ASEAN@50


August 3, 2017

ASEAN@50

by Kishore Mahbubani*

*Professor Kishore Mahubani is Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/asean-50th-anniversary-by-kishore-mahbubani-2017-08

We live in troubled times, with pessimism clouding even the most prosperous parts of the planet. Many are convinced that the international order is falling apart. Some fear that a clash of civilizations is imminent, if it has not already begun.

Yet, amid the gloom, Southeast Asia offers an unexpected glimmer of hope. The region has made extraordinary progress in recent decades, achieving a level of peace and prosperity that was previously unimaginable. And it owes much of this success to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which marks its 50th anniversary this month.

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Dean Kishore Mahbubani and Singapore’s Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kausikan

Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most diverse regions. Its 640 million people include 240 million Muslims, 120 million Christians, 150 million Buddhists, and millions of Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists, and Communists. Its most populous country, Indonesia, is home to 261 million people, while Brunei has just 450,000. Singapore’s per capita income of $52,960 per annum is 22.5 times that of Laos ($2,353).

This diversity puts Southeast Asia at a distinct disadvantage in terms of fostering regional cooperation. When ASEAN was founded in 1967, most experts expected it to die within a few years.

At the time, Southeast Asia was a poor and deeply troubled region, which the British historian C.A. Fisher had described as the Balkans of Asia. The Vietnam War was underway, and the Sino-Vietnamese War was yet to be fought. Many viewed the five non-Communist states that founded ASEAN – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – as dominoes, set to be tipped over by a neighbor’s fall to communism or descent into civil strife.

But ASEAN defied expectations, becoming the world’s second most successful regional organization, after the European Union. Some 1,000 ASEAN meetings are held each year to deepen cooperation in areas such as education, health, and diplomacy. ASEAN has signed free-trade agreements (FTAs) with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and established an ASEAN economic community. Today, ASEAN comprises the world’s seventh-largest economy, on track to become the fourth largest by 2050.

Image result for the asean miracle a catalyst for peace

As I explain in my book The ASEAN Miracle, several factors have underpinned the bloc’s success. At first, anti-communism provided a powerful incentive to collaborate. Strong leaders, like Indonesia’s Suharto, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, held the group together.

It helped that as ASEAN was getting off the ground in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the strategic interests of America, China, and the bloc’s members converged. But even when the Cold War ended, the region did not erupt into conflict, as the real Balkans did. ASEAN countries maintained the cooperative habits that had become established in Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact, ASEAN’s erstwhile communist enemies – Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – decided to join the bloc. So, too, did Myanmar, ending decades of isolation. ASEAN’s policy of engaging Myanmar attracted criticism from the West, but it helped lay the groundwork for a peaceful transition from military rule. (Compare this to the West’s policy of isolation toward, say, Syria, which certainly won’t lead to a similar outcome.)

To be sure, ASEAN is far from perfect. Over the short term, it seems to move like a crab – two steps forward, one step back, and one step sideways.

Yet ASEAN’s long-term progress is undeniable. Its combined GDP has grown from $95 billion in 1970 to $2.5 trillion in 2014. And it is the only reliable platform for geopolitical engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, unique in its ability to convene meetings attended by all of the world’s great powers, from the United States and the European Union to China and Russia.

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ASEAN continues to face serious challenges. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have created deep divisions, and the intensifying geopolitical rivalry between the US and China poses a further threat to cohesion. And domestic politics in several member states, including Malaysia and Thailand, is becoming increasingly chaotic.

But ASEAN’s history suggests that the bloc can weather these storms. Its impressive resilience is rooted in the culture of musyawarah and muafakat (consultation and consensus) championed by Indonesia. Imagine how other regional organizations, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council or the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, could benefit from adherence to such norms.

The EU once amounted to the gold standard for regional cooperation. But it continues to struggle with a seemingly never-ending series of crises and weak economic growth. Add to that the impending departure of the United Kingdom, and it seems only prudent to seek other models of cooperation. ASEAN, however imperfect, provides an attractive one.

The EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. But ASEAN’s approach may turn out to be the way of the future, enabling other fractious regions to develop sturdy bonds of cooperation, too.

