The AF-A word


August 12, 2018

What is Affirmative Action?The AF-A word

http://discovery.economist.com/openfuture/what-is-affirmative-action?kw=all&csid=socialoffb&ref=openfuture

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Affirmative Action–Constructive Discrimination? In Malaysia, it is Bumiputraism by UMNO for political control of the Malays
 

As Harvard gets sued for discrimination, an idea popular in many countries comes under fire

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HARVARD UNIVERSITY is being sued for allegedly discriminating unlawfully against Asian applicants. America’s best-known university takes race into account when deciding whom to admit. It says this is one of many factors, and justified by the need to ensure a diverse student body. Plaintiffs contend that it has an unwritten quota to stop Asians from taking as many places as their stellar test scores would predict.

 

Racial discrimination is illegal in America, except when it isn’t. “Affirmative action” policies, which discriminate in favour of members of disadvantaged groups, are widespread in America and many other countries. Critics, including many supporters of the Harvard suit, argue that they should be illegal. Confusion abounds–America’s Supreme Court has offered contradictory guidance as to when affirmative action is and is not allowed.

The very phrase is vague. One of its early uses was in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson of the United States signed an executive order requiring government employers to take “affirmative action” to “hire without regard to race, religion and national origin”. Since then, the phrase has come to mean more or less the opposite: giving preference to people because they belong to a particular race, religion, caste or sex.

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In many countries, the state gives a leg-up to members of certain groups because they have suffered discrimination in the past or continue to endure it today. America offers preferences to black people, whose ancestors were enslaved. India has quotas for dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, who are at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. Some countries have affirmative action for members of groups that are on average poorer than their neighbours, even if those neighbours have not historically done them wrong. For example, Malaysia has positive discrimination for native Malays, who are poorer and do worse in school than their Chinese and Indian compatriots.

The details vary from place to place. In some countries, affirmative action applies only to areas under direct state control, such as public-works contracts or admission to public universities. In others, private firms are also required to take account of the race of their staff, contractors and even owners.

Advocates of positive discrimination often argue that such policies are necessary to correct historical injustice. Some quote another line of President Johnson: “You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying you are free to compete with all the others, and still justly believe you have been completely fair.” Another argument is that discrimination against some groups is so pervasive that it can only be corrected with reverse discrimination.

Critics of affirmative action argue that two wrongs do not make a right; that treating different racial groups differently will entrench racial antagonism and that societies should aim to be colour-blind.

 

Many of the groups favoured by affirmative action have grown more prosperous or done better educationally since these policies were introduced. But establishing how much credit affirmative action can take is hard. The world has grown dramatically richer in recent decades and far more of its people have gone to university. Ethnic Malays are three times richer in Singapore, where they do not get preferences, than in next-door Malaysia, where they do.

 

Thomas Sowell, the author of “Affirmative Action around the World”, observes that although affirmative action policies are typically introduced as temporary measures aimed at narrow groups, they often expand in scope as new groups demand privileges, and become permanent. In 1949 India’s constitution said quotas should be phased out in ten years. Today over 60% of the population is eligible. More than 95% of South Africans are covered by preferences of some kind.

Although the groups covered by affirmative action tend to be poorer than their neighbours, the individuals who benefit are often not. One American federal-contracting programme favours businesses owned by “socially and economically disadvantaged” people. Such people can be many times richer than the average American family and still be deemed “disadvantaged” if their skin is the right colour. One beneficiary of South Africa’s programme of “Black Economic Empowerment” is worth an estimated $500m; he is also now the president of South Africa.

In several countries, the most heated debates around positive discrimination concern education. Some American states, such as California, Michigan and Florida, ban the consideration of race in public university admissions. But others are doubling down. Universities that take race into account are typically reluctant to disclose how much weight they ascribe to it. Critics speculate that this is because they give it far more weight than most Americans would consider fair. One study found that at some colleges, black applicants who scored 450 points (out of 1,600) worse than Asians on entrance tests were equally likely to win a place. The plaintiffs in the Harvard suit hope that it will force the university to reveal exactly how it evaluates applications.

Some say it is reasonable to award university places to African American students with lower test scores, given that as recently as 1954 it was legal in America for states to run separate schools for blacks and whites. But critics argue that it is counter-productive. A study by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor found that lowering the bar for black students lets them enter law schools for which they are ill-prepared, causing many to drop out. Strikingly, they estimate that positive discrimination results in fewer blacks successfully qualifying as lawyers than would have been the case under colour-blind policies.

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Some people argue that policies designed to uplift the disadvantaged should cater only for those who are actually poor, rather than using race as a proxy for disadvantage. Barack Obama, though he has generally supported affirmative action, said it would be wrong for his daughters to get “more favourable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more”. Some universities have adopted race-neutral policies such as trying harder to recruit poor students or admitting anyone who comes in the top 10% of his or her high-school class. Many could free up more spaces for deserving poor students by removing preferences for the children of alumni—but few do.

 

PROTON, Khazanah, Malaysia Incorporated and Harapan Prime Minister


July 24, 2018

PROTON, Khazanah, Malaysia Incorporated and Harapan Prime Minister

by P Gunasegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

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Old Schemes and Concepts with new labels?

