Malaysian Activism–1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Backwards but for Technology and Guts


May 6, 2016

Malaysian Activism–1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Backwards but for Technology and Guts 

by Mikha Chan

As much as we like to say that Malaysia is where free speech goes to die, we can’t deny that we’ve seen some progress in expanding our democratic space.

Twenty years ago, things would have had to become really bad to motivate activists to start waving their flags and risk instant arrest. This came from a lack of real organisation and an equal lack of easily accessible mass communication technology.

These days, no one is safe any more. More often than not, those in power can expect their screw-ups to spark mass texts on WhatsApp calling on protesters to gather at Jalan Raja Laut at 1pm next Sunday. Social media has become an even bigger bludgeon to hit errant authorities with, and Malaysian millennials are making full use of it.

The work of punk artist Fahmi Reza is a good example of this. His graphic, Instagram-friendly brand of street activism has perhaps contributed to the Malaysian public’s awareness of issues more than has any other agency next to Bersih, with his famous clown caricature of Prime Minister Najib Razak receiving international media attention.

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All of this has been helped by the vibrant do-it-yourself branding campaign he’s been running on his Facebook and Instagram accounts. It’s a movement in itself, one which has seen his personal hashtag #kitasemuapenghasut in full use by his followers and his trademark clown-Najib posters pasted all over the country.

It’s millennial activism at its best. You can deny it, you can call it hashtag activism, but the fact remains that awareness of political and related issues among Malaysian youth is at an all-time high.

We’re in the best place we’ve ever been for Malaysian activism and, who knows, it may get better. Of course, that depends on whether civil society maintains its pressure on the authorities. Our progress didn’t happen in a vacuum, after all. It happened through years of struggle.

(From left) Datuk Toh Kin Woon, Dr Michael Jeyakumar, Fuad Rahmat and A. Sivarajan with volumes of An Alternative Vision of Malaysia.

“The Police are better now, but change didn’t come from themselves. It came from civil society. With groups like the Bar Council, Suhakam and Suaram all speaking up, the space opened up,” said Parti Socialis Malaysia (PSM) Central Committee member Michael Jeyakumar recently in a comment on this year’s May Day rally in Kuala Lumpur, which saw the participation of about 500 people.

“We walked two to three kilometres,” he added. “This would have been unthinkable in the 90s. They would have jumped on us the moment we started meeting.”

It was a small demonstration and it lasted only two hours. On those two scores, you could say that the rally was not a success. But considering the relative lack of police response, it’s a pretty good marker of how far activism has progressed in the past twenty years.

1Malaysia Development Bhd. Nears a Sorry End


May 5, 2016

With International Relations Student at University of Cambodia Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, Ven. Thy Theoun who is interested in Buddhist Economics and Ethics

COMMENT: The easy part of the whole saga is to dismantle  1MDB and then the Malaysian Treasury, basically the Malaysian taxpayers, will  absorb the losses. We are  now told that 1MDB directors have resigned and the Chairman of the Advisory Board who is also the Prime Minister cum Minister of Finance is absolved of any wrongdoing, despite irrefutable evidence that he admitted he had received money in the form of “donation” from a generous Arab into his personal bank account at Arab-Malaysian Bank.

This whole affair makes a mockery of transparency and accountability of directors and management. It is a disgrace that we haven’t done anything about coming to grip with our failure to hold our corporate leaders and their political leader to account. Recall that the Prime Minister of Iceland had to quit over the Panama Papers revelation and the President of Brazil is running the risk of being impeached for budgetary violations. What signal is the Najib administration sending to the banks and capital markets around the world? How long do  we in Malaysia want to perpetuate this culture of impunity.–Din Merican

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1Malaysia Development Bhd. Nears a Sorry End – Asia Sentinel | Asia Sentinel

by John Bethelsen

Wan Saiful Wan Jan, Head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a think-tank in Kuala Lumpur, said: “The most powerful person in the country was chair of the advisory board. This is someone whose advice must be obeyed. It’s a serious conflict in terms of corporate governance — who is in charge, the Board of Directors or the Prime Minister?” 

The Malaysian government has begun to officially dismantle 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the Ministry of Finance-backed development fund that was brought into being by Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2008 and which has morphed into what arguably is the biggest scandal in Malaysian history.

