Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society


November 7, 2017

Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society

by Kevin Hewison@www.newmandala.org

http://www.newmandala.org/illiberal-civil-society/

In the mid-1990s, there was a lot of enthusiasm for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the expansion of civil society in Southeast Asia. At the time, there was an efflorescence of activism as activists campaigned against trade agreements, foregrounded gender issues, worked to reduce poverty, improve health, protect the environment, advocated for workers and consumers, exposed corruption, bolstered human rights and agitated for democracy.

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The optimism of the decade was driven by a feeling of confidence that democracy was taking root in the region, growing on a foundation of thriving capitalist economies. The resonance of 1960s modernisation theory was palpable—the “Third Wave” of democratisation was said to be washing over the region. This was emphasised by the triumphs of popular uprisings in the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1987), Thailand (1992) and Indonesia (1998). These events were associated in the theory with the rise of the middle class and an expansion of civil society.

Two decades later, this optimism has faded. There is now more pessimism about civil society and democratisation. To understand these changing perspectives, it is necessary to give attention to recent political events, and rethink how we conceptualise civil society and its role in Southeast Asian politics today.

Civil society and democratisation

The notion of “civil society” has meanings embedded in the development of capitalism and the end of absolutism in Europe, and the consequent reduction of the weight of the state. The idea of a space relatively autonomous of the state developed quite late in colonial and postcolonial Southeast Asia. While anticolonial, socialist and communist movements, religious and educational organisations, trade unions and the like were established from the late 19th century, they were usually repressed.

When writing of civil society in late 20th century Southeast Asia, analysts tended to emphasise the non-state nature of civil society organisations (CSOs). Many have agreed with David Steinberg, who defined civil society as:

composed of those non-ephemeral organizations of individuals banded together for a common purpose or purposes to pursue those interests through group activities and by peaceful means. These are generally non-profit organizations, and may be local or national, advocacy or supportive, religious, cultural, social, professional, educational, or even organizations that, while not for profit, support the business sector, such as chambers of commerce, trade associations, etc.

The organisations mentioned can be formal or informal, may be charitable, developmental or political. Yet when considering democratisation, authors usually associate civil society with efforts to expand political space. Some authors identify a “political civil society,” where “non-violent … organisations and movements … seek to promote human rights and democratisation…”. Their efforts mean that the political space of civil society becomes a site of intense competition and struggle—including for the organisations that occupy this space.

Civil society and political conflict

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But this conceptualisation of civil society—one which views the groups making up civil society as only being non-violent and peaceful—is too limiting. Civil society and its political space is open to many groups, not just those considered “democratic” and “progressive”. That space can also be occupied by state-sponsored, right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-democracy activists, and many others considered nasty, fascist, and reactionary. That the groups occupying civil society’s political space will sometimes be violent, and will oppose other groups, should be no surprise when we consider that all societies are riven and driven by conflict over all manner of resources.

Thinking this way of political space and civil society is not uncontroversial. Much of conventional political science, heavily imbued with modernisation theory, has romanticised civil society as the natural domain of individual and group freedoms, and sometimes conceived of NGOs and CSOs as representative interest groups. Such a perspective treats conflict and division as pathological, and misses the fact that political space is created through contestation with the state and with other groups in society. It is a view that fails to give sufficient attention to how civil society groups have actually behaved.

Contestation within civil society

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Bersih Movement in Malaysia

When we think of civil society as a site of struggle, it becomes clear that it is not always a ballast for democratisation. Islamic militias in Indonesia, racist Buddhist gangs in Myanmar and right-wing ultranationalists in the Philippines and Thailand are not forces for a democratic society—yet each undoubtedly occupies the space of civil society.

Islamic militias have re-emerged at various times during Indonesia’s reformasi era and engaged in mobilisation and violence. While the use of violence might exclude such groups from the romanticised approaches to civil society, militias have occupied a space created by democratisation, even if their activities are meant to mobilise anti-democratic groups and against some freedoms. A recent example of such anti-democratic opposition was seen in the defeat of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in the 2017 Jakarta governor’s election. The Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) joined with several political parties to oppose Ahok in an acrimonious contest that involved the mobilisation of Islamic identity in huge demonstrations that targeted Ahok as a Chinese Christian portrayed as “threatening” Islam. Eventually, Ahok’s opponents gained the support of elements of the state to jail him on charges of blasphemy and inciting violence.

