The Fight for Democracy in Asia Is Alive and Well


July 3, 2018

The Fight for Democracy in Asia Is Alive and Well

Image result for chee soon juan

For decades, Asian values, under the guise of Confucianism, have been used by the region’s autocrats to ward off criticisms, mainly from the West, about their undemocratic ways. This argument’s most artful proponents are Singapore’s former Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, and Malaysia’s Dr. Mahathir Mohamad during his first stint as the country’s leader.

With the region in the thrall of dictatorships – from Korea’s Park Chung-hee in the north to Indonesia’s Suharto in the south – there seemed to be a seductive ring to the uniqueness of the Asian political culture.

But there is nothing quite like a few revolutions, mainly peaceful ones, to debunk the no-democracy-please-we’re-Asians theory. Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Myanmar, Mongolia, and Thailand overcame repressive governments to establish democratic systems. The extent of reform may be limited, as in the instance of Myanmar, or has backslid, as in Thailand. But the trend toward democratic change has been unmistakable.

Image result for Democracy in Malaysia

The New Democrats in Malaysia headed by former Asian Values proponent, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad took over Putrajaya after resoundingly defeating UMNO-BN in GE-14

The most recent example is, of course, Malaysia where after 61 years of one-party rule, Malaysians staged an electoral revolt of their own and sacked the Barisan Nasional government.

So, have Asian peoples jettisoned Asian values and adopted Western ones? Of course not. Remember that for the better part of the last two centuries, much of Asia toiled under the subjugation of Western colonialism, where the concepts of freedom and universal suffrage were as alien as the languages imposed on the natives.

The truth is that, regardless of the part of the world they inhabit, man has always sought to lord over his fellow beings. But it is just as ineluctable that the masses will, at some point, rise up to show despots the boot and claim their freedoms.

To avoid sounding simplistic, however, let me point out that the factors contributing to the demise of autocratic regimes in Asia are varied. Distressed economic conditions in the Philippines and Indonesia contributed massively to the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto. In Taiwan and South Korea, it was the burgeoning educated middle-class that grew intolerant of the oppressive military regimes.

Even so, these revolutions were not a result of spontaneous combustion. There were years of relentless campaigning and sacrifice by individuals who saw the need for change and, more importantly, found the courage to stand up and rattle the authoritarian cage. Regional organizations like the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, a body comprising political parties (both ruling and opposition) committed to advancing democracy in Asia, have been keeping freedom’s agenda on the front burner.

Image result for reformasi malaysia 1998

The 1998 Reformasi paved the way for Malaysia’s New Democracy of 2018

Again, take the most recent case of Malaysia. Those who cried reformasi and fought corruption and abuse of power did not just surface during the historic elections this year. It was a struggle that spanned two decades, one which saw the opposition leaders and activists harassed, humiliated, and jailed. In the end, like in the other countries, the democrats prevailed.

The mother of all ironies is that it was Mahathir, the leader of the opposition coalition that toppled incumbent Najib Razak, who wrote in 1995 that Asia’s rejection of democracy came from the “Eastern way of thinking.”

Image result for CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Lee Hsien Loong

Singapore’s current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, unwilling or unable to read history, continues this charade. In a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he denied that his administration is repressive. Politics in Singapore, he insists, is the way that it is because Singaporeans voted for it. Of course, he did not mention that he had to change the rules for the presidential elections so that only his party’s nominee qualified as a candidate. There are elections and there are free and fair elections.

The not-so-hidden message for autocrats and democrats alike is that the mood in Asia has irrevocably altered. The idea that democracy is ill-suited to the Asian mind has been exposed for the propaganda that it is.

No wonder the fight for democracy is alive and well.

Chee Soon Juan is the secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party and former chairperson of CALD.  

Stealing Money from the National Treasury is an Act of Treason


June 17, 2018

Stealing Money from the National Treasury is an Act of Treason–so, Najib Razak is a Traitor

by Mariam Mokhtar@www.asiasentinel.com

Image result for Najib is a CrookIt takes time, but Justice will come eventually to Najib Razak and Rosmah Mansor

 

 

93-year-old Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who heads Malaysia’s reform coalition Pakatan Harapan, has lost no time in knuckling down to work. A week after he assumed office in the wake of the political earthquake of the country’s May 9 general election, he terminated the contracts of 17,000 political appointees as a drain on public expenditure.

The move was hailed by a public taken aback  by the numbers of people involved, although some are concerned that the shock and awe of Mahathir’s move would generate the same kind of guerilla underground that cropped up when Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Iraq, disbanded the army and civil service in 2003. That played a major role in the eventual creation of the Islamic State which has terrorized Syria and Iraq for the past several years.

Nonetheless, the sackings are looked upon by Malaysia’s 31 million people as just the start of the cleanup of decades of appalling corruption. Police seized 72 bags alone of loot from deposed Prime Minister Najib Razak’s residence in the days after the May 9 election, of which 35 contained RM114 million (US$28.6 million) in cash in 26 different currencies. Another 35 bags contained jewelry and watches, and 284 boxes were filled with designer handbags including Ellen Birkin bags by Hermes that can cost upwards of US$200,000. The former Premier is not likely to go hungry. He is believed to have hundreds of millions more stashed overseas. Famously, in 2013 US$681 million appeared in his personal account at Ambank in Kuala Lumpur and almost immediately was moved overseas.

The biggest mess, of course, is the state-backed development fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., from which US$4.5 billion is said by the US Justice Department to have disappeared in corruption and mismanagement. Mahathir has said the scale of corruption is even greater and has demanded a full explanation. The Finance Ministry, now under Lim Guan Eng of the Democratic Action Party, says Malaysia’s total government debt and liabilities exceed RM1 trillion (US$250.7 billion).

The number of no-bid contracts awarded to crony companies and government-linked companies – now termed by many to be government-linked crookedry – is overwhelming.

