Malaysia: Feudal Politics Alive


August 11,2018

Malaysia: Feudal Politics Alive

by James Chai

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COMMENT | Many Pakatan Harapan supporters are extremely fearful of criticising Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s government.

They take criticism to be like throwing stones at an already-delicate glasshouse. If we criticise this supposedly infant government, it would tumble and we would usher  another era of BN-UMNO and Najib Abdul Razak. Thus, what we should do is be staunch defenders of Mahathir’s government; anyone who thinks otherwise is a BN supporter on a hangover.

But this fear is wholly irrational. Criticising the current government will not cause it to tumble; criticising Mahathir’s regime will not bring us back to Najib’s regime; criticising powerholders does not make you a corrupt, unprincipled, unkindly BN supporter.

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I have no doubt that many fearmongers are driven primarily by the good intention of protecting the precious spoils of the sweet May 9 victory. But if we truly intend to prevent a return of BN-UMNO and Najib, then we must be ready to criticise our government openly and frequently.

 

What we should fear is not criticism; what we should fear is the fear of criticism.

Why we should criticise

First, we should always be prepared to criticise the government because it is in the public interest to do so–to hold government accountable. While Najib may have treated the government coffers as his personal property, we must ensure that Mahathir’s government recognises the fundamental principle that governments are public trustees of our tax money.

 

It follows logically that every decision the government makes must be transparent, and upon any suspicion of wrongdoing, we must be ready to demand an explanation and/or criticise. For example, before the government embarks on a major project such as a third national car or the maintenance of the National Civics Bureau (BTN), we are entitled to demand full disclosure and explanations. If there are no explanations forthcoming, or if they were unsatisfactory, we must criticise.

Second, we are entitled to criticise because the politicians in government are chosen by us. They are not humans of a special kind chosen by the heavens; they are merely our representatives. So if we are unhappy with a particular action or inaction, policy or decision, then we are entitled to criticise.

Third, and most important, criticisms of Mahathir’s government is the true litmus test of accountability. The essence of accountability is seen not when you successfully criticise your opponents – that is too easy. The true test of accountability is whether you can start criticising your allies on the same side. Because if you can hold accountable peers who have erred, then our country has passed the test for accountability. You must always be ready to criticise the government.

 

We have a weak government if it constantly requires defending. The government has at its disposal all the resources, expertise, and willpower available in the country  to respond to criticism and act accordingly.

The only exception, perhaps, is when the criticism is disproportionate or factually incorrect. But other than that, no criticism should be feared.

Why would the most powerful entity of the country require defending? What the government requires is not praise or defence; what it requires is criticism to keep it in check.

Power corrupts

We must always be vigilant and guard against the insidious risk of corruption of power. History showers us with plentiful tales of how even the most honest politician in the world may eventually be corrupt when he becomes too comfortable with power.

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The Laksamanas of the New Malaysia Government

To limit power, we must create viable systems. We must make sure the prime minister only holds two terms in office; does not concentrate all state powers in his hands; and does not do anything without prior consultation.

But lest we forget, the single most important component of this accountability system is the people. We can have the most progressive laws and constitution in the world, but without the people and their willingness to criticise, nothing will matter.

Our duty as citizens is not to hope for politicians to be incorruptible. Our duty as citizens is to create systems to make sure that even the most dishonest politician has no opportunity to be corrupt. And we do this by criticising openly and frequently.

You will have a functioning democracy only if you can keep it.

I don’t blame anyone who still fears to criticise, though. It takes some getting used to. We have lived so long under an authoritarian regime. Our residual feudalistic instincts made it easier to keep our eyes, ears, and mouths shut. We have yet to awaken from the tragic days of BN-Umno and Najib.

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Malay Feudal Lords on Display–Artifacts of the Past?

However, the greatest tragedy is not that we have lived so long under oppressive laws that stifled criticism. The greatest tragedy is when we choose to stifle our criticism voluntarily even when there are no more oppressive laws hanging over us.

The only way to protect the victory of May 9 is to criticise, criticise, criticise. If we fear, then the gloomy clouds may come back to our shores, and we will have tyrants in different clothes.

After all, Najib was not a special kind of evil—he was merely a product of a failed system.


JAMES CHAI works at a law firm. His voyage in life is made less lonely with a family of deep love, friends of good humour and teachers of selfless giving. This affirms his conviction in the common goodness of people: the better angels of our nature. He tweets at @JamesJSChai.

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

 

Jho Low’s Super Yacht –Equanimity– Back in Malaysia


August 7, 2018

Jho Low’s Super Yacht –Equanimity– Back in Malaysia

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https://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/low-taek-jho-yacht-malaysia/

The US$250-million super-yacht Equanimity, which led international authorities on a high-seas chase across half the world before it was seized by Indonesian authorities in February, is expected to be turned over to Malaysia at Port Klang’s Boustead Cruise Center, according to authorities.

Equanimity, launched in 2013 in a Netherlands shipyard, was the brainchild of the youthful financier Low Taek Jho, who at age 28 helped former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak turn an obscure investment fund into 1Malaysia Development Bhd., which became the biggest scandal in Malaysian history, with US$4.5 billion missing to scandal and billions more lost to epic mismanagement.

Najib is now free on bail facing corruption charges, maintaining his innocence, although he is barred from leaving the country. The cherubic Jho Low, as the Penang-born Wharton grad was known in his playboy days, is nowhere to be found. He is listed on Wikipedia as having a fortune estimated at US$1.5 billion.

Jho Low’s lawyer, James F. Haggerty, said in a prepared release that the seizure of the vessel was “a violation of an Indonesian law and court decision by a politically motivated Malaysian government bent on advancing its own political agenda with little regard to existing court rulings or basic legal rights.”