In Myanmar, religious groups have also engaged in racist and xenophobic activism. Radical Buddhists such as the ultra-nationalist 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha (Myanmar Patriotic Association) have been able to mobilise mass demonstrations against Muslims and have fuelled extreme communal violence since 2012. Such groups have also been supported by elements of the state and by elected politicians, all the while taking advantage of the expanded political space created by Myanmar’s political transition to mobilise and propagandise.

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Buddhist monks walk during a prayer ceremony for the victims of the recent unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay, at Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar’s capital Yangon on Friday, July 4, 2014. (Reuters)

 

Indonesia and Myanmar demonstrate how extremists use the political space of civil society, and elements of electoral democracy, to oppose and challenge the freedoms that have come with democratisation. These groups are connected with some of the most regressive elements that continue to populate some state agencies. So far, they have not managed to destroy the political basis of these new democracies. But to see how the political space of civil society was used to re-establish authoritarianism in a Southeast Asian “democratic success story” of years past, we only need to turn our eyes to Thailand’s decade of high-octane political contestation.

Thailand: civil society for military dictatorship

 

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The Yellow and Red Shirts of Thailand

Thailand’s recent political mobilisations have been designated by the colours that define their motivations. Their massive street demonstrations mobilised many, including NGOs and CSOs. The broad Red Shirt movement and the official United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship bring together supporters of electoral politics, those opposed to military interventions, and supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirts, of course, developed to oppose the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt movement. The latter initially coagulated as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), wearing yellow to announce their royalism. Yellow Shirts tend to support the status quo, are anti-democratic, ultranationalist, and supported the 2006 and 2014 military coups.

In the 1990s, Thailand’s civil society, dominated by middle class interests, gained a reputation for opposing the military’s domination. NGOs and CSOs also tended to support the liberalising ideas that permeated the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997. When Thaksin was elected under the rules of this constitution in 2001, his government gained the support of many NGOs and CSOs. This support was forthcoming because of Thaksin’s initial nationalism, and his attention to grassroots issues and poverty eradication. That early support quickly drained away, with Thaksin coming to be viewed as authoritarian and corrupt.

The PAD, which was formed to oppose and bring down the popularly elected Thaksin, came to include many CSOs and NGOs which, at the time, would have been bundled into the broad category of “progressive civil society”. As the anti-Thaksin campaign expanded, the middle class, including spokespersons for civil society groups, began to denigrate the grassroots. The latter appreciated Thaksin’s “populist” policies and, especially in the north, northeast and central regions, voted for his parties in large numbers. Mobilised Yellow Shirts vilified this grassroots support for Thaksin, labelling those who voted for his party as ignorant, duped or bought.

As pro-Thaksin parties won every election from 2001 to 2011, the Yellow Shirts began an inevitable shift towards the denigration of the electoral processes itself, while declaring themselves the protectors of “true democracy”. The Yellow Shirts—the PAD and its clone, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)—emphatically rejected electoral politics, arguing that electoral victories amounted to a dictatorship of the majority. In the 2013–14, PDRC protesters opposed an election called by then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Yellow Shirts blocked candidate registration, prevented the distribution of ballot papers, and tried to prevent voting on polling day. The PDRC argued that no election could be “free and fair” until the “Thaksin regime” had been destroyed. Their ultimatum was that the Yingluck government had to be thrown out, replaced by an appointed government and an appointed “reform” committee to purge those associated with Thaksin’s rule.

Backed by Bangkok’s middle class, including CSOs and NGOs, PAD and the PDRC campaigned for a “democracy” that rejected voting and elections. They wanted a greater reliance on selected and appointed “representatives”, usually opting for a royally- appointed government of “good” people. This paternalism was taken up by protesters, who claimed to champion transparency and anti-corruption while begging the military for a coup. Such Orwellian doublespeak was also in evidence when the military responded and seized power in 2014. The junta defined a coup and military dictatorship as a form of “democracy”. One pronouncement called on:

all Thai citizens [to] uphold and have faith in the democratic system with His Majesty the King as Head of State. [The] NCPO [junta] fully realizes that the military intervention may be perceived by the West as a threat to democracy and a violation of the people’s liberty. However, this military intervention was inevitable, in order to uphold national security and to strengthen democracy (emphasis added).

The result has been more than three years of military dictatorship that has narrowed political space and heavily restricted much civil society activism. Red Shirts had championed electoral politics, arguing that winning elections should count for something and reckoned that electoral democracy was the appropriate platform for political reform. Under the military junta, they have been demobilised, jailed, and repressed.

