Brader Anwar Ibrahim stands Up for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan


July 1, 2018

Brader Anwar Ibrahim stands Up for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

by Amanda Hodge Southeast Asia Correspondent

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/anwar-defends-his-praise-for-turkish-strongman-erdogan/news-story/1bf2cdb743b5441121aa38efd552318b

 

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Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s democracy champion and the country’s most famous former political prisoner, had barely tasted five weeks of freedom when he flew to Ankara last week and stood beside Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayipp Erdogan to praise his “commitment to democracy”.

“There are about four or five Anwars running around in his head,” said Professor Kessler. “He means well to everybody but he doesn’t know how to choose between contradictory positions. He can talk to any audience and people go away delighted, thinking ‘he thinks like us’. But put him in a situation where his actions can have a significant effect and he will always be a gift to people like Erdogan.”

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A Mandela of the East (Yusmadi Yusof) or a Janus-Faced Malay Muslim Politician (Clive  Kessler/Bridget Welsh)

Mr Erdogan’s election victory last Sunday, which critics say brings him ever closer to one-man rule, was a “victory for the Islamic world in portraying a modern and progressive face of Islam that embraces change while not compromising on the values of our faith and the fundamental teachings of the Holy Prophet”, Mr Anwar declared on his return home.

 

The comments by Malaysia’s Prime Minister-in-waiting have triggered alarm at his apparent disregard for the deterioration of human rights and democracy in Turkey, and wider international concern over what to expect from an Anwar-led government.

Mr Anwar yesterday defended his praise for Mr Erdogan, saying he supported Turkey’s democratic transition under Mr Erdogan after decades of military rule, but acknowledged “institutions need to be fortified”. “I emphasised democratic accountability in my remarks,” he told The Weekend Australian. “That would include the rule of law and an end to all draconian measures. I’m confident that Turkey would evolve into a more mature democracy. Despite some valid criticisms against his rule, Erdogan persists on a democratic agenda.”

Mr Anwar also accused Western nations of being “somewhat ambivalent, if not hypocritical” in dealing with the numerous attempted military coups in Turkey.

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Anwar Ibrahim I knew in 2007-2009.I respect his loyalty to his friend Erdogan. That is not the issue. More importantly, has he changed? Can he be trusted to pursue his Humane Economic Agenda and his Asian Renaissance  Vision? That is the lingering question in my mind? I am not sure anymore.–Din Merican

Southeast Asia expert Bridget Welsh — who taught at Turkey’s Ipek University until the failed coup in 2016 triggered a crackdown and purges against the civil service, academics and media — says Mr Anwar’s praise for Mr Erdogan could at best be seen as poor judgment and at worst a worrying portent for Malaysia under his future leadership. “He should have shown much more prudence before making this visit and even greater prudence before making those remarks,” she said.

“He has raised serious questions in the international community about the future of his leadership and whether or not he is actually a democrat. I think it’s deeply troubling and sends worrying signals for those concerned about reform in Malaysia.”

Asked if he believed such criticism was valid, Mr Anwar said he remained “consistent in my views against any excesses and would encourage (Mr Erdogan) to respect the rule of law”. “My commitment is for democratic accountability,” he said.

But Mr Anwar’s comments have also caused discomfit within his People’s Justice Party (PKR), part of the ruling Pakatan Harapan government under Mahathir Mohamad since the four-party coalition toppled the government of Najib Razak in a shock election victory last month.

Under a deal struck between Mr Anwar and Dr Mahathir, two former political foes, Dr Mahathir, 92, will serve half a term as prime minister before stepping aside for the 70-year-old.

PKR Vice-President Tian Chua said he believed Mr Anwar had been stating a personal opinion and not that of the party when he praised Mr Erdogan.

“When Anwar started his political career, Erdogan represented the hopes for the Islamic world to bring about a democratic system,” Mr Chua said. “No doubt he is an improvement from the previous military system, but … Erdogan has, during his time, tailor-made the constitution for his own power base and that is not the behaviour of a democrat.”

Last year, Mr Erdogan narrowly won a referendum allowing him to abolish the prime minister’s office and grant the president executive authority to effectively rule by decree.

Whereas Western nations see Mr Erdogan as an illiberal leader bent on subverting democracy to amass power, and as an increasingly problematic NATO ally, many in the Muslim world — including in South and Southeast Asia — see a modern champion.

