UMNO after GE-14


January 17, 2017

Thanks to the fractious Opposition, UMNO after GE-14

by S. Thayaparan@www.malaysiakini.com

“Justice can sleep for years and awaken when it is least expected. A miracle is nothing more than dormant justice from another time arriving to compensate those it has cruelly abandoned. Whoever knows this is willing to suffer, for he knows that nothing is in vain.”

– Mark Helprin (Winter’s Tale)

Image result for Mahathir Vs NajibThe Master Vs Pupil–Advantage Pupil

While I have always been sceptical of anything that comes out of the Penang Institute, I thought Ooi Kok Hin’s article in the Diplomat hit the target but missed the bullseye. I have argued in various pieces that ultimately what would bring down the UMNO house of cards is an economic calamity brought upon by “ketuanan economics” and not any stratagems that the fractious opposition comes up with.

I began the year by saying – “No matter how the government spins it, the economy is in bad shape. And when it gets bad enough, when the money runs out and when political bromides from either side isn’t enough to fill empty bellies, people on their own accord will take to the streets.”

Ooi ends his piece with – “If political change is not sufficient, will it take an economic downturn to bring change in Malaysia, like Indonesia?”

Image result for Mahathir Vs Najib

However, implying the rapid democratisation of Indonesia after despotic rule brought upon by economic instability exacerbated by policy malfeasances as something of a miracle and the only option opposition-voting Malaysians could hope for is intellectually dodgy especially after presenting a fairly cogent argument as to why Chairman Najib will most probably win the next general election.

Ooi made his first three factors as to why Najib Abdul Razak will win the centre-piece of his argument:

(1) Electoral malpractices: Keeping the incumbent in their seats.

(2) Political fragmentation: Weaker and disunited opposition.

(3) Institutional failures: Culture of unaccountability, graft, and state repression,

It is ironic that it is these three points that the opposition keeps harping about that has not gained them any traction with the demographic they claim is keeping the UMNO hegemon in power. Indeed, there is very little the opposition can do against the rigged system (that are those institutional failures) and a frontal assault is akin to attacking a tank with a spear.

Image result for Sarawak-Sabah Politics

Sarawak-Sabah–The Deciders

Counting on Sabah and Sarawak to deliver us from UMNO is exactly the same kind of bankrupt ideology that UMNO peddles and this meme that West Malaysians are ignorant and less sophisticated displays the hubris of Peninsular oppositional types and the reason why they want us to stay the hell out of their states.

And strategically speaking as long as UMNO has to rely on Sabah and Sarawak to maintain hegemony, the easier it should be to destabilise UMNO in the Peninsula. The fact that this has not happened says more about the opposition then so-called ignorant voters.

What is needed is to derail the tank’s track and this is where Ooi’s fourth factor – Societal fault Lines: One cleavage too many – is worth exploring because it provides the key to bringing down the UMNO hegemon but it is also a record of the opposition’s failure to present a cohesive alternative to not only UMNO but also policies that have no place in an egalitarian Malaysia.

While Ooi rightly argues that everything in Malaysia, is seen through the lens of race and religion, and correctly points out UMNO’s part in this mess, he fails to acknowledge that the opposition has also contributed to the narrative.

While the ‘PAS for All’ fiasco was predicated on the pragmatism of the late Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the systemic oppositional policy of chasing the ‘Malay’ vote by the same means as UMNO has resulted in religion playing an even greater role in mainstream oppositional politics.

By neglecting the secular approach and instead embroiling itself with Islamic, Christian and of late Hindu political and social agitations, the opposition has turned out to be just another Barisan National clone peddling the same kind of manure. People outside the echo chambers are wondering why vote for the clone when the original can get things done not by rule of law but by fiat.

Here is a hint. If you want to stop religious and racial extremism, stop funding – on a state level – institutions that enable such impulses in the guise of reaching out to the Malay-Muslim community. As long as you are held ransom to the idea that in order to defeat UMNO you must use the same tactics to secure the Malay vote, there is always going to be that Malay tilt to UMNO.

Parties dance to UMNO’s tune

Image result for MCA-MIC

The demonisation of the Chinese community is part of the larger narrative of the reactionary nature of Chinese communal politics. The MCA and DAP have positioned themselves as loudspeakers for the Chinese community hence there is no room for by bipartisanship on any issue, leaving important social, political and economic issues unresolved because these two parties dance to the UMNO tune.

Image result for PAS and Hudud

Hudud? These guys don’t care as long as they can get BR1M and other opiates via “ketuanan economics”

These contradictions of course are not lost on the voting public. While I argued that the MCA for instance “has by far had a more accessible position on this subject (hudud) instead of the conflicting messages coming out of the Muslim wing of the opposition front and their non-Muslim supporters; they stand idly by while the UMNO hegemon sponsors state-sanctioned racial provocations against the Chinese community using the DAP as a proxy.”

Not to mention that now former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is the de facto opposition leader, he continues reviving the narrative that the “Malays” will lose their land to “Chinese” interlopers, while Chinese opposition types warn against China’s investments because it is bailing out the UMNO hegemon.

So on the one hand we have the narrative of Malays losing their land to Chinese pendatangs and on the other we have Chinese oppositional types confirming that the narrative that the country is being sold to the PRC. So this lens of race and religion is opaque and it is a grave mistake – although it plays well in echo chambers – to simply describe it as something wrong with Umno policy as opposed to describing it as the reality of Establishment – BN and Pakatan Harapan – politics.

