Unity in Diversity


January 9,2017

Unity in Diversity

By Dennis Ignatius

Unleashing our uniqueness as a multicultural nation

Image result for Malaysia

You can tell, I suppose, that elections are near when UMNO politicians start heaping praise upon our otherwise much-maligned citizens of Chinese origin.

Image result for zahid hamidi and gang

No less than Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, in a speech delivered on his behalf on the occasion of the Kuala Lumpur Chinese Assembly Hall’s Anniversary Dinner recently, praised Malaysian Chinese for their “bravery, hard work and true grit” and their ability to turn things around with minimum resources. He also expressed admiration for their “spirit to never say no to challenges” and opined that “the Chinese community will continue to be the group that will carry the nation forward.”

Flattery & Brickbats 

Zahid’s lavish praise, however, passed without much comment from Malaysian Chinese themselves with many simply dismissing it as little more than lip service. The obvious, if unspoken message, is that mere flattery cannot undo the years of vilification and racial intimidation that has become the hallmark of UMNO politics.

Image result for The Red Shirts in Petaling Street

UMNO’s Extremists in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur

It was not so long ago, for example, that UMNO-aligned red shirted bullies threatened to rain down mayhem upon Petaling Street. It was even more telling, for many Malaysian Chinese, that the red shirt leader was subsequently welcomed as something of a hero at the recent UMNO General Assembly. It only confirmed the perception of UMNO’s malice and hostility towards minority communities.

At the same assembly, UMNO stalwarts also demanded that the some of the miserably few positions that Chinese have in government and government-linked companies be taken away and given to UMNO members.

Worse still, the idea was posited that the Chinese pose an existential threat to the Malays. It might be just politics to UMNO but it demonizes a significant part of our populations simply on the basis of their race. It is not only dangerous but it goes against the very foundational principles of our nation. It is precisely this kind of mentality that is behind much of the chastisement of Malaysia’s minority communities as “pendatangs,” and as just so many unpatriotic and ungrateful interlopers.

Image result for The Red Shirts in Petaling Street

The response that shook UMNO–China’s subtle response to the treatment of their diaspora

It is simply mind-boggling that a dominant political party like UMNO would think that it can treat minority communities with such utter contempt and then expect to earn their allegiance and support at the polls with but a few blandishments.

A blessing to be appreciated

But, whether sincere or not, whether it was given grudgingly or otherwise, Zahid’s praise for the Malaysian Chinese community was well-deserved and long overdue. It may not be music to the ears of racists and bigots but the fact remains that Malaysia would be but a pale shadow of itself if not for the contributions of our citizens of Chinese origin.

They have been a huge blessing to us all and it is about time that they were respected and honoured for it.

If given half the chance to serve, if treated with genuine respect as fellow citizens rather than as interlopers and adversaries, the Chinese community, alongside Malaysia’s other communities, could well lift our nation to unparalleled greatness.

Instead of looking further afield to countries like China to boost our growth, we would do better to tap the acres of diamonds that our own minority communities represent.

Actions rather than words

If Zahid and UMNO want to genuinely show their appreciation for the contributions that Malaysian Chinese have made, they can start by being more supportive of the Chinese schools system.

Image result for china controls  malaysia

Najib depends on Malay support via a Pact with PAS–Hudud

After all, more than any other single factor, it is education that has transformed the Chinese community from a rag-tag bunch of indentured laborers, vegetable gardeners, petty traders, dulang-washers, rickshaw-pullers, nigh-soil carriers and terempoh-makers into a community that can now “carry the nation forward” as Zahid himself put it.

Besides, Chinese schools today are about the only bright spot in our otherwise dismal education system. Unsurprisingly, Chinese schools are the preferred choice of many Malaysian parents no matter their ethnic or religious background.

Those who make the argument that Chinese schools fail to foster racial unity and promote the national identity forget that Chinese schools are today far more multiracial than the so-called national type schools or, for that matter, religious schools.

Would that more Malaysians kids, particularly those from our floundering Indian community, enroll in Chinese schools.

It is a shame, therefore, that the Education Ministry remains so unsupportive of the Chinese schools system withholding even the meager RM50 million in maintenance that was allocated to Chinese schools last year, as was reported in the last few weeks.

As well, the Education Ministry’s refusal to recognize the Unified Examinations Certificate (UEC), something which Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem called “stupid,” makes no sense given that it is already accepted by Australia, Britain, Canada, China, Taiwan, Singapore, France, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States.