QUESTION TIME | Some of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s economic policy pronouncements are not just puzzling but also downright alarming such as having another national car project a la Proton, steering Khazanah Nasional back to its so-called original objectives and reviving the concept of Malaysia Inc. Let’s look at each in turn and the problems that they can cause.

As I have explained in this article, another national car project would be a colossal mistake. It would distort the car market further because such a car cannot be economically produced and will result in even higher taxes on other cars.

Proton was one of Mahathir’s huge failures when he was Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003 costing taxpayers an additional RM360 billion at least in taxes since the first Proton rolled out in 1985.

As a matter of urgency, one of the new policies of the Pakatan Harapan government should be to forge ahead with a phased rationalisation of the car industry so that there will be no taxes on cars.  This article explains it in more detail.

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Despite a public outpouring of resistance against a third national car project, Mahathir is recalcitrant and still seems set on his pet project and reviving this failed, outdated policy of his yet again. He said he had discussed with the Indonesian President the concept of an ASEAN car on his recent visit to Jakarta.

Considering the abysmal state of cooperation within ASEAN and all the difficulties of the car industry, this will be a road to perdition if implemented. We are already suffering for 33 years already.

On to Malaysia Incorporated. Mahathir recently announced his intention to revive the Malaysia Inc concept to foster closer cooperation between the government and the private sector.

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Old Cronies and New Opportunities?

What exactly is this Malaysia Inc? Let’s quote from the Economic Planning Unit, the division within the Prime Minister’s Department:

“The Malaysia Incorporated concept was first announced by the Prime Minister in 1983 and it represents a new way of approaching the task of national development. Both the public and private sectors adopt the idea that the nation is a corporate or business entity, jointly owned by both sectors and working together in pursuit of a common mission of the nation.”

Instant billionaires

If Malaysia Inc. had been done properly and executed completely above board, things might have been alright. But Malaysia Inc. and the attendant privatisation of core government assets to crony companies and individuals saw the largest exercise of government patronage and a prerogative to manufacture instant billionaires in some instances and countless smaller deals in many others.

In fact, it would not be far wrong to say that Mahathir oversaw the unprecedented transfer of wealth from government to the private sector with plum projects given to those closely associated with Mahathir and his Finance Minister then Daim Zainuddin, who is now ironically the head of the Council of Eminent Persons, as well as companies related to subsequent Finance Minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

This period saw the blossoming of the first generation independent power producers – or IPPs – with awards for massive power generation contracts to the YTL Group (Francis Yeoh), Segari (MRCB, and subsequently Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, a close Mahathir associate to this day, under Malakoff), Genting Sanyen (the Genting casino group) and to PD Power (Ananda Krishnan) amongst others.

Profits were ensured by ironclad power purchase agreements (PPAs) with the sole national power company, Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) which had either “take or pay” contracts (YTL) and/or capacity charge payments where a fixed amount is paid based on fixed asset investment whether the energy is taken up or not.

Well, if you and I had got these contracts, we would have become billionaires too. None of those successful had previous power generation experience.

Not just IPPs but a whole slew of privatisation and related arrangements came up. Toll roads were pioneered via Halim Saad’s Plus Expressway in the mid-80s, a known crony of Daim who had many other cronies. Another, Tajuddin Ramli, bought over cellular operations, now Celcom, from Telekom Malaysia and was given a period to get it up and going before others were allowed in.

The Sapura Group, owned by Mahathir’s close friend Shamsuddin Abdul Kadir, got a cellular licence as well as Ananda Krishnan, tycoon Vincent Tan and the MRCB group associated with Anwar.

Other instances of awards included to Malaysia Mining Corp (Syed Mokhtar), Gamuda (Lin Yun Ling), Samsuddin Abu Hassan (a Daim crony) of Peremba and Wan Azmi Wan Hamzah (a close Daim associate). Apart from IPPs and telecommunications, other lucrative areas included water and numerous state and federal operations.

In almost all cases, there were no open bids and many of these licences were awarded for free with no payment whatsoever to the government. The government was basically giving away assets. In many cases, the awards of these contracts were blatantly and highly questionable.

Ani Arope’s tale of woe

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Former TNB chairperson the late Ani Arope (known also as the man who refused Mahathir) had a tale of woe to tell regarding the award of power purchase agreements to the first generation IPPs.

He talks of delays to TNB projects which caused a massive blackout in 1992, lopsided contracts which gave sweetheart deals to privileged people at the expense of TNB and 30 percent bumiputera stakes to companies and individuals who were not clearly identified.

In an interview with The Star in 2006, after Mahathir had stepped down as Prime Minister in 2003, he described how TNB got a rather raw deal and he was asked to resign after he refused to sign the PPAs.

He said, “There was no negotiation. Absolutely none. Instead of talking directly with the IPPs, TNB was sitting down with the EPU. And we were harassed, humiliated and talked down every time we went there. After that, my team was disappointed. The EPU just gave us the terms and asked us to agree. I said no way I would.

“It was all fixed up. (They said) this is the price, this is the capacity charge and this is the number of years. They said you just take it and I refused to sign the contracts. And then, I was put out to pasture.It was grossly unfair. At 16 sen per unit (kWh) and with the take or pay situation, actually it was 23 sen per unit. With 23 sen, plus transmission and distribution costs, TNB would have had to charge the consumer no less than 30 sen per unit. If mixed with TNB’s cost, the cost would come down but that was at our expense because we were producing electricity at 8 sen a unit. We can deliver electricity at 17 sen per unit.”

