Twenty years of Indonesian Democracy—how many more?

May 26, 2018

Twenty years of Indonesian Democracy—how many more?

When Indonesia’s New Order regime met its end in May 1998, I was a PhD student researching Indonesian opposition movements while teaching Indonesian language and politics at a university in Sydney.

Along with other lecturers and students, I watched the live broadcast of Suharto’s resignation speech, listening to the words of one of our colleagues as she translated the President’s fateful words for Australian TV. Clustered around a television screen in a poky AV lab, everyone present felt awed by the immensity of what we were witnessing, relieved that a dangerous political impasse had been broken, and nervously hopeful about the future after so many long years of political stagnation.


The extraordinary achievements of political reform in the years that followed formed one of the great success stories of the so-called “third wave” of democratization—the worldwide surge of regime change that began in Southern Europe in the mid-1970s and then spread through Latin America, Africa and Asia.

The post-Suharto democracy has now lasted longer than did Indonesia’s earlier period of parliamentary democracy (1950–1957), and the subsequent Guided Democracy regime (1957–65). While it still has another dozen years to pass the record set by Suharto’s New Order, Indonesian democracy has proved that it has staying power.

What few would question, though, is that the quality of Indonesia’s democracy was a problem from the beginning—and that under President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) democratic quality has begun to slide dramatically.

Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit gave Indonesia its largest downgrading in its Democracy Index since scoring began in 2006. With a score of 6.39 out of a possible maximum of 10, the country is now bumping down toward the bottom of the index’s category of “flawed democracies”, on the verge—if it sinks just a little lower—of crossing into the category of “hybrid regime”. This downgrading of Indonesia’s position follows similar drops for the country in other democracy indices like the Freedom in the World survey compiled by Freedom House.

Indonesia’s trajectory is not bucking the global trend. Around the world, democracy is in retreat. Freedom House says democracy is facing “its most serious crisis in decades”, with 71 countries experiencing declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017 and only 35 registering gains, making 2017 the twelfth year in a row showing global democratic recession.

Unlike during an earlier era of military coups, today the primary source of democratic backsliding is elected politicians. Leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán undermine the rule of law, manipulate institutions for their own political advantage, and restrict the space for democratic opposition. Elected despotism is, increasingly, the order of the day. Indeed, as I argue here, the primary threat to Indonesia’s democratic system today comes not from actors outside the arena of formal politics, like the military or Islamic extremists, but the politicians that Indonesians themselves have chosen.

Eroding democracy, in democracy’s name

Over recent years, successive central governments have introduced restrictions on democratic rights and freedoms in Indonesia. This process began during the second term of the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono Presidency, which began in 2009, but has accelerated significantly since the election of Jokowi in 2014.

The immediate backdrop to some of the most regressive moves has been the contest between Jokowi and his Islamist and other detractors, especially in the wake of the mobilisations against the Chinese Christian Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok).

In July 2017, Jokowi issued a new regulation, subsequently approved by the national legislature, that granted the authorities sweeping powers to outlaw social organizations that they deemed a threat to the national ideology of Pancasila. The new law actually built on an earlier, somewhat less harmful version issued during the Yudhoyono presidency. The government quickly took advantage of the law to outlaw Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a large Islamist organization that, while openly rejecting pluralism and democracy, has also pursued its goals non-violently.

At the same time, several critics of President Jokowi have been arrested on charges of makar, or rebellion (though it appears the authorities may not be proceeding with these cases). The government has coercively intervened in the internal affairs of Indonesia’s political parties so as to attain a majority in parliament. A prominent media mogul supportive of anti-Jokowi political causes was slapped with what appeared to many to be politically-motivated criminal investigations. Foreign NGOs and funding agencies face an increasingly restrictive operating climate.

Meanwhile, the military has been brought back into governance, at least at the lowest levels of the state, with the government re-instituting the Suharto-era of babinsa—junior officers assigned to villages—and promoting military involvement in non-security related functions as fertilizer distribution.

A related source of decline in the quality of Indonesia’s democracy, meanwhile, is intolerant attitudes toward religious and other social minorities, alongside narrowing public space for critical discussion of religious topics, and the growing ascendancy of religious conservatism in social and political life.

