Malaysia: Interesting Times

October 23, 2016

COMMENT: Dean Johns has always been a succinct, lucid and thoughtful writer. I enjoy his articles and am a proud owner of his books. I am also grateful to him (and Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran of Malaysiakini) for allowing me to host his pieces like this one on this blog to reach my discerning readers in 206 countries, near and far.

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Two of a Kind from the same Era

Dean is 70 and I am 77. He is an Australian and I am a Malaysian (not a bigoted UMNO Melayu). Yet intellectually, we  are no different. Born in the same era, we share a passion for Malaysia. We see its potential. Regrettably, we are also witnessing its systemic destruction by a kleptocratic regime under Malay leadership of the worst kind.

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Time is not one our side. Both of us are at our journey’s end. For far too long, indeed very long, he and I have been bystanders. In recent years, our patience has run out.

We have grown very critical of the UMNO-led Malaysian government led by the most corrupt Prime Minister who goes by the name of Najib Razak.  As a result, Dean and I are using our pen to push for change. It is a long shot, no doubt, but change may yet happen when Malaysians finally wake up their amnesia.

We can longer tolerate the nonsense. Dean and I ” find it somewhat interesting to wonder how much longer it will take the majority of Malaysians to finally lose all interest in tolerating, let alone supporting and voting for this accursed regime, and start living in more enlightened times”. We are at our wits’ end, trying to seek an explanation for this indifference (the tidak apa mindset).–Din Merican

Interesting Times

by Dean Johns

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Malaysian Official 1

“May you live in interesting times”, as we all know, is widely alleged to be an ancient Chinese curse in which the word ‘interesting’ is ironically intended to be interpreted in the negative sense of ‘troubled’.

But apparently there is no more evidence for the contention that this saying is actually either ancient or Chinese than there is for its implied proposition that there have ever been times in human history that were other than interesting in the sense of troubled, if not outright tragic, for at least some people, somewhere.

Or, indeed, fundamentally, for all people everywhere, in light of the apparent fact that only we humans, of all living creatures, are uncomfortably aware of the interesting reality that we will all inevitably die.

Thus we struggle to sustain our life-forces for as long and greedily and powerfully as possible, ferociously competing both individually and, paradoxically, as cooperative members of competing families, clans, tribes, races, classes, clubs, ideologies, political parties, systems of government and nation-states.

And perhaps most interestingly of all, a good many if not the majority of us strive to cheat death, or at least to pretend that earthly death is not really the end, with the illusion that some imagined deity or another, and self-identification as one of his/her/its devotees, will somehow ensure us eternal survival.

Given urges, illusions and delusions as confused and conflicted as these, it is as inevitable as death itself that each of us lives in times rendered interesting as in troubling or tragic by everything from or own inner turmoil and interpersonal antipathies to outright civil, sectarian, international and even world wars.

However, this observation leads to the thought that the apocryphal ancient Chinese curse under consideration here should be extended to “may you live in interesting times… and places”.

Because it strikes me, as the end of my life grows more imminent, that though I have most certainly survived through some horrifically interesting times, I have been fortunate to experience most of them from a quite uninteresting and thus relatively safe distance.

In other words, I have been more of a spectator than a participant in most of the most interesting times I have lived through, and so have luckily lived long enough to see some times and places turn from extremely negatively to very positively interesting.

For example, I was born into one of the most tragically interesting of relatively recent times, the 1939-45 Second World War, but as an infant I was both blithely ignorant of this horrific event, and, then located as I was in Melbourne, Australia, about as far from its ravages as it was possible to be.

Similarly, I was too young as well as too far away to participate, as many of my fellow Australian citizens were sadly fated to do, in the subsequent Korean War and Malayan Emergency; too married and too distant in Sydney to be caught-up in the woeful war in Vietnam; and too old as well as far-distant to be involved in more recent armed conflicts on such far-flung battlegrounds as East Timor, the Gulf, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Bad-interesting becoming good-interesting

I have been fortunate, too, to be able to witness if not directly experience the fact that many of the places in which life has formerly seemed, and indeed actually been, about as bad-interesting as can be, have surprisingly become as good-interesting as they could possibly get.

In the 70 years or so of my lifetime, for instance, nations like Germany and Japan have transformed themselves from insufferably and fatally interesting examples of the evils of Fascism into positively fascinating case-studies in peaceful prosperity.

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A Much Admired POTUS

Somewhat similarly, the former USSR, which US President Ronald Reagan rightly dubbed ‘The Evil Empire’, long ago collapsed under the weight of its own economic ineptitude, thus freeing most of its so-called ‘satellites’ in Eastern Europe from its tentacles.

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Donald Trump’s Soulmate

Though unfortunately Russia itself remains interesting in the alleged ancient Chinese accursed sense, thanks to its President Vladimir Putin’s apparent determination to keep the place more interesting for his oligarch and other criminal cronies, as well as for criminal client-states like al-Assad’s all-too-interesting Syria, than for Russia’s ordinary citizens.

And appropriately enough, as the (mis)attributed source of the ancient “may you live in interesting times” curse, China remains as negatively interesting as ever, thanks to its fake designation as a ‘people’s’ republic despite the fact that it remains all-too-obviously a dictatorship of a corrupt capitalist party that still, interestingly, claims to be communist.