Which brings me to Ooi’s most important point and one which is most often overlooked in favor of his other three factors. And this point to me is the one where the opposition could do serious damage to the regime but unfortunately will continue being overlooked.

“There is a visible gap between the politicians, the city folks, the demonstrators who so urgently and desperately want reforms, and the voters outside the cities, who voted for candidates affiliated to Najib’s party” writes Ooi, which is axiomatic but for various reasons goes unnoticed by the power brokers of the opposition.

When Ooi writes, “people don’t mind the status quo as long as they are not affected at the most immediate and personal level,” he is not only speaking plainly but also truthfully and this of course is the reason why this country has endured the long UMNO watch.

 The opposition has a long history of being unable to organise an orgy in a brothel. Speaking plainly, ever since the opposition broke the magical two-thirds barrier, they have been coasting on their success, thinking that UMNO has been playing defence while the reality is that UMNO has only ever played offence.

All politics is local and the opposition has yet to figure out what affects voters ‘outside the cities’ beyond pushing the narrative that they are ignorant and living off UMNO handouts. There really is no excuse for this type of political laziness.

Opposition politicians operating in the rural heartlands tell me that this obsession with urban issues has absolutely no traction in their communities and makes UMNO’s job easier because it makes it seem that the urban elite – meaning us – have no idea what is going on where they live except to think of them as lazy and ignorant.

There are people in the opposition who know exactly what affects these people on an immediate and personal level but these issues do not get the attention that the latest stupid thing a BN potentate says or the latest corruption scandal that is part of the news cycle that plays well in the echo chambers.

Issues facing the folks outside the cities are exactly the kind of issues that UMNO wishes to avoid and the latest outrage that captures the attention of city folks is manna from heaven for an ailing financially-strapped hegemon.

Waiting for miracles to happen absolves the opposition from actually doing the hard work of capturing the hearts and minds of people and allows job security for career opposition politicians.


S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

China’s Investments–Geo-Political Implications for Malaysia


January 14, 2017

China’s Investments–Geo-Political Implications for Malaysia

by Dennis Ignatius

Image result for China's Investments in MalaysiaHe is praying for the best but not doing his best

China’s ravenous appetite for Malaysian infrastructure assets has resulted in yet another multibillion ringgit deal. In early January, a RM6.3 billion deal to redevelop and expand Penang Port was signed between two Chinese port operators (Shenzhen Yantian Port Group and Rizhao Port Group) and local partner, KAJ Development, a relatively unknown reportedly state-owned company incorporated in 2001.According to press reports, the project would increase the port’s ship handling capacity to 100,000 ships per year.

Dominating the transport sector

The Penang deal comes on the heels of KAJ Development’s RM30 billion Malacca Gateway Project with another Chinese conglomerate, Powerchina International Group. The Gateway project includes extensive land reclamation and the development of what is expected to be the biggest port in the region.

Image result for RM12.5 billion Kuala Linggi International Port

Barely 55 km away from the Malacca Gateway project, work has begun on the RM12.5 billion Kuala Linggi International Port project, funded by China Railway, Port & Engineering Group. When completed, Linggi port will become, according to a company statement, “the world’s preferred shipping hub in the Straits of Malacca” offering port facilities, storage and transshipment of crude oil and petroleum products and repair and bunkering facilities.

According to press reports, construction has gone ahead despite objections that the project could well be an environmental hazard. Not to be outdone, the Port Klang Authority is now planning to build another giant port on Carey Island which is expected to cost RM200 billion. According to reports, the transport ministry is in talks with China Merchants Group to finance the project.

On the east cost of Peninsular Malaysia, another Chinese company, Guangxi Beibu International Port Group already owns a 40% stake of Kuantan Port Consortium and is investing billions to double the port’s capacity. China is also a key investor in Sarawak’s Samalaju Industrial Port project.

At this rate, and given China’s already sizeable investments in our railway infrastructure, China will soon be the dominant player in Malaysia’s transportation sector.

Unanswered questions

Quite apart from the obvious security implications, China’s massive investments in ports and railways have also raised a number of concerns which have yet to be adequately addressed.

How much port capacity, for example, do we really need bearing in mind that we spent billions developing the Port of Tanjung Pelapas (making it one of the largest container ports in the region) and that not all of our ports are operating at fully capacity?

And how will other major port developments now being planned along the Malacca Straits, such as the mammoth Tuah project in Singapore and the China-funded Tanjung Sauh port in Indonesia’s Batam island impact overall capacity? It certainly looks like this whole port building frenzy has gone off the deep end, especially as no convincing argument has been made that such a significant increase in port capacity is even warranted.

Without credible feasibility studies and greater transparency, these projects could well end up like the Petroleum Hub project which was taken out of service in 2012 after the government had spent more than RM100 billion on land reclamation, costs which Malaysia’s long suffering taxpayers are now having to shoulder. 

It is also unclear what the actual financial arrangements are for many of these Chinese projects and what kind of concessions and guarantees Malaysia has had to offer. That some of these projects involve secret negotiations and secret agreements with companies that don’t appear to have much experience or which have been blacklisted by the World Bank, only adds to concerns about control, ownership, costs, viability and the potential for corruption.

And unlike earlier infrastructure projects where local companies retained significant oversight and decision-making authority, projects with China invariably end up with Chinese companies in charge of management, design, procurement and construction. Even the workers come from China!

Whatever happened to all our national policies about equity, local participation and transfer of technology? At the end of the day, it is hardly the kind of “equal, mutually beneficial, win-win” situation that the Chinese embassy here likes to brag about.