The implications for investors are unclear. What assets are not sold off are expected to be moved into the Ministry of Finance, with the Board of Advisers – headed by Najib – and the Board of Directors being dissolved. A well-connected businessman told Asia Sentinel last week that the government – and thus the taxpayers – will probably end up having to eat the losses.

However, the eight-year history of the fund is an astonishing tale of greed and chicanery, with billions of dollars apparently having been stolen or otherwise unaccounted for, diverted into accounts in the Cayman and British Virgin Islands. Investigators believe that as much as US$1 billion was routed into Najib’s own accounts in March of 2013 before being diverted out again in October of that year, to disappear into cyberspace.

The scandal has played a major part in fomenting distrust in the United Malays National Organization, the leading party in the national ruling coalition, with Najib firing his own Vice President and Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, as well as Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, in an effort to contain the scandal. Other government officials have been sidelined or neutralized.

It has driven former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (above) to seek a deal with opposition figures including Lim Kit Siang, the head of the Democratic Action Party, whom he jailed in 1986, and others, in the vain attempt to bring down Najib. So far, propped up as head of UMNO and thus as Prime Minister by the votes of 196 district chiefs who are said to have been bought off with rent-seeking jobs and contracts as well as outright bribes, Najib has remained invulnerable, also by threatening opponents with jail, closing influential newspapers temporarily and short stopping a reported investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Crime Commission that was on the edge of recommending his indictment. A similar request from Bank Negara, the central bank, for an investigation into the movement of funds was simply ignored.

The scandal has also ensnared Goldman Sachs’ former Southeast Asia head, Tim Leissner, who engineered a huge US$3 billion sale of 1MDB bonds that earned Goldman an estimated US$500 million. Leissner left the firm and moved to Los Angeles, where he has reportedly been meeting with FBI officials.

The fund is believed to be RM42 billion (US$11.6 million) in debt against an unknown amount of assets, and with the government in a protracted squabble with an Abu Dhabi entity, the International Petroleum Investment Corp. (IPIC) over as much as US$3.5 billion of funds that 1MDB officials thought they were transferring to an IPIC subsidiary, Aabar Investments PJS.

The money instead went into a BVI-registered company called Aabar BVI and has since disappeared. IPIC officials refused to make a payment of US$50 million to bondholders when it discovered that the money had been diverted, stirring fears of a cross-default that could imperil the country’s financial system.

Rafizi Ramli, the Secretary -General of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, in March reportedly displayed figures indicating that transfers from Tabung Haji, the fund that invests savings for Muslims to make the Haj to Mecca, were depleted to the point that the fund was endangered. Rafizi was charged with sedition and briefly jailed. Several other opposition figures including Tony Pua, spokesman for the DAP, have been threatened with sedition charges for questioning the 1MDB operations.

Officials of 1MDB and others associated with the sovereign investment company, with interests in power and property, are being pursued by investigators in five countries, most prominently the United States, whose US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, has sent FBI investigators to Malaysia to seek clues to allegations of money laundering on the part of the Najib family for the purchase of expensive real estate in New York and California and for the funding of the blockbuster movie Wolf of Wall Street.

Other law enforcement agencies include the Attorney General of Switzerland, which has accused unnamed individuals of laundering as much as US$4 billion from 1MDB through Swiss bank outlets in Singapore. Singapore is said to have frozen the bank accounts of several individuals as well. Most recently, officials in Luxembourg opened an investigation into 1MDB’s affairs.

The fund got its start in 2008 when Jho Taek Low, then a 27-year-old Penang-born financier and friend of the Najib family, persuaded Najib to take over a budding investment fund that he had proposed to the Sultan of Terengganu, who backed away from it. The fund embarked on a torrid acquisition process, buying vastly overpriced independent power producers from companies and individuals closely connected with the UMNO ruling clique including the Genting gaming and plantation conglomerate and Ananda Khrishnan, one of the country’s richest men. With 1MDB facing huge debts from the purchases, the government pushed through no-bid contracts to hand 1MDB’s power units lucrative deals at the expense of competitive bidding.

It was given the gift of the obsolete Sungei Besi air force base, close to downtown Kuala Lumpur, which it sought to turn into a high-priced financial center called the Tun Razak Exchange, named for Najib’s father

But hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly were diverted into Jho Low’s personal accounts. As Asia Sentinel reported in 2014, Jho Low – a private individual – attempted to use 1MDB guarantees in a vain attempt to buy three of London’s finest hotels, the Connaught, the Berkeley and Claridge’s. He acquired a 300-foot yacht and a flock of enormously expensive paintings that he has since begun to sell off.