Mahathir for instance cancelled a high-speed rail contract from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore that cost RM70 billion which, with other government commitments including operating expenses over 20 years ran the total to RM110  billion. “Estimates are that in a proper open tender, the project could have been done for a maximum of RM25 billion,” said a well-placed business source in Kuala Lumpur.

Equally questionable is a contract for Malaysia’s Eastern Corridor Rail Line, awarded to a Chinese company at RM67 billion. The payment was time-based, not on a completion basis. As such, 40 percent of the total payment has been made while only 7 percent of the work has been completed. The project cost is widely believed to have been a subterfuge for Chinese help in paying off 1MDB’s massive debt.

Next is the Sarawak and Sabah gas pipeline, again awarded on time-based payments with 87 percent of RM9 billion paid and only 13 percent of the work completed.

Contracts such as these are aplenty. The gadfly website Sarawak Report reported on June 10 that a car rental company headed by an official with a Barisan-aligned party in Sarawak received a RM1.25 billion no-bid contract to install solar energy facilities for 369 Sarawak schools. The three-year contract, allegedly steered by Najib himself, has been underway for 18 months. Not a single solar power unit has ever been installed.

But beyond that, dozens of government-linked companies have been found to be paying exorbitant salaries to their executives. Malaysia has the fifth highest number of GLCs in the world, for which Mahathir himself must share the blame, since many came into existence during the 22 years he headed the government from 1981 to 2003.

Image result for Najib is a Crook

Many are household names – the national car project Proton, now peddled to China’s car company Geely; the national energy company Petronas, the electrical utility Tenaga Nasional, the electric utility Telekom Malaysia, the Tabung Haji Pilgrimage Fund, the Federal Land Development Authority, Malaysian Airlines, The Majlis Amanah Rakyat (Malay People’s Trust Council), the Sime Darby plantation and property conglomerate.

Publicly traded GLCs currently comprise 36 percent the market capitalization of Bursa Malaysia and 54 percent of the benchmark Kuala Lumpur Composite Index according to a study by the think tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. They employ 5 percent of the national workforce.  According to the study, government bailouts of GLCs have “resulted in a huge drain on the public purse.” They include RM1.5 billion for Proton in 2016 and RM 6 billion for Malaysia Airlines in 2014.

”One estimate suggests that around RM85.51 billion has been used to bail out GLCs over the past 36 years,” according to the report putting pressure on commercial interest rates as a result of recurring budget deficits that “may have been a separate factor operating to crowd out private investment, at the margin.”

Image result for mavcom executive chairman

 

As an example of exorbitant salaries, the Transport Minister, Anthony Loke, told reporters that the executive chairman of the Aviation Commission (MAVCOM), retired Gen. Abdullah Ahmad, drew a monthly salary of RM85,000 (US$21,325). The figure is over four times the basic recorded salary of the Malaysian Prime Minister and is similar to the salary of millionaire CEOs of successful private enterprises.

Veteran journalist, R Nadeswaran, formerly of The Sun Daily, reported that his investigations into MAVCOM, an independent body established in 2015 to regulate economic and commercial matters relating to civil aviation, revealed that RM570,000 had been paid in directors’ fees, and a further RM770,000 on directors’ travel and accommodation.

More revelations have followed. One “former minister turned adviser” in Najib’s Prime Minister’s Office received a monthly wage of RM200,000 (US$50,177), which is about 10 times Najib’s official salary. Other “advisers” were paid from RM70,000 upwards per month in a country where per capita income on a PPP basis is RM26,900 annually.

Other ministries, together with the newly-revitalized Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), have been directed to investigate the various GLCs and political appointees  Apart from the allegations of huge bonuses and exorbitant salaries, it has also been alleged that officials of various GLCs collaborated with contractors to submit false claims for maintenance work. The MACC is investigating.

The almost daily revelations of cronyism and large-scale corruption have been described by one Malaysian as akin to “Chinese water torture,” when water is slowly dripped onto a person’s forehead and drives the restrained victim insane.

Loke’s disclosure also prompted the veteran MP, Lim Kit Siang, Mahathir’s onetime adversary turned ally, to demand transparency and public accountability in the wages of the heads of the GLCs. He proposed the implementation of a public website showing the perks, salaries and remuneration of all GLC heads and members.

Lim wanted to know how many of the heads of the GLCs are political appointees and how many of the UMNO/Barisan Nasional appointees have resigned since Najib lost power.

Malaysians responded swiftly to Loke’s report. One person multiplied Loke’s figure by the number of existing GLCs and was astounded by the money which taxpayers had to fork out for GLC directors’ fees. Who approved the salaries of the board members in this public regulatory body?

Image result for Anwar Ibrahim

 

A Foreign Friend In Cambodia asked me, “Din, is your recently pardoned felon running a parallel government?”  And I answered, “For Malaysia’s sake, I hope not.–Din Merican

Surprisingly, the revelations over the GLCs are in contrast to those by newly released and pardoned former Opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, the PM-in-waiting, who told a crowd in Perak that chief ministers should not rush to take action against GLCs, and to refrain from being vengeful.

“I have no problem with GLCs, if their performance is good and the Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) thinks it’s appropriate to continue, we accept (the continuance),” unless, he added, “that it was proven at the federal level,  there was wasteful overlapping and excessive payment of allowances to political figures.”

Malaysians demanding intense scrutiny of GLCs wonder what to make of the PM-designate’s remarks and actions.

Mariam Mokhtar is a Malaysia-based reporter and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.

Foreign Policy Perspective: The Return of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in an Election Stunner


May 18, 2018

 

Foreign Policy Perspective: The Return of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in an Election Stunner

By Richard Javad Heydarian

https://www.cfr.org/blog/strategic-implications-malaysias-election-stunner

Image result for The Return of Mahathir Mohamad

Malaysia’s recent national election was a stunner for many reasons. Not only did the election return a nonagenarian to power, but it also ended the six-decades-long one-party hegemony of Barisan Nasional (BN). For the first time in Malaysia’s post-independence history, the opposition is in power. Crucially, long-time opposition leader and democracy activist Anwar Ibrahim has been pardoned and released from prison, enabling him to eventually take the helm of the Malaysian state, paving the way for deep political reforms.