OBOR?

Image result for China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative

The other thing about many of these Chinese projects is the constant reference by Malaysian politicians and businessmen to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Suddenly, it is no longer about Malaysia’s national development goals or priorities but about whether or not it is relevant to OBOR.

It is perhaps a testimony to China’s increasing power and influence that many of our political and business leaders are now gamely parroting the Chinese line about how great and magical OBOR is and how fortunate we lesser mortals are to receive Chinese loans, Chinese technology and Chinese expertise to help build OBOR-related infrastructure.

What they don’t see or don’t want to acknowledge is that through clever financing arrangements, China is in fact getting us to pay for the infrastructure that it needs to establish economic primacy in the region. OBOR is primarily about China’s strategic national objectives; whatever benefits to Malaysia are purely incidental.

In the absence of a critical and in-depth assessment of whether these OBOR-related projects genuinely serve Malaysia’s interests and are worth the costs to Malaysian taxpayers, it would be ‘bodoh’ to acquiesce to it.

The geopolitical element

And let’s not be unmindful of the geopolitical considerations as well. Will we see Malaysian ports, for example, being integrated into the Chinese Navy’s regional infrastructure to support its growing naval presence in the region?

While the government is coy about the kind of naval access that has been given to the Chinese Navy for obvious political reasons, port calls by Chinese naval vessels are increasing. Two Chinese submarines, for example, quietly docked at Kota Kinabalu port recently while Chinese warships now regularly use other Malaysian port facilities.

Image result for Chinese Navy in the Straits of Malacca

China of the 21st Century is a nation of geo-strategic thinkers and state entrepreneurs–Keeping Asia secure and safe means China is safe too.

China is making strategic investments to fortify its position as the dominant player in the South China Sea with modern port facilities in ASEAN and expand trade in Chinese manufactured goods and services. It is using Malaysia to have important stakes in the Straits of Malacca (in Malacca, Penang and Johore ports). Why not, particularly when assets in Malaysia can be acquired on the cheap or profitable investments made  at inflated cost (for the benefit of corrupt UMNO and Barisan Nosional politicians). I am not against Chinese investments per se, but I am very concerned with deals done on a hush-hush basis by Najib and his cohorts. China’s moves in Asia does not end with the  South China Sea. It is back to the age-old objective of keeping the barbarians at the gate.–Din Merican

Of course, naval vessels from other countries regularly berth at our ports, and in itself is no cause for alarm. However, only China is aggressively pursuing territorial claims against Malaysia. For that reason alone, caution is called for. Does it make sense for us to facilitate the very naval force that is intruding into our waters, harassing our fishermen, laying claim to our reefs and islands and gathering data to support those claims?

Colony building

Image result for RM100 billion Forest City project

There are also growing concerns about the massive residential and commercial development projects that are being built with Chinese capital.

The RM100 billion Forest City project, for example, one of two being built by Chinese conglomerate Country Garden, will reportedly house more than 700,000 people in a development that will include office towers, parks, hotels, shopping malls and an international school.

Meanwhile, China state-owned Greenland Group is building office towers, apartments and shops on 128 acres in Tebrau, Johor, while Guangzhou R & F Properties Co. has begun construction on the first phase of Princess Cove, another mixed development along the Johor coast, with hotels, offices, parks, shopping malls and clubhouses.

Image result for bandar malaysia – china’s new regional capital

In Kuala Lumpur, China Railway Group (CRG) will be developing the mega Bandar Malaysia project which is expected to cost between RM160 – 200 billion. Bandar Malaysia will host the world’s largest underground city together with shopping malls, indoor theme parks, a financial centre, residential and commercial units as well as the RM8.3 billion regional headquarters of China Railway.

CRG is also involved in another RM2.1 billion project in Ampang to build 7,000 residential units as well as commercial and retail outlets. In keeping with the management practices of most China-based corporations, CRG has been appointed the main contractor with sole responsibility for monitoring, managing and supervising the day-to-day construction and operations of the project.

Reports suggest that these massive residential and commercial developments in Malaysia are being marketed mainly to PRC nationals who wish to work, reside or holiday in Malaysia. Country Garden, for example, has been aggressively promoting its Forest City project in China; it is already the 11thmost popular investment destination for Chinese home buyers on Juwai.com.

In addition, relatively cheaper living costs, affordable private medical facilities, a (mostly) smog- free environment and proximity to both China and Singapore, make Malaysia a preferred retirement destination for middle-class Chinese. China’s ageing population (240 million over the age of 60 by 2020) makes for a huge potential market that Chinese developers are hoping to exploit.

If the expectations of these China-based developers are realized, we could be seeing more than a million PRC nationals living in Malaysia within a decade.

Malaysians must ask themselves whether it would be desirable to see a huge influx of citizens from just one country establishing foreign enclaves here. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that these colonies could soon evolve into exclusive, semi-autonomous zones serviced and managed by PRC nationals for the benefit of PRC nationals.

What impact will this have on the social, cultural and political fabric of our nation? How will it affect property prices? How will any downturn in the Chinese economy influence the local property market? How much of the related infrastructure costs of these projects are being borne by Malaysian taxpayers? And what kind of concessions are being given to these property developers?

Viewed from almost any perspective, therefore, Malaysia’s burgeoning economic, political and military relationship with China ought to set off alarm bells across the nation.

