The Chinese Century

February 6, 2015

The Chinese Century

Without fanfare—indeed, with some misgivings about its new status—China has just overtaken the United States as the world’s largest economy. This is, and should be, a wake-up call—but not the kind most Americans might imagine.

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SOFT POWER For America, the best response to China is to put our own house in order.

joseph-e-stiglitzWhen the history of 2014 is written, it will take note of a large fact that has received little attention: 2014 was the last year in which the United States could claim to be the world’s largest economic power. China enters 2015 in the top position, where it will likely remain for a very long time, if not forever. In doing so, it returns to the position it held through most of human history.

Comparing the gross domestic product of different economies is very difficult. Technical committees come up with estimates, based on the best judgments possible, of what are called “purchasing-power parities,” which enable the comparison of incomes in various countries. These shouldn’t be taken as precise numbers, but they do provide a good basis for assessing the relative size of different economies. Early in 2014, the body that conducts these international assessments—the World Bank’s International Comparison Program—came out with new numbers. (The complexity of the task is such that there have been only three reports in 20 years.) The latest assessment, released last spring, was more contentious and, in some ways, more momentous than those in previous years. It was more contentious precisely because it was more momentous: the new numbers showed that China would become the world’s largest economy far sooner than anyone had expected—it was on track to do so before the end of 2014.

The source of contention would surprise many Americans, and it says a lot about the differences between China and the U.S.—and about the dangers of projecting onto the Chinese some of our own attitudes. Americans want very much to be No. 1—we enjoy having that status. In contrast, China is not so eager. According to some reports, the Chinese participants even threatened to walk out of the technical discussions. For one thing, China did not want to stick its head above the parapet—being No. 1 comes with a cost. It means paying more to support international bodies such as the United Nations. It could bring pressure to take an enlightened leadership role on issues such as climate change. It might very well prompt ordinary Chinese to wonder if more of the country’s wealth should be spent on them. (The news about China’s change in status was in fact blacked out at home.) There was one more concern, and it was a big one: China understands full well America’s psychological preoccupation with being No. 1—and was deeply worried about what our reaction would be when we no longer were.

Of course, in many ways—for instance, in terms of exports and household savings—China long ago surpassed the United States. With savings and investment making up close to 50 percent of G.D.P., the Chinese worry about having too much savings, just as Americans worry about having too little. In other areas, such as manufacturing, the Chinese overtook the U.S. only within the past several years. They still trail America when it comes to the number of patents awarded, but they are closing the gap.

The areas where the United States remains competitive with China are not always ones we’d most want to call attention to. The two countries have comparable levels of inequality. (Ours is the highest in the developed world.) China outpaces America in the number of people executed every year, but the U.S. is far ahead when it comes to the proportion of the population in prison (more than 700 per 100,000 people). China overtook the U.S. in 2007 as the world’s largest polluter, by total volume, though on a per capita basis we continue to hold the lead. The United States remains the largest military power, spending more on our armed forces than the next top 10 nations combined (not that we have always used our military power wisely). But the bedrock strength of the U.S. has always rested less on hard military power than on “soft power,” most notably its economic influence. That is an essential point to remember.

Tectonic shifts in global economic power have obviously occurred before, and as a result we know something about what happens when they do. Two hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain emerged as the world’s dominant power. Its empire spanned a quarter of the globe. Its currency, the pound sterling, became the global reserve currency—as sound as gold itself. Britain, sometimes working in concert with its allies, imposed its own trade rules. It could discriminate against importation of Indian textiles and force India to buy British cloth. Britain and its allies could also insist that China keep its markets open to opium, and when China, knowing the drug’s devastating effect, tried to close its borders, the allies twice went to war to maintain the free flow of this product.

Britain’s dominance was to last a hundred years and continued even after the U.S. surpassed Britain economically, in the 1870s. There’s always a lag (as there will be with the U.S. and China). The transitional event was World War I, when Britain achieved victory over Germany only with the assistance of the United States. After the war, America was as reluctant to accept its potential new responsibilities as Britain was to voluntarily give up its role. Woodrow Wilson did what he could to construct a postwar world that would make another global conflict less likely, but isolationism at home meant that the U.S. never joined the League of Nations. In the economic sphere, America insisted on going its own way—passing the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and bringing to an end an era that had seen a worldwide boom in trade. Britain maintained its empire, but gradually the pound sterling gave way to the dollar: in the end, economic realities dominate. Many American firms became global enterprises, and American culture was clearly ascendant.