A few years ago, religious minorities such as Shia Muslims and members of the Ahmadiyah sect were the most frequent target of violent attack and restrictions; recently, the country has been gripped by an anti-LGBT panic. It is possible that Indonesia will soon criminalize homosexuality. At a time when many third-wave democracies, notably those in Latin America, are becoming more respectful of the rights of homosexuals and other sexual minorities, Indonesia is moving in the opposite direction.

While none of these government measures has in itself been a knockout blow against freedom of expression and association, taken together they constitute a significant erosion of democratic space. As the global democracy indices recognize, it already makes no sense to speak of Indonesia as being a full, or liberal, democracy. These developments point toward, at best, Indonesia’s becoming an increasingly illiberal democracy, where electoral contestation continues as a foundation of the polity, but coexists with significant restrictions on political and religious freedoms, and where the rights of at least some minority groups are not protected.

Defying the odds

But the picture is not unremittingly gloomy. Indonesia has a long way to go before it sinks to the level of Russia or even Turkey, and it is worth pausing to contextualize the recent trends in the context of the achievements of Indonesian democracy over the last 20 years.

Many of these gains remain firmly established. Democratic electoral competition has become an essential part of Indonesia’s political architecture. Apart from sporadic calls to do away with direct elections of regional heads (pilkada), no mainstream political force calls openly for electoral mechanisms to be replaced with a rival organizing principle. Even when the authoritarian populist Prabowo Subianto ran for the presidency in 2014, he had to disguise his anti-democratic impulses with talk of returning to Indonesia’s original 1945 Constitution—i.e. the version of the constitution that the Suharto regime had relied upon, but which seems attractive to many Indonesians because it resonates with Indonesia’s nationalist history.

Public opinion surveys demonstrate continuing strong support both for democracy as an ideal, and for the democratic system actually practiced in Indonesia. Moreover, Indonesia still has a relatively robust civil society and independent media, at least in the major cities. Political debate on most topics remains lively. For example, it is generally easy for critics of President Jokowi to express their views loudly and directly—not something that can be done in most of Indonesia’s ASEAN neighbors. Indeed, some of the recent attempts to curtail free speech has been prompted by concerns about the ease with which so-called “fake news”, conspiracy theories and wild rumors circulate through social media.

Moreover, it is worth emphasizing that many of the very people who pose the greatest threat to Indonesian democracy—its elites—have in fact bought into the new system. Elites throughout the country have benefited from the new opportunities for social mobility and material accumulation they have been able to secure through elections and decentralization.

A recent survey of members of provincial parliaments, conducted by Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) in cooperation with the Australian National University, shows that while Indonesia’s regional political elites are certainly illiberal on many issues, they are strongly supportive of electoral democracy as a system of government. Indeed, on many questions their views are markedly more democratic than the general population.

For example, when asked to judge on a 10-point scale whether democracy was a suitable system of government for Indonesia, the average score provided by these parliamentarians was 8.14—not far from the maximum score of 10 for “absolutely suitable”, and a full point higher than the 7.14 given by respondents in LSI’s most recent general population survey in which the same question was asked. Likewise, these legislators were considerably less likely to support military rule or rule by a strong leader than were the population at large.

These responses are significant, because democracy is not simply a system favoring protection of civil liberties and ensuring accountability of officials to the public (areas where Indonesia has, to spin it positively, a mixed record). It is also a means of ensuring regular and open competition between rival political elites.

Viewed in this light—as a means of regulating elite circulation—Indonesian democracy looks more robust. Though elite buy-in does not preclude continuing erosion of civil liberties at the center, or guarantee protection of unpopular minorities, it does pose a considerable obstacle to the return of a command-system of centralized authority such as that which ruled Indonesia under the New Order.

A consolidated low-quality democracy?

It is in no small part due to this elite support for the status quo—in part begrudging and contingent, but nevertheless real—that Indonesian democracy has proven resilient to potential spoilers. This resilience is in itself an important achievement: there is a body of scholarly literature that suggests that once a country has experienced democratic rule for a lengthy period—one scholar, Milan Svolik, puts the figure at 17–20 years—it is very unlikely to regress toward outright authoritarianism.