It is hard not to conclude, and certainly the perception persists, that the government’s whole approach to Chinese education is mired in racial prejudice more than anything else.

A museum of living history

Ways must also be found to breakdown the racism and prejudice that has become so ingrained in our society and correct the biased and jaundiced ethnic narratives that have been allowed to take root. Too little attention has been given to the contributions and the stories of heroism and hard work of earlier generations of Malaysians of all ethnicities.

To this end, consideration should be given to the establishment of a multicultural history museum, similar to the Canadian Museum of Immigration (Pier 21), that would record for posterity the history and the stories of all of Malaysia’s ethnic communities – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan, Bugis, Javanese, Arab, Thai and others – their origins, their culture, how they came to call Malaysia their home, their struggles, their hopes and dreams and their contributions to making Malaysia the remarkable nation it now is.

It could also be a living museum with digital boards for the descendants to trace their roots, remember their pioneering forefathers and add their own stories of life and citizenship in Malaysia.

It would certainly help all Malaysians to take pride in their history, culture and contributions while remembering that it took all our ethnic communities many long years of hard work, cooperation and sacrifice to make us what we are today, that we all have a stake in this nation for better or worse, and that if we stand together, we can make our nation the envy of all.

Unleashing our greatness as a nation

Instead of hollow gestures given grudgingly when elections are near, UMNO must decide, once and for all, which road it will take when it comes to dealing with Malaysia’s ethnic minorities – the high road to tolerance and respect for diversity that will allow all our ethnic communities to flower or the low road to bigotry that will drive them away and deprive the nation of the wealth, talent and experience that they have to offer.

UMNO can help to truly unleash the power, the strength and the uniqueness of our multiethnic polity or it can try to stifle it at every turn and rule over a diminished nation, a mockery of all that it could be.

My 2017 Wish–Din Merican


January 1, 2017

My 2017 WishGet Rid of Corrupt Najib Razak and all the Rubbish associated with him

Image may contain: 4 people, people standing, suit and indoor

 My Friends and I in Phnom Penh–We feel we can make the world a better and safer place through Education for All

It is only natural for all Malaysians to wish our country well. The reason is simple. We are Malaysia as Malaysia is not wood, brick and mortar. So, we can share the views expressed in the G25 Statement for the New Year. But my friends in G-25 who were once influential public servants are too polite as they have been all their lives. I will be blunt and direct.It is my style since politeness got me nowhere.

I want Najib  Razak removed as Prime Minister of Malaysia and he and all his Minsters and supporters thoroughly investigated, charged and punished for corruption and abuses of power. That means locking him up for life as the Guest of His Majesty The Yang Di-Pertuan Agong.  I like the incumbent Attorney-General (Apandi Ali) , Inspector-General of Police(Khalid Abu Bakar), the Chief Secretary to the Government ( Ali Hamsa), Secretary -General  to the Ministry of Finance (Irwan Siregar) and Bank Negara Governor (Muhammad Ibrahim)  sacked for dereliction of duty and sheer incompetence. These so-called Blue Ocean professionals are a disgrace so are our Judges who have failed to administer justice.  Because of poor leadership and horrible followership,  Malaysia has become a degenerate and soon to be a bankrupt nation.

Getting rid of Najib and everything associated with his toxicity is what we should do in 2017. That is my  New Year wish. I challenge all Malaysians to just do it, if and when Najib decides (and if he dares) to have GE-14 –Din Merican

G25 warns that a weak economy that is unable to generate sufficient income and employment opportunities will be dangerous to society.

COMMENT@www.freemaalysiatoday.com

malaysia-economy1_1

By G25 Secretariat

We are entering 2017 and the one wish that ranks higher than anything else in our hearts and souls for the New Year is that Malaysia will remain a peaceful country with all races living in harmony and respecting our diversity in culture and religion, confident that the rule of law will prevail to protect the rights of all citizens, in accordance with the guarantees under the Federal Constitution.

We hope that 2017 will bring more cheerful news about economic recovery to lift the people’s mood and give them a good feeling about the future. With the various restructuring and transformation programmes which have been introduced in the government, as well as in the corporate and financial sectors, the economy is on a strong footing for recovery as and when the global uncertainties fade away to revive business confidence around the world.

Image result for tan sri mohd sheriff mohd kassim

Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim–Ex Secretary-General, Ministry of Finance and former Managing Director, Khazanah Malaysia Berhad now G25 member.