Yet Mahathir Mohamad’s return to power is not only potentially transformative for Malaysian domestic politics. It also has far-reaching strategic implications. First of all, Malaysia may revisit its increasingly cordial, if not acquiescent, bilateral ties with Beijing, which heavily invested in upgrading relations with the previous Najib Razak administration.

Similar to the case of the Philippines during the Benigno Aquino III administration, domestic anti-corruption initiatives in Malaysia could have a significant impact on external relations with China. Former President Aquino III’s good governance reforms primarily targeted Beijing-backed projects launched under the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration. These anti-corruption efforts against China-backed projects, along with Aquino III’s tough South China Sea policy, led to an overall deterioration in Philippine-China bilateral ties, which reached its apotheosis in 2016 as the Philippines won a decision at an international tribunal in The Hague against Beijing’s claims to an expansive “nine-dash line” of territory in the South China Sea.

Malaysia under Mahathir may quickly implement anti-corruption reforms; he has already apparently barred Najib from leaving the country, and vowed that the government will reopen investigations into the 1MDB state fund scandal. A major issue driving the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan coalition victory was the nationwide uproar against the 1MDB corruption scandal.

The former Prime Minister and his associates have been accused of embezzling as much as $1 billion from the state fund. The 1MDB debacle also sparked international investigations into the Najib government, as the United States, Singapore, and Switzerland, among other countries, froze accounts and launched investigations against Malaysia’s investment fund body.

But as Western governments began threatening criminal probes against top Malaysian officials, Najib began to fortify strategic and economic relations with China, which became a key source of investments for Malaysia. And the former prime minister was unapologetic about it.

As the new Mahathir government moves towards potentially prosecuting Najib after placing him under a travel ban, greater scrutiny of Chinese investments could be coming. Before the election, Mahathir complained about the potential for rising housing costs for Malaysians triggered by an expansion in real estate projects by Chinese companies, and a potential influx of Chinese property buyers. “Here we gain nothing from the [Chinese] investment… [W]e don’t welcome that,” he recently lamented. Mahathir also has repeatedly expressed concerns about over-reliance on Chinese technology, engineering and labor for Malaysian infrastructure projects.

Image result for China, Malaysia and South China Sea

Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad will review relations with Xi Jinping’s China

Among China-led projects that could be reconsidered is the $13 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) railway, connecting Kuala Lumpur with less developed eastern regions. Mahathir has indicated that he may scrap the whole project. He has also warned about the threat of a debt trap, citing the case of Sri Lanka, which was forced into humiliating debt-for-equity deals with China due to its inability to repay ballooning debts to Chinese state firms.

Secondly, Mahathir likely will take a stronger stance against China’s growing strategic assertiveness across Southeast Asia. Under the Najib administration, Malaysia remained reticent to openly highlight Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea, eager to maintain booming economic ties with China.

Under Mahathir, Malaysia’s policy of strategic acquiescence toward Beijing could change. Unlike Najib, Mahathir seemingly views China as a potential strategic threat. He has described the Xi administration as “inclined towards totalitarianism” and increasingly belligerent, a government that “like[s] to flex [its] muscles” and “increase [its] influence over many countries in Southeast Asia” in a “very worrisome” manner. Mahathir further has warned against growing militarization of the South China Sea, where Malaysia is one of the four Southeast Asian claimant states.

Malaysia is currently occupying multiple land features, including the Swallow Reef, a reclaimed island with its own naval base. Historically, China has been less assertive within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea than it has been in the economic zones of the Philippines and Vietnam, due to cordial bilateral relations with Malaysia. In recent years, however, Chinese navy and coast guard have been more active within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in the area. Nonetheless, the Najib administration adopted a softer tone than other Southeast Asian states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which filed an arbitration case against China.

Finally, Mahathir could place his country, once again, at the center of Southeast Asian affairs, where senior, high-profile figures tend to play an outsized role in setting the regional agenda.

 

Image result for mahathir and lee kuan yew same school

In fact, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional organization largely owes its existence as well as peaceful evolution over time to the efforts of powerful, often domineering regional leaders like former Singapore Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew as well as Mahathir during his previous two-decades-long stint as Malaysian Prime Minister from the 1980s to early 2000s Mahathir shaped ASEAN’s relations with great powers, including China, and its response to regional economic and strategic crises, especially the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Mahathir’s return to the center of power in Malaysia could also provide leadership and foster internal coherence within ASEAN, which has increasingly lost its way in recent years due to in-fighting among member states and the growing influence of China in Southeast Asia.

Mahathir is expected to build on the efforts of his predecessors, who managed to improve historically tense relations with neighboring Singapore, the current chairman of the ASEAN, over the past two decades. His personal gravitas, as a regional elder statesman, could also mean greater deference among his significantly more junior colleagues in the regional body.

“Notwithstanding his age (ninety-two years old) and his need to focus on domestic political challenges including the 1MDB scandal, rising inequality, and rebuilding political institutions, Mahathir’s return to the stage could give more purpose and substance to the ASEAN.”–Richard Javad Heydarian

In recent years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has a dominant figure within ASEAN. Yet Duterte has been mired in controversy, coming under fire for his human rights record and, especially, too cozy relations with China. Last year, with the Philippines holding the organization’s rotating annual chairmanship, ASEAN kept largely silent over South China Sea disputes as well as the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, probably the two largest regional challenges. As a result, ASEAN often appeared irrelevant in shaping regional affairs.

