Najib Razak has no interest in Electoral Reform


April 16, 2017

Najib Razak has no interest in Electoral Reform–Should he?

by Teck Chi Wong

http://www.newmandala.org

Mr. Teck Chi Wong, a former journalist and editor with Malaysiakini.com, is currently pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.

Malaysia’s enthusiasm for electoral reform is arguably at its lowest point, after being high on the tide in the past 10 years as reflected by successive Bersih gatherings from 2007 to 2016.

But electoral reform is now more important than ever, particularly after the 1MDB scandal. If the authoritarian and corrupt political system is not overhauled, it will seriously impede the country’s ability to achieve high-income status in the long run.

In Malaysia, growth is never purely about the market. The state has been, and still is, playing important roles in steering and managing the economy. In fact, Malaysia was regarded in the 1990s as one of the successful models of the ‘development state’ in East Asia, which through learning and transferring resources to productive sectors had successfully industrialised the country and lifted many of its citizens out of poverty.

These East Asian developmental states, including Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, shared some common characteristics. Many of them (except Japan) were authoritarian regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. But all of them were strong in facilitating policies and learning from others for growth.

On top of that, being authoritarian also helped these countries to stabilise their political landscape and therefore create a business environment which encouraged foreign investment to flow in. However, in Malaysia, it came at a tremendous and bloody price: the racial riots of 1969.

Key to this development model is the quality of the state. But it is difficult for these authoritarian regimes to maintain or improve their quality in the long run. Authoritarian order means that a lack of appropriate checks and balances for those in power leaves the system susceptible to corruption. At the same time, social and economic development gives rise to new needs and demands of accountability and integrity from the publics. As a result, political and social tensions emerge.

The East Asian developmental states approached this problem differently. Both South Korea and Taiwan had since democratised in 1980s and 1990s. Intense political competitions subjected those in power to greater checks and balances, and therefore reduced the most blatant forms of corruption.

Singapore, meanwhile, is an outlier. Despite not much progress in terms of democratisation, the city state has been outstanding in eliminating corruption. Many would point to the tough law and the high salaries of politicians and civil servants for the reason behind low corruption in the country. But exactly how Singaporean leaders could be disciplined despite no strong institutional checks and balances is still subject to debate, although this could possibly relate to their strong desire to guarantee Singapore’s survival in the international market and the region.

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Zahid Hamidi, Keruak and Najib Razak–Patronage and Corruption is rampant in Malaysia today

Malaysia is stuck in the middle. Not only is it in the middle-income trap, but it is also wrestling between authoritarianism and democracy. The quality of its institutions, including its cabinet system, parliament and judiciary, has been on the decline and they cannot mount any effective checks and balances against UMNO, the dominant ruling party. Resultantly, corruption and patronage are widespread in the government.

This has serious implications for the economy, particularly when the country is seeking to leave the middle-income trap. To entrepreneurs, rent-seeking is simply more profitable, as reflected by the fact that most of the wealth of Malaysian billionaires is created in rent-heavy industries, like banking, construction, housing development and resources.

All of these forces are embodied in the recent 1MDB scandal. Although Prime Minister Najib Razak is accused of embezzling billions of public funds and the scandal has rocked investor confidence, no institutions can hold him accountable and no amount of public pressure can force him to step down. As long as Najib is controlling UMNO, his position is solid, as opponents are eliminated from the government and the party. Zahid Hamidi knows this well since Hishamuddin Tun Hussein has been appointed as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department to hold him in check.

If there is one lesson we can learn from South Korea and Taiwan, that would be democratisation can help to change the underlying political structure and strengthen the quality of the state. Through intensified political competition and appropriate checks and balances, the public can put more pressure on those in power to be more accountable and focus on economic development.

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In fact, the difference between South Korea and Malaysia is particularly stark now that Park Guen-hye, the former President of South Korea, was impeached. This happened just within months after the corruption scandal involving Park’s best friend erupted in October last year.

In Malaysia, the overhaul in political structure over the long run must be achieved through electoral reform, which includes making the Election Commission independent and reducing gerrymandering and malapportionment. As long as the electoral system is not changed, UMNO can remain in power by holding onto its support bases in rural areas. The recent controversies surrounding redelineation process just again highlight the need for reform.

To many, for Malaysia to regain its shine after the 1MDB scandal, Najib must go. But that would be just a tiny first step on a long journey to reform and democratise its political and administrative institutions.

 

Right-Sizing the Malaysian Civil Service?