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I hope Malaysia can be spared of this menace

Meanwhile, as long as this column is for Malaysiakini and thus must at least mention Malaysia, it has to be said that life continues to be interesting in the same old, same old dreary way as it has been for five centuries or so under a series of colonisers including the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Japanese, then British again and now the self-styled putras of UMNO-BN.

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I miss Saloma and P. Ramlee–Din Merican

Interesting, in other words, only by virtue of the fact that the powers-that-be have so long and so comprehensively stacked the nation’s institutions in their favour as to get away with stealing not just the principal of the people’s cash and publicly-owned resources, but the interest into the bargain.

Though I have to confess I also find it somewhat interesting to wonder how much longer it will take the majority of Malaysians to finally lose all interest in tolerating, let alone supporting and voting for this accursed regime, and start living in more enlightened times.

Malaysia in the dumps

October 22, 2016

Malaysia in the dumps on account of Najib’s racist politics and bad economics

by Greg Lopez

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Malaysia has been governed by the same ruling coalition (Barisan Nasional) since independence in 1957. This coalition provided capable leadership to address the four cross-cutting issues that enabled high and sustainable growth. But the Najib Razak administration appears not only to be faltering in managing these challenges but is actively undermining these achievements to remain in power.–Greg Lopez

Malaysia’s leadership troubles could provide a valuable lesson for other middle-income countries on the importance of effective leadership to sustain long term growth. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has denied allegations of corruption made by The Wall Street Journal. But can a leader and his administration that has been rejected by the electorate drive long term growth?

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In May 2008, the United Nations Commission on Growth and Development issued a report that attempted to distil the strategies and policies that produced sustained high growth in developing countries. It is clear from the report that politics and leadership are key to successful development. In particular, there are four cross-cutting issues that good leadership delivered: promoting national unity; building high quality institutions; choosing innovative and localised policies; and creating political consensus for long-run policy implementation.

Malaysia is among 13 nations (Botswana, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malta, Oman, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand) that the report identified as having sustained growth rates of above 7 per cent for 25 years or more. These 13 countries had five strikingly similar characteristics: they fully exploited global economic opportunities; they maintained macroeconomic stability; they mustered high rates of savings and investment; they let markets allocate resources; and they had committed, credible, capable governments.

Malaysia has been governed by the same ruling coalition since independence in 1957. This coalition provided capable leadership to address the four cross-cutting issues that enabled high and sustainable growth. But the Najib Razak administration appears not only to be faltering in managing these challenges but is actively undermining these achievements to remain in power.

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The Wharton educated Playboy

At the 13th Malaysian general elections, the Barisan Nasional coalition only managed to secure 47.4 per cent of the popular vote while the opposition coalition secured 50.9 per cent. This is the first time that the ruling coalition has lost the support of the majority of Malaysians. Najib took a presidential approach to the election and committed to spending an estimated US$17.6 billion of targeted development pledges and 1 Malaysia Programs. So it was a shock when the majority of Malaysians opted for a ragtag coalition that included an Islamist party and a socialist party led by a discredited leader.

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Malaysia’s Rosie Mansor, not Rosie O’donnell

Malaysia’s Najib’s popularity had been on a downward trend, from a high of 72 per cent in May 2010 to below 50 per cent in January 2015. But the series of damaging allegations has not only damaged his reputation irrevocably, it has also cemented a negative perception of the government. The majority of Malaysians no longer look favourably upon their government and its institutions. The most recent survey — polled in October 2015 after Najib admitted receiving a US$700 million ‘donation’ into his private bank account — found that 4 out 5 Malaysians were unhappy with the current government.

More damaging perhaps is the fact that only 31 per cent of Malays — the bedrock of support for the United Malays’ National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition — were happy with the government’s current performance. The fall among Malays is drastic. It stood at 52 per cent in January 2015 and had never gone below 50 per cent since the independent pollster Merdeka Centre began tracking this data in February 2012. More Malaysians are also of the opinion that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Significantly, this change in sentiment began in the beginning of 2014, several months after the 13th general elections.

In response, Najib has taken several measures to protect his leadership position. These measures have further undermined Malaysia’s national unity, institutions and policy process.

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Najib and Hadi–Malaysia’s Political Laurel and Hardy

Despite the rhetoric of being the leader of all Malaysians, Najib has actively pursued a ‘Malay and Islamic’ supremacy strategy. And he has cosied up with UMNO’s mortal enemy, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. The rise of fundamentalist Islam — as in the rest of the world — is a threat in Malaysia. But Najib has sought to bolster his credentials by appealing to conservative Muslims. This has empowered and emboldened the conservative Islamic elements within Malaysia.

Policy making and implementation have been insulated from public scrutiny since the government of long-serving former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed. But under Najib it has even been insulated from scrutiny by the cabinet, let alone the parliament. All major decisions are made by the prime minister and implemented through a hybrid organisation within the Prime Minister’s Department.

Despite Najib’s active pursuit of policies that are detrimental to Malaysian foundations, his economic track record appears to be sound. Malaysia could become a high income country by 2020. Yet Malaysians remain unimpressed by Najib Razak.

