The Padang Rengas Debate


March 20, 2017

COMMENT: I liken this Padang Rengas debate to  Gunfight at OK Coral. It is an encounter between old gunfighter looking for his last hurrah and a young, ambitious and astute gunslinger who knows that his adversary is no longer fast on the draw.  Advantage Nazri Aziz.

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The debate has been aptly described as a proxy fight between Tun Dr. Mahathir (Mentor) and our incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak (Mentee).  For Najib, this debate is  also a convenient diversion from his massive political troubles arising mainly from his failure to come to grips with  the 1MDB fiasco and the lies he and his supporters told the Malaysian public and the world .

I have never agreed with Nazri’s politics, and  neither have I understood the motives of the former Prime Minister who ruled Malaysia with an iron fist for 22 years and left office in a huff leaving in his wake a shattered nation whose institutions of governance have been irreparably damaged.Why the need for this debate in the first place?

It was my good fortune to know both Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz.  I followed their political careers very closely over several years. I  admired their political survival skills and  recognize their service to our country.  Both are strong and competent people -centered leaders. However, I think,  Tun Dr. Mahathir has finally met his match. By exploiting  the man’s oversized ego, the younger politician is able to draw his nonagenarian opponent to his home ground, thereby giving himself a psychological advantage.  That Tun Dr. Mahathir should take the bait surprises me. 

I know the Tun to be a  sharp strategic thinker. It is clear  to me that  age has caught up with the former Prime Minister as it must with men and women of his and my generation.We are all slowing down and taking stock of and reflecting on our lives but not the Tun.

My intellectual friend, Dr Khoo Boo Teik, who authored  a book, Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad, is right in saying that Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is an engima. –Din Merican

The Padang Rengas Debate: A Verbal Lambast  between Two Generations

by Jocelyn Tan @www.thestar.com.my

The debate between Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz next week is expected to be fiery but not as explosive as the former PM’s confrontation with the Otai Reformasi gathering.

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PADANG Rengas in Perak is hardly the sort of place where one would expect a political debate to take place, much less, a debate between a former Prime Minister and the Tourism Minister.

The debate, if it goes ahead, could be the most happening event Padang Rengas has ever witnessed.

Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz is the outspoken and rather capricious MP for Padang Rengas which sits somewhere between Kuala Kangsar and Taiping.  As for Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, there are few words that can adequately describe him these days so let’s just say he is even more vocal and mercurial than his would-be debater.

These two big personalities will face off in a grudge fight on March 25. All eyes will be on them even though no one has a clue as to what they intend to talk about because this debate is going to be about the personalities rather than the subject matter.

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This debate idea was not sparked off by any issue. Instead it was something that evolved following news that Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia President Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin would be there on March 23, followed by Dr. Mahathir on March 25.

Now, Nazri is a macho alpha male politician, with a sort of machismo that is quite unrivaled among his fellow politicians. The Parti Pribumi folk were entering the lion’s den and he responded in typical macho fashion. He said the two big-wigs were gunning for him because they considered him a great threat.

“I welcome them, selamat datang. But don’t just come for a visit, why not contest in Padang Rengas? It would be better if Mahathir were to contest but if he cannot, then Muhyiddin can do it.”

The old lion in Dr. Mahathir bared his fangs and challenged Nazri to take him on in Langkawi. There were gasps because it sounded like Dr. Mahathir was throwing down the gauntlet in Langkawi. A day later, he clarified that he would not be contesting the general election. But Dr. Mahathir has made so many U-turns that it is best to keep an open mind on whatever he says.

Nazri offered to roll out the red carpet but Dr. Mahathir said he did not mind walking in the mud.It was a rather childish exchange between two grown men or what a Penang politician described as “two Mickey Mouse characters”. But Nazri was merely taking from the Mahathir playbook. During his time as Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir was famous for challenging his critics to contest in elections instead of just talking.

This is not the first war of words between them. A few years ago, they had clashed over the Biro Tata Negara, which Nazri claimed promoted racial sentiments but Dr. Mahathir defended as an organisation that promoted good values.

Nazri called the former Premier a “racist” and was summoned to the Prime Minister’s office. Things then were still hunky-dory between Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Dr. Mahathir, and Nazri was told to back off the elder man.

Nazri, who had been likened to a Samurai committing hara-kiri for taking on Dr Mahathir, emerged from Najib’s office with the quip, “My Shogun has spoken”.

Suffice to say that this time around, the Shogun will not be telling his Samurai to pull back.“Nazri is loyal to the boss of the day,” said Pahang tourism exco member Datuk Sharkar Shamsudin who was with the Tourism Minister in Berlin last week.

Sharkar said Nazri had also stood by Dr. Mahathir during the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Nazri came to the defence of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when he was under attack by Dr. Mahathir. Likewise, he is standing by Najib now.

Nazri’s nickname in UMNO is “Chief”. He is younger than Najib by a year, they were contemporaries in UMNO but Nazri was too indepen­dent to be part of any camp.

Shortly after Najib became Prime Minister there was pressure from those around Dr. Mahathir for Najib to drop Nazri from the Cabinet. The political animal in Najib knew that people like Nazri could be problematic but they have their uses and his instincts have been spot on.

No one has had the audacity to tackle Dr. Mahathir the way Nazri does. He does not give a damn about conventions, he can be quite irreverent about rules and stature and he is the only UMNO politician who has publicly referred to Dr. Mahathir as “senile”. He occasionally comes across as too much and even rude, but he is never boring.

Dr Mahathir has been drawing good crowds in Malay areas. He is still a novelty, and the rural Malays want to hear what he has to say. On the other hand, the debate could turn out to be another political fiasco. Dr. Mahathir had a rough time at the Otai Reformis convention in Shah Alam recently.

The Otai Reformis comprises hardcore veteran supporters of Anwar. Their loyalty to him has not wavered from the day he was sacked by Dr. Mahathir. The group, led by Hulu Klang assemblyman Saari Sungip, had endured tear gas and rough treatment by the FRU when they took to the streets to protest Anwar’s imprisonment.They are still critical of Dr. Mahathir and were upset that Anwar has reconciled with his oppressor.

Dr. Mahathir turned up at the convention thinking that he could slow-talk them to come along with him on the grounds that the real enemy is Najib. Unfortunately, many of those in the audience also regard Dr.  Mahathir as the enemy.

Dr. Mahathir was greeted by cries of “reformasi” and “bebas Anwar” (free Anwar) as he made his way to the rostrum. He could sense that this was far from an adoring crowd and he attempted some reverse psychology, saying that a politician has to accept that he cannot be loved by all. He said he knew that some called him “mahafiraun” (great pharoah) and “mahazalim” (tyrant).

He appealed to them to put aside other issues and focus on toppling Najib because without power, their struggle would fail. “After that, if you want to act against me, you can do so,” he said.

He was flanked by Saari and Anwar’s younger brother Rusli Ibrahim whose presence on stage was to signal that Dr. Mahathir was there with the blessings of Anwar. But the Otai Reformis is a seasoned group of people who have seen it all. They were cynical about Dr. Mahathir and his simplistic reasoning failed to wash on them. Besides, they did not trust him and the respect was not there.