Moreover, Indonesia’s present backsliding—as with the wider global trend—can arguably be viewed in part as a retreat that comes after a democratic high water mark is reached. If the last century is any guide, democratic progress and regression come in worldwide waves: the third wave of democratization which began in the 1970s was preceded by two earlier waves that came in the wake of World War I and World War II. In both periods, many of the newly democratic regimes that were established in the wake of the breakup of multinational and colonial empires did not last long. But in each case, these retreats were superseded by new waves of democratization.

Obviously, we need to be cautious when thinking about future trends. We are in the midst of a new world-historic transition and we do not know whether we are merely at the start of the worldwide retreat of democracy, or already near the turning of the authoritarian tide.

Most worryingly, some of the ingredients giving rise to democratic weakening in the current period are new, and do not yet show signs of abating. Strikingly, for the first time in decades, there are signs of weakness in advanced democracies—both in terms of declining popular support for democracy as measured in some opinion polls, and in the election of would-be autocrats such as Donald Trump. Wealth inequality in many countries is reaching levels not seen since the dawn of the age of mass democracy a century ago, with the result that the growing political dominance of oligarchs—a major focus of academic analysis in Indonesia—is a worldwide trend. Meanwhile, new communication technologies of the internet and social media are opening up participation in political debate, but also driving a polarization that undermines a shared public sphere and legitimizes opponents.

The forces conspiring to undermine democracy globally, the resulting unsupportive international climate for Indonesia’s democratic revival, plus the growing signs of democratic decline in the country itself, should make us cautious about celebrating the twentieth anniversary of reformasi with a tone of triumph.


Nevertheless, it is worth viewing contemporary predicaments from the perspective of those of us who watched Suharto resign 20 years ago. Back then, as we watched Suharto read out his speech, my friends and I mixed astonishment, excitement and relief with genuine anxiety about what was in store for Indonesia. Many expert commentators were very skeptical of the notion that Indonesia could become a successful democracy. Some urged caution, pointing to the acrimony that had dogged Indonesia’s earlier democratic experiment in the 1950s, and highlighting the under-development of civilian politics and the continuing influence of the armed forces.

Indonesian democracy exceeded most expectations back then. It might just do so again.

Malaysia of 2018 has learnt lessons from India of 1977. And, so should we

May 26, 2018

Malaysia of 2018 has learnt lessons from India of 1977. And, so should we

by Dr. Shashi Tharoor–


Image result for Dr. Shashi Tharoor


As an Indian and a democrat – and as an opposition politician also facing a seemingly unvanquishable foe in power, and looking to unity and popular support to bring about change – I can only wish the new coalition government in Malaysia well.

Visiting Malaysia this week, as I have done, is to be transported in time to the New Delhi of March and April 1977, when the invincible Congress Party, after ruling India uninterruptedly for thirty years, was ousted at the polls. There is the same heady atmosphere all around, the same giddy exuberance at the dramatically transformed political reality, the same sense that, now that this election result has happened, anything is possible.

Image result for Dr Mahathir and Anwar

“–what Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram were in the India of 1977, Mahathir Mohamed and Anwar Ibrahim are in the Malaysia of 2018”–Shashi Tharoor.

People spoke back then of a “Second Independence Day”, a moment of national liberation; I heard the same words in Kuala Lumpur this week. Another similarity was that the party that had won the nation its independence from the colonial overlords, and had seemed to embody the spirit of the nation, had been seen as having ruled too long. In 1977 in India as in 2018 in Malaysia, former stalwarts of the ancien regime, now turned democratic insurgents, were hailed as reborn avatars come to make up for past sins: what Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram were in the India of 1977, Mahathir Mohamed and Anwar Ibrahim are in the Malaysia of 2018.

Back then as well, those who were silent suddenly found their voices, and claimed to have been critics all along. Just like now, the motley opposition parties had united back then as one to defeat a hated foe. Then, too, it was impossible to find anyone prepared to say a good word for the defeated government and its tarnished leader.

The same talk of revenge is in the air, again couched as justly deserved punishment for the leader’s sins.