February 27, 2017

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Note: Yes, Tan Sri, to civil service reform or right sizing (as you call it) but it requires political will. First let us remove top civil servants who are only good at buttering up corrupt politicians. Both the Chief Secretary to the Government Ali Hamsa and Secretary-General to the Treasury Irwan Siregar, for example, should be asked to go on retirement followed by incompetent senior servants (the deadwood) who should be replaced by a new corp of civil  servants  chosen for their competency and courage to speak to power.

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Is this the face of a reformer? Look elsewhere, Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff.

Next, open up the civil service to all Malaysians, not just Malays and then stop recruiting Malay graduates who are not employable elsewhere and finally, disband Cuepecs since this union is an obstacle to any reform.

I bet you Najib Razak is not the man who is likely to take tough action against civil servants since they form the backbone of UMNO’s political support.

So let us not talk about right-sizing the civil service when we know the Prime Minister will not undertake civil service reform since his political survival is at stake. We are a failed state with a dysfunctional political system and a civil service which is performing sub-optimally.–Din Merican

Right-Sizing the Malaysian Civil Service?

by Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim @www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT: There have been a lot of emotional reactions from Cuepacs and Perkasa about my statement regarding the oversized civil service. Perhaps the sensitivity is due to the fact that the civil service is mainly Malay and Malay dependence on the civil service for employment is very high.

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The right-sizing of our civil service through a voluntary separation scheme is badly needed. There are ways of doing it in a humane and caring manner.

First, the government can start with retraining of redundant employees by giving them free courses on skills development: computers, English, basic accounting, corporate law, etc – all the skills needed to make them employable in the private sector.

I am sure once the employees get these skills, many would like to leave as soon as they reach optional retirement age. The government employees will self-separate.

It should be noted that there are thousands of civil servants, where both husband and wife are in the government service. In many cases among the lower level categories, one of them is doing part-time business like selling kain, tudung, kuih, religious books, etc, to earn more money. They probably have business ambitions but cannot afford to leave the government, because they have no capital.

Imagine if an offer is made for a voluntary separation package of RM40,000 for 20 years of service. The chances are one of them will take the package, while the other one will continue to work in the government until retirement to enjoy the medical benefits for the whole family. Thus, the government is helping the Malay wife or husband to become an entrepreneur, a genuine one because they have a track record.

Voluntary separation schemes, like those in the private sector, cannot be forced upon because it is illegal to terminate a worker who has not done anything wrong and has been a loyal employee.

Automation can replace human labour

The scheme should affect those whose functions are no longer needed because automation can replace human labour and because, with technology, there is no more need for sending letters or face-to-face service – ie the human-intensive work is no longer relevant in 21st Century Malaysia.

In the banking sector, there is no need to go to the branch for transactions. That is why banks are closing down their branches and terminating their employees.

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Malaysian Civil Servants pledging to serve the corrupt UMNO regime led by Malaysian Official No. 1.

I believe the government can also look at closing down completely, or partially, certain offices and branches without affecting the quality of service. The redundant civil servants should then be deployed to other functions or retrained to prepare them for the separation scheme.

While the government right-sizes redundant civil servants, it will have to continue to recruit those that are needed for specialized expertise in the fields of finance, economics, research, medicine, education, science, environment, law, etc. This should be encouraged as the civil service must continually upgrade the quality of its staff.

The government should be focusing more on quality, rather than quantity, because this is the way to increase productivity and efficiency in the civil service.

We should have a much smaller administrative service to support the functioning of government ministries and departments. This can be achieved by decentralizing and empowering of authority to reduce the multi-layer approval process.

A lot of progress has been made in recent years to improve the counter delivery services in several departments, with the use of technology and the simplification of procedures. Logically, there should be less need for manpower and the redundant staff can be offered voluntary retirement with an attractive compensation package.

If it takes some years for the government to recover the heavy expenditure of the separation scheme, then it is worth it. We can hope that with smaller government, the economy as a whole will become more efficient and with dynamism and growth in private sector activities, the government will collect more taxes to recover the cost of the separation scheme.

I believe the government should start planning a right-sizing program of the civil service now, so that it can be done in a proper manner, rather than wait until there is a financial crisis, at which time government employees will be retrenched without justice for all their years of loyal service. This has happened in Greece, as I mentioned previously.

Tan Sri MOHD SHERIFF MOHD KASSIM, a former Secretary-General of the Treasurer, is a member of the G25 Group of Eminent Malays.

Recommended READ by Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim:

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/opinion/2017/02/24/change-the-way-top-civil-service-appointments-are-made/

Teuku Adnan: A Referendum for Kuala Lumpur too?