Institutions are not built in a day and the impact of Najib’s measures on Malaysia’s longer term growth prospects remain to be seen. For now, other countries caught in the middle-income trap should closely observe the developments in Malaysia.

Greg Lopez is a lecturer with Murdoch University Executive Education Centre, Western Australia. His research interests are in the interaction between states, societies and markets in the ASEAN region.


KJ John on Great Leadership

October 21, 2016

KJ John on Great Leadership

by Dr. KJ John

Great leadership is only when all community leaders of Malaysia, whether appointed, elected, or voluntary choose to put nation-state interests above their own and ‘Serve to Lead’ our nation out of the current quagmire.–KJ John

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For all his faults, contradictions and paradoxes, Dr. Mahathir is Malaysia’s Great Leader and he comes from my state Kedah–Din Merican

Premised upon my last three columns on patriotism, a small debate ensued on Facebook about whom or what defines good or great leadership. This column is my response to that query, but I would like to address it from a perspective of an RMC Old Putera, the alumni of the Royal Military College (RMC); our alma mater.

All Old Puteras were trained to ‘Serve to Lead’, or ‘Berkhidmat Memimpin’. The unasked question is who then do we serve and lead? Every Saturday, at the parade square, we actually saluted the flag of the federation, what is now called the ‘Jalur Gemilang’. Therein lay the answer as to whom we were called and taught to serve or seek to lead.

From good to great

Many books have been written about the two words ‘good versus great’. ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins is one very popular one. In the nineties, ‘Built to Last’ was published about great companies with good work ethics and a mature performance culture. But the question remained, what about the company which is not born with a great DNA? How can good companies, mediocre companies, even bad companies achieve enduring greatness?

“For years, this question preyed on the mind of Jim Collins. Are there companies that defy gravity and convert long-term mediocrity or worse into long-term superiority? And if so, what are the universal distinguishing characteristics that cause a company to go from good to great?”

I can fully understand why most authors, writers, and scholars shy away from the word, ‘good’. When a Nicodemus, a teacher of the laws of Israel, approached Jesus and asked the question by night, “Good Teacher, how do I inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with another question: “Why do you call me good; only God is good”.

Therefore, for human systems or organisations like companies or countries, it is easier to talk about being great places for good to great experiences. In fact, Robert Levering, another researcher, as a sequel to ‘In Search of Excellence’ by Peters and Waterman, wrote ‘A Great Place to Work’:

“Good workplaces are worth examining if for no other reason than that they enrich the lives of the people working there. Everyone, after all, would prefer working in a pleasant environment to an unpleasant one. Since most of us spend the greater part of our waking hours at work, this is no small matter.”

Great leadership in Malaysia

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What would great leadership in Malaysia look like? Would it just be, “I did it My Way?” which appears to be Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte’s favourite song? Or, is it our Malaysian way of ‘close one eye culture’ of ‘nasi campur’ – all and sundry meshed together on the same plate, but very delicious to the stomach and human desires? While palatable, it may not be good either for health or body?

What is the kind and quality of good leadership for Malaysia; of the ‘Serve to Lead’ kind? To answer this question, first we need to define the units of analysis to peg the problem definition at its core and essence.

Malaysia is a federation

Any federation is a coming together, a willing one, of many parts to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That means the whole federation is a unit of analysis greater that all its parts. We are not a confederation either. A confederation is the coming together of small groups of constituent sub-wholes to make a greater whole. The European Union (EU) is more like a confederation.

For example the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers is a confederation of many industry associations and they come together as a greater whole to dialogue and take concerns with the government or any other party.

Neither are we a unitary state like the Philippines or Indonesia. They have no states with legal existence; except for the newly-created autonomous zones of Aceh, or the Muslim South areas of Mindanao. In Indonesia, post the tsunami, Aceh was made an autonomous zone because of the unique problems they faced.

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Najib Razak is Malaysia’s Most Corrupt Politician  but no Leader, Amen

Malaysia is a therefore a federation of three constituent parts; of the two Borneo States, and the Federation of Malay States. Our whole is greater but the sum of the parts is not 13 or 14; whichever way we argue it, but rather three constituent parts, since Singapore left in 1965.

Parliamentary and constitutional democracy

While nine feudal Malay kingdoms came together to make the Federation of Malaya with two Straits Settlements in 1957, our system of governance was designed, developed, and crafted to become a constitutional democracy. The Parliament defines our laws; both in letter and spirit.

Then, in 1963, when the new Borneo States with Singapore came together to make or form the bigger reality called Malaysia; it was not merely a linear projection of the Merdeka Democracy. It really is an improvement of our parliamentary and constitutional democracy of the four, and later, three states to become a brand new whole greater than the sum of its three parts.

The Federal Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Federation, and it defines all else, including the structure, format, and principles of how our democracy is to be framed, shaped, and continue to be improved.

Anything that detracts from the supremacy of this Federal Constitution, including new developments through the specific interpretation of a Wahhabi form of Islam, or a Shiite-Sufi Islam cannot be included simply because of the tyranny of a majority. The constitution reigns supreme.

