Truth-telling in Singapore


November 19, 2018

Truth-telling in Singapore

by  Hamish McDonald.

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https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au

Tropical rain is bucketing down when P. J. Thum arrives for our meeting at a semi-outdoor Starbucks amid high-rise public housing flats on Singapore’s unfashionable north side. Seeking quietness, we move inside a nearby shopping mall to a cafe offering beverages of a local flavour: black tea with the option of evaporated or condensed milk – the tannin-laden, chalky legacy of long-gone British military men.

 

Podcast > The Bigger Picture > Live & Learn > Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

Thum Ping Tjin, Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford, and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia

23-Mar-15 15:04

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Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, a fellow Singaporean and Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford.

Thum – full name Thum Ping Tjin – is 38 years old, athletic and preppy in tortoiseshell spectacles and a pink shirt. From Singapore’s ethnic Chinese majority, he has an Oxford doctorate in history, is a former Olympic swimmer and has an unblemished military service record. All of which makes him the ideal candidate to go far in Singapore’s kind of meritocracy − perhaps joining the “men in white” of the People’s Action Party, in power since 1959.

Except Thum made the wrong career choice for that. As his history specialisation developed, he’d been thinking of a biography of Vespasian, the Roman legionnaire who, after invading Britain and quelling the Jewish revolt, was installed as emperor by acclamation of his troops and ended a period of instability.

“Then I thought, ‘There are other people who can do that, many people doing way better work on Roman history than I could,’ ” he tells me. “ ‘But who’s going to do Singapore history?’ ”

Soon after his return to a postdoctoral fellowship at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a historic windfall came his way: the British government declassified its archive for the tumultuous year of 1963 in Singapore and Malaya when the two self-governing former colonies were moving to join up in the new, pro-Western nation of Malaysia, standing against the communist tide sweeping South-East Asia.

It contained documents about Operation Coldstore, the sweep by Singapore’s Special Branch in February 1963 to detain more than 100 politicians, trade unionists and activists without trial, ostensibly to prevent the underground Malayan Communist Party instigating unrest to hinder the formation of Malaysia.

From these documents, Thum found the proof of what many had long suspected: that then Chief Minister Lee Kuan Yew mounted Coldstore chiefly to nobble the leftist opposition party, Barisan Sosialis, looming as a serious challenge to his People’s Action Party (PAP) in forthcoming elections. The archive shows Lee virtually admitting as much to British officials. It set a pattern of ruthless use of communist scares and preventive detention powers that Lee employed for decades.

As he wrote and talked about these findings, Thum soon got the answer to his question about who would write Singaporean history.

“Only someone brave or stupid enough,” he says. “Here it is almost career suicide to do Singapore history, because eventually you run into the problem of either you have to censor yourself in Singapore or you leave Singapore and you enter an industry which is not interested nowadays in this sort of niche history.”

Within a year, a senior NUS administrator pulled him aside. “I am not supposed to tell you this, but a directive has come down from the top,” the official said. “You’re blacklisted: no renewal, no extension, no new contract. You’d better make plans.”

Thum went back to Oxford, then returned to Singapore with funding from the Open Society Foundations of George Soros and other donations big and small to start New Naratif, a web platform for research, journalism and art in South-East Asia.

In Singapore he is not alone in myth-busting. In 2014, he contributed to the book Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, which queried many PAP narratives. It regarded meritocracy as a cover for elitism and groupthink; low taxes and migrant labour benefiting the wealthy and punishing ordinary locals; the purchase of government flats a trap rather than economic security.

The writers saw themselves as helping point Singapore to a more sustainable prosperity, explains co-author Donald Low, an economist and former finance ministry official, in what seemed at the time a new era of flexibility and contested policy on the part of the PAP.

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In 2011, in the economic doldrums after the global financial crisis, voters gave the party and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew – a severe shock. The PAP vote dropped by 6.5 points to 60 per cent, the lowest since 1963. The Workers Party gained six of the 87 seats, the best opposition result since Singapore broke from Malaysia in 1965. In a separate presidential election, a widely liked maverick came close to beating the PAP’s preferred candidate.

Lee responded with social policy reforms, hints of openness and some humble gestures, notably cutting his own salary by 36 per cent to $S2.2 million and that of his ministers to $S1.1 million. The PAP has long argued that these salaries, still the highest in the world for elected officials, are necessary to attract top talent and lessen corrupt temptations.

However, in 2015, Lee Kuan Yew died, aged 91. After an effusion of national mourning his son called a snap election, in which the PAP vote rebounded to nearly 70 per cent. “The result of 2015 removed whatever impetus or pressure there was, both within and without,” Low tells me, over beers and another local adaptation of British cuisine, crispy-toasted Spam. “The reform appetite has completely gone out the window in Singapore in the last three years.”

Dig deeper, he says, and Singaporeans are far from the “crazy rich Asians” of this year’s hit film set in the glittering south side of the island, with its heritage hotels, fusion cuisine and rooftop infinity pools.

For a few, the island is like this. A bungalow sold last month for $S95 million, reflecting the top-end wealth created by income tax rates that plateau at 22 per cent at $S320,000 a year and the absence of capital gains or inheritance taxes. IT start-ups are thriving. British inventor James Dyson has just chosen Singapore to manufacture his new electric car.