Image result for bandar malaysia – china’s new regional capital

The combination of a rising power with global ambitions backed by an unlimited stash of cash buying up strategic infrastructure assets, on the one hand, and a local political elite bent on staying in power at all costs tethered to cronies more interested in profits than patriotism, on the other, could prove a fatal one.

Even in the best of circumstances, it would be simply too risky to allow any one country to dominate our economy and control critical infrastructure networks the way China is now set to do. It gives China too much power and influence in the affairs of our nation and it leaves us too indebted, too exposed to a country whose intentions must be considered with some circumspection.

How far will China go to protect its position?

One thing we can be sure of, though, if history is anything to go by: the more China invests in Malaysia, the more China will be tempted to intervene and meddle in our affairs to protect its investments and ensure its strategic position is not jeopardized. Indeed, China has already begun to do so.

In a statement just this week, the Chinese embassy lashed out at opposition leaders and others for questioning the government’s policies towards China, accusing them of having ulterior motives and instigating hatred against China and warned that “China will not allow anyone to jeopardize the mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation between China and Malaysia.”

Amazingly, the Embassy also dared to presume to speak for Malaysian Chinese when it suggested that such actions by the opposition would not earn them the trust of the Malaysian Chinese community.

Clearly, the Chinese embassy now feels it has the right to threaten our politicians, inveigh against those who raise questions about China’s investments and inject itself into what is essentially a domestic discussion.

Such brazen interference in our domestic affairs will only get worse. How far will China now go to stifle domestic opposition and criticism to its increasing role in our nation? Will it work behind the scenes to prop up local pro-China leaders in much the same way as the CIA did in other countries? 

The most pressing foreign policy challenge

Tellingly, while the Chinese embassy grows bolder, many of our own leaders remain silent despite blatant acts of interfere in our domestic affairs.

In the early years of our relationship with China, our security agencies were extremely concerned that Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community might sell out to China; who would have thought we would end up in situation where many of our politicians and officials would be so blinded to the challenges that China now presents or worse still, resign themselves to the inevitability of some sort of Chinese domination?

One minister, for instance, recently remarked in his blog that “it is futile trying to resist China’s great march forward just like it was futile to resist Western colonialism 500 years ago.” He also said that China is buying up assets all over the world and that is something that “Malaysia needs to accept or else get left behind and perish.”

Let’s be clear: this is not about trying to stop China from rising or about shunning Chinese investments but about ensuring that we don’t get colonized again, about making sure that China does not get to the point where it controls our economy and is able to dictate policy as it already does in some neighbouring countries.

Whatever it is, Malaysians must not be lulled into a false sense of complacency by all the sweet talk of mega contracts, grandiose promises of prosperity and jobs or the effusive pledges of eternal friendship for that matter.

China is no different from any other big power and we would do well to be wary when dealing with it.

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As the late Tun Ghazali Shafie, arguably the best Foreign Minister we’ve ever had, was fond of reminding us at Wisma Putra: small countries on the peripheries of a big power don’t have the luxury of taking anything for granted.

At the very least, we owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to have a national debate on this, the most pressing foreign policy challenge we now face as a nation. And the Chinese embassy would do well to butt out of it.

 

 

Malaysia’s Political Gridlock and Why Najib is not going to Jail


January 12, 2017

Malaysia’s Political Gridlock and Why Najib is not going to Jail

by Ooi Kok Hin

Despite protests, political realities will keep the prime minister’s coalition in power through 2017 – and beyond.

http://thediplomat.com/2017/01/why-malaysias-najib-razak-isnt-going-anywhere/

Image result for Bersih 5.O November 19, 2016

On November 19, tens of thousands of Malaysians assembled in the capital to demand for a free and fair election and the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is implicated in a massive financial scandal. Yet, Najib’s ruling coalition looks set to prevail in the next general election, rumored to be held this year.

Why is this so? I argue Malaysia’s political gridlock is prolonged largely by four factors: electoral malpractices, institutional failures, political fragmentation, and societal fault lines. Until and unless these are changed, reforms will be flimsy at best, and cosmetic at worst.

Electoral Malpractices: Keeping the Incumbent in Their Seats

In the previous general election, the ruling coalition won 47 percent of the popular vote but nearly 60 percent of the parliamentary seats. The opposition coalition won 51 percent of the votes but only 40 percent of the seats (the remaining 2 percent of the vote was split among marginal parties). The discrepancy is caused by the uneven weighting of popular representation. A constitutional clause grants over-representation for rural voters either spanning a large landmass or difficult to reach areas. However, even after taking this clause into account, electoral malpractices are severe.

In a study I co-wrote with fellow analysts from the Penang Institute, we found that at least 68 parliamentary seats and 162 state seats are either excessively under-represented or excessively over-represented under the latest redelineation proposed by the Election Commission. If the proposal comes into effect during the next general election, the outcome is effectively a forgone conclusion because of severe malapportionment and gerrymandering.

Malapportionment isthe disparity of constituency size caused by redelineation. It results in inequitable representation because it provides unequal vote value. For example, one voter in Putrajaya has a value equivalent to one voters in Kapar, as both constituencies have one seat each — even though Putrajaya has roughly 15,991 voters and Kapar has 144,159.

Even within the same state, the disparity of constituency size is striking. In the state of Selangor, Damansara is four times the size of Sabak Bernam. Any of the three excessively under-represented parliamentary constituencies in Selangor are bigger than the three small constituencies combined.

This is not a purely mathematical disparity of constituency size. It is a deliberate packing of opposition supporters into a mega-size constituency, diluting their ability to win other seats and making the neighboring marginal seats more winnable for the ruling coalition. Not surprisingly, Damansara is held by the opposition and Sabak Bernam is held by the ruling party.