Reuters reported in April that RM18 billion of 1MDB’s debt linked to its power assets would go under Edra Energy, which is due to be sold off in nine months’ times. It is also expected to sell off two high-profile property projects, the Tun Razak Exchange and Bandar Malaysia, after splitting them into separate entities. Critics have charged that the land under the stalled projects has repeatedly been revalued upward to unrealistic levels in an attempt to cover the indebtedness.  Once the assets are sold off, 1MDB is expected to be dissolved completely.

The terminally ill Malaysian media


May 4, 2016

The terminally ill Malaysian media

by Zakiah Koya

http://www.theheatmalaysia.com/

The mass media is perhaps the biggest victim in Malaysia’s political landscape, as it struggles to bring the truth to the people in the midst of restraining laws and politicians who hinder it at every step.

While those on print and broadcasting hold themselves back in touching on matters which may not palatable to some at the top, they still try to write between the lines. But the gaps to write between those lines are almost disappearing and newspapers and TV stations are seen to be completely government mouthpieces.

For even on the internet, which is supposedly to be a completely free world, as long as you have proper connection, in Malaysia, portals and its journalists are watched like a hawk by the government ‘Big Brother’ Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

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Najib’s Penang Born Arlab Donor

This year’s World Press Freedom Ranking has placed Malaysia at 146 out of 180 other countries. We had climbed a notch from last year but we are still sadly at the bottom of the pile. Even lesser developed countries such as Burma, Bangladesh and Gambia are ranked above us. We can only boast that we are better than Pakistan, Russia and Mexico, not really much of a compliment in any way.

The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its website stated that the main reason we had such a ranking is because the media is “persecuted by the Prime Minister”.

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“Prime Minister Najib Razak wages a personal war against independent media and does not hesitate to order police raids on newsrooms. These heavy-handed operations often result in arbitrary arrests. The persecution of outspoken journalists extends to the Internet, where sites such as Sarawak and The Edge have been blocked for reporting alleged corruption involving government officials. In the absence of judicial independence, the government does not hesitate to harass media outlets by taking them to court,” stated RSF.

This year alone, one of the more popular news sites The Malaysian Insider had been blocked by providers which insisted on reporting on the 1MDB scandal which involved the PM. The blocking led to poor access, one of the main reasons which led its owners The Edge-Insider to deciding to close its operations.

Malaysia also remembers the World Press Freedom Day with a heavy heart as one of its main warriors of the fourth estate Said Zahari passed away last month. Said, a former Utusan Editor in chief, fought against the main ruling party UMNO from taking over the Utusan newspaper. He failed and paid for it by being exiled and spent years in a Singaporean jail.


There is much to be done by the government and the public if the ranks of Malaysia in press freedom is to improve internationally.  For one, political parties should not be allowed to own mass media and if they do want to, it should be as party organs and not masqueraded as mass media.

Utusan Group Chief Datuk Mohd Noordin Abbas himself, while claiming the newspaper has credibility and responsibility, today in a BFM radio interview conceded that Utusan has lost the trust of Malaysians.

Secondly, the laws against the freedom of media, such as Printing Press and Publications Act 1984, Sedition Act 1948, Official Secrets Act 1972 and MCMC Act 1998, should be amended to ensure that journalists are not harassed and hauled to court for merely doing their duty of reporting the truth.

Last but not least, the government and politicians should change their mentality that the media exists to be at their beck and call. They should realise that it is time Malaysian media is allowed to mature, for it should exist as the voice of the people for the people.

Intolerance, violence and the media we need to defend


May 4, 2016

Intolerance, violence and the media we need to defend

by Howard Lee | What You Think | Malay Mail Online

In a casual living room setting filled with diplomats, writers and bloggers, the conversation eventually turned to a question about whether a blogger can be considered a journalist. The room was undecided, compounded especially by bloggers who felt that they could not represent journalism in any professional sense. But one participant, highly regarded in our journalistic circles, brought it all back to the ground by giving this basic definition of “journalist” – “someone who keeps and writes a journal”.