Image result for Pakatan Victory in GE-14 2018

There are differences, of course, but only of degree. The Congress had been in power for 30 years, the Malaysian Barisan Nasional (National Front) had ruled for 60. Both had seemed invincible, permanently destined to reign. Morarji Desai was a former Deputy Prime Minister, who had been out of national office for a decade; Mahathir was a former Prime Minister, out of power for 16 years. Jagjivan Ram’s was a last-minute defection, announced after the elections were called; Anwar had been ousted from the cabinet twenty years earlier and been jailed for the last ten. The essence of the change was, however, the same: the people had revolted, they had found credible leaders to represent their hopes, and they had brought about dramatic and transformative change, peacefully, through the ballot-box.

An Indian of my vintage can be forgiven for saying: I’ve seen this movie before.

And of course, it didn’t end the way the happy celebrants of Kuala Lumpur would like to hear. With the hated foe defeated, it took only two years for the contradictions within the victorious new Janata coalition to break it apart; in less than three, the vanquished party was back in office, the election of 1977 seen as an aberration. That’s not the movie script the winners in Malaysia want to hear.

And yet they face similar challenges. The party with the most seats in the victorious coalition, Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR, has only two Cabinet Ministers; the plum portfolios have been allocated to others by the coalition leader, Mahathir bin Mohamed, Prime Minister for 22 years (1981-2003) and now, at 92, the world’s oldest elected leader. Anwar himself, newly pardoned and eligible to run for office immediately, is widely seen as Prime Minister-in-waiting, but Mahathir speaks of running the country for two years to set it right before handing over to him. Two years, as any Indian can tell him, is a long time in coalition politics. And it was Mahathir who had first ousted and jailed his Deputy, Anwar, nearly two decades ago.

Image result for Pakatan Victory in GE-14 2018

Malaysia has many things in common with India – a multi-religious, plural society, with some rising strains of intolerance; an empowered elite, with a cosmopolitan sensibility and a global outlook, seeking to transform a society still largely rural and traditional; a democratic system that, for all its flaws and manipulability, largely works. There is genuine interest in, and awareness of, India in this country, great respect for our democratic example, and increasing concern about reports of mounting intolerance.

Two former Deputy Prime Ministers in the old Barisan Nasional governments are now members of the victorious opposition coalition. I met them both: Muhyiddin bin Yassin, now the new Home Minister, and Anwar Ibrahim, who I had known in my UN days, and who, in the midst of his triumph, release and resurrection, generously gave me 50 minutes of his time, and his undivided attention. Both are aware of the challenges confronting them; both are determined to overcome the inevitable problems and make the future work.

I was amazed to see how ten years of jail has failed to break Anwar’s spirit, how he radiates calmness and patience along with a lively energy, and how he seems prepared for the long haul. To launch into a punishing schedule, receiving visitors from around the country and the world, so soon after his release, and to do so in a relaxed and good-natured way, speaks volumes for the man and his self-belief. His associates, partners and coalition allies have not always been fair or kind to him in the past. Yet he knows that this is a time to forget old wounds, not dwell on them. He realizes how easily division can lead to defeat again: the lessons of 1977 are not lost on him. He can only hope they will be learned by his allies as well.

As an Indian and a democrat – and as an opposition politician also facing a seemingly unvanquishable foe in power, and looking to unity and popular support to bring about change – I can only wish them well.

Dr Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 17 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is ‘Why I am a Hindu’. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor

The Unending Journey towards being Malaysian

May 24, 2018

by Zairil Khir Johari

The Unending Journey towards being Malaysian Malaysia today there seems to be a renewed prejudice towards migrant communities, even those who have settled for generations and should no longer be considered anything other than part of Malaysian society. Instead of treating our fellow citizens as one of our own, there are efforts to ban Malay words from being used by non-Malays, as well as the unconstitutional suppression of rights of non-Malays to religious expression.–Zairil Khir Johari

Nearly 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Muhammad and his small band of followers left Mecca, where the fledgling Muslim community was increasingly persecuted and oppressed, for Yathrib (later renamed Medina), a city 320km to the north.

Image result for The Malay Warrior

God Help Malaysia if these guys are our warriors inherited from the Najib Era

This journey has come to be known as the Hijrah, an epochal event that not only marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar, but also the consolidation of the first Muslim community. It was from the success of this migration that the small community was able to grow and blossom into what it is today – representatives of the world’s second largest and fastest-growing religion.