Pakistan rushed to congratulate Mr Erdogan on his victory this week, as did separatist leaders in Indian Kashmir. Indonesian President Joko Widodo also praised Mr ­Erdogan’s victory, although in more measured tones, saying the Turkish people would be “more prosperous under your wise and measured leadership”.

Mr Anwar’s enthusiastic endorsement of Mr Erdogan is puzzling, not least because it ignores the tens of thousands of citizens in jail on spurious charges — a fate Mr Anwar shared for more than a decade.

Mr Erdogan’s measures to consolidate his power also resemble those of the Malaysian government, which Mr Anwar spent two decades fighting.

On his release last month, Mr Anwar told The Weekend Australian Canberra’s “muted” response to the oppression of the former Najib government had been “painful for democrats, those who are struggling for freedom in their countries”. “Those countries that are supposed to be beacons of democracy must rise up to the occasion and be seen to be playing a role and not just working with people who are known to be corrupt and authoritarian,” he said.

Dr Welsh says many Pakatan Harapan politicians have romanticised Mr Erdogan’s early ­victories and failed to fully comprehend what is happening in Turkey, and the parallels between how Mr Erdogan and Mr Najib maintained support.

“But the fact that Anwar would choose to go to Turkey and effectively campaign for Mr Erdogan speaks to a fundamental lack of a sense of principles of democratic governance. He didn’t speak up for one moment about the 200,000-plus people imprisoned in Turkey — many of them much more vulnerable than Anwar ever was — and, in fact, was supporting their jailer,” she said. “I think Anwar is blinded by personal loyalties and is focused on himself and not the bigger challenges the country faces.”

While Mr Anwar insisted his visit was based on “long-term friendship” and not politics, he endorsed Mr Erdogan before last Sunday’s election, calling him the “one leader who shows courage against the powers in the world” on the Palestinian issue and the plight of Rohingya Muslims.

Mr Anwar noted with gratitude that the Turkish President would “remind (Najib) about my release” at every meeting, but did not mention that it was to the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur he turned in 2008 when facing a second spurious sodomy charge.

National University of Malaysia associate professor Muhammad Takiyuddin bin Ismail believed Mr Anwar knew well the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey, but felt praising Mr Erdogan was the practical thing to do for the sake of securing his image in the Muslim world. “Erdogan, Anwar and Mahathir are widely seen as leaders who can confront and, at the same time, bridge the gap between Muslim and Western countries,” he said, adding both Malaysia and Turkey believed in the idea of “our way of democracy”.

“From a layman’s perspective, of course, it is poor political judgment to support an authoritarian leader like Erdogan, especially in the era of the ‘New Malaysia’, but Anwar must also appease the segments within the Muslim world who see Erdogan as someone who can represent their view.”

It is not the first time Anwar has shown such poor judgment and let what University of NSW emeritus professor Clive Kessler calls his “soft Islamist sentimentality” overshadow democratic principles. He was among the first foreigners in 1980 to go to Tehran to congratulate Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following the Iranian revolution.

Professor Kessler last month noted that, as Deputy Prime Minister in the 1990s, Mr Anwar “often proved a facilitator for harder-line Islamists” and could again “succumb to the same temptations”.

Mr Anwar’s supporters believe experience and hardship has moderated the former firebrand, and refined his ambitions for an Islamic renaissance in which the religion’s main tenets are harmoniously incorporated into a democratic system.

“There are about four or five Anwars running around in his head,” said Professor Kessler. “He means well to everybody but he doesn’t know how to choose between contradictory positions. He can talk to any audience and people go away delighted, thinking ‘he thinks like us’. But put him in a situation where his actions can have a significant effect and he will always be a gift to people like Erdogan.”

Foreign Policy: Non-Western Eurasia rises


June 24, 2018

Foreign Policy: Non-Western Eurasia rises

by Bunn Nagara@www.thestar.com.my

Image result for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit 2018.

A significant non-Western event is often ignored or misunderstood by the West: the latest Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit.

The 18th annual SCO summit in the Chinese port city of Qingdao this weekend is only the fourth held in China. Beijing is relaxed about its role in a growing organisation of eight member countries, six Dialogue Partners and four observer nations – a confidence that suggests considerable clout.

Image result for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit 2018.

China and Russia are the two hulking members of a group that boasts formal parity, being the conspicuous “firsts among equals.” And as two consecutive US administrations unwittingly drive these giants closer than ever before strategically, Western attention is led astray.