Equanimity, Haggerty said, is owned by Equanimity (Cayman) Ltd and the company was already litigating the matter in Indonesia and the United States. In April, a US judge ruled the yacht could be transported to the US and into the Justice Department’s custody. However, that ruling has never been carried out.

“Mahathir has chosen to bring the asset illegally into a rigged Malaysian system manipulated by a man who only cares about his absolute political rule. It is ultimately justice that suffers,” the statement said.

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, the head of the Democratic Action Party, said the vessel would be auctioned off.

News reports in July had Jho Low fleeing Macau, which has been a bolt-hole on several occasions, for China in front of a series of search warrants issued across the planet over his part in the 1MDB scandal.  Malaysian police on July 9 said Macau authorities informed them by email that Low had left the gaming enclave.

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Najib Razak and his cell mate, Jho Low

“The e-mail did not specify when Low left Macau,” Malaysian National Police Chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun told reporters on July 11. “It is hard to trace him as he is believed to be using multiple passports.”

The US Justice Department, which called 1MDB the biggest kleptocracy case in the agency’s history, had been trying to find the yacht since 2016 to add it to the vast list of confiscations it had made in the United States of goodies bought with stolen 1MDB money. Equanimity’s crew turned off the transponders which would allow it to beam its position to satellites and sought waters where G-men couldn’t go, turning up sometimes in New Zealand, sometimes in Macau, sometimes off Korea.

But eventually it turned up in Bali, where the US alerted Indonesian authorities. Jakarta’s notoriously corrupt South District Court blocked the Justice Department’s move to seize the vessel, raising concerns that it might take to the high seas again.

But when the United Malays National Organization and Najib lost the May 9 general election, the game was up. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced on August 6 in a Facebook post that that “we are happy since the Equanimity yacht has been handed over to us by Indonesia.”

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Miranda Kerr–One of Jho Low’s Playmates

The 90-meter yacht is said in yachting magazines to feature a deck-level Jacuzzi, a sauna, helicopter pad, swimming pool, beach club, beauty salon, zero-speed stabilizers, gym, spa, elevator, movie theatre, tender garage, swimming platform, air conditioning, steam room, Turkish bath, beauty room, underwater lights and owner’s stateroom study, sleeps 26.  Registered in the Cayman Islands, it was at the center of a truly astonishing burst of excess by Jho Low, his Arab Gulf buddies and the Najib family that raised questions how they ever thought they would get away with it.

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The fund got underway in 2008. A couple of years later, Jho Low turned up in New York, buying magnums of Cristal Champagne and pouring it over the likes of Paris Hilton and other blondes. He buddied up with singer Lionel Ritchie and, with Arab friends who turned out to be heavily involved in fleecing 1MDB, staged a moveable feast across Broadway, making the notorious Page 6 of the New York Post, where celebrities go to be photographed.

Vast collections of jewelry, homes in New York and Beverly Hills, airplanes, paintings, a staggering panoply of loot has been sequestered by the US government, including the proceeds from two movies by the production company set up by Riza Aziz, the son by a previous marriage of Rosmah Mansor, Najib’s wife.

Although Malaysia authorities confiscated an astonishing US$193-233 million in jewelry, watches, handbags and other valuables from the Najib family’s homes, as much as RMB100 billion (US$24.8 billion) of funds linked to Najib and his wife, Rosmah are stashed in bank accounts outside Malaysia, according to a source quoted by Sarawak Report, which said much of that money is believed to be in Hong Kong bank accounts, after having travelled through German and Swiss banks.

That leaves the question of what’s become of Jho Low himself. It’s hard to believe Chinese authorities will have much patience with him.

Mahathir thanked Indonesian President Joko Widodo for his cooperation in returning the vessel.  Mahathir visited Jakarta in June.  Ties between Malaysia and Indonesia are close with Mahathir visiting Jakarta in June, his first official tour of the region.

American Fascism: Reading the signs of the times


July 21, 2018

American Fascism: Reading the signs of the times

“…freedoms must be defended, which is possible only when the threats are seen clearly. The moment people stop believing that the demagogues can be prevented from doing their worst is the moment we can be sure that it is already too late.–Ian Buruma
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Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018
www.project-syndicate.org

 

‘New’ or ‘old’ Sabah in New Malaysia?


July 18, 2018

‘New’ or ‘old’ Sabah in New Malaysia?

by Dr. Bridget Welsh@www.malaysiakini.com

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Congratulations, Sir. May God Bless and Guide You

COMMENT | On the streets of Kota Kinabalu, there is open delight of the appointment of one of their own, Richard Malanjum, as the new chief justice. Across the diverse multiethnic mosaic of the state, many respond with the phrase “I feel Malaysian.”

Given the continued resentments of unfairness of the federal government that percolate, these sentiments highlight that inclusiveness and appointments based on merit do resonate, much more than the handful of narrow-minded, peninsula-based views featured in the media. Sabahans, in their open and optimistic style, celebrate the successes of their own across communities, as arguably the silent majority in the country does as a whole.

The question of the federal-state relationship and treatment of different ethnic communities were very much at the heart of why Sabah voted for Parti Warisan Sabah and Pakatan Harapan parties – and why they not only were critical for the coalition to form the numbers for their majority sworn into Parliament yesterday, but why there is a new Warisan coalition government in the state.

While acknowledging it is still early days, this article focuses on whether there are signs of change in Sabah, and suggests that the ‘old’ Sabah will constrain the ability of the new government to bring about meaningful changes in the short-term – but that in the longer-term, there are indications that a new political landscape is being formed with the emergence of a ‘new’ Sabah.