Taken literally, hijrah means migration, the physical movement of people from one place to another. But hijrah also carries a spiritual and existential meaning, connoting a search for something better – be it to further one’s career, to develop one’s talent, to seek a better life and, in some cases, even for something as basic as survival. In other words, hijrah can be taken to mean a journey towards betterment, whether personal or collective.

Hijrah is not a concept removed from our own society and civilisation. South-East Asia is a maritime region consisting of 25,000 islands and with a peninsula peppered by vast riverine networks, and so our forefathers were constantly on the move. If today’s world is said to be borderless in the metaphorical sense, the Malay Archipelago could be said to be one in the literal sense.

The Inclusive Malay World

Image result for The Malay Warrior

The 1Malaysia Bugis Warrior

In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say that society back then had no historical need or cognisance of borders. This conclusion can be gleaned from studying the literary manuscripts of yore, such as Hikayat Hang Tuah, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, the Malay Annals and Misa Melayu, among others. There may have been a complex and mature network of international trade, and along with it constant interaction with sailors and merchants from all corners of the world, but nowhere in the writings is there a reference to the notion of orang asing, or foreigners – at least not in the way we understand it today.

Instead, the term used to describe migrants or people who had journeyed from other territories was orang dagang. While one may ascribe this expression to mean merchants, the classic texts actually use the term saudagar for that purpose. Thus, orang dagang refers not to transient traders, but travellers who, having settled in a new territory, assimilate themselves by contributing their work, energy and loyalty to the collective social and economic development of their new community. In short, migrants were very much embraced as part of society and not seen as outsiders or the proverbial “other”.

This concept has its modern parallel in what we would describe today as citizenship, albeit in a more progressive and encompassing way. A citizen after all is someone who, in addition to being an inhabitant of a particular state, is also a legally recognised member of that state and therefore subject to whatever incumbent rights, duties and obligations that are provided for. But as modern states did not exist then, recognition of the orang dagang was less legalistic and not so narrowly defined. Rather, they were simply accepted as productive members of the community.

Indeed, there were also no real political borders. While there did exist the concept of hamba raja, which refers to a ruler’s liege subjects, it was not a permanent relationship because people were free to shift their loyalties to another ruler, depending on where they happened to be. Kingdoms had no defined borders and a ruler’s territory only stretched as far as his influence.

Now, there was indeed a term used to describe outsiders, but it did not refer to foreign travellers or traders who offered their wares and services – these as we have established were the orang dagang. Instead, if we are to use Hikayat Hang Tuah as an example, the term orang luar is used in every instance to refer to invaders, namely the Portuguese who were also called the Ferringi. These orang luar were seen as arrogant and unwilling to honour local culture and customs. They were therefore cast in negative light, as the following excerpt shows:

“Seketika juga maka Feringgi itu pun habislah; yang ada hidup semuanya habis lari terbit keluar kota. Maka diturut bunuh oleh segala orang luar itu, habis mati semuanya Feringgi itu.” Hikayat Hang Tuah Tuah, 524:38

The passage above speaks of the defeat of the Ferringi (Portuguese), with survivors having fled the city of Malacca. The remaining orang luar (outsiders), who were the Portuguese, were then wiped out.

A Region of Migrants

Image result for The Chulias of Penang

It is also interesting to note that in the Malay language, people are central to the concept of territory. In fact, the Malay term for region or territory, i.e. rantau, includes elements of migration and mobility. When rantau is conjugated as a verb, merantau, it takes on the meaning of traveling. Hence, the word rantau refers to both geography and the movement of people – something that has no English equivalent.

Although the concept and practice of merantau is often said to be particular to the Minangkabau community of West Sumatra, in truth it was normal practice throughout the entire Malay Archipelago, as we have already explored through the etymology of the term orang dagang.

It should come then as no surprise that the establishment of the famed Malacca Sultanate had its origins in the migration of asylum seekers. If we recall our history lessons, the founder of Malacca, Parameswara, was in fact an exiled prince of Palembang who after failing to establish a safe haven in Temasek (now known as Singapore) had no choice but to merantau further to finally settle in Malacca.


