Mahathir’s Challenge to UMNO’s Najib Razak in GE-14


March 17, 2017

Mahathir’s Challenge to UMNO’s Najib Razak in GE-14

by Saleena Saleem

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/03/17/malaysias-new-but-not-fresh-opposition-party/

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Anwar Ibrahim and Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in the Good Old Days when the former was heir apparent and Deputy Prime Minister. Today Anwar is languishing in Jail

Speculation is rife that Malaysia’s 14th general election, which must be held by August 2018, may be called this year. The general election comes after a protracted political scandal over state wealth fund 1MDB, with damaging financial mismanagement and corruption allegations leveled at Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Several former leaders from the ruling political party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), have left and regrouped into a new Malay nationalist opposition, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). Led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad as Chairman, and former deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin as President, Bersatu will need to sell itself to a jaded public if it is to pass as a credible contender for UMNO’s Malay voter base.

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Strange brew of Malaysian politicians chasing the rainbow

These public perception challenges stem from the former UMNO leaders’ decisions and actions. At the height of the 1MDB scandal in mid-2015, the expectation that UMNO leaders, particularly Mahathir and Muhyiddin, would lead a massive break-away faction of dissatisfied party members when Najib was at his political weakest, did not materialise.

Instead, they fought for control of UMNO from within for nearly a year. It wasn’t until February 2016 that Mahathir left his old party — for the second time. It was a missed opportunity that gave Najib ample time to build support for his leadership within the various UMNO groups and to present a united front. As a high-profile frontman for Bersatu, Mahathir’s actions during this period may prove problematic for four key reasons as the new party targets the Malay vote.

First, while still in UMNO, Mahathir associated with pro-opposition civil society groups such as Bersih. Mahathir’s participation in the Bersih 4 rally, which was widely seen as a Chinese-dominated anti-Najib demonstration, leaves him vulnerable to Najib’s race-based argument that should Malays fail to support him, the government would fall to a Chinese-led political machine. Given Bersatu’s alliance with the opposition coalition, of which the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) is a key player, such fears can be magnified to its detriment during an election campaign.

Second, Mahathir initially stated he had no intention of establishing a political party upon quitting UMNO, but he did precisely that in late 2016. The timing of his departure from UMNO, which came only after his son, Mukhriz, was forced to resign as the Kedah chief minister by pro-Najib UMNO members, provides ample ammunition to those who claim Mahathir is primarily motivated by his son’s political ambitions rather than a genuine concern for Malaysia’s future.

Third, Mahathir’s past ideological differences, and the harsh treatment of civil society activists and political foes while he was in government, many of whom he associates with today, leaves him open to charges of hypocrisy. For example, during the Asian Financial Crisis in the 1990s, Mahathir clashed over economic policies with his then-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. This set the stage for Anwar’s imprisonment on charges of sodomy, and his rise as an opposition leader of the Reformasi movement, which advocated an open society and economy.

Mahathir has curtailed fundamental liberties that the opposition stands for — he used the Internal Security Act to imprison DAP’s leader Lim Kit Siang during Operation Lalang in 1987, after government appointments in Chinese vernacular schools spurred an outcry.

Fourth, Mahathir’s criticism of Najib’s alleged misdeeds over 1MDB leaves him exposed to scrutiny over his own actions while he was prime minister. He already faces criticism over the Bumiputera Malaysia Finance Limited scandal in the 1980s, and the central bank’s forex losses of US$10 billion in the 1990s, although Mahathir’s camp claims the two are not comparable.

Bersatu enters into an opposition political landscape that is already divided, and where the various parties now jostle to re-negotiate the terms of a political arrangement for the upcoming elections. A January survey by INVOKE, an opposition-linked NGO, found that a three-cornered fight between the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (which includes Bersatu), the Islamist party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the ruling party, Barisan Nasional benefits the incumbent government. This makes electoral pacts essential, even as the different ideological bents and histories of the parties in the opposition complicate matters.

The previous opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, saw public bickering among its constituent parties over various issues leading eventually to its collapse. Two examples are the political impasse that ensued over disagreements on the Selangor chief minister post in 2014 and PAS’ renewed focus on implementing hudud (criminal punishment).

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Good Luck to all Chief Sitting Bulls led by Chief Maha Bull of Kubang Pasu

The lack of agreement on seat allocations between remaining coalition parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and DAP, during the 2016 Sarawak state elections, and the recent DAP resignations of its elected representatives over simmering grievances from the past coalition pact with PAS, reinforce the perception that the opposition face intractable difficulties in maintaining a cohesive front.

The opposition’s current narrative of ‘Save Malaysia from Najib’, which was built on Mahathir’s short-lived ‘Save Malaysia’ movement may not be as compelling for voters compared to calls for change based on democratic ideals of equality, justice and fairness for all races, and which were emphasised during the previous two general elections.