Constitutional monarchy

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A Gallery of Malaysia’s Constitutional Monarchs

This past week we had the meeting of the Rulers-in-Council; these include all nine Malay State Rulers, plus politically appointed ‘Malay’ governors, or the other four legitimate entities and their respective politically elected heads of state. All such meetings and protocols are well enshrined protocols within the constitution.

What is not well enshrined by the Federal Constitution can be considered as traditional Malay customs or culture from their historic system of feudal governance of these nine respective states.

Great leadership is only when all community leaders of Malaysia, whether appointed, elected, or voluntary choose to put nation-state interests above their own and ‘Serve to Lead’ our nation out of the current quagmire. May God continue to forgive our ignorance and arrogance.

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(This column is dedicated as my prayer for the future of the nation-state, especially for my grandson who turns two years of life as a Malaysian living in this country we love.)


At 50–Quo Vadis ASEAN

October 20,2016

At 50–Quo Vadis ASEAN

by Tess Bacala

As the international backlash continues over Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, the lack of due process and the consequent deaths of “suspects” in his campaign, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN), along with its individual member states, has been characteristically silent.

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For instance, ASEAN’s leaders and ministers met at their summit in the Lao capital Vientiane last September and discussed a range of issues in the region and beyond. But neither the organization nor its members raised a whimper about rights concerns on the extrajudicial killings of supposed drug users and pushers since Duterte assumed office on June 30.  News reports put the figure of alleged users and pushers killed at more than 3,000 since Duterte took over.

ASEAN’s silence on this issue was not particularly a surprise, but it was the latest example of how it is not the organization’s habit to tell off a member state about its domestic issues.

More typically, it was an outside state like the United States, though not a disinterested country, that brought up the issue of human rights at the September 6-8 summit, where Duterte made his debut on the regional stage.

To human rights advocates across the region, the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits, held back to back this year, should have been an apt occasion to discuss a subject that is otherwise anathema to the Southeast Asian organization, especially given its theme, ’ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together’, which defines the vision of the ASEAN Community for the next decade.

At the ASEAN-US summit in Vientiane, President Barack Obama called to mind a “common vision” for the region — “(a)n open, dynamic and economically competitive Asia-Pacific that respects human rights and upholds the law-based order.”

But this is far from how the situation is from the view of the sectors that have been at the receiving end of certain governments’ systemic suppression of dissent at home. This also comes at a time when the ASEAN Community has been formed with its three pillars — political security, socio-cultural, and economic – and where its peoples can enjoy “human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

ASEAN continues to steer clear of human rights issues in line with the principle of non-interference in its member states’ internal affairs. But as ASEAN turns 50 next year, critics say this adherence to non-intervention should not be absolute, especially now that economic integration is going full throttle after the launch of the ASEAN Community’s in December 2015.

Economic but not political openness

The organization has shown much more openness – and willingness to let go of sovereignty concerns – in the areas of economics and business rather than in political areas such as human rights.

“ASEAN has promoted a harmful contradiction. Member states have abandoned ASEAN principles of ‘non-interference’ and ‘state sovereignty’ in relation to capital and economic policy but doggedly retained them in relation to human rights,” says the alternative document titled ‘Vision 2025: ASEAN Women’s Blueprints for Alternative Regionalism’.

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Ryerson University (Canada)’s Dr. Sorpong Peou

Over recent decades, Southeast Asia has experienced three ‘miracles’: economic growth, the disappearance of mass atrocities, and efforts to promote regional peace and community building,” said Dr. Sorpong Peou, chairperson of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Canada. “Large-scale killings or genocide such as those in Indonesia (1965–66), Cambodia (1975–1978 under the Khmer Rouge), and East Timor (1975–1999 under the Indonesian occupation) “have all disappeared from contemporary Southeast Asia.”

“But authoritarianism keeps threatening to return,” wrote the Cambodian-born scholar in a commentary published by the East Asia Forum in March. “Below the surface of official declarations lies an acceptance among most ASEAN leaders that democracy and human rights should not be pushed too fast and too far.”

Appreciation and interpretation of human rights are subject to national interest rather than international human rights standards,” said Jaymie Ann Reyes, program manager of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism. The Working Group, a coalition of individuals and organizations that include civil society and academics, engages ASEAN on specific rights initiatives.

Rights? It depends

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Some human rights themes and focuses are more acceptable to ASEAN such as women’s rights, children’s rights, and rights of persons with disabilities,” Reyes added.

All 10 member states have ratified the UN Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Rights of the Child, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “But there are more ‘sensitive’ issues that are not discussed for fear of violating the principle of ‘non-interference,’” she said.

One of these is refugee protection. The majority of ASEAN countries have not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1954 Statelessness Convention.

A wide range of other rights concerns continues to exist today across the region of 620 million people.

In Indonesia, the vigorous implementation of the death penalty, the enactment of more discriminatory laws against women, and violent attacks against religious minorities are bedeviling the government, according to Human Rights Watch.

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Neighboring Malaysia recently passed the National Security Council Act (NSCA), which empowers the government to declare martial law in areas where there are perceived security threats. Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, passed in Parliament just a month ahead of the Vientiane summit, is seen as yet another attempt to muzzle freedom of expression in the city-state.

