NCC2–Another Committee won’t do it

October 24, 2016

NCC2–Another Committee won’t do it

by Boo Su-Lyn

There have been calls for the formation of a second National Consultative Council (NCC2) to push for harmony and to resolve a whole laundry list of problems from the fractured education system to religious issues, corruption, broken institutions, and ugly politics.

There have been calls for the formation of a second National Consultative Council (NCC2) to push for harmony and to resolve a whole laundry list of problems from the fractured education system to religious issues, corruption, broken institutions, and ugly politics.

The original NCC, led by the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, was set up in the aftermath of the May 13, 1969 race riots. It came up with the Rukunegara, while the National Operations Council (NOC) formulated the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971, ostensibly to eradicate poverty “irrespective of race” and to “eventually eliminate the identification of race with economic functions”, according to the Second Malaysia Plan (1971-1975).

Despite the apparently noble objectives of the NEP to reduce economic inequality, it has been abused to enrich the Malay elite while the poor across all ethnic groups remain poor. The Bumiputera in Sarawak for example, such as the Bidayuh, still lack tarred roads, schools and basic healthcare in their villages in Padawan in this day and age.

The Rukunegara may have helped with laying down a set of principles for all Malaysians, but it’s regrettable that current government leaders violate the Rukunegara’s exhortation of “a liberal approach“ to the country’s diverse cultural traditions by demonising liberalism.

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So why do we want NCC2, when the achievements of the NCC are questionable and the NEP has contributed to most of our problems today i.e. racial discrimination and ethnic tensions? I understand the frustrations of those calling for NCC2.

There is a sense of hopelessness and even despair. We still struggle with racism and religious conflicts. Our rights are eroded every day as people get arrested for the slightest expression of dissent, while thugs get free rein to spark chaos.

The government is blind to corruption while the Opposition doesn’t seem keen to change the system, only the players. Civil society, which we used to pin our hopes on to represent our voices for reform, turned partisan along the way and alienated many of us.

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But NCC2 is not the answer. We don’t need yet another committee or task force making recommendations that will only end up in the bin.

Look at what happened to the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). They suggested brilliant legislation to criminalise hate speech and discrimination, but their proposals were dumped as the government decided to retain the Sedition Act. They supposedly have some ”national unity blueprint“, but we don’t know what it’s really about.

We rely too much on politicians, prominent figures and movements to “save Malaysia”, failing to realise our immense powers as ordinary citizens to change the system.

In my story on how a block of low-cost flats in Petaling Jaya became liveable, the Desa Mentari Block 3 residents (mostly Malay and Indian) showed me how they overcame their differences and built a tight-knit community, akin to a kampung.

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They enjoy a crime-free environment and the feeling of safety, which is something even I don’t have in my upper middle-class neighbourhood of Taman Tun. They did it on their own, without any big-shot politician or NGO leader. Their MP Wong Chen (pic) told me that he just let them run things the way they saw fit.

Malaysia may be falling to pieces, but we can’t push our individual and collective responsibility to fix the country to someone else. We have to stop standing behind those who do all the speaking up and summon up the courage to stand with them.

It’s not that Malaysia needs saving. If the country is messed up, it’s because we are, too. We’re content with letting someone else do the fighting.

Even with all the corruption going on, the most that we do is make snarky jokes on social media, the kinds that are outwardly funny, but with underlying tones of depression and helplessness.

We aren’t angry enough, which means we don’t care enough, to go out to the streets ourselves in droves and demand change regardless of the consequences.

A friend told me that one of the root problems is that Malaysia as a whole lacks an identity, compared to Sabah for example.

I think that we Malaysians do have one; we just haven’t found a way to articulate it. We want Malaysia to be a kind of “Promised Land” of racial diversity with a “Muhibbah” spirit, where we can point to others across race and be proud to say that ”they” are one of us. We want a reason to stay instead of emigrating to developed countries or even just down south.

But we sometimes let our insecurities get the better of us and when the going gets tough, we give up and ask other people to do the fighting for us. We need to stop doing that.