In the Post Lee KuanYew Era, can Singapore still walk tall on Global Stage?


July 19, 2017

In post-Lee Kuan Yew era, can Singapore still walk tall on global stage?

By  Bhavan Jaipragas

Singapore has a Lee Kuan Yew conundrum, and it has little to do with his house.

As the late independence leader’s three children this week continued their bitter public quarrel over his century-old bungalow, the Lion City’s leading diplomats were having a slug out of their own debating his foreign policy legacy.

The rift among the foreign ministry top guns was sparked when one of them publicly lamented in a July 1 op-ed that the respected statesman’s demise two years ago meant the city state no longer wielded an outsized influence in the global arena.

In a political career spanning six decades – including 31 years as premier – Lee’s counsel on geopolitics was sought by dozens of world leaders from Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) to Barack Obama.

Upon the patriarch’s death in March 2015, Obama led global platitudes, hailing him as a “true giant of history… and one of the great strategists of Asian affairs”.

Dean KIshore Mahbubani, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public  Policy

In the Straits Times commentary, Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean envoy to the United Nations (pic above), cautioned that without Lee’s diplomatic heft, Singapore now needed to “exercise discretion” in foreign policy. He suggested the Lion City could become like Qatar – now mired in a stand-off with its larger Gulf neighbours – if it imprudently stepped on the toes of major powers.

“We are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era,” wrote Kishore, currently the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“As a result, we should change our behaviour significantly … exercise discretion. We should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers,” wrote the former diplomat.

That stance did not sit well with Kishore’s peers in the highest echelons of the foreign ministry. On Facebook, Bilahari Kausikan, a fellow diplomatic grandee, lambasted him for his “muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous views”.

A SLIGHT AT PM LEE?

“Independent Singapore would not have survived and prospered if they always behaved like the leaders of a small state as Kishore advocates,” wrote the ambassador-at-large, who has an impressive following on social media. “I don’t think anyone respects a running dog.” Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, a former foreign minister, also took aim, describing Kishore’s writing as “questionable, intellectually”.

The nub of the blowback from the establishment was that Kishore’s views appeared to be a slight aimed at the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son – for lacking the diplomatic finesse of his father and predecessor Goh Chok Tong.

Responding to one commenter who defended Kishore, Bilahari said: “I disagree, it’s a thinly disguised attack on the PM”. Premier Lee, in power since 2004, has faced some domestic criticism over his foreign policy, but the fact that this time the dissent was from within – and at a time when the government is facing questions over its China policy – appeared to touch a raw nerve.

 

The erudite Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong

Local blogs have increasingly blamed the premier for the city state’s troubled relationship with Beijing in the last year.

Last August, Lee angered Chinese leaders after he said he backed arbitration as a way to peacefully resolve international disputes. Beijing took offence as the comments came soon after an arbitral ruling on the South China Sea dispute largely went against its favour.

As a small state, should Singapore hide when ‘elephants’ fight?

Some have also taken issue with Lee’s actions years earlier. In 2013, the premier sparked a mini controversy over light-hearted jibes he made at China’s expense during an after-dinner speech in Washington.

“Beijing residents joke that to get a free smoke all they have to do is open their windows,” Lee had said.

‘NO LINK TO SIBLING FEUD’

Kishore – facing an onslaught of rebuttals from within the establishment – did not back off from his original stance.

“I wrote this article as I believe that some of our senior officials have been imprudent in their public statements,” the 68-year-old wrote in a statement following the string of responses.

“As a result there have been some serious mishaps in our external relations,” he said in the statement posted on the Channel NewsAsia website. “The hard work by our founding fathers has been squandered. Our geopolitical space has shrunk.”

The diplomat said officials who viewed his commentary as an attack on the premier in the midst of his highly publicised family feud were mistaken. The article was published two days before the premier was to address parliament over abuse-of-power allegations made against him by his siblings Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling.

“This argument is flawed because my article was submitted to the ST [Straits Times] several weeks ago. It was the ST that chose to run it this weekend,” Kishore wrote.