Notwithstanding his age (ninety-two years old) and his need to focus on domestic political challenges including the 1MDB scandal, rising inequality, and rebuilding political institutions, Mahathir’s return to the stage could give more purpose and substance to the ASEAN. Throughout the decades, Mahathir has been a constant fixture in regional meetings, seen as a regional bigwig and an indispensable source of strategic wisdom across Southeast Asia. Indeed, it is likely that Malaysia’s Prime Minister will once again try to leverage his influence within ASEAN to advance not only his country’s interests, but also make the regional body a more relevant player in addressing key challenges, including in the South China Sea. Mahathir’s unlikely and stunning return could be not only a game changer domestically, but for the whole Southeast Asian region.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a nonresident fellow at ADR-Stratbase Institute, Manila, and the author of The Rise of Dutere.

Book Review: War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore


April 1, 2018

Book Review: War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore 

Image result for Book : War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore

Kevin Blackburn and Karl Hack
Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2012. Pp. 459. Paper.

Reviewed by Sudarat Musikawong, Siena College, USA

War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore reveals how individual, communal, and state-crafted memory emerge in conflicting claims to post-colonial World War II national belonging that involve selective amnesia.  The authors argue that while Malay “deathscapes” remake the past into nationalist stories of Malay warriors, Singaporean state-craft incorporates a multiracial approach in which the ethnic Chinese sook ching massacre victims of the Japanese occupation came to stand in for collective suffering.  Blackburn and Hack provide careful explanation of prisons turned into tourist destinations, cenotaphs dedicated to soldiers killed, military cemeteries, memorials dedicated to fallen soldiers, commemorations, and monuments of battles support the argument.  Martial post-war memory does the cultural work of forming a sense of nation and belonging crafted through ethnic communal lens.  This book will be of most interest for those studying post-war memory in Southeast Asia, as well as comparative accounts of Japanese occupation.

The Malay Peninsula was a British colony with complex communal ethnic conflicts.  British-imported Indian and Chinese labour for the rubber and mineral industries economically displaced Malays from their resources.  However, British imperialism figures lightly in the book.  In the book, the Japanese invasion and occupation (1941-1945) are dominant post-war memories.  Because the Japanese war strategy was one of rapid conquest and development in their territories, the peoples living in the Malay Peninsula suffered enormously from Japanese repression, mass violence, and displacement in work camps to places like New Guinea and the Burma-Thailand Railway.  The authors demonstrate how numerous nationalist tensions emerged between Malay nationalists (both pro-capitalist and communist), Indian nationalists, Eurasians and British colonialists, and a fractured Chinese community (between capitalist and communist revolutionaries).  After WWII, while countries like Indonesia were able to wrestle away from Dutch rule, the Malays returned to British rule with a promise of eventual independence in 1957.  After a series of communal race riots between Malays and the Chinese in 1945-1946 and again in the 1960s, the peninsula split between Muslim-Malay rule of Malaysia and Sino-Malay establishment of Singapore.

These ethnic communal tensions, accompanied by Cold War contexts of anti-colonial nation-building and the minority status of Europeans and Indians in the peninsula contributed to a series of different episodes of forgetting and remembering.  For example, the Chinese Malayan Communist Party soldiers had a memorial unveiled on 1 September 1946 to commemorate the lives lost due to a Japanese ambush precisely four years earlier.  But with changing geopolitics, these communists shifted from hero-martyrs to villains.  The Malayan communists were plotting against the return of British rule, then against the Malay state.  The public was denied access to commemorations and the memorial was put in storage.  As communist insurgents, they were configured in public memory as undeserving of public memorials until 2003 when insurgency was no longer at issue [112,120, 278-279].  Another clear example would include how the suffering of Europeans is the subject of ‘Changi Prison tourism’ and championed by the Singapore Tourism Board [79-94]; but although imprisoned Indians had communal commemorations, they have no public site of memory in either country [180, 205-206]. These are the origins of literal nation-making that take place alongside the very different national memory projects of war-time suffering and heroism.

Image result for Mahathir looks to Japan

Mahathir put his experiences during the Japanese Occupation behind him when he initiated Look East Policy as he sought Japanese Investments

One of the challenges of studying memory is that over time, historical complexities and conflicts bring about many moving parts.  But Blackburn and Hack manage the multiple conflicting narratives by layering individual accounts, communal commemoration, and nation-state projects.  While the non-regional expert may be overwhelmed by the details in the first two sections, the “Nations and States” section is a fascinating account of how divergent Malaysian and Singaporean state-craft can be.  By the 1970s-1980s each country’s restructured economy became intertwined with Japanese investments and the demand for Japan to recognize and pay for its war crimes became more vexed and complicated.  Confronted by similar diplomatic pressures to maintain Japanese economic investments each treated Japan’s refusal to offer direct apologies for war-time atrocities and rape very differently—wilful amnesia in Malaysia, selective remembering in Singapore.  In Malaysia, the government’s marginalization of war-time suffering is suggested through Premier Mahathir’s ‘Look East Policy’.  The highlights of this policy included the unencumbered welcoming of Japanese direct investments in the Malay auto-industry, the 1980s exhuming of mass graves for development projects (rather than claims for restitution or recognition), and the Premier’s appeal for Japan to stop apologizing [258-260].  In contrast, the Singaporean state has promoted closely regimented massacre re-enactments, textbook projects, and state-sponsored commercial films, education, and war-tourism projects directed both at domestic and European and Australian tourism.  Of note, the over-enthusiasm of lay actors’ first re-enactment of Japanese war-time cruelties resulted in the traumatization of the entire group (most of whom where school children), physical injuries from being chased by the actors, and the hospitalization of several from the audience [305].