Nobody takes Malaysia’s Budget seriously and here’s why

October 24, 2016

Nobody takes Malaysia’s Budget seriously and  here’s why

by T K Chua

“It is simple; the annual budget can’t instil discipline if there is no oversight. The annual budget can’t function as an instrument of control if borrowing and off-budget activities are allowed to roam free, unrestrained and unchecked.”–T K Chua

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When I read “Why I didn’t watch the Budget speech” as written by Kensi from Sarawak, I found my feelings were the same. For the first time in a quarter century I did not sit through the whole Budget speech. I walked off after the first hour or so.

The Budget has long lost its aura. It is just an annual pomp for fund managers to get excited and for the government to announce some goodies. Whether or not the goodies are carried out as planned is as good as anyone’s guess.

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Malaysia’s National Budget is Petty Cash for this First Couple. When the cash is finished, just borrow more or ask Bank Negara to print more money and then pass the burden to ordinary Malaysians by way of debt service or inflation. That is Najibonomics: Tax and Spend recklessly.–Din Merican

Why do I say our federal budget is meaningless?First, the annual budget has never capped the amount of borrowing that the federal government could incur each year. If the federal government may borrow without restraint, who bothers whether our projected revenues and expenses are adhered to? If revenues fall short, the government could borrow more to fill the gap. If expenses burst the budget, again the government could borrow more.

Where are the restraints and control that the annual budget is supposed to provide? In fact, the annual supplementary budgets are clear indications that the budget has failed to keep government financial indiscipline in check. The government will borrow and spend as it wishes, regardless of the revenue performance or actual expenditure incurred.

Second, the annual budget is just a mechanism to dish out allocations, but never to accomplish its intended outcomes. We mistakenly look at the allocation earmarked for each programme as if it is a fait accompli.

But this is far from true. For example, just look at the allocation for subsidies which the government has always bragged about. It is time for the government to list out how much of the allocation has reached the intended target groups and how much of it was siphoned off by corrupt officials, businessmen and those who could indulge in arbitrage.

Seriously, if budget spending has been constantly effective over the years, I believe there would be no more poor people in this country.

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Third, the annual federal budget is no longer the true representation of government financial commitment and responsibility. Off-budget agencies and activities have now overwhelmed traditional government ministries and departments.

Parliamentary oversight of government taxation and expenditure through the annual budget is at best only half correct.

When non-financial public enterprises and GLCs set up ventures, incur debt and impose contingent liabilities on the government, did they get the approval of Parliament to begin with? When government decides on privatisation projects, including guaranteeing revenues and profits of privatised entities, did it seek the approval of Parliament?

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This guy is excited about the Budget–He is the Minister of Defense: Commissions

I thought the Federal Constitution, (through Part VII – Financial Provisions), is very clear on financial oversights by Parliament – no taxation shall be levied or expenditures incurred unless with expressed authority of federal law. How then did the government spend and borrow so massively through off-budget agencies such as GLCs and Non-financial public enterprises?

It is simple; the annual budget can’t instil discipline if there is no oversight. The annual budget can’t function as an instrument of control if borrowing and off-budget activities are allowed to roam free, unrestrained and unchecked.

T.K. Chua is an FMT reader.

Time to reject race-based socio- economic policies

October 23, 2016

Time to reject race-based socio- economic policies

by Wan Saiful Wan Jan, CEO IDEAS

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Tun Razak was wrong, Najib made it racist and utterly corrupt, so time to go back to Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Vision of Small but Pro-Business Government

The philosophy guiding how a government relates with the people is something that not many Malaysians talk about these days. But if we go back to the early days of this country, ideology used to matter.

In a speech delivered at IDEAS Annual Dinner on February 20, 2016, Tun Musa Hitam, Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister who started his political career under Tunku Abdul Rahman, said, “In those early days of our history, politics was more ideological than material. There were indeed, yes, indeed, two camps in UMNO: the Tunku camp and the Razak camp.