Western reports track President Putin’s travel to Qingdao and the diplomatic niceties exchanged there. At the same time, Western commentators are tempted to dismiss the summit as yet another futile talkfest.

Both approaches are wrong or misplaced. While Xi-Putin exchanges may not be the highlight of this year’s SCO summit, neither are they insignificant.

Sloppy US policies helped to build a growing China-Russia alliance for a full decade now. This is evident enough from the meeting rooms of the UN Security Council to the battlefields of Syria to the South China Sea and the Baltics.

The latest SCO summit reaffirms the trend but adds only marginally to it by way of atmospherics. There are more important developments visible at, if not represented by, the Qingdao summit.

Image result for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit 2018.

It is the first SCO summit at which both India and Pakistan arrive as full members.

Beginning as the Shanghai Five in the mid-1990s, the SCO has grown steadily and now incorporates three giants – China, Russia and India – in the great Eurasian land mass where both the US and the EU have scant inputs.

With Pakistan coming in at the same time as India as an equal partner, the SCO should be free from any sub-regional turbulence within South Asia.

Turkey is also an SCO Dialogue Partner whose interest in full membership is not without broader implications for the West.

Turkey has considerable military strength and is also a member of NATO, hosting its Allied Land Command and a US air base in Izmir. However, Ankara’s years-long effort to join the EU has been snubbed by Brussels.

Image result for Erdogan at Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit 2018.

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has famously mulled over choosing between the EU and the SCO, reportedly preferring the latter. How would the West find a Nato member joining a non-Western group led by Russia and China?

Deep-seated discomfort would be a mild way to put a reaction in Brussels and Washington. To US policymakers, Turkey is a strategic country because of its location as well as its status as a prominent Muslim country.

Both China and Russia have sounded positive about Turkey’s prospective membership of the SCO. Nonetheless, SCO members share an understanding of sorts that Turkey may have to forego its NATO membership before SCO membership can be entertained.

However, Beijing and Moscow may be less concerned than Washington and Brussels about Turkey’s SCO membership with its Nato credentials intact. That immediately makes Turkey more comfortable to be in SCO company.

Turkey has already received what amounts to special treatment within the SCO that no other Dialogue Partner has enjoyed. Last year it was elected as Chair of the SCO’s Energy Club, a position previously enjoyed only by full members.

Erdogan has called the SCO “more powerful” than the EU, particularly in a time of Brexit. Bahrain and Qatar seek full SCO membership; Iraq, Israel, Maldives, Ukraine and Vietnam want to be Dialogue Partners; and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Syria want Observer status.

Iran already has SCO Observer status and had applied for full membership in 2008. Following the easing of UN sanctions on Tehran, China declared its support for Iran’s membership bid in 2016.

The recent US pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“Iran nuclear deal”) has further prodded Tehran to “look East.” These days that means China and a China-led SCO.

Iran already trades heavily with China with myriad deals in multiple sectors. Mutual interests abound, far exceeding the basic relationship of oil and gas sales to China.

As Europe treads carefully, mindful of possible new sanctions on Iran following the US cop out, cash-rich Chinese firms take up the slack. US policy is also pushing Iran, among others, closer to China.

In preparing for Prime Minister Modi’s arrival in Qingdao on Friday, Indian Ambassador Gautam Bambawale said both countries were determined to work in close partnership and would never be split apart.

This echoed two main points already shared by Indian and Chinese leaders – that their countries are partners in development and progress, and what they have in common are greater than their differences.

All of this seems set to undo the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) that groups the US with Japan, Australia and India, all boasting a democratic system in common in a joint strategic encirclement of China. But India’s relations with China have been on the upswing for half a year now.

The day before Modi arrived in Qingdao, a Quad meeting in Singapore closed on Friday with India expressing differences with the other members. Its Ambassador to Russia Pankaj Saran said the Quad was not the same as its hopes for an inclusive “Indo-Pacific region” (IPR) that did not target any country.

He added that India wanted closer ties with Russia as well in an IPR. Just a fortnight before, Russia’s recent Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak said President Trump also wanted closer ties with Russia.

That was only a small part of the roller-coaster ride of international diplomacy in the first half of 2018.

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Trump is acting as a unipolar power in an increasingly multipolar world. It is a mistake for the US to take an isolationist foreign stance.