There have been too many life-changing experiences between then and now and the emotional scars are still there.

Moreover, said an Otai Reformis politician from Terengganu, the audience was expecting no less than an apology from the former Premier and they had called out for him to “minta maaf” (ask for forgiveness).

When it became clear that he had not come to apologise, they broke out into jeers and heckled him.Dr. Mahathir tried to smile his way through it but there were moments when the mask dropped and he looked shaken.

“It was quite humiliating. I think he cut short his speech, it was over real fast,” said the Terengganu politician. On top of all that, Dr. Mahathir had to sit through a video detailing the Reformasi movement – Anwar addressing a sea of people from the balcony of the national mosque, the infamous black eye, the angry street protests and the controversial trial. It was a political chapter that he would rather forget.

When everyone in the audience raised their fists to cries of “reformasi”, Dr. Mahathir made a half-hearted attempt to do the same but his hand barely reached his chest. The event was quite a farce and some of those present said the organisers had deceived them by allowing Dr. Mahathir to take to the stage when he had no intention of asking for forgiveness.

“There is still a lot of anger. They want him to apologise to Anwar’s family who suffered so much,” said the same Terengganu politician. It is obvious that even the chief personalities like Saari and Rusli were not bowled over by Dr. Mahathir because they could be seen trying to control their amusement at the height of the jeering.

The gathering then passed several resolutions, one of which stated that “this convention is not a forum to seek Dr. Mahathir’s views on the reform agenda”. It was as good as a disavowal of Dr. Mahathir.

Dr. Mahathir ought to have an easier time in Padang Rengas. Hordes of his supporters will probably make a beeline to the debate to lend moral backing. This is traditional UMNO territory and the audience will not be anything like what happened at the Otai Reformis event. But this is also Nazri’s home ground. He is the most senior minister after Najib and has served under three Prime Ministers.

People often forget Nazri’s political seniority because of his contemporary image, from the way he dresses to the way he addresses issues. For instance, he sometimes turns up for official events in a sports shirt worn rapper-style, with the collar turned up. Nazri understands the local sentiments and is more than familiar with Dr, Mahathir and his lines of attack.

Two big personalities known for their wit and laser tongues, their fighting spirit and dislike for each other – it should be pure entertainment even if it yields little of consequence.

Idris Jala strums the Permandu Blues– Delusional Transformasi


March 13, 2017

Idris Jala strums the Permandu Blues– Delusional Transformasi

by Idris Jala@www.thestar.com.my

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Idris Jala: Strumming the Permandu Blues

WE started Pemandu in 2009 with two clear objectives: to drive Malaysia’s transformation into a high-income nation by 2020, and to work ourselves out of this job. I have always said that Pemandu will be successful when we become redundant, that is, when the civil service is prepared to take up the mantle to lead Malaysia’s transformation.

We were also clear that the handover of Pemandu’s work on the National Transformation Programme (NTP) can only be initiated when it is “sticky”, meaning there is strong potential for the civil service to independently implement the NTP’s initiatives.

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In 2016, as the NTP reached almost seven years of implementation and continued to yield tangible results, it became apparent that the time had come for Pemandu to transition our work on the NTP to the civil service. On Jan 23 2017, the Prime Minister’s Office announced the commencement of this transition over a two-year period.

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We have scheduled this transition into three categories. The first involves work which will be handed over immediately to the civil service without any need for transition. This was completed on 1 March 2017.

Under the second category, some of the NTP work will be transferred to the civil service on a gradual basis. This requires a two-year transition period during which Pemandu will continue to support the civil service in the NTP activities, until the civil service has built sufficient capacity to enable full handover in the third year.

Over this period, Pemandu will commit 45 of its employees to work with the civil service in 2017. This will reduce to 30 in 2018, until no further support is required from Pemandu in 2019.

The third category involves work which still requires NTP coordination even after work has been transferred to the civil service. Pemandu will hand over these coordination activities to the Economic Planning Unit’s Civil Service Delivery Unit.

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Malaysia–Paradise Found or Lost?

The key to succeeding in this exercise is to ensure an orderly transition. As set forth by change management expert William Bridges, there are three stages of transition, namely Ending/Letting Go; the Neutral Zone; and the New Beginning.

In the past seven years, we have worked closely with the civil service to ensure adoption of the new processes introduced to ensure consistent delivery of the NTP initiatives. This has seen the civil service gradually applying these new processes across their operations.

We are confident of their continued ability and commitment to do so. In short, all our work thus far has been leading up to this point.However, in tandem with this gradual shift, there remains a segment of the civil service which has yet to adopt any of the new ways of working.Therefore, within the civil service now exists two methods of delivery – the old way of working and the new.

According to Bridges’ transition model, the civil service is in the Neutral Zone, which, if allowed to continue, results in the organisation becoming choked. Therefore, it is critical to our transition timeline that by February 2019, the civil service must make way for new beginnings to ensure we achieve our high-income aspirations by 2020.

Let me come to why we felt it was time to begin this transition. Since the start of the NTP, we have been committed to our True North: the high-income GNI per capita threshold as set by the World Bank, jobs and investment.

According to latest available data from the World Bank, Malaysia’s GNI per capita as at 2015 was US$10,570, just 15% short of the current high-income threshold of US$12,475.

This is compared to our GNI per capita of just US$8,280 in 2010, with a gap of 33% from the-then high-income threshold of US$12,276. Additionally, we have catalysed a 2.2 times growth in the CAGR of private investment, which previously recorded a CAGR of 5.5% in 2006-2010. Between 2011-2015, private investment recorded a CAGR of 12.1%.

This data shows that we are more than halfway to high-income status and on track to achieve our goals by 2020.

We have also assessed the ministries’ competencies in taking over the reins of the NTP, with the programme’s total KPIs recording an average score of more than 100% every year.More importantly, through the NTP, we have helped to raise the incomes of everyday Malaysians in an inclusive way, such as through the completion of 5,286 km of rural roads benefiting 3.5 million people.

We have also connected 144,025 rural houses to reliable electricity, lighting up the lives of 720,125 people, provided 1.68 million living in 334,593 rural houses with access to clean water and built and restored 79,137 houses benefiting 412,360 people.

With just three years left to our deadline, considering the pace of progress we have seen over the past seven years, I am confident of the civil service’s capability to deliver the national transformation.

In this transition, this will mark my final Transformation Unplugged entry. Pemandu as an organisation will also embark on a new journey as a global consultancy firm focusing on government transformation and business turnaround.

On behalf of the team, I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone whom we have worked closely with in the past seven years. I would also like to thank the folks who have been following my column. I must commend the Prime Minister and civil servants for their commitment and cooperation in delivering the NTP to date. I look forward to work together with them to embrace this New Beginning in the coming two years.