Image result for Bersih 5.O November 19, 2016

Gerrymandering, meanwhile, is the practice of deliberately drawing constituency boundaries based on the voting pattern of constituents so that a party may benefit. Malaysia’s redelineation does this in three ways: the creation of constituencies spanning multiple local authorities, the arbitrary combination of communities without common interests, and the partition of local communities and neighborhoods. Voters living on the same street find themselves in different electoral constituencies. The confusion is compounded by the lack of information and publicity about the changes made to constituency boundaries and, crucially, voting districts.

Political Fragmentation: Weaker and Disunited Opposition

Given the steep electoral obstacles which the opposition has to overcome, it is no surprise that the National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN) is one of the longest ruling coalitions in the world. The then fully united opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, failed to unseat BN in the 2013 general election. The erstwhile alliance brought together three major opposition parties: the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Any hope of taking advantage of Najib’s crisis has been dampened by the collapse of Pakatan Rakyat due to a quarrel over a chief minister’s position and the Islamist party’s insistence on the implementation of Sharia laws.

Amidst the open animosity between the opposition parties, pragmatist PKR is negotiating a miracle. They are appealing for a one-on-one fight; a scenario which even the most hardcore opposition supporter would find unlikely.

Image result for Bersih 5.O November 19, 2016

The Fractured Opposition

Hostility is mutual between PAS and DAP/Amanah. Bersatu, the new party setup by ousted Deputy Prime Minister Muhyddin Yassin and former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, is beset with internal issues and looks the least of a threat to Najib’s UMNO. A united opposition is anywhere but visible in Sabah and Sarawak, the two states which won the election for Najib, whose coalition took 47 out of 56 seats.

If PAS explicitly teamed up with UMNO, there is some hope that their grassroots and longtime supporters (who view UMNO as a nemesis) may vote for the opposition coalition as a protest against their leadership. Tacit cooperation is more likely, however, and in three-cornered fights, the ruling party will sweep all the marginal seats.

Institutional Failures: Culture of Unaccountability, Graft, and State Repression

Image result for najib razak--malaysia's no 1. rogue

Institutional failures have doomed any formal case again Najib for the financial scandal centered on 1MDB. Former Attorney General Gani Patail was terminated just as he was allegedly drafting a charge sheet against Najib. The chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission was replaced, its senior officers transferred out, and one investigating officer’s home was raided by the police. Three out of four figureheads of the special taskforce setup to investigate 1MDB were replaced within months.

The various institutions that were supposed to hold the government accountable have all faltered in one way or another. A concentration of power has enable the state leviathan to dismiss any institution that could actually hold it accountable.

Ideally, legislative institutions should uphold the principles of democracy and justice enshrined in the Constitution. But under the forceful thumb of the executive, they continue to either pass or fail to repeal draconian laws stretching from the colonial era. The Sedition Act, which criminalizes any speech deemed hateful or contemptuous towards the ruler or government, is routinely abused due to its vague clauses. The notorious detention without trial, another colonial legacy, gave powers to the executive to imprison political opponents for lengthy periods without a day in the courtroom. Most recently, the leader of a civil rights movement calling for free and fair elections, Maria Chin Abdullah, was detained under one such law.

The list of institutional failures includes that of the media. Some outlets fought and went down, like The Malaysian Insider. The mainstream press is owned directly by political parties or businessmen friendly to the establishment. Periodic license renewals keep them on their toes. Newspapers editors who did report on 1MDB were called in for police investigation.

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Malaysia’s Infamous Auditor-General

Institutional failure and lack of accountability are not limited to 1MDB. Year after year, the Auditor General has revealed staggering cases of mismanaged public funds. Government bodies bought wall clocks at RM 3,810 a piece (the market price is easily below RM 100) and scanners for RM 14,670 (market price: RM 200). The “normalization of corruption” is deeply embedded in the existing hierarchy, from the top to the bottom. In the newly released report, the auditors found that the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) lost hundreds of millions due to multiple transactions without proper authorization, dubious planning and execution, and complete mismanagement. It made news for two to three days before disappearing, like pretty much every other scandal. Corrupt acts are committed and revealed, followed by public outrage. But with no institution to exercise accountability, the news eventually disappears. It has become a normal cycle.

Late last year, the National Security Council Act was passed to enable the prime minister to declare an area of emergency as he deems necessary, without the approval of any other institution. Which raises the question: Are there any institutional safeguards to guarantee a peaceful transition of power even if the government fails to recapture popular support in the election?

Societal Fault Lines: One Cleavage Too Many

The fault lines of Malaysian society are too many and too deep, with groups frequently divided along ethnic and religious lines. Due to this, Najib can easily turn a once-unified opposition against one another.

Dr Jamil Khir Baharom, a minister in charge of religious affairs under Najib’s cabinet, paraded a bill amendment to increase the power of the Shariah court. PAS’s dream is to establish an Islamic state by implementing Islamic law, which cannot be fully enforced given the current restrictions on the maximum punishments the Shariah court can spell out. Under the revised version of the proposed amendment, the Shariah court will be strengthened by raising the punishment ceiling to 30 years in prison, a RM 100,000 fine, and 100 strokes of caning.

Image result for Najib and Hadi

Playing with the Islamic Fire

Najib’s olive branch to PAS is working, enticing the party away from cooperation with the opposition and thus sapping the opposition’s strength among the all-important Malay and rural areas.