For the rest, things are pretty stagnant. Citizens are now only about 60 per cent of the 5.6 million population, their wages and job openings depressed by workers imported from the wider region. The 85 per cent living in Housing and Development Board flats that they have been persuaded to buy have seen values flatten. They are likely to decline steadily once their “ownership” gets to the halfway point of what are actually 99-year leases.

Low and Thum see few responses coming out of the PAP now.

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The fall of the similar-vintage United Malays National Organisation in Malaysia’s election this year has been a new shock. Under the returned Mahathir Mohamad, Kuala Lumpur is breaking its mould, ending capital punishment while Singapore steps up its hanging, winding back ethnic Malay privilege, and exposing how Goldman Sachs bankers, some based in Singapore, helped loot the 1MDB fund of billions.

It’s attracting some envy. “Because really we are the same country,” Thum said. “We just got split up by politicians who couldn’t get along. There are so many similarities that Singaporeans look north and see a society that looks so similar to ours but is heading in a different direction, with hope and vision, things that we lack.”

Singapore’s problem is ennui, not massive scandal. PAP leaders look back, arguing about who best embodies Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. In the 2015 election one even boasted about the lack of promises, since promises can be broken.

Lee Hsien Loong is only 66 and highly competent, but looks older than his years, after overcoming two types of cancer, then fainting while speaking at a national day rally two years ago. He has said he will retire at 70, so the next election, widely expected to be next year, will be his last before handing over.

But to whom? The consensus is that a third-generation Lee family member, such as the Prime Minister’s pushy second son Li Hongyi, an IT specialist, could be a risk, especially after a public family squabble about the disposal of Lee Kuan Yew’s old house that diminished the dynastic aura.

The alternative comes down to three candidates among younger ministers, with senior military rank and closeness to Lee Hsien Loong their main selling points inside the party. “They’re all bland, interchangeable, boring, uninspiring male Chinese,” Thum says. “The problem is compounded by the fact there is a clear, popular leader that Singaporeans want.”

This is current Deputy Prime Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 61. A former head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and later Finance Minister, he is credited with the post-2011 reforms that helped the PAP rebound in 2015. But he was then shifted into a vague coordinating role in cabinet.

There is more history here. In 1987, Lee Kuan Yew used internal security powers again, in Operation Spectrum, to detain 22 young Catholic social activists, some of whom, after soft torture, confessed on TV to having been unwitting tools of the communists. Studying at the London School of Economics, Shanmugaratnam had mixed with one of the detainees, and an exiled Singaporean leftist lawyer, Tan Wah Piow. “I can only speculate that the PAP feels that Tharman is a useful tool but he can’t be trusted to lead because he will take Singapore in a very different direction, especially one away from the Lee family,” Thum said.

And of course, he is of Tamil descent. As Flinders University political scientist Michael Barr wrote in his recent book The Ruling Elite of Singapore: “Today the ideal Singaporean is no longer an English-educated Singaporean, but an English- and Mandarin-speaking Chinese.” Lee Kuan Yew got the PAP hooked on the notion that only strong individuals, like the ideal Confucian junzi (righteous gentleman), could preserve the nation, not strong and independent institutions.

Meanwhile, the PAP leadership plays it by its time-tested book of legal action against opposition figures: for defamation, contempt and sometimes minute financial irregularities, such as using office stationery for private purposes.

Three MPs of the Workers Party are in court facing charges of financial laxity in the local council they also run, with the government-owned media breaking away from what Low calls its usual “Panglossian cheerleading” to give the trial reams of coverage.

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Even a stalwart of Lee Kuan Yew’s era, diplomat and “Asian values” proponent Kishore Mahbubani, fell foul of the system. His offence was an op-ed, after Chinese officials blocked the Hong Kong transit of Singapore armoured vehicles being shipped back from exercises in Taiwan, saying that small countries had to put up with such things. He was removed as dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.

In March, Thum himself appeared before the Singapore parliament’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, to argue among other things that a government defending Operation Coldstore had its own problems with truth. He found his academic credentials questioned for six hours in what was clearly a prepared ambush by the law and home affairs minister, K. Shanmugam, the government’s main political attack dog.

Still, history does have its rewards. After one talk, a man in the audience approached Thum. He had been a Coldstore detainee: the stigma of being a communist dupe had remained after his release. Now Thum had shown there was no such evidence. “The man said that because of my work, he can look his wife and children in the eye,” Thum said. “He said: ‘P.J., you’ve given me my pride and my dignity back.’ I will never forget the privilege to be able to make someone’s life better like that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 10, 2018 as “Singapore sting”.

 

Hamish McDonald  is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.

Book Review:The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi


November 19, 2018

Book Review:

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi

Hans-Bernd Zöllner and Rodion Ebbighausen (translated by Vipasha Bansal) (Silkworm Books, 2018)

http://www.newmandala.org/book-review/selth-the-daughter

Few figures in modern history have attracted as much biographical attention as Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Griffith Asia Institute’s select bibliography of Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising, the third edition of which was published earlier this year, lists 34 books in English about her, all written since 1990. There are several others, in other languages, and even a few collections of photographs. Most have been aimed at the general public, including young readers.