World War II was the next defining event. Devastated by the conflict, Britain would soon lose virtually all of its colonies. This time the U.S. did assume the mantle of leadership. It was central in creating the United Nations and in fashioning the Bretton Woods agreements, which would underlie the new political and economic order. Even so, the record was uneven. Rather than creating a global reserve currency, which would have contributed so much to worldwide economic stability—as John Maynard Keynes had rightly argued—the U.S. put its own short-term self-interest first, foolishly thinking it would gain by having the dollar become the world’s reserve currency. The dollar’s status is a mixed blessing: it enables the U.S. to borrow at a low interest rate, as others demand dollars to put into their reserves, but at the same time the value of the dollar rises (above what it otherwise would have been), creating or exacerbating a trade deficit and weakening the economy.

For 45 years after World War II, global politics was dominated by two superpowers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., representing two very different visions both of how to organ­ize and govern an economy and a society and of the relative importance of political and economic rights. Ultimately, the Soviet system was to fail, as much because of internal corruption, unchecked by democratic processes, as anything else. Its military power had been formidable; its soft power was increasingly a joke. The world was now dominated by a single superpower, one that continued to invest heavily in its military. That said, the U.S. was a superpower not just militarily but also economically.

The United States then made two critical mistakes. First, it inferred that its triumph meant a triumph for everything it stood for. But in much of the Third World, concerns about poverty—and the economic rights that had long been advocated by the left—remained paramount. The second mistake was to use the short period of its unilateral dominance, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Lehman Brothers, to pursue its own narrow economic interests—or, more accurately, the economic interests of its multi-nationals, including its big banks—rather than to create a new, stable world order. The trade regime the U.S. pushed through in 1994, creating the World Trade Organization, was so unbalanced that, five years later, when another trade agreement was in the offing, the prospect led to riots in Seattle. Talking about free and fair trade, while insisting (for instance) on subsidies for its rich farmers, has cast the U.S. as hypocritical and self-serving.

And Washington never fully grasped the consequences of so many of its shortsighted actions—intended to extend and strengthen its dominance but in fact diminishing its long-term position. During the East Asia crisis, in the 1990s, the U.S. Treasury worked hard to undermine the so-called Miyazawa Initiative, Japan’s generous offer of $100 billion to help jump-start economies that were sinking into recession and depression. The policies the U.S. pushed on these countries—austerity and high interest rates, with no bailouts for banks in trouble—were just the opposite of those that these same Treasury officials advocated for the U.S. after the meltdown of 2008. Even today, a decade and a half after the East Asia crisis, the mere mention of the U.S. role can prompt angry accusations and charges of hypocrisy in Asian capitals.

Now China is the world’s No. 1 economic power. Why should we care? On one level, we actually shouldn’t. The world economy is not a zero-sum game, where China’s growth must necessarily come at the expense of ours. In fact, its growth is complementary to ours. If it grows faster, it will buy more of our goods, and we will prosper. There has always, to be sure, been a little hype in such claims—just ask workers who have lost their manufacturing jobs to China. But that reality has as much to do with our own economic policies at home as it does with the rise of some other country.

On another level, the emergence of China into the top spot matters a great deal, and we need to be aware of the implications.

First, as noted, America’s real strength lies in its soft power—the example it provides to others and the influence of its ideas, including ideas about economic and political life. The rise of China to No. 1 brings new prominence to that country’s political and economic model—and to its own forms of soft power. The rise of China also shines a harsh spotlight on the American model. That model has not been delivering for large portions of its own population. The typical American family is worse off than it was a quarter-century ago, adjusted for inflation; the proportion of people in poverty has increased. China, too, is marked by high levels of inequality, but its economy has been doing some good for most of its citizens. China moved some 500 million people out of poverty during the same period that saw America’s middle class enter a period of stagnation. An economic model that doesn’t serve a majority of its citizens is not going to provide a role model for others to emulate. America should see the rise of China as a wake-up call to put our own house in order.

Second, if we ponder the rise of China and then take actions based on the idea that the world economy is indeed a zero-sum game—and that we therefore need to boost our share and reduce China’s—we will erode our soft power even further. This would be exactly the wrong kind of wake-up call. If we see China’s gains as coming at our expense, we will strive for “containment,” taking steps designed to limit China’s influence. These actions will ultimately prove futile, but will nonetheless undermine confidence in the U.S. and its position of leadership. U.S. foreign policy has repeatedly fallen into this trap. Consider the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free-trade agreement among the U.S., Japan, and several other Asian countries—which excludes China altogether. It is seen by many as a way to tighten the links between the U.S. and certain Asian countries, at the expense of links with China. There is a vast and dynamic Asia supply chain, with goods moving around the region during different stages of production; the Trans-Pacific Partnership looks like an attempt to cut China out of this supply chain.