Interestingly, most of the PAD and PDRC-affiliated NGOS and CSOs have either supported, or at least not opposed, the junta. Some have continued to receive state funds. However, the relationship with the junta remains tense, not least because the junta sees some of these groups as contingent supporters, worrying about their capacity for mobilising supporters and considering them more anti-Thaksin than pro-junta. Few high-profile leaders of these groups have expressed regrets about having supported the 2006 and 2014 coups.

Complicating “civil society”

The travails of electoral democracy in Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand are not unique in Southeast Asia. Certainly, any notion that increased national wealth results in a civil society that becomes a “natural” ballast of democratisation should be rejected. Democratisation does increase the space identified as civil society. However, this space is not always a stronghold of progressives. As a site of struggle, civil society can be occupied by groups that are anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist, and sectarian. As the experience of Thailand and other countries has made clear, much abstract talk of “civil society” runs the risk of crediting its constituent parts with a uniformly pro-democratic outlook that they manifestly do not hold.

This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia, supported by the TIFA Foundation.

Are Minilaterals the Future of ASEAN Security?


October 2, 2017

Are Minilaterals the Future of ASEAN Security?

by Grace Guiang, Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation Inc.

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

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The Indonesia–Malaysia–Philippines Trilateral Maritime Patrol (Indomalphi) implemented its first joint patrol in June 2017. Almost a year since signing the trilateral framework in August 2016, the recent attack by the Maute group in the Philippines emphasised the urgent need for cooperation. With a growing number of common threats, how will trilateral or minilateral arrangements such as Indomalphi contribute to ASEAN security? And what are the implications for ASEAN security cooperation?

On the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in Laos in May 2016, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines agreed to pursue trilateral patrols in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. Despite the increase since then in crimes committed at sea such as kidnapping, piracy and smuggling, the agreement did not have the momentum for an immediate launch until the Marawi siege on 23 May in the Philippines.

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Not surprisingly, the consultations on crafting the standard operating procedures stalled due to sovereignty issues. The customised standard operating procedures allow the military personnel of the contracting parties to enter each other’s waters in times of emergency with prior knowledge of the state being entered. This is only applicable at sea and does not apply if the chase reaches land.

Aside from patrols and communication hotlines, the three countries will establish military command centres for intelligence sharing in Tarakan in North Kalimantan, Tawau in Sabah and Bongao in Tawi-Tawi. They further agreed to establish transit corridors for commercial activities. In July, Indonesia and the Philippines created new shipping routes connecting the cities of Davao, General Santos and North Sulawesi Province.

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Foreign Ministers and Defence officials of Malaysia,  Philippines and Indonesia agreed to work together to share information, track communications and crack down on the flow of arms, fighters and money, amid what experts says is the biggest security threat facing Southeast Asia in decades.

Security cooperation such as joint maritime patrols and the exchange of information is not new for these littoral states. The Philippines and Indonesia, who signed a pact on boundary delimitation in 2014, have been jointly patrolling the Celebes Sea since 1986. The two navies traditionally carried out drills in communications, replenishment of logistics at sea, medical missions by military personnel and joint search and rescue operations. Malaysian and Philippine navies also conduct coordinated patrols twice a year. And Kuala Lumpur has been working with Manila on anti-smuggling since 1967 and with Jakarta on avoiding incidents at sea since 2010.

But bilateral arrangements are no longer enough to address the convergence of challenges. First, the environment in this part of the region is characterised by porous borders and governance difficulties, which allows extremists, including supporters of the so-called Islamic State, to easily coordinate and transact with contacts around the area — creating networks and strengthening terrorist groups’ foothold in Southeast Asia. The terrorist threats the three states are confronting are clearly transnational in nature, thus requiring wider and deeper coordination among them.

Second, the growing threat raises questions regarding the capabilities of regional navies and coast guards, their resources and the effectiveness of existing bilateral cooperation in maritime law enforcement. While it has been argued that the tri-maritime patrol is asymmetric in terms of the needs, capabilities, political will and priorities of each state, the inadequacies of each party could instead be seen as an opportunity for cooperation, helping each state to develop their own capabilities.

Considering the success of the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) in deterring piracy since 2004. And now this newly launched Indomalphi, minilateral arrangements seem to have become a promising model for maritime cooperation compared to ASEAN-wide cooperation. The approach is specific to states that are directly involved in the problem, making it fast, flexible and feasible.

This arrangement is not necessarily exclusive to littoral states. Thailand became a party to MSP in 2006, while Vietnam and Myanmar are observers. Meanwhile Singapore, Brunei and Thailand have been invited to be Indomalphi observers.

On one hand, with the littoral states taking the lead and neighbours being invited to observe or participate later, minilateralism advances ASEAN security by testing the waters and preparing states for regional cooperation — sometimes called the bottom-up approach.