Local dynamics shaped GE14

The story of the electoral outcome and the new government in Sabah is quite different from the national picture. 1MDB and former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak, for example, were less central than the perceived corruption of the family of Musa Aman (photo) and their continued hold on power.

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Slating five members of the Aman family as candidates in GE14 did not go down well with many in the electorate. After 15 years in power, Musa and his cartel of interests still play a major role in the Sabah economy.

GST was an important issue, seen as a federally imposed tax that did not help the local economy. The tourist tax is seen the same way.

State rights and representation embedded in the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) were also mobilised and remain so, as Sabahans expect a meaningful review of the federal-state relationship with greater respect, inclusion, and political autonomy and control over their own resources and economy. A crucial element in the review is protections for religious freedom, as the impositions on freedom are seen to be driven by developments in the peninsula.

Local racial differences, particularly differences between the rights of immigrants and resentments of the indigenous Kadazandusun Murut communities, played out in many local contests. This made the results in a handful of seats quite close, and brought to the post-GE14 the reality that, like the Malay support deficit that Harapan faces at the national level, the Warisan government faces the same from many of the Kadazandusun Murut, especially in more rural and semi-rural areas.

This has been ameliorated somewhat by the addition of United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko) into the state coalition post-GE14, but it does not take away from the fact that most Kadazandusun Murut did not vote for Warisan or Harapan parties. The political swing that took place was largely one along the east coast of Sabah and in the urban areas, representing primarily a Bajau/Suluk victory supported by ethnic Chinese and urban-based Kadazans.

Nevertheless, a majority of Sabahans showed that they were open to change, as they had been in 1985 when they voted in the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) government. Many of the same political demands for rights and representation were echoed, but the results reflect a different social base of mobilisation than in the past.

Legacies of the ‘old’ Sabah

Given Sabah’s mixed experience with a new state government in the past, expectation of change is relatively low. They place more hope in change coming about through a new federal government – namely, a new federal-state relationship that might emerge – and pressures for reform at the national level that will hopefully extend into the state.

The nexus between the federal and state is intertwined with the issues that make the management of the state so challenging. Three legacies in particular complicate the Sabah context.

First, the corruption in Sabah is deep, extending from business to the (mis)management of its borders. Decades of exploitation of the state’s resources by its political elites have bequeathed a governance mess. Early investigations of the state’s finances echo the financial mismanagement and indebtedness left by the Najib administration at the federal level, with allegedly millions missing and foundations and other state bodies plundered.

Sadly, this pattern of graft has happened all too often in Sabah, but what distinguishes the current situation is the sheer amount of greed involved. Chief Minister Shafie Apdal (photo) has inherited limited state coffers and a bureaucracy seen as tainted. Graft in the state has been accentuated by its large resource economy and rapid land development.

‘Contributions’ and ‘payoffs’ are everyday practices. Much of what has happened in the past few months have focused on assessment and clean-up. There have been early efforts to address illegal logging, but these are slow-going, given the scope of the problem.

Corruption is also connected to the thorny and sensitive issue of illegal immigration. This problem has its roots in the 1970s, in the era of United Sabah National Organisation (Usno) and later Sabah People’s United Front (Berjaya), but came to a head in ‘Project IC’ during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as prime minister. The systematic granting of citizenship to foreigners in the state was the subject of the Royal Commission of Inquiry in 2013, which provided recognition but little in the way of solutions.

Today, illegal immigration directly involves an estimated quarter of Sabah’s 3.9 million population, with thousands of stateless people, especially children, lacking access to education and basic healthcare. The exact number involved is unknown, as there are persistent concerns of continued streams of undocumented immigrants who are seen to undercut wages and have transformed the social fabric. Resentments run as deep as the corruption, if not deeper. The issue affects the state as a whole, its social fabric, economy and security.

The Warisan government has promised to move toward ameliorating the problem, but will need meaningful cooperation from the federal government to address underlying concerns about immigration, citizenship and the financial and social costs.

Many of those tied to the Bajau/Suluk community are expecting the Warisan government to act, given their electoral support in GE14, while others are anxious that solutions will be exclusionary and inadequate.

Mahathir has an opportunity to address a serious problem he himself exacerbated in his first term by working with a Warisan partner that has its roots within the migrant community, to move towards a more just Sabah and improve its welfare. Now is perhaps the best time in decades.

Closely related to the two legacy issues above is the incidence of poverty and economic vulnerability. Of all the states in the country, Sabah has the highest rate and numbers living in poverty. Officially, 2.9 percent of citizens live in poverty, according to statistics published in 2016, but in practice this number is much larger, with sharp income disparities and relatively low wages.

The federal government is often blamed, but the responsibility should be shared by state leaders as well, who have not done enough to address inadequate roads to Pitas, isolation in Pensiangan, nutritional deficits in Keningau and insufficient water supply across the state.

The new state government has only two of its leaders with experience in government, but many of its ministers are sincere. Nevertheless, there are grouses among the public that there have been few deliverables to date.

Reducing economic disparities needs to be a priority, as should integrating social justice with a plan for the economy. There are ideas percolating regarding localisation, but to date it is not clear what the priorities of the new Sabah government are, and if the team as a whole is working together.

Special care will be needed in managing the area of infrastructure – historically one of the more lucrative areas of graft – to assure that this is not a vehicle for further wealth aggrandisement and party patronage.

The emerging ‘new’ Sabah

If what the Warisan-led government faces is indeed challenging, changes in political conditions offer promise.