All of these books were written after Aung San Suu Kyi became an icon of democracy, adored by millions and held up by the international community as a paragon of virtue, the result of her long struggle for universal human rights and peaceful democratic change.

Very few biographies have appeared since her government took office in 2016, and she was in a position to give practical effect to her ideas about political, economic and social reform. As a result, the world has been waiting for years for a study that rigorously and objectively examines not just the Nobel Peace laureate’s undoubted strengths and achievements, but also her weaknesses and policy failures.

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, by long time Myanmar-watcher Hans-Bernd Zöllner and freelance journalist Rodion Ebbighausen, is a comprehensive and thoughtful account of her life and times, and ventures into a few unfamiliar areas, but it still does not satisfy that need.

Before 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi was not just admired, she was idolised. Wherever she went, both within Myanmar and outside it, she was given what journalists liked to describe as “a rock star welcome”. This cult of personality helped her become a household name around the world and boosted her cause, but it had a downside.

In journalistic and even academic circles she was rarely subjected to the same level of critical analysis as other world figures, or members of the military government she opposed.

When more objective Myanmar-watchers dared to point out examples of her poor judgement and tactical missteps, or suggested that, like everyone else, she had flaws in her character, they were subject to an avalanche of abuse. One outspoken critic who wrote disparagingly about The Lady (as she became widely known), and the tunnel vision of her more extreme supporters, was sent a death threat. This had the effect of silencing many commentators aware of her imperfections, or who disagreed with some of her decisions. Even professional analysts began to self-censor what they wrote about her.

To be fair, they did this not just out of fear of being attacked by Aung San Suu Kyi’s legion of supporters, who used the Internet and social media to great effect. Serious observers of Myanmar were aware that to openly criticise Aung San Suu Kyi risked giving the military regime ammunition to use against her.

For years, a virulent campaign was waged against the opposition leader in the state-run news media, where she was cast as a traitorous renegade who had turned her back on her own people. Countless stories and cartoons, including jibes about her marriage to a foreigner and her schooling abroad (in India and the UK) were published with the aim of undermining her popularity with the Myanmar people.

Anything written by foreign commentators in the international press, or said by them in public, that could be used to support the regime and bolster its case against Aung San Suu Kyi, was seized upon and shamelessly exploited. With that danger in the back of their minds, more critical and aware foreign observers tended not to draw attention to her shortcomings as an alternative leader of Myanmar.

Doubtless, in private counsels and confidential reports prepared for senior officials, diplomats and strategic analysts took a hard-headed approach and produced unvarnished assessments of Aung San Suu Kyi’s character, political skills and suitability for high office. Presumably, they also warned that, should she ever find herself in a position of real power, she would inevitably be forced to choose sides between contending factions, and make hard decisions about contentious issues, in ways that would leave some of her admirers dissatisfied. She would not be able to please everyone, or avoid controversy, simply by referring to broad principles and abstract concepts, as was her usual practice. However, for obvious reasons, the recipients of such assessments were unlikely to share them with the public. Some senior officials (George W. Bush and Gordon Brown spring to mind) may have even been reluctant to accept them. Thus the net effect of the world-wide campaign being waged on her behalf was to strengthen the popular image of her as being without fault or peer, existing above the grubby political fray.

This two-dimensional picture was reflected in most of the books written about her. As Kyaw Yin Hlaing pointed out in a review article, “Quite often the biographies of leading political figures are written by their loyalists, enemies, or by neutral authors or scholars. In the case of Suu Kyi, however, one finds that most of the writings about her are written by her sympathisers and her enemy (the Myanmar junta)”.

Works in the former category were not all hagiographies. For example, Bertil Lintner’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy discussed some of the criticisms usually levelled at The Lady. Other books made passing references to Aung San Suu Kyi’s human frailties and some other perceived shortcomings. However, these character flaws tended to be brushed over as insignificant in the greater scheme of things. As a rule, very few authors attempted to offer an objective picture of the opposition leader that stripped away her public image to show the real person underneath, warts and all. As Barbara Victor wrote in her own biography, titled The Lady, “deconstructing Aung San Suu Kyi is not part of the game”.

 

 

The TOUGH and GUTSY Lady in OSLO

Over the past few years, however, the pendulum has swung completely the other way. Aung San Suu Kyi is now being lambasted by the international community and, albeit to a much lesser extent, criticised by many people within Myanmar. At one level, this is hardly surprising. Her government has disappointed on several fronts, failing to deliver on most if not all the promises she made before the 2015 elections. Given the challenges she inherited, and the unrealistic expectations held about her ability to solve Myanmar’s “fiendishly complex problems”, that was to be expected. However, her dramatic fall from grace in the eyes of the international community has come about mainly because of her response—or lack of it—to the Rohingya crisis of 2016–2017, which saw three quarters of a million Muslims driven into Bangladesh by Myanmar’s security forces in circumstances that have been labelled by the UN ethnic cleansing, if not genocide. She has also publicly defended egregious human rights violations in other contexts.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now the subject of vitriolic abuse in the international news media. Amnesty International recently stripped her of its highest honour, telling her that “you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage and and the undying defence of human rights”. There have even been calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be rescinded.