February 7, 2017

Tengku (Teuku) Adnan’s Folly: Taking on Penang

COMMENT: I have a simple message for this corrupt Fake Royalty, Teuku Adnan and that is leave Penang alone. Stop diverting our attention from Kuala Lumpur. Nurul Izzah has said enough about his track record as Federal Territories Minister. I have nothing substantive to add except to say that our national capital is a snake pit of corrupt viper like officials led by Teuku Adnan. Georgetown in contrast is a well-managed and attractive place for all visitors.–Din Merican.

Read this:

http://www.penang.ws/penang-attractions/placevisit.htm

A Referendum for Kuala Lumpur too?

by Nurul Izzah Anwar, MP@www.malaysikini.com

 

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Penang’s version of Hollywood’s Rodeo Drive, Penang Road is arguably the most important thoroughfare on the island. A mixture of nouveau-riche and quaint heritage, it runs the length from Lebuh Farquhar in the north, to Jalan Gurdwara in the south – near the Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak (KOMTAR tower) – at the junction of Macalister Road. Brightly lit, Penang Road is divided into four main sections and it’s thoroughly tourist-friendly with walkways and plenty of plants.

Malaysia’s Dynamic, Smart and Gutsy Member of Parliament, Nurul Izzah Anwar

MP SPEAKS: Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor has said that the notion to add a federal territory in Malaysia is simply a suggestion that “requires proposal, referendum and approval at national level.” It goes without saying that Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and even Putrajaya should then have been accorded the same level of decency when they were put under the government’s rule.

In addition to a referendum for Penangites, would Tengku Adnan also consider holding one for KLites? For a variety of reasons, residents of KL have long called Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s (DBKL) ability to govern into question.

For one, DBKL’s mismanagement has led to rampant corruption. Just last year, the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission’s (MACC) investigated DBKL project management executive director who was eventually charged with 18 counts of corruption, including accepting bribes and assets estimated at RM4.4 million.

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Secondly, DBKL is incompetent in developing KL in a sustainable manner. Throughout the years, DBKL has permitted developers such as Amona Group and IJM Land to encroach upon Bukit Gasing, one of Kuala Lumpur’s last remaining green lungs.

On the contrary, residents who have surfaced their concerns – the risk of landslides, overcrowding, traffic congestion to DBKL are often dismissed for profit-making purposes, at the expense of KL’s environmental sustainability.

Thirdly, DBKL has failed to provide KL’s low-income residents a decent standard of living. Low sanitation and maintenance standards, in addition to illegal leasing are among the foremost problems of PPR housing in KL, while DBKL itself is also struggling with mounting levels of unpaid rent.

Tengku Adnan’s promise to provide affordable homes to Penangites by virtue of transferring Penang to the clutches of the federal government will prove to be nothing but an empty promise.

Before Tengku Adnan commences a referendum in Penang, consider also polling the residents of KL of the city’s performance under the federal territory jurisdiction.

Contrary to Tengku Adnan’s claim that a federal territory would prevent the oppression of citizens – Malay or not, for decades, residents of KL have only experienced poor city planning and development, coupled with the government’s negligence towards their welfare.

Ku Nan’s abysmal track record

Throughout his four years as the Federal Territories minister, Tengku Adnan has proposed and implemented many policies that have caused much public distress.

In 2013, Tengku Adnan proposed a hike in annual property assessment rates that ranged between 100 and 250 percent of the previous rates which elicited much public furor, before capping the rates between 10 and 25 percent their existing annual rates.

In 2014, he heartlessly banned soup kitchens within a 2km radius of KL city centre because “(soup kitchens) just encourages people to remain homeless and jobless”.

This year, his proposal to ban kapcais from KL also met with much dissatisfaction from KLites.

Keeping Ku Nan’s many hare-brained proposals in mind, we must take extra precaution when evaluating the merits of his suggestion that the state of Penang be left under his ministry’s jurisdiction.

Undemocratic model of governance

Over the years that the BN government reigned over KL in the guise of a federal territory, the rights of KLites have been plundered with impunity. Corruption depleted public coffers, while irresponsible planning lowered standards of living.

Through the 2013 general elections, nine out of 11 parliamentary constituencies in Kuala Lumpur were won by opposition lawmakers. Yet, the mayor of Kuala Lumpur is not only unelected, but also appointed by none other than our Federal Territories Minister and UMNO lawmaker, Tengku Adnan.