A younger generation of Sabahans are open to embrace change, eager to build their state and embrace new ideas. Nearly a third – 31.3 percent – of the population is under 40, offering energy and momentum for change. Younger voters were an integral part of the Warisan-Harapan victory.

Civil society in Sabah has grown and is eager to be a partner in bringing about greater prosperity. There are a plethora of local civil-society partnerships in education and the environment that can be strengthened. The sense of state nationalism that put the new government into office is a strong foundation to build on, one that can be embraced. Capitalising on this goodwill is essential.

Musa’s flight abroad has also brought forward an inevitable development – the end of UMNO in Sabah. Warisan has taken over UMNO’s political base on the east coast, decimated the latter’s base throughout the state, and cut off its access to the main ingredient of its political survival – money.

While UMNO still holds support among some Sabahans – with some of this base tied to the old Usno and Berjaya days – its strength came from its ties to the federal and state governments, relationships that it no longer holds. Already, four leaders have moved and hundreds of ordinary members are flocking away from the party.

Sabah UMNO faces the same problem that the party is beset with nationally – a leader refusing to leave gracefully. The money is on Musa not returning to be sworn in as an assemblyperson before mid-August, which will trigger a by-election and render moot his electoral petition for state leadership.

Musa and his economic cartel remain powerful, however, and limit the ability for alternative patronage networks to form. He – and others in Sabah UMNO – have the shadow of scandals and potential MAAC questioning hanging over them. As things stand, it is likely that UMNO supporters will morph into a locally-based party, rather than hold onto the baggage that Musa left them.

The pattern of political engagement in Sabah is also shifting. Traditionally, the state has been governed by elites and party warlords, who have served to distribute patronage with ordinary citizens getting the raw end of the deal. This sort of political patronage has been failing and in the longer term will be difficult to sustain.

The Warisan government will be forced to perform and yield deliverables as it is not in the same financial position to follow the previous model of engagement – at least not to the same degree.

It will also be forced to meet the expectations of change, to address the increasing demands of a greater informed population. This offers pressure, but simultaneously opportunity – funds now can move less into the hands of politicians and into solving problems and improving the well-being of Sabahans.

A new social contract can evolve for Sabahans. The promise of a ‘new’ Sabah is real, despite the legacies of old.


BRIDGET WELSH is an associate professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a senior associate research fellow at the National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a university fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is titled Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore. She can be reached at bridgetwelsh1@gmail.com.

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

FELDA–Tun Razak’s Legacy– is the Next 1MDB


July 9, 2018

FELDA–Tun Razak’s Legacy– is the Next 1MDB

by Dr. M Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California, USA

FELDA (Federal Land Development Authority), the massive plantation development scheme that was Tun Razak’s brainchild and crown jewel of his rural development program, threatens to rival the massive scandal of 1MDB in terms of corruption, grand larceny, and inept management.

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IMD/IMEDE-Educated Laundromat Entrepreneur, Shahril Samad

Its new head (now former, with UMNO’s rout in the May 2018 elections), one Shahril Samad, admitted that title to the prime property on which its head office is sited was transferred to a developer without his or his agency’s knowledge! This character claims to have an MBA (from IMD/IMEDE–Switzerland) but his private venture up till then was to run a laundromat. He, in turn, had replaced the scandal-ridden Isa Samad (no relation) who earlier was found guilty by UMNO for “money politics.”

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FELDA Chairman, Isa Samad

FELDA is now a large, diversified agro-based GLC having morphed from its origin as a modest federal agency. It boasts revenues (2017 figures) in excess of RM17 billion. The profit picture, however, is another story and best reflected by its stock price which languishes at about a third of its initial offering price. When FELDA was listed in 2012 as FGV (FELDA Global Ventures), it was the largest in Asia and globally second only to Facebook.

Visit FELDA’s settlements today and compare them to the 1960s or 70s. Nothing much have changed. The settlers’ standard of living has not improved. If there is any economic enterprise on those settlements, they would be under the control of FGV. The social and economic dynamics of those settlements resemble the old company town, except that the company here, FGV, is not in the least benevolent.

There is one significant change which the settlers are not even aware of, or if they are, not appreciate the full financial and other ramifications. Whereas before they had title to their land (about 16 acres each), today that has been subordinated to FGV as part of the IPO. When FGV shares tumbled, those settlers’ assets went with it.

Those settlers as well as FELDA managers do not understand such sophisticated financial instruments as dividends, stock offerings, and capital gains. FGV should have emulated Nestlé and invested in its settlers and not be enthralled with pseudo high finance. FELDA is uniquely positioned to execute that as its leaders and managers are Malays, as are the settlers. As such there would be no cultural barriers in appreciating their problems, unlike Nestlé’s European managers had with their African growers.

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FELDA has done little to stimulate entrepreneurial activities among its settlers. It has not encouraged them through funding or training to be FELDA’s vendors, suppliers, or subcontractors, nothing beyond harvesting the palm nuts and tapping their rubber trees.

I would have expected that with the huge profits FELDA often brags about, the schools and clinics in its settlements would be among the best so as to give those settlers’ children a flying head start, as those of Nestle’s African cocoa growers. Instead FELDA schools perform below average. Regrettable considering that the mission of these GLCs is “national development foundation,” in particular that of Bumiputras.

FELDA has only recently set up a residential school exclusively for the children of its workers. Over half a century later, and only one school! FELDA brags ad nauseum about the few successful “AnakFELDA” (children of FELDA). They are outliers, not the consequence of enlightened policies.

As for the settlements, few have electricity or piped water, much less a clinic. Again, compare that to what Nestlé is doing to those African cocoa growers. Those Malay managers and executives at FELDA ought to be ashamed of themselves and their lousy performances!