The collapse of Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation, and the flight of her former high profile supporters, begs for a detailed explanation. Also, the apparent abandonment of her principles on universal human rights, and her rejection of the international community’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable in countries like Myanmar, warrants close examination.

 

So, what have these two experienced observers made of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and her performance since she achieved her life-long ambition to become Myanmar’s (de facto) ruler?

Her current position is in stark contrast to the well-publicised views she held as a political prisoner. While at one level the picture is clear, these issues can be quite complex, and in certain cases her actions may appear less reprehensible when put into a wider context. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi has no control over the actions of Myanmar’s armed forces (Tatmadaw) which, under the 2008 constitution, act independently of her quasi-civilian government. Similarly, on the Rohingyas, there is a rare consensus between the government, the armed forces and the wider population that may restrict her freedom of action. This is not to offer any excuses, simply to emphasise the need for a thorough and objective account of her policies and personal attitudes.

Hans-Bernd Zöllner is in a good position to offer informed comments on such matters. He is an accomplished Myanmar-watcher, with several major works to his name. To English-speakers, he is perhaps best known for his compilations of Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches and informal comments to her followers, published as Talks Over the Gate: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Dialogues with the People, 1995 and 1996.

He has also written a history of the conflict between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, set in a global context. Another work of note is his chapter comparing different accounts of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, published in Volker Grabowsky’s edited volume Southeast Asian Historiography. Rodion Ebbighausen is not well-known in English-speaking countries as a Myanmar-watcher, but he is an experienced journalist who has covered the country for Deutsche Welle and other news outlets. He has also written occasionally about Aung San Suu Kyi, most recently in connection with the Rohingyas.

So, what have these two experienced observers made of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and her performance since she achieved her life-long ambition to become Myanmar’s (de facto) ruler?

As might be expected, The Daughter is a well-researched and comprehensive account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s early childhood, her time spent travelling as a young woman, her studies at Oxford and her marriage to British academic Michael Aris.

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It describes her return to Myanmar in 1988 and unexpected rise to fame as General Secretary of the opposition National League for Democracy. Her 15 or so years under house arrest are also covered. There is an interesting excursion into Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhist studies, and their apparent impact on her political thinking. The authors also discuss the lack of understanding about democracy in Myanmar and explore Aung San Suu Kyi’s relationship with her followers.
As Nic Dunlop has pointed out, these sections offer helpful insights into her attitudes and personal philosophy at the time. The book finishes with an account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to the Union parliament in 2015 and subsequent appointment to the newly-created position of State Counsellor (the presidency having been denied to her by the 2008 constitution).

 

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This narrative is well told and covers all the main bases, but is curiously flat. The book goes over a lot of familiar ground, but offers little by way of new information or original analyses of critical events.

Given everything that has already been written about Aung San Suu Kyi, this was perhaps inevitable to a certain extent, but the reader is left wondering why the authors have not addressed more directly and in greater depth the criticisms made of Aung San Suu Kyi during her political career.

 

Despite the general reluctance to highlight her shortcomings, commentators have referred to such personality traits as her profound sense of personal destiny, her aloofness (or arrogance), her refusal to accept criticism or to countenance dissent, her dismissal of potential rivals, and her reluctance to include activists like the 88 Generation Students Group in the wider pro-democracy movement. Nor have the two authors critically examined her encouragement before 2011 of tough economic sanctions against Myanmar and her opposition to tourism, despite the negative impact these policies clearly had on the wider population.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book, however, is its failure to take the opportunity to look closely at Aung San Suu Kyi since she took political office. She has been criticised for vetting all bills herself and taking all important decisions on both party and government matters. She has reportedly surrounded herself with a small group of loyalists, and does not consult others who could offer different advice. These practices have caused serious problems in the conduct of government business.

More particularly, her attitude towards the ethnic communities has been described as both imperious and unsympathetic, encouraging the view that, at heart, she is an ethnic Burman centralist who shares the Tatmadaw’s hard line towards minority groups, including the Muslim Rohingyas. Indeed, over the past few years she appears to have made little attempt to curb the blatant misuse of power by the security forces and judicial system. These are all matters that would have benefited from a rigorous and balanced analysis, both to put the record straight where it has strayed from the truth, and to help explain what appears to many people to be a puzzling about face on the part of someone they once admired.

Zöllner and Ebbighausen have said that they are keen to provide a nuanced portrayal of Myanmar’s crises over the past 30 years, with Aung San Suu Kyi as a focal point. They have succeeded in this aim, but failed to meet the not unreasonable expectation that Aung San Suu Kyi would be examined more critically, now that she has revealed herself to be a more complicated person than was once portrayed. Her elevation to the leadership of Myanmar, and the challenges that she has faced in that role, has required qualities that seem to be lacking.

As former US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell has written, “Opposing oppressive state power and running a government are two vastly different skills”. There were bound to be teething problems, and grumbles at the slow pace of change. Also, the 2008 constitution was going to require compromises. However, few people expected that Aung San Suu Kyi would become the target of such bitter invective, mostly from the same foreigners and foreign institutions which had once idolised her.