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“The Tunku camp was clearly and unapologetically right-wing, pro-west and pro-business. The Razak camp was allegedly socialist-communist inclined, a brand enough to scare and scuttle people away all the way in those days when communist terrorists were the biggest threat to our independence.”

This was a telling statement, because Musa was suggesting that the liberal administration of the Tunku was eventually replaced by a socialist-communist inclined administration of Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister.

If we analyse history carefully, indeed we could see how Razak was leaning in a leftist direction. Among the most significant foreign relations built by Razak was with Mao’s communist China, when he visited the country in May 1974. Razak was also the one who introduced huge government intervention into Malaysia’s socioeconomic system when he introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971.

Government domination of the economy is an important feature of a leftist ideology, and this naturally led to the government imposed ethnic-based affirmative action, and all its related policies, that plague our country until today.

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Razak’s ideology was almost completely opposite to the market economy envisioned by the Tunku when he said that Malaysia is a country that believes “in the system of free enterprise”.

We must acknowledge that government intervention has existed since the time of the Tunku. Several times the Tunku too used government powers to stifle dissent. But government interventionism grew much bigger and was formalised under Razak’s administration.

It was Razak’s desire effort to create an ill-defined “social justice” that gave birth to the New Economic Policy (NEP). As a result of their wrong definition of social justice, the NEP was implemented is such a way that nudged us to live our lives along communal lines until today.

Even worse, today we can’t even discuss this supposed temporary policy in rational way anymore. Today we live in a country where if you speak honestly on difficult and sensitive issues, you risk being accused of disloyalty to the country, or worse, being seditious.

It will take a lot more time to change this situation. But it is important for those of us who dream of a more liberal future for the country to persist. We cannot allow the country to continue on the trajectory of big government paved by, as Musa Hitam puts it, Razak’s “socialist-communist inclined” thinking. Instead of a big government philosophy, I propose that we should return to the philosophy of a liberal, small and limited government as originally envisioned by the Tunku for this country.

The liberal belief stems from a commitment to the principle of liberty, which is commonly described as the right to live our lives in any way we want to so long as we do not do any harm to others. It is important to stress the second part of the description: “as long as we do no harm to others”.

A liberal way of life a highly responsible one. We take it as our responsibility to do no harm to others and we acknowledge that we will have to account for any harm that we do. Yes we want to live our lives how we wish. But we also undertake not to harm others. Tunku Abdul Rahman puts it nicely when he said that “Life in this world is short. Let us make use of our lives in the pursuit of happiness and not trouble.”

In fact, the Tunku even put in the Proclamation of Independence that one of the roles of government is “ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people”. It is not the role of government to stop us from enjoying our happiness in the way we want. Instead the role of government is to help and to allow us to seek our own happiness in our own ways.

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The By-Product of Malaysia’s NEP

As I said above, it will take time before we can truly enjoy the fruits of the Tunku’s vision for liberty for this country. The liberal journey of this country was disrupted in 1970 and that disruption continues until today.

We need to realign the country back to the right trajectory. And the realignment process needs to start with us appreciating the importance of having a philosophy based on freedom and liberty to guide all our policies.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, (IDEAS)


Malaysia: Interesting Times

October 23, 2016

COMMENT: Dean Johns has always been a succinct, lucid and thoughtful writer. I enjoy his articles and am a proud owner of his books. I am also grateful to him (and Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran of Malaysiakini) for allowing me to host his pieces like this one on this blog to reach my discerning readers in 206 countries, near and far.

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Two of a Kind from the same Era

Dean is 70 and I am 77. He is an Australian and I am a Malaysian (not a bigoted UMNO Melayu). Yet intellectually, we  are no different. Born in the same era, we share a passion for Malaysia. We see its potential. Regrettably, we are also witnessing its systemic destruction by a kleptocratic regime under Malay leadership of the worst kind.

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Time is not one our side. Both of us are at our journey’s end. For far too long, indeed very long, he and I have been bystanders. In recent years, our patience has run out.