Why was this done?  In a 2014 interview with KiniBiz, six months before his death, Ani had this to say: “The crux of the whole thing was who got the 30 percent. The first PPA with YTL, there was a 30 percent shares (requirement) for the bumiputera. That explains the whole thing.” Subsequent PPAs also had this same clause.

If Mahathir, and Pakatan Harapan, want the return of Malaysia Inc, they should do it differently. No more cronies. Have open tenders. Have a properly constituted tender board with members whose credentials are impeccable.

Consider everyone’s bids regardless of political and other affiliations but cut out middlemen. Bids must be from those who provide the service. Pick the best one from there. Be true to the manifesto – open tenders, fairness, transparency, accountability.

Holding bumi shares

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Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar–Khazanah Nasional’s Chief Executive

On to Khazanah Nasional Bhd and Mahathir’s statement about the government-owned company deviating from the role of helping the bumiputera, a rather strange statement to make when Khazanah had actually done quite a lot in terms of its transformation programme under former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2004.

“But along the way, Khazanah decided it should take all the shares for itself and if they are good shares, well, why not acquire the shares at the time of listing when the price of shares was very low, and so they forget entirely about holding the shares for the bumiputera. They decided that they should be holding the shares forever as a part of the government companies owned by the government,” said Mahathir.

And what’s wrong with that? Imagine what would have happened to government revenues if Petronas, the national oil corporation, had been privatised many years ago. It would have gone bankrupt without the oil revenue. And what would have happened to the previous government without the GST?

Don’t sell everything. Keep some for the future benefit of the country and the people.

Note: This is the fourth part in a series of six on Malaysia post G-E14. Next: What should the government do with Khazanah Nasional? The others are:

Part 1: Mahathir’s patently unfair cabinet

Part 2: Did Mahathir win the general election?

Part 3: Do we really need a council of elders?

 


P GUNASEGARAM says keep the good and sell the bad. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com

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

Malaysia: Dr.Meredith Weiss on GE-14


July 7, 2018

Malaysia:  Dr.Meredith Weiss on GE-14

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

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

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

The Scene As It Stands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Paths Lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author

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

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

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for edmund terence gomez university of malaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

GLC’s: Pagar makan Padi


June 26, 2018

GLC’s: Pagar makan Padi

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

Image result for tawfik tun dr ismail

 

 “ Yes, they enjoyed their position admittedly through patronage, but it would have been a competitive climb for them nevertheless. Is the mood for revenge against the previous regime making us senseless to the long-term damage to Malay progress in commerce?”–Former UMNO MP Tawfik Ismail

 

As the heads and top officials in Government-linked corporations (GLCs) continue to be lopped off and voices are raised on how to reform these enterprises, the wisdom of the new Pakatan government in taking off the kid gloves in dealing with GLCs has been questioned.

The plain truth, however, is that the shortcomings and failings of these enterprises have been known for a long time – long before Dr Mahathir described them as becoming “monsters”.

Image result for Dr Lim Teck Ghee

Crowding out private enterprise, given privileged access to contracts, benefiting from favourable government regulations and capitalizing in less discernible but nonetheless effective ways familiar or accessible only to insiders, the negative impact of these ubiquitous and often monopolistic  bodies has been accentuated by their lead role in the poor governance and corrupt practices that have blighted the nation’s economy and society.

 Self Censured Analysts

 Most analyses of GLCs in the past and continuing today – even if critical -have either ignored or tended to avoid forthright and frank discussion of the main reason for the establishment and dominance of GLCs – the mission focus on the Malay agenda.

The key questions to be asked are:

what is this Malay agenda; whose interests does it serve; and should a race-based agenda be the driver or leitmotif of GLCs which rightfully belongs to all stakeholders in the country.

These questions need to be put out and answered in the public sphere regardless of whether the GLCs can be reformed and reconfigured in accord with truly national aspirations.

Perkasa Inaugural Congress, 2010 and GLCs      

I had posed and tried to answer this question in response to Ibrahim Ali of Perkasa who, in the inaugural Malay rights group congress held on 27 March 2010, had said that “We are not only looking at their (GLC) performance but also the role they play in helping Malay entrepreneurs.”

I had replied then that:

“The Malay and Malaysian public should look forward to hearing the outcome of Perkasa monitoring the GLCs and learning the truth about how these bodies are standing in the way of, or seriously implementing, their mission of fulfilling the Malay agenda.” See http://www.cpiasia.net/v3/index.php/141-cpi-writings/lim-teck-ghees-contribution/1888-perkasa-glcs-and-the-new-economic-model

At that time, in 2010 eight years before the present debate, I noted too the considerable success of GLCs in furthering the Malay agenda from the following indicators:

  • GLCs are major shareholders of corporate equity. They comprise 36 per cent and 54 per cent of the market capitalization of Bursa Malaysia and the benchmark Kuala Lumpur Composite Index.
  • Seven out of the top 10 listed companies are under majority ownership of the government.
  • Senior GLC positions are largely determined along ethnic lines. GLC directors, management and staff are largely Bumiputeras.
  • Non-Malay owners of listed and unlisted companies often have no choice but to work with influential Bumiputera and GLCs to help protect their interests through obtaining sub-contracts or becoming suppliers of goods and services.
  • Non-Malays may own 40 per cent of corporate equity Based on the government’s flawed calculations but GLCs are the major players and have control over the economy.