Malaysia is well aware why a strong economy is important. A weak economy that is not able to generate sufficient income and employment opportunities is dangerous to our society. It will attract the hate politics that use race and religion to destabilise the country, leading to extremists exploiting the situation for their own agenda. That is how one country after another in the Muslim world became failed states. The root cause is their failures to implement the right policies to generate growth, provide for the basic needs of their people and promote tolerance for religious and cultural diversity. Frustrated by the uncaring attitudes of their governments, which prefer to spend more time on religious politicking than on the economy, their educated youth turn to extremism to express their anger. This must not be allowed to happen in our country.

Our founding fathers created the constitution, introduced the Rukunegara and implemented the New Economic Policy to ensure Malaysia achieve rapid economic growth as this is fundamental for social progress and national unity. In every five-year development plan document, since the introduction of the NEP in 1971, there is a very strong emphasis on the link between economic growth and national unity. Thanks to our capable leaders, the country has developed so fast that we have graduated from a low-income country to becoming a high income country soon, a remarkable achievement by any standards. Economic development has brought stability to the country. Although much remains to be done in achieving the aspirations in the Rukunegara, we can be proud that we have built the economic foundation to strengthen our prospects for achieving national unity.

Image result for Kamil Jaafar

G25’s Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar–Ex-Secretary General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Wisma Putra).

The challenge for the country is to sustain the economic progress that has been achieved and make it more inclusive so as to win public confidence and support for the government’s development efforts. Inclusivity means recognising the rights of the lower-income groups for a bigger share of the national wealth and providing economic justice for all races. It also means tolerance for an open society with rights and freedoms for citizens to voice their disagreements with the government and to hold it accountable for its actions.

The government has adopted inclusive development strategies in its economic planning and in the annual budget. It is spending huge amounts of money and borrowing heavily to finance its development programmes for growth and equitable distribution among all segments of society. In doing so, it should be transparent in the management of the country’s finances so as not to repeat the recent scandals that have rocked business sentiments in the country and damaged its reputation as a well-governed country. In this regard, it is essential that Parliament, the judiciary and the institutions of law and order be empowered to provide the checks and balance in ensuring that good governance is restored at all levels of government and that those found guilty of corruption and unethical behaviour be brought to justice without fear or favour.

Image result for tan sri mohd sheriff mohd kassimDato’Anwar Fazal–Penang’s Famous and admired Civil Society Activist cum Environmentalist and G25 Member.

The government should move with the times to embrace civil society and a free media as partners in development. This will put our country as the best model in the Muslim world for making constitutional democracy meaningful to the people, transcending over race, culture and religion to create a united nation. With all races sharing a common destiny of economy development and social justice under a vibrant democracy, Malaysia can look forward to a bright future.

With these words, we wish all Malaysians a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

G25 is a movement of eminent Malay moderates.

Mahathir –A Malay Leader of Paradoxes and Contradictions


December 25, 2016

Mahathir –A  Malay Leader of Paradoxes and Contradictions

S. Thayaparan@www.malaysiakini.com

“I’m a realist, I do what I can do, if I can’t do, I don’t.”

De facto opposition leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad

What if I said that Malays have a lazy, rent-seeking culture, relying on political and social influence to gain wealth and unable to retain power despite all their special privileges? Would this be wrong? Would this be racist? Would this be seditious?

How about if former Prime Minister and now de facto opposition leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad said this? Would it still be “racist”? Would this be considered some sort of truth telling? Would it make a difference when he said this last week or when he was prime minister of this country?

More than a decade ago, in an UMNO General Assembly speech –Amanat Presiden (which also coincided with a celebration of sorts – 21 years in office), the former prime minister engaged in some “realist” assessment of the Malay community he had led for over two decades.

As reported by Malaysiakini, he claimed – “If today they (Malays) are colonised, there is no guarantee they will have the capacity to oppose the colonialists.”

The Ex-Premier said Malays had failed because they were lazy and sought the easy way out by reselling their shares, licences and contracts to non-Malays.

“They cannot be patient, cannot wait a little, they want to be rich this very moment… no work is done other than to be close to people with influence and authority in order to get something,After selling and getting the cash, they come back to ask for more,”” he said.

Therefore, there is a rather bizarre logic in his thinking when he said that he had no regrets about stifling dissent in young Malay people during his tenure. Bizarre because the former prime minister has never been afraid of using the stereotype of the Malay community as a means of galvanising support.