The book argues that both countries have marginalized the deaths and survivors of minor ethnic groups by focusing on the most politically and economically powerful groups.  For example, the following groups have been marginalized from state sponsored projects: the Burma-Thailand railway conscripts, of which 182,000 Asians and Eurasians (mostly Indian rubber tappers transplanted from the Malay peninsula) [199], tens of thousands of Indians sent to New Guinea in forced labour camps (of which 51% died due to harsh conditions and disease) [203], the losses of the communist Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (the MPAJA were mostly Chinese), and European heroes and victims of the Japanese occupation in Malaysia.  These omissions from dominant forms of post-war memory are unsurprising.  Outsiders to the region can imagine the difficulty the authors’ face in providing an all-encompassing account that avoids reproducing dominant hegemonic state narratives.  Scholars of war trauma have pointed to the importance of perspectives of perpetrators, gender analysis, and ethnic/racial minority identities in understanding strategic amnesia. And the book would benefit by including more discussion of Japanese, women’s, and Indian minority memories to examine the role of social amnesia and how it operates in nation-building projects.  War-time memory of soldiers and “freedom fighters” are figures of sacrifice, martyrdom, and heroism are incorporated into Malay nation-building projects.  In contrast, Singapore co-opts suffering as a unifying force [340-341]. To kill for independence from the Japanese is an honor for the sake of the post-colonial nation, but to die in work camps or massacres requires a restorative justice that leaves room to question the ambivalence of collaboration with the Japanese occupation or British colonialism.  One of the most important accomplishments of the book is that it leads to scholars toward new directions in social forgetting by focusing on what is not included in state commemorations and memorial projects.

Download PDF of this review

 

Singapore’s mystifying political succession


February 12, 2018

Singapore’s mystifying political succession

Why is the PAP so ambivalent about the idea of being led by the brilliant and erudite Tharman Shanmugaratnam of Ceylonese Tamil ancestry ?

By Cherian George

http://www.newmandala.org/singapores-mystifying-political-succession/

Image result for Lee Hsien Loong to retire at 70

Should Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong retire at 70 then?

Whoever emerges as Singapore’s premier-designate, two things are certain. First, he will come from the People’s Action Party (PAP), the only ruling party Singapore has known since it became self-governing in 1959. Second, he will want to preserve the PAP’s pro-business-but-socially-responsive philosophy, and its security-focused state apparatus with a dominant executive at its core.

Despite these givens, the succession question is currently a key preoccupation in the city-state. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said he would step down by the age of 70, which is now four years away. Three fourth-generation (“4G”) leaders are said to be on the shortlist to take over: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 56, and two 48-year-olds, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung. The uncertainty is testing people’s faith in a political brand associated with surprise-free long-term planning. Less talked about in mainstream media, but more troubling, is how the PAP has sidelined the individual who most inspires confidence—Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

In the larger scheme of things, these career technocrats may seem to be just different shades of white. Yet who will succeed Prime Minister Lee is not a trivial matter. Within the parameters of PAP ideology, there is scope for a new leader to embark on meaningful changes—or not. Despite the party’s strong showing in the 2015 general election, when it won 70% of the popular vote, one should not underestimate the need for internal reform. On Singapore’s political spectrum, people who prefer the PAP to stay the same—or, at the other extreme, to lose power—are probably outnumbered by those in the middle, who want a much-improved PAP.

In recent years, Singapore academics have contributed suggestions for radical reform that a bolder PAP should find thinkable and doable. Public policy scholar Donald Low, for example, has argued that Singapore needs to shake up its governance principles if it wants to respond effectively to current socio-economic challenges (Hard Choices, 2014). Sociologist Teo You Yenn makes the case for more compassionate social policy to address an alarming income divide (This is What Inequality Looks Like, 2018).

In my own recent book, I contend that enlightened self-interest should persuade the PAP to embark on liberal political reforms (Singapore, Incomplete, 2017). Even among Singaporeans who are generally pro-establishment, there is dissatisfaction with government leaders who seem far too quick to brush off lapses, whether it’s chronic breakdowns of the mass transit system or the massive corruption scandal involving the government-linked Keppel corporation.

Hence the interest in how the PAP’s rejuvenation plays out. Indeed, there is probably more curiosity about this round than ever before. It will be only the third occasion in more than 60 years that Singapore has changed prime ministers. The first time was when the nation’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew stepped aside for Goh Chok Tong in 1991. This was a moment met with more disbelief than anticipation: it was assumed that Lee would still be pulling the strings. As for the identity of Goh’s successor, the writing was on the wall even before he moved into the Istana. When Lee Kuan Yew’s son Lee Hsien Loong took over in 2004, the only surprise was that Goh lasted as long as he did.

This is thus the first time in the republic’s history that there is a genuine and potentially far-reaching choice of leader. Singaporeans who are understandably seized by this moment, however, are beginning to feel frustrated by a closed and opaque leadership renewal process. Singapore has a Westminster-style parliamentary system in which citizens do not directly select the head of government. Like in Britain, Australia and India, Singaporeans elect members of parliament, but it’s the winning party’s leaders that decide who takes charge of the executive branch. In such systems, it is not uncommon for a ruling party, after internal wrangling, to suddenly announce a new prime minister in mid-term. Three of the last four Australian premiers came to power this way.

In Singapore, though, the problem is compounded by the lack of democracy within the party in power. Lee Kuan Yew gave the PAP a Leninist structure, ensuring that its summit could never be conquered from the base. The central executive committee, via cadres it selects, basically elects itself. It would be pointless for any leadership contender to appeal to the party membership, let alone the wider public. Popularity does not decide succession. It may even work against candidates, since the government’s elite technocrats have always been suspicious of the popular will. They would not look kindly on any colleague cultivating too direct and independent a connection with the ground.

 

On the plus side, this model protects Singapore from the kind of demagoguery associated with presidential systems: a Duterte or Trump is not going to emerge suddenly from the primordial ooze. On the other hand, though, the lack of any clear mechanism for managing a leadership contest denies the PAP the chance to engage in a radical reassessment of its direction. In most democracies, party conventions serve this function, but in this regard the PAP more resembles the Communist Party of China: party conferences are stage-managed occasions for the formal anointing of pre-selected leaders. In effect, this system puts Singapore’s political future in the hands of a very small coterie of men—the prime minister and perhaps two or three members of his kitchen cabinet.