Another example: the U.S. looks askance at China’s incipient efforts to assume global responsibility in some areas. China wants to take on a larger role in existing international institutions, but Congress says, in effect, that the old club doesn’t like active new members: they can continue taking a backseat, but they can’t have voting rights commensurate with their role in the global economy. When the other G-20 nations agree that it is time that the leadership of international economic organizations be determined on the basis of merit, not nationality, the U.S. insists that the old order is good enough—that the World Bank, for instance, should continue to be headed by an American.

Yet another example: when China, together with France and other countries—supported by an International Commission of Experts appointed by the President of the U.N., which I chaired—suggested that we finish the work that Keynes had started at Bretton Woods, by creating an international reserve currency, the U.S. blocked the effort.

And a final example: the U.S. has sought to deter China’s efforts to channel more assistance to developing countries through newly created multilateral institutions in which China would have a large, perhaps dominant role. The need for trillions of dollars of investment in infrastructure has been widely recognized—and providing that investment is well beyond the capacity of the World Bank and existing multilateral institutions. What is needed is not only a more inclusive governance regime at the World Bank but also more capital. On both scores, the U.S. Congress has said no. Meanwhile, China is trying to create an Asian Infrastructure Fund, working with a large number of other countries in the region. The U.S. is twisting arms so that those countries won’t join.

The United States is confronted with real foreign-policy challenges that will prove hard to resolve: militant Islam; the Palestine conflict, which is now in its seventh decade; an aggressive Russia, insisting on asserting its power, at least in its own neighborhood; continuing threats of nuclear proliferation. We will need the cooperation of China to address many, if not all, of these problems.

We should take this moment, as China becomes the world’s largest economy, to “pivot” our foreign policy away from containment. The economic interests of China and the U.S. are intricately intertwined. We both have an interest in seeing a stable and well-functioning global political and economic order. Given historical memories and its own sense of dignity, China won’t be able to accept the global system simply as it is, with rules that have been set by the West, to benefit the West and its corporate interests, and that reflect the West’s perspectives. We will have to cooperate, like it or not—and we should want to. In the meantime, the most important thing America can do to maintain the value of its soft power is to address its own systemic deficiencies—economic and political practices that are corrupt, to put the matter baldly, and skewed toward the rich and powerful.

A new global political and economic order is emerging, the result of new economic realities. We cannot change these economic realities. But if we respond to them in the wrong way, we risk a backlash that will result in either a dysfunctional global system or a global order that is distinctly not what we would have wanted.

On Israel’s George Washington, Ben-Gurion

January 25, 2015

NY Times Sunday Book Review

‘Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel,’ by Anita Shapira

About the Author

Anita ShapiraAnita Shapira is Professor Emerita in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and founder of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies. She specializes in the history of Zionism, the Jewish community in Palestine and the state of Israel, with an emphasis on cultural, social and intellectual history. She has published numerous books and articles, among them Berl Katznelson, A Biography of a Socialist Zionist (1984), Land and Power, The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 (1992), and Yigal Allon, Native Son (2008). Her recent book, Israel: A History, received the National Jewish Book Award for History in 2012. She has received numerous academic and professional awards and fellowships from Israeli and foreign universities, including Yale, Brandeis, City University of New York, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, the Oxford Center for Jewish Studies, Columbia University and others. She is the 2008 Israel Prize for Jewish History laureate. She received her B.A. and M.A., cum laude, and Ph.D., summa cum laude, in History and Jewish History from Tel Aviv University.

Recently, there was something of an ideological fistfight at the grave of Israel’s founding father. During a ceremony at Sde Boker in the Negev desert marking the 41 years since the death of David Ben-Gurion, the former and current presidents of Israel — Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin — slammed efforts to pass new legislation to enshrine Israel’s status as a Jewish state, a bill that many critics say will roll back Israel’s status as a democracy and turn the country’s Arabs, who are about 20 percent of the population, into second-class citizens.

The chief sponsor of the so-called Jewish nation-state bill, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sat stewing in the front row. When it was his turn to speak, he said that no one knows what Ben-Gurion would say were he alive today.

Ben-Gurion, born David Green in Plonsk, Poland, in 1886, would probably have been amused by this jockeying over his legacy. In his earlier years he was in a constant struggle to excel and lead amid contemporaries whose pedigrees, education and stature surpassed his. And yet it was he who ultimately succeeded in spearheading the establishment of modern Israel, and who became the country’s first prime minister in 1948.