In Malaysia ,where nearly everything is seen through the lens of race and religion, the push for Islamic law will effectively split society. Since all Malays are Muslims in this country (one’s professed religion is one of the constitutional definitions of being an ethnic Malay), debates on the bill can dangerously be turned into a sectarian conflict.

In the run-up to the November 19 rally, thugs dressed in red threatened the Bersih convoy. The Red Shirts, as they came to be known, are all ethnic Malays led by an UMNO division chief. Threats of violence aside, the racial rhetoric has become too discomforting. Last year, what was a typical robber and shopkeeper brawl turned into dangerous racial gatherings as the two groups called their friends, resulting in a mini-riot that night. In the aftermath of the previous election, the prime minister and the party’s de facto mouthpiece, Utusan Malaysia, denounced the Chinese as a scapegoat of opposition agents. All these societal fault lines testify to the enormity of the task to to unseat Najib.

The by-elections last year might provide some hint as to how the general elections will turn out. Najib’s coalition won both of them. I was in the suburban areas when opposition parties held a town hall panel session, inevitably speaking in English, touching on issues such as the removal of the Attorney-General. While these are big, national issues, it felt out of place. There is a visible gap between the politicians, the city folks, the demonstrators who so urgently and desperately want reforms, and the voters outside the cities, who voted for candidates affiliated to Najib’s party.

To speak plainly, people don’t mind the status quo as long as they are not affected at the most immediate and personal level. The whole 1MDB scandal has been too complicated to be explained to non-English literate voters with no understanding of the complex technical terms, in a five-minute rally. Financial scandals grow more complicated and people just lose interest. Maybe they underestimate the cost of it all, maybe they don’t care enough or just don’t lose enough; either way they are not angry enough to want to change the status quo.

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The partnership that can rattle the beleaguered Al-Kebas aka Malaysian Official 1–Najib Razak

What’s next? Even the unholy alliance between Anwar and Mahathir won’t be able to fight off the structural inequality of power and institutional failures. If political change is not sufficient, will it take an economic downturn to bring change in Malaysia, like Indonesia? In 1998, a combined factor of internal dissidents and economic instability brought the dictatorial Suharto era to an end and ushered in the Reformasi period. If neighboring Indonesia can live embedded in a dictatorship for 40 years and then undergo rapid democratization in so short a time, we can’t and shouldn’t rule anything out yet in Malaysia. But it will take a miracle.

Ooi Kok Hin is an analyst with the Penang Institute. He writes on political and social developments and Southeast Asian affairs.

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Unity in Diversity


January 9,2017

Unity in Diversity

By Dennis Ignatius

Unleashing our uniqueness as a multicultural nation

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You can tell, I suppose, that elections are near when UMNO politicians start heaping praise upon our otherwise much-maligned citizens of Chinese origin.

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No less than Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, in a speech delivered on his behalf on the occasion of the Kuala Lumpur Chinese Assembly Hall’s Anniversary Dinner recently, praised Malaysian Chinese for their “bravery, hard work and true grit” and their ability to turn things around with minimum resources. He also expressed admiration for their “spirit to never say no to challenges” and opined that “the Chinese community will continue to be the group that will carry the nation forward.”

Flattery & Brickbats 

Zahid’s lavish praise, however, passed without much comment from Malaysian Chinese themselves with many simply dismissing it as little more than lip service. The obvious, if unspoken message, is that mere flattery cannot undo the years of vilification and racial intimidation that has become the hallmark of UMNO politics.

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UMNO’s Extremists in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur

It was not so long ago, for example, that UMNO-aligned red shirted bullies threatened to rain down mayhem upon Petaling Street. It was even more telling, for many Malaysian Chinese, that the red shirt leader was subsequently welcomed as something of a hero at the recent UMNO General Assembly. It only confirmed the perception of UMNO’s malice and hostility towards minority communities.

At the same assembly, UMNO stalwarts also demanded that the some of the miserably few positions that Chinese have in government and government-linked companies be taken away and given to UMNO members.

Worse still, the idea was posited that the Chinese pose an existential threat to the Malays. It might be just politics to UMNO but it demonizes a significant part of our populations simply on the basis of their race. It is not only dangerous but it goes against the very foundational principles of our nation. It is precisely this kind of mentality that is behind much of the chastisement of Malaysia’s minority communities as “pendatangs,” and as just so many unpatriotic and ungrateful interlopers.

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The response that shook UMNO–China’s subtle response to the treatment of their diaspora

It is simply mind-boggling that a dominant political party like UMNO would think that it can treat minority communities with such utter contempt and then expect to earn their allegiance and support at the polls with but a few blandishments.

A blessing to be appreciated

But, whether sincere or not, whether it was given grudgingly or otherwise, Zahid’s praise for the Malaysian Chinese community was well-deserved and long overdue. It may not be music to the ears of racists and bigots but the fact remains that Malaysia would be but a pale shadow of itself if not for the contributions of our citizens of Chinese origin.

They have been a huge blessing to us all and it is about time that they were respected and honoured for it.

If given half the chance to serve, if treated with genuine respect as fellow citizens rather than as interlopers and adversaries, the Chinese community, alongside Malaysia’s other communities, could well lift our nation to unparalleled greatness.

Instead of looking further afield to countries like China to boost our growth, we would do better to tap the acres of diamonds that our own minority communities represent.

Actions rather than words

If Zahid and UMNO want to genuinely show their appreciation for the contributions that Malaysian Chinese have made, they can start by being more supportive of the Chinese schools system.