Malay Agenda Accomplishments Since NEP

I had also noted that much of the new wealth in the country is in Malay hands. These sources of wealth include the plantation sector which is dominated by Felda and PNB companies;  the smallholding agricultural sector where the Malays are the major group amongst the 112,635 Felda settlers; the hi-tech aerospace industry; the defense industry; the petroleum and gas industry where apart from Petronas and MMC, the Malays have substantial holdings in key MNCs such as Shell, Exxon, BP; the finance and banking sector where eight out of 10 banks are Bumiputera- owned and controlled; the automotive sector where Malay interests are dominant in Proton, Perodua, DRB Hicom, UMW and Naza, and where the system of APs ensures a steady stream of income for select Bumiputeras; the energy and utilities sector where TNB and Malakoff are key players; the more recently contentious MARA’s digital malls and so on.

Perhaps most successful of all in accomplishing the Malay agenda was that the NEP objective of building a strong Malay professional and technical elite class had been reached well before the time of Perkasa’s inaugural congress.

From a very small base of professional and technical workers in 1970 (Bumiputera comprised 4.9 per cent of registered professionals at that time) the Malay component of the country’s professional and technical workers in 2010 was the biggest amongst the various racial groups. According to the Malaysian government’s Third Outline Perspective Plan (2001-2010), the Bumiputera community comprised 63.5 per cent of the ‘Professional and Technical’ category of employment in 2000.

This growth of a strong Malay professional class within a short period of 30 years – with some finding employment and high positions in GLCs as noted by Tawfik Ismail-  is possibly the fastest recorded by any marginalized community anywhere in the world.

That this information is not widely known is not due to modesty. It is part of political spin aimed at playing up to Malay insecurity, under-reporting Malay achievement and emphasizing the non-Malay, that is, Chinese dominance of the economy.

This new privileged class (and its leadership institutions such as the GLCs) could also be the main reason accounting for the phenomenon of “pagar makan padi”.

Tackling Malay poverty

I had also argued that in the economic sphere there is still work to be done to uplift the lot of the poor Malays (see article on the country’s underclass –https://dinmerican.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/new-malaysias-underclass-what-to-do/). I noted that the task is less formidable than what official statistics may make it out to be.  This is because Malay poverty – as distinct from Bumiputera poverty – is over-estimated by the statistical practice whereby the Malay figures are lumped with the figures of recent migrants from Indonesia who have obtained Bumiputera status as well as the other Bumiputera from East Malaysia.

The great majority of the former group — Javanese, Sumatrans, etc — who have assimilated into the country’s population especially after the 1970s came with little in assets or income. Inclusion of these poor “pendatang”, despite their upward mobility after migration here in the official statistics, has impacted in distorting the racial distribution of household income.

Without them (and Bumiputra communities in Sabah and Sarawak), the ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’ or ‘local’ Malay achievement, as distinct from Bumiputera achievement, will be higher in all the social and economic indicators – especially the key one of land ownership – used by the Department of Statistics to measure inter-ethnic differences.

 The Malay Agenda and the country’s future

In the weeks and months to come, the ruling PH government will unveil more of its economic policies and programmes to replace the BN’s ineffective, unproductive or discredited ones.

Image result for Mahathir's Malay Economic Agenda?

 

Looking beyond 1981– 2020: Will the Malay Dilemma be resolved under Mahathir 2.O Administration? NO until we empower and challenge the Malays and stop spoon feeding them like UMNO did to remain in power for 60 years.

We need to stop manjaing (pampering) them and  should make them self-reliant and resourceful. I understand what Dr. Lim Teck Ghee and Tawfik Tun Dr. Ismail are trying  to hint at. Let us challenge Malaysia’s Status Quo.–Din Merican

It is extremely unlikely given the BN’s prioritization of the Malay agenda that the Malay position in various sectors of the economy has stagnated or fallen back since 2010 and that it deserves attention and propping up through a larger allocation of the nation’s financial resources to support. This issue needs strong and independent empirical evidence to verify.

It could also be that GLCs should continue to play a key role in enabling achievement of whatever is authoritatively established as an uncompleted or lagging Malay agenda as well as the priorities in the larger national agenda. This also needs similar rigorous analysis to establish.

Image result for Dr. LimTeck Ghee

But the hard questions – driven not by “revenge politics” but by sensibility and prudence – still need to be asked of the Malay agenda in this new era of accountability, transparency and good governance:

What is this new Malay agenda today; which part of the old Malay agenda has yet to be achieved or realized; which targets have not been attained; and how will reconfigured or reformed GLCs help the Malays and the nation arrive at final accomplishment of the Malay agenda?

 

Mahathir’s Bersatu– A Reformed UMNO?


June 25, 2018

Mahathir’s Bersatu– A Reformed UMNO?

by S. Thayaparan

http://www.malaysiakini.com

“We belong to a plural society and in this society, the Malay-bumiputera agenda must be carried out.”

– UMNO Acting President Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi

 

COMMENT | Since I fancy myself as a sort of political Cassandra as opposed to a political Pollyanna, I am always interested in what former political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim has to say about Malay politics. His recent comments about how UMNO is not completely destroyed and has to reinvent itself has become a political Rorschach test for people who voted for Pakatan Harapan.