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FELDA has introduced little innovation to make the settlers’ lives and work more bearable and less dangerous. Oil palm is harvested in the same old, crude, and dangerous manual ways as it was in the 1960s. FELDA have not introduced hydraulic lifts (like the ones telephone repairmen use to fix overhead lines) to make the harvesting of palm nuts more efficient. Those workers still use pitchforks and bare hands to collect those nuts. Not only do the pitchforks damage the nuts, their sharp shells often scrape the workers’ hands giving rise to painful tumor-like growths (granulomas). Those chores are archaic and literally backbreaking; they should have been mechanized.

Only through such innovations could you increase your workers’ productivity, not endlessly exhorting “work harder!” or “be more efficient!”

FGV is the largest employer of unskilled laborers, meaning, illegal immigrants. Instead of investing in the skills and productivity its workers, as well as modernizing its plantations to be less dependent on unskilled workers, FGV took the easy way out by importing them and with all the attendant social problems.

There is also little research done on maximizing the use of land, as with growing flowers and vegetables or raising livestock in between the trees to raise the settlers’ income.

FELDA has many subsidiaries. All look impressive until you examine their activities; few materially advance the settlers’ plight. Those subsidiaries are but crass opportunities for politicians and civil servants to earn extra-lucrative directorship fees by being appointed to their boards, all at the poor settlers’ expense.

With the resources it has and freed from the micromanagement of the the civil service, FGV could have superb build schools to benefit the settlers’ children.

These GLCs as exemplified by FGV have failed in their primary mission of developing Bumiputra human capital. They succeed only in duplicating existing governmental programs, and adding to the costs. They do not bring in added value despite the tremendous resources, financial and otherwise, expended on them. Good enough reason to get rid of them.

Malaysia: Dr.Meredith Weiss on GE-14


July 7, 2018

Malaysia:  Dr.Meredith Weiss on GE-14

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On May 9, 2018, Malaysians threw the bums out, voting decisively against the Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN), the coalition of broadly right-wing and center parties that had governed Malaysia since independence in 1957. The election poses the question: has Malaysia bucked a global anti-democratic trend?

The conventional wisdom is that a feisty, beleaguered opposition coalition made up of a somewhat motley mix of leftist catch-all, progressive Islamist, and communal parties bested the behemoth BN by force of ideals, pluck, and the charisma of a former “dictator,” as the new prime minister now delights in branding himself. The BN’s decrepitude, born of too many years of untrammeled authority and political inbreeding in a cronyistic, dynastic order, cleared the way for new leaders. All the while, rising costs of living, increasingly stark economic inequality, and spreading awareness that the state- and party-controlled mainstream media were not telling the whole story had left the mass of voters hungry for change.

The Malaysian narrative is one of voters reflecting critically on a well-lubricated patronage machine and rejecting it, at least in part, out of aspirations for democracy, justice, and good governance. But like any good story, this one has a more complex plot line than that, peppered with stratagems, reversals, and ironic turns. What too-pat narratives obscure is the wider context and what we might expect — and voters might seek — to change or maintain.

The Scene As It Stands

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At the helm now, thanks to a weird twist of fates and strategy, is one-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, one of the world’s longest-serving heads of government — and also now among the oldest, as he approaches his ninety-third birthday. Although he did voluntarily step down in 2003, after twenty-two years in office, Mahathir has continued to yank at the strings of state since then, and had become increasingly apoplectic at incumbent Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s running the party and government, per Mahathir’s reading, into the ground through rent-seeking verging on plunder.

To hear breathless popular accounts of the “Mahathir factor,” one might assume ethnic Malays — who, together with smaller indigenous groups, collectively termed Bumiputera, comprise slightly more than two-thirds of the population — to be blindly feudalistic, swiveling to heed the call of their once and future master. (Just under one-quarter of Malaysians are of Chinese ethnicity and about 7 percent, Indian.) Mahathir does have his devotees, but to some extent, this common narrative reflects media sensationalism more than reality. Frustration with rank corruption, inequality, and poor governance galvanized many or most opposition supporters, independently of the icon propounding those messages. Nevertheless, Mahathir’s savvy articulation of his coalition’s objectives and BN pathologies, as well as his charisma, helped to tip the scales.

Initially organized as the three-party Alliance, the BN structures itself largely along communal lines. Its core parties represent ethnic Malay, Chinese, and Indian Malaysians, respectively. First among nominal equals — and increasingly dominant over the years — is the United Malays National Organisation, UMNO, Mahathir’s home since its founding in 1946 until he left and launched Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party, PPBM) in 2016.

Essentially ideology-free otherwise by this point, the BN claims support for having delivered development, with something for (almost) everyone. Opposition parties tend to cluster largely in an Islamist camp dominated by the Parti Islam seMalaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS), or else along class lines, from a Socialist Front defunct by the early 1970s; to the social-democratic Democratic Action Party (DAP), rump successor to the People’s Action Party after Singapore’s short-lived merger with Malaysia in the mid-1960s; to the small but embedded Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM).

To take on the BN required merging these camps. First-past-the-post voting rules, coupled with heavy-handed gerrymandering and constituency malapportionment, often make three-cornered fights difficult for the opposition; pre-election coalitions are a must. That imperative is at the heart of any assessment of how far Malaysian political alternatives have come and where they may be going: Malaysia’s sociopolitical landscape makes for quirky pairings.

Coalitions require glorification of the least common denominator. Starting in the late 1990s, that galvanizing, offensive-to-few message came to be “justice,” centered initially around sacked, then imprisoned former UMNO deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and his purpose-built Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, People’s Justice Party). Now, in the wake of one of the world’s largest money-laundering and graft sagas, that of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign-wealth fund, the message centers around an obvious anti-corruption theme.