In January Trump condemned the Taliban for a spate of attacks in Afghanistan, vowing that all talks with them were off. Until then, top US diplomats were carefully planning negotiations with the Taliban.

In March, US officials blasted Russia for allegedly arming the Taliban, which Moscow denied. The following month NATO voiced support for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to talk with the Taliban to “save the country.”

Meanwhile Trump’s ramparts of trade barriers in the direction of a trade war would decimate allies from East Asia to Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron expressed a European position in reaching out to China on climate and security issues.

By March the EU had dug in, preparing for the worst of US trade barriers while vowing retaliation. The WTO also warned Washington that it was veering towards a trade war with tariffs on steel and aluminium.

In April, China’s new Defence Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe arrived in Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu. Wei rubbed it in for Washington, publicly announcing that his visit was to show the US the high level of strategic cooperation between China and Russia.

Two days later the Foreign Ministers of China and Russia expressed similar sentiments. They championed negotiations and sticking to pledges while weighing in against the unilateralism of a unipolar power.

Where China has the SCO, Russia has the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). If any discomfort is felt in Washington, it is from acting as a unipolar power in an increasingly multipolar world.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

The Diplomatic Big Bang


June 16, 2018

The Diplomatic Big Bang

by Ahmed Charai

https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/12515/diplomatic-big-bang

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Clinton, Albright, Kissinger, Kerry, Baker and Powell–Past Secretaries of State

Diplomacy is changing before our eyes.

“The unspoken objective is to constrain the U.S., and to transfer authority from national governments to international bodies. The specifics of each case differ, but the common theme is diminished American sovereignty, submitting the United States to authorities that ignore, outvote or frustrate its priorities…. By reasserting their sovereignty, the British are in the process of escaping, among other things, the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.” — Ambassador John R. Bolton, Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2017.

The Singapore summit is indeed historic. First, it is so because just a few weeks ago we were closer to a nuclear war than to even the semblance of a peace process. The way we got here is surprising, because it did not obey the usual rules.Image result for The Singapore Summit at Sentosa

A few days ago, during the G7 summit held in Canada, US President Donald Trump upheld his decisions on tariffs and his positions on the trade deficit. These stances followed his decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement and the Iranian “nuclear deal”. It is clear that the new US administration challenged the alliances inherited from the Cold War. President Trump, a businessman, not a politician — one of the reasons he was elected — is asking America’s trading partners just to have “free, fair and reciprocal” agreements. It is probably not all that unusual to feel affronted when asked for money or to regard the person asking for it as mercenary or adversarial. It does not always mean that this feeling is justified.

Pictured: Donald Trump and other heads of state deliberate at the G7 summit on June 9, 2018 in Charlevoix, Canada. (Photo by Jesco Denzel /Bundesregierung via Getty Images)

In short, President Trump’s arguments, which sound like a leitmotif, go back to the economic aspect of things. NATO? Why should it be normal that, in order to defend Europe, the American taxpayer pays the heaviest part. Free trade? Why should America suffer a trade deficit with so many countries? Climate change? The results of the Paris Climate Change conference, COP 21, were apparently not only costly but questionable, and to critics, looked like a list of unenforceable promises that would not have come due until 2030 — if ever.

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A new paradigm is shaping up on the international scene: This is the first time that the US domestic policy is to prevail over its so-called “strategic” role — sometimes possibly to the detriment of allies.

Ambassador John R. Bolton, before he was appointed National Security Advisor, rejected any external constraints or supranational authority — starting with the WTO’s trade dispute body, the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU):

“The unspoken objective is to constrain the U.S., and to transfer authority from national governments to international bodies. The specifics of each case differ, but the common theme is diminished American sovereignty, submitting the United States to authorities that ignore, outvote or frustrate its priorities…. While many European Union governments seem predisposed to relinquish sovereignty, there is scant hint of similar enthusiasm in America…. By reasserting their sovereignty, the British are in the process of escaping, among other things, the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.”

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America’s Walras John Bolton–The Trade Wracking Ball

Unfortunately, Europe is the first to suffer from this new reality. But is the European Union able to stage a showdown? Probably not. The populist wave flooding the EU countries is primarily the result of the social impacts of the fiscal policy imposed by Germany. While the US has an unemployment rate effectively past full employment, the rather sluggish growth in Europe produces a near-zero effect on this indicator. With 27 members, and because of the rule of “one country one vote,” as well as a possibly outdated view of how to incentivize growth and finance pensions, Europe has been slowing down even the possibility any development on issues such as immigration or common defense. Europe is shattered, all the more that there does not seem to be any solution on the horizon.