When Mahathir recently criticised Chinese investment projects in Johor, he utilised the race-oriented tactics of the past, which can be off-putting to some voters who had been drawn to the opposition in the first place.

Nevertheless, although Bersatu carries the baggage of its founding members, it is a new political party with the potential to grow in strength if it can sustain itself beyond its immediate challenges. No doubt Bersatu is a potential spoiler for UMNO.

Addressing public perception issues and becoming a serious contender to UMNO may increasingly require the introduction of a younger generation of politicians. With the senior generation playing the role of mentors, this new generation could do much to project the future direction of Bersatu as a viable political party — one that looks beyond the objective of unseating Najib.

Saleena Saleem is an Associate Research Fellow at Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This commentary was originally jointly published in Policy Forum and New Mandala.

 

Looking Back on Vietnam before the 1968 Tet Offensive


March 17, 2017

Looking Back on Vietnam before the 1968 Tet Offensive: America’s Defeat or Nixon’s Peace with Honor

 

Hopefully, this will remind President Donald Trump and his associates in The White House to deal with Asia with care.  We in Asia will not allow ourselves to be your pawns again. It is easy but expensive to make war.

Learn not only from Vietnam but also from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Libya and Syria. America, you are not invincible. So give diplomacy a chance and allocate more money to Foggy Bottom (The State Department) and control the military-industrial complex and The Pentagon. –Din Merican.

 

Saudi King Salman’s Visit to Indonesia: Bound by Ties of Islam


March 16, 2017

Image result for asia-pacific bulletinNumber 375 | March 16, 2017

ANALYSIS

Saudi King Salman’s Visit to Indonesia: Bound by Ties of Islam

 By Endy Bayuni

When he came to Indonesia last week, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was not just another head of government passing through on an Asian tour. At least not by the way Indonesia greeted him. He received as close to a royal welcome as possible for a republic to provide. Perhaps deservedly so. King Salman is special because he is the custodian of the two Islamic holy cities, Mecca and Medina, while Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. The king is the first Saudi monarch to visit Indonesia in 47 years, and local media celebrated the significance of the visit. The 1,500-member royal delegation arrived in eight wide-bodied jets with cargo that included a few limousines. The king and his entourage spent a nine-day holiday in Bali – Indonesia’s most famous tourist island.

While the visit was historic, it raises the question: why now? If it has taken this long for a Saudi leader to visit Indonesia, what is the true state of relations between te two countries?

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In Asian culture, regular face-to-face encounters are essential in nurturing relations. Islam similarly has silaturrahim, the tradition of visiting friends and relatives on a regular basis. This is true in everyday life, and should also be true in diplomacy. Indonesian presidents, Suharto, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Soekarnoputri, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Joko Widodo all visited Riyadh, symbolizing the importance they attached to Saudi ties.  The visits by Indonesia’s leaders were as much addressed to the Saudi hosts as to the Indonesian public who judge their leaders by their displays of religiosity. Religion is indeed the one thing that binds Indonesia and Saudi Arabia more than other factors like economics and politics. To suggest that the relationship lacks warmth because of the long absence of a Saudi king’s visit is to deny the power of Islam in bringing two nations together.

Trade and investment between the two countries have remained low in comparison with the economic ties Saudi Arabia has forged with Indonesia’s neighbor Malaysia and many non-Muslim countries. In Jakarta, King Salman witnessed the signing of several economic agreements, including a pledge of $1 billion from the Saudi Fund contribution to finance development projects. There were deals worth $2.4 billion signed separately by private business sectors. Prior to the visit, Indonesian officials had raised the prospect of multibillion dollar deals. After the king’s departure, they decided to include the $6 billon oil refinery project signed in December to the king’s overall economic package. Even that still falls short of the $25 billion they had touted ahead of the visit.

While the two countries have a growing economic relationship, the pace remains slow. Indonesia has never been a major beneficiary of Saudi’s petro-dollars. Any hope that the visit will change economic relations has to be tempered by the fact that Saudi Arabia is undergoing an economic recession and is itself undertaking a National Transformation Program making the economy less dependent upon oil.

There is probably more money flowing in the other direction. Indonesia sends the largest contingent of any country to the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca/Medina. With rising economic prosperity, many Indonesians choose Saudi Arabia as their first overseas trip, to perform the umrah, the off-season pilgrimage. Riyadh is spending billions of dollars renovating and expanding the capacity of Mecca and Medina as part of its post-oil Saudi plan. When tourism replaces oil as a chief source of revenue, Indonesia will be the main target because of the sheer size of its Muslim population.

It is not exactly a two-way road when it comes to tourism. King Salman’s visit to Bali may be a good promotion for Indonesia, but the Middle East has never been a big market, and only a few places in Indonesia cater to the specific needs of Arab tourists. Instead, they go after the bigger markets like Australia, Europe, the United States, and Asia, including now China.