And this extends to the other communities as well. Well by “others”, I really mean the Chinese community because as we all know the Indian community is absent from the discourse. In the same speech at the 2002 UMNO General Assembly, he also referenced the Chinese community – the very community that UMNO has always demonised as a threat to Malay hegemony but in reality, meant they were perceived as a threat against UMNO hegemony.

He said, “If we take out the Chinese and all that they have built and own, there will be no small or big towns in Malaysia, there will be no business and industry, there will be no funds for the subsidies, support and facilities for the Malays. Learn from the Chinese.”

Only Mahathir could balance such contradictions, playing the racial card against communities, including the one UMNO claims to represent. Which is why in Mahathir’s thinking there is really no reason why he should not be standing shoulder to shoulder with his former opponents in an attempt to bring down the Najib Abdul Razak regime.

He really does not care what political pundits, who seek to remind people of what he did during his tenure, say because he knows that he then enjoyed the support of the majority of Malaysians and he did this using the kind of realpolitik that oppositional parties during his regime did not grasp or were uninterested in learning.

While some opposition supporters blather on about “truth and conscience” but offer no real evidence that these form the desideratum for oppositional forces in this country, the former Prime Minister has no problem twisting the facts on the ground or contorting social and economic realities to fit his narratives.

A clear example of this would be when in an interview, he acknowledged that discrimination was part of the system but that there were communities who thrived in spite of it – “The Chinese in Malaysia have no special rights, they experience discrimination. But they are more successful than us.”

This is exactly the system a Gerakan political operative was talking about when he mocked the opposition for subscribing to the same system as BN. And the same kind of thinking that for years sustained BN which led to the creation of the leviathan which in the Najib regime. We get the world we deserve.

Slaying sacred cows

And please keep in mind that during Mahathir’s tenure, UMNO defined oppositional racial preoccupations because the slaying of UMNO sacred cows were the very definition (and still is) of any kind of egalitarian agenda that would truly “save Malaysia”. All those other so-called racial preoccupations, religious, social and economic are a direct result of the UMNO agenda and the mendacious ‘social contract’.

However, since the short-term goal of saving Malaysia means removing Najib, the real powerbrokers, those invested in the system – and they are not only Malays – would like to keep the gravy train moving, only with a different railroad engineer.

Unlike some oppositional voices who pontificate about “principles” or at least attempt to control the discourse, demonising those who dredge up so-called ancient history and engaging in victimhood to facilitate political expediency, the former prime minister is clear about the purpose of his alliance with the oppositional forces in this country.

As he told me when I brought up the trust deficit when it comes to opposition supporters and his new role as oppositional leader – “If Najib is there, the opposition will suffer. If Najib is there, even UMNO will suffer, the whole country will suffer. I think the opposition is not supporting me, they are interested in removing Najib. I have the same interest. It is okay to work together – only on that issue, not on other issues.”

Furthermore, he has had no problems claiming that he would slay Malay sacred cows for the benefit of the community – “I cannot predict how much longer this (affirmative action) will go on but at the moment, we are trying out… some kind of experiment… by withdrawing some of the protection in education,” he said. “We want to see whether they will be able to withstand the competition or not. Obviously if they prove themselves able to, we can think of reducing further some of the protection.”

This was always the stick component of the carrot-and-stick approach, and the former prime minster knew very well that affirmative action programmes had a deleterious effect on the Malay community.

Moreover, when he hinted that he would slay sacred cows, he was greeted with rapturous applause as some sort of truth sayer by the very same UMNO who now endorse the Najib regime’s attempt to further consolidate power and engage with Mahathir’s sworn enemy, PAS.

But of course, now that the Malay community is fractured and the Malay opposition needs to reassure the Malay community, all those special privileges, all those affirmative action programmes, everything that the former Prime Minister said was holding back the Malay community, are off the table.

The only thing that discerning Malaysians have to take away from any of this is that Mahathir acknowledges that he failed to change the Malay community – “What else (can I do) … I have tried to be an example, tried to teach, scolded, cried and even prayed. (But) I have failed. I have failed to achieve the most important thing – how to change the Malays.”

Image result for The Malays are lazy--Mahathir quote

The Question we must ask ourselves–Does Mahathir what he says?

When asked if there was anything he would do differently, he claimed that he wanted to be a “normal” UMNO member because he could not do anything for the Malays. Well, he is not even a member now and he is the power behind a nascent Malay power structure.

Image result for The Malays are lazy--Mahathir quote

The big question is, will he fail again. More importantly, is changing the Malays really the agenda of the game for him or anyone else.