Short but towering, passionate but reserved, deeply informal and intellectually astute, Ben-Gurion was a study in contradictions. Now, for the first time, an Israeli historian presents a biography that makes the squat man with the Einsteinesque hair easier to read, in large part by looking not just at Ben-Gurion the state-builder, but Ben-Gurion the man.

ShapiraBenGurion“Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel,” by Anita Shapira, a professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, provides what is probably the most intimate yet unflinching portrait to date of a man revered and reviled. Given that Shapira met hazaken or “the old man,” as he came to be known in his later years, when she visited his Sde Boker home, Shapira may be the last truly qualified person to unpack some of the mysteries of Israel’s George Washington.

Ben-Gurion immigrated from Poland to Palestine in 1906 after being introduced to Zionist ideals. “There I found the Palestine I had dreamed about,” he wrote in his memoirs.

But that old-new land was four decades and two world wars away from becoming the internationally recognized state of Israel, and so Ben-Gurion was in and out of Palestine more often than one might imagine. He went to Istanbul in search of a higher education, and spent years going to and from Europe, gathering support at various Zionist congresses, living for periods in London and New York. It was while he was working on a book at the New York Public Library, “The Land of Israel Past and Present,” that he met Paula Munweis — a recent immigrant from Russia who became his wife and the mother of his three children. The price of falling in love with him, she soon realized, was being dragged along with the Zionist project, though she would have preferred to stay in America.

Indeed, some of the book’s revelations about Ben-Gurion’s relationships with the ones dearest to him present a less-than-­flattering image. In his early years, he pressed his father endlessly to send money, but then discouraged him from emigrating to Palestine. Ben-Gurion left Paula and his children for long periods to go abroad. When he wrote letters home, they were impersonal and seemed to be directed not so much to his wife as to posterity. “The warmth and love he had lavished on her in their early years together had dissipated,” Shapira writes. He fulfilled his desire for connections with more cerebral depth by carrying on an intense but probably platonic involvement with the British writer Doris May, and an actual relationship with a woman in New York named Miriam Cohen during World War II. But it was Ben-Gurion’s close friendship with Berl Katznelson, one of the intellectual giants of Labor Zionism (and the subject of an earlier Shapira biography), that sustained him most; Katznelson’s death in 1944 caused Ben-Gurion great grief from which he never fully recovered.

“Ben-Gurion” is at its most relevant when it explores the roots of today’s fractured Israel, leading the reader through the world of Zionism’s prestate politics and Ben-Gurion’s problems over whom to choose as allies — the Turks, the British or the Americans. Constant internecine rivalries flared up between various Zionist groups — whose progeny include today’s Labor and Likud Parties. In particular, the gentlemanly Chaim Weizmann had his own approach to Zionism, which involved quiet talks with men of importance rather than Ben-Gurion’s popular campaign of recruiting world Jewry to push for a state following the horrors of the Holocaust.

“Ben-Gurion’s revolutionary concept seemed to challenge 25 years of Weizmann’s cautious gradualism. . . . Ben-­Gurion turned it into a banner, a symbol of the revolutionary turnabout in Zionist action,” Shapira writes. Weizmann was “a master of one-on-one meetings” with the British and American elite. Ben-Gurion, by contrast, “saw organizing the Jews into an ethnic pressure group that could exert its political and electoral power” as the lever for change.

Among the turning points in which Ben-Gurion exhibited extraordinary if controversial leadership was his work to unite the different Zionist militias into one army after the state was declared — the newly minted Israel Defense Forces.

A right-wing group, Menachem Begin’s Irgun, agreed to relinquish its arms, but then was found to be smuggling more weapons to its men on a ship called the Altalena. In a test of the newborn state’s authority, Ben-Gurion ordered the I.D.F. to shell the boat. It caught fire, killing 14 and wounding 20. “The trauma of Jews firing on Jews — of a vessel bringing arms to Israel being sunk by the I.D.F. — was unforgettable,” Shapira observes.

Some readers may find it hard, as I did, to read Shapira’s brief treatment of the moment in 1948 when the commanders Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin came to Ben-Gurion asking whether to carry out “a large-scale population evacuation.” Rabin reported that Ben-Gurion responded with a wave of the hand, saying “Expel them.” Shapira explains here that while he forbade the evacuation of some areas, like Nazareth, “like most of his ministers, he saw the Arabs’ exodus as a great miracle, one of the most important in that year of miracles, since the presence of a hostile population constituting some 40 percent of the new state’s total populace did not augur well for the future.”