On the other hand, minilateralism challenges ASEAN to address issues collectively. It tests how ASEAN will manage to make this kind of arrangement beneficial for the entire region. For instance, the region has several bodies of water shared among its member states, including the complex South China Sea. Indomalphi demonstrates that cooperation can be done even with territorial disputes, political differences and reservations on sovereignty issues.

If ASEAN wishes to maintain its centrality and leadership in the region, it must recognise that the threats to the security of its member states are ever-evolving. If minilateralism demonstrates that it can work effectively, then ASEAN should use it to push for broader regional security cooperation mechanisms.

Grace Guiang is Research Assistant at the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation IncA version of this article was first published here in APPFI.

 

ASEAN: Dealing with China is a difficult and challenging balancing act


ASEAN: Dealing with China is a difficult and challenging balancing act

by Dr. Munir Majid*

http://www.thestar.com.my

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WHILE they should not be negative about China, ASEAN member states should not however surrender their sovereign rights or abdicate from their commitment to greater regional integration in South-East Asia.

Alas, one or two ASEAN states have completely sold out. Others are measuring cost and benefit of deeper involvement with China, trying to balance and hedge. Another one or two try to show they have options without particularly wanting to antagonise the rising global power.

The need to protect what is yours, usually hard-earned, is not just about abstract sovereignty or about the protection of international law, extremely important though they may be. The rule of law is without fail the most significant foundation of human society, domestic or international. There are nonetheless real interests and rights also involved.

Next month the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (Yusof Ishak Institute) in Singapore will be holding a seminar on how over the past decade Chinese banana industry practice of “shifting plantations” has transformed and depleted Mekong borderlands, mainly in Laos.

The vast quantities of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used to maintain monoculture production pose serious health risks to workers and the surrounding environment.

And “…. after 6 to 10 years of producing fruit on cleared farmland, the (Chinese) company usually abandons it for another plot once factors such as soil depletion and pest infestation begin to lower yields.”

Laos has since last year issued a ban on new banana plantations, but the shifting plantation practices have spread to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. When will they learn their lesson?

In Malaysia there is a big debate on the East Coast Rail Line which in itself is no bad thing. The China-funded project however has to be watched closely to ensure there is no financial stress to Malaysia’s national finances, that there is Malaysian involvement in the sub-contracts, and that what is delivered is of high quality and suitably maintained.

The RM55bil project is huge. The government of Malaysia has to be transparent on how the financing is going to be managed on its balance sheet.

An official statement said 30% of the project will be contracted out to Malaysian companies. My business friends tell me only 15%. Which is which?

Malaysian engineers say there continues to be great difficulty in getting ASEAN engineers admitted to practise in the country, despite the fact there is the Mutual Recognition Agreement on Qualified ASEAN Engineers. Engineers from China however get their work permits handed out en bloc.

This kind of favouritism – at the expense of loudly proclaimed ASEAN integration no less – should not be practised just because the Malaysian government may want to run up contracts with China.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s official visit to Washington earlier this month is a good signal that Malaysia has not just bought into China. There will be a balance to promote the national interest.

While it may appear Malaysia had given away more than it had gained from the visit, the invisible hand is protection of the trading relationship with America, much too valuable for the country to be left to the caprice of Donald Trump’s blinkered view on international trade.

This kind of balance however has to be continuously worked at. American businesses will have to up their game in countries such as Malaysia in ASEAN, and not ride on Trump’s attack on trade to open sales and investment opportunities. In that game, China with its financial resources, institutional arrangements and government which can deliver what it commits to without domestic complication, will win hands down otherwise.

Even in India – with which China does not have the best of relations – China is working hard to get two high speed rail (HSR) projects, from Mumbai and Chennai to Delhi respectively. This is despite the Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR project (which cuts the 316 mile journey from eight hours to about three) going to Japan, as confirmed during the Japanese prime minister’s visit earlier this month.

Balancing act

Singapore’s travails in its relations with China in the past year is a good example. The island republic took a principled stand on the efficacy of international law when the law of the sea tribunal dismissed Beijing’s South China Sea claims in July last year. China took this as an affront.

The spew of vituperation followed. Singapore was the little red dot. Its armoured personnel carriers were detained in Hong Kong on their way back from Taiwan. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was not invited to the Belt and Road Forum last May.

In sum, Singapore was perceived as veering towards the US in its desire to ensure Washington’s continued commitment to the region.