The decades-old Internal Security Act, which allows arrests without warrant and indefinite detention without trial, remains firmly in place in Singapore. (A similar law in Malaysia was abolished in 2012. Yet four years later, the NSCA came into force.)

Thailand’s new constitution — approved in a referendum on August 7 — is seen to reinforce the military’s two-year hold on power.

“For the people in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, the democratic crisis has meant increasing crackdowns on journalists, human rights lawyers, opposition politicians, bloggers, activists and religious leaders. Political deterioration has also contributed to internal conflict in Southeast Asia,” said Yuyun Wahyuningrum, senior advisor on ASEAN and Human Rights at the Human Rights Working Group, a coalition of more than 50 groups advocating for human rights in Indonesia.

The Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), sees “a trend of shrinking civil society space” despite “ASEAN’s aim to be a people-centered and people-oriented community”.

In Cambodia, government critics have been jailed, and more oppressive laws passed. For instance, Kem Ley, leader of the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer, was gunned down in broad daylight in the capital Phnom Penh on July 10 this year.

Although Myanmar has ceased to be a pariah state, its democratic transition has been marked by concern over discrimination against Rohingya Muslims, who are stateless in the mainly Buddhist country.

Punishment under Hudud

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Critics have also dubbed as medieval Brunei’s announcement in October 2013 to impose a tough shariah penal code system, after its chairmanship of ASEAN that same year.

Yet ASEAN prides itself on having an “overarching human rights institution” such as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

In fact, the ASEAN Chair’s statement in Vientiane commended the commission for “the progress of (its) work” and urged it to “promote the mainstreaming of human rights across all three pillars of the ASEAN Community”. But how such “progress” is measured and improves the rights landscape is not clear.

On the eve of the Vientiane summit, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights appealed to ASEAN leaders “to press the Lao government to cease the abuses that have consistently placed Laos at the bottom of rights and development indexes measuring rights, press freedom, democracy, religious freedom, and economic transparency.”

This referred to the unresolved disappearance of Lao activist Sombath Somphone, missing since December 2012. The Lao government had earlier said the issue had no place at the ASEAN meetings.

Looking back, ASEAN’s road to setting up a human rights commission – whose limitations its own commissioners concede – has been far from smooth. The commission’s creation was already a feat by itself.

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ASEAN launched in Bangkok in 1967

The regional grouping laid down the ASEAN Charter in 2008, which stipulated the creation of a human rights body. AICHR was created in 2009. In a process criticized by civil society for falling short of international standards, ASEAN drafted an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012.

From being taboo, human rights principles were slowly integrated into ASEAN documents, institutions, and language. ASEAN bodies and government representatives are slowly adopting and using human rights language,” said Reyes of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism.

But the AICHR’s limited mandate does not include receiving and investigating rights complaints. “It is high time it (AICHR) evolved from promotion to the protection of human rights,” said a statement by the Thai Civil Society Network on ASEAN and AICHR.

Today, “all ASEAN human rights instruments recognise universal human rights standards with caveats: the principle of non-interference and due regard to the different culture, history, and socioeconomic condition in each ASEAN member state,” Ranyta Yusran, research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law, said at a legal conference in Beijing in May.

Wahyuningrum of the Jakarta-based Human Rights Working Group said: “Human rights and democracy issues (in the region) are not going to simmer down. How is ASEAN going to keep up with these changes if it remains too bureaucratic and difficult to engage with?”

But she said there are encouraging signs. At a recent meeting she attended in Bangkok on legal aid and witness protection for victims of cross-border trafficking, participants acknowledged the political differences among the member states they were representing, but nevertheless focused on cooperation. The participants wanted to develop a cross-border witness protection standard operating procedure, which is a “good start,” she said.

Although AICHR has not adapted to “the changing context and structural challenges” of rights protection, Wahyuningrum credited it with initiating activities that have helped set “different platforms for subregional debate on human rights and clarified the ASEAN dimension on responses to human rights issues”.

For Reyes, there has also been “more robust engagement between and among non-governmental and civil society organizations,” though this faces challenges.

All eyes are now looking to 2017, when the Philippines takes its turn as ASEAN chair during the organization’s 50th year. The country has had a record of speaking up against rights abuses in ASEAN, but there are questions about how – and whether it can still do this credibly – given the furore over extrajudicial killings in the Duterte government’s crackdown on illegal drugs.

Tess Bacala wrote this as a fellow of the Reporting ASEAN project of Inter-Pres Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific (  This story was produced under the “Reporting Development in ASEAN” series of Inter-Press Service Asia-Pacific. 

Nazir Razak and Promoters of National Consultative Council 2 (NCC 2)–Don’t be Naive

October 19, 2016

Message for Nazir Razak and Promoters of  National Consultative Council 2 (NCC 2)–Don’t be Naive

by Dr. Kua Kia Soong

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My Advice to Nazir Razak and G-25–Remove this Toxicity First–Din Merican

…as long as pro-Bumiputera policies remain useful in winning Bumiputera votes, it is unlikely that the ruling class in UMNO will want to dispense with this method of rule. Racism has been thoroughly infused in all the national institutions, including racist indoctrination of Bumiputeras in state institutions such as the BTN that recently came to light.