Learning from History

History is full of lessons for us to draw from. To be sure, circumstances then and now differ vastly, and the borderless societies that fabled characters such as Hang Tuah and Parameswara lived in have long been replaced by modern nation-states with clear borders and complex legal regimes.

However, by deconstructing some of these key concepts, we find that the ancient Malay world was in fact a very inclusive one – a far cry from the narrow and shallow narratives that pervade our country today. Migrants or orang dagang were welcomed and accepted, so long as they chose to contribute to the society. The only people who were considered to be real outsiders were aggressive invaders who sought to impose foreign values at gunpoint.

Image result for gurney drive penang

Gurney Drive, Penang, where pendatangs hang out

Unfortunately, in Malaysia today there seems to be a renewed prejudice towards migrant communities, even those who have settled for generations and should no longer be considered anything other than part of Malaysian society. Instead of treating our fellow citizens as one of our own, there are efforts to ban Malay words from being used by non-Malays, as well as the unconstitutional suppression of rights of non-Malays to religious expression.

It must be stressed that these bigoted actions are not only wrong but also antithetical to Malay culture. In fact, it goes against the very grain of Malay history, which paints the Malay world to be a migrant one, where even the Malay identity itself is a very fluid concept. According to great scholars of Malay studies such as Anthony Milner, Malayness is not defined so much by descent or bloodline than it is by culture and civilisation. In other words, Malayness is not an ethnicity but a culture, and a very liberal and accommodative one at that.

A Never-ending Journey for Improvement

Image result for Melayu


In the year 622 AD, the original Muslims who followed the Prophet Muhammad on the Hijrah did so to seek greener pastures. They did so for their own survival, and for better opportunities. But the Hijrah did not end when they settled in Medina. In fact, it can be argued that it has not really ended – that it is a continuous journey, a migration in search of improvement, be it physical or spiritual.

And so the journey goes on for us here in Malaysia. In keeping with the traditions of our forefathers, we should continue to derive strength from the ever-evolving diversity of our society. This fact should be celebrated and not exploited as a cause for division. Whatever our roots, whether we have indigenous ancestry or whether we are descended from migrants or orang dagang, we are all Malaysians.

Zairil Khir Johari is Senior Fellow of Penang Institute.



Whither Sarawak As CMSB shares Nosedive?

May 24, 2018

Whither Sarawak As CMSB  shares nosedive?


Image result for Sarawak Report

According to Bernama, the present Chief Minister of Sarawak, Abang Johari, has confirmed that the Editor of this website is still banned from entering the state.

He has not yet made up his mind whether to revoke a ban slammed on the writer, along with a number of prominent agency journalists back in 2008, after they visited Penan blockades protesting against the logging of their indigenous lands.

Perhaps the sense of threat in the minds of the leading party PBB and its BN allies as they contemplate how to respond to the changed political scene, is related to this week’s release of a statement by the state’s largest conglomerate CMSB, largely owned by the family of the Governor Taib Mahmud.

CMSB’s shares went into a nosedive on Friday as the likely implications of proposed anti-corruption reforms on the favoured position of this company sank in with shareholders. Those shareholders fled, showing a plunge of prices after lunch of 30%, before trading was suspended to stem the panic.

Image result for Cahaya Mata Sarawak and Taib Family

Explaining the shameful event, the CEO of the company, Isac Lungan, could not have been more frank in his view that revelations over the years by Sarawak Report could affect the profitability of the company in a new cleaner ‘reformasi’ environment.

In a management note to investors he said the catastrophic collapse had been caused by factors, of which the first was the combined effect of the Bruno Manser Fund offer to release research first published on this website and also the decision of the federal government to unblock Sarawak Report, which has articles spanning a number of years covering corruption in the state, including its largest company.

CMSB statement

“The following in our view, has led to the steep sell-down:

1.  Bruno Manser Fund’s offer to share information and unblocking of Sarawak Report website:

Possible reaction to an article carried by the Star Online portal stating that the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) is willing to share information with the new Pakatan government on the Tun Taib family as a basis for reopening of investigation.