Indonesia also contributes a significant number of workers to Saudi Arabia, particularly domestic helpers. When Indonesia halted the flow of young women to work in Saudi houses following reports of abuse, Riyadh intervened, pleading with Jakarta to resume the flow of these workers.

Bali, a predominantly Hindu island, made the point of not covering up the nude statutes during King Salman’s visit. “Take Bali as it is” was the message when the island welcomed the Saudi royals. The Saudis could have gone to Lombok, the island next door, which is developing its sharia-tourism to attract Muslim tourists. Nevertheless the king chose Bali, even extending his stay by three days.

Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have some common but limited strategic interests. Although predominantly Sunni, Indonesia has stayed away from the rivalry between Sunni-Saudi Arabia and Shiite-Iran by cultivating relations with both countries. The week of King Salman’s visit, Indonesia announced billions of dollars of new oil deals with Iran. Indonesia has tried to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an effort that did not go very far. But the gesture is important diplomatically to show Jakarta’s non-aligned status in this rivalry that is almost as old as Islam itself.

Religion is the one big factor binding the two nations, but even in religion they do not always see eye to eye. Indonesia has not been spared from the global struggle within Islam between more traditional, strict interpretations of the religion and the moderate and tolerant brand that has evolved in Southeast Asia. The battle line has been drawn between Wahabism, the conservative ideology propagated and financed by the Saudi Kingdom, and Nusantara Islam, the name Indonesian Muslim scholars coined to describe the Islam widely practiced in nusantara (the archipelago) that incorporates local cultures and wisdoms.

King Salman also announced the establishment of Arab language centers in three Indonesian cities in addition to the one in Jakarta, which is also known as the center for the propagation of Wahabism. The Indonesian government raised no objection to the plan, but President Widodo organized a meeting between King Salman and leaders of various religions to show that in spite of being a majority-Muslim nation, Indonesia is progressive when it comes to interfaith relations.

The language used by the two countries’ leaders reflects an ideological gap. While King Salman in his speeches stresses the need for unity among Muslims to face their common challenges, Indonesian leaders put the emphasis on more tolerance and moderation. Islam may bind the two nations, but each seems to have its own interpretation.

About the Author

Endy Bayuni is editor-in-chief at The Jakarta Post. He can be reached at EndyBayuni@gmail.com
The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

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Tom Friedman’s Message to Donald Trump


March 16, 2017

Tom Friedman’s Message to Donald Trump

OPINION–New York Times

by Thomas L. Friedman

Every president has an early foreign policy test, and Donald Trump is no exception. Trump’s test is actually already in progress, and it bears some resemblance to the one faced by a young President Kennedy. Indeed, Trump’s crisis has best been described as a “slow-motion Cuban missile crisis” — only the crisis-driver is not Fidel Castro, but North Korea’s bizarre despot, Kim Jong-un.

If this crisis is not keeping you up at night, you’re not paying attention.Let’s see, we have an untested, macho, Twitter-happy U.S. president facing off against the leader of a dynastic North Korean political cult who’s building a long-range nuclear missile that could hit Los Angeles and who — allegedly — just had his half brother, Kim Jong-nam, knocked off by two women who wiped his face with a lethal nerve agent while he was transiting a Malaysian airport….

READ ON:

 

Racist Politics in Malaysia–Blame the Whole Shebang


February 19, 2017

Racist Politics in Malaysia–Blame the Whole Shebang

by S. Thayaparan@www.malaysiakini.com

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It was obvious that bigotry was never a one-way operation, that hatred bred hatred!”

– Isaac Asimov, ‘Pebble in the Sky’

COMMENT: Readers interested in what I write should consider this a companion piece to my article describing how non-Malay Malaysians (specifically) are a tolerant lot.

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Mahathir’s First Carma (Cari Makan) Journalist–A Kadir Jasin

De facto opposition leader and former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad casually mentioned last week that he was partly to blame for the demonisation of DAP. I suppose this went together with veteran journalist A Kadir Jasin’s admission that he was part of the brainwashing that went, and goes on, in UMNO. They say admitting you have a problem is the first step, but I doubt that the indoctrination of Malay youths will cease any time soon when the opposition is made up of Islamic groups determined to use Islam as a political tool.

I wrote the last part of the above paragraph after the opposition had suffered a setback in the by-election where the current UMNO grand poobah was supposed to receive a black eye but apparently, the opposition punched itself in the face. A reader had emailed and asked if the schadenfreude tasted good, especially since I had predicted the results.

I take no pleasure in any opposition defeat and neither do I take pleasure in a UMNO win. This is the bitter taste of having to choose between the lesser of two evils. Furthermore, when I say “evil”, do not get your panties in a twist because it is an expression and not a description of either political fronts. These days I cannot tell the difference between winning and losing when it comes to “saving Malaysia”.