Myanmar has always been much more complex than popularly portrayed, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been subject to as many myths and misconceptions as other aspects of the country’s modern history. Had Zöllner and Ebbighausen written more about the controversies and criticisms now associated with The Lady, and tried to explain them in greater depth, they would have produced a more interesting book, and one that made a greater contribution to the burgeoning literature on modern Myanmar.

Dr Andrew Selth is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, and at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. He is the author of Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising: A Select Bibliography and Burma, Kipling and Western Music: The Riff From Mandalay.

Awkward moments at ASEAN Summit in Singapore


November 17, 2018

Awkward moments at ASEAN Summit in Singapore

by mergawati zulfakar

http://www.thestar.com.my

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IT is an ASEAN homecoming for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the summit hosted by Singapore. The last time he attended an ASEAN Summit was in Bali 15 years ago where then Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri gave a tearful farewell speech.

This week at the 33rd ASEAN summit, all eyes will be on the Prime Minister again as he sits down next to another female leader who he has been critical of in recent weeks.

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And because of ASEAN’s way of doing things, the seating arrangement will be done in alphabetical order – which means Dr Mahathir will be seated next to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

In his Address at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September, Dr Mahathir blamed Myanmar authorities, including a Nobel Peace Laureate, for closing their eyes to the fate of Muslims in Rakhine state who were being murdered and forced to flee their homes.

 

In an interview conducted the same week in New York, the Prime Minister made it clear that Malaysia would no longer lend its support to Suu Kyi over her handling of the Rohingya. He remarked that Suu Kyi seemed to be a “changed person” and he had lost faith in her.

For years, it was taboo for ASEAN leaders to even mention the word “Rohingya” during their meeting, skirting the issue by using words like Muslims and Rakhine state, bearing in mind ASEAN’s non-interference in the domestic affairs of another country.

But the situation became worse, and it is understood that Malaysia started raising the matter during the leaders’ retreat as recent as three years ago.

“The leaders’ retreat is where they can raise any issue but it will be unrecorded. But when we saw no serious efforts from Myanmar, Malaysia started using ‘Rohingya’ at official meetings,” said an official familiar with the issue.

“Obviously, Myanmar didn’t like it. It was an affront to them. We all know this is beyond the red line for them but we did it,” he added.

And Suu Kyi, who has been attending these summits, showed her displeasure. “You could tell from the body language and all that. She did not like it,” said an official.

At the ASEAN summit, the 10 leaders would normally pose for a group photo holding hands and giving their best smiles to the international media.Even former Prime MInister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak felt uncomfortable, telling his officers it was awkward.

So how would Suu Kyi handle someone who has lost faith in her? Would she care enough to find time and explain to a leader who once fought hard for Myanmar to be a part of ASEAN despite the world condemnation against the military regime that curtailed her freedom?

As for Dr Mahathir, the rest of ASEAN must be looking to him, wondering what he would do next.

“What else is Malaysia doing after such strident statements by the Prime Minister?No ASEAN country in recent times has singled out the leader of a fellow AASEANean country especially on the United Nations platform,” said an official.

When Dr Mahathir says he no longer supports Suu Kyi, what does he mean exactly? Suu Kyi is a legitimate leader who is still popular among her people.

“What is it that you want to do when you make that statement? What message are you sending? “How do you translate it through Malaysia’s foreign policy,” asked an observer.

“Malaysia must realise there could be some repercussion over such remarks. It may affect not only relations with Myanmar but also other ASEAN countries because “we are like a family”.

Whatever the Prime Minister utters is officially national position. Which means officials will have to rationalise it and implement it in the best way that will protect and promote Malaysia’s interests, not only in its relations to the country concerned but also ASEAN and globally.

For Malaysia to play a constructive role, it is important to protect and maintain some level of goodwill and trust. Putting it simply, it is vital to maintain good relations and keep the communication lines open”.–Mergawati Zulfakar

An official admitted that any statement deemed critical of leaders of another country could diminish any measure of trust that remains between Malaysia and Myanmar.

“In ASEAN or even Asia as a whole, face saving is very important. You do not humiliate, you don’t admonish if you want to maintain relations and some form of trust,” the official said.

Going tough on the Rohingya issue started in Najib’s time. Is Dr Mahathir’s speech at UNGA an indication that the current Government is not compromising and will take an even tougher stance on this issue?

Whatever the Prime Minister utters is officially national position. Which means officials will have to rationalise it and implement it in the best way that will protect and promote Malaysia’s interests, not only in its relations to the country concerned but also ASEAN and globally.

For Malaysia to play a constructive role, it is important to protect and maintain some level of goodwill and trust. Putting it simply, it is vital to maintain good relations and keep the communication lines open.

Mergawati Zulfakar –merga@thestar.com.my

Asia Needs Pence’s Reassurance


November 16, 2018

Asia Needs Pence’s Reassurance

By Patrick M. Cronin

He should confront Trump’s mistakes and put forward a positive agenda.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the ASEAN summit in Singapore on Nov. 15. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

In Asia, anxieties about the United States’ role in an increasingly China-centered world are palpable. While some fear that the United States is retreating from its international obligations, other worry that it is bent on instigating conflict.