Shapira doesn’t subject this incident to any ethical scrutiny or judgment, reporting it almost matter-of-factly. She does, however, note that given the history of the time — which included moving enormous masses of people across Europe and carrying out huge population transfers as part of the partition that divided Pakistan from India — Ben-Gurion’s decision wasn’t beyond the norm. “The decision not to allow the return of the Arab refugees was accepted as self-evident, and gained broad public support.”

Despite this, Ben-Gurion firmly believed peace was more important than territory: What he wanted was not more land but the ability to maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority in the land he had. That outlook has not prevailed. The fateful policy to settle the West Bank was made largely after he died in 1973. At the time, Shapira says, Israelis were in such turmoil in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war that they hardly noticed his passing.

I last visited Ben-Gurion’s grave in 2012. I was working on a book and looking for a quiet writing retreat before the birth of my second child. I came to appreciate the appeal of the remote place where Ben-Gurion chose to live out his later years.

There, on the edge of a majestic desert precipice, Israel isn’t a country the size of New Jersey constantly struggling for its survival. Rather, it is a place of proud, rugged expanses, a homeland of the reborn Jew comfortable in nature, re-establishing himself in a timeless landscape, neither oppressed nor oppressing. It was this yet unfulfilled promise in the promised land that Ben-Gurion wanted people to contemplate when they took a minute to envision what had been, and what was to come.

Ilene Prusher is a journalist based in Jerusalem and the author of the novel “Baghdad Fixer.”

Inevitable Payback

January 22, 2015

Inevitable Payback

by Craig Murray

Craig MurrayAmbassador Craig Murray is an author, broadcaster and human rights activist. He was British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004 and Rector of the University of Dundee from 2007 to 2010.He graduated from the University of Dundee in 1982 with a MA (Hons) 1st Class in Modern History.

In this globalised world, if we launch weapons of great destructive power into communities abroad, incinerating and shredding women and children, we cannot avoid the fact that those who identify with those communities – ethnically, culturally and religiously – will take revenge on people here. If we are lucky it will be revenge on combatants. If we are unlucky it will be on our innocents. But either way, the truth is this. We caused it.

We caused it by our invasions, occupations and bombings of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, none of which had ever attacked the UK. We caused it by all the dead women and children that British bombs, missiles or bullets killed accidentally. We caused it by the terrible deaths of the people we killed deliberately, who were only defending their country from foreign invaders, just as most of us would do. We caused it by the detainees killed or tortured. As a country, the United Kingdom caused it.

This is not the 19th century. Imperialist aggression now brings a danger of retaliation from empathetic communities embedded in western societies. This is so obvious as not to need stating. The danger of terrorism from Islamic sources would be much reduced if we just minded our own business on the international scene.

All that is very obvious. It does not, however, seem to have occurred to John Sawers, immediate past Head of MI6, who has no sensible thoughts at all of the causes of terrorism. The right-wing like to think that anyone opposed to the West is, by definition, spontaneously evil. If only they could look in the mirror sometimes and ask why people hate us, that would be a major psychological breakthrough. I have known John Sawers a great many years, and he is somebody who looks in the mirror very often. Sadly, not for that purpose.

At least he has the intellectual honesty to admit an open advocacy of the extreme big brother society. Abandoning the notion of smart intelligence, he has come out with a justification of the mass surveillance society which Snowden revealed. We cannot prevent terrorism without spying on innocent people, he declares.


In a sense, that is a truism. I have very often argued that it is impossible to prevent all evil and daft to try. You have a far, far higher chance of being murdered by a member of your own family than you have by a terrorist. Over the last 10 years terrorists have been responsible for almost exactly 1% of all murders in the UK. Let me type that again. In the last ten years terrorists have been responsible for almost exactly 1% of all murders in the UK. And about 0.007% of woundings. It remains true that the most likely person to kill you is in your own family. It is worth remembering that the number of people who died in the Charlie Hebdo atrocity was the same number murdered in France on average every week.

Now assuming the aim is to prevent murder rather than make propaganda, let us concentrate for a moment on – don’t worry, you will never in your life be asked to do this again, unless by me – let us concentrate on the 99% of murders which are not by terrorists. To take the John Sawers system, if we had permanent CCTV monitoring of every kitchen in the UK, we could probably prevent quite a few of those murders and a vast amount of non-fatal violence. It would take an enormous police and security service, of course, but we are getting there anyway. Sawers’ point is completely correct in logic – you cannot prevent all murders without massive surveillance of the innocent. It would have been even more correct if you just stopped the sentence at you cannot prevent all murders. Precisely the same is true of the tiny risk to individuals that is murder by terrorism.