The official line is that the next-generation ministers will get to choose their leader among themselves. There is precedent for this. Goh Chok Tong was not Lee Kuan Yew’s first choice, but the job went to him anyway because he was the consensus pick within his cohort. In that spirit, sixteen 4G office holders released a joint statement in January assuring the public that they “are working closely together as a team, and will settle on a leader from amongst us in good time”. It should be stressed, though, that any autonomy the 4G ministers enjoy is by the incumbent prime minister’s leave. If he and his lieutenants have a favoured successor, any other contender has to be extremely cautious and deft if he plans to lobby for job. The system isn’t just opaque to outsiders; even a potential challenger needs to feel his way, with no precedent to guide him.

It is also clear that the current incumbents want continuity more than change. Lee has occasionally spoken of the need to think outside of the box and slaughter sacred cows, but in recent years his administration’s overriding instinct has been to preserve the status quo. Thus, at a time when even Singaporeans close to the establishment understand the need for fresh thinking, the succession process has a strong bias in favour of conservatism.

 

In January, Lee said that it would take “a little bit longer” to name his successor, killing speculation that the matter would be more or less settled through a cabinet reshuffle after next month’s Budget debate. Although some saw this as a sign of reluctance to step down, it could also be because the 4G deliberations are not going according to script. Some say Lee’s presumptive first choice, Chan Chun Sing, may not be getting the unanimous backing of his peers. Ong Ye Kung, in an intriguing comment to the Straits Times, said he had in mind a colleague who, among other characteristics, had the ability to drive long-term, important policy—which seems to describe Finance Minister Heng better than Chan, who, unusually for a high-flier, has not held a key economic portfolio. Granted, there is a risk of reading too much into the precious few opinions the ministers have offered about succession. What is clear, though, is that the process is not progressing like clockwork.

Under our noses

The Straits Times obligingly offered a “neat solution”. Lee should eat his words and serve beyond the age of 70, one of its editors opined: “It gives enough time for the changing of the guard to happen smoothly and uneventfully.” There is, however, another obvious answer staring Singapore in the face. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 61, could take over until the 4G cohort produces a leader. Tharman, who held the education and finance portfolios with distinction, is Singapore’s most highly regarded politician. This lifelong public servant would never thrust himself into the race—indeed, he “categorically” ruled himself out last year—but by the same token it is unlikely that he would refuse if his party insists.

Conventional wisdom states that he is too close to Lee’s age to tick the rejuvenation box. Yet, they are five years apart, the equivalent of a full parliamentary term. Whatever the government now considers an appropriate retirement age for a prime minister, Singapore could benefit from a five-year Tharman administration in between Lee and a 4G successor.

Another question mark hovers over Tharman’s race. He is of Ceylonese Tamil ancestry in a country that is 70% Chinese. Detractors claim Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese premier. There’s no doubt that racial prejudices persist: in a 2016 Institute of Policy Studies survey, only six in ten Chinese said they would accept an Indian prime minister. But such polls are misleading. It is one thing to ask people to react to a hypothetical, nameless, faceless candidate of a given race. It’s another thing entirely to offer voters a specific, real-life individual. In the former case, there’s a high chance that survey respondents’ racial stereotypes will be activated—since race is the only biodata they’ve been given. In the latter case, voters are able to consider the whole person. Of course, some voters may not see past the candidate’s colour. But many will be drawn to other salient traits, such as character and experience.

Thus, in the real world, there’s no contradiction between harbouring generalised prejudices against a particular ethnic group and feeling positively towards specific persons of that very race, because they are not “that” kind of Indian or Malay or whatever. (Successful individuals from minority backgrounds are well acquainted with being patronised in this manner.) Thus, human beings are able to manage the cognitive dissonance of holding on to their racial prejudices even as they acknowledge the undeniable worth of specific members of that community.

Whether we label such inconsistency reasonableness or irrationality, Tharman is clearly a beneficiary. The same year as the IPS survey, a poll commissioned by Yahoo showed that seven in ten Singaporeans would support (not merely accept) Tharman as their next prime minister—twice as many as his fellow deputy prime minister, Teo Chee Hean, who came in second. In the 2015 general election, Tharman outperformed everyone else, including the prime minister, in the popular vote. His team secured more than 79% of the ballots in their constituency, significantly higher than the already-impressive 70% share that the PAP won nationally. No matter how racist Chinese Singaporeans may be, there is simply no evidence that this handicaps Tharman’s ability to rally the ground. Mystifyingly, though, Lee and his colleagues have declined to express such confidence. “I think that ethnic considerations are never absent when voters vote,” Lee said when pressed by the BBC about whether Singapore was ready for an Indian prime minister.

The real issue with Tharman may be the colour of his politics, and not his skin. More than any other minister, he has an appetite for progressive reforms. Ironically, his social initiatives addressing households’ economic insecurity were probably the most important policy-related reason why the PAP did so well in the 2015 election. (Another key factor, the tidal wave of sentiment following the death of Lee Kuan Yew, was an unplanned, one-off act of god.) But soon after, he was moved into a coordinating minister role, losing his finance portfolio to Heng.

The PAP has always taken pride in its adroit navigation of global tides. If it were to apply that skill to the succession question, it might appreciate the competitive edge that Tharman offers Singapore at this moment in history. Neoliberalism is wearing thin; citizens across the developed world are rebelling against elites and expertise, and finding false hope in identity politics; polarised politics is preventing publics from working for the common good; populism is drowning out sensible solutions to complex problems.