Image result for Najib Razak visits Anwar in Hospital

 

I wrote about this when Prime Minister (then) Najib Abdul Razak visited Anwar when he was recovering from surgery last year – “Despite establishment narratives that non-Malays – the Chinese specifically – seek to supplant Malay/Muslim power in Malaysia, the reality is that this could never happen. Why this is the case is beyond the scope of this article, but since Malay powerbrokers hold the keys to Putrajaya, the sight of Malay political opponents meeting always arouses speculation and yes, insecurity amongst the non-Malay demographic, especially those invested in regime change.”

Add to this, Najib’s telephone conversations with Anwar on the night of May 9, the seemingly never-ending public squabbles of PKR, the narratives of how Anwar “can’t be trusted”, the perception that PKR’s schism is the foundation for collusion with UMNO or PAS, and anything Anwar says is an invitation to vilify the former political operative who laid the foundation for the eventual takeover of Putrajaya.

Image result for Mahathir and UMNO

“It is no longer enough to remove Najib Razak from power. UMNO itself must be defeated”, Dr. Mahathir said. Will he  break up the political party he created in 1985 and abandon the Malay agenda he initiated when he first came to power in 1981 and held to the premiership for 22+ years?

I have always cautioned that this idea that UMNO and all it stands for is a relic of bygone Malaysia is foolish. Race and religious politics are sown into the fabric of Harapan with materials provided by the former UMNO regime. UMNO and PAS, and those that voted for them – comprising about 52 percent of the popular votes in GE-14 – are a formidable base which is currently being ignored by the numerous changes taking place in this country.

Let us forget about the narratives of a possible collusion by elements in Harapan and UMNO for a moment. Some folks have said that the people are the opposition. Great, but who do Malaysians vote for if Harapan does not live up to expectations in the Peninsular?

I doubt Chinese support for DAP will end anytime soon and since the “running dog” narratives take some time take root, it’s all good on their front. But if you are Malay, you got a “reformed UMNO” and PAS to choose from and this is where things get dicey real fast. By “reformed”, I mean an UMNO that is still entrenched in its ideology but with a new coat of paint to regain support from the Malays who voted against Najib.

Bridge between Bersatu and DAP

In all these think pieces I read online, it is PKR that is described as the bridge between Bersatu and DAP. In other words, the bridge between the so-called rural Malays and the urban Chinese. This, of course, is often portrayed as a class issue, but public comments from various Harapan leaders betray the reality that this is a race issue.

Bersatu was supposed to be the UMNO of Harapan – the linchpin for the new deal that would ensure that the races would cooperate in the old alliance way before the dark times of UMNO ‘ketuanan’ hegemony. It did not work out that way. UMNO still commands the Malay base and now PAS is slowly demonstrating that its outlier status is a political advantage in this new Malaysia.

Public comments from certain UMNO leaders – Khairy Jamaluddin for instance – of turning UMNO into a multiracial party could be post-traumatic stress from the recent elections. However, what he does represent even though the old guard of UMNO may not like it, is a leader who balances ‘ketuanan’ ideology with the pragmatism of compromise that is needed to win the cash cows which are the so-called “urban centres” that PKR is supposedly a bridge to. The UMNO meet-up will determine which forces in the party hold sway, of course.

It remains to be seen how exactly Bersatu handles the challenge of reforming the rural polities which was needed to take Putrajaya, or so we are told. And this also involves the greater need to reform the system where dominant race-based Malay power structures rely on to sustain them.

This is important because dismantling the architecture that enables the propagandising of race and religion is needed for the survival of non-Malay power structures in the long run.  Bersatu didn’t win this election for Harapan; it was a former UMNO grand poobah, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who did. Systemic reform without any thought or consideration to reforming structures that enable race and religious imperatives to remain entrenched  is foolhardy.

Take this lowering the voting age to 18 for instance. Great idea but I really hope Harapan strategists are discovering how deep the radicalisation process is when it comes to religious schools and the like. Young Muslims from these types of schools have to wait a few years before voting but 18 is just about the right age when the propaganda and religious delusions are still fresh in their minds and they want an avenue to express them. Not to mention, the years of indoctrination by a system created by the very person who has gained messianic status by true believers.

This is where UMNO or PAS could benefit more than a regime which has to compromise on its racial and religious imperatives – Bersatu – for the sake of the multiracial power-sharing formula that BN never paid much attention to. This, of course, is but one example of the fault lines that exist when making policy.

In all cases, deradicalisation should be central even in the more obvious of policy shifts. Is the Harapan regime up to this? Only time will tell, and there is only a small window of opportunity because personalities are old and the young blood is waiting in the wings.

So how do we combat the grand narratives of Malay supremacy in Harapan and UMNO and PAS? How do we ensure that these narratives are weakened over time? Here are some points to consider.

Decentralisation

Another Malaysiakini columnist Nathaniel Tan talks about regionalism. That is an important starting point I think. Federal power should be decentralised. This halts grander narratives of Malay and Islamic hegemony with local issues that could be dealt with state power. When people have a sense that their state governments can solve their immediate needs, there is no need to kowtow to federal power which brings with it forms of subservience that is detrimental to the democratic process.