Since Najib introduced the slogan “1Malaysia” to try to woo the disaffected non-Bumiputera voters after the 2008 fiasco, strident racism often associated with UMNO Youth has now been outsourced to the far-right Malay supremacist groups. They continue to play the role of storm troopers and disrupt activities organised by civil society to promote social justice, democracy and human rights. UMNO’s competition with PAS has also heightened Islamic populism in the country, with dire consequences for ethnic relations. Above all, racial discrimination facilitates crony capitalism that is essential to UMNO’s monopoly of power. This has not changed since the Mahathir era.–Dr Kua Kia Soong

I understand the sentiments of “moderates” who are rightly alarmed at the increasing racism, religious bigotry and corruption in Malaysia and are proposing the establishment of a new ‘National Consultative Council’ (NCC2) like the one set up after May 13, 1969. But are they harbouring naïve views about how an NCC type approach can meaningfully address such concerns?

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The presupposition behind those who call for unity and good sense and a rational way ahead for the nation is that “racial” discord in our society and the present slide into a banana republic can be solved through a council of eminent persons who will plot the path forward for the nation. But was that what was actually achieved by the NCC after the May 13 riots in 1969?

Who were behind the May 13 incident?

The official version of Malaysian history places the cause of May 13 on an inevitable clash between the “races” because of intractable inequalities between the ethnic communities. ‘Tanda Putera’, the official film goes even further by imputing blame on “provocation of the Malays” by the Opposition after the 1969 general election.

What did the NCC actually achieve?

The National Consultative Council was headed by Tun Abdul Razak who became the new Prime Minister after Tunku stepped down. It formulated the Rukun Negara that was intended to create harmony and unity among the various races in Malaysia. Although the Rukun Negara has often been touted as the panacea for our current problems in the country, I demur on two grounds: First, this so-called “national philosophy” was crafted and promulgated under a state of emergency and not passed through the democratic processes afforded by the Federal Parliament; second, the ‘eminent persons’ responsible for it were not inclusive enough for they left out groups such as our indigenous peoples and Buddhists among others when they insisted on “belief in God” as one of the pillars of this state ideology.

The NEP was the game changer

Thereafter, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was launched in 1971. The NEP was aimed at “creating unity among the various races in Malaysia through reducing the economic gap between the Malays and Bumiputera on the one hand, and the non-Malays on the other”. It was a social re-engineering action programme formulated by the National Operation Council (NOC) formed in the aftermath of May 13, 1969 riots. This policy was intended to be implemented for a period of 20 years but it has since, under different guises, become a Never Ending Policy.

It is important to note that the New Economic Policy that has transformed Malaysian society and also institutionalised racial discrimination all these years was the prerogative of the National Operation Council (NOC) and not the NCC. The NOC was the preserve of the Minister of Home Affairs, the leaders of UMNO, MCA & MIC, Chief of Armed Forces Staff and Inspector-General of Police. The council of eminent persons in the NCC only dealt with the formulation of the Rukun Negara. The National Cultural Policy was announced also in 1971 after a conference at which a token number of non-Malay academics were invited.

So let us be clear about what the NCC actually achieved after May 13. The NCC certainly failed to prevent the numerous amendments to the Constitution which have entrenched inequality since 1971, the most serious of which has been Amendment 8A to Article 153 in 1971, allowing more racial discrimination through the “quota system”. Nor did it prevent the amendment to Article 121 in 1988 that made provisions for the recognition of Islamic shariah courts/laws – since then, the Judiciary has tended to defer its powers to the shariah courts whenever there are disputes in conversion cases.

A fine mess you’ve got us into

So how did we end up in the mess we find ourselves in at present that is troubling the “moderates” and corporate players?

First, we have to thank Dr Mahathir Mohamad for privatising most of our state assets when he came to office in 1981 right up to 2003. These were assets that we all owned that were sold for a song to private capitalists. By 1989, the contribution of the private sector to economic growth exceeded that of the public sector and Mahathir’s mission to transfer state capital to private Malay capitalist hands was well on target. During Mahathir’s tenure as Prime Minister, three main UMNO officials focused their attention on building “Bumiputera capitalists”. This was facilitated after Umno was declared illegal in 1988 and its assets were required to be sold off. The three were Mahathir himself, crafty Daim Zainuddin who was his finance minister during two phases in Mahathir’s term and thirdly, Anwar Ibrahim who, before his downfall in September 1998, was second in power to Mahathir. All three had their respective corporate connections.

Image result for Daim and Mahathir

During the financial crisis of 1997, the state provided support for favoured firms linked to “Bumiputera capitalists” after the imposition of capital controls, such as reflationary measures that included cutting interest rates and making credit more readily available to these fledgling firms. Banks were also encouraged to lend more, and to bail out troubled firms – including that of Mahathir’s son – and a new expansionary budget was introduced in October 1998.