Foreign policy observers said the open tiff put on full display internal debates within the country’s diplomatic complex, amid growing pressure to accommodate the rise of China as a superpower alongside the United States. Officials have long stressed that the Lion City would not waver from publicly supporting the international rule of law, even if that means angering bigger powers.

BALANCING ACT

“Singapore has a vested interest in standing up for a rules-based international order, as it is the framework that underpins the Lion City’s success,” said Hugo Brennan, an Asia-focused analyst with the global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “But it will always be a balancing act between taking a principled stand and refraining from tickling the dragon’s tail,” he said.

Mustafa Izzuddin, a Southeast Asia politics researcher at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, said the “Kishore-Bilahari kerfuffle should be viewed in a positive light as it illustrates that there is no danger of groupthink in Singapore’s foreign policy”.

Why the Lee Kuan Yew family feud is a metaphor for Singapore

The Straits Times, which published the commentary kick-starting the saga, on Friday said in an editorial that Premier Lee’s invitation to the G20 summit in Berlin this week illustrated the Lion City’s continued diplomatic prowess.

Image result for bilahari kausikan at the university of cambodia

Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kausikan

https://publichouse.sg/role-small-states-bilaharis-criticism-kishore-wrong-misleading/

Despite not being a leader of a G20 nation, Premier Lee has been a fixture at the summits as a guest of the host nation. Bilahari meanwhile pointed to Lee’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) on the sidelines of the summit to bolster his argument that the Lion City should stick to its foreign policy guns. “The moral of the story for us is keep calm: things are never as bad as they may seem,” he wrote in a Facebook post about the meeting. “Do not mistake noise – shouting – for substance. Psy-ops do not work if you keep calm.”

 

 

Singapore–Smart City Smart State


July 15, 2017

Singapore –Smart City Smart State

I am in the process of completing my read of Kent E. Calder’s excellent book, Singapore, Smart City Smart State. I must admit upfront that I am an admirer of Singapore and the city state’s leadership going back to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his team of brilliant men to  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his colleagues.

Image result for Kent Calder Singapore Smart City Smart State

Calder’s book, therefore, intrigues me. In it,  Professor  Calder provides clear answers why Singapore  can serve as a model of unique governance for other advanced  economic economies and  the emerging world.

He believes “…its sustainable state and urban policy model, leveraged by the Digital Revolution and the Internet of Things, provides such a fresh and apt perspective on governance in today’s world.It shows how to tackle the challenges of transnational importance in a world where markets are almost completely globalized, but governance is not. As Singapore is an economically advanced  and technically sophisticated city-state, in the heart of the developing world, its example is not only timely but also broadly relevant. It provides insights for dealing with both G-7 welfare- state crises and also the epic rural-to-urban transition under way in the developing world, in an era of historic technological change” (p.163 of the book).–Din Merican

Dynastic demolition in Singapore?


June 25, 2017

Dynastic demolition in Singapore?

by Michael Barr

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/06/22/dynastic-demolition-in-singapore/

Image result for The Lee Kuan Yew Family

 

An extraordinary dispute within Singapore’s ruling family broke into the open on 14 June. Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang — the two younger children of the late Lee Kuan Yew — posted a message on Facebook accusing their elder brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, of subverting their father’s last will and testament by avoiding the demolition of the family home.

More seriously for the public interest, they accused Lee Hsien Loong of abusing his position to achieve this end and of trying to engineer a dynastic succession whereby his son Li Hongyi would enter politics as a third generation of Lees. They are particularly concerned that Hsien Loong’s personal solicitor possessed and was using documents that had been made available only to the National Heritage Board for the purposes of organising a commemorative display.

As a result of this episode, the Lee siblings have discovered to their horror that there are no checks and balances on the power of the prime minister and that the Singaporean press is meek and timid. They seem to think that they are the first to have noticed this. So fearful are the Lee siblings of their elder brother that Lee Hsien Yang has announced his intention to flee the country.

The third generation of Lees are now involved as well. Lee Hsien Loong’s son, Li Hongyi, says he never wanted to enter politics anyway, despite his ambition being an open secret. Lee Hsien Yang’s son Li Shengwu claimed ‘Not only do I intend never to go into politics, I believe that it would be bad for Singapore if any third-generation Lee went into politics. The country must be bigger than one family’.

It is difficult to judge what is most significant in this episode. Insofar as long-term consequences for the governance and future of Singapore, there is substantial damage to the Lee brand — and by consequence, the Singapore brand. Lee Wei Ling, Lee Hsien Yang and Li Shengwu do not want power for themselves, but they do want to delegitimise Lee Hsien Loong’s rule during his final 5–10 years in office and to spoil Li Hongyi’s entry into politics. His ambition is their ultimate target.

Their Facebook post was the first occasion on which there had been any word of Li Hongyi’s ambition from within the ruling elite — and it came in the form of a denunciation of dynastic ambition. In a country that brands itself as a meritocracy, such a suggestion is poisonous and — if made by anyone outside the family — would have resulted in legal action.

Furthermore, the news was delivered in such a way that it left Li Hongyi tainted by association with his father rather than his grandfather. Rightly or wrongly, the Lee Kuan Yew brand commands an extraordinarily high level of political capital — both domestically and internationally — because it is inextricably linked with the Singapore success story. No one who watched his funeral, Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations or the 2015 General Elections can doubt the power of his image — which, coincidentally, the Singapore government now regulates.

Instead of adding to the Lee family brand over the last 13 years, Lee Hsien Loong has been spending the social and political capital he inherited. Lee Hsien Loong’s personal brand is associated with his several apologies to the nation in 2011–13 for things going wrong in Singapore, as well as with the electoral setbacks of 2011. He clawed back ground in the 2015 General Elections only by capitalising on his father’s image at every turn. Now it seems the Lee Hsien Loong brand is also going to be associated with a nasty family dispute and the perception that he is trying to manoeuvre his son into power.

Hence, Li Hongyi now has a formidable task before him if he is to pursue a career in politics. He needs to build on his association with his grandfather while distancing himself from his father — but presumably while relying on his father to provide him the entrée into the halls of power.

This is not impossible. During his time in the Army, he carefully constructed an image for himself as a gadfly who defied protocol to criticise his betters and bring about reform. But doing the same thing to his father — while simultaneously relying on his father’s patronage and protection — would be very tricky indeed. He might find it more attractive to just enter the corporate sector and make a fortune. If he does, then history will be looking at the events of the last week as the turning point at which the fate of the Lee dynasty was decided.

Michael Barr is Associate Professor at the School of History and International Relations, Flinders University.

Putting Malaysia’s Future in the hands of Mahathir Mohamad


April 28, 2017

Putting Malaysia’s Future in the hands of Mahathir Mohamad

by P. Gunasegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

If only the Opposition thought like Mahathir and stayed focused on their goal – which is not to just remove Najib but to change the government for the better – they will stay well away from a man like Mahathir – his record is there for all to see. Instead they have been seduced by the mantra, let’s get rid of Najib first.

If Opposition, in its strange state of amnesia, continues to forget to remember, they are going to lose their chance to heal this nation, their agenda hijacked by the one who was ultimately responsible for all this.–P. Gunasegaram

Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the one who tore UMNO apart, six years after he became Prime minister in July, 1981 when a bruising battle saw him win the UMNO presidential elections against challenger Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah by the narrowest margin ever. But he did much worse than that.

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The Opposition trusts Mahathir, do we Malaysians? Hopefully we are not a bunch of suckers–Din Merican

When Razaleigh challenged the election results and the courts declared it illegal, he did not respect the law and hold a new election. Instead, he set up a new UMNO, UMNO Baru, using the power of incumbency to force officialdom to facilitate the transfer of assets to UMNO Baru from the old, original UMNO.

He excluded from UMNO Baru those who considered his opponents compelling Razaleigh to form the alternative Semangat 46. He went about solidifying his position in UMNO Baru by altering the party constitution making it well nigh impossible for anyone to challenge the party president again, removing a check-and-balance so vital for democracy.

In 1987, via Operasi Lalang, he imprisoned over 100 people under the Internal Security Act or ISA and shut down several newspapers ostensibly to defuse interracial tension and bring back order, sending waves of shock and fear throughout the country and consolidating his then tenuous hold on power.