In addition, Kuala Lumpur does not even have its own state government. Despite having one of the largest budgets among all states and federal territories in Malaysia, the people of Kuala Lumpur have to surrender financial control to the whims and fancies of an Umno politician like Tengku Adnan.

Ironically, members of parliaments who were elected to represent the concerns of KLites have little say in decision-making, and are subjugated to the mayor, who in turn, reports to Tengku Adnan.

As such, the conversion of Penang from a state to a federal territory is just an excuse for the government to put opposition territory under BN’s malicious control. Now, Tengku Adnan is mustering the audacity to coerce the opposition into relinquishing its governance of Penang when 10 out of 13 parliamentary constituencies in the state have decidedly elected opposition lawmakers in the 2013 general elections.

Clearly, we must not allow BN’s undemocratic practices to oppress other regions in Malaysia.

Tengku Adnan’s proposal to categorise Penang as a federal territory, as opposed to retaining the northern region’s autonomy as a state is dubious at best – and authoritarian at worst. Politically motivated proposals as such flies in the face of public interest, and will only be implemented to fulfil the blind ambition of power-hungry BN politicians.


NURUL IZZAH ANWAR is Lembah Pantai MP and a graduate of John Hopkins University.

 

Obama’s Legacy–Optimism


January 15, 2017

The Optimism of Barack H. Obama

Americans will miss Mr. Obama’s negotiating skills on tough issues and the dignity and character that he and his family brought to the White House.–New York Times

Barack Obama is leaving the White House with polls showing him to be one of the most popular presidents in recent decades. This makes sense. His achievements, not least pulling the nation back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, have been remarkable — all the more so because they were bitterly opposed from the outset by Republicans who made it their top priority to ensure that his presidency would fail.

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Many Americans celebrated the election of the first African-American President as a welcome milestone in the history of a nation conceived in slavery and afflicted by institutional racism. Yet the bigotry that president-elect Donald Trump capitalized on during his run for office confirmed a point that Mr. Obama himself made from the start: that simply electing a black president would not magically dispel the prejudices that have dogged the country since its inception. Even now, these stubborn biases and beliefs, amplified by a divisive and hostile campaign that appealed not to people’s better instincts but their worst, have blinded many Americans to their own good fortune, fortune that flowed from policies set in motion by this President.

That story begins on Inauguration Day in 2009. That’s when Mr. Obama inherited a ravaged economy that was rapidly shedding jobs and forcing millions of people from their homes. The Obama stimulus, which staved off a 1930s-vintage economic collapse by pumping money into infrastructure, transportation and other areas, passed the House without a single Republican vote. Republican gospel holds that government spending does not create jobs or boost employment. The stimulus did both — preserving or creating an average of 1.6 millions jobs a year for four years. (A timely federal investment in General Motors and Chrysler, both pushed to the brink during the recession, achieved similarly salutary results, preserving more than a million jobs.)

Mr. Obama’s opponents have had trouble accepting that any of this actually happened. They have not learned the simple truth — a truth clear in the New Deal and just as clear now — that timely and significant federal investment can make a real difference in people’s lives. Or accepted that compassionate and well-designed government programs can do the same. Driven by ideology or envy, or maybe both, Republican leaders have now pounced upon the demonstrably successful Affordable Care Act of 2010, a law that has improved the way medical care is delivered in the United States, providing affordable care for millions and driving the percentage of Americans without insurance to a record low 9.1 percent in 2015. Despite the law’s clear successes, Mr. Trump and Republican congressional leaders have nevertheless declared it a failure, hoping to justify a repeal that would rob an estimated 22 million people of health insurance. The point of following this destructive course can only be to destroy a central Obama legacy — even though doing so will drive up costs and cause havoc in the lives of the newly uninsured.

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With no help from Congress, Mr. Obama has also managed to make progress on issues where nobody gave him much of a chance, notably climate change, which both he and his secretary of state, John Kerry, placed very near the top of their to-do list. Against heavy odds, Mr. Obama first managed to persuade the Chinese to join the effort. This demolished the critics’ argument that he was asking America to do all the heavy lifting. It also made possible the Paris agreement in December 2015, in which 195 nations agreed on a plan that they hope will reduce greenhouse gases that are warming the atmosphere and threatening the viability of the planet itself.

Americans will miss Mr. Obama’s negotiating skills on tough issues and the dignity and character that he and his family brought to the White House. Beyond that, they will also miss an impassioned speaker whose eloquence ranks with that of Abraham Lincoln. The way he has defended the founding precepts of the United States while also arguing that those precepts have to be broadened to achieve a new inclusiveness has been especially striking, as have his remarks delivered at moments of national tragedy.