This also should extend to local council elections. This brings communities together on issues of needs. If all politics are local, then people from communities rather than political parties determine what is important to them and this also safeguards against political interference.

More importantly, the media should be regional as well. Mainstream media news outlets shape the news often ignoring state level and local community level issues. This creates the impression that federal narratives – those that involve race and religion – are monolithic. This really isn’t the case. This is not something that the state governments or the federal governments should be involved with but rather independent regional media outlets, discussing local issues and ensuring that local politics remains in the forefront.

If you are really serious about people being the opposition – whatever that means – this is a good way to do it, further weakening the grand narratives of race and religion by concentrating on local issues which sometimes have nothing to do with what goes on in the urban polities.

In order to weaken racial and religious hegemony, it is important to diffuse power. The question has always been, is there a coalition willing to do this?

When people ask me who the clear winners are in this election, my answer is always PAS. What PAS has demonstrated is that it can survive definitely without BN and time will tell if it can survive without the Harapan regime. Mind you, the relationship between PAS and Harapan has not been as fraught as it has been with UMNO.

UMNO and PAS, and once the former gets their acts together, could turn out to be a formidable opposition, especially considering that sooner rather than later, Harapan will have to tackle issues concerning race and religion. We have witnessed a distinct lack of commitment among Malay power structures to buck the Islamic and Malay trend when it comes to voting on major issues involving race and religion. Will this change now that Harapan has taken federal power?

It is nonsensical to make the argument that UMNO needs to reform – become multiracial – when the there is a Malay power structure like Bersatu in Harapan chasing the same base. The great fear of UMNO has materialised – that is, the Malays are divided.

What people should be concerned with is the interactions between diffused Malay power structures in this new political terrain, and concomitant to this, the shape these interactions coalesce into.

 

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

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

My Face to Face Interview a Decade ago on RPK’s Malaysia-Today


June 14, 2018

My Face to Face Interview a Decade ago on RPK’s  Malaysia-Today

http://www.malaysia-today.net/2008/05/14/face-to-face-din-merican/

I would like to see us adopt the debating style of the British  Parliament where MPs do not shout at each other as if they are in a fish market and the level of discourse reflects their knowledge of the issues before them and their preparedness. In my view, British MPs know how to disagree on substantive issues agreeably. They do it in style and it is such a delight to watch their deliberations on television.

Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob is a trained lawyer and Malaysian political commentator. He writes for numerous international newspapers and online journals as well as hosts Face to Face, an interview segment of Malaysian/regional issues and personalities hosted on Malaysia Today. He also serves as Foreign Correspondent for foreign news organisations.

Din Merican, the Reluctant Blogger, a former civil service officer with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a central banker at Bank Negara, he was also with the private sector (Sime Darby). He is currently Program Director for Parti Keadilan Rakyat in the office of Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim. He gives us a straight-from-the-shoulder response in another hard-hitting Face to Face interview.

Image result for Din MericanDin Merican, the Reluctant Blogger a Decade Ago (2008)
 

1. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: What’s your foremost specific concern with regard to Malaysian politics at present?

Din Merican: That it has fallen into a racial, nepotistic and plutocratic mould. The entire body politic cries out for liberation from this self-made dungeon. The results of the 12th General Election have cracked the mould. The course being steered by Pakatan Rakyat (Parti KeADILan Rakyat, Democratic Action Party and Parti Islam Sa.Malaysia[PAS]) points the way towards the country’s liberation from this stultifying cage. Malaysian voters have become increasingly sophisticated and discriminating in the way they exercise their democratic rights.  That is our ray of hope for a more democratic and open society. So the recent winds of change, and some people would call it “political tsunami”, give me room for cautious optimism.

2. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: What’s your observation of the ongoing Parliamentary sessions? Has it met with your expectations?

Din Merican: It is an improvement over the previous era when the opposition was minuscule and the government was untrammelled in getting its way. That was a negation of democracy. The current session, with a one-third plus opposition presence, resuscitates the drooping flower of democracy. But to say that the level of debate, discourse and decorum is of the standard that projects Malaysia as a healthy polity is to overstate the reality. We are some way off that standard but we can get there if current trends are sustained.

I would like to see us adopt the debating style of the British  Parliament where MPs do not shout at each other as if they are in a fish market and the level of discourse reflects their knowledge of the issues before them and their preparedness. In my view, British MPs know how to disagree on substantive issues agreeably. They do it in style and it is such a delight to watch their deliberations on television.

3. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: What three issues would you like to see debated? Why?

Din Merican: I would say that there are four issues that are in dire need of debate and resolution, These are the restoration of the judiciary to its pre-1988 standard, the combating of corruption with the creation of a truly independent and professional Anti-Corruption Agency, the inauguration of a programme to tackle poverty on the basis of need rather than race, and the unshackling of the media. The panoply of measures required on all four fronts would check the country’s irreversible slide into a mediocrity that is an affront to the talent and potential of the Malaysian people.

4. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: I believe it’s fair to say that you do speak for Anwar Ibrahim on a number of issues. Are we really to expect a change of government by way of duly elected Member of Parliaments changing shirts? Even Pakatan Rakyat leaders have stated the ethical dilemma of such a move. Please clarify.