As I have argued before, a country can recover from corruption scandals, but it rarely recovers from that type of Islam that neutralises the democratic imperative. In Malaysia, where race and religion are not mutually exclusive, the threat from Islamists is coupled with ethno-nationalism.

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The  First Malay Nationalist (or is it Racist?)

The de facto Opposition Leader is right when he says that he demonised DAP as DAP and other opposition parties had demonised him. However, the reality is that these political parties were not only demonising their political rivals, they were demonising entire communities.

So, when you want to win, and you demonise your political opponents, and by extension whole communities, the political terrain becomes a battleground for competing racial interests instead of ideological or policy ideas.

This is why I have always been sceptical of the opposition propaganda about voting across racial lines. In one of my numerous articles about race relations in this country, I wrote: “In addition, this idea that voting across racial lines as some sort of evidence of burgeoning multiracial solidarity is complete bunkum. The real test is when people vote across ethnic and religious lines in support of ideologies that run counter to the interests of their communities and by this, I mean egalitarian ideas that run afoul of constitutional sacred cows and social and religious dogma.”

While the former Prime Minister (and now de facto Opposition Leader) and the system contributed to Malay fear of DAP, the whole political system and voting patterns of Malaysians is also culpable for this sad state of affairs. UMNO succeeded because the majority of Malaysians voted for race-based parties. Racial preoccupations were the currency that sustained BN politics and still does.

The problem is that because we do not have an alternative, BN politics is the only game in town. Non-Malay oppositional voices and voters do not demand an alternative but rather that the system continues but in a more “fairer” manner.

DAP and MCA furiously battle for the Chinese vote. Meanwhile Malay-dominated so-called multicultural parties battle with UMNO and now PAS for the Malay vote. Until the former Prime Minister showed up, there was no central theme that united the Opposition.

While the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim and the late Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat discovered that populism does not necessarily mean racial or religious preoccupations when it comes to cobbling together a formidable coalition, the emergence of the former Prime Minister as the de facto opposition leader has given the current UMNO regime an opportunity to:

1) Revisit history.

2) Dredge up the financial scandals of the former Prime Minister.

3) Point out that their strategies for securing the Malay vote is based on his strategies that kept him in power for decades.

If anyone is wondering why questions of race always revolves around the Malay and Chinese dialectic, it is because… well, if you are going to ask this question, you have obviously not being paying attention.

All are participants in race game

When I argued that Malaysians were a tolerant lot, the thrust of the piece revolved around how systemic inequalities were a detriment to the non-Muslim population but I failed to emphasise how the non-Malay communities were active participants in the race game in this country.

Voting for race-based parties meant that we did not have to concern ourselves with egalitarian concepts that would have been the basis for a more democratic system. It was not that we were “immature” or “uneducated”, it was just easier to vote for a political hegemon that provided security and stability for decades but not the rights and responsibilities that are part and parcel of a functional democracy.

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UMNO’s Money Stealing Grand Poobah

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Tolerance may have been a one-way street, it was also the street where we stopped by the sidewalk and spat at the “Malays”. There is the other narrative of non-Malays engaging in subtle and overt racism, all the while supporting racial political parties that claimed inclusiveness.

The majority of us did this to ensure that our racial preoccupations were satisfied by a plutocrat class instead of demanding for an accountable and transparent government, but more importantly demanding for a principled opposition who fearlessly made their positions clear instead of championing communal causes under the guise of “multiracial/culturalism”.

The private sector was (is) dominated by Chinese polity who were perpetuating their own form of systemic inequalities and contextualising this reality as a response to the systemic inequality perpetrated by the UMNO Malay state.

While I think, there is generally “a live and let live” vibe between Malaysians, it would be a mistake to assume that this is some sort of national identity or some form of stable unity. I realise that this is political incorrect to say, but the hard truth is that while race relations have been manipulated by establishment (both UMNO and the Opposition), the reality is that there was always tensions between the various races of this country.

This is why talking about “race” in this country is such a demoralising endeavour. Appeals to emotion replace rational discourse. The fact that our constitution is compromised, the system itself is predicated on maintaining racial and religious superiority, makes any discussion about how the non-Malays react to such a system, their complicity in sustaining the system difficult to articulate.

The fault of UMNO and the Opposition is that nobody offered an alternative and Malaysians never expected anything better.

You know what the big difference is between the corruption scandals of UMNO back in the day and the one now is? The difference is that a vast majority of Malaysians kept voting UMNO-BN back then than they do now. This is a testament to not only the political strategies of Mahathir but also the apathy of the Malaysians. This of course is a boon for the Opposition because Mahathir seems to be the only person who can galvanise the opposition. The more things change, the more they remain the same.