The surest way to reduce the terrorist threat in the UK is to stop bombing or invading other countries. That simple fact needs to be screamed from the rooftops. The next thing you can do is solid old-fashioned evidence-based police and intelligence work. The least effective thing you can do is simply trawl the email and online chat of millions of people. That clogs up the intelligence system with a vast mound of undigestible information, and results in the conviction of fantasists and boastful men who, while unpleasant, are guilty of nothing but thought crime. It is exactly the same result as if you tackled murder by arresting everyone who in an email or chat wished harm to their husband or wife. It is wrong to express that, but the percentage who would have really gone on to murder would be vanishingly small.

The great worry is the presumption which is sneaking in to the mainstream media narrative that it is the responsibility of the state to prevent all crime before it happens. It is not, and that is not an achievable goal. The restrictions on liberty it would entail would do more damage to society than crime itself, which mankind has managed to live with since civilisation began. The entire debate around terrorism needs to be recalibrated. The answer is not the ultimate Big Brother surveillance state. The answer is to stop our hideous violence towards communities abroad.

Kassim Ahmad remembers Tun Abdul Razak Hussein

January 16, 2015

Kassim Ahmad remembers Tun Abdul Razak Hussein

Malaysian politics might have seen a socialist party in the ruling coalition had Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, not died just six years into his administration.

Kassim Ahmad in Kulim, KedahPublic Intellectual Kassim Ahmad

Malay intellectual Dr Kassim Ahmad, who was president of the opposition Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (PSRM) during Razak’s administration, said Razak was an open and inclusive leader, and had offered to bring PRSM into the ruling alliance, the Barisan Nasional (BN).

But there was a miscommunication when the message was conveyed to Kassim, and it never happened. “Razak gave me a message through (his press secretary Datuk) Abdullah Majid, telling me to take PSRM into BN but the message I got was not clear.”

“I was told to go work for Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP or the Institute of Language and Literature).I was reluctant because I didn’t want to be tied to a government-related organisation. The offer surprised me… When I finally got the correct message, Razak had died of leukaemia. So it didn’t happen.”

“It was most unfortunate that Razak’s administration was short. He brought so much change and to me, he was the best of all the Prime Ministers we have had,” Kassim told The Malaysian Insider in an interview at his home in Kulim, Kedah, for a series commemorating Razak’s death on January 14, 1976.

Kassim, 82, said it was unfortunate Razak was only able to govern the country for six years.

Tun RazakKassim Ahmad: “He was the best of all the Prime Ministers we have had”

He said the late Prime Minister was a man of great vision for the changes he introduced after the bloody racial riots of May 13, 1969. These included the New Economic Policy (NEP) and forging diplomatic ties with China in 1974, the first Southeast Asian country to do so.

Razak succeeded Tunku Abdul Rahman and became Prime Minister in September 1970.

“He headed Mageran (the National Operations Council, or NOC), restored Parliament after the emergency; and then he introduced new policies like the NEP, and established bilateral ties with China after he became Prime Minister.”

“He did things 100% differently from Tunku. The change was a good thing. When we obtained our independence from the British, I disagreed with Tunku’s administration. It felt like we were still colonised, inheriting the British system.”

“Razak’s vision for the country was different – much wider and more open. He had a ‘kitchen Cabinet’ with people from the left and the right who discussed policies and sent proposals to him for the final decision,” Kassim said.

Tunku’s leadership during the troubled times was criticised by some UMNO leaders led by Razak. The NOC was the emergency administrative body that took over power to restore law and order in the country. The council, headed by Razak, governed the country from 1969 to 1971 until it ended when Parliament was restored.

Razak was the architect of the NEP, a social re-engineering and economic affirmative action programme with a two-pronged strategy to eradicate poverty in all races by 1990, and to reduce and eliminate identification of race by economic function and geographical location. Razak believed that this identification would hamper national unity.

The NEP has since been continued in subsequent government policies which have been criticized for being pro-Bumiputera to the extent of sidelining other Malaysians, as well as for abuses and corruption in the implementation of the policy.

Kassim said Razak’s NEP had once been necessary for Malaysia when the country was in a transitional period, but said it should end as it had become a weakness of the Malays.

“According to government data, the objectives of the NEP have yet to be achieved. But I think the Malays have this consensus… these special privileges that have made them comfortable. They have this comfort zone where they face no challenges.

“Because of this, they don’t see the necessity in putting in the effort to progress. So they are weak and lack competitiveness. It is better to end something that does no good to the people anymore,” he said.

“People just have to be re-educated. Many have become ‘Pak Turut’ (sycophants or ‘yes’ men). To think is hard to do,” said the critical 82-year-old scholar, who himself is in trouble with the law and faces Shariah charges for insulting Islam.