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In the meantime, I hope to see you at the Global Transformation Forum 2017 on March 22-23. The Government of Malaysia is playing host again, bringing the best minds in transformation from all over the world to inspire Malaysians. The transformation mindset you will experience will bring clarity and inspire real behavioural change in driving your own transformation.

Saudi King Salman’s Mission to Malaysia, China and Indonesia


March 4, 2017

What Saudi King Salman wants from his tour of China, Malaysia

Ignore the theatrics, the multibillion-dollar investment deals and even the uncertainty over US hegemony – when the leader of the House of Al Saud is in town, Iran, Islamic State and ultra-conservatism are never far from the surface.

By James M. Dorsey

http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2075774/what-saudi-king-salman-wants-his-tour-china-malaysia

The spectacle of Saudi King Salman’s tour of Asia is matched by its significance. Attention has focused as much on his 1,500-strong entourage and their 459 tons of luggage – roughly the weight of two Boeing 787 Dreamliners – as it has on expectations of billions of dollars in investment.

To be sure, economics is high on the Saudi leader’s agenda. Salman is looking at both strategic investments in Asia as well as Asian investments in the kingdom that will help it diversify its economy and strengthen ties to China and major Muslim nations in an era of uncertainty about the United States’ place in the world.

Yet Salman’s geopolitical concerns go far beyond whether the US remains a reliable guarantor of regional security. Saudi Arabia is locked into a global battle with Iran for dominance in the Muslim world. For the Al Sauds, the kingdom’s ruling family, the struggle with the Islamic republic is existential in nature.

A policeman prepares his patrol car ahead of Saudi King Salman’s visit to Bali. Photo: AFP

Iran not only represents an alternative form of Islamic rule that recognises a degree of sovereign legitimacy and was established by a popular revolt. It also has assets the kingdom lacks that are key to sustaining regional hegemony: a large population, a huge domestic market, an industrial base, a battle-hardened military, geography, and a deep-seated identity grounded in a history of empire.

An epic battle

The epic battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is being fought not only on the international and Middle Eastern stage but domestically in Muslim and non-Muslim nations that span the globe. Saudi Arabia’s soft power effort, possibly the single largest public diplomacy campaign in history, has aligned itself neatly with Muslim governments that opportunistically play politics with religion and Muslim communities that embrace Saudi-style Sunni ultra-conservatism in lieu of feasible alternatives.

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Saudi King Salman with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh in 2016. Photo: AFP

China may not have a seriously sizeable Muslim community, yet the lure of ultra-conservatism has made its mark among Hui Muslims and Uygurs alike. Chinese concern about the impact of ultra-conservatism coupled with Iran’s strategic advantage has shaped Chinese policy even if Saudi Arabia is a major oil supplier and commercial partner as well as a military ally.

President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) visit to the Middle East last year, the first by a Chinese leader in seven years, saw the signing of billions of dollars’ worth of agreements with Saudi Arabia and a ten-fold expansion of trade with Iran over the next 10 years. The significance may go far beyond commerce as Chinese interests align more with Iranian interests than those of Saudi Arabia.

From Riyadh, Xi went to Iran to become the first foreign leader to do so following the lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic republic. Saudi leaders could not have been pleased.

Back to the future: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Middle East visit … and his Middle Kingdom dream

Xi’s determination to gain a first mover advantage in Iran at a time that Saudi Arabia was seeking to increase rather than reduce the Islamic republic’s international isolation suggested that more than commerce was at play.

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. Photo: AFP

Xi’s visit to the kingdom was accompanied by talk of brotherly relations and strategic cooperation. The rhetoric, however, did little to mask serious differences on issues ranging from Syria – with Chinese support for President Bashar al-Assad – to Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism and a relative decline in Chinese reliance on Saudi oil.

“Our biggest worry in the Middle East isn’t oil – it’s Saudi Arabia,” a Chinese analyst told the Asia Times. Religious affinity is not something China has to worry about with Shiite-majority Iran, which has long projected itself as a revolutionary rather than a sectarian power.

Consequently, China remains reluctant to clearly articulate its strategic interests or intentions in the Middle East and North Africa beyond its drive to secure resources, investments and people, and expand its influence through economic ties and its “One Belt, One Road” initiative to link economies into a China-centred trading network. As a result, China’s strategic dialogue remains focused on free-trade agreements with the six-nation, Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rather than the forging of broader strategic partnerships that go beyond economics.

China has also long sought to tread carefully in its for now limited military contacts.

China was, for example, slow to engage in its security cooperation with Saudi Arabia that started in secret in 1985, five years prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In a deal that was only disclosed three years later, Saudi Arabia in its first weapons deal with China bought in 1985 for US$3.5 billion 36 Chinese CSS-2 East Wind intermediate range ballistic missiles even though they were known to be highly inaccurate in conventional use.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman is driven around in a golf cart by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo in the presidential palace in Jakarta. Photo: AFP

The deal said much about the attitude of Saudi Arabia towards China. Saudi Arabia saw the deal as a way to counter Iran’s missile strength that in a twist of irony was built on Chinese technology and design, and as leverage to persuade the US to be more forthcoming with weaponry that had offensive capabilities. In a further indication that China was making only limited inroads and that Saudi Arabian arms purchases remained focused on Western suppliers, Saudi Arabia – even while engaged in a massive weapons buying spree – waited 30 years to acquire a more up-to-date Chinese missile system, the DF-21 East Wind ballistic missile.

A frontal assault

Ultra-conservatism – which complicates communal relations, changes policies towards minorities, and alters local culture as well as Saudi efforts to forge an anti-Iranian military alliance – loomed even larger in Malaysia and during the current Indonesian leg of Salman’s tour. In Malaysia, a supposedly pluralistic nation that bans Shi’a Islam, ultra-conservative Islamic scholars legitimise the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s ruling party, raising concerns about a more intolerant society despite its multi-ethnic composition.

Saudi King Salman and Indonesian Parliament Speaker Setya Novanto in Jakarta. Photo: EPA

The state of Johor’s straight-talking Sultan, Ibrahim Ismail Ibni Sultan Iskander, didn’t mince words last year when he decried what he described as creeping Arabisation of the Malay language. He insisted that Malaysians use Malay rather than Arabic words when referring to religious practices and Muslim holidays.

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In a frontal assault on Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, Ibrahim advised his people who “If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practise Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is,” the Sultan said.

Saudi King Salman and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Bogor, West Java. Photo: AFP

Both Malaysia and Indonesia have been reluctant to become too involved in a 41-nation, Saudi-led military alliance headquartered in Riyadh that officially was created to combat political violence and the Islamic State (IS). Many fear the alliance is also intended as a military bloc against Iran that would also bolster Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen – where it is fighting Houthi militia and loyalists of the former president, Ali Abdullah Salleh, allegedly supported by Iran.

Ultra-conservatism

Saudi influence was nonetheless evident when Malaysian Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein last year, to the consternation of his ministry’s civilians, agreed to let 300 Malaysian paratroopers participate in a 20-nation military exercise in the kingdom. Malaysia currently has up to 100 military personnel and C-130 Hercules transport planes in Saudi Arabia that provide the alliance with logistical support.