The group called the European Union does not weigh much against the forced march of Donald Trump. The US President only believes in bilateral agreements when it comes to international relations. The use of the principle of ex-territoriality, or diplomatic immunity, has taken the agreement with Iran out of the equation. The big French and German companies have already withdrawn from it.

Diplomacy is changing before our eyes. “The Western camp,” it seems, is becoming nothing more than a specter that does not rest on any on-the-ground reality.

Inevitably, each power will have to adapt, according to its own interests. As Europeans continue to cast their votes, these adjustments may, in turn, feed current divisions even more.

Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He is on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council, an international counselor of the Center for a Strategic and International Studies, and a member of the Advisory Board of The Center for the National Interest in Washington and Advisory Board of Gatestone Institute in New York.

© 2018 Gatestone Institute. All rights reserved. The articles printed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editors or of Gatestone Institute. No part of the Gatestone website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied or modified, without the prior written consent of Gatestone Institute.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks to VOA


May 30, 2018

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks to The Voice of America (VOA)

 

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, back in power after a 15-year hiatus, says his first 20 years in office were “fairly easy” compared to what is confronting him now — massive debt in a country with an international reputation for corruption. Mahathir returned to power on May 9 in a spectacular election upset that saw him unite with his former opposition foes to overthrow a prime minister — Najib Razak — who is accused of helping to steal billions from his country in one of the biggest corporate frauds in history. Najib denies all the charges. “Well my first 20 years as prime minister was fairly easy. I inherited a system that is already there. All I had to do is to introduce new ideas so that we can expedite the growth and development of Malaysia,” the 92-year-old Mahathir told VOA in an exclusive interview. “But here I am dealing with a country that has been actually destroyed. Its finances have been destroyed. The system of government has been ignored and not used and a new system, or rather an authoritarian system has been introduced,” he said.

https://www.voanews.com/a/hold-for-vi…

Should Economists Make Moral Judgments?


May 26, 2018

Should Economists Make Moral Judgments?

At least since the days of John Maynard Keynes, professional economists have not had to worry too much about the moral implications of their technical work. But that is quickly changing with the global march of illiberalism, and economists now must ask themselves hard ethical questions before dispensing policy advice.

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BUDAPEST – I recently attended a PhD seminar in labor economics at the Central European University in Budapest. In it, we considered whether the Hungarian government’s scheme to focus on long-term unemployment is working efficiently, and we raised a host of technical problems for the doctoral candidate to address.

But I came away disturbed by the experience, wondering whether professional economists (particularly in the West) need to reassess the moral and political context in which they conduct their work. Shouldn’t economists ask themselves whether it is morally justifiable to provide even strictly technical advice to self-dealing, corrupt, or undemocratic governments?

To be sure, reducing long-term unemployment would alleviate a social evil, and possibly ensure a more efficient use of public resources. Yet improved economic performance can shore up a bad government. This is precisely the dilemma confronting economists across a range of countries, from China, Russia, and Turkey to Hungary and Poland. And there is no reason to think that economists in the “democratic heartland” of Western Europe and North America won’t face a similar dilemma in the future.

 

Over time, economists have offered three different moral or political justifications for their technical work. The first, and simplest, justification simply assumes that the “powers that be” (the ultimate recipients of their work) are “benevolent despots” in the mold that John Maynard Keynes described (though Keynes did not consider the British bureaucrats of his time to be despots).

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In the 1970s, this defense was challenged by economists at the other end of the Western political spectrum, who pointed out that bureaucrats were a supplier lobby like any other. As such, they will always have an interest in expanding their own individual and collective importance, regardless of whether it maximizes social benefits. This assumption led economists to become “intervention skeptics” who preferred market-based solutions for any problem where the need for regulation was not obvious.

Between these two positions, most economists have been content to ply their trade on the assumption that, however self-interested bureaucrats might be, they are subject to oversight from democratic politicians whose own self-interest is to get re-elected by keeping voters satisfied. So long as the economist’s technical solutions to policy problems are offered to officials with democratic legitimacy, according to this view, there is no cause for political or moral concern.