Malaysia: Why Democratic Change Has Not Been Possible


December 16,2016

Malaysia: Why Democratic Change Has Not Been Possible

UMNO General Assembly– A Circus of Unchecked Racism


December 15, 2016

UMNO General AssemblyA Circus of Unchecked Racism

by Dennis Ignatius

The low road to bigotry and parochialism

Image result for gandhi quotes

Don’t be afraid of UMNO–Stand Up Against Racism and Religious Bigots. They have ruined the Malay spirit by corrupting the minds of young Malays.

Instead of using the occasion to speak to an anxious nation worried about its future or demonstrate that it has the will and the capacity to rise to greatness again, delegates took the low road to bigotry and parochialism.

Party conferences often provide an insight into the soul of a political party – its mindset, its ideas, its mood, its convictions, the quality of its leaders. For many Malaysians, the insights that the recently concluded UMNO General Assembly provided was profoundly disturbing.

Image result for Najib the Corrupter

Instead of using the occasion to speak to an anxious nation worried about its future or demonstrate that it has the will and the capacity to rise to greatness again, delegates took the low road to bigotry and parochialism.

In so doing, they reminded the nation yet again that theirs is a party with no real solutions, no great ideals, no enduring principles and no inspiring leadership. 

Unchecked racism

In a nation brought up to believe in diversity and multiculturalism, even if only nominally, it was shocking to see so much unchecked racism on display.

Image result for jamal yunos ikan bakar

A Malay who has been corrupted by UMNO

One delegate, for example, fumed that a Chinese is heading a government-linked company. “GLCs belong to us, but why are we giving them (top positions) away to other races,” she asked. (Interestingly, she made no mention about the non-Malay who helms 1MDB.)

Another delegate lamented that the Transport Ministry is currently headed by a non-Malay and equated that with a loss of opportunities for Malays.

Yet another referenced Indian attacks in the 11th century, alleged Chinese collusion with the Portuguese in the 16th century, and Thai attacks in the 18thcentury to stress that Indians, Chinese and Thais should not be ungrateful for being allowed to live in Malaysia despite their earlier treachery.

And there were threats of collective punishment too. The Chinese were warned that there could be serious consequences, including the closure of Chinese schools, if they continued to reject UMNO-BN. Penangites, for their part, were cautioned that their international airport might be moved out of the state if they continued to support the opposition.

The most risible of all, however, was the claim that non-Muslims oppose hudud because they want to keep the Malay-Muslim community in a sinful state, weaken them and eventually take over the country. I wonder if that particular delegate understood the implications of his own statement – that somehow, despite the oft-repeated claim that Malaysia is already an internationally respected Islamic state, Muslims here are still “living in sin.”

Meanwhile, one fawning senior delegate went so far as to even proclaim that the party leader has been chosen by God, that he has some sort of divine mandate to rule. Coincidentally, it came on the same day that the President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, who claimed to be God’s “preferred candidate” lost his re-election bid. Inscrutable are the ways of the Almighty indeed.

And then there was the Red shirts leader – race-baiter extraordinaire – receiving the adulations of admiring delegates. Clearly, he is a hero to the UMNO crowd despite their protestations to the contrary, and that too speaks volumes of the prevailing sentiment in UMNO.

Reckless, dangerous and injurious

Image result for raja petra kamarudin

Raja Petra Kamaruddin with DAP’s Hannah Yeoh–Now an UMNO apologist

UMNO apologists would, of course, have us believe that these racist sentiments and statements were merely the ramblings of a few overly-excited members or that such rhetoric was intended only for internal consumption, to fire up the troops, to promote greater cohesion within the party.

If that was the objective, it was reckless, dangerous and deeply offensive – a sign of just how desperate they are.

Image result for najib razak grand poobah

Besides, racism is racism, after all, no matter how it is packaged or practised. Any party that seeks to unite its members or seeks to justify its uniqueness or claims a special right to rule by demonizing other racial groups is a racist party that ought to be condemned by all Malaysians.

In any case, the party leadership, far from disassociating itself from the bigotry that surfaced at the assembly, appears to have set the very tone for it.

The DAP (which as Wan Saiful Wan Jan of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs pointed out, with some justification, is merely a code word for Chinese) was singled out and pilloried as anti-Malay, anti-Islam, anti-monarchy and anti-constitution. In addition, it was argued that if the DAP came to power, Malay institutions like MARA, FELDA, RISDA and FELCRA would be dismantled while Malay fishermen, farmers and smallholders would be abandoned.