.As U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visits Southeast Asia and the South Pacific this week to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meetings, he should make clear that the United States remains a stalwart partner for the region with a vision for peaceful cooperation and development.

No U.S. retreat

The United States is not withdrawing into fortress America. It remains actively engaged in global affairs and is focused on strengthening the economic and military foundations of its power. The country’s central aim is to stay competitive in a world driven by a dynamic Indo-Asia-Pacific region. That goal, of course, derives from a real concern that China is challenging the postwar order and an understanding that the United States needs to find new ways to renew its diplomatic, economic, and military competitiveness.

The United States is not withdrawing into fortress America. It remains actively engaged in global affairs and is focused on strengthening the economic and military foundations of its power. The country’s central aim is to stay competitive in a world driven by a dynamic Indo-Asia-Pacific region. That goal, of course, derives from a real concern that China is challenging the postwar order and an understanding that the United States needs to find new ways to renew its diplomatic, economic, and military competitiveness.

But as U.S. President Donald Trump said last November in Da Nang, Vietnam, the United States has been “an active partner in this region since we first won independence ourselves,” and “we will be friends, partners, and allies for a long time to come.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has likewise been a forceful advocate for diplomacy in the region. Meanwhile, Congress is on the cusp of passing a bipartisan bill designed to bolster U.S. engagement there. The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act would authorize $1.5 billion in new funding over the next five years for regional diplomacy, development, and defense programs. In short, rumors of America’s disengagement miss the mark.

No Cold War with China

Pence also needs to reassure the region that when it comes to China, the United States is not seeking a war—trade, cold, or hot.

Pence also needs to reassure the region that when it comes to China, the United States is not seeking a war—trade, cold, or hot.

Instead, the U.S. administration wants a fair, open, and cooperative relationship. That doesn’t mean ignoring China’s attempts to compete with the United States, including through grey-zone operations like muscling the Philippines out of Scarborough Shoal and militarizing artificial islands despite pledging not to do so. And America will not shy away from meeting challenges directly. But on a fundamental level, the Trump administration would like to channel competition toward cooperation where possible.

In fact, the Trump administration rejects the idea of Thucydides’s Trap: that conflict between a rising power and a status quo power is inevitable. Leaders have agency, and it is up to them to determine the future course of relations. And for its part, the United States seeks to remain a force for good, not to contain or curb the China’s peaceful rise.

Of course, it would be useful for Pence to clarify that Washington will not tolerate coercion or the use of force against allies and partners in the region. But the vice president should also reiterate what he said last month at the Hudson Institute: “America is reaching out our hand to China. We hope that Beijing will soon reach back with deeds, not words.” That sentiment is broadly shared, even among Democrats, who do not agree with some of the administration’s tactics. (As Joaquin Castro, a Democratic representative from Texas, said last month, China should “compete, not cheat.”)

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US Vice President Mike Pence has confronted Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the ASEAN summit about what is being done to hold those responsible for the persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority in her country to to account.

This will be a difficult balance to strike. And here, China’s approach to the South China Sea is instructive. It alone pursues claims there based in part on historical rights rather than contemporary international law. It showers the region with promises of infrastructure investment, but it fails to deliver transparent, equitably financed, high-quality development. It promises to follow an ASEAN Code of Conduct for the region but seeks a veto on the right of ASEAN members to extract natural resources from the South China Sea or hold military exercises there with Australia, Japan, the United States, and other non-ASEAN states.

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But the fear that a major confrontation, or even war, will play out in Southeast Asia is greatly exaggerated. China seeks to advance its goals by means short of war, and the United States aims to cooperate where it can but compete where it must. The resumption of the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue—a U.S.-China working group involving top defense and diplomacy officials—is thus a good sign.

 

Yes to an affirmative agenda for Asia

Beyond dispelling myths about U.S. retrenchment and bellicosity, Pence should also put forward a positive agenda for Asia. Here, he will have to confront some of Trump administration’s mistakes.

Many in the region question the United States’ predictability, because Trump has reversed major U.S. initiatives, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Meanwhile, he has escalated tariff wars without articulating a coherent strategy for achieving results, and his uneven application of penalties has rankled allies and competitors alike. Nor has the administration deployed soft power well, often ignoring U.S. values like democracy and human rights, turning the country’s back on refugees, using unbefitting language, papering over conflicts of interest rather than cracking down hard on corruption, and being far too comfortable with authoritarians.

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Despite these missteps, Pence can use the trip to Asia to burnish four cornerstones that should be the foundation of the administration’s free and open Indo-Asia-Pacific strategy, especially in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Those four elements are a rules-based order, sustainable economic development, inclusive diplomacy, and effective security cooperation.

First, upholding and peacefully adapting the set of rules chosen freely by strong and independent sovereign states will be the foundation for U.S. engagement with the region. The United States has enduring interests in the South China Sea: stability, freedom of navigation, and resolving disputes peacefully and without coercion.