The coalition had maintained a non-communal premise since an initial foray as the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front) in 1999. Now it includes a Malay-communal party: Mahathir’s PPBM, made up mostly of his fellow exiles from UMNO. Having made incremental, inconsistent headway in cementing cooperation and securing seats since the late 1990s, the opposition coalition — reconstituted first as Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact), then as Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) — gained control of several states, and now the federal government.

In the last election, in 2013, Pakatan Rakyat won a slim majority of the popular vote but fell short of winning the federal government. This time, Pakatan Harapan won the government with just shy of a popular-vote majority, given divided support for the BN and the no-longer-in-Pakatan PAS, which remains independently potent in Malaysia’s northeast.

The BN is left in shambles, its remains eroding further by the week. Pakatan Harapan is up and running, but it is not entirely clear yet how far or how fast.

Pakatan Harapan will surely make positive, progressive changes to what has become an ossified, decreasingly legitimate, increasingly illiberal system. Already they have begun investigating ousted prime minister Najib Razak and wife Rosmah Mansor — whose penchant for exorbitantly priced handbags rivals Imelda Marcos’s yen for shoes — and the 1MDB saga, the convoluted, seedy story of how Najib and various others misappropriated an estimated several billion dollars from a state investment fund launched in 2009.

More than that, the new government has spoken plausibly of plans, once parliament convenes in July, to revise or revoke controls on media, association, and speech; to release the political reins on schools and universities; to implement open tender and stronger oversight on government contracts; and more. Heads of statutory boards are starting to roll, and bloated or needless government agencies are coming under scrutiny.

Most cabinet appointments, finalized only in mid June, reflect real expertise rather than political concessions, as under the BN model. The coalition itself is far more equally balanced among its component parties than the BN ever has been — and that those parties do differ in meaningful ways, in their goals or membership, ensures a wider range of alternatives may reach the policy table.

Already the results have reset the stage for states’ rights, too. Leaders of awkwardly incorporated, underdeveloped Sabah and Sarawak, states on the island of Borneo, hundreds of miles across the South China Sea from the peninsular mainland, have broken with the federal BN — not just eviscerating their former coalition, but staking a firm claim to fairer status and reward in the federation.

If Malaysia is to emerge from its increasingly authoritarian past, having this new government emplaced is a good thing. Yet of course, it will not change all things, and it may achieve far less than years of opposition manifestos have pledged in terms of ushering in a more equitable, consultative order.

Two lenses are especially germane in understanding the capacity and limits of reform, given this mix of old and new: economic policy, including the extent of communalism (as codified especially in far-reaching race-based preferential policies); and the tension between a highly personalized (however party-centered) and more issues-based or ideological politics.

Where Paths Lead

First, economics. Survey after survey suggests the key issue for Malaysians, election after election, is the economy, and particularly rising costs of living. However, a thick tangle of affirmative-action policies to favor Bumiputera, dating to British colonial times but strengthened under the 1970s New Economic Policy (NEP) and a series of successor plans, tempers what it means to prioritize household economics.

The UMNO-led BN has held pro-Malay policies to be sacrosanct. Revising the criteria for qualification to be need-based rather than race-based would not dramatically shift the beneficiaries; race and class substantially align, particularly since the benefits of preference have flowed disproportionately to already-wealthy “UMNOputera,” the well-connected ruling-party elite. A better lens on economic voting in Malaysia considers not just financial standing, confidence, and progress since the last election, but which party voters trust to manage the economy.

Here we see an ethnic divide, with Malay voters typically disproportionately trusting UMNO, whatever they think of the party otherwise. The most plausible explanation is that these voters believe the best way to ensure their economic wellbeing is by maintaining preferential policies, on which opposition parties, but never UMNO, have equivocated.

The Malaysian constitution grants Bumiputera special stature in the polity; accumulated norms (backed by potent sedition legislation) translate that standing to irrefutable political dominance and economic privilege. At no time has Pakatan seriously challenged Malay primacy, but they have promised a less communally structured economy.

Pakatan’s embrace of the communally focused PPBM shifts the key. Critical to the coalition’s gains this time, especially in winning over Malay voters, appears to have been the reassurance Mahathir — whose early writings inspired and informed the NEP — and his party offered, that Pakatan would uphold pro-Malay policies. Now in office, the coalition has limited room for maneuver, especially with their main opposition still Malay-based (in UMNO as well as PAS) and only a slim parliamentary majority.

Importantly, since taking office, Mahathir and his government have insisted on their determination to maintain an even keel: to push back against some mega-investment from China, perhaps, and to cancel at least one particularly costly boondoggle — a high-speed rail line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore — but to keep investors confident.

Mahathir is Malaysia’s original mega project mastermind: the “national car” intended to galvanize industrialization in the 1980s (Proton, short for Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional, or National Automobile Company, 49.9 percent owned by China’s Geely Holdings as of last year), the Petronas twin towers, an extravagant new capital at Putrajaya: glamorous, expensive grand gestures intended to signal Malaysia’s developmental success. His newly appointed finance minister, the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng, previously the chief minister of prosperous, opposition-held Penang state, likewise caught flak there for his coziness with developers and embrace of ambitiously grand infrastructure and real-estate projects.

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Mahathir’s Council of Eminent Persons (L-R): Robert Kuok, Zeti Aziz, Hassan Marican, Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram and CEP Chair Person Tun Daim Zainuddin

An appointed Council of Eminent Persons, named after the elections to advise on economic policy, includes the renowned, respected, and progressive economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, but also billionaire tycoon Robert Kuok and Mahathir’s erstwhile UMNO bagman Daim Zainuddin — so their advice could pull in any of several directions. (Already, members have come under fire for meddling beyond their mandate.)

These economic impulses and incentives taken in sum, we should assume an at least somewhat more transparent, less cronyistic system, but still with a heavy emphasis on foreign investment–led, large-scale developments (with requirements intact to ensure Malay contractors’ protected share in the bounty), faith in the blessings of neoliberalism, and politically fruitful (commonly dubbed “populist”) wealth-sharing to amplify otherwise-tepid trickle-down effects.

More broadly, both coalitions are neoliberal at their core. Both offered a host of makeshift measures to reduce the pinch of rapid, top-heavy development, ranging from targeted cash-transfer and voucher schemes (for children, students, seniors, newlyweds, the bereaved, housewives, entrepreneurs, and the poor), to subsidized utilities, to reduced road tolls. But neither suggested any fundamental branching from that economic path beyond, for instance, expanded educational opportunities to prepare Malaysians better to embrace the modern economy.

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Indeed, Pakatan essentially shut out the anti-capitalist Parti Sosialis: in allocating seats, the coalition offered the socialist party a meager one constituency in which to contest (in which PSM was the incumbent). When PSM insisted on standing in others, Pakatan revoked even that paltry offer and competed against PSM’s Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, defeating him. (In pushing on to prove their point, both sides took the very real chance of splitting the vote and delivering the seat to the BN.)

Second, like the government it replaces, Pakatan is highly leader-centered, to the point of obscuring an emphasis on issues or ideology. Its commitment to term limits is a definite improvement (while Mahathir’s old age offers reassurance of his own commitment not to outstay his welcome; the plan is to hand the reins to Anwar within about two years). Yet Malaysian politics has been and remains deeply clientelistic across parties, despite  significant overseas and internal rural–urban labor migration, economic diversification, and sufficient state capacity that party machines should be off the hook for welfare services. A “personal vote” matters even when parties are at their most pulled-together — and even those candidates able to coast on their party’s coattails prioritize “going to the ground” for grassroots constituency service and mingling among the masses.

However much media and pundits exaggerate the extent of his personal responsibility for Pakatan’s win, Mahathir did help to tip the scales, and it remains to be seen what Mahathir the man represents vis-à-vis a reform agenda. More to the point, that the best Pakatan could do in terms of a broadly palatable leader — realizing the imperative in Malaysia of a leader to lead the charge, no matter how deeply unpopular their rival — was the long-retired Mahathir, architect of the system now in place and whom so many within PH once reviled as a despot, could bode poorly for its sustainability and depth of support.

On the other hand, Pakatan has a clear advantage on this score — though less in Mahathir’s PPBM than in its partner parties. Spurred not least by predations during Mahathir’s previous longue durée, Malaysia has developed a vibrant civil society, encompassing not only largely urban, middle class–based advocacy NGOs, but also mass-based Islamist organizations, deeply embedded communal and cultural associations, and more. Many of these groups, from Chinese educationists to Muslim dakwah activists to human-rights campaigners, have a clear political, and often partisan, orientation. That rootedness in civil society gives Pakatan not only a loyal base of volunteers for get-out-the-vote and other efforts, but also reinforces its orientation around issues of better governance, social justice, and civil liberties.

That said, Pakatan’s record of governing at the state level revealed greater ambivalence than many activists had expected about their collaborating with advocacy NGOs in particular. Even many Pakatan legislators who cut their political teeth in those same NGOs came to consider their one-time colleagues too single-issue-oriented or impatient for improbably sweeping change and found the constant pressure irksome.

Promises of reserved seats for civil society activists in appointed local councils, for instance — as a stopgap remedy until Pakatan could restore local-government elections, halted since the 1960s — withered in Pakatan-held Penang and Selangor over the past decade. (Pakatan’s national manifesto does not promise restoration of local-government elections, but pressure is sufficiently high that progress toward that goal seems likely.)

Moreover, women’s organizations in particular have urged all parties to improve the gender balance in representation in public office. While these efforts have yielded aspirations and quotas, no party has come close to meeting them, even for appointed offices with a clearly sufficient female pool from which to draw. So while the close ties between civil society and Pakatan parties bode well for generating sufficient new leaders to sustain real competition, among candidates with skills and experience for leadership roles, recruitment could still fall short in terms of enhancing representativeness and idealism in practice.

And at the end of the day, there is always another election ahead. Pakatan developed under BN rule; it may hesitate to change the rules of a game it has only so newly mastered. Nor can it risk losing its lead. Some Pakatan support is proactive: champions of change, away from the too-long-entrenched BN and toward cleaner, more accountable and responsible governance. Some, though, is reactive: voting against Najib, but without necessarily seeking any dramatic overhaul beyond that purge — hence the appeal of not-too-different PPBM and Mahathir.

To win a second time, Pakatan needs to keep both camps in its corner. Unless electoral rules change (unlikely, although entirely reasonable to consider) or something else goes really awry in Malaysia (always possible), the wider frame of these recent elections suggests observers keep their expectations of systemic change in check.

Malaysia is unlikely to return to the old Mahathirian model, which Najib stretched to its extremes, of an excessively strong executive, rapacious ruling party, and snowflake-sensitive public authorities. On the other hand, quick, dramatic change toward a much more politically competitive or economically progressive order is equally unlikely, given the pull of the status quo. (Nearby Indonesia, having just marked twenty years since the Reformasi that ousted Suharto and his New Order regime, is a sobering Exhibit A.)