Balance is not easy, especially when one pole is distracted and the other is totally focused. There was even a first time public debate in Singapore pitting former senior foreign ministry officials on two sides of the argument whether a small state should behave as a small state and not take a position on matters that do not directly involve it, such as the South China Sea territorial claims. A university professor was even expelled from the country.

Anyway, the Singapore Prime Minister was in China this week to mend fences. Balancing is difficult. It is a continuous effort. It takes at least three to clap and be focused. When the US is out of it, the conduct of the diplomacy becomes more tricky. It is no wonder a number of ASEAN states have tipped China’s way, and some others are looking like they may go that way too.

The balancing act is not an easy one. It can come out as playing both ends against the middle if not actively and skillfully managed.

Indonesia, however, has shown it can stand up for its rights in relation to China and not wait on America to give it succour.

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The Indonesian Navy Ships

Indonesia’s renaming in July of its portion of the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea has displeased China, but this leading ASEAN country has been quite cool, calm and collected in playing its hand.

It contends Indonesia has every right to rename its territorial waters, the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. China has demanded that Indonesia revoke its position.

The Chinese Foreign Minister stated on August 25: “The China-Indonesia relationship is developing in a healthy and stable way, the South China Sea dispute is progressing well… Indonesia’s unilateral name changing actions are not conducive to maintaining this excellent situation… (it is) a complication and expansion of the dispute, and affects peace and stability in the region.”

Indonesia has never accepted China’s concept of its “traditional fishing grounds” and therefore of its extended rights over almost all of the South China Sea. It clearly does not accede to the fait accompli which has been the outcome of Beijing’s South China Sea strategy.

While standing by its right to rename its internationally-recognised EEZ, Indonesia stated it would adhere to International Hydrographic Organization procedures by submitting its proposal wherein all member states, including China, will be consulted.

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This of course is precisely what China does not want. Its whole diplomacy on the South China Sea is premised on primacy and exclusivity – the rest of the international community out, only China and ASEAN and its claimant member states. The emphasis shifted from ASEAN as a whole to the member states separately as China’s rise picked up.

Now Indonesia has set the cat among the pigeons by proposing to take its renaming of the southern reaches of the South China Sea to a formal international audience in line with international practice.

What Indonesia has shown is that adept and subtle diplomatic initiatives can make options available to states in situations which may appear to be hopeless.

Of course it can be argued Indonesia is a middle power which is better able to stand up for its rights. But even Singapore has shown the importance of taking a stand. It may have gone through a small baptism of fire, but there is a respect in the end even if the future relationship has to be continuously worked at.

The main argument about ASEANs that the whole is greater than the parts or, if it does not hang together, it will hang separately. A couple of its member states have shown even alone – and ASEAN states will have to act alone as well – they can make a difference.

When states start out to ingratiate, they will end up grovelling, with their nose rubbed in the sand, and their shirt taken off their back.

*Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid is Visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

Malaysia’s 2017 SEA Games Cock Up–Getting the Indonesian Flag Wrong


August 21, 2017

Malaysia’s 2017 SEA Games Cockup–Getting the Indonesian Flag

by FA Abdul

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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COMMENT| A young journalist working for a local media company, Wai Wai Hnin Pwint Phyu walked into the training room in the Pazundaung district of Yangon the other morning, feeling somewhat upset.

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The Cock Up. But the Magnanimous H.E. President Jokowi Widodo said we should not make a mountain out of a molehill. But we in Malaysia should not make this kind of mistake. Actually, this oversight is inexcusable.

“Fa, what you think of SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur?” she asked in her limited English.

“I think we struggled to make it happen. Why do you ask?” I said.

“I am not happy. I am very angry,” said Wai, her face sour.

Since we had a good half-hour before beginning the training session, I pulled out two chairs next to her – one for me and one for our translator – and prepared myself for a story.

Before I could ask her what made her upset, Wai showed me a picture on her handphone. It was of a big group of Malaysian supporters clad in Jalur Gemilang.

“What picture is this?” I asked, curious.

“This is a picture of Malaysian fans, taken during the 2013 SEA Games in Myanmar during the Malaysia-Singapore football match. See how happy they are supporting their country inside the stadium.”

I looked at her, confused.

“Do you know where the Myanmar fans were when our Myanmar football team fought Laos?” she asked, her eyes turning red.

“Where?” I asked worriedly.

“Outside the stadium,” she answered shortly as she showed me a picture of hundreds of fans with Myanmar flags outside the stadium.