Although ensuring the rule of law will require far more than freedom of navigation operations, the United States will continue to help maintain the openness of the seas by sailing, flying, and operating anywhere international law permits. Importantly, seafaring nations from Asia and Europe are also demonstrating their commitment to the same cause by conducting similar operations.

Second, for growth to be sustainable, it has to be fair and reciprocal. It should be pursued in a manner that is transparent, non coercive, and environmentally sustainable, especially when it comes to the global maritime commons. There is nothing wrong with China’s Belt and Road Initiative that sunshine and high standards of accountability cannot fix.

Meanwhile, the United States should go even further to mobilize public and private support for trade, investment, and development. Eventually, the country can create a whole constellation of allies and partners that can invest in energy infrastructure, digital connectivity, transportation, and more. For instance, the United States is in active discussions to leverage the BUILD Act to expand joint efforts with allies and partners in the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. In doing so, it can set a gold standard for development in the region.

Take Indonesia for example. China aside, a prosperous, democratic, and stable Indonesia is in the vital interest of the United States. Yet few in Washington are aware of the opportunities that await in Southeast Asia’s most populous country. The U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation has just completed a successful economic investment in Indonesia. Pence should ensure Washington starts negotiating a follow-on compact while simultaneously using BUILD Act funds to facilitate new U.S. private sector entry into Indonesia.

A third tenet of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia is inclusive diplomacy, including trust-building with competitors and partners alike.

ASEAN deserves broad support for its unique convening authority. Certainly, that is a major reason why the United States embraces the body having a loud unified voice in Indo-Pacific engagement. It also is in favor a strong, binding Code of Conduct—not one that unfairly limits the freedom of action of Southeast Asian states.

Inclusive confidence-building measures, such as plans to extend the voluntary Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to include coast guard vessels and efforts to protect rapidly depleted fishery stocks, deserve action. The United States should signal its support for promoting a new framework of “Resilience, Response, Recovery,” which is one of several useful concepts being put forward by ASEAN under Singapore’s chairmanship. At the same time, ASEAN members are pragmatic. The United States will often have to cooperate with them on a bilateral or trilateral basis to find effective responses to real challenges.

In terms of diplomacy with China, it might be worth creating a new crisis avoidance mechanism—perhaps mirroring the 1972 Incidents at Sea agreement. The bilateral pact did not prevent all U.S.-Soviet mishaps, but it helped avert major disasters, something that is even more important in a region where intermediate-range cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, and the military use of cyberspace and outer space are unrestricted.

Finally, the United States will continue to support effective security cooperation centered on information sharing, capacity building, and interoperability. The United States should buttress such efforts by firming up its commitment to respond appropriately to threats of coercion and the use of force.

Boosting the ability of allies and partners to see better what is happening in their maritime backyards will help them become more resilient. And assistance with capacity building, especially for coast guards and other law enforcement agencies, will give nations a better ability to protect their sovereignty. Bilateral, “minilateral,” and larger multilateral exercises can also help create a readiness for dealing with future contingencies.

In sum, a confident but not boastful United States is neither stepping away from Asia nor trying to provoke wars there. Rather, it aims to ensure stability in the region so that all countries there can advance both sovereign interests and regional cooperation.

Patrick M. Cronin is senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. @PMCroninCNAS
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Malaysia: Whose freedom of speech, Mahathir?


Malaysia: Whose freedom of speech, Mr. Prime MInister?

Does the prime minister really think it is his administration’s prerogative to grant or deny the freedoms that are associated with democratic life? A news report on Nov 8 quoted him as warning the public against causing trouble in “matters concerning race and religion” through the “abuse” of the freedom of expression “given by the government”.

If the report is accurate, Malaysians have reason to fear the possibility of losing one of the liberties that citizens of a democratic country normally consider to be their inalienable right.

Mahathir sounded like he was speaking as the leader of a Malaysia stuck in the pre-internet and pre-Reformasi era, when it was perhaps normal for the average citizen to think of the government as the dispenser of liberties.

But the advent of the internet, which roughly coincided with the emergence of the Reformasi movement, heralded the rise of democratic consciousness among ordinary educated Malaysians. Government controls over the flow of information were no longer effective, and anger over the perceived injustice to Anwar Ibrahim spread across cyberspace and across racial lines.

Malaysians gradually became accustomed to the idea that the freedom to express themselves and the freedom to avail themselves of information are integral parts of civilised democratic life. Today, they think of such liberties as theirs to own and not to be dispensed to them by the government at its pleasure.

An Iranian scholar writing about the 1979 overthrow of the 2,500-year-old Persian monarchy attributed the fall of the Shah, with all his military might, to the simple idea of distributing tape-recorded speeches of the then-exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.

Indeed, technology has played a crucial part in the rise of civil society in Malaysia. Futurist Alvin Toffler predicted in a 1970 book that dictators would fall with advancements in information technology and the availability of computers in every home.

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Politicians in power, in Malaysia or anywhere else in the democratic world, must live with the reality that they can no longer effectively curtail freedom of speech. And Mahathir should not fret over this as long as his government enacts laws to punish those who threaten bodily harm with their speeches.