Kassim also believes in single-medium schools, and said the Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools allowed by Razak in his education policy, called the Razak Report, was necessary at the time to meet “the demands of all races” then.

“In time, I believe we will gradually move towards a single-type school to enable our education system to achieve excellence,” he said.

Kassim viewed vernacular schools as a bridge to the ultimate goal of achieving a Malaysian nation, something he felt would take at least three generations to reach.

“The timing has to be right. Even the DAP’s campaign for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ in the early 1960s failed to take off when the slogan was used initially,” he said.

Kassim pointed out that it was also the same with political parties, that the country was not totally ready for multiracial parties. Dato Onn Jaafar, the founder of UMNO, had also tried to open the party to all Malayans but failed because the time was not right, he noted.

Kassim said Malaysia was still years from being a “Malaysian nation”. “We are still in a transitional period. To build a nation, you need three generations, as I have said. If you study history, this was what happened in all civilisations. We may still need another decade before we are all ready for political parties that are truly Malaysian and before all citizens can regard themselves as Malaysians first,” he said.

Kassim was a former Malay Studies lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He turned down a permanent position at the university to pursue his interest in Malaysian politics and his passion in writing.

He said he had never personally met Razak even after he had returned from Britain, but the Prime Minister knew of him as the President of PSRM.

Kassim also believed that people were afraid of Razak. “He was a serious man. In those years, there was no Internet and there was the Internal Security Act (ISA) so people were more guarded,” said Kassim, who was detained under the ISA after Razak’s death for almost five years until 1981 for allegedly being involved in the socialist or communism struggle.

Razak died while seeking treatment in London, less than six years after becoming prime minister. He was buried in the Heroes Mausoleum in Kuala Lumpur and posthumously called the Father of Development.

Of his five sons, the eldest, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, is the sixth and current Prime Minister.

Asked what he thought of Najib, Kassim said the Prime Minister had to display greater strength as a leader. But he also disagreed with the way people were condemning him, or even his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, in social media.

“As citizens, we must be patriotic. Don’t condemn without rationale. Concentrate your criticisms on the thinking of your leaders, and don’t waste time criticising without thinking.”

Kassim said had written to Najib after the latter announced in December 2013 that UMNO would amend its constitution to recognise Islam as the federal religion and only followers of the Sunni sect, or Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah, as true believers of Islam.

The Malaysian government prescribes the Sunni sect as the prevalent ideology of Islam. Any other Islamic schools of thought, including Shia, are considered deviant.

“In the Quran, it is forbidden to make tribes within the religion. I wrote to (Najib) about that, and I don’t think the matter was brought up again… I think my letter had an effect,” said the scholar, who himself is in trouble with the law and is facing Shariah charges for allegedly insulting Islam.

Kassim, who joined UMNO in 1986, said he had also recently written to Najib again about corruption problems in the party and how most members had forgotten why Umno was formed and its ideals.

“I know about how it has been difficult to be a member in the last decade or so. UMNO was formed in 1946 as a party full of idealism. Its members went to meetings on bicycles, but now they fly there first-class.

“You find extended families in the party but they hardly understand how politics work or even the history and philosophy of UMNO. You have branch leaders setting up party branches because they are aiming for projects,” he said, urging Najib to call an emergency general meeting to correct the situation.

“As BN chief he has to get the other component parties to do the same… Najib speaks of transfomation but he only talks. He doesn’t have the methodology.It is a herculean task but it must be done. He has to do it, secure the mandate and bring change, otherwise Malaysia will be destroyed… I will write to him again,” Kassim added.


Je suis Charlie… et Altantuya

January 14, 2015

Je suis Charlie… et Altantuya

by Dean

Dean JohnsImpelled as I am to join billions of my fellows around the world to identify with the victims of the massacre at the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, I also feel that it is vital to put this atrocity in some kind of perspective.Starting with the observation that, as tragic a toll as Islamic fundamentalism takes of its critics and innocent bystanders, as everywhere – from New York’s World Trade Centre to Sydney’s Martin Place and now, the heart of Paris – the overwhelming majority of its victims are Muslims themselves.

Charlie Hebdo LatestLatest Hebdo Cartoon

So my sympathy at times like this extends to the vast majority of virtuous, peace-loving Muslims whose lives are threatened or lost, and whose creed is brought under suspicion, scorn and opprobrium by lunatics and criminals allegedly acting in the name of Allah.

And not just individual lunatics and criminals, or even massive groups of such murderous scum as Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), but entire governments like those of countless Islamic or Muslim-majority nations.