The Indonesian military, like its Malaysian counterpart, regularly trains with Saudi officers to counter IS. Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi policy analyst with close government ties, described last year’s exercise as a preparation for possible Saudi military intervention in Iraq and Syria.

King Salman and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

Critics in the ministry were taken aback when Hishammuddin obliged them weeks later to endorse Saudi funding for the King Salman Centre for Moderation (KSCM). Under the auspices of the ministry’s think tank, the Malaysian Institute of Defence and Security (MIDAS), would seek to counter jihadist messaging in Southeast Asia. An internal ministry memo said MIDAS had a “strategic interest to be collaborating with various institutions internationally particularly from Saudi Arabia”.

A joint communique at the end of Salman’s visit described political violence as the most important issue discussed between the king and Prime Minister Najib Razak. Najib backed Saudi concerns about Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries and called on the Islamic republic to respect the sovereignty of regional states.

The two leaders also announced the establishment of the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), a collaboration of Saudi and Malaysian defence institutions as well as the Muslim World League, a prime Saudi vehicle for the propagation of ultra-conservatism. It’ not clear if KSCM and KSCIP are separate institutions.

An Indonesian honour guard waits for the arrival of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman at the presidential palace in Bogor. Photo: AFP

In Indonesia, a country that prides itself on its tolerant interpretation of Islam, Saudi-style ultra-conservatism is similarly making itself felt. Major Islamic organisations with a history of opposition to Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative world view that governs the kingdom, see Shiites, who constitute 1.2 per cent of the population, and Iran as threats to national security. A former deputy head of Indonesian intelligence goes as far as describing Shiites as the foremost domestic threat to national security.

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Saudi media reported that King Salman hoped during his visit to lay the ground for the opening of more Arabic-language Islamic schools in Indonesia. They said the king would also be increasing the number of scholarships available to Indonesians for study in Saudi Arabia. Many of those who return after completing their studies are imbued with Saudi-style ultra-conservatism.

All in all, Salman’s Asian official visit-cum-holiday is likely to reverberate far beyond the billions of dollars in economic and commercial agreements he signs. The visit also solidified cooperation between Asian nations and Saudi Arabia in the fight against IS. This, despite the fact that IS and the kingdom have the same ideological roots, even if the jihadists accuse Saudi Arabia of having deviated from the true path of Islam. At the same time, the tour could also well embed sectarian aspects of Saudi’s Arabia’s epic struggle with Iran ever deeper in the social and political life of the continent’s Muslims.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Singapore Foreign Policy Update


March 3, 2017

Singapore Foreign Policy Update

by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan

https://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/media_centre/press_room/pr/2017/201703/press_201703021.html

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2016 was a tumultuous year for the world and a very busy year for (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) MFA staff. The previous global consensus on the benefits of free trade and, on economic integration is broken. And unfortunately, political discourse in many countries, unlike in this House, has become increasingly nationalistic, anti-incumbent and even sometimes xenophobic. The threat from terrorism, radicalism and extremism has increased, and new media has also amplified this threat far and wide.

Quite frankly, we have to anticipate even more of such external challenges and challenges that will test our resolve, our unity and our agility. As a small city state, Singapore has no option. Isolation and protectionism is not an option for us. In fact, the world is even more interconnected than ever before. So we have actually to double down on globalisation. The economic headwinds and the global protectionist sentiments are not going to go away soon, and they will have serious implications on our trade-dependent economy. We are probably the only country where our trade volume is three and a half times our GDP.  So for us, free trade is not a debating point – it is our lifeblood.  So if you think about it, the larger context of this budget debate, of the COS, and of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) is that we have to enhance the competitive position of Singapore and Singaporeans.  That is the only way we can survive and thrive in this uncertain world. Add to that, the fact that major power interactions and rivalry will impact the region, and will impact us and we have seen evidence of that.

So the question, therefore, that all of you have posed is: How will we navigate these challenges? Our fundamental realities remain.  We are still a tiny island in an uncertain neighbourhood, we still have to try our best to build a wide network of friends.  We have to be a relevant, valuable, reliable partner, and at the same time, be realistic about our place in the world.  As former British PM and Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston once pointed out, nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.

Tenets of Singapore’s Foreign Policy

Our key foreign policy principles therefore have not changed.  First, we conduct an independent sovereign foreign policy in order to safeguard our independence and the interests of all Singaporeans.  Second, we promote ASEAN unity and centrality.  And third, we have to remain committed to a rules-based international system.

Finally, foreign policy begins at home.  And the effectiveness of our foreign policy depends on us being a successful nation-state and on the continued support of a united citizenry. And one point which I want to commend today – I’ve listened to the very thoughtful speeches from Mr Low Thia Khiang, Mr Pritam Singh, and I am grateful for the bipartisan support that we have in this House.  This unity of purpose is essential for us to pursue our foreign policy goals in this uncertain and volatile environment.

So all the Members of this House understand and appreciate these key tenets of our policy.

Long-Term Value Proposition and Relevance to Other Countries

Many of you have asked questions on Singapore’s long term value proposition and the relevance of Singapore to other countries.  Ms Sun Xueling asked about Singapore-China relations.  Mr Cedric Foo asked about US-Singapore relations under the new Trump Administration.  Mr Amrin Amin, Mr Chia Shi Lu have asked for updates on our relations with Malaysia and Indonesia.  All of these are key relationships.

Singapore and China

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Let me deal first with China.  Singapore has been a steadfast and longstanding friend of China.  Our bilateral relationship, right now, I will describe it as in “good working order”.  In November 2015, when President Xi Jinping came here, we signed an agreement which characterised our relationship as an ‘All Round Cooperative Partnership Progressing with the Times’.  Putting aside the words, the point is historically, our relationship has been built on the strong foundations laid by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Deng Xiaoping.

And over the decades, Singapore has supported and demonstrated in action and investment in China’s peaceful development and its progressive engagement of the region and the international community.  And we do so because we believe that China’s success is good first for the citizens of China.  It is also good for the region and it is good for us.

I am always amazed that tiny Singapore currently is China’s largest foreign investor, and we have been so since 2013.  China is Singapore’s largest trading partner, also since 2013.

Several Cabinet members including myself just accompanied DPM Teo to Beijing.  We came back just two days ago.  We attended the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC).  It was a very good meeting and it gave both sides opportunities to explore ways to deepen cooperation especially in this flagship project of President Xi Jinping’s, the “One Belt and One Road” initiative.  I also had a very good meeting with my counterpart, and I can say that this again is a reflection of the deep resilient nature of our relationship.

Our third and latest Government-to-Government project, the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, has been designated a priority demonstration project for the “Belt and Road”, and will play a catalytic role in linking up Western China – both to Southeast Asia as well as across to Central Asia and beyond.

Besides the JCBC, we also have candid exchanges and sharing of experiences through established platforms such as the China-Singapore Forum on Leadership; and the Singapore-China Social Governance Forum.