We have grown very critical of the UMNO-led Malaysian government led by the most corrupt Prime Minister who goes by the name of Najib Razak.  As a result, Dean and I are using our pen to push for change. It is a long shot, no doubt, but change may yet happen when Malaysians finally wake up their amnesia.

We can longer tolerate the nonsense. Dean and I ” find it somewhat interesting to wonder how much longer it will take the majority of Malaysians to finally lose all interest in tolerating, let alone supporting and voting for this accursed regime, and start living in more enlightened times”. We are at our wits’ end, trying to seek an explanation for this indifference (the tidak apa mindset).–Din Merican

Interesting Times

by Dean Johns

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Malaysian Official 1

“May you live in interesting times”, as we all know, is widely alleged to be an ancient Chinese curse in which the word ‘interesting’ is ironically intended to be interpreted in the negative sense of ‘troubled’.

But apparently there is no more evidence for the contention that this saying is actually either ancient or Chinese than there is for its implied proposition that there have ever been times in human history that were other than interesting in the sense of troubled, if not outright tragic, for at least some people, somewhere.

Or, indeed, fundamentally, for all people everywhere, in light of the apparent fact that only we humans, of all living creatures, are uncomfortably aware of the interesting reality that we will all inevitably die.

Thus we struggle to sustain our life-forces for as long and greedily and powerfully as possible, ferociously competing both individually and, paradoxically, as cooperative members of competing families, clans, tribes, races, classes, clubs, ideologies, political parties, systems of government and nation-states.

And perhaps most interestingly of all, a good many if not the majority of us strive to cheat death, or at least to pretend that earthly death is not really the end, with the illusion that some imagined deity or another, and self-identification as one of his/her/its devotees, will somehow ensure us eternal survival.

Given urges, illusions and delusions as confused and conflicted as these, it is as inevitable as death itself that each of us lives in times rendered interesting as in troubling or tragic by everything from or own inner turmoil and interpersonal antipathies to outright civil, sectarian, international and even world wars.

However, this observation leads to the thought that the apocryphal ancient Chinese curse under consideration here should be extended to “may you live in interesting times… and places”.

Because it strikes me, as the end of my life grows more imminent, that though I have most certainly survived through some horrifically interesting times, I have been fortunate to experience most of them from a quite uninteresting and thus relatively safe distance.

In other words, I have been more of a spectator than a participant in most of the most interesting times I have lived through, and so have luckily lived long enough to see some times and places turn from extremely negatively to very positively interesting.

For example, I was born into one of the most tragically interesting of relatively recent times, the 1939-45 Second World War, but as an infant I was both blithely ignorant of this horrific event, and, then located as I was in Melbourne, Australia, about as far from its ravages as it was possible to be.

Similarly, I was too young as well as too far away to participate, as many of my fellow Australian citizens were sadly fated to do, in the subsequent Korean War and Malayan Emergency; too married and too distant in Sydney to be caught-up in the woeful war in Vietnam; and too old as well as far-distant to be involved in more recent armed conflicts on such far-flung battlegrounds as East Timor, the Gulf, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Bad-interesting becoming good-interesting

I have been fortunate, too, to be able to witness if not directly experience the fact that many of the places in which life has formerly seemed, and indeed actually been, about as bad-interesting as can be, have surprisingly become as good-interesting as they could possibly get.

In the 70 years or so of my lifetime, for instance, nations like Germany and Japan have transformed themselves from insufferably and fatally interesting examples of the evils of Fascism into positively fascinating case-studies in peaceful prosperity.

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A Much Admired POTUS

Somewhat similarly, the former USSR, which US President Ronald Reagan rightly dubbed ‘The Evil Empire’, long ago collapsed under the weight of its own economic ineptitude, thus freeing most of its so-called ‘satellites’ in Eastern Europe from its tentacles.