Din Merican: It’s not right to say that I speak for Anwar Ibrahim. He has a mind of his own and firm convictions I find admirable. Anwar wants a more egalitarian, inclusive and meritocratic Malaysia. I share his agenda for change. I’m elated to be part of the effort to bring about that change.  I feel that though the UMNO-led and controlled Barisan Nasional won the 12th General election, it has lost the moral and intellectual legitimacy to govern. Why do I say that?

Look at the evidence. Every fortnight or so, the media, both mainstream and alternative, unearths a new scandal. The cumulative effect of these disclosures will erode Barisan Nasional’s moral legitimacy to govern.

How long before the people who voted for them begin to realise that their compatriots who voted Pakatan Rakyat were on to something they were not?

In politics, the rhythms of this consciousness do not obey formal categories of time, convention and place. They are by their nature disorderly. But wise are the politicians who are to the fore of these rhythms than in its rear.

Anwar and his colleagues in Pakatan Rakyat are  contrarians. They saw the emergence of a “Black Swan”—a rare event of momentous change.

Image result for Nassim Nicholas Taleb's “The Black Swan

Pardon me, but I have just completed reading philosopher and stockbroker Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”. It’s a riveting read. I recommend it wholeheartedly to you, Imran, as I have reason to believe you are a curious and discerning reader of books.

Taleb says, “I do not particularly care about the usual…Indeed, the normal is often irrelevant.” He adds that we should be wary of “platonicity” (named after Greek philosopher Plato), that is “our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well defined forms…Platonicity is what makes us think that we understand more than we actually do.”

Taleb tells us of the existence of platonic fold, which is “the explosive boundary where the platonic mindset enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide. It is here that the Black Swan is produced.”

UMNO, the dominant party in the ruling coalition, is caught in a warp of its own making. It is unable to free itself from its conventional wisdom. That is because it never had an ideology. It was set up on a sentiment which was the defence of the Malay race—and, in truth, they rarely if ever defended the Malays; only an elite’s vested interests, their families, cronies and proxies — and now that sentiment has run its course and the party is out of gas. So, at the risk of repetition, UMNO lacks the intellectual legitimacy to govern.

Absent moral and intellectual legitimacy, the Barisan Nasional government is on its last legs. In that situation, members of some substance and fellow travellers would want to defect. Debating the morality of defections in that kind of situation is like questioning the jauntiness of the orchestra on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg!

5.Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: Assuming that Pakatan Rakyat does form the next government as mentioned above, can it really hold up? The alliance between PAS and DAP, for example, seems an untenable position. Comment?

Din Merican: You have heard that politics is the art of the possible. And finality is not its language. When Pakatan Rakyat was formed, PKR, DAP and PAS all agreed to abide by the Merdeka Constitution of 1957 whose essential thrust has been maimed by the authoritarian drift of the Barisan Nasional over the half century of its hold on power.

Now, in each of its three components, Pakatan Rakyat may  encounter elements resisting or deviating from its promise to deliver to the Malaysian polity the dispensation vouchsafed it by the Merdeka Proclamation of 1957 and the Merdeka Constitution. These elements will find that they are in a minority and that the majority want adherence to this agenda rather than digression from it. As in any healthy democracy, the majority will win and the minority will either modulate its positions to fit or seek another platform to espouse their cause.

There will be squalls and ruptures arising from this struggle, but it will not fracture the movement because, unlike UMNO and the Barisan Nasional, Pakatan has an ideology, embedded in and reflected by the ideals of the Merdeka Proclamation and Constitution, to which Umno and BN pay mere lip service while deforming its essence. Pakatan will resurrect these ideals and in doing so unite the Malaysian people and nation.

In a democracy you govern by consent of the governed, not by  imposition by the few. I assure you that in Pakatan Rakyat, the threats of ethnocentrism and theocracy would not menace the  broad and sustainable impetus towards democracy,  transparency and good governance based on the principles  envisaged by the Merdeka Proclamation and Constitution.

6. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: Let’s talk about the NEP. Could you please clarify whether this controversial affirmative action policy will be made absolutely redundant in whole? Critics think that an alternative but similar policy to the NEP will instead be implemented by Pakatan Rakyat to appease the Muslim-Malay majority. Care to elaborate?

Din Merican: The NEP (National Economic Policy), better known emotively by DEB (Dasar Ekonomi Baru), will be replaced with the Malaysian Economic Agenda (MEA). Whereas the DEB was implemented on the basis of race, the MEA will be implemented on the basis of need.

The Malays and the bumiputras of Sabah and Sarawak constitute the poorest people in the country. The MEA will address their needs. This is not to say the poor among the Chinese and Indians will not be similarly assisted. The Malays and all who are indeed poor will receive government help to escape the trap of poverty.

Image result for umno defeated

The DEB has become an instrument of exploitation to enrich the few at the expense of the many. It was intended as an aid to empower the poor, and not as a crutch. It was never intended to build a class of appropriators of great wealth who use power to amass fortunes. The time has come to jettison a discredited policy and substitute it with a new one that will deal aggressively with poverty and not supplant it with dependency; and that will unify our country and not divide it into separate cantonments of privilege and wealth while breeding ghettoes of misery and ignorance in its backwash.

7. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: The country seems to be at an even standstill. Opposition MPs are almost that of the BN MPs. UMNO seems split on its choice of leadership whereas MCA/MIC is apparently lashing out at UMNO. There appears to be deep divisions across the Malaysian socio-political strata. In what manner could Pakatan Rakyat unify these factions of competing interests to restore stability?