The various projects, the business engagements, the people-to-people ties – you’ve heard 2.8 million Chinese tourists to Singapore and I think for us, it would be 800,000 or so Singaporeans who have travelled to China in a year.  The high frequency of interactions at senior leadership level have conferred a very high degree of resilience and I would add strategic trust in our relationship.

Therefore, even when we have differences over some issues, as I said in an earlier session, we should not overreact and we should, in a sense, anticipate that these incidents are not unusual even amongst close friends and neighbours, and we must recognise that our shared interests far exceed these differences.  So we must not be distracted from the larger strategic imperatives or allow incidents to derail the substantive, longstanding and mutually-beneficial cooperation.

Singapore-US Relations

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let me turn now to the US.  There is a new Administration.  It is settling in.  There’s always a period of uncertainty, a period of adjustment that goes on both domestically when a new Administration takes over, and also at the international level.  Basically because the US is such an important superpower.

As far as Singapore is concerned, we believe that our many decades of consistent policies and interactions with the US, have created trust and I believe they consider us a reliable partner.  I am confident that we will be creative and adaptable in developing win-win partnerships with the US even as President Trump pursues a new set of policies.

We have had a strong and enduring base of relations for the last 51 years.  These mutually-beneficial ties have spanned five Republican and four Democratic Administrations. On the economic front, the US is Singapore’s 4th largest trading partner in goods and our top trading partner in services.  The US is also Singapore’s largest foreign direct investor.  And Singapore is the US’ 4th largest Asian investor (after Japan, Australia and the ROK).

On the defence front, our Air Force has training detachments in Texas, Idaho and Arizona.  The US is a significant user of both Changi Naval Base and Paya Lebar Air Base.  And Singapore also supports the rotational deployment of US Littoral Combat Ships and P8 Poseidon aircraft. These fundamentals of our relationship remain unchanged and their value is recognised by both Republican and Democratic Administrations.

Similarly, the strategic and economic imperatives that have underpinned America’s longstanding engagement of our region actually remain unchanged. We have to constantly look for new areas of convergence for win-win cooperation with the US.  So for instance, one of the more recent things we are working on is cybersecurity, and we signed an MOU on Cybersecurity in 2016.

Mr Nair and Mr Low Thia Khiang also asked some searching questions about how the relationship between China and the US will impact Singapore.  And indeed, this is the key bilateral relationship that will affect peace, security and prosperity in our region and indeed in the world.

Whilst competition between the US and China is inevitable, but what is different in historical terms is that never before have two powers been so interdependent, so intertwined economically.  Even in the depths of the Cold War, remember, that the American and Russian economies were never intertwined to the same degree that the US and Chinese economy is.  So therefore, we hope that both sides, after they have measured these imperatives will come back to the same conclusion that a constructive engagement and win-win cooperation is the right formula.  If they can achieve this, this will provide space for countries in the region, including Singapore, to be part of a common circle of friends, and achieve win-win outcomes for all.

This is in fact a key reason why for the last 51 years, Southeast Asia, in particular the founding members of ASEAN, have enjoyed peace, security, prosperity over the last five decades.  So we hope that they would arrive at this conclusion.  But we should also bear in mind that we have no say.  We cannot determine the dynamics of that relationship.  Mr Low asked, “what do we do, if they don’t get along”.  And the answer, is that number one, we have no say.  Number two, we should avoid being forced to choose sides for as long as possible.

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“Relationship with Malaysia is actually as good as it ever has been.”

Now, closer to home, our relationship with Malaysia is actually as good as it ever has been.  More recently, we reached a milestone by signing the Agreement on the KL-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) in December 2016. And this is a landmark agreement that will transform the way both countries interact and do business. It will bring our two peoples and economies even closer together. In addition to the HSR, we are also looking to sign a bilateral agreement on the Singapore-JB Rapid Transit System (RTS) this year. The RTS will improve the flow of people and business between Singapore and Johor, and bring both sides closer together. On the whole, our bilateral relations are excellent.  Other than these connectivity initiatives, the economic, the people-to-people ties remain strong.  We will continue to cooperate on security, defence and counter-terrorism.

Mr. Baey Yam Keng asked about the Pedra Branca case and how this impacts our bilateral relations. Part of what underpins our good relations with Malaysia is a commitment by both sides to resolve disagreements amicably in accordance with international law, while allowing mutually-beneficial cooperation to continue in the meantime.  So you will recall that in 2003, Singapore and Malaysia agreed to submit the case concerning sovereignty over Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In its judgment dated 23 May 2008, the ICJ found that sovereignty for Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore, sovereignty over Middle Rocks belonged to Malaysia, and sovereignty over South Ledge belonged to the State in the territorial waters of which it is located. On 2 February 2017, Malaysia applied for a revision of the judgment under Article 61 of the ICJ’s Statute.

 Under Article 61, an application for a revision of judgment must satisfy several criteria.  These criteria include: first, it must be based upon the discovery of facts which were unknown to the court and to the party claiming revision when judgment was first given.  And these newly-discovered facts must be decisive, and of such a character as to lay the case open to revision.  An application for revision must also be made at latest within six months of the discovery of the new fact, and within ten years of when the judgment was given.

Our legal team has studied Malaysia’s application carefully, including the three documents relied on by Malaysia to support its application. Our legal team strongly believes that the documents relied on by Malaysia do not satisfy the criteria under Article 61. We will submit to the ICJ our comprehensive and compelling rebuttal to Malaysia’s application by 14 June, which is the time limit fixed by the ICJ.

We are confident of our legal team and our case. We are very fortunate to still have Professor Jayakumar, and we have Senior Judge Chan Sek Keong, and Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh who led our original Pedra Branca team. They are also working very hard now, very enthusiastically, I may add.  They are also working with a younger team of bright legal minds in AGC. This way, we are also using this episode as an opportunity to build up expertise and experience in the next generation. Succession again. This is important as I am sure there will be more international legal issues in future.  And equally, we must ensure that the same whole-of-government spirit of unity prevails. These are crucial ingredients in order for Singapore to punch above our weight at international fora. Singapore is committed to resolving this issue amicably and in accordance with international law.

Bilateral relations with Malaysia therefore are good, will remain good, and we will continue with all our mutually-beneficial bilateral programmes. Singaporeans should not be disconcerted by these developments, because even with the best of diplomatic and personal relationships, we must expect other states to act in their own self-interests.

Relations with Indonesia

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Our relations with Indonesia are also strong.  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Jokowi (Joko Widodo) had a successful Leaders’ Retreat in Semarang last November.  They jointly witnessed the opening of the Kendal Industrial Park, and agreed to set up an Indonesia-Singapore Business Council and to explore cooperation in the energy and tourism sectors.

The positive and stable partnership that we have enjoyed in recent times has been mutually-beneficial.  Business ties and tourism continue to grow. Singapore remained Indonesia’s top foreign investor in 2016.

This year, we celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations with Indonesia.  The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ibu Retno Marsudi, and I jointly announced the start of these celebrations last month during her official visit to Singapore.