To the extent that any one leader can make a difference, Tharman is the man for these times. He is a world-class policy wonk who also happens to be extremely popular. He has won over the public, not with empty rhetoric or simplistic solutions, but through his palpable sincerity in wanting to build a country where people are treated with dignity and met at the point of their need, whether those needs are economic or more intangible. Some Singaporeans say picking a non-Chinese leader would be a triumph of imagination. On the contrary, if the PAP doesn’t take advantage of Tharman’s unique capacities, it’s not its imagination that should be questioned, but its grasp of reality.

 

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew


December 3, 2017

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew

by Cherian George

http://www.newmandala.org

Image result for Lee Kuan Yew the icon

 

One of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s most admirable acts of foresight was to usher out Singapore’s first-generation leaders in order to hasten the rejuvenation of the People’s Action Party (PAP). Giants like Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam and E.W. Barker retired from the government in the 1980s, when they were still younger than Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump were upon entering the White House. In the short term, this represented a massive underutilisation of talent. But that’s how determined Lee was to make sure that the next generation—Goh Chok Tong, Ong Teng Cheong, Tony Tan, S. Dhanabalan and others—would emerge from the shadow of their seniors to secure the future of the ruling party.

PAP exit management under Lee had one major omission, though. Himself. Lee felt he needed to stick around. Since his designated successor Goh Chok Tong had no objections, Lee didn’t accompany his first-generation comrades to the early retirement he had so strenuously advocated. After 1991, when Singapore got a new premier for the first time in 32 years, various terms were used to describe Lee’s new position. Senior Minister. Minister Mentor. Goalkeeper. Whatever the title, for the next 20 years, the simple political reality was that LKY was still around. At The Straits Times where I used to work, word came from way above my pay grade that we were not to say he stepped down. He stepped aside.

https://i2.wp.com/www.newmandala.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Lee-Kuan-Yew-2-1024x768.jpg

A portrait of Lee Kuan Yew by Chinese painter Ren Zhenyu in an upmarket Singapore gallery. (Author photo)

It could have been much worse. He could have held on to the top job like Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who also won power in 1959 but would only concede it to death, 47 years later. Or like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who before he was ousted by the military was saying he’d run for another five-year term in 2018, at the age 94. Or he could have done a Mahathir Mohamad, who never met a potential or actual successor he didn’t eventually consider an enemy to undermine or incarcerate.

If Lee didn’t join this club, it wasn’t because he lacked self-belief or the stomach for undemocratic methods. Perhaps his autocratic tendency was tempered by his hyper-rational, unsentimental view of life. He knew time changes everything, and that people grow old, get weak, and die. So, while convinced that Singapore needed an omnipotent executive branch to run the place, he also knew its personnel would have to be rotated before they succumbed to their mortality. He also differed from the typical dictator in that his family was clean. Corrupt strongmen avoid the exit door because they fear it will lead them and their kin straight to prison. The Lees didn’t have that problem.

Whatever the reasons, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t follow the jealous despot script. Instead, he institutionalised a system of leadership renewal. Therefore, while the PAP as a party is unapologetic about its desire to dominate politics indefinitely, PAP leaders as individuals accept they have to make way for younger replacements.

Things could have been worse; but they could have also been better. Political self-renewal must mean more than replacing older leaders with younger ones. It may require systemic change as well. This is where the PAP fell short. Lee and his junior colleagues failed to adapt their governance model to the post-LKY era. They underestimated how much the system had evolved around Lee’s style and philosophy. After three decades, the state had become like a corporate computer system patched together by a brilliant IT guy who refuses to adopt off-the-shelf solutions used by other firms, and insists on installing his own custom-built software upgrades year after year. He is conscientious enough to train apprentices and write a voluminous troubleshooting guide. But only he knows how to get optimum performance out of his system. Eventually, the company will find out the hard way that it should have adopted more resilient open-source solutions that wouldn’t depend on their champion IT guy being on call 24/7.

Image result for The Brilliant Lee Hsien Loong with Lee Kuan Yew

 

The globally respected operating system that Lee rejected while he was in office was the democratic template of checks and balances to avoid over-concentrated power. Robust institutions insure against the mortality and fallibility of human leaders. Lee placed his bets instead on a conveyor belt of able men unfettered by onerous constraints. This had been Lee’s unique contribution to the founding generation of PAP leaders. The master political strategist opened up space for brilliant policy entrepreneurs like Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen to work their wonders. He did this partly with his persuasive skills, but also by pushing aside legal, institutional and human obstacles in the way of an increasingly dominant administration.

Lee failed to acknowledge that this formula couldn’t last indefinitely. His miscalculation produced at least two policy innovations that proved costly for the PAP, and for which the party is still paying a price. These were the elected presidency and the ministerial pay formula. Both were the products of a mind obsessed, as it always had been, with the challenge of protecting Singapore governance from the vagaries of public opinion and the popular vote. They were hatched during that period from the late 1980s to the 1990s when Lee was handing over to the second-generation leadership, and anticipating what might go wrong. And both became Frankenstein’s monsters that made his successors’ jobs harder, not easier.

Related image

HE Halimah Yacob,  Singapore’s Eighth President

The elected presidency was Lee’s insurance policy against a so-called freak election that could bring the wrong party into power. The insurgents might only last a single parliamentary term, but they could cause permanent damage in that time, Lee feared. They could raid the country’s financial reserves and replace key public sector appointment holders with incompetent cronies. Lee decided that the office of the president had to be given the power to veto such plans. This new executive role would require the president to be directly elected by the people.

Related imageIn 2011, the PAP’s favoured candidate Tony Tan won the Presidential Election but with only 35% of the vote. Presidential elections have been more contentious than Lee Kuan Yew anticipated.