He is the man who is a master at exploiting racial divisions for his own gain, using it pre and post the May 13, 1969 riots – riots whom by some accounts he “predicted” will happen – to gain rapid ascension after Malaysia’s First Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was effectively deposed by his deputy, Abdul Razak Hussein, current Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s father. Razak worked closely with young Turks within UMNO who included Mahathir and Musa Hitam among them.

Mahathir took revenge on the Judiciary in 1988, emasculating them by suspending Tun Salleh Abas,the Lord President and several Supreme Court judges and putting puppets in their place, a body blow from which the judiciary is yet to recover. Then on, Mahathir played enforcer, prosecutor, and judge. He could pretty much do what he wanted without controls, setting the stage for Malaysia’s descend into an abyss from which it is struggling to crawl out of now

There’s a fuller list of questionable things he did in an article I wrote for The Edge in June 2006 which was used in The Sun, three years after he stepped down, which posed a series of 22 groups of questions on his leadership, one for each of the 22 years he held the reins of power in the country.

Image result for Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad

Then and Now (below)

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During the Asian financial crisis in 1998, he again resorted to strong-arm tactics to stay in power when his deputy then Anwar Ibrahim, now jailed opposition leader, mounted a thinly-disguised challenge to his leadership as the ringgit declined precipitously and the region was in turmoil following sharp falls in regional currencies.

Mahathir reacted swiftly and sharply, expelling him from all government and party posts and then sending in an elite squad to capture him at machinegun-point and detain him under the infamous ISA. He simultaneously imposed capital controls to stem the damage on the currency. And then came the sodomy charges against Anwar.

Paradoxically, it was Anwar who ensured Mahathir’s narrow victory in the 1987 party election when he prevailed upon Najib to cast the votes controlled by his block to Mahathir. If Najib had not and favoured Razaleigh instead, Razaleigh would most likely have won.

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Mahathir Mohamad with Singapore’s Philosopher-King Lee Kuan Yew

Mahathir did not even use the benefit of his dictatorial powers for the sake of the nation the way Lee Kuan Yew did for Singapore as I pointed in an article comparing the two. Lee used his immense powers to cut corruption, improve the quality of education and evolve a strong, competent and incorruptible civil service amongst others. Mahathir effectively promoted corruption and patronage, oversaw a decline in educational standards and undermined one of the finest civil services in Asia with his arbitrary decision-making.

What is it about Mahathir that makes the Opposition so enamoured of him? People like Anwar and Lim Kit Siang who directly suffered so much from his blatant misuse of authority to perpetuate his own power and continuance?

Forget to remember

Perhaps the Opposition feels, like a lot of people, that Mahathir has some power of invincibility and that he can influence the people. But an examination of history does not show this as I explained in an article in 2006.

Mahathir was elected MP for the Kota Setar Selatan seat in Kedah in 1964. It was established early on that he was not invincible when he lost the seat to PAS’ Yusof Rawa in 1969. According to some accounts, he had said in 1969 that he did not need Chinese votes to win.

Following the May 13, 1969 riots, Mahathir wrote a widely-circulated letter criticising then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. He was dismissed from his UMNO supreme council position and expelled from the party. The following year, he wrote the controversial book ‘The Malay Dilemma’ which was promptly banned, the ban being lifted in 1981 when Mahathir became Prime Minister.

Mahathir was readmitted into UMNO 1972 after Razak assumed the mantle. The Tunku had stepped down in 1970 after the 1969 riots. Mahathir stood for the Kubang Pasu parliamentary seat in 1974 and won unopposed, retaining the seat until 2004 when he did not contest after his retirement. He was appointed education minister in 1975. The vital turning point for Mahathir came the following year when Hussein Onn became Prime Minister following Razak’s untimely death. Hussein picked Mahathir as his deputy.

And this was not because Mahathir enjoyed overwhelming support in UMNO. Mahathir was picked over two UMNO Vice-Presidents who had higher votes than him, Ghafar Baba and Razaleigh. An accident of fate put Mahathir in line for the top position. When Hussein retired due to failing health, Mahathir became Prime Minister in 1981.