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Donald Trump’s Soulmate

Though unfortunately Russia itself remains interesting in the alleged ancient Chinese accursed sense, thanks to its President Vladimir Putin’s apparent determination to keep the place more interesting for his oligarch and other criminal cronies, as well as for criminal client-states like al-Assad’s all-too-interesting Syria, than for Russia’s ordinary citizens.

And appropriately enough, as the (mis)attributed source of the ancient “may you live in interesting times” curse, China remains as negatively interesting as ever, thanks to its fake designation as a ‘people’s’ republic despite the fact that it remains all-too-obviously a dictatorship of a corrupt capitalist party that still, interestingly, claims to be communist.

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I hope Malaysia can be spared of this menace

Meanwhile, as long as this column is for Malaysiakini and thus must at least mention Malaysia, it has to be said that life continues to be interesting in the same old, same old dreary way as it has been for five centuries or so under a series of colonisers including the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Japanese, then British again and now the self-styled putras of UMNO-BN.

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I miss Saloma and P. Ramlee–Din Merican

Interesting, in other words, only by virtue of the fact that the powers-that-be have so long and so comprehensively stacked the nation’s institutions in their favour as to get away with stealing not just the principal of the people’s cash and publicly-owned resources, but the interest into the bargain.

Though I have to confess I also find it somewhat interesting to wonder how much longer it will take the majority of Malaysians to finally lose all interest in tolerating, let alone supporting and voting for this accursed regime, and start living in more enlightened times.

KJ John on Great Leadership

October 21, 2016

KJ John on Great Leadership

by Dr. KJ John

Great leadership is only when all community leaders of Malaysia, whether appointed, elected, or voluntary choose to put nation-state interests above their own and ‘Serve to Lead’ our nation out of the current quagmire.–KJ John

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For all his faults, contradictions and paradoxes, Dr. Mahathir is Malaysia’s Great Leader and he comes from my state Kedah–Din Merican

Premised upon my last three columns on patriotism, a small debate ensued on Facebook about whom or what defines good or great leadership. This column is my response to that query, but I would like to address it from a perspective of an RMC Old Putera, the alumni of the Royal Military College (RMC); our alma mater.

All Old Puteras were trained to ‘Serve to Lead’, or ‘Berkhidmat Memimpin’. The unasked question is who then do we serve and lead? Every Saturday, at the parade square, we actually saluted the flag of the federation, what is now called the ‘Jalur Gemilang’. Therein lay the answer as to whom we were called and taught to serve or seek to lead.

From good to great

Many books have been written about the two words ‘good versus great’. ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins is one very popular one. In the nineties, ‘Built to Last’ was published about great companies with good work ethics and a mature performance culture. But the question remained, what about the company which is not born with a great DNA? How can good companies, mediocre companies, even bad companies achieve enduring greatness?

“For years, this question preyed on the mind of Jim Collins. Are there companies that defy gravity and convert long-term mediocrity or worse into long-term superiority? And if so, what are the universal distinguishing characteristics that cause a company to go from good to great?”

I can fully understand why most authors, writers, and scholars shy away from the word, ‘good’. When a Nicodemus, a teacher of the laws of Israel, approached Jesus and asked the question by night, “Good Teacher, how do I inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with another question: “Why do you call me good; only God is good”.

Therefore, for human systems or organisations like companies or countries, it is easier to talk about being great places for good to great experiences. In fact, Robert Levering, another researcher, as a sequel to ‘In Search of Excellence’ by Peters and Waterman, wrote ‘A Great Place to Work’:

“Good workplaces are worth examining if for no other reason than that they enrich the lives of the people working there. Everyone, after all, would prefer working in a pleasant environment to an unpleasant one. Since most of us spend the greater part of our waking hours at work, this is no small matter.”

Great leadership in Malaysia

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What would great leadership in Malaysia look like? Would it just be, “I did it My Way?” which appears to be Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte’s favourite song? Or, is it our Malaysian way of ‘close one eye culture’ of ‘nasi campur’ – all and sundry meshed together on the same plate, but very delicious to the stomach and human desires? While palatable, it may not be good either for health or body?