We also marked a milestone in bilateral relations through the exchange of instruments of ratification for the Eastern Boundary Treaty on 10 February 2017. This was a demonstration of how both countries can work together to resolve bilateral issues in areas of mutual interest, in accordance with international law. This is an important principle that both sides share, because as neighbours, we must expect disagreements to arise from time to time, but what matters is how we resolve these disagreements.

Bilateral Relations with Brunei

Singapore and Brunei, of course, share a long-standing and a special relationship, anchored in deep mutual trust and respect, which has been built up over decades, over generations of leaders. This is epitomised by the Currency Interchangeability Agreement, which marks its 50th anniversary this year.  We will continue to build on this special relationship with the younger generation of Bruneian leaders though platforms like the Singapore-Brunei Young Leaders Programme.

Singapore in ASEAN

More broadly, Southeast Asia is our immediate hinterland.  And as many of you have said, ASEAN serves a crucial role as the main platform for regional cooperation.  ASEAN has kept our region peaceful and allowed our Member States to focus on growing our economies and improving the lives of our people.  Dr Teo Ho Pin, Mr Liang Eng Hwa, and Mr Low Thia Khiang asked very timely and important questions about ASEAN’s relevance, the pace of integration, the future of ASEAN unity and the key achievements as we celebrate its 50th anniversary.  Mr Cedric Foo and others also asked about our coordinatorship of ASEAN-China dialogue relations.

ASEAN enables us to more effectively shape our external environment and to have our views taken into account by bigger players.  In an often turbulent world, ASEAN is, as Mr Low puts it, Singapore’s anchor and a cornerstone of our foreign policy.

ASEAN has a strong value proposition. We are now already the seventh largest economy in the world and barring any mishaps, we are projected to become the fourth largest economy by 2050. Today we have 628 million people, our combined GDP US$ 2.5 trillion, and by sometime between 2030 to 2050 we hope that this will quadruple to US$10 trillion.  What’s important also is that we will have the third largest labour force in the world, and more important than that, more than half of the population of ASEAN is under the age of 30. So we have a demographic dividend that is not yet harvested.

To maintain our relevance, ASEAN must continue to be neutral, united, and committed to an open and inclusive regional architecture, and that means that we will continue to consolidate and to deepen our economic integration.  We adopted the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and the three Community Blueprints in 2015.

We must do more to help Singaporeans better understand and to identify with ASEAN. We must also explore ways for ASEAN to ride the technological wave of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

We will continue to partner with organisations like the Singapore Business Federation and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises to help our businesses maximise the economic opportunities that ASEAN presents.

Working closely with Philippines as ASEAN Chair

We will also work closely with the Philippines to ensure the success of its Chairmanship this year, and to begin preparations for our own ASEAN Chairmanship in 2018.

It is important that we strive for an integrated, outward-looking and confident ASEAN. To that end, we also hope to build new links with other regional organisations, for instance the Pacific Alliance and the Eurasian Economic Union.

At the same time, the events unfolding in the EU are also a salutary reminder for us not to reprise their problems, and ASEAN must remain pragmatic and practical in managing the pace and the scale of the implementation of our economic integration. The sequence, the pace and the scale – the implementation of all of these are very important.

ASEAN’s cohesion and unity, to be frank with you, have been tested by difficult issues, not only just last year but many times before.  Nonetheless, we have endured and we have even thrived over the past 5 decades.

Looking ahead, I can tell you that ASEAN will become more, not less, critical to our foreign policy.   I totally support Dr Teo Ho Pin’s three suggestions on strengthening unity, promoting partnerships between businesses and encouraging more people to people ties.

Now let me turn to our role as the dialogue relations coordinator between ASEAN and China. Again I want to stress that we have to be honest brokers and we have to do our best to manage this strategic partnership based on mutual benefit and respect.  We upgraded the ASEAN-China FTA in 2015 and we facilitated a successful and substantive ASEAN-China 25th Anniversary Commemorative Summit last year.  We will continue advancing other initiatives such as enhancing connectivity and making progress on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in the remaining one and a half years of our coordinatorship.

Relations with other countries – Japan, India, Australia and the EU – are also important, and I am glad to report that relations are also good and will deepen.

Singapore-Japan 50 year partnership

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We commemorated 50 years of diplomatic relations with Japan in 2016. We had a series of high-level exchanges including a State Visit by President Tony Tan.  We are working towards upgrading the Japan-Singapore Economic Partnership Agreement and our Air Services Agreement, and we hope to strengthen bilateral cooperation in air, land and sea transport and infrastructure through the inaugural Vice-Ministerial Transport Forum this year.

India

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In India, steady progress has been made under the Strategic Partnership signed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited us in November 2015.  The Strategic Partnership has allowed us to broaden and to deepen relations in diverse areas, both at the central level as well as in selected states in India.

And this was reaffirmed during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to India in October 2016, when he launched the Centre of Excellence for Tourism Training (CETT) in Udaipur. The master-planning of Andhra Pradesh’s new capital city, Amaravati, by Singapore experts has been completed, and a Singapore Consortium is now bidding to be a participant in the “seed development” of this brand new city.

Bilateral Relations with Australia

Singapore has a close and longstanding bilateral relationship with Australia. This was elevated in June 2015 with the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), and this is a substantive undertaking with over 40 bilateral initiatives that will be delivered through the period to 2025.

We have moved quickly to implement the CSP.  Key agreements were signed during PM’s visit to Australia in October 2016. The MOU on Military Training and Training Area Development gives the SAF significant enhanced access to training areas in Australia over the next 25 years.  Areas which, I may add, are multiples the size of Singapore.  This will add significantly towards addressing the SAF’s evolving training requirements.

The upgrade to the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement is expected to come into force this year. It will create many more opportunities for Singapore businesses and professionals to access the Australian markets.

ASEAN-EU Relations

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Brexit notwithstanding, we continue to engage Europe and the EU, for example through the EU-Singapore FTA.  Yes, it has been delayed by certain legal hurdles that we have to go through, but so far all the countries that we have engaged within Europe have expressed support for this free trade agreement.  We are also working on the EU-ASEAN Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement.

Singapore will also continue to seek economic links and opportunities for our companies in emerging markets such as Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, and SMS Maliki will elaborate on this, after I finish my contribution. But let me just say the following short points on the Middle East.

We are one of few countries that engages in a principled way with all of the protagonists in the Middle East.  In the short one and a half years I have been here, I have accompanied the PM to Jordan, to Israel and to Ramallah, under the Palestine National Authority (PNA).  We have gone to the Temple Mount, visited the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, been welcomed by all parties.  And it is amazing again if you think about it: us, tiny little Singapore is welcomed by all parties.  I believe we have this special position because we take a principled position.  And we also work in a win-win way to support all parties.  So for instance, with the Palestinians we have extended our technical assistance with the PNA.  But more importantly I think one of the key secret ingredients is the fact that Singapore itself, is a successful model of multi-racial multi-religious integration.  Because that gives us a special moral standing to be able to engage, and to speak, and to interact with all parties. Very few countries have this special role that we have.