And in 2006 when he attempted to get elected as a delegate to UMNO, after stepping down as Prime Minister, so as to voice his opinions at the UMNO General Assembly, he got a thumping defeat, meriting an article in The New York Times. He was placed ninth in a field of 15 for delegates from Kubang Pasu, his former seat! Mahathir pleaded money politics – something he never bothered to check during his time.

Despite his intense, tireless campaigning at the age of over 90 in both Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar in June last year, BN won handsomely in both seats, indicating that Mahathir has insignificant sway with the Malay voters anyway.

The Opposition is not likely to benefit much from Mahathir and his party Bersatu, especially with PAS now seeming to align itself with the government. It seems unlikely that the disunited Opposition will win.

But what if the Opposition won? What if Bersatu held the balance of power? Would it stick with Pakatan Harapan or would it go over to UMNO and make a deal by telling to get rid of Najib and bring back Muhyiddin Yassin to take over as Prime Minister?

Surely Anwar as PM would be unthinkable for Mahathir even if a process of pardon could be initiated. Mahathir can tell Harapan, no deal unless Muhyiddin becomes PM. And so we go from Najib to Muhyiddin – is that a big improvement in the overall scheme of things.

Image result for Mahathir Mohamad, Badawi and Najib

Mahathir Mohamad and his Accomplices in the Political Destruction of Malaysia

That’s what Mahathir wants to be – a power broker, the king-maker. That way no matter who is in power, he is not going to be brought into account for his past misdeeds. That way he has a pretty good chance of putting his son, Mukhriz, in a strong position to assume future leadership. That way he is assured that history – written by the victors as the wise tell us – will be far more kindly to him.

If any one takes the trouble to remember what this man did and stood for, he would be mad to think that Mahathir is the solution – he was, and is, the problem. Without him and his 22 years of misrule, Malaysia would not have descended to what it is today.

Mahathir was accountable to no one. Not the people, not the party, not the judges. He could do almost anything he pleased and get away with it using the apparatus and machinery of control he had put in place.

He made opaque many decisions of government, putting anything marked secret by the government as secret under the law by removing the power of judges to judge even if the secret posed no danger to the country but only embarrassed the government and exposed its corrupt ways

That was the legacy he left behind – and a leader who followed him used it to do nasty things, some worse than that by Mahathir. Now we expect Mahathir – the source of all this – to save us Malaysians from Najib!

Is that why Mahathir is sticking his neck out? For the good of the country? But remember he had his chance – 22 years of it. He bungled – all he did was to stay in power and do the greatest damage to the country ever by any one, Prime Minister or not

His goal now is not to get into power but to ensure that whoever comes into power does not destroy him. As far as Mahathir is concerned, it is always about him – not Malaysia, not Malaysians, not even the Malays.

If only the Opposition thought like Mahathir and stayed focused on their goal – which is not to just remove Najib but to change the government for the better – they will stay well away from a man like Mahathir – his record is there for all to see. Instead they have been seduced by the mantra, let’s get rid of Najib first.

If Opposition, in its strange state of amnesia, continues to forget to remember, they are going to lose their chance to heal this nation, their agenda hijacked by the one who was ultimately responsible for all this.

 

The Passing of Othman Wok


April 17, 2017

The Passing of Othman Wok: A Patriot whose courage and convictions made a difference to Singapore

Image result for Othman Wok

Note: It was my good  fortune to have worked with Mr. (Pak) Othman Wok when we together with Mr. Neville Watson were fellow directors of Sime Sembawang Limited, which was engaged in the fabrication of oil rigs and platforms for oil and gas sector. As a director, Pak Othman brought his vast experience  to bear on deliberations of our Board. He was friendly and helpful to me, offering personal advice about building commercial networks based on trust and integrity. I shall miss him and  offer Al-Fatihah in his memory. To Ibu Wok and family, Dr. Kamsiah Haider and I convey our heartfelt and sincere condolences.