What is the kind and quality of good leadership for Malaysia; of the ‘Serve to Lead’ kind? To answer this question, first we need to define the units of analysis to peg the problem definition at its core and essence.

Malaysia is a federation

Any federation is a coming together, a willing one, of many parts to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That means the whole federation is a unit of analysis greater that all its parts. We are not a confederation either. A confederation is the coming together of small groups of constituent sub-wholes to make a greater whole. The European Union (EU) is more like a confederation.

For example the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers is a confederation of many industry associations and they come together as a greater whole to dialogue and take concerns with the government or any other party.

Neither are we a unitary state like the Philippines or Indonesia. They have no states with legal existence; except for the newly-created autonomous zones of Aceh, or the Muslim South areas of Mindanao. In Indonesia, post the tsunami, Aceh was made an autonomous zone because of the unique problems they faced.

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Najib Razak is Malaysia’s Most Corrupt Politician  but no Leader, Amen

Malaysia is a therefore a federation of three constituent parts; of the two Borneo States, and the Federation of Malay States. Our whole is greater but the sum of the parts is not 13 or 14; whichever way we argue it, but rather three constituent parts, since Singapore left in 1965.

Parliamentary and constitutional democracy

While nine feudal Malay kingdoms came together to make the Federation of Malaya with two Straits Settlements in 1957, our system of governance was designed, developed, and crafted to become a constitutional democracy. The Parliament defines our laws; both in letter and spirit.

Then, in 1963, when the new Borneo States with Singapore came together to make or form the bigger reality called Malaysia; it was not merely a linear projection of the Merdeka Democracy. It really is an improvement of our parliamentary and constitutional democracy of the four, and later, three states to become a brand new whole greater than the sum of its three parts.

The Federal Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Federation, and it defines all else, including the structure, format, and principles of how our democracy is to be framed, shaped, and continue to be improved.

Anything that detracts from the supremacy of this Federal Constitution, including new developments through the specific interpretation of a Wahhabi form of Islam, or a Shiite-Sufi Islam cannot be included simply because of the tyranny of a majority. The constitution reigns supreme.

Constitutional monarchy

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A Gallery of Malaysia’s Constitutional Monarchs

This past week we had the meeting of the Rulers-in-Council; these include all nine Malay State Rulers, plus politically appointed ‘Malay’ governors, or the other four legitimate entities and their respective politically elected heads of state. All such meetings and protocols are well enshrined protocols within the constitution.

What is not well enshrined by the Federal Constitution can be considered as traditional Malay customs or culture from their historic system of feudal governance of these nine respective states.

Great leadership is only when all community leaders of Malaysia, whether appointed, elected, or voluntary choose to put nation-state interests above their own and ‘Serve to Lead’ our nation out of the current quagmire. May God continue to forgive our ignorance and arrogance.

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(This column is dedicated as my prayer for the future of the nation-state, especially for my grandson who turns two years of life as a Malaysian living in this country we love.)


At 50–Quo Vadis ASEAN

October 20,2016

At 50–Quo Vadis ASEAN

by Tess Bacala

As the international backlash continues over Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, the lack of due process and the consequent deaths of “suspects” in his campaign, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN), along with its individual member states, has been characteristically silent.

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For instance, ASEAN’s leaders and ministers met at their summit in the Lao capital Vientiane last September and discussed a range of issues in the region and beyond. But neither the organization nor its members raised a whimper about rights concerns on the extrajudicial killings of supposed drug users and pushers since Duterte assumed office on June 30.  News reports put the figure of alleged users and pushers killed at more than 3,000 since Duterte took over.

ASEAN’s silence on this issue was not particularly a surprise, but it was the latest example of how it is not the organization’s habit to tell off a member state about its domestic issues.

More typically, it was an outside state like the United States, though not a disinterested country, that brought up the issue of human rights at the September 6-8 summit, where Duterte made his debut on the regional stage.