While in no way definitive of the journalistic profession we are familiar with today, it does highlight what every society needs: Someone who is able to share the stories of a community, using media that extends beyond the scope of a one-to-one conversation. Journalism, when view in this way, is not about whether you have a press card or if you get paid to write for a bona fide newspaper. Journalism is about applying the skills of the trade for an audience that needs to read the stories you want to tell, and doing so with the best ethics that you can put into every single word. Around the world, these journalists do not just fill large corporate newsrooms, but also work for small town newspapers, local radio and community newsletters.

And Singapore, too, has no lack of such journalism, despite our small size that makes the concept of community media sound implausible. For too long, the ridicule of Singapore’s dismal ranking in international press freedom indices had but one saving grace: That there are still individuals committed to speaking up for their community, even if the mainstream media would not or cannot. These individuals have found their place in the (relative) freedom of the Internet, where they can express their views in their blogs or social media platforms. Unfortunately, recent years have given rise to an increasing threat of violence to such individuals.

Of course, compared to our regional neighbours, where journalists risk life and limb, face death threats and have real guns pointed at their heads while working in politically regressive regimes or societies overrun with organised crime, our woes seem laughably insignificant. But the slew of legal action brought against individuals like Alex Au, Roy Ngerng and Leslie Chew for voicing their opinions, as well as every major social-political website currently on our shores, should give us pause to ask: Are we any less under threat?

Ours is a political system of intolerance towards dissenting voices, and such intolerance has recently gotten bolder in attitude and harsher in tone. Even a teenager who posted disparaging remarks about a political leader can win the wrath of the law. Not only that, but we are starting to see a growing intolerance among our population, who have no qualms about advocating violence towards contrarian voices.

The same voices who are at times doing nothing more than applying the skills of the journalistic trade for an audience that they believe needs to read the stories they want to tell. For sure, not every case can be seen as applying standards worthy of the journalistic profession, and clearly the polish, nuancing and simple EQ of some leave much to be desired. But such factors should not, however, be justification for the State and individuals bent on reading only the “right thing” to clamp down on these contrarian voices.

Freedom of expression allows us to debate freely, disagree or come to a consensus. It lets society solve its own problems, not through the use of a gun, online lynch mob, police report or a letter of demand; but through reason and respect. Singaporean society, unfortunately, has relied too heavily and far too long on the State apparatus to resolve our differences for us, and it is clear today that it has made us more retarded in our ability to think critically and engage meaningfully. In effect, we gave up our collective right to free expression, in exchange for a police state, where we are happy only if we are all made deputies. This is not free speech. It is not even a sufficient excuse for championing responsible speech.

It is violence committed upon others who have done nothing more than state an opinion different from yours. It is violence that has consequences more lasting than simply unfriending someone on Facebook. It is violence that has seeped into our national psyche as something that is justifiable, when in reality nothing justifies it. World Press Freedom Day this year will be remembered as the day in a year where Singapore as a nation exhibit to the world precisely how narrow our minds are towards those who seek free expression.

Quality journalism enables citizens to make informed decisions about their society’s development. It also works to expose injustice, corruption, and the abuse of power. For this, journalism must be able to thrive, in an enabling environment in which they can work independently and without undue interference and in conditions of safety.” — UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

We will stand in solidarity with those who have suffered violence for daring to speak out, for so have we suffered violence. The oppression we face is the same, even if the face of that oppression is different. Singapore needs to do better, and if the duty of making it better falls on those who keep and write a journal, then so be it.

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/what-you-think/article/intolerance-violence-and-the-media-we-need-to-defend-howard-lee#sthash.MuHFq4pJ.dpuf

Donald Trump All but Clinches Nomination With Indiana Win


May 4, 2016

Donald Trump All but Clinches Nomination With Indiana Win; Cruz Quits

by Jonathan Martin and Patrick Healy

Donald J. Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee on Tuesday with a landslide win in Indiana that drove his principal opponent, Senator Ted Cruz, from the race and cleared the way for the polarizing, populist outsider to take control of the party.

After months of sneering dismissals and expensive but impotent attacks from Republicans fearful of his candidacy, Mr. Trump is now positioned to clinch the required number of delegates for the nomination by the last day of voting on June 7. Facing only a feeble challenge from Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Mr. Trump is all but certain to roll into the Republican convention in July with the party establishment’s official but uneasy embrace.

In the Democratic contest, Senator Bernie Sanders rebounded from a string of defeats to prevail in Indiana over Hillary Clinton, who largely abandoned the state after polls showed her faring poorly with the predominantly white electorate. But the outcome was not expected to significantly change Mrs. Clinton’s sizable lead in delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Trump’s victory was an extraordinary moment in American political history: He is now on course to be the first standard-bearer of a party since Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general and the commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, who had not served in elected office.

Mr. Trump, a real estate tycoon turned reality television celebrity, was not a registered Republican until April 2012. He has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats, including his likely general election opponent, Mrs. Clinton. And, at various points in his life, he has held positions antithetical to Republican orthodoxy on almost every major issue in the conservative canon, including abortion, taxes, trade, and gun control.

But none of this stopped him. With his ability to speak to the anxieties of voters, and his shrewd use of celebrity and memorable put-downs, Mr. Trump systematically undercut veteran politicians in a field of candidates that many in the party had hailed as the strongest in at least three decades. He was underestimated by leading Republicans and Democrats time and again, and he succeeded while spending far less money than most of his rivals and employing only a skeletal campaign staff.

After Mr. Cruz exited the race Tuesday night, Mr. Trump appeared subdued and projected a more sober than usual mien as he absorbed the ramifications of the Indiana victory.

“It has been some unbelievable day and evening and year — never been through anything like this,” Mr. Trump said. Putting aside the venom he has spewed at Mr. Cruz this year, Mr. Trump said of the senator, “He is one hell of a competitor.” He even veered toward empathy for Mr. Cruz, saying he knew how “tough it is” to be brought low by a brutal defeat.

Of the 17 Republicans who ran for President this cycle, Mr. Cruz — a onetime ally of Mr. Trump’s — proved to be his strongest and most tenacious rival, winning 11 primaries and caucuses. But the first-term senator’s appeal among traditional conservatives was no match for Mr. Trump’s fiery and uncompromising vow to fight for the interests of average Americans who have lost faith in the country’s political leadership.

Mr. Cruz, speaking to supporters in Indianapolis, said he could not fight on without “a viable path to victory.”

Ahead of Indiana’s Democratic primary results on Tuesday, Bernie Sanders said he was winning the vote nationwide of those 45 and under, which is “exciting.” By  “Tonight I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed,” he said, as some admirers called out for him to reconsider. Without mentioning Mr. Trump by name, Mr. Cruz said: “We gave it everything we got. But the voters chose another path.”

As remarkable as Mr. Trump’s achievement is, his expected nomination also poses undeniable peril to the party he is poised to lead. Republican leaders, who have been reluctant to embrace his candidacy, are watching him with great trepidation, and on Tuesday night they seemed to be grappling with the implications of Mr. Trump’s emergence as the new face of their party.

No candidate since the dawn of modern polling has entered the general election with the sort of toxic image Mr. Trump has in the eyes of large groups of voters. Facing a race against the country’s first female major-party nominee, Mr. Trump is burdened with disapproval ratings as high as 70 percent among women, who make up a majority of voters in Presidential elections.

He is also an unpredictable voice on policy. At Trump Tower on Tuesday night, amid his litany of thank-yous, Mr. Trump demonstrated the degree to which his nomination represented an astonishing break from political precedent. In denouncing Mrs. Clinton’s past support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and saying it had caused “carnage” for American workers, he signaled he would run to her left on free trade and upend the decades-long bipartisan consensus on the issue.

Mr. Trump starts the general election campaign with a still-unfurling roll of incendiary proposals and provocations that are the stuff of dreams for opposition researchers. He made his name in the last presidential campaign as the country’s most prominent birther, fueling debunked conspiracy theories that President Obama was not born in America; he has used hostile and hard-edged language about Hispanics, suggesting that Mexican migrants are rapists and murderers; and he has not backed off his proposal to bar all foreign Muslims from entering the United States, effectively creating a religious test for immigrants.

No one is more eager to talk about those positions than Mrs. Clinton, who made clear on Tuesday that she wanted to sharpen her focus on Mr. Trump as soon as possible because the fight against him was likely to be bruising.

“I’m really focused on moving into the general election,” Mrs. Clinton said during an interview on MSNBC. “And I think that’s where we have to be, because we’re going to have a tough campaign against a candidate who will literally say or do anything.’’

 A Win in Indiana may not be enough to secure nomination of his Party

Yet the Indiana results were an embarrassing reminder of her vulnerabilities: Only slightly more than half of Democrats voting Tuesday called Mrs. Clinton honest and trustworthy, according to early exit polls, a remarkably shaky assessment for the party’s likely nominee. After closing the gap with blue-collar white voters in parts of the Northeast last week, Mrs. Clinton lost them by 30 points in Indiana. She also again suffered with self-identified independents casting ballots in the Democratic contest: 73 percent backed Mr. Sanders.

Mr. Sanders, speaking to reporters after winning Indiana, had some toughest words for Mrs. Clinton after a week when he toned down criticisms of her and shifted his focus to their policy differences.

Hillary Clinton is still the Front runner for the Democrats and why not?

“I understand that Secretary Clinton thinks that this campaign is over,” Mr. Sanders said. “I’ve got some bad news for her. Tonight we won a great victory in Indiana. Next week we are going to be in West Virginia. We think we have a real shot to win in that great state. And then we’re going to Kentucky, and we’re going to Oregon. And we think we have a pretty good chance to win there as well.”

“We feel great about tonight not only in winning here in Indiana and accumulating some more delegates but also gaining the momentum we need to take us to the finish line,” he said, adding the he realized he faced an “uphill battle.”

While Mr. Sanders devoted three days to campaigning in Indiana and spent more than $1 million on television advertisements, Mrs. Clinton did not run any ads and spent only a day campaigning in the state, visiting the Indianapolis area.

Clinton advisers said they saw no point in spending a couple of million dollars on television advertising and campaign travel when Mrs. Clinton was likely to lose the state anyway: Its Democratic primary electorate includes a healthy share of independents and newly registered voters, demographics that have repeatedly favored Mr. Sanders. And the two Democrats are expected to divide the state’s 83 delegates given the close outcome.

Tad Devine, a senior adviser on the Sanders campaign, said that the Indiana results would not reshape the Democratic race markedly, given Mrs. Clinton’s sizable delegate lead.

While the Democratic race has turned relatively civil, the Republican fight in Indiana grew bitter in the final hours. With Mr. Cruz on edge Tuesday morning about the future of his candidacy, Mr. Trump baited him by suggesting — with no evidence — that Mr. Cruz’s father had joined Lee Harvey Oswald in passing out pro-Fidel Castro pamphlets in New Orleans shortly before Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Cruz, unburdening himself after a campaign in which Mr. Trump also mocked his wife’s appearance, responded with a flourish, called Mr. Trump a “pathological liar” and delved into his rival’s personal life.

“Listen, Donald Trump is a serial philanderer, and he boasts about it,” Mr. Cruz said, directly raising Mr. Trump’s marital history for the first time. “I want everyone to think about your teenage kids. The president of the United States talks about how great it is to commit adultery. How proud he is. Describes his battles with venereal disease as his own personal Vietnam.”

But the appeal did not work. Indiana Republicans proved willing to embrace Mr. Trump, the once unimaginable but now virtually certain nominee, regardless of the personal flaws and political shortcomings that would have once derailed would-be presidents.

Yamiche Alcindor contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on May 4, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Sanders Rebounds From String of Losses to Win Indiana. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper

MALAYSIA: ‘Same Old’in Sarawak Election Campaign (Part 1 of 5)


May 4,2016

MALAYSIA: ‘Same Old’in Sarawak Election Campaign (Part 1 of 5)

by Dr. Bridget Welsh

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Billed as one of the most important elections in the Malaysian state’s history, Sarawak heads to the polls on 7 May. But the campaign has sent confusing messages and failed to inspire voters, reports Bridget Welsh.

As the lackluster 11th Sarawak 2016 election campaign comes to a close on Friday, consistency rather than change has predominated.Most Sarawakians on both sides of the political divide had made up their minds on how they will vote before the campaign began. So far, the campaign has done little to change their orientations, and even less to inspire Sarawakians to vote at all. Political parties have mainly relied on old strategies, offering little new in their engagement with the electorate.

Strongman versus pressure politics

The main substantive campaign issue is autonomy, the mantra of ‘Sarawak for Sarawakians’. The prominence of this call is different than earlier campaigns but not new to Malaysian electoral politics as Sabahans will understand.

 Concerns about autonomy in East Malaysia have been long-standing and extend for decades to when the two Borneo states joined the Federation. Not surprising, all of the parties in the Sarawak polls are calling for greater control of decision-making at the state level in areas involving language, immigration, education, religion and resources (oil royalty). Where they differ slightly is in their priority in areas of governance, with those aligned with the BN tapping into immigration and those in the opposition pushing harder on issues of religion and resources.

The parties also differ in how they will implement autonomy. Current Chief Minister Adenan Satem has personified autonomy around himself, portraying the image that voting for him will assure the protection of state rights. He follows this pattern set by his brother-in-law, current Governor and former Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud.

Adenan has projected the view that his working relationship with the federal government will assure protection, and that he is ‘his own man’. This argument runs that a strong mandate for Adenan will strengthen his hand with the federal government. The choice by ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) to focus on autonomy aims to neutralise traditional opposition demands for fairer representation for citizens in the state. It echoes electoral strategies adopted in the recent past, where the new incumbent co-opts ‘reform’ to win support.

The opposition on its part has repeated its call for checks and balances, arguing that a strong opposition is necessary to assure that the substantive issues related to autonomy are implemented. They are calling for pressure politics. Given that these issues have been traditional ones for the opposition, and they have been their strongest advocates by putting them into the public arena and introducing measures in the legislature, they are hoping that the electorate does not forget their commitment — even as these issues have been effectively co-opted by the incumbent government.

At stake for Sarawakians are two different visions of state representation, one based on repeating the independent strongman politics of Taib that Adenan is portraying versus the long-standing call for alternative voices in government.

Shadow of Pak Lah

Closely connected to calls for greater representation is the personification of political power in Sarawak. This is also not new. Personal politics and personality have been at the core of East Malaysian politics. They help us understand the fragmentation of the candidate slates and account for the long tenures of many of the incumbents. The campaign around Adenan and the use of his coattails for his team is not new. We saw this in the 2004 General Election, where former premier Abdullah Badawi, or Pak Lah, was showcased as ‘his own man’ and different than his predecessor.

Like Adenan, Abdullah was chosen by a predecessor who had become a political target for criticism. Although in Adenan’s case, he is part of the Taib family and has consistently been a part of the previous leadership, never challenging Taib or openly criticising his policies during his tenure. This is opposed to Abdullah, who was relegated to the political wilderness for a few years as ‘Team B’ and more openly campaigned against his predecessor to win support. Adenan has used the time since he was appointed in 2014 to try to distinguish rather than distance himself, featuring similar “nice guy,” “reformer” and “clean” traits that were part of comparable electoral efforts in Malaysia’s past. As with Pak Lah, the Adenan campaign has promised a new leadership.

Sarawakians are facing the difficult decision of whether Adenan can be trusted. Faith in Malaysian politicians is low, and the national politics of taking politicians down has become engrained in the fabric. Sarawakians are more trustworthy than their counterparts on the peninsula. They are also following the national trend and becoming more cynical.

Many Sarawakians recognise that the multitude of promises Adenan is making echoes unrealistic goals of the past. Adenan is building up expectations, with the repeated potential for disappointment.  Voters question whether he will have the power and political will to implement the promises after the election, especially given that Adenan will be a lame duck after he has won office as he has stated that he only wants one term.

Undermining leadership

Questions about Adenan’s leadership are understandable, given the prominence of his persona in the campaign. Two areas are prominent.

The first involves the perceived abuse of political power for electoral gains by Adenan, namely the use of Sarawak’s immigration authority to prevent opposition politicians and activists from entering the state. Scores of people have been denied entry, to prevent the opposition crowds from building and weakening the opposition machinery. On their part, peninsula-based BN politicians and government department and activists have been given access.

Deemed ‘extremists’ and ‘troublemakers’ many of those denied entry have used Skype to engage voters, but the dampening impact on ceramah crowds has been evident. This is in spite of more Sarawakians following the campaign online. This ‘strongman’ denial of entry and subsequent calls for politicians to write letters as pleas for entry as occurred for the female leader of the opposition, Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, feed the portrayal of a man in control. They simultaneously reveal a politician with weakness, as these measures suggest fear, and have raised questions about fairness in Adenan’s leadership. The denials of entries have backfired among many voters, who no longer see the chief minister as ‘Mr Nice Guy’.

Another factor undermining Adenan is Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. The relationship between the two men is challenging to navigate as they are mutually dependent, as Adenan needs funds from the federal government to support his campaign. Najib on his part needs a decisive victory in the Sarawak polls to sustain his power, given the seriousness of the corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of power allegations being made in multiple investigations in the 1MDB scandal.

Striking a balance where Adenan is in charge, but Najib gains credit is difficult. In the 2011 polls, the relationship between Taib and the Najib campaign was problematic, as the latter tried to control the campaign. A similar pattern has occurred in 2016, with Najib’s pictures of ‘Saya Sayang Sarawak’ and with Adenam himself featured all over rural areas, and coverage of his promises overshadowing Adenan’s.  It is not clear whether this is a Najib or Adenan campaign. Clearly, it is both.  Rural folk often highlight the similarity in the appearance of both men.  Najib’s significant presence is a liability for Adenan, as the premier is deeply unpopular and he undercuts the chief minister’s claim of independence. It appears as if Najib has hijacked Adenan’s thunder to serve himself.

Disconnecting messages

Amidst the personas, voters are navigating the messages of the various campaigns. The campaign messages showcase disconnection between their slogans and delivery. The Sarawak United Peoples Party’s (SUPP) slogan ‘United We Can’ is perhaps the most ironic, as the party remains dangerously divided. The splits in the party have the potential to lead to further downfalls of its leaders, as SUPP has yet to meaningfully justify why Sarawakians should vote for their party. They are effectively no longer their own players, as has occurred to other non-Malay parties in the BN.

The opposition parties are also delivering disengaging messages. The Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) ‘4Real Change’ raises questions about delivery, especially since they are not working with other parties in their campaign. One feature of the 2016 campaign is that for the opposition it is a step back to the past of 2001, even 1999 when parties worked against each other rather than together. While in urban areas there is little open vitriol against each other (with the BN the main target), the fact that they are competing with each other undercuts messages of ‘change’.

Voters are not clear what is meant by ‘real change’ as this theme has been so overused that is has lost meaning. Indeed, the fact that even the BN is using the word, in its call to remove the DAP from Kuching (notably the Kota Sentosa seat where DAP Chairman Chong Chieng Jen is contesting), shows how unclear the word has become. On its part, the People’s Justice Party’s (PKR) focus has been on autonomy, but the word ‘trust’ has featured in much of its campaign posters, with questions arising from its use given the distrust in the opposition evident in the split among the various parties. The opposition’s lack of collaboration in the campaign has undermined their momentum and undercut their connection with voters, especially younger and swing voters. They have damaged themselves.

Playing cards and scandals

As the campaign draws to a close, political parties are fighting hard. To date, what distinguishes Sarawak’s campaign has been the lack of prominence of the racial card. Religion, however, has been mobilised by the BN, which has used funds to woo Christians, estimated to comprise 40 per cent of the electorate.

The use of religion has been contradicted by broad trends to undercut freedom of religion in Sarawak and the slating of candidates by the BN that have conservative views that are not in line with more tolerant calls of moderation. Whether the BN can win back Christian support lies with the priorities of the churches themselves, whether they buy into the wooing effort, how they perceive Adenan’s sincerity and the choice of moral example they will set.

The opposition is relying on the 1MDB scandal to swing the electorate. This issue is difficult for many Sarawakians to connect to, especially in rural areas. Many do not believe it at all and do not see how the issue affects them directly. Others are outraged, and this undercurrent is strong among those who hold political leaders to standards. These issues about rights and scandals have become even more serious for Malaysia’s future, but it is not clear whether national concerns will displace local interests.

Sarawakians, like many Malaysians, are tired. The campaign has not yet inspired, and as such voter engagement has been markedly lower. There is a palpable lack of enthusiasm for either side, with a focus on livelihoods and ordinary routines. This is in part because the 2016 campaign has been in fact quite routine itself, offering little new and relying on the old strategies and tactics. The question ahead will be whether the same old campaign approaches will yield the same old results.

Bridget Welsh is Professor of Political Science at Ipek University, Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asian Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University, Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Center, and University Fellow of Charles Darwin University.

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2016/05/03/same-old-in-sarawak-campaign/

This article is part of a five-part series on the Sarawak 2016 state election. The next article will focus on voting trends and constituencies. Bridget Welsh thanks Sarawakians for sharing their views and kind hospitality.