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Najib depends on Malay support via a Pact with PAS–Hudud

After all, more than any other single factor, it is education that has transformed the Chinese community from a rag-tag bunch of indentured laborers, vegetable gardeners, petty traders, dulang-washers, rickshaw-pullers, nigh-soil carriers and terempoh-makers into a community that can now “carry the nation forward” as Zahid himself put it.

Besides, Chinese schools today are about the only bright spot in our otherwise dismal education system. Unsurprisingly, Chinese schools are the preferred choice of many Malaysian parents no matter their ethnic or religious background.

Those who make the argument that Chinese schools fail to foster racial unity and promote the national identity forget that Chinese schools are today far more multiracial than the so-called national type schools or, for that matter, religious schools.

Would that more Malaysians kids, particularly those from our floundering Indian community, enroll in Chinese schools.

It is a shame, therefore, that the Education Ministry remains so unsupportive of the Chinese schools system withholding even the meager RM50 million in maintenance that was allocated to Chinese schools last year, as was reported in the last few weeks.

As well, the Education Ministry’s refusal to recognize the Unified Examinations Certificate (UEC), something which Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem called “stupid,” makes no sense given that it is already accepted by Australia, Britain, Canada, China, Taiwan, Singapore, France, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States.

It is hard not to conclude, and certainly the perception persists, that the government’s whole approach to Chinese education is mired in racial prejudice more than anything else.

A museum of living history

Ways must also be found to breakdown the racism and prejudice that has become so ingrained in our society and correct the biased and jaundiced ethnic narratives that have been allowed to take root. Too little attention has been given to the contributions and the stories of heroism and hard work of earlier generations of Malaysians of all ethnicities.

To this end, consideration should be given to the establishment of a multicultural history museum, similar to the Canadian Museum of Immigration (Pier 21), that would record for posterity the history and the stories of all of Malaysia’s ethnic communities – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan, Bugis, Javanese, Arab, Thai and others – their origins, their culture, how they came to call Malaysia their home, their struggles, their hopes and dreams and their contributions to making Malaysia the remarkable nation it now is.

It could also be a living museum with digital boards for the descendants to trace their roots, remember their pioneering forefathers and add their own stories of life and citizenship in Malaysia.

It would certainly help all Malaysians to take pride in their history, culture and contributions while remembering that it took all our ethnic communities many long years of hard work, cooperation and sacrifice to make us what we are today, that we all have a stake in this nation for better or worse, and that if we stand together, we can make our nation the envy of all.

Unleashing our greatness as a nation

Instead of hollow gestures given grudgingly when elections are near, UMNO must decide, once and for all, which road it will take when it comes to dealing with Malaysia’s ethnic minorities – the high road to tolerance and respect for diversity that will allow all our ethnic communities to flower or the low road to bigotry that will drive them away and deprive the nation of the wealth, talent and experience that they have to offer.

UMNO can help to truly unleash the power, the strength and the uniqueness of our multiethnic polity or it can try to stifle it at every turn and rule over a diminished nation, a mockery of all that it could be.

The Unending 1MDB Financial Scandal–Swiss Banker charged


January 6, 2017

The Unending 1MDB Financial Scandal–Swiss Banker charged

Former Falcon Bank Singapore head accused over more than $1.2bn of suspect fund flows

by: Michael Peel in Bangkok

https://www.ft.com

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A Swiss bank executive in Singapore has become the first western national to face criminal prosecution over the suspected looting of billions of dollars from Malaysia’s 1MDB state investment fund.

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Jens Sturzenegger (pic above), former head of Falcon Private Bank’s Singapore branch, will plead guilty to some of a 16-count charge sheet related mainly to the alleged falsification or withholding of information, his lawyer told a court hearing in the city state on Thursday.

The case is the latest in a series mounted by Singapore over the 1MDB scandal, which has also spawned probes in the USSwitzerland and other countries where stolen money allegedly flowed. The affair triggered a political crisis in Malaysia and embroiled Najib Razak, the prime minister, who has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Sturzenegger, who was arrested in October, is charged with offences related to alleged money transfers totalling more than $1.25bn. Tan Hee Joek, Mr Sturzenegger’s lawyer, said his client planned to admit guilt, although he did not say to which charges.

The 42-year-old Swiss banker is accused of lying to authorities by denying that several Falcon bank accounts were linked to Taek Jho Low, a high-profile Malaysian businessman and socialite. Mr Low is close to Mr Najib and is accused by US authorities of being a main architect of the laundering of 1MDB funds.

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Mr Low has previously denied any wrongdoing. He has not been charged with any offence. Falcon, which is owned by Abu Dhabi’s state International Petroleum Investment Company, has emerged as a central player in the 1MDB case. In October it was fined by Swiss authorities and shut down in Singapore for allegedly processing almost $4bn linked to 1MDB.

The Singapore action against Mr Sturzenegger also meshes with claims made in a lawsuit filed by US authorities in July to seize property and other assets allegedly bought with misappropriated 1MDB funds. Mr Sturzenegger is accused in the Singapore case of failing to report a suspicious transfer of $378m in March 2013 from a Falcon account held by Granton Property Holding to a company named Dragon Market.

US authorities separately allege the same transaction was part of a bigger plot to siphon off more than $2.5bn from a pair of bonds totalling $6.5bn issued by the Malaysian fund in 2012 and 2013 and backed by Ipic The US lawsuit, which does not name Mr Sturzenegger, claims Mr Low is the beneficial owner of the Dragon Market account.