 

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Malaysian crowd unfriendly towards our Singapore neighbours

According to Wai and allegations on social media, only 500 tickets were made available by Malaysia for the Myanmar fans during the Myanmar-Laos match at the UiTM Stadium, which has a capacity of 6,000 seats. Although there were a lot of empty seats during the match, no additional tickets were made available for the remaining fans. As a result, they had to camp outside – some climbed fences and some on trees, to catch glimpses of the match.

From time to time, someone from inside the stadium would ring someone waiting outside, to give updates on the match – that was how their fans outside the stadium celebrated all of Myanmar’s three goals.

Myanmar fans who were stranded outside were purportedly only allowed to enter the stadium 10 minutes before the match ended.

“This picture is going viral in Myanmar. It is making many people angry at Malaysia. Myanmar treated Malaysia so well during the 2013 SEA Games but Malaysia is treating Myanmar so bad in 2017 SEA Games. Why?” Wai asked an honest question.

I was lost for a reply.

“There are thousands of Myanmar people working in Malaysia. This is not fair for them,” she added.

“I agree, Wai. This is not fair….if it is true.”

“You always support your Malaysia,” Wai said. She did not sound too happy. “Look at this report in your own media.”

The news report was about the bus driver of the Myanmar women’s football team who apparently was arrested for theft during a match.

“The Myanmar team had already complained on social media that they were feeling scared of the way the bus driver was operating the bus while on the way to the stadium. And then after beating Malaysia 5-0, the Myanmar team who were tired and hungry had to wait almost two more hours because they could not find the bus driver. Nobody knew he was arrested,” Wai explained.

“That’s really bad,” I said, scratching my head.

Driving without a licence

“You know what is really bad, Fa? The report also says that the bus driver had no driving licence at all!”

My jaw dropped.

“How can Malaysia hire someone without driving licence for our athletes? What if something bad had happened while he was driving recklessly?” Wai was really upset.

I scrolled the Facebook page showed by Wai and was displeased to read chains of angry comments.

“If you are not ready for this, you don’t need to be a host. Shame on you Malaysia!

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Tony Fernandes and AirAsia Staff–The Bright Side of Malaysia

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“Everyone is angry at Malaysia. Me, my father, my boyfriend… everyone. We always like Malaysia because Malaysia is beautiful country, many of our relatives work in Malaysia and we have friends like you from Malaysia. But this time, we don’t like Malaysia.” said Wai, unhappily.

I apologised to Wai on behalf of Malaysia. She smiled, assuring me that it was not my fault that her countrymen were treated in such a way. However, deep inside, I know she is still very much upset.

With hundreds of millions of ringgit spent to ensure the 29th SEA Games unfolds perfectly, I wonder what went wrong.

Do the stories going viral in Myanmar hold any truth? Perhaps Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin should look into it.

As I was writing this, I received a text message forwarded by my son. It was an invitation for all Malaysian football fans to support the Malaysian team in the Malaysia-Myanmar match on August 21 in Shah Alam – the tickets all sponsored.

And I begin to wonder if Myanmar football fans in Malaysia will be able to purchase tickets for this match today – or whether they will be left allegedly stranded outside the stadium once again.

Sigh.

So much for the spirit of sport…


Martin Khor looks back at the East Asian Financial Crisis 1997


July 5, 2017

Martin Khor looks back at the East Asian Financial Crisis 1997

http://www.thestar.com.my

It is useful to reflect on whether lessons have been learnt and if the countries are vulnerable to new crises.

IT’S been 20 years since the Asian financial crisis struck in July 1997. Since then, there has been an even bigger global financial crisis, starting in 2008. Will there be another crisis?

The Asian crisis began when speculators brought down the Thai baht. Within months, the currencies of Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia were also affected. The East Asian Miracle turned into an Asian Financial Nightmare.

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Despite the affected countries receiving only praise before the crisis, weaknesses had built up, including current account deficits, low foreign reserves and high external debt.

In particular, the countries had recently liberalised their financial system in line with international advice. This enabled local private companies to freely borrow from abroad, mainly in US dollars. Companies and banks in Korea, Indonesia and Thailand had in each country rapidly accumulated over a hundred billion dollars of external loans. This was the Achilles heel that led their countries to crisis.

These weaknesses made the countries ripe for speculators to bet against their currencies. When the governments used up their reserves in a vain attempt to stem the currency fall, three of the countries ran out of foreign exchange.

They went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for bailout loans that carried draconian conditions that worsened their economic situation. Malaysia was fortunate. It did not seek IMF loans. The foreign reserves had become dangerously low but were just about adequate. If the ringgit had fallen a bit further, the danger line would have been breached.