This followed a report on Thursday 17 May 2018 that news portal Sarawak Report, which has been known to release anti Tun Taib family (as well as anti-CMS) related articles, has been unblocked. The Sarawak Report website was blocked by Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in 2015. The news they publish is now widely available for the general public to access, including reports portraying CMS negatively.”

The statement, which then goes on to list various other anti-corruption demands issued by opposition MPs in the state as being further threats to the company, is a open acknowledement that CMSB does not see itself as being in a particularly strong position to refute criticisms of cronysm and corruption with regard to the Taib family connection.


Otherwise, the threats of a small NGO and reappearance of a small online portal would not  create such a devastating impact.

Johari Cannot Make Up His Mind?

What the admissions of CMSB and the waverings of Abang Johari prove is first that Taib still holds a continuing grip over business and politics in Sarawak and second that the present Chief Minister and his PBB followers have not been able to make up their minds about whether to throw their lot in with the new guys in charge in KL or to cling to the crumbling BN coalition, which still holds sway in the state government.

It is weak and vacillating behaviour that will not impress local voters, who will be entering state elections in the next couple of years or so. Admitting that he has yet to formulate a position on such a crucial matter as whether or not it supports the new federal government has revealed Johari to be every bit as stunned and indecisive as Najib was on election night.

The longer this Chief Minister fails to make up his mind about the political direction of the state that was once known as BN’s ‘safe deposit’, the less safe that ‘deposit’ is likely to remain.

As for Taib, much in the way that Najib railed against Sarawak Report over 1MDB, claiming dark plots and plans for an ‘overthrow of the state’, the former Sarawak Chief Minister had responded equally disproportionately and irrationally after he lost the urban vote in 2011, largely because of devastating corruption allegations online, followed up by opposition progress in the 2013 general election.

Not long after that disappointing election, Taib had marched into the state parliament and singled out Sarawak Report along with other NGOs as a dangerous force. He accused the website of seeking to overthrow the state and of malicious slander ‘poisoning the minds’ of the ‘simple people’.  The raging CM even went so far as to suggest that SR’s motive involved a plot to re-colonise Sarawak and to steal its remaining oil revenues!

It was following this somewhat unhinged and disproportionate rant that Najib apparently saw his chance to remove Taib from the position of absolute power that he had held as Chief Minister, Finance Minister and Planning Minister of Sarawak for over three decades.

It was no secret that his power and wealth irked the new Prime Minister, who nonetheless used him as a model for his own subsequent pillaging of public coffers.  Taib was booted upstairs into the Governor’s mansion on a vague understanding that it brought immunity.

What Do The People of Sarawak Want?

As they weigh up their best options for the future Sarawak’s ruling parties ought not to be placing a priority on the perceived dangers of incomers, such as SR, BMF or civil rights and reform campaigners from Malaysia.

Image result for abang johari abang openg


Sarawakians have access to information and can form their own opinions with or without such visitors these days.  The Chief Minister needs to listen to what people are now asking in the coffee shops or commenting online.  There has been very vocal concern from the moment of the election that the state could yet again be left out of the progress that is now sweeping federal changes.

People want to know if the programme to root out of corruption and open up of freedoms will reach their state and Abang Jo needs to finally get off the fence and decide if he can afford to ignore that yearning.


GE-14:-Malaysia’s political transformation(s): Dr. Welsh’s preliminary reflections

May 24, 2018

GE-14:-Malaysia’s political transformation(s): Dr. Welsh’s preliminary reflections


Ode to the Unsung Heroes of GE-14–People of Malaysia

May 23, 2018

Ode to the Unsung Heroes of GE-14–People of Malaysia

By James Unsworth


Image result for Ode to the Unsung Heroes of GE-14

Her Departure from Seri Perdana, the Official Residence of the Malaysian Prime Minister, in itself is cause for  celebration

Now that we have the title, Change Was the Victory, perhaps this can be the narrative. Like any good narrative, there will be complications, plot twists and the like, but if the product is truly one Malaysia, one equal Malaysia, then that would be quite the book.

Recently, we all bore witness to a truly momentous and historic event. The momentous occurrence, was the change itself, the change in government. It is not that a band of saviours sailed ashore and a bright destiny was, or even will be, realised, it was merely that change was seen to be possible. It was that hope returned.