Apart from his historic creation of Malay private capital through privatisation of state assets and his grandiose projects, Mahathir left a racist legacy that was the result of his populist intention to win over the Bumiputera votes. The racial discrimination implicit in the NEP was continued without any public debate; poverty was racialised as mainly a Bumiputera phenomenon; “Bumiputeras only” institutions were expanded, and racial discrimination was extended to discounts and quotas for housing, access to investment funds, loans and scholarships. This racist legacy included a chauvinistic National Cultural Policy that tried to pander to Malay-centrism with dire consequences for ethnic relations, especially in 1987.

Mahathir’s term in office was marked by sensational financial scandals that were not unexpected of an authoritarian populist who did not pay much heed to accountability and good governance. No one knows about all these scandals better than the leader of the Opposition who must declare if Mahathir can get away with impunity.

Mahathir’s racist paradigm was translated across the board to incorporate political, economic, educational, social and cultural policies and he left a racist legacy that has today been latched upon by a far-right Malay supremacist group of which he is the patron. This Malay-centric ideology they purvey has become increasingly infused with extreme Islamic populism, leaving even “moderate” Malays worried for the future.

Najib has merely extended Mahathir’s methods of rule

At the 13th general election (GE13) held on May 5, 2013, the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won 133 of the 222 seats in Parliament, preserving its majority, despite the fact that it only received 47.38 per cent of the popular vote against 50.87 for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition. Soon after GE13, UMNO decided to punish the non-Malays for their support of the opposition PR by giving only 19 per cent of places in public universities to Chinese students and 4 per cent to Indian students even though the two ethnic groups together make up about 30 per cent of the student population. Mahathir castigated Prime Minister Najib Razak for wasting election funds on Chinese voters.

Image result for Najib and Rosmah Mansor

The GE13 results signalled a return to Mahathir’s strident racial politics and a U-turn on Najib’s pre-election attempt to reach out to the other races through his slogan “1Malaysia”. As noted above, Umno’s erstwhile Malay chauvinist credentials have since been farmed out to Malay far-right organisations like Perkasa and other groups. The latter will seek to prolong pro-Malay discriminatory policies and Najib’s pre-election attempts to cut back on ethnic Malay privileges in the NEP now seem politically futile.

While it is the growing trend of many countries to reduce their civil service, Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Department in particular, has done the opposite. It has more than doubled its number of civil servants from 21,000 to 43,554. In stark contrast, the White House employs only 1,888 staff! To date, there are ten “Ministers in the Prime Minister’s Department” alone, on top of other important agencies or governmental bodies that fall within the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department. These include, among others, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Election Commission of Malaysia, Department of Islamic Development, Public Service Department, Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal, the Judicial Appointments Commission, Economic Planning Unit and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.

Image result for The Malaysian civil service

Image result for The Malaysian civil service

The oversized bureaucracy and the Bumiputera-ist populism have, in turn, created massive leakages in the economy. In 2010, Cuepacs President Omar Osman revealed that a total of 418,200 or 41 per cent of the 1.2 million civil servants in the country were suspected to be involved in corruption. The 2009 Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) report revealed that Malaysians generally consider political parties and civil service to be the most corrupt groups, and the government’s anti-corruption drive to be ineffective.

Thus, instead of focussing on remedying the particular needs of the various poor classes in Malaysian society, the state has chosen to blame the plight of the Malay peasantry on “Chinese dominance of the economy”. At the same time, the state’s populist Bumiputera policy is intended to win over the allegiance of the whole Malay community while mainly benefiting the wealthier strata most of all.

The NEP and the state’s authoritarian populism

The state has subverted the democratic process through the proscription of so-called “sensitive” issues that include questioning the special position of the Malays, the national language and the rulers’ privileges. These proscriptions have been implemented through the use of detention without trial laws as well as the Sedition Act. Thus, the demands of workers and peasants, educational, religious and cultural organisations, indigenous peoples and regional minorities have been summarily dealt with through the cynical use of such repressive laws.

Image result for new economic policy malaysia

The NEP has served to institutionalise racial discrimination and its continuation is crucial to the authoritarian populism of the Malaysian state. This is blatantly practiced in the armed and civil services, education and economic sectors. Communalism, which is an intrinsic part of the state’s ideology, continues to produce tension in Malaysian society today and even more so after the challenge to the status quo at the 2008 general election. Even while Malaysia has been experiencing healthy economic growth rates since the seventies, the Malaysian state has had to rely on continued repression and communalist policies to divide the people.

The movement for genuine reforms

To conclude, as long as pro-Bumiputera policies remain useful in winning Bumiputera votes, it is unlikely that the ruling class in Umno will want to dispense with this method of rule. Racism has been thoroughly infused in all the national institutions, including racist indoctrination of Bumiputeras in state institutions such as the BTN that recently came to light. Since Najib introduced the slogan “1Malaysia” to try to woo the disaffected non-Bumiputera voters after the 2008 fiasco, strident racism often associated with Umno Youth has now been outsourced to the far-right Malay supremacist groups. They continue to play the role of storm troopers and disrupt activities organised by civil society to promote social justice, democracy and human rights. UMNO’s competition with PAS has also heightened Islamic populism in the country, with dire consequences for ethnic relations. Above all, racial discrimination facilitates crony capitalism that is essential to UMNO’s monopoly of power. This has not changed since the Mahathir era.