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Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed and Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin introduced selective capital controls and pegged the Ringgit at RM3.80 to USD1.00.

 

After a year of self-imposed austerity measures, Malaysia dramatically switched course and introduced a set of unorthodox policies.These included pegging the ringgit to the dollar, selective capital controls to prevent short-term funds from exiting, lowering interest rates, increasing government spending and rescuing failing companies and banks.

This was the opposite of orthodoxy and the IMF policies (The Washington Consensus). The global establishment predicted the sure collapse of the Malaysian economy. But surprisingly, the economy recovered even faster and with fewer losses than the other countries. Today, the Malaysian measures are often cited as a successful anti-crisis strategy.

The IMF itself has changed a little. It now includes some capital controls as part of legitimate policy measures.

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The Asian countries, vowing never to go to the IMF again, built up strong current account surpluses and foreign reserves to protect against bad years and keep off speculators. The economies recovered, but never back to the spectacular 7% to 10% pre-crisis growth rates.

Then in 2008, the global financial crisis erupted with the United States as its epicentre. The tip of the iceberg was the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the massive loans given out to non-credit-worthy house-buyers.

The underlying cause was the deregulation of US finance and the freedom with which financial institutions could devise all kinds of manipulative schemes and “financial products” to draw in unsuspecting customers. They made billions of dollars but the house of cards came tumbling down.

To fight the crisis, the US, under President Barack Obama, embarked first on expanding government spending and then on financial policies of near-zero interest rates and “quantitative easing”, with the Federal Reserve pumping trillions of dollars into the US banks.

It was hoped the cheap credit would get consumers and businesses to spend and lift the economy. But instead, a significant portion of the trillions went via investors into speculative activities, including abroad to emerging economies.

Europe, on the verge of recession, followed the US with near zero interest rates and large quantitative easing, with limited results.

The US-Europe financial crisis affected Asian countries in a limited way through declines in export growth and commodity prices. The large foreign reserves built up after the Asian crisis, plus the current account surplus situation, acted as buffers against external debt problems and kept speculators at bay.

Just as important, hundreds of billions of funds from the US and Europe poured into Asia yearly in search of higher yields. These massive capital inflows helped to boost Asian countries’ growth, but could cause their own problems.

First, they led to asset bubbles or rapid price increases of houses and the stock markets, and the bubbles may burst when they are over-ripe.

Second, many of the portfolio investors are short-term funds looking for quick profit, and they can be expected to leave when conditions change.

Third, the countries receiving capital inflows become vulnerable to financial volatility and economic instability.

If and when investors pull some or a lot of their money out, there may be price declines, inadequate replenishment of bonds, and a fall in the levels of currency and foreign reserves.

A few countries may face a new financial crisis. A new vulnerability in many emerging economies is the rapid build-up of external debt in the form of bonds denominated in the local currency.

The Asian crisis two decades ago taught that over-borrowing in foreign currency can create difficulties in debt repayment should the local currency level fall.

To avoid this, many countries sold bonds denominated in the local currency to foreign investors. However, if the bonds held by foreigners are large in value, the country will still be vulnerable to the effects of a withdrawal.

As an example, almost half of Malaysian government securities, denominated in ringgit, are held by foreigners.

Though the country does not face the risk of having to pay more in ringgit if there is a fall in the local currency, it may have other difficulties if foreigners withdraw their bonds.

What is the state of the world economy, what are the chances of a new financial crisis, and how would the Asian countries like Malaysia fare? These are big and relevant questions to ponder 20 years after the start of the Asian crisis and nine years after the global crisis.

 

Martin Khor (director@southcentre.org) is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
Read more at http://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/global-trends/2017/07/03/the-asian-financial-crisis-20-years-later-it-is-useful-to-reflect-on-whether-lessons-have-been-lear/#EEkW3MiZXu87cFZM.99

Malaysia pays lip service to Rukun Negara


June 11, 2017

Indonesians are united by Pancasia, Malaysia pays lip service to Rukun Negara

By Dr. Chandra Muzzafar

http://www.freemalaysiatoday. com

The decision of the Indonesian government to make Pancasila Day, which falls on June 1, a national holiday is part of a renewed endeavour to protect and enhance the national ideology in the face of current challenges.

Image result for Pancasila

President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has reaffirmed his total commitment to the Pancasila by calling upon all Indonesians to embrace its values, which, in his words, “is in every drop of our blood and every beat of our heart. (It is) the cement of our national unity. I am Jokowi. I am Pancasila”.