I was also grateful that I had the chance to work with Mr. Eddie Barker, Professor Tan Sri Maurice Baker, Mr. Michael Wong Pakshong and Pak Ridzwan Dzafir on the Board of Sime Darby Singapore Limited (1988-1991). They were outstanding individuals who served Singapore  with distinction.  They all touched my life and made a huge difference to my career with Sime Darby.–Din Merican

http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/othman-wok-a-man-whose-courage-and-convictions-made-a-difference/3105692.html

Mr Othman Wok, a former Cabinet minister and one of Singapore’s first generation of leaders, died on Monday (Apr 17) at the age of 92.

A journalist, union leader, politician and Ambassador, Mr Othman’s courage and convictions made a difference to Singapore at a critical time in its history, said the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Born in 1924, Mr Othman was the son of a Malay school principal. Despite objections from his grandfather, his progressive father sent the young Othman to Radin Mas School and Raffles Institution – both English-medium schools.

Mr Othman joined the Utusan Melayu, a Malay-language newspaper as a clerk, but was soon talent-spotted and offered a job as a cub reporter by its editor and managing director Mr Yusof Ishak, the man who was to become Singapore’s first President.

Mr Othman Wok in his youth.

While Mr. Othman was working for Utusan Melayu, he became involved in union activities, and it was as Secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees Union that he first met Mr Lee Kuan Yew – the union’s legal advisor.

Persuaded to enter politics, he joined the People’s Action Party (PAP) a few days after it was formed in 1954. Mr Othman won his first electoral battle in 1963, but was to learn that achieving racial harmony was easier said than done.

Following Singapore’s merger with Malaysia, racial tensions between the Malay and Chinese communities, stoked by fiery speeches by extremist Malay leaders from Kuala Lumpur, came to a head during the 1964 procession to celebrate the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday.

“UMNO had a meeting on July 19 at Pasir Panjang, (a) talk about racialism and all that by Jaafar Albar. He made a very strong communal speech at that gathering which included UMNO members from across the Causeway that they ferried down to Singapore by buses and lorries,” recalled Mr Othman. “And these people, after that meeting on the 19th, didn’t go home … they were used to cause trouble.”

Mr Othman, who led the contingent of Malay MPs and PAP supporters at the procession, recalled how trouble broke out: “When my contingent arrived at Kallang Bridge, there was this old Chinese man on a bicycle, on the left side. Some Malay youths came from the front, caught hold of him, beat him up with sticks and threw his bicycle into the drain. He was severely injured.”

For the rest of Mr Othman’s life, the horrific images would return whenever he shared his experiences.

“People were being beaten up, houses were being burnt, vehicles being burnt – all pictured in my mind at that time. I was involved in it, I saw it with my own eyes,” he said. “It is just like a film being played again and again to me. I was very sad. This is racial riot between the communities, the Chinese and the Malays. And before that they were very friendly.”

In the aftermath of the riots, it was clear that concerted and strenuous efforts were needed to rebuild relationships between the races, as racial polarisation was evident, even at relief centres.

“The Chinese didn’t go to where the Malays went – the police station; they went to other police stations, so became segregated again,” said Mr Othman. “And my ministry had to prepare food for these refugees. Every day we cooked, in our central kitchen, and I went around in our lorries together with my staff, and we found that for example, I went to Paya Lebar Police Station, they were all Malays there, no Chinese. Then I went to another police station, Serangoon at that time, they were all Chinese there, no Malays.

“So we decided after the riots that this should not go on – polarisation between the two communities. We had to let them live together. So at that time, we (were) building flats so we moved them, mixed (them) together. It was not an easy thing to do but eventually they began to learn how to live as good neighbours.”

At the height of the 1964 tensions, Mr Othman himself became the principal target of verbal abuse among some segments of the Malay-Muslim community.

Image result for Othman Wok and Lee Kuan Yew

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said of Mr Othman: “I remember your staunch loyalty during those troubled days when you were in Malaysia and the tensions were most severe, immediately before and following the bloody riots in July 1964.

“At that time, the greatest pressures were mounted by UMNO Malay extremists who denounced you and Malay PAP leaders – especially you – as infidels, “kafirs” and traitors, “khianat”, not to Singapore but to the Malay race.

“I heard it, the crowds said it, bunches of them. They were designed to intimidate him and the other Malay leaders in PAP. Because of the courage and the leadership you showed, not one PAP Malay leader wavered and that made a difference to Singapore.”

On the incident, Mr Othman simply said: “I was surprised, because not only I, but my Malay colleagues in the PAP stood together and faced the onslaught together with the Prime Minister, because we were fighting for what we believed in.

“So that accolade to me, I thought, was also for my colleagues because they faced the same danger, they faced the same accusation and criticism from the Malay community at that time.”

Singapore’s Mr. Cool

Mr Othman’s loyalty to Singapore was tested again in 1965, when they were faced with the critical decision to support or oppose separation from Malaysia.

“PM called me. He said: ‘Othman, come with me to the next room.’ And he said to me: ‘Would you sign this separation agreement?’ I said I would. I told him: ‘PM, the only worry I have is the Chinese in Singapore – what I meant was the communists in Singapore.’ ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘It’s my problem, I will handle it. You have nothing to worry.’ That was what he said to me.

“But my feeling when it was announced was, internally, you know, relief. After those two years of bickering, the pressure on me, my colleagues, the Malays in the PAP, on the government, I say it was a relief. No more pressure against us.”

And the next year, when an independent Singapore held its first National Day Parade, Mr Othman made sure he was there – a proud member of the People’s Defence Force.

Mr Othman was to serve for 17 years, 14 of them as Minister for Social Affairs.Promoting racial harmony was a key responsibility, as was the promotion of sports among the masses and encouraging athletes to represent Singapore.

Said SS Dhillon, former Secretary-General of the Singapore Olympic Council: “Mr Othman Wok – I always to refer to him as Mr Cool. He has a very cool personality, he is very approachable, very kind, very loving and he used to go around sportsmen and coax them to participate. Train harder and he encouraged them in that way.”

It was also Mr Othman who got the National Stadium built. “When you think back to those times, those were very economically hard times, and yet he could push this through Parliament and get it passed,” said former Olympian sprinter C Kunalan. “So I think more importantly it was not how he fired us up but how he fired up the Cabinet to get the approval for all the plans that he had.”

“Always be loyal to your country. You’re a Singaporean, you will always be a Singaporean.”–Othman Wok

As Minister overseeing the Malay-Muslim community, Mr Othman’s legacy includes the setting up of the Mosque Building Fund as well as the Islamic Religious Council or MUIS, which sees to the welfare of Muslims in Singapore.

“Through this fund, we managed to build a first mosque at Toa Payoh,” said Mr Othman. “A modern, better, multi-purpose mosque, not like the old ones, only for prayer; (there were) other activities. And people came to support and it was not difficult to get people to contribute. We had the contribution by deducting their salaries, voluntarily if they wanted to, through the CPF. It started with S$0.50. They could write in to say: ‘I don’t want to contribute’, but the majority, all I think the Muslims who worked with the Government then, contributed and they were able to build one mosque after another.”

After retiring from active politics in 1980, Mr Othman served as Singapore’s Ambassador to Indonesia and also on the Singapore Tourism Board and Sentosa Development Corporation.

The born storyteller also published his collections of horror stories as well as his autobiography, Never In My Wildest Dreams.

But for the man who lived through the race riots of the 1960s, unity among Singaporeans was an enduring mission, and Mr Othman continued to serve well into his 80s, giving talks on National Education to civil servants.

“Even with this terrorism problem, some of these young people do not take it seriously because it has not happened in Singapore,” said Mr Othman. “The test will come when a bomb explodes in Singapore, people are killed … What happens, do we tighten our bonding, become a united front of faith or we disintegrate? This is the test that we have to face if the real thing happens. I hope not. Because today when there are disasters in other countries, Singapore came together to help. I am sure were this to happen in Singapore, we will get together, to face it and solve it. I have that confidence.”

He added: “Always be loyal to your country. You’re a Singaporean, you will always be a Singaporean.”

Mr Othman leaves his wife and four daughters.

– Channel News Asia