinese, then he failed miserably. He probably made things worse for them by confirming the worst suspicions of the Malay right wing.

But were the interests of Malaysian Chinese even a consideration? Was the intention to highlight a rising China’s clout? The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman defended the Ambassador’s visit to Petaling Street as “normal” and emphasised China’s adherence to the principle of non-interference. But this was of course what she would have said irrespective of China’s intentions.

More telling perhaps was the apparent confusion over whether or not the Chinese Ambassador should be summoned to explain himself. This should have been obvious. A retired Malaysian diplomat who used to deal with China pointed out the dangerous precedent that would be set if no action was taken. But different Malaysian ministers contradicted each other, with a clearly frustrated Foreign Minister Anifah Aman finally telling them all to leave it to Wisma Putra.

Was this the consequence of China’s influence? Possibly. In the end, some sort of meeting with Wisma Putra seems to have occurred. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi subsequently announced that the Malaysian Cabinet decided to “call in” the Chinese ambassador (he was careful to make clear the ambassador was not being “summoned”).

Lesson For Singapore

We cannot solve other people’s problems. Malaysians must work out their own destiny and we will have to live with their choices.

Are we completely immune to contagion from Malaysia? After 50 years, does our collective Singapore identity now trump racial identities? Maybe under some circumstances. Optimistically, perhaps even most circumstances. But under all circumstances?I doubt it. Let us wish Malaysia well and hope that the worst does not occur. But it would be prudent to take no chances and prepare ourselves as if it might. The first step is for all Singaporeans to understand what is happening in our neighbourhood and realistically appreciate our own circumstances.

Deterrence and diplomacy are necessary to reduce the temptation that some in Malaysia may have to externalise their problems and minimise the bilateral friction that will sometimes be unavoidable. Strong deterrence and agile diplomacy must be underpinned by national cohesion which in turn rests on a foundation of common understandings.

Of late it seems to have become fashionable for some sections of our intelligentsia to downplay or even dismiss our vulnerabilities. Some political parties tried variants of this line during our recent General Election. Are they blind and deaf to what is happening around us? Is their desire for notoriety or political advantage so overwhelming as to make them indifferent to the consequences?

Malaysia is not the only concern. The haze is a daily reminder that all is not well down south too. This is not the most salubrious of neighbourhoods.

The writer, a former Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, is now Ambassador-at-Large.