The Pancasila is part of the preamble to the Indonesian Constitution of 1945.As a manifestation of renewed commitment, Jokowi has issued Presidential Regulation No 54 /2017 to establish workshops all over the country to teach the public values embodied in the Pancasila.

The significance of these values will be brought to the fore by linking them to the eradication of poverty, the closing of the gap between the rich and poor and the implementation of social welfare programmes.

In general, the five principles of the Pancasila – the belief in one God; humanity; unity; consensus; and social justice – will be translated into concrete policies and programmes which impact upon the lives of the people.

A number of groups have come out in support of Jokowi’s effort. These include Islamic mass movements, professional bodies and political parties.

The Muhammadiyah, Peradi (Indonesian Advocates Association) and the Democratic Party of Struggle are among them.

In fact, the largest Islamic grassroots movement in the world, the Nahdlatul Ulama with 93 million members, had even asked for the banning of the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, regarded by many as an extremist group misusing Islam, because its “divisive politics is against the Pancasila”.

It is remarkable that there is such a strong commitment to the Pancasila among the people in the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population. It should be remembered that even in 1945, when Indonesia proclaimed its Independence, there were religious leaders who argued for an “Islamic State”.

But there were also other prominent freedom fighters with impeccable Islamic credentials who supported Pancasila as an inclusive, progressive idea that would best serve the interests of the new nation.

The Pancasila, they insisted, was in harmony with the substance of Islam. One of them was Wahid Hasyim, the father of Abdul Rahman Wahid (Gus Dur) who became the fourth president of the Indonesian Republic in 1999.

Gus Dur, himself a religious scholar of repute, was one of the most eloquent defenders of the Pancasila against its so-called “Islamic” critics.

If we compared the situation surrounding the Pancasila with the challenges confronting the Rukun Negara, we would be struck by at least three differences.

Image result for Malaysia's Rukun Negara
The Man who makes a Mockery of Rukun Negara–The Corrupter

One, the ulama in Malaysia are less than lukewarm towards our national ideology or philosophy. With the exception of a couple of scholars, the vast majority of religious personalities, including those in academia, have not endorsed the initiative by the group of activists that is seeking to make the Rukun Negara the preamble to the Malaysian Constitution. And yet, the five objectives of the Rukun Negara, like its five principles, resonate with the substance of Islam.

Two, unlike Indonesia, hardly any professional group has expressed its support for our preamble initiative. This includes the legal fraternity and academic associations. Our initiative has not even reached grassroots communities in Malaysia.

Three – and perhaps the most important difference – our national political leadership has been nonchalant towards the move to make the Rukun Negara the preamble to the Federal Constitution.

Of course, it does pay lip-service to the Rukun Negara now and then but the truth is that our national philosophy has had no role in the formulation of public policies or laws since the early eighties.

There has been no mass public awareness programme on what the Rukun Negara’s objectives and principles mean to the people and their lives. Even opposition political parties have not bothered to respond to our invitation to dialogue on our initiative.

If these groups have reservations about our initiative, we would be happy to clarify them. In fact, we have elucidated a number of issues raised by certain individuals and groups.

To reiterate: making the Rukun Negara the preamble to the constitution will not undermine any of the provisions of the constitution, especially those pertaining to the Special Position of the Malays and the indigenous communities of Sabah and Sarawak or the status of Islam as the religion of the Federation.

To assuage these fears, we have even proposed that at the end of the preamble, a clause be introduced which states explicitly that the preamble will in no way affect any of the present provisions of the constitution.

More than addressing misgivings, we have since the launch of our initiative on Jan 23, 2017, sought to convince Malaysians why making the Rukun Negara the preamble to the Malaysian Constitution is crucial.

As a nation, we need goals and guiding principles that help bind us together, that we can all identify with whatever our differences.

This is particularly critical at a time like this when ethnic, religious, class and even territorial divisions are becoming more pronounced. The Rukun Negara is the only document we have with lucidly articulated goals and principles that can serve as a unifying platform. However, to play this role, it has to be anchored in the constitution.

We should realise that compared to Indonesia, the divisions in our society are in a sense potentially more perilous. The Indonesians have responded to their challenge by re-dedicating themselves to the Pancasila. Can we afford to procrastinate?

This is why we, the few hundred Malaysians who have endorsed the move to anchor the Rukun Negara in the constitution, hope that the Conference of Rulers would support this initiative and request the federal cabinet to take all the necessary steps to make this a reality.

Once the legislative process is completed, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong should announce to the people that the Rukun Negara is now the preamble to the constitution. After all, it was the fourth Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who on Aug 31, 1970, presented the Rukun Negara to the nation as its guiding philosophy.