Another Singapore charge is that Mr Sturzenegger allegedly failed to report a suspicious $9.19m transfer to a company named Helly Nahmad Gallery Inc. The US lawsuit does not name the gallery but alleges that Mr Low and others used 1MDB money to buy more than $130m of artworks, including two paintings by Claude Monet and one by Vincent van Gogh. Helly Nahmad Gallery Inc could not immediately be reached for comment.

Falcon bank has come under further scrutiny after Swiss authorities accused it of failing to adequately investigate the commercial background of $681m of “pass-through transactions” in 2013 and the return six months later of $620m. The $681m is the exact amount of mysterious payments made at that time to Mr Najib, who chaired 1MDB’s advisory board.

Malaysia’s Attorney-General(Najib crony Apandi Ali) has said the money sent to Mr Najib’s personal bank accounts was a gift from the Saudi Arabian Royal Family. The claim has never been independently verified.

Falcon declined to comment other than to confirm Mr Sturzenegger was a “former employee”. The bank has previously said it has put in place measures to prevent future problems such as those found by regulators in the 1MDB case.

Other banks have faced questions over their roles in the 1MDB affair, with fines already levied on Switzerland’s UBS and BSI, and DBS of Singapore. Goldman Sachs, which arranged the $6.5bn of bond issues for 1MDB, has denied any wrongdoing.

 

Politics in Malaysia–Old Timers make a comeback


Politics in Malaysia–Old Timers make a comeback

by Sebastian Dettman, Cornell University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

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The most surprising twist of Malaysian politics in 2016 has been the rapid evolution of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad from ultimate regime insider to opposition leader. Mahathir now frequently shares the stage with the regime opponents he jailed during his 22 years in power. He made appearances at the rally of the pro-democracy group Bersih and even showed up at the opposition Democratic Action Party’s congress, saying his previous views on the party were wrong.

 

Yet Mahathir is not the only unlikely new opposition. Former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin and Mahathir’s son Mukhriz have joined up with Mahathir after both were fired from the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party. These ‘three Ms’ now head a new political party — the United Indigenous Party of Malaysia (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia). A number of prominent UMNO leaders at the state level, including UMNO Sabah’s Shafie Apdal, have left the party, signalling simmering internal discontent.

All of this is evidence of how the enormous 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal continues to reshape Malaysian politics. Prime Minister Najib Razak has squashed domestic investigations that might definitively link him to the billions of dollars missing from the state investment fund 1MDB. But international investigations in the United States, Switzerland, Singapore and elsewhere will likely result in more damaging and difficult-to-deny revelations.

These defections should be a major source of worry for Najib’s government. Scholars of competitive authoritarian regimes like Malaysia have long noted the key role of regime defectors in encouraging regime collapse.

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Yet there are a few reasons why Najib’s position seems temporarily secure — not least because of the powerful authoritarian tools he inherited from Mahathir. Perceived regime opponents have been sued, attacked and detained. The Red Shirt Group — led by UMNO division leader Jamal Yunos — have repeatedly threatened and attacked organisers of the Bersih protests. After their November rally in Kuala Lumpur, Bersih organiser Maria Chin Abdullah was detained for 11 days in solitary confinement. Independent media has suffered from website blocks, raids and criminal charges.

In another major realignment, Najib has slowly drawn in the Islamic opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). He pledged support for the controversial bill championed by PAS President Hadi Awang, which is widely seen as laying the groundwork for hudud (Islamic criminal law) implementation in Malaysia. In early December, Najib and Hadi shared the stage at a rally to highlight the plight of the Muslim Rohingnya community of Myanmar.

At the international level, Najib has found a welcome new partner in China. China has snapped up 1MDB’s assets at rock-bottom prices, and may help the company pay for its legal disputes in exchange for government land. There has been a series of high-profile Chinese investments in the East Coast Rail, real estate development in Malacca and Johor Bahru, and around the high-speed rail line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Najib enthusiastically greeted Trump’s election in the United States, but it is unclear whether the change in government will affect the Department of Justice’s investigation into 1MDB.

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The next general elections are likely to take place in 2017, which places electoral manoeuvring at the top of all parties’ agendas. Opposition leaders hope high-profile defectors like Mahathir and his new party can help make unprecedented inroads into government territory. But the warming ties between PAS and UMNO will significantly complicate the opposition’s problems of divvying up seats and presenting a united image to voters. Najib — and UMNO — still have access to enormous state resources, control over the elections process and an array of authoritarian tools that will greatly aid them in retaining power.

Yet as elections loom, the more fundamental issues around Malaysia’s politics are being sidelined. Who or what comes after Najib? There is little sign that Najib’s ouster will trigger the protracted institutional reform needed to prevent future abuses of power. The party he leads has shown little evidence of soul-searching over the scandal.

It is also unclear how willing the new opposition leaders are to stay outside the ruling government if and when Najib leaves power. At the least their style of politics seems an uneasy match with the multiracial and progressive image cultivated by the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition. Mahathir’s race-based Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or PPBM, unapologetically harkens back to a racial paradigm of politics, seeking to sweep up discontented UMNO leaders and supporters. As a result, the newly expanded opposition is left with antipathy to Najib as their major unifying issue.

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Malaysia has entered a new and potentially dangerous chapter in its political history. At this point, it seems the opposition can only raise the stakes for Najib to further erode democratic institutions in a bid to keep his party — and himself — in power.

Sebastian Dettman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government, Cornell University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2016 in review and the year ahead.