The ethnic Indian working class and the indigenous peoples in both East and West Malaysia are the poorest communities in Malaysia; the former and the Orang Asli cannot rely on “Bumiputera” privileges, while the indigenous peoples of East Malaysia do not enjoy the same amount of state largesse as the Malays in West Malaysia even though they are categorised as Bumiputeras.

So, if there is going to be an NCC2, will the new council of “eminent persons” be prepared to face this reality and join the movement for genuine reforms in order to progress into the future. The road toward uniting the Malaysian peoples is through a concerted effort for greater democracy not only in the political realm but also in economic, educational, social and cultural policies. The state’s ideological view of “national unity” through one language and one culture and the dissolution of Chinese and Tamil schools are intended to fuel Malay chauvinism. The basis of unity rests fundamentally on the recognition of the equality of all nationalities. The imposition of one language and one culture on all the communities will produce only a hollow unity.

The basis for unity among the people has also to embody a commitment to democracy and policies that will improve the living standards of workers and farmers of all communities and at the same time unite them. These components involve the lifting of restrictions on legitimate political organisation and activity, as well as the encouragement of social and political institutions that ensure genuine popular control.

Thus, the task for all Malaysians is to build a solidarity movement for democracy, fully cognisant of the need to improve the livelihood of the masses and build a society that is progressive, inclusive and truly equal.

Kua Kia Soong is the advisor of Suaram (Suara Rakyat Malaysia).

Excellence: A Point of View

October 18, 2016

Excellence: A Point of View

COMMENT: Everyone in Malaysia talks about the pursuit of excellence and some pretend to know what it means, especially  our mediocre politicians in power and men in the public service who are tasked to implement our national education policy and Blue Ocean Strategy.

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We employ snake oil consultants  and experts to write glossy blueprints and reports at horrendous cost to taxpayers but fail to execute them.  We create institutions like Pemandu to promote Najib’s deformation agenda, and Permata for bright kids, while our Chief Secretary to the Government makes himself advocate-in-chief of the Blue Ocean Strategy concept to suck up to Najib Razak. In reality, we do not know what excellence is, what it takes and how to get there.

Image result for blue ocean strategy malaysia

Excellence is a simple idea if we are serious about it. All we need to do is change our attitude. Talk is cheap. Stop it and start taking action.

Malaysia has an attitude problem and it is our greatest obstacle to our future as a people and a nation. Where to begin? It has to be first fixing our education system to become a nation of high achievers and second we must stop playing politics  with the education of our future generation. But we are not doing that because UMNO politicians are afraid of  smart and pushy Malays in particular.

I wish to share with you A C Grayling’s thoughts on Excellence. This philosopher is endowed with the ability to communicate with ordinary men and women in clear and concise language. Read his article and share your comments.–Din Merican

Grayling on Excellence

When Matthew Arnold wrote Culture and Anarchy over a hundred years ago, he described the pursuit of excellence in the fostering of culture as “getting to know, on all matters that most concern us. the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”

Arnold was an inspector of schools, and a champion of higher education, and he believed in excellence in education as the way not only to staff the economy but to produce an enculturated society which would live up to the ideal in Aristotle’s noble dictum about the educated use of our leisure.

Image result for AC Grayling with undergraduates

From China to France, every country that is or aspires to be developed has an elite educational stratum, aimed at taking the most gifted students and giving them the best intellectual training possible. In China this is done at an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. In France the system of Hautes Ecoles–superior universities, entry to which is fiercely competitive–creams off the outstanding minds and subjects them to a rigorous discipline. The aim in all cases is to enhance the best in order to gain the highest quality in science, engineering, law, national administration, medicine and the arts.

Few could object to the rationale behind this, save those for whom universal mediocrity is a  price worth paying for social equality (or in the case of Malaysia where mediocrity is a means of political control, added by Din Merican). But there is the danger to which meritocratic means to the cultivation of excellence – or what should be solely such – fall prey. It is if, after the establishment of the means, merit by itself ceases to be enough, and money and influence become additional criteria. In many, perhaps most, countries in the world, money and influence are the determiners of social advancement, even where meritocratic criteria still apply too: in America money is needed to gain social advantages, in China it helps to be a Party member.

The rich and the well connected are not the kind of elite an  education system ought to be fostering. It is easy for popular newspapers and populist politicians to make pejorative use of the term ‘elite’ to connote these elites of injustice; but they are just as quick to complain if doctors, teachers, or sportsmen playing for national sides fail our highest expectations- if, in short, they are not elite after all, in the proper sense of the term.

Although there are few if any true democracies in the world– most dispensations claiming that name are elective oligarchies–the democratic spirit nevertheless invests Western life, for good and ill both. The good resides in the pressure to treat everyone fairly, the ill resides in the pressure to make everyone alike. The latter is a levelling tendency, a downward thrust, which dislikes excellence because it raises mountains where the negative-democratic spirit wishes to see only plains.

But democracy should not aim to reduce people and their achievements to a common denominator; it should aim to raise them, ambitiously and dramatically, as close as possible to an ideal. And that means, among other things, having institutions, especially of learning, which are the best and most demanding of their kind.

The Meaning of Things–Applying Philosophy to Life by AC Grayling (London: Weidenfeld &Nicolson, 2001) pp.160-161