The change was the victory. From now on, whoever holds the reins will know that should they govern poorly, they will lose their jobs. They will be kept honest.

It is not the next band of political leaders that needs celebrating therefore, this victory belongs to the people, as the people did not vote for particular individuals, they voted for change, they voted for hope.

Image result for Ode to  Malaysians

This ballad therefore is not dedicated to the big names of the new government, it is for the smaller, less heard, but nonetheless effective actors, the everyday man, the everyday woman, who long ago spoke of ‘Malaysians’, long before 1Malaysia, those who spoke of equality, justice and transparency and saw political change as the first step towards this.

This ballad is dedicated to the quiet warriors, the quiet heroes, who, in Malcolm Gladwell’s terminology, were “the few”, the few who became the many, the many who spoke together last week. This ballad is to people like my wife: Gayatri Unsworth.

Since before I knew my wife, she has spoken with a tone of confused frustration about a Malaysia, without “Malaysians”, where division is normal and unity is a dream.

I’ve heard the stories of her childhood, of Ahmad’s, Chin’s, Kumar’s and Jonathan’s, of an idyllic singular Malaysia. When she was a young journalism student, I read her articles, which accounted as such and in which she dreamed of a day where this might once again become reality.

When she was a young professional in Australia, I heard her broadcast this message in her weekly Malay Language programme on SBS Radio around the country, to the Malaysian diaspora.

Back in Malaysia, I heard her imbue this message in her teaching to university students, as she taught them journalism ethics. I have heard this message repeated and manifest in the actions of her many graduated students, who have since taken leading roles in the Malaysian and foreign media and other aspects of civic life.

I have read it in her alternate news media articles, like ‘Merdeka, Merdeka, Merdeka’, widely read before a previous election, in her FB posts, in her weekly column and even in her article published the night before this famous election. I have seen it in her work with charities and social enterprises and in the way she raises our children.

Most importantly, I have heard it in the way she has consistently and calmly (and sometimes not so calmly) held firm in innumerate conversations over the past two decades, with family, friends and strangers, even when they said, “don’t trouble”, “don’t risk”.

I am delighted for my wife and for this country, as every one of these individuals has changed their tune, over time, gradually, one by one. Every wave, began with a ripple.

Image result for Malaysia makes History

Tun Dr. Mahathir is back with his Fellow Malaysians to make history and drain the swamp in Putrajaya. Together, we can make a difference

My celebration this week is for Malaysia, a country I love and for Malaysians and my tribute is to those few, those quiet warriors, those quiet heroes who kept on, kept on, kept on, until all of a sudden it happened!

Is there still plenty to fix in Malaysia? Yes. I first came to Malaysia in 2001 and I have lived here full-time for the past 12 years, longer than I have lived in any other place and I have observed many things.

Will these things be fixed because there is a different group in charge? No, maybe some, but that is not the point. Change was the victory, but it is just the beginning, not the end, not the climax, not even the introduction, just the title of a new story: Change Was the Victory.

I love this country, I was married here, my children have been born and raised here, I have taught here, I have studied here, I have bought, lived in and then sold a house here.

I have traveled all over this beautiful land and lived in three states, as I followed the work, like so many. I have become “me” here. I have partaken in the culinary multiculturalism of open-house culture, I have cheered for Harimau Malaya in the stands, I have cried at Chong Wei’s loses and sung Negaraku with pride.

I have sat in the front row at a Zainal Abidin concert, rocked out at Rock the World (back in the day), been to more weddings than I can remember, each a different kind, sweat it out on the local badminton court each Monday night and craved a teh tarik or Milo ais straight after.

But, despite my BM, my palate for sambal, my pride, my history on the ground, my Malaysian cultural idiosyncrasies, I will always be a foreigner. Well, maybe not always, but certainly for a long time yet.

Before I might be accepted, Malaysians need to accept each other, they need to come to know each other, one bangsa, equal. This is the story that needs to next be written.

Now that we have the title, Change Was the Victory, perhaps this can be the narrative. Like any good narrative, there will be complications, plot twists and the like, but if the product is truly one Malaysia, one equal Malaysia, then that would be quite the book.

James is the Head of English at an esteemed private school in Malaysia.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.