And so, apart from all these engagements, bilateral and regional, we need to continue to support international groupings and arrangements.  These arrangements increase opportunities for Singapore companies and Singapore to do more in the face of a world which is sometimes at risk of insularism and protectionism.

RCEP

We will work towards the expeditious conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and will continue to further the development of the ASEAN Economic Community. We will explore ways to take the TPP forward, despite the US’ withdrawal.

Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) attended the G20 Summit in China last year at President Xi’s invitation, and he will attend the G20 Summit in Hamburg in July this year at German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s invitation.  This will be the seventh time that Singapore is invited to attend a G20 Summit.

An Independent Foreign Policy

The next aspect that I want to talk about is about how we pursue an independent foreign policy.  This means having a foreign policy that serves Singapore and Singaporeans’ interests first and foremost.

Mr Sitoh Yih Pin spoke about the importance of a rules-based international system.  And this is critical for a small state like Singapore.  And you asked how we can strengthen the multilateral system. As a small country, the rule of law is crucial for our survival. The UN, and other international organisations and fora are key components of a rules-based international system.  They create a stable framework for cooperation, for managing tensions and addressing global trans-boundary problems. The multilateral system must become more inclusive, more transparent. Global solutions must have broad-based support from countries to be effective. On our part we play our role by initiating or by catalysing the work of organisations like the Forum of Small States (FOSS), that we actually initiated, and the Global Governance Group (3G), and we work closely with many other small states to have a greater collective voice on the international stage.

We also contribute to the multilateral system through technical assistance to developing countries.  I think we have trained over 112,000 officials from many other countries because they want to understand how Singapore works, and how these lessons can be brought back home. And humanitarian assistance is important and we do contribute when there are disasters and actually it is this training, this development that makes a longer term impact on many other countries.

Foreign Policy Begins at Home

Finally, I want to stress and repeat that foreign policy begins at home.  We need the support and understanding of a united citizenry.  Ms Joan Pereira’s question about how MFA can better engage the public on Singapore’s foreign policy is very timely.

While MFA takes the lead in foreign policy, the issues are becoming more complex and cross-cutting in nature.  Other Ministries and government agencies play an increasingly vital role in Singapore’s external front.  MFA must therefore act as a coordinator to work closely with other Ministries and agencies to pursue a ‘Whole of Government’ foreign policy and to strengthen our domestic resilience in the face of an uncertain and sometimes hostile external environment.

This also means convincing Singaporeans of the need for consistent and principled diplomacy for our long term interests instead of taking the path of least resistance in order to achieve short term gains.  The events of the last six months actually is a reminder of this.  And I am grateful for the support of Singaporeans and of members of this House.

So we will continue to work with all stakeholders to raise awareness amongst our fellow Singaporeans of the stakes for us, of the principles behind our policy, and of the sometimes difficult positions that we have to take, despite the pressures we will face from time to time.

Terrorism–A Real and Present Threat

Terrorism still remains a real and present threat.  This is evidenced by the high-profile attacks in parts of Europe and Southeast Asia, and we are actually at even higher risk, even as ISIS loses its strong hold in the Middle East.  So MFA and MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) will continue to monitor security and terrorist threats, and we stand ready to assist Singaporeans in distress overseas. We have had Singaporeans injured or otherwise involved in terrorist incidents overseas.  Singaporeans are one of the most widely travelled people in the world.  One of our top challenges is to strengthen our consular assistance. Dr Maliki will elaborate more on this later on.

A united citizenry allows us to pursue effective foreign policy.  We may be small, but the unity of our people is a source of strength.  Our stability, our consistency,our reliability are all the more valuable in an increasingly fractious world, and people respect Singapore for that. Such respect is hard-earned, but it allows our voice to be amplified and heard on the international stage.

I am grateful to Dr Teo Ho Pin and Mr Pritam Singh for your support for the staff of MFA and for adequate resources to be provided in the light of all these challenges. I totally agree with you that MFA staff must be well staffed and must be well resourced. Our MFA officers actually are the real key assets. Our budget may be, I think, the second smallest or the smallest budget of all the ministries but I think you will agree with me it is the staff of MFA.

We have a rigorous selection system. We continue to recruit high-quality people.  But we also provide continuous training to nurture our staff and to develop their leadership potential.  We also regularly review our manpower resources and our work functions to ensure that this precious manpower is deployed in an optimal way.

The work in MFA is very demanding and very labour-intensive and eats up all hours of the day and night.  Our officers work under very challenging conditions and at great cost to their personal and perhaps even more so to their family lives.  I would like to express my appreciation especially to the spouses, of MFA staff and to the children who probably have absentee parents because their parents are out there looking after the longer term interests of our nation and they sacrifice so much for Singaporeans.

But our officers have proven themselves to be dedicated and professional.  They are driven by their mission to advance the interests of Singapore.  They understand our vulnerabilities and what we need to do in order to remain relevant.  I think Members of this House who have ever travelled with MFA staff – I am very sure you can attest to their professionalism and their hard work and I want to thank Members of the House for your continued support of MFA.

Conclusion

Let me conclude. The events of the past year have been a stark reminder of the reality that Singapore faces.  But it has also provided lessons on how we can overcome these challenges. I think in a way, the pressure that we have come under has made us stronger and more united. So we will face another year of uncertainty ahead, MFA will continue to enhance Singapore’s long-term value proposition and relevance to other countries; we will maintain our commitment to an independent and principled foreign policy in a rules-based global order; we will continue to work with all Members of this House to build a deeper appreciation of the hard truths that underpin our foreign policy.

 

 

 

Let Malaysia remain a secular and inclusive state for All


February 16, 2017

Let Malaysia remain a secular and inclusive state for All

by Dr Kua Kia Soong@www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT:  There is an attempt by some ‘eminent persons’ to install the Rukunegara as the preamble to the Malaysian constitution. If there is indeed a need for such a preamble, it ought to reaffirm the principles of secularism and inclusiveness in the constitution.

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God Bless Malaysia with these guys

In my humble opinion, any attempt to have a preamble to our constitution needs first to be discussed by all the communities in the country including the Orang Asli, debated and passed through Parliament; secondly, it has to be inclusive.

This ‘national philosophy’ of Rukunegara was proclaimed on Merdeka Day, 1970 as a response to the racial riots of May 13, 1969 when the country was still under a state of Emergency. Like the National Culture Policy, it was drafted by selected ‘eminent persons’ rather than involving representation from all Malaysian communities and it did not go through a democratic process of debate, nor was it passed by the Federal Parliament.

While most of its aspirations are noble and acceptable, namely, “achieving a more perfect unity…; preserving a democratic way of life; creating a just society…; guaranteeing a liberal approach towards her rich and varied cultural traditions; and building a progressive society…”; nevertheless, its principle of ‘Belief in God’ is not inclusive of all Malaysian faiths.