Indeed it is only a citizen’s own sense of decency and decorum, as well as his fear of running afoul of laws against the threat of violence, that should limit his outburst.

In the new Malaysia, we must constantly remind the government that freedom of speech is not some commodity for it to give or take away. It is our fundamental right. I may not like someone’s speech because it offends my beliefs, but I do not agree that he should be jailed. I can always counter his argument with my own speech or writing.

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Even now there is a WhatsApp warfare over the possible ratification of ICERD and its alleged impact on so-called Malay rights and privileges. This is one of the signs of a working democracy. In fact, we are now seeing a rise in the number of public forums to educate citizens on current issues. But it is sad that these forums occur only in hotels and clubhouses and not on the campuses of our universities.

In the new Malaysia, any politician in power who threatens to withhold the freedom of speech will be seen as someone who is out of touch with the times. The new Malaysia rejects the cult of the strong man but welcomes a prime minister who knows how to manage the talents of his subordinates and sees civil society as a participant in governance.

It is true that many current members of the federal Cabinet have no experience in governance, but then neither are they experienced in the destruction of public institutions and the desecration of the Federal Constitution. And we should welcome that.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

Hun Sen’s Power Paradox


November 9, 2018

Hun Sen’s Power Paradox

by Dr. Sorpong Peou, Ryerson University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/11/07/hun-sens-power-paradox/

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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is continuing to push the limits of personal power consolidation. While his strategies have been highly successful so far, they are likely to result in greater political insecurity in Cambodia.

Several concerning developments have emerged in 2018. Since the Supreme Court banned the main opposition party — the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP — in November 2017, Hun Sen has further consolidated his power by appointing family members to top government positions.

Some of these promotions were of his children. For instance, in late 2017 Hun Sen appointed his third son, Hun Manith, as General Director of the General Directorate of Intelligence, a new intelligence unit designed to train spies for combat against terrorists and any suspected threat from ‘revolutionary’ forces. Hun Sen also promoted his son-in-law, Dy Vichea — former head of the Ministry of Interior’s Central Security Department — to Deputy Chief of the National Police. Most importantly, Hun Sen elevated his eldest son Lieutenant General Hun Manet (pic below) as a General (four star) following his promotion to Deputy Commander in Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).

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These tactical moves are part of the Prime Minister’s long-term strategy to consolidate power, which has been in place since he removed his then co-prime minister, Norodom Ranariddh, from power in July 1997. Hun Sen has used coercive means to tighten political control over state institutions and co-opt loyal followers. Hun Sen now maintains tight control over the judiciary and electoral processes at both the local and national level and his party, the Cambodian People Party (CPP), dominates the bicameral legislature.

Why has Hun Sen carried out these tactical moves? For some commentators, they are simply a part of Cambodia’s entrenched political culture of authoritarianism, nepotism and patrimonialism.

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While there is some truth to this way of looking at Cambodian politics, it overlooks Cambodian leaders’ deep sense of insecurity, which drives them to weaken opposition forces by all means necessary. Hun Sen has been comparatively more successful than past Cambodian leaders in consolidating power, and is continuing to expand his domination of Cambodian politics after more than three decades.

Despite this success, Hun Sen still appears to feel insecure. His efforts to fill top government positions with family members are not simply about building a family business empire but rather about shutting down potential threats from within and without. This may explain why Hun Sen maintains a bodyguard unit of up to 6000 well-equipped and highly-paid troops.

Hun Sen’s sense of political vulnerability is also reflected in the words of Hun Manith, who reportedly said that the new General Directorate of Intelligence was designed to deal with ‘internal and external disturbance from a hostile and ill-intended group of people’ and that ‘the political and security situation and competition in the future will be more intense than in previous years’.

But Hun Sen is making the same mistake of the many Cambodian leaders before him: maximising political security by endlessly consolidating power. Hun Sen appears to believe that this strategy will continue to work for him. The problem with this strategy, though, may emerge from Cambodia’s external environment.

Hun Sen has taken advantage of the post-Cold War peace dividend and is also enjoying growing support from China. But he runs the risk of over-relying on Beijing’s support. The extent to which China is prepared to protect the CPP is difficult to determine, but what is clear is Chinese leaders’ long history of abandoning their allies when much was at stake. While Hun Sen may be aware of this possibility, his strategy to weaken domestic political challenges may increase his political insecurity.

Another problem with power consolidation through nepotism or patrimonialism is that it tends to invite resistance and opposition from both within the party and without. At some point, forces opposed to Hun Sen will grow stronger and nastier, especially if an economic downturn hits the country. And if Western democracies begin to impose sanctions on Cambodia, not only will ordinary Cambodians suffer, but the ruling elite will also face a legitimacy crisis. In this scenario, the CPP is likely to resort to even more repressive violence and may even end up self-imploding.

Current and future Cambodian leaders need to realise that security maximisation through unrestrained power consolidation is counterproductive and dangerous. Security does not necessarily result from others’ insecurity. But for this to happen would require CPP leaders to shift from a self-serving strategy to one that considers the security of others through effective dialogue and democratic power sharing.

Dr. Sorpong Peou is a Professor with the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Toronto