Lee’s constitutional fix, meant to make Singapore more stable, ironically created one of its main sources of political uncertainty. The freak election scenario remains a whimsical notion; but in the meantime, presidential elections have opened up a new front to challenge PAP dominance. This has forced the PAP to shift more attention away from governance and towards politics—the exact opposite of what Lee spent most of his career trying to do. To address the risk that presidential elections will deviate from the government’s preferences, it has had go through various contortions, including reducing the power of the president in relation to the unelected Council of Presidential Advisers, raising the pre-qualification bar for would-be candidates (including reserving this year’s election for Malay candidates), and lecturing Singaporeans that they must not politicise the presidency. The rancour surrounding presidential elections—and the attendant cost to the unifying purpose of the head of state—had been predicted by Singaporeans who submitted thoughtful feedback during the Select Committee hearings leading up to the 1991 constitutional amendments. Lee had brushed aside their concerns.

The pay formula for ministers and senior civil servants was another radical idea born of Lee’s frustration with an obtuse Singapore public. He was justifiably concerned that skyrocketing private sector pay would weaken the public sector’s ability to recruit top talent. He was correct to conclude that the government could not let its remuneration lag too far behind. Where he went wrong was to decide that, instead of arguing it out in parliament every time it needed to revise its pay structure, the government should create an automatic formula pegging public officials’ salaries to those of top earners such as lawyers, bankers and corporate chief executives.

Singaporeans could see the fundamental flaws in the idea. A league table of top salaries in fields like banking and corporate management would show very high figures year after year, but those salaries were not going to the same people every year. Firms and individuals would enter and leave the list; they were in risky, competitive markets. Like boy bands, they might be at the pinnacle for only a few years. In contrast, the government’s stars would continue to get top dollar for a couple of decades, their pay being pegged to the private sector’s equivalent of Westlife in the 1990s, the Jonas Brothers in the 2000s, and One Direction in the 2010s. This just didn’t smell right. Many Singaporeans also had deep concerns about so explicitly marketising the relationship between leaders and led.

Lee Kuan Yew would have none of it. He was determined to do what he had always done: use his political clout to create a structural fix that, he thought, would put an end to unproductive debates and let the government get on with the job. Concluding his marathon speech during the 1994 parliamentary debate on the formula, Lee declared, “I say I am prepared to put my experience and my judgement against all the arguments that doubters can muster. In five to ten years, when it works and Singapore has a good government, this formula will be accepted as conventional wisdom.”

In the realm of embarrassing 1990s predictions, this one vies with 3Com founder Robert Metcalfe’s statement the following year:I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” For instead of depoliticising the question of public sector remuneration, Lee’s formula bequeathed to his successors possibly the era’s single most toxic policy move. Exactly as critics predicted, it infected government–people relations with cynicism and distrust.

The PAP had prided itself on its willingness to make unpopular decisions in the country’s long-term interest, but now when ministers resisted the popular will, their motivations would be questioned—of course they don’t care about the people, they only care about their high-paying jobs. The market-pegged formula also made people contemptuously unforgiving of inevitable mistakes—this is what million-dollar salaries get us? Another serious unintended but predictable consequence was to make the civil service resistant to change, by disincentivising risk-taking among officers earning salaries many know they can’t command elsewhere.

Lee Kuan Yew admitted to making mistakes, especially in pushing zero population growth too aggressively in the 1970s. But he couldn’t really be faulted for that one, since practically every government looking at similar demographic trends arrived at the same policy prescriptions. In contrast, Lee’s ideas to restructure of the presidency and public sector pay in the 1990s were idiosyncratically his own. And they were not cases of random error but systematic error, as scientists would put it. They resulted from his peculiar obsession with protecting the state from the unpredictability of democratic politics. He had more or less succeeded in doing so in earlier decades—like that special IT guy, constantly troubleshooting and tinkering. But he overestimated his ability to design plug-ins for Singapore’s operating system that would continue to function smoothly after he left.

Shamefully, he—jointly with Goh Chok Tong—was allowed to announce his resignation a week after the election, and before colleagues whose presence in cabinet Singaporeans had been querying for years. It was an undeservedly ignominious end to a government career that would be eulogised profusely four years later.

Lee and Goh said they were doing it to indicate “that the PM can and will revise and revamp his policies … to give PM and his team the room to break from the past, and … to make it clear that the PAP has never been averse to change”. When he accepted their resignations a few days later, Lee Hsien Loong allowed their rationale to stand—to “leave it to me and my team of younger ministers to take Singapore forward into the future”—thus throwing out of the window two decades of PAP assurances that Lee Kuan Yew’s presence in cabinet had never been an obstacle to progress, since ministers had minds of their own.

For more than a decade, Lee Kuan Yew had been codifying his beliefs in his memoirs and other books. This exercise was a symptom of the PAP’s understandable anxiety that its unique formula for good governance would not survive him. But it also contributed to the old pragmatism of the PAP giving way to dogmatism. After LKY’s final, emotional exit in February 2015, the depth of his influence became even more apparent. LKYism became a kind of quasi-theology, with members of the governing elite falling over one another to cite his words and acts, and thus show that they were the legitimate interpreters and inheritors of Singapore’s ultimate oracle. Being “against Mr Lee’s values” emerged as a damning label to stick on opponents within the establishment. Lee had long been called the founding father of the republic, but in 2017, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean took the quantum leap of declaring that all of us—as individuals, not just collectively—are “sons and daughters” of Lee Kuan Yew. Of course, Teo did not actually possess the power to rewrite everyone’s birth certificate, but the remark revealed Lee’s place in the minds of the PAP’s senior leadership.

Teo’s declaration came during the parliamentary debate on the Lees’ feud over their family bungalow at 38 Oxley Road. This was a debate that engrossed the establishment and most ordinary Singaporeans. It centred on what to do with the building that was Lee Kuan Yew’s private residence during his adult life. The debate missed the point. The question we should be asking is how much room to give to the Lee Kuan Yew that will reside in the Singaporean mind long after his death.

This essay is extracted from Cherian George’s self-published anthology, Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development. The book is his first for a general audience since his 2000 volume, Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation.