Feminism, Hell and Hillary Clinton


February 11, 2016

Feminism, Hell and Hillary Clinton

by Frank Bruni

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/10/opinion/feminism-hell-and-hillary-clinton.html?_r=0

She is still the best and most qualified politician to lead the United States

I’m 51. My health is decent. And while my mother died young, there’s longevity elsewhere in the family tree.I could live to see an openly gay presidential candidate with a real chance of victory.

Will there be a “special place in hell” for me if I, as a gay man, don’t support him or her? I can guess Madeleine Albright’s answer. She more or less told women that they’re damned if they’re not on Hillary Clinton’s team.

I’m still trying to get my head around that — and around Gloria Steinem’s breathtakingly demeaning assertion that young women who back Bernie Sanders are in thrall to pheromones, not ideas or idealism, and angling to score dates with the young bucks in the Sanders brigade.

That’s right, “democratic socialism” is a known aphrodisiac: the oyster of politics. There’s nothing like denunciations of oligarchs to put you in the mood.

Also, has Steinem forgotten about lesbians? More than a few of them support Sanders, and it’s not because of the way some 26-year-old doctoral candidate looks in his L. L. Bean flannel.

There’s a weird strain of thought swirling around Clinton’s campaign: that we should vote for her because she’s a woman. Or that she’s inoculated from certain flaws or accusations by dint of gender. Or that, at the least, there’s an onus on forward-looking people who care about gender inequality to promote her candidacy.

I care about gender inequality, and I don’t buy it. It’s bad logic. It’s even worse strategy. People don’t vote out of shame. They vote out of hope. Perhaps that was among the lessons of Clinton’s defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where she lost to Sanders among all women by at least seven percentage points, according to exit polling, and among women under 30 by more than 60 points.

Clinton is on sturdy ground, morally and tactically, when she mentions a double standard for women. So are her surrogates. Actually, there are so many double standards that you couldn’t fit them in a column eight times the length of this one, and she has bumped into plenty, including, yes, the fuss over her raised voice.

But the argument that she’s somehow not a full-fledged member of the establishment because she’s a woman — as she contended during the most recent Democratic debate — is nonsense. On that night, she also echoed a past statement to CBS News that she “cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president.”

Really? Anyone? Off the top of my head I can think of a person who might quibble with that. His name is Barack Obama.Admittedly, there’s no easy way to navigate the terrain she inhabits. Eight years ago, she denied her campaign the romantic sweep of Obama’s by playing down and trying to correct for gender. This time around, she was advised, rightly, not to repeat that mistake. But how to do that without going too far?

Of course gender is an issue – to ignore would be to ignore the reality of the first woman to be seriously considered as President of the… Sanders had a majority with all women, not just the young. I’m 70, female, have been on the left side of politics all my life, and I had a… She evidently did not feel that way for Carly or Sarah… funny how they try to manipulate people with subjects completely unrelated, that…

I think she started out perfectly, with incontestable reflections on women’s challenges in the workplace and with casual asides about the historic nature of her bid. Discussing her age, she said, “I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.”

But more recently, things have fallen out of whack. Bill Clinton’s diatribe about the misogyny of some Sanders supporters sounded like a defensive outsourcing of blame for the Clinton campaign’s disappointments in the polls and the returns: the narrowest of victories in Iowa followed by the resounding New Hampshire defeat.

The Clintons are always quick to point fingers and slow to look in the mirror. On top of which, Bill Clinton’s invocation of sexism felt too pat, his citation of gross language on Twitter (which, sadly, brims with it) too easy.

Clinton’s gender indeed matters. Just as you couldn’t properly evaluate Obama’s arc without factoring in race, you can’t see her accurately without recognizing that she’s a woman of her time, with all the attendant obstacles, hurts, compromises and tenacity.

That informs — and, ideally, illuminates — her perspective. And her presidency would carry a powerful, constructive symbolism that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

But those are considerations among many, many others in taking her measure and in casting a vote. To focus only or primarily on them is more reductive than respectful, and to tell women in particular what kind of politics they should practice is the antithesis of feminism, which advocates independence and choices.

We’re all complicated people voting for complicated people. We’re not census subgroups falling in line. I’ll go to the barricades for that imagined gay candidate if he or she has talents I trust, positions I respect and a character I admire. If not, I’ll probably go elsewhere, because being gay won’t be the sum of that person, just as womanhood isn’t where Clinton begins and ends.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 10, 2016, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Feminism, Hell and Hillary.

 

Trump, Sanders and American rage


February 11, 2015

Trump, Sanders and American rage against the Establishment

The yearning for leaders from the fringes will have profound implications for the US and the world

For those who are worried that Donald Trump is a new Mussolini in the making, I have reassuring news. Based on his performance at a weekend rally in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Mr Trump is far too boring a speaker to make a convincing fascist dictator.

His long, rambling discourse — sprinkled with complaints about how long it had taken him to drive to the venue in the north of the state — left his audience yawning, with some leaving early to get to Super Bowl parties. Even Mr Trump’s traditional crowd-pleasers about “building the wall” with Mexico received only tepid ovations.

Yet, despite his manifest flaws as a speaker and as a human being, Mr Trump has succeeded in dominating the run-up to the US presidential election for months.

His success in the Republican race — and that of Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, on the Democratic side — testifies to how the political establishment has lost the trust of voters.Many Americans seem to have concluded that the political system is so corrupt and dysfunctional that only a total outsider can be trusted to take charge.

The point was driven home to me while talking to a potential Trump voter on the fringes of the Plymouth rally. This man, a prosperous-looking lawyer, told me that if he did not vote for Mr Trump he would opt for Mr Sanders.

The Trump and Sanders pitches to the voters have certain strong similarities. Both lambast all mainstream politicians as in hock to corrupt special interests and lobbyists. Mr Trump, a billionaire, makes a virtue of the fact that his campaign is self-financed — making him immune, he says, to the pressures brought to bear on all the other Republicans by their donors.

Mr Sanders has raised most of his campaign money from small donations and has put Hillary Clinton on the back foot by pointing to the hundreds of thousands of dollars she has accepted in speaking fees from the likes of Goldman Sachs.

Mr Sanders’ argument that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud” is finding an audience. Indeed, if anybody has said a good word about Wall Street in this election, I must have missed it. The most that Mrs Clinton will do is to suggest tentatively that “greed” in high finance, while bad, is not the only pressing problem facing the US.

She will be the Comeback Hilary–Who Knows!

The battle for the US presidency has shifted into a new gear as caucuses and primary elections are held state by state until June. In her speeches, Mrs Clinton consistently displays her impressive grasp of detail and public policy. Yet her campaign’s argument that she would be “ready on day one” to be president emphasises her status as a consummate member of the political establishment. That seems risky when large parts of the US public seem to detest the political elite.

By contrast, both Mr Trump and Mr Sanders are running from the fringes of their parties. Both have said things that would be regarded as political suicide in a normal year. Mr Trump is probably the most openly racist candidate since George Wallace, the segregationist, in 1972. Mr Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” — in a country that has always rejected socialism.

Yet the fact that both men are happy to smash rhetorical taboos has strengthened their respective claims to be genuine outsiders. That seems to be what voters are looking for.

Both men go into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primaries as strong favourites to win. The conventional wisdom remains that they will trip up later in the campaign. But, then again, a year ago the idea that Messrs Trump and Sanders could be the winners to emerge from New Hampshire would itself have been regarded as absurd. So who knows?

What is already clear, however, is that America’s political class is only beginning to grasp the depth of the anti-establishment mood that is gripping the US. Almost eight years after the financial crisis, this mood seems to be growing in strength, not weakening. President Barack Obama’s announcement last week that the US unemployment rate is now below 5 per cent barely registered on the campaign trail.

Instead, all the talk is of students reeling under unpayable debts; and of parents having to work at two or three low-paid jobs to make ends meet. The idea that the economy is “rigged” in favour of insiders is now embraced, in some form, by most of the candidates in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Yet almost all the candidates running in New Hampshire make unconvincing populists. The very fact that they are running for president is a strong indication that these people are successful members of the American elite.

Even Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who casts himself as the ultimate outsider, is a former Princeton debater married to a Goldman Sachs banker. That kind of dissembling only increases popular cynicism about politics — and facilitates the rise of apparent iconoclasts.

If America’s yearning for anti-establishment leaders from the political fringes continues, the implications will be profound — for the US and for the world. The system, dominated by the Democrats and Republicans, has always rejected the political extremes. That means that, behind the day-to-day dramas, the nation has benefited from a deep political stability, which has contributed greatly to its economic strength and global power. If America’s immunity to extremism is ending, the whole world will feel the consequences.

Hey, who in the right sense wants to keep their savings In Malaysia


February 11, 2016

Hey, who in the right sense wants to keep their savings In Malaysia

by Julia Yeow and Muzliza Mustafa

Some Malaysians are making the drastic choice of renouncing their citizenship to withdraw their EPF savings before the age of 55. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, February 11, 2016.

Some Malaysians are making the drastic choice of renouncing their citizenship to withdraw their EPF savings before the age of 55. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, February 11, 2016.Some Malaysians are making the drastic choice of renouncing their citizenship to withdraw their EPF savings before the age of 55. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, February 11, 2016.

When Joanne Koo first emigrated to Australia with her young family six years ago, she never planned on renouncing her citizenship as she was eager to hold on to her Malaysian ties, savings and investments.

However, earlier this month, Koo and her husband made a trip to Kuala Lumpur to surrender their Malaysian passports for the sole purpose of making a full withdrawal of their Employees Provident Fund (EPF) savings. (Savers are allowed full withdrawal at age 55.)

“It was never on our mind to take what my elders see as a drastic step (of renouncing our citizenship). But we’ve been monitoring the situation in Malaysia for a few years now, and we’re not confident,” she told The Malaysian Insider.

Koo, 44, is one of thousands of overseas Malaysians who have been spooked by the financial scandals and political instability plaguing the country over the past two years, and who have decided to withdraw their retirement savings to “safer environments”.

“The current government is likely to look towards institutions like EPF and Tabung Haji to bail out failed projects or companies,” said Koo, whose savings were in the “hundreds of thousands”.

“EPF is hard-earned savings, and nobody would want to wake up one day and find their retirement savings in someone else’s pockets.”

In 2014, a total of 3,098 Malaysians renounced their citizenship and left the country, withdrawing RM303 million from the retirement scheme fund. This figure is a startling 63% increase from 2010, where only RM185 million was withdrawn by those leaving the country, according to statistics obtained from the EPF website.

For ML, a former lawyer who moved to Switzerland in 2010, renouncing her citizenship and withdrawing her retirement fund was mostly because of the negative news about Malaysia that she kept reading about from Zurich.

“The recent public fiascos have partly influenced my decision (to become a Swiss citizen and withdraw EPF savings),” said the homemaker who was recently back in Kuala Lumpur to surrender her Malaysian passport.

“I have been following Malaysian news diligently. Every time I read the news, I am utterly gobsmacked with the answers provided or statements made, and I feel so helpless and worried about the state of affairs in Malaysia,” she said.

Apart from the growing fears of economic and political uncertainty, the ringgit’s continued decline over the past year is also believed to be a reason for Malaysians abroad to renounce their citizenship to make a full withdrawal of their EPF savings, said opposition lawmaker Dr. Ong Kian Ming.

“In the past, many people will leave their money in EPF even if they are living or working abroad, because the EPF has been offering decent returns.

“But probably one of the factors which motivates some of them to do this early withdrawal is the fears regarding the currency depreciation. At the rate of the ringgit’s decline, no matter how well your performance is, it cannot make up the depreciation,” he said.

Ong, who is the Member of Parliament for Serdang, said while he was not surprised at the increasing number of withdrawals, he believed a lot of the fears were “unwarranted”.

“I don’t find it surprising that more people are giving up their citizenship and withdrawing their savings, because in the larger context, there is a lot of fear and uncertainty in the country.

“But I do think some of (the fear) is not warranted. Among the government institutions that manage public money, the EPF is the best run among them.”

However, Ong said Malaysians both in and outside the country would tend to “lump EPF altogether with what’s going on in the government”.

Koo agreed that the high dividends paid by EPF annually was the main reason she was initially reluctant to make a full withdrawal, but decided that economic decline from mismanagement and the threat of further scandals was too big a risk for her to take.

“It is a bit of a shame, honestly, as the EPF itself seems to be performing quite well,” said Koo.

“But we’ve decided that we will not risk it and it would be safer to keep our retirement savings in a more secure place.Unfortunately, this means outside of Malaysia.”

http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/scandals-weak-ringgit-spurring-malaysians-abroad-to-cash-out-epf-funds#sthash.rl0zALLH.dpuf

 

Muslim Politics is not subsuming Malaysian politics


February 8, 2016

Muslim Politics is not subsuming Malaysian politics

PutraMosque-440

Power plays for notions of “Malayness”, and not Islam, continue to shape the nation’s politics, argues Manjit Bhatia.

I become very cynical whenever the awfully clichéd word “discourse” is thrown up as if it is the only term that can effectively describe political, economic or any other social science narrative. And so it turns out for Ooi Kok-Hin in his essay, The rise and rise of Muslim politics (in Malaysia), to which he lends repute to Bayesian probability.

Ooi begins with a bold claim — the politicisation of Islam in Malaysia has gained “momentum and influence” over the last 30 years. He also asserts that “society and the state” are becoming “increasingly Islamised” and to that extent “there is likely to be an increase in political Islam.”

If I were to add a third teaspoon of sugar to the one already in my Nescafe Blend 43 (usually black), my coffee definitely would be sweeter. I can measure that. But how does one measure an “increase in political Islam”?

At any rate, the sugar becomes the centre of how my coffee tastes, as much as would Ooi’s “Muslim-centered politics will play an increasingly important part in Malaysian politics, and the discourse in the public sphere will adopt the language of political Islam.”

Thus, Ooi claims, Malaysia’s future rests upon the “type of Islam practiced in society,” which is, he argues, “most likely to be the dominant, state-sanctioned political Islam that emerged victorious in its battle for supremacy over other types of political Islam”. When was it not state-sanctioned? Also, one’s unsure what Ooi means by “society”. It would be sacrilegious of him to suggest that Chinese, Indians (Sikhs included) and Christians in Malaysia practice Islam. It would be factually incorrect, too.

As if Ooi has not already created a few problems in his opening two paragraphs, he starts to open a third can of worms. After alluding to rival forms of Islamism, he fails to mention which are competing for Malaysia’s political centre. An easy guess: Sunni versus Shi’ite.

But then, curiously, in the rest of his essay, Ooi seems disinterested in critically extending on his thesis of competing political Islamism. He redacts what he promised to discuss; instead, he revisits Malaysia’s undying obsession with its characteristic politico-ideological trait – race/racism wrought, of course, by religion; Islam, in this case. Three-quarters through, Ooi offers the clincher: “Overall,” he says, “religion is superseding race and royalty.”I don’t know how he arrives at this summation.

Notwithstanding his disjointed essay, and quite apart from his crude positivism, Ooi’s many problems cannot be covered in a short space. Nevertheless, I tender two counter-arguments. One, Ooi’s assertions are undermined because he presents an erroneous reading of his own country’s politics, historical and contemporary. Second, while UMNO has been sidling up to greater Islamisation, it’s only in name and for desperately opportunistic politico-ideological reasons (apropos Ooi’s claim that “the lack of substantive ideological debate is telling”).

Religion — as if only one is practiced in Malaysia — is not superseding race and royalty. It never will. Nor will Islam, whatever its variant. To be fair, Ooi is correct that the UMNO-dominated one-party Malay state has taken a great deal of shine to Wahabist Islamism. But the supplanting of race and royalty by religion is not being manifested for the positivist (survey-based) reason Ooi posits: that today Malay identity with Islam displaces Malay racial identity.

It would be wrong to construe this exchange as a turn towards Islamic fundamentalism or Islamic conservatism, for two reasons.

One, UMNO and its Wahhabist Islamism have actively and unapologetically denigrated Shi’ite Islam and persecuted its followers. This can be better understood in the context of the growing role of Saudi Arabia and its financing of Wahhabism as a bulwark against the spreading influence of Shi’ite Iran, theologically and geo-strategically. Neither afoot here is a perverse form of Huntingtonian clash of civilisations nor a (prophet) Muhammadian theological utopianism. This leads to the second point.

In no essential or substantive way is this vilification different to Malay-Muslim UMNO maligning Christianity and Christians and openly lauding its vile bigotry towards Judaism and Jews at every political opportunistic moment. And here’s one contradiction that flies in the face of Saudi influence-peddling — Riyadh’s “affinity” to Tel Aviv just as Iran steps up to carve out a greater sphere of influence from the Middle East and northern Africa to Southeast Asia.

When are the moments in Malaysia that the UMNO state is seen to peddle Wahhabist Islamism (these days in association with once arch enemy Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS)? These moments often relate to a crisis within the UMNO political movement, a party that is far from unified but riven by warring factions among its feudal-capitalist class. And when the moment is related not to the specificity of Islam’s place in Malaysia’s politics, which via its bastardised constitution, is incontestable, but driven principally by Malay support for UMNO, especially when it may seem to be rescinding.

 

And so residing at the centre of this schism is the increasingly warped, and thus desperate and dangerous, sense of Malay nationalism. Ooi would have done better if he had also stuck to an analysis of the notion of Bangsa Malaysia, the literal translation of which is the ‘Malaysian race’ or the ‘Malaysian community’. In other words, citizenship, but in an agency sense, not a literal one. But both Malay nationalism and Bangsa Malaysia are notions fraught with intractable problems — problems the UMNO state wants to keep as intractable as possible for as long as possible to ensure regime survival.

In fact, the notion of Bangsa Malaysia is anathema to the continued existence of the UMNO Malay one-party state in its present form. Maintaining the subservience, or ‘loyalty’, of the Malay population, most of whom are constitutionally given as Muslims anyway, is far more critical to the ruling UMNO Malay political elite and their dominant capitalist class for the reproduction of ersatz capitalist relations and real capitalist accumulation via manipulation by the state.

It is unfortunate that Ooi does not see that this politico-capitalist order has not changed since at least 1957. And if anything, it has intensified over the last four-plus decades. It has intensified because more and more urban, educated Malays, brought up also on a pluralist fodder of technological sophistication, are no longer aping the sycophancy of their elders by backing only and always UMNO. Today they have alternatives, such as the Malay-based, seemingly progressive, opposition parties in Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Amanah (and PAS to a diminishing extent).

Even the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) offers Malays political alternatives in airing their grievances against the UMNO Malay one-party state that has singularly failed in creating upwardly mobile job opportunities and job security while lessening their living standards. Ooi claims “race and racial politics are in decline but are given a lifeline when injected with religion.” This used to be the case, but it’s not a viable one today. The lure of materialism and capitalism for Malays is irresistible, especially when they see the Malay political elite and the capitalist classes living the high life of vulgar materialism (not to be seen in a coarsely erroneous Marxian interpretation).

The urban, educated Malays do subscribe to an Islam but whose variant is the gentler, kinder, non-violent, non hate-mongering toward non-Malays/non-Muslims kind — the sort Irshad Manji notes as more ‘liberal’-informed in its outlook. Conversely, the most likely candidates to be ideologically indoctrinated by Wahabist political Islam are those who are schooled in madrassas, where the sermons are anything but the liberal (reformist) Islam variety. These are the Malays, the Muslims, who are more likely to back and join terrorist organisations like ISIS, and, interestingly, the UMNO state is ‘repudiating’ them. Somehow Ooi missed all these nuances.

And if the urban, educated Malays are affected by the putridity of Najib’s voodoo economics, they do not, on evidence, automatically seek refuge in Islam. Rather, they point fingers at the UMNO regime for failing them despite their inheritance of their Malay “special rights”, not Muslim or Islamic special rights. They do not, as opposed to Ooi, engage in the so-called discourse or language of political Islam. Indeed, they are more likely than not to engage in opposition or protest rallies in seeking equality and justice.

These young Malay graduates may seem slow in uptake, but it does not mean they’re taking up the cudgels of Wahhabist Islamism. And just because Malaysia’s monarchs have been silenced by constitutional orders ordained by the former premier-dictator Mahathir Mohamad, it does not mean that religion has superseded their position in Malay life, any more than religion has transplanted the Malay race. How can it when race and religion remain, as yesteryear, strongly synonymous with “Malayness” today?

Ooi mistakes the rise of Muslim politics for the power-play around Malayness or the “Malay way,” as Diane Mauzy aptly coined it 30 years ago. All of this is still to play for, and even harder to play for, by the increasingly desperate, crisis-prone and deeply scandalous UMNO-Malay one-party state primarily for its material survival. The sooner we understand this, the less likely we are to exaggerate claims that Malaysian politics is being subsumed by Muslim politics.

By any stretch of the imagination, in 2016 it’s still the old order in Malaysia — only that some of the ground rules are fast changing, though not necessarily in UMNO’s favor, it would appear.

Manjit Bhatia is an Australian academic, journalist, writer, and research director of AsiaRisk, an economic and political risk analysis consultancy. He specialises in international economics and politics, with a focus on Asia

 

My friend Abu Talib responds to this UMNO Fella Apandi


February 8, 2016

My friend Abu Talib responds to this UMNO Fella: A-G Apandi

by V. Anbalagan, Assistant News Editor

My principle is to assist them in the performance of their duties and responsibilities.It was also my directive not to prefer any criminal charge on any suspect unless the prosecution has sufficient, credible and admissible evidence to justify prosecution.–Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman

Former Attorney-General Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman today said he had never directed investigation agencies, including the anti-graft body, to stop their probes.

“My principle is to assist them in the performance of their duties and responsibilities. It was also my directive not to prefer any criminal charge on any suspect unless the prosecution has sufficient, credible and admissible evidence to justify prosecution,” he said.

Current A-G Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali had said he had followed in Abu Talib’s footsteps when he ordered the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to close its investigations into the RM2.6 billion donation and RM42 million SRC International funds deposited in prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s private accounts.

“I am just following my master’s footsteps. Now he said I couldn’t do that. I am confused.I hope he can come to see me so that I can offer my explanation,” Apandi reportedly told Sin Chew Daily in an exclusive interview.

Apandi was a senior officer with the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) in the early 1980s when Abu Talib was the A-G. Abu Talib last week told The Malaysian Insider that the A-G, who is also the public prosecutor, had no authority to order MACC to close its investigations into the two cases.

“This is a case of public importance that has attracted worldwide attention. The A-G must help MACC to collect evidence as the source of the fund is outside Malaysia,” Abu Talib had said.

Today, Abu Talib said Apandi should refresh his memory of cases where he had directed an on-going investigation to be closed.”Frankly, I cannot remember,” he said.

Abu Talib also said Apandi would not have been in a confused state of mind if he had indeed followed in his footsteps.

“His decision in the circumstances has raised more questions than solve the allegations against the Prime Minister, the status of other investigations related to the activities of 1MDB and persons connected with the company,” he said.

He said that in all fairness to Najib and the public, and mindful that the RM2.6 billion came from outside Malaysia, Apandi should have given all the necessary assistance to MACC to complete their investigations.

“It may well be that at the end of the day, Apandi will find enough evidence to show that Najib had done no wrong under the law,” he added.

The public, said Abu Talib, was not likely to question Apandi’s decision (to clear the PM of criminal wrongdoing) if he had allowed MACC to collect evidence outside Malaysia.

“As it is, Apandi’s decision appears questionable and has cast negative perceptions on his impartiality, commitment to justice and rule of law,” he added.

Abu Talib said he was not answerable to Apandi and that he was free to exercise his constitutional right to comment on a case of great public interest, so long he did not cross the limits of freedom of expression.

“My comment is clear and made in good faith. There is nothing further to explain,” he said.He added that Apandi was welcome to see him if he wanted to learn and know more about the law.

 

ASEAN: 50 Years and Beyond


February 8, 2016

ASEAN: 50 Years and Beyond

by Nunn Nagara

http://www.thestar.com.my

THE Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) enters its 50th year of operation this year, and many in the region sought to peek into what it would look like in another 50 years.

ISIS Malaysia held two days of brainstorming during the week in an international Track Two (non-governmental) roundtable in Kuala Lumpur titled “ASEAN in 50 Years” in the context of a rapidly changing world.

The discussions did not lack optimism: despite challenges, there was general agreement that ASEAN would still be around as a centenarian in 2066-67. This was not without cause. Evidently ASEAN today, upon growing steadily towards a formal Community, has stood the test of time.

ASEANn (1967) has endured and lasted better than its predecessors SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organisation, 1954), ASA (Association of South-East Asia, 1961) and Maphilindo (Malaya-Philippines-Indonesia, 1963).

ASEAN endured precisely because it was unlike its predecessors. With ASEAN, the sovereign nations of South-East Asia at last have a regional organisation fit for their purposes.

SEATO (Eisenhower-Dulles project) was a Cold War  of the West alien to South-East Asia. Its members were Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan and the US, with the only South-East Asian countries being US allies Thailand and the Philippines. Although without overwhelming contradictions, its small membership proved too limited for regional needs and it too died a natural death.

Maphilindo began as an emotional pan-regional appeal to ethnic identity, but in coming on the eve of the formation of Malaysia and being promoted by Indonesia and the Philippines which tried to pre-empt Malaysia, it was regarded as subversive to Malaysian territory and identity.

By 1967, Indonesia and the Philippines were under new leadership. Gen. Suharto replaced Sukarno and Marcos succeeded Macapagal, and Malaysia together with Singapore and Thailand worked with them to form ASEAN.

All member nations would have equal rights and privileges, and none would interfere in the internal affairs of the others including territorial integrity. In time, ASEAN would take in new members and acquire a higher international profile.

Among the questions raised at the Track Two ASEAN Roundtable was whether ASEAN would become an integrated regional body or remain an inter-governmental organisation in 50 years. Related to this was the question of whether it was better to have ASEAN as a supranational regional “superstate” or have it remain as an agglomeration of sovereign states.

Such discussions risk veering off at an tangent, as these artificial dichotomies have little to do with the real world. Such debates make intriguing academic discourses but are unrelated to the here and now.

Even the EU as the most developed regional grouping of states never considered replacing the national with the supranational. It is not a question of either national or regional, but both.

EU member countries, like those of ASEAN, see advantages in exercising their diplomatic clout and economic potential within a larger regional body – provided it does not preclude their core national prerogatives.It makes sense to develop common regional propensities to the fullest, or until it begins to compromise national sovereignty or interests. There is often a trade-off, and several EU states are already seeing some limits on certain fronts.

Ultimately, such dualities of national-supranational are false, misleading and distracting. It is like pitting the extreme of the free market against that of state control, when every economic system in the world is a combination of the two where both exist at all.

There was also a roundtable consensus that the nation state will continue to evolve, prevail, and remain significant as an arbiter of national and international policymaking.

Then the question becomes, to what extent would a South-East Asian nation evolve in 50 years? More to the point, what would ASEAN itself as a grouping of 10 or 11 countries including Timor Leste become by then?

Meanwhile, the identity of the nation state as formally defined continues to be eroded practically everywhere. Erosive factors include the growing influence of NGOs or CSOs, increasing multi-ethnicities and various other diversities, and territorial disputes that tug at the physical character of the state itself.

The operations of all regional institutions are limited and messy, and ASEAN is no exception. Yet, members choose to remain and non-members wish they could someday join.

ASEAN continues to experience centripetal forces tending towards coalescing inwards, as well as centrifugal forces pulling it apart. Global markets and major powers in the neighbourhood are responsible.

There are times when a member nation may feel tempted to drift away, thinking that its fortunes are better met outside ASEAN. Singapore once felt that way, followed by Indonesia more lately. But any (passing) sense of self-importance or regional frustration is soon overcome by the prevailing realities. As a Singapore policymaker once put it privately, it is not as if Singapore can just row away and join another region of its choice.

Beyond all the bubbly talk of a “borderless world,” geography is still important. It remains at the centre of geopolitics and geo-economics. Beyond the formal state, however, lies the “deep state” said to act as the ultimate determinant of policy direction above and beyond official channels and procedures. On a regional level, it can also apply to a transnational body like ASEAN.

Thus, a Deep ASEAN would act much like an ASEAN state, but on a regional scale and in the common collective interest of its member states. There are signs that a Deep Asean has taken root after the inclusion of the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam).

Progress towards the regalia of a Deep ASEAN.however. has been slow. It took many years for the Secretary-General to acquire the status of an ASEAN government minister, then full regional coverage in its membership, then a formal legal identity with a Charter, with more developments set to come.

The extended powers that a Deep ASEAN offers member nations in representing their shared interests are also an attraction for them to compromise on some aspects of their national sovereignty to join.

Asean must then develop its legitimacy by broadening its internal constituency. This has come with moves towards a people-oriented ASEAN, then a people-centred ASEAN, and now with talk of a people-led ASEAN.

But “people” as an indeterminate mass is quite meaningless without being harnessed and honed into policy making form. Unless this is done through the appropriate political processes, improved people-to-people exchanges could mean little more than expanded tourism flows and enhanced student exchange programmes.

Another question raised was whether ASEAN had to include all countries in South-East Asia. The name “ASEAN” says so, its founding fathers said so, and it serves ASEAN’s legitimacy to do so.

There was also discussion and confusion over neutrality or non-alignment as an ASEAN imperative. ASEAN is, has been, and needs to be neutral or non-aligned in respect of the major powers – but not with the sanctity of international law which it must embrace.

ASEAN remains a minnow relative to the US, China, Russia and India – all of which have renewed or heightened their interests in this region. Asean members have no choice but to close ranks.

The major powers will keep ASEAN relevant and important, but only if ASEAN deals with all equally and impartially.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.