What the wider context suggests is something in between: an order that increases the political space for, and responsiveness to, alternative voices and ideas, within and outside parties; that does less to stifle efforts within civil society toward more coordinated, efficacious advocacy; and that encourages — even just by dint of a multipolar electorate and fissiparous coalitions — real competition around principles as well as personalities.

Malaysia has opened the door to fundamental reform, even if new leaders do little more than peek around the corner in these early stages, and even if its citizens opt ultimately to update the décor rather than shift the socioeconomic foundations of the state.

About the Author

Meredith L. Weiss is professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Rejoinder by  Dr.Rais Hussin: Bumiputeraism is not the root issue

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American political scientist Dr. Meredith Weiss has done extensive field research in Malaysia. The country needs more academics like her to cast light on the dynamics of Malaysia. However, the accolades stop there. Her article in Jacobin recently has all the drama and flair of a New Yorker literary piece. Yet, it went off on a tangent. How?

First, Weiss warned that the new electoral landscape is not necessarily new. While she did not warn of the spectre of Mahathirism, which implies a return to authoritarianism, she hinted strongly at the complexity of unravelling the National Economic Policy, which in her view amounted to all the same anyway. Again, how?

Entrenched Malay interests in the political, corporate and other sectors would be too deeply embedded. A single electoral victory from Pakatan Harapan, even one led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, now the seventh prime minister of Malaysia, would not be enough to alter the dramatic and complex landscape.

Second, Weiss averred that any reforms would not be smooth sailing, especially when the tensions between the top members of the coalition look all but impossible to overcome.

Therefore, the significance of May 9, 2018, would fade in due course. The internal solidarity of the elites forged before and on that date would crack. While she didn’t specifically mention the causal or ideological factor that could lead to its fissure or implosion, Weiss implied that their personal animus and histories are enough to warrant deep concern.

Third, Weiss argued that Pakatan Harapan is bound to make progress in light of the insidious practices of UMNO that had set the bar so low, the mere rejection of corruption alone would be Harapan’s defining moment. Just by saying ‘no’ and the latter would enjoy more confidence from the public. Wrong.

In fact, Weiss is wrong on all counts. To begin with, the optic she adopted is one devoid of variant analysis. Even before the events took place, she had already claimed that everything else would either fail or fail to move forward. But then how does Weiss explain the power of the May 9 election?

Voters were given a choice between more billion-dollar handouts and subsidies by the Najib-led BN, or liberation from becoming the object of international ridicule.

While 45 percent of the voters rooted for UMNO, this also marked the Malay behemoth’s dramatic fall from grace. From a high of 88 parliamentary seats in the 2013 election, Umno now only has 52 parliament seats, and the numbers are still dropping as elected UMNO members declare themselves independent.

Corporate and economic reforms are bound to be difficult. Not for the reason of race or race-based preferential policies alone i.e., bumiputeraism, which pervades Weiss’ article, but the massive size of the national debt due to liabilities from government-linked companies.

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Research by Edmund Terence Gomez and his associates show close to 900 such entities have accepted some form of government bailout and are swimming in a sea of red ink. The gravity of the situation begins from the Gordian knot of these companies, not the problems rooted in bumiputeraism.

Finally, why should the egos of the different Harapan personalities matter, when the coalition has merely won the general election once? Unlike how UMNO warlords, who had won in quick succession since 1955, had a sense of self-entitlement and invincibility, Harapan leaders know that if they screw up, the coalition will be booted out regardless of whether Mahathir or Anwar Ibrahim is at the helm. In other words, perform, or be put out to pasture.

Not surprisingly, some MPs had tried to remain in their comfort zones before the election but this backfired for some.

Tan Kee Kwong was not even nominated by his own party. He had to give up his Wangsa Maju seat to another PKR candidate.

Liew Chin Tong, marginally lost his seat in Ayer Hitam in Johor, thus depriving him of the chance to be the transport minister, as his successor Anthony Loke admitted.

Indeed, DAP fielded more Malay candidates under 40 across the board in GE-14, more than even what UMNO could attempt. These and other factors are more important to understand how the new Malaysia came to be rather than how old Malaysia will be resistant to change.

To begin with, sheer defiance of a kleptocratic regime is a given. Members of UMNO like Bung Mokhtar even claimed that the ill-gotten gains of Najib Razak are the assets of UMNO. Najib, meanwhile, insists many were gifts accumulated over his over 36 years in politics. Does he mean the business of being a politician is to be in business? Now that Najib has been arrested, more of the truth will be unveiled.

Anyway, Weiss is welcome to undertake more research on Malaysia. But she should understand that change, in fact, is happening at breakneck speed. There is the Council of Eminent Persons, the Harapan manifesto, and cabinet orders to reform the country within 100 days and over the next five years. Meanwhile, 17,000 political appointees have been terminated, and more are expected to face the same fate.

Even politically appointed Ambassadors of Najib Abdul Razak will not be spared. Heads of government-linked investment companies, such as Abdul Wahid Omar of PNB, have resigned.

Rome was not built in a day. The Harapan government is learning through adaptation to see which elements of the previous policies can be kept, and which policies cannot be phased out immediately, or, suspended, in order to allow a thorough review of various projects with Chinese private construction companies.

If Weiss were in Malaysia at Mahathir’s side, she would be shocked at how the doyen of Malaysian politics is slashing the excesses of the previous government, in order to set things right. It is far too easy to be an armchair critic, and Weiss seems to have made that faux pas to critique from the safe confines of her ivory towers in US.


RAIS HUSSIN is a supreme council member of Bersatu and heads its policy and strategy bureau.

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