Any preamble should include all peoples and stress social justice and democracy

The preamble to the US constitution, for example is short and concise, stressing that their nation is defined and formed by its people and what it stands for:

“We the People… in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…”

Although peopled largely by Christians, the preamble to the US constitution makes no reference to a God or monarch. Apart from serving as an executive summary, it merely sets the stage for how the new government defined by the constitution will establish justice and secure the blessings of Liberty. Thus, their preamble is absolutely secular and the first three words are perhaps the most important: “We the People…”

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Malaysian Muslims idolize this Guy

Perhaps India is a better comparison since it was a former colony like ours. The preamble to the constitution of India actually makes its secularism explicit:

“We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens: Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation…”

Thus the main purposes of having a preamble of the Indian constitution are again, first, to refer to the source that is responsible for the authority of the constitution (We, the People…), and to spell out the objectives of the Indian constitution, namely, Equality, Justice, Fraternity and Liberty. Like the US constitution, there is no insistence on ‘Belief in God’.

The importance of being secular

So what is the significance of including ‘Belief in (the monotheistic) God’ in the hypothetical preamble to our constitution?

Since the prevalence of Islamic populism in the Eighties, there have been attempts by politicians including one or two Prime ministers (one of them is none other than Tun Dr. Mahathir Bin Mohamad) to claim that Malaysia is an Islamic state. Nonetheless, this attempt has been rightfully frustrated by among others, Bapa Malaysia and the Judiciary in the country.

For example, on his 80th birthday on February 8, 1983, Tunku’s main message to the Barisan Nasional leaders was not to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state, stressing that Malaysia was set up as a secular state with Islam as the official religion and this is enshrined in the Constitution. This was echoed a few days later by the Third Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Hussein Onn on his 61st Birthday on February 12, 1983.

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Commander-in-Chief, Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony) and Partner of PAS’ Hadi Awang on Hudud
The Alliance Memorandum submitted to the Reid Constitution Commission on Sept 27, 1956 clearly stated that “the religion of Malaya shall be Islam… and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state.” Thus, both the Reid Commission in 1957 and the Cobbold Commission in 1962 characterised Malaysia as a “secular state”.

Most importantly, former Lord President of the Malaysian Judiciary, Mohamed Salleh Abas in Che Omar bin Che Soh vs Public Prosecutor (1988), stated that the term “Islam” in Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution meant “only such acts as relate to rituals and ceremonies… the law in this country is… secular law.”

The Late Lord President Mohamed Suffian Hashim similarly wrote that Islam was made the official religion primarily for ceremonial purposes, to enable prayers to be offered in the Islamic way on official public occasions, such as the installation or birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Independence Day and similar occasions.

Against the background of confounding populist politicians, one would think that it is even more crucial – if there is a need for a preamble to our constitution – for such a preamble to reaffirm the secular and inclusive character of our constitution.

In a secular state, the state is officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor atheism. It treats all its citizens equally regardless of religion. Secularism is not merely desirable but essential for the healthy existence of a pluralist society such as ours. It implies a separation that exists between the state and religion.

This does not detract from the fact that the right to religion is a fundamental right and the denial of this freedom is a violation of the basic principles of democracy.

Monotheism is not the only religion in this world

Secularism is also important in regulating the relation between the state and various religious groups on the principle of equality. When the Rukunegara espouses only ‘Belief in (Monotheistic) God’, it forgets that there are Malaysians of other faiths based on polytheism or animism and ancestor worship.

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To conclude, the concept of secularism is derived from the principle of democracy and secularism becomes meaningful only when it refers to democratic equality and includes diverse peoples of all faiths, beliefs and practices.

DR KUA KIA SOONG is Suaram adviser.

HRH Sultan Nazrin Shah: Understand Malaysia better through its History


February 14, 2017

HRH Sultan Nazrin Shah:  Understand Malaysia better through its History

COMMENT: HRH Sultan Nazrin Shah, the Oxford and Harvard-educated political economist, is to be congratulated for publishing a monumental book on Malaysia’s economic history.

One cannot dispute His Royal Highness’ view that understanding the country’s economic, political and socio-cultural history is important since it enables us to appreciate the progress we have achieved since Independence in 1957 due to the contributions of our diverse communities, and learn from our policy failures, and follies and frailties of our past leaders and administrators.

Our achievements have been spectacular by any measure  to earn the respect of the world. The developing world used to look up to us for our economic success. But in recent years, while we enjoy continued economic growth (in GDP terms), albeit modest by comparison with our past attainments, the management of our economy has been increasingly disappointing and depressing. The level of corruption is now the worst I have ever witnessed in my nearly 45 years of public, corporate, academic and civil society life.

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It is obvious to me at least that our present generation of UMNO-BN leaders have not learned the lessons of history especially why nations can and have failed because of corruption, abuse of power and sheer incompetence. HRH Sultan of Perak would, therefore, be well advised to remind Prime Minister Najib Razak of the consequences of poor governance. Preaching to the converted like me and others is inconsequential since we are not in power.

Finally, I must add my disappointment with this piece by Hanis Zainal. While publicizing HRH Sultan Nazrin’s book, she chose not acknowledge that scholars and academics like James Puthucheary, Agoes Salim, Lin See Yan, Rais Saniman, Junid Saham, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Edmund Terrence Gomez, Mohamed Ariff (formally with MIER),Kamal Salih (USM), Lim Teck Ghee, Johan  Saravanamuttu et.al have contributed immensely to our understanding of Malaysia’s political economy and history. They have, in fact, preceded HRH Sultan Nazrin Shah.–Din Merican

by Hanis Zainal@www.thestar.com.my

The key to understanding a country better is through its history, so it is logical to assume the key to studying a country’s economy is through studying its econo­mic history.

This was what Perak Ruler Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah set out to achieve in Charting the Economy: Early 20th Century Malaya and Contemporary Malaysian Contrasts which was launched yesterday.

The book charts the country’s economic activities under colonial rule and contrasts it with the economic growth and development in contemporary Malaysia.

During the launch at a hotel here, Sultan Nazrin said that lessons learned from history carry “great relevance” for overcoming the economic challenges of modern-era Malaysia.

 “To better understand contemporary economic performance, it is necessary for us to go back into history to understand long-term trends,” he said.

In his book, Sultan Nazrin charts the changes – from an economy based largely on agriculture and mining in the past to one that is more diversified and broad today.

One of the most important lessons he learned in his study was of people’s contributions to the economy, said Sultan Nazrin.

“The truly remarkable economic and social transformation that Malaysia has experienced is due to the outstanding contributions made by all of our diverse communities working together.”

Quoting novelist Henri Fauconnier, who wrote the Soul of Malaya, Sultan Nazrin said the soul of Malaysia “is found in the country’s diverse people”.

 Image result for charting the economy sultan nazrin

In his address, Harvard University’s Professor of Political Economy Prof Dwight Perkins noted the book’s importance to the economic literature of Malaysia.

Charting the Economy is published by Oxford University Press and retails at RM99 at all major bookshops in Malaysia.