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His 2015 eulogy in Charleston, S.C., after a Confederate flag-waving white supremacist slaughtered nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was redolent with history. As always, he viewed the horror through the prism of a seemingly innate optimism about the country’s ability to set aside hatred and move toward a more perfect union.

Mr. Obama never would have gained the office without that unflagging optimism, which inspired a generation of young voters who saw in him a new kind of leader. So it seemed fitting that he would end his farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday with them in mind:

“Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair and just and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace; you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.”

Muhammad Ali’s Strange,Failed Diplomatic Career


June 6, 2016

Muhammad Ali’s Strange, Failed Diplomatic Career

The exact qualities that made the champ great also made him a terrible Cold War envoy for America.

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In the wake of his death on Friday, Muhammad Ali has been remembered as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, a controversial black nationalist, an early opponent of the Vietnam War, a devout Muslim and a humanitarian who spent countless hours helping people around the world.

But as a political figure, he was even more than that. Ali was almost uniquely complex and unpredictable, and he played roles we would find astonishing now. One of his least remembered was one of the most unlikely: diplomat.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter decided to use Ali’s considerable political capital to push America’s agenda on the world stage—specifically, to recruit countries to join the the United States’ boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. The job must have seemed perfect for the man: a globally important sports figure, a rare American icon with political traction in the Third World, pushing one of the most important and electric collisions of athletics and politics.

It failed utterly. Ali, one of the most famous and beloved figures in the world, was almost ludicrously ineffective at the job he’d been handed. But the reasons he failed—and the details of just what happened—were perfectly Ali. His unpredictability and openness, fatal flaws in an envoy entrusted with the sharp end of a diplomatic mission, were exactly the qualities that made him so attractive to people and what made him the powerful cultural icon he was.

By the late 1970s,Muhammad Ali was back as a public figure. He appeared to have regained everything he lost during the previous decade, when his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War almost ended his career. He retired after taking back the title in 1978 from upstart Leon Spinks, who had upset him earlier in the year.

Politically, Ali had seemingly relinquished his role as a firebrand oppositional figure in America; Republican President Gerald Ford had invited Ali to the White House a few years earlier to honor the champ after he regained the title from George Foreman in Zaire.So it was not a complete surprise when Carter, a culturally conservative Democrat, turned to Ali to take on a larger political role pushing the U.S. Olympic boycott. Carter had long valued Ali as a potential asset on the world stage. Ali agreed.

With characteristic bravado, he felt that his potency as a celebrity would translate into successful diplomacy—that he could be, as he would refer to himself, “the black Henry Kissinger.” At a time when it seemed as though the U.S. was losing the Cold War and public confidence in the government was low, perhaps Carter could even ride the coattails of Ali’s popularity to increase his own support.

And they weren’t talking about mere lightweight goodwill missions: Carter and his advisers had considered Ali as an envoy to Iran during the hostage crisis, the rare prominent American Muslim who might be respected enough to deal with the radicals. That one didn’t happen; they eventually determined that the Ayatollah Khomeini wouldn’t be willing to negotiate with any American, no matter how famous.

But the President saw another opportunity to deploy Ali. The U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics had become a global flash point: In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter had pulled the American team from the Moscow games, and over 60 countries, many of them U.S. allies, had agreed to skip them as well.

At a moment when the U.S. and the USSR were vying for influence across the globe, the more countries the U.S. could recruit, the more powerful a statement it would be. Ali was drafted for the job. He would be flown on a State Department plane to Tanzania and then travel to Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal. His job was to echo Carter’s line that participation in the games was tantamount to an approval of the Soviet Union’s abhorrent occupation of Afghanistan.

Ali had made his share of gaffes where Africa was concerned: He had joked about cannibalism in promoting a fight, and his uncritical dealings with dictators like President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire had raised eyebrows in the West. But millions of Africans admired Ali, a feeling that went back to his first trip to the continent in 1964, after he had beaten Sonny Liston for the title. Both Ali and Carter were confident that Ali was a revered figure in Africa whose word would resonate with the people of Africa.

Nearly from the moment Ali arrived in Tanzania, however, it became clear that the trip was not going to be a success.

By 1980, the champ was in bad shape, already suffering from untreated Parkinson’s, in a dysfunctional marriage, barely able to box, his weight up to 255 pounds and cash-strapped. Though a global celebrity, Ali was near a personal breaking point when Carter had summoned him. And he was no doubt the wrong man to send to carry America’s political water if the message was opposed by significant portions of the black or Islamic world.