Din Merican: By addressing problems from a unified Malaysian perspective, by attempting to solve problems from the angle of building a united nation, Pakatan Rakyat would go a long way to demonstrate that that which unites us as Malaysians is greater than that which divides us into separate ethnic and divisible entities. There is a Malaysian identity out there whose dynamics are subtle and creative enough to subsume the cultural variety of its population.

The Indonesians have “Bhinekka Tunggal Ika”, which is Javanese for Unity in Diversity. We too will evolve a similar paradigm. In a new era of good governance by Pakatan Rakyat, the creative flows of the polity will engender this Malaysian identity. When people accept that justice is the common coin of the realm, they know that everyone with talent and capacity for diligent work can flourish.

8. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: A substantial segment of the Muslim-Malay community in particular UMNO brand Anwar Ibrahim as a traitor. What are your views on this?

Din Merican: We are in Samuel Johnson’s debt for reminding us that “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” People who are void of ideas and principles will resort to branding others who are not similarly bereft, as traitors to this and that.

Anwar Ibrahim stood up to authoritarianism and injustice in this country. He, like several others espousing different platforms at different times in Malaysian history, bore the brunt of the backlash. The tree of liberty is watered from time to time by the suffering and blood of patriots. Fortunately, Anwar possessed the resilience and the indomitable spirit to come back fighting and now the electorate is harkening to his message of change. Anwar is no traitor; he is a fighter in the best humanistic traditions.

I believe that all good leaders must possess an alchemy of great vision. To me, Anwar is the foretaste of a statesmanship South East Asia has yet to see since the great Filipino nationalist Jose Rizal. As a Malay Muslim leader, he has to transmute the dreams of his people for economic uplift and political transformation into the reality of a progressive united Malaysian nation that includes the yearnings of its minorities for justice and self-fulfilment.

Anwar’s is an inclusive vision that will project Islam’s Universalist ideals of justice, compassion, and the pursuit of knowledge to grand effect. He will tie the rich tapestry of our diverse nation into a single garment of noble destiny.

9. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: Would you like to share with our readers some of the interesting programs that you are working on?

Din Merican: I am doing what needs to be done for my country, Parti KeADILan and my leader. For me, this time has more than arrived to give back to the society that nurtured me what I owe it. I have to go at this opportunity full tilt. To whom much is given much is required.

I am now working on corporate and international relationships. I want corporates and leaders around the world to know who we are and what we want for Malaysia. I’m also glad that with the Internet, I can keep in touch with Malaysians and friends around the world via my blog http://www.dinmerican.wordpress.com.

10. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: Should Abdullah Badawi resign as PM? Do you think he will be able to cling on to power much longer?

Din Merican:  Abdullah Badawi is a symptom of a deeper malaise in UMNO and the Barisan Nasional. People are wondering how a leader who started with such promise could come so quickly a cropper. The reason is now self-evident. He was actually a bland and inane figure who under a gentlemanly veneer hid his lack of substance. Now UMNO’s lack of ideology is reflected in its leader’s void of substance. Ditto Barisan Nasional. Both UMNO and BN cannot reform, cannot change. They are stuck in a deep rut. Every step they take forward is rescinded by two they inevitably take backward. Retrogression is built into their marrow.

Thus questions of how long Abdullah will last or whether he will  cling on to power are notable for their irrelevance. When you have lost the moral and intellectual legitimacy to govern and if it seems that you can still go on, then it must be that the momentum of the preceding 50 years gives you the ballast to float. But for how long!

 A more relevant question is whether anyone in UMNO and Barisan can fill the void of its moral and intellectual bankruptcy. I’m afraid I see nobody who can do that. It’s a decline that’s terminal. It only awaits the day of its eventual internment.

11. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: Published reports point to the fact that business confidence and the investment climate is lusterless due to the external sluggish global economy and uncertainty in Malaysian politics. Consumer confidence is also expected to slowdown. What’s your assessment for the Rakyat in terms of the cost of living and purchasing power spilling into 2009? What’s Pakatan Rakyat’s solution in general to deal with the economic lag?

Din Merican: The facts are staring in our face, but we seem to lack the political will to deal with the effects of economic, social and political pathology. Please read our Malaysian Economic Agenda. Some of our ideas have been hijacked by the Barisan Nasional. Well, they say imitation is the highest form of flattery.

12. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob : If you met Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak, what would you say to them.

Din Merican: A spell in the opposition would be good for you. Try it. It may engender the realism from whose flight the present paralysis in UMNO and the country was spawned.

13.Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: What’s your estimation on the big events at the forthcoming UMNO elections? Of white knights and dark horses.

Din Merican: I doubt that half of the UMNO divisions will meet to demand that an EGM be held to amend the party constitution to abolish the quota system governing contests for top party  posts. This will mean that Badawi, a captive of indecision, will  wind up unchallenged as UMNO President in December, 2008.  It would be a travesty if that happens. But UMNO is not only in need of a change in leadership, it is also in dire need of  ideological rudder to steer the party out of the rut it has fallen into. They have nobody who can supply that. The party, like the coalition it leads, has to expire before it can regenerate.

May 13, 2008

Face to Face interviews are conducted by way of e-mail unless otherwise stated.