In fact, even economists in communist dictatorships could proffer their best technical advice with a comparatively clean conscience, because they were convinced that introducing more market-mediated outcomes would inject efficiency into planned economies and increase the sphere of individual freedom. This was true even in the Soviet Union, at least after Nikita Khrushchev’s accession to power in the 1950s.

But now, for the first time in many decades, economists must consider the moral implications of giving good advice to bad people. They are no longer exempt from the moral quandaries that many other professionals must face – a classic example being the engineers who design missiles or other weapons systems.

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The new moral dilemma facing economists is perhaps most stark within international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, where economic mandarins with significant influence over public policy earn their living.

After the fall of Soviet-style communism, the IFIs admitted Russia and the other former Soviet republics (as well as China) on the assumption that they were each on a path to embracing democracy and a rules-based market economy. But now that democratic backsliding is widespread, economists need to ask if what is good for authoritarian states is also good for humanity. This question is particularly pertinent with respect to China and Russia, each of which is large enough to help shift the balance of world power against democracy.

That being the case, it stands to reason that democratic countries should try to limit the influence of authoritarian regimes within the IFIs – if not exclude them altogether in extreme cases. But it is worth distinguishing between two kinds of international institution in this context: rule-setting bodies that make it easier for countries with hostile ideological or national interests to co-exist; and organizations that create a strong community of interest, meaning that economic and political benefits for some members “spill over” and are felt more widely.

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Among the IFIs, the WTO is an example of the first type, as is the United Nations among international political institutions. The European Union, on the other hand, is the preeminent example of a true community of interests. And the IMF, the World Bank, and many UN agencies lie somewhere in between.

From this categorization, we can derive guidelines for economists to follow when advising authoritarian regimes. Advice or scholarship that allows authoritarian governments to avoid conflict with other countries would be morally acceptable in most cases. After all, as Winston Churchill famously observed, “jaw-jaw” is better than “war-war”. A good example would be research into how best to share scarce freshwater among Middle Eastern countries.

On the other hand, economists need to take great care when providing advice or conducting research with clear policy implications for authoritarian governments. Economists should not be in the business of helping authoritarian regimes advance nefarious ends on the back of stronger economic growth or resources saved. That probably means not giving advice to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on how to reduce long-term unemployment.

Needless to say, every case will be unique, and economists will have to decide for themselves. As in the past, some may even embrace authoritarianism. But for the profession as a whole, the moral consequences of translating economic analysis into practice can no longer be ignored.

Shock Election Outcome and Malaysia’s Future


May 11, 2018

Shock Election Outcome and Malaysia’s Future

Image result for Mahathir is sworn in as Prime Minister

By the early morning of May 10, results from the Election Commission indicated that Malaysia’s opposition coalition had secured enough seats to prevail in the country’s general election, effectively marking the end of the world’s longest continuing ruling coalition, led by scandal-ridden premier Najib Razak, and putting the country’s longest serving leader, Mahathir Mohamad, back into office.

Though an opposition coalition win would no doubt be historic, the election result has also quickly cast the Southeast Asian state into a period of uncertainty and raised questions about not just the transfer of power, but the future direction of its domestic politics and foreign policy.

“...one should not forget that it was Mahathir’s authoritarian rule for over two decades that paved the way for some of the trends the opposition rails against – from the erosion of Malaysia’s institutions to the lack of reforms in decades-old affirmative action policies. These are serious problems that cannot be fixed overnight no matter who is in office, and they are easier to talk about than to actually address.”

The opposition’s tally in the country’s 14th general election is nothing short of historic. Though the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), had seen its support erode over the past decade under Najib – losing its much-prized two-thirds majority in 2008 and then the popular vote in 2013 – most had predicted BN would still nonetheless cling to power in GE-14 by employing its usual bag of political tricks, including gerrymandering and restrictions on the opposition. Instead, by early Thursday morning, results disclosed by the country’s Election Commission showed that the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition had surpassed the 112 of the 222 seats required in parliament with 121 seats, giving it an effective simple majority, with BN winning just 79 seats.

The result was above all an indicator of the high degree of frustration among the Malaysian electorate with the status quo. Najib’s declining popularity over the years had come amidst deep discontent – not just about the much-ballyhooed 1MDB scandal, but also policies such as the unpopular goods and services tax (GST) that hurt regular Malaysians.

GE-14 saw huge rallies for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition alliance during the election campaign, significant turnout by Malaysians, and record losses by BN in terms of parliamentary seats. The demand for change in Malaysia was clear for all to see.

Yet while the opposition victory might mark the end of a historic election race, it also represents the start of an age of uncertainty for the Southeast Asian state. Given the unprecedented nature of the opposition’s tally, the immediate focus was around whether or not there would be a peaceful transfer of power that would see Mahathir sworn into office again as Prime Minister and Wan Azizah, the wife of his former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim who he once deposed and is now behind bars, will be sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister.Whether or not this in fact occurs still remains to be seen.

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After Victory, what’s next?

During Najib’s first press conference since his party’s defeat on Thursday morning, he stopped short of conceding power, noting that no single party had received a simple majority – if the 121 seats are to be broken down by the 104 seats contested under the PKR logo along with 9 seats for the Democratic Action Party and 8 seats for Parti Warisan Sabah –  and that the King would have to determine who the next premier would be.

“…the deeper concerns lie in how the electoral outcome is likely to affect Malaysian domestic politics and foreign policy. As of now, things still look quite unclear on both fronts.”

Meanwhile, Mahathir’s swearing in, initially said to be set for Thursday, was delayed. The added period of uncertainty had the effect of feeding into rumors that BN may not accept an opposition win and raising concerns about the potential outbreak of violence.

Even if a peaceful transfer of power does occur, the deeper concerns lie in how the electoral outcome is likely to affect Malaysian domestic politics and foreign policy. As of now, things still look quite unclear on both fronts.

Domestically, the election campaign ahead of polls was dominated by a focus on personality attacks and cosmetic promises rather than substance, in spite of the fact that the country’s true challenges are structural and transcend party or person.

Amid the vilification of Najib, for instance, one should not forget that it was Mahathir’s authoritarian rule for over two decades that paved the way for some of the trends the opposition rails against – from the erosion of Malaysia’s institutions to the lack of reforms in decades-old affirmative action policies. These are serious problems that cannot be fixed overnight no matter who is in office, and they are easier to talk about than to actually address.

It would also be a mistake to conflate a historic electoral victory with sustained political dominance should the opposition go on to govern. As remarkable a triumph as the Malaysian opposition’s is, the fact is that it took a slow accumulation of several developments – including the deepening 1MDB scandal surrounding Najib, Mahathir’s unlikely re-emergence in Malaysian politics, and deep frustrations that translated into record turnout – to get to this historic outcome. Sustaining that kind of momentum will not be an easy task, particularly if and when the opposition transitions from campaigning to governing – with Mahathir claiming he will eventually step aside – and supporters of the defeated ruling coalition begin realigning post-Najib using their deep patronage networks and other levers of influence. The pendulum could well swing back in the direction of continuity after sudden change.

Things are equally unclear on the foreign policy side as well. Beyond shallow slogans and cheap talk from the two sides – from Mahathir’s promises to restrict Chinese investments to Najib’s self-congratulatory note on the relatively good state of Malaysia-Singapore relations – there was little substantive debate about the structural problems have eroded the exercise of Malaysian foreign policy and constrained the country’s maneuverability. These include a meager defense budget that limits Malaysia from addressing growing security threats to a more divided country that dilutes the support needed for the country to wage an effective foreign policy and preserve its sovereignty from outside threats from state and  non state actors.

“The immediate headlines so far have focused on the Malaysian opposition’s historic election tally, and deservedly so. But as the days and months progress, it will be equally important to pay attention to the country’s new period of uncertainty and what that means for how it conducts itself at home and abroad.”

Some might turn to Mahathir’s foreign policy record for a guide as to what might play out should the opposition indeed take the reins. But it has been a decade-and-a-half since he was in power, and the domestic, regional, and global realities that Malaysia confronts have changed significantly. It is also still unclear how the management of foreign relations will work under the opposition’s tenure, as well as the extent to which mulled changes will actually find their way through bureaucracies into implementation. For these reasons among others, doomsday scenarios, whether with respect to neighboring states like Singapore or major powers like the United States and China, are less likely to play out than subtler re-calibrations in the country’s key relationships.

The immediate headlines so far have focused on the Malaysian opposition’s historic election tally, and deservedly so. But as the days and months progress, it will be equally important to pay attention to the country’s new period of uncertainty and what that means for how it conducts itself at home and abroad.