To human rights advocates across the region, the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits, held back to back this year, should have been an apt occasion to discuss a subject that is otherwise anathema to the Southeast Asian organization, especially given its theme, ’ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together’, which defines the vision of the ASEAN Community for the next decade.

At the ASEAN-US summit in Vientiane, President Barack Obama called to mind a “common vision” for the region — “(a)n open, dynamic and economically competitive Asia-Pacific that respects human rights and upholds the law-based order.”

But this is far from how the situation is from the view of the sectors that have been at the receiving end of certain governments’ systemic suppression of dissent at home. This also comes at a time when the ASEAN Community has been formed with its three pillars — political security, socio-cultural, and economic – and where its peoples can enjoy “human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

ASEAN continues to steer clear of human rights issues in line with the principle of non-interference in its member states’ internal affairs. But as ASEAN turns 50 next year, critics say this adherence to non-intervention should not be absolute, especially now that economic integration is going full throttle after the launch of the ASEAN Community’s in December 2015.

Economic but not political openness

The organization has shown much more openness – and willingness to let go of sovereignty concerns – in the areas of economics and business rather than in political areas such as human rights.

“ASEAN has promoted a harmful contradiction. Member states have abandoned ASEAN principles of ‘non-interference’ and ‘state sovereignty’ in relation to capital and economic policy but doggedly retained them in relation to human rights,” says the alternative document titled ‘Vision 2025: ASEAN Women’s Blueprints for Alternative Regionalism’.

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Ryerson University (Canada)’s Dr. Sorpong Peou

Over recent decades, Southeast Asia has experienced three ‘miracles’: economic growth, the disappearance of mass atrocities, and efforts to promote regional peace and community building,” said Dr. Sorpong Peou, chairperson of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Canada. “Large-scale killings or genocide such as those in Indonesia (1965–66), Cambodia (1975–1978 under the Khmer Rouge), and East Timor (1975–1999 under the Indonesian occupation) “have all disappeared from contemporary Southeast Asia.”

“But authoritarianism keeps threatening to return,” wrote the Cambodian-born scholar in a commentary published by the East Asia Forum in March. “Below the surface of official declarations lies an acceptance among most ASEAN leaders that democracy and human rights should not be pushed too fast and too far.”

Appreciation and interpretation of human rights are subject to national interest rather than international human rights standards,” said Jaymie Ann Reyes, program manager of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism. The Working Group, a coalition of individuals and organizations that include civil society and academics, engages ASEAN on specific rights initiatives.

Rights? It depends

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Some human rights themes and focuses are more acceptable to ASEAN such as women’s rights, children’s rights, and rights of persons with disabilities,” Reyes added.

All 10 member states have ratified the UN Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Rights of the Child, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “But there are more ‘sensitive’ issues that are not discussed for fear of violating the principle of ‘non-interference,’” she said.

One of these is refugee protection. The majority of ASEAN countries have not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1954 Statelessness Convention.

A wide range of other rights concerns continues to exist today across the region of 620 million people.

In Indonesia, the vigorous implementation of the death penalty, the enactment of more discriminatory laws against women, and violent attacks against religious minorities are bedeviling the government, according to Human Rights Watch.

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Neighboring Malaysia recently passed the National Security Council Act (NSCA), which empowers the government to declare martial law in areas where there are perceived security threats. Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, passed in Parliament just a month ahead of the Vientiane summit, is seen as yet another attempt to muzzle freedom of expression in the city-state.

The decades-old Internal Security Act, which allows arrests without warrant and indefinite detention without trial, remains firmly in place in Singapore. (A similar law in Malaysia was abolished in 2012. Yet four years later, the NSCA came into force.)

Thailand’s new constitution — approved in a referendum on August 7 — is seen to reinforce the military’s two-year hold on power.

“For the people in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, the democratic crisis has meant increasing crackdowns on journalists, human rights lawyers, opposition politicians, bloggers, activists and religious leaders. Political deterioration has also contributed to internal conflict in Southeast Asia,” said Yuyun Wahyuningrum, senior advisor on ASEAN and Human Rights at the Human Rights Working Group, a coalition of more than 50 groups advocating for human rights in Indonesia.

The Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), sees “a trend of shrinking civil society space” despite “ASEAN’s aim to be a people-centered and people-oriented community”.

In Cambodia, government critics have been jailed, and more oppressive laws passed. For instance, Kem Ley, leader of the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer, was gunned down in broad daylight in the capital Phnom Penh on July 10 this year.

Although Myanmar has ceased to be a pariah state, its democratic transition has been marked by concern over discrimination against Rohingya Muslims, who are stateless in the mainly Buddhist country.

Punishment under Hudud

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Critics have also dubbed as medieval Brunei’s announcement in October 2013 to impose a tough shariah penal code system, after its chairmanship of ASEAN that same year.

Yet ASEAN prides itself on having an “overarching human rights institution” such as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

In fact, the ASEAN Chair’s statement in Vientiane commended the commission for “the progress of (its) work” and urged it to “promote the mainstreaming of human rights across all three pillars of the ASEAN Community”. But how such “progress” is measured and improves the rights landscape is not clear.

On the eve of the Vientiane summit, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights appealed to ASEAN leaders “to press the Lao government to cease the abuses that have consistently placed Laos at the bottom of rights and development indexes measuring rights, press freedom, democracy, religious freedom, and economic transparency.”

This referred to the unresolved disappearance of Lao activist Sombath Somphone, missing since December 2012. The Lao government had earlier said the issue had no place at the ASEAN meetings.

Looking back, ASEAN’s road to setting up a human rights commission – whose limitations its own commissioners concede – has been far from smooth. The commission’s creation was already a feat by itself.

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ASEAN launched in Bangkok in 1967

The regional grouping laid down the ASEAN Charter in 2008, which stipulated the creation of a human rights body. AICHR was created in 2009. In a process criticized by civil society for falling short of international standards, ASEAN drafted an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012.

From being taboo, human rights principles were slowly integrated into ASEAN documents, institutions, and language. ASEAN bodies and government representatives are slowly adopting and using human rights language,” said Reyes of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism.

But the AICHR’s limited mandate does not include receiving and investigating rights complaints. “It is high time it (AICHR) evolved from promotion to the protection of human rights,” said a statement by the Thai Civil Society Network on ASEAN and AICHR.

Today, “all ASEAN human rights instruments recognise universal human rights standards with caveats: the principle of non-interference and due regard to the different culture, history, and socioeconomic condition in each ASEAN member state,” Ranyta Yusran, research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law, said at a legal conference in Beijing in May.

Wahyuningrum of the Jakarta-based Human Rights Working Group said: “Human rights and democracy issues (in the region) are not going to simmer down. How is ASEAN going to keep up with these changes if it remains too bureaucratic and difficult to engage with?”

But she said there are encouraging signs. At a recent meeting she attended in Bangkok on legal aid and witness protection for victims of cross-border trafficking, participants acknowledged the political differences among the member states they were representing, but nevertheless focused on cooperation. The participants wanted to develop a cross-border witness protection standard operating procedure, which is a “good start,” she said.

Although AICHR has not adapted to “the changing context and structural challenges” of rights protection, Wahyuningrum credited it with initiating activities that have helped set “different platforms for subregional debate on human rights and clarified the ASEAN dimension on responses to human rights issues”.

For Reyes, there has also been “more robust engagement between and among non-governmental and civil society organizations,” though this faces challenges.

All eyes are now looking to 2017, when the Philippines takes its turn as ASEAN chair during the organization’s 50th year. The country has had a record of speaking up against rights abuses in ASEAN, but there are questions about how – and whether it can still do this credibly – given the furore over extrajudicial killings in the Duterte government’s crackdown on illegal drugs.

Tess Bacala wrote this as a fellow of the Reporting ASEAN project of Inter-Pres Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific (  This story was produced under the “Reporting Development in ASEAN” series of Inter-Press Service Asia-Pacific.