Boko Haram

The most pertinent current case in point being Syria, where Muslims are being killed, maimed and dispossessed on an industrial scale in a civil war caused by the obscene al-Assad regime’s desperation to keep ruling the roost for the benefit of its members and cronies.

And of course, Muslims are also dying like flies in the bloody internecine struggle for political clout and material loot between the Sunni and Shiite Islamic sects in Iraq, the Yemen and elsewhere.

In short, as tragic as the attacks in Paris and other parts of the world surely are, and as gruesomely as the crazed killers’ claims that they’re acting because “God is great” may grate on us infidels and outright atheists, they grate to an even greater extent on the majority of virtuous Muslims.

Nor is Islam exclusive in so grating on its adherents. In fact, Christianity has been corruptly employed by power-mad, greed-crazed allegedly “divinely-appointed” potentates and their priesthoods for almost half a millennium longer and around much more of the globe.

So outraging the people of Europe in the process as to finally, several centuries ago, provoke the so-called ‘Protestant Reformation’ and the French Revolution.

‘Strangling racists’

The latter starting in Paris, not far from the recent Charlie Hebdo atrocity and, appropriately enough, driven by such deep antagonism to the proposition that “God is great”, and such dire loathing for the nexus between regal power and religion as to move the great revolutionary writer, Denis Diderot, to the deathless declaration that “men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”.

Unfortunately for France, it never occurred to Diderot or any of his contemporaries to suggest strangling racists along with royalists and religionists.

Which was a great pity, as this extra consideration would have saved the Republic from both causing and suffering a great deal of grief as a result of its unwillingness to extend its avowed principles of liberty, equality and fraternity to foreign ‘colonials’ like the Algerians and Vietnamese, or even to French-born Gypsies and Jews.

And the attack by avowed Islamists on Charlie Hebdo, an emblem of the nation’s historically hard-won freedoms, may prove a setback to French enlightenment, as it could clearly be an inspiration to France’s reactionary, if not outright royalist, religious, racist and indeed virtually neo-Fascist far-right political party, the National Front.The mention of which inevitably transitions us to Malaysia, where BN is not just some maliciously madcap minority group as in France, but a coalition that has been running – and steadily ruining and robbing – the country for almost 60 years.

And maintaining its grip on power by pretending to stand for the so-called “three pillars” that it purports to ‘defend’ in its ‘struggle’ for supremacy: royalty, race and religion.

Royalty as represented by nine sultans who don’t seem to do much but sponge off the populace and take it in turns to spend four years as Agong in the splendid new palace paid for by the people.

Race being specifically Malay, which for some reason is officially deemed superior to not only later ‘immigrants’ like the Chinese and Indians, but also too much earlier inhabitants of Malaysia like the Orang Asli and many other ‘native’ peoples.

And religion of course, being Islam, to which – quite contrary to Malaysia’s constitutional provision of freedom of worship – the regime requires Malays to belong and forbids them to leave.

Never mind that the regime itself is led by the main Malay-Muslim party, UMNO, whose members, cronies and supporters run a system so riddled with secrecy, lies, greed, corruption, fraud, nepotism, embezzlement, theft and even homicide as to be (as I’ve said so many times before) a disgrace to Islam or any other known religion.

Out of touch PM

In other words, BN has much the same mindset as the rulers of doomed pre-revolutionary France. Complete with a prime minister who imagines that he’s some kind of monarch, and whose dereliction of duty and devotion to golf clearly reveals that he is every whit as out of touch with the peasants as Louis XVI so fatally was.

And his self-deluded, shopaholic consort demonstrates much the same “let them eat cake” attitude as has been – perhaps unjustly – historically attributed to Marie Antoinette.

But the most deadly connection with France that haunts Malaysia’s BN regime is not historical, but far more contemporary and criminal – the acquisition by now Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak (back when he was  Defence Minister) of the French Scorpene-class submarines.A purchase whose price is persuasively alleged to have included hundreds of millions of Malaysian ringgit in ‘commissions’ – or in other words, corrupt kickbacks – and subsequently, also resulted in the ‘mysterious’ murder of the Mongolian translator used in the deal, Altantuya Shaariibuu, allegedly by members of Najib’s special bodyguard.

So while we regret and memorialise the casualties of the latest international atrocity in the name of Islam with the declaration, “Je suis Charlie”, let’s each of us never forget to remind him or herself that in Malaysia it is also – and forever – a case of “Saya Altantuya”, “Saya Teoh Beng Hock”, “Saya A Kugan” and “Saya every other victim of the criminally un-Islamic faux-Muslim ruling regime”.

DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.