From the start of the visit, Ali encountered opposition. The Soviet Union had backed a number of popular revolutions on the continent, and while none of the countries on the itinerary were Soviet allies, there was significant skepticism of U.S. motives and commitment to African interests. Four years earlier, the U.S. had refused to support a boycott of the Summer Olympics in Montreal by 29 African nations that had objected to New Zealand’s inclusion despite that country’s refusal to avoid international competition with apartheid South Africa. If the U.S. wouldn’t back an African Olympic boycott, then why should African countries back an American Olympic boycott? When Ali was asked this question, he had no answer.

In one nation after another, Ali was presented with persuasive arguments for ignoring the U.S. boycott—and found himself sympathetic to them. In Tanzania, in response to reporters’ inquiries, he admitted, “Maybe I’m being used to do something that ain’t right. You’re making me look at things different. If I find out I’m wrong, I’m going back to America and cancel the whole trip.” In Kenya, he said Carter sent him “around the world to take the whupping over American policies.” In Nigeria, he was told that the country would participate in the Moscow games.

A State Department official actually tried to shut down one news conference, which turned out to be the rare such event at which the person being covered learned far more about the issue at hand than those gathered to hear from him. Ali said: “I’m not a traitor to black people. If you can show me something I don’t know, I want to be helped. You all have given me some questions which are good and are making me look at this thing different.”

Ali flew home and went to the White House, where he told Carter what the President undoubtedly knew: that things had not gone well. Time magazine would call the endeavor “the most bizarre diplomatic mission in U.S. history.” It was that kind of year for Ali; the beating he took in Africa would mirror the one he took in the ring against Larry Holmes months later, a catastrophic loss that accelerated his declining health. It is impossible to know whether Ali’s visit to Africa had any effect at all, although it is worth noting that Kenya and Liberia did wind up supporting the U.S. boycott.

Part of the reason for Ali’s immense public stature is his openness to interpretation. His statements and achievements can be taken in myriad ways to support opposing worldviews. That sense of malleability extended to the man himself: If Ali could be contradictory, it was in part because he remained open to opposing ideas, and that made him precisely the wrong choice to deliver a clear American message on the Olympic boycott. Even as someone who had renounced the most strident of his black nationalist views, Ali still had a strong anti-colonial leaning toward black self-determination. Carter’s position that African nations should follow the U.S. lead was one that Ali simply could not bring himself to deliver from the heart.

Carter was not alone. He made the same mistake that so many of Ali’s biographers and admirers have made over the years. Ali has gone from a slippery fighter early in his career to an elusive subject late in life; for decades it has been hard to lay a glove on him. Despite the plethora of attempts, nobody has nailed down a single definitive perspective on Ali, probably because there isn’t one. Carter failed to realize that what made Ali attractive as a political symbol, and still does—his willingness to bend and be bent—would undermine him as a political operative. The blunder would cost Carter valuable Cold War leverage at a key moment in his presidency.

Surprisingly, however, the failed Olympic campaign wasn’t the last diplomatic mission Ali undertook. In August 1990, shortly after invading Kuwait, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein took thousands of foreigners hostage, including 15 American civilians, some of whom had worked at the General Motors plant in Baghdad. Hussein used the hostages as human shields, housing them in locations where he thought Americans might drop bombs.

In November, President George H.W. Bush sent Ali to Iraq to secure the Americans’ release and bring them home.The New York Times blasted the idea, calling it “surely the strangest hostage-release campaign of recent days” and reminding readers that Ali suffered from a “frequent inability to speak clearly.” It was true: By then, Ali had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, needed medication to control his symptoms and tired easily. Joe Wilson, then the leading U.S. diplomat in Iraq, said, “People traveling to Iraq are making a serious mistake.” Officials feared that the negotiators themselves would be kidnapped.

After a week in Baghdad, though, Ali inexplicably emerged with the 15 Americans, after all other attempts failed. Hussein reportedly told people that he would not let Ali leave empty-handed. Just weeks later, U.S. bombing of Iraq began. It turned out, in the end, that Jimmy Carter wasn’t necessarily wrong in his assessment of Ali’s value on the world stage. He just might have picked the wrong mission. The line between overestimating and underestimating Muhammad Ali has always been a thin one.

*Michael Ezra is a professor of American multicultural studies at Sonoma State University and author of Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon (Temple University Press, 2009).