Worse still was the highly inflammatory claim that Islam itself would be ridiculed if the DAP came to power. It was pure fearmongering and race-baiting, calculated to sow religious discord and hate.

It didn’t seem to matter much that none of the above allegations have any merit. It didn’t matter that other Malay-led parties like PKR, PAS, Amanah and Bersatu are also deeply critical of UMNO and just as determined to defeat it at the next elections. And it didn’t matter that the DAP by itself has about the same chance as a snowball in hell of taking over the country.

A national embarassment

By singling out only the DAP the way they did, UMNO leaders cast Malaysian politics as an existential struggle between Malays and Chinese. In such a scenario, there can be little room for compromise, for give and take. It promotes a zero-sum game of politics. It divides the nation into warring camps perpetually at each other’s throats. And it reinforces racial and religious bigotry as the dominant narrative.

Moreover, it scorns the many decent Malaysians of all ethnicities who cherish their diversity, who live, practice their faith and work together in peace. Unsurprisingly, many, Malays included, were simply and rightly embarrassed by what transpired at the general assembly.

Some reports also suggest that more thoughtful UMNO members were themselves disappointed at the paucity of serious policy debate and disappointed by the tone set by the party leadership.

For these reasons, UMNO’s focus on scaremongering and race-baiting might well prove to be counterproductive in the long run. By recklessly playing up racial issues, the party has lost credibility. By ignoring the critical issues facing the nation, it has drawn yet further scrutiny to its own dismal record in power.

Its up to the opposition now

After this general assembly, UMNO would be hard pressed to convince the nation that it has not turned its back on racial and religious diversity in favour of purely sectarian politics.

BN parties, already struggling to remain relevant, have also been dealt a fatal blow. Non-Malays in particular will find it difficult to trust political parties that are associated with the very party that despises and denigrates them as an existential threat, as interlopers and enemies of the faith.

Malaysia’s future as a secular multiracial democracy now rests with the leaders of PKR, DAP, Bersatu and Amanah.

If they cannot forge at this critical juncture in the life of our nation a united opposition with at least a minimal platform that respects racial and religious diversity, that upholds the constitution, that promises good governance and respect for the rights of all, then we are well and truly damned.

 

Najib’s Vocal Defense of the Rohingya Backfire lacks credibility


December 6, 2016

Najib’s Vocal Defense of the Rohingya Backfire lacks credibility, given his domestic human rights record

http://thediplomat.com/2016/12/will-najibs-vocal-defense-of-the-rohingya-backfire/

Image result for Najib and The Rohingnya Protest

While Najib’s remarks at the Stadium Titiwangsa in Kuala Lumpur drew strong support from the Rohingya community in Malaysia, and marked the first time a Southeast Asian leader has condemned the Myanmar state’s actions in such strong terms, they should be treated with some caution.

A cynical reading of Najib’s address would see him reaching for the moral high ground at a time of immense domestic pressure. These, after all, have not been quiet months for Najib, who has battled corruption allegations over the 1MDB scandal since early 2015 – and has just emerged from a series of tense and highly visible protests led by BERSIH, a wide-reaching campaign for clean government. Despite winning a state election in Sarawak earlier this year, Najib’s ruling National Front has struggled to regain its former popularity, and was recently faced with allegations of human rights violations (from Laurent Meillan, acting representative of the UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia, no less) over the arrests of several activists at the Bersih rallies.

Image result for Asean and the Rohingya crisis

In this light, there is little doubt that Najib’s statements are at least partly designed to shore up his human rights record and regain much-needed political capital. State violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar has taken place since at least 2012, and it’s hard to overlook the particular timing of Najib’s unprecedented response. In a pointed statement ahead of the rally, the President’s Office in Myanmar called it a “calculated political decision to win the support of the Malaysian public.’”

But this was not simply the case of the wrong person saying the right thing at the wrong time. Najib’s statements reflect several political dilemmas that lie at the heart of the refugee question in Southeast Asia, and three elements of his speech deserve closer examination. First, it is worth noting that he chose to frame the issue with a moral vocabulary that other Southeast Asian leaders have, thus far, kept at arm’s length. He emphatically referred to the abuses as “genocide,” and called them, “by definition, ethnic cleansing.” With a characteristic rhetorical flourish, he asked the crowd: “Do they want me to close my eyes? Want me to be mute? […] What’s the point of a Nobel Peace Prize?”

Such statements, which not only imply that he is acting on a universal duty of response – and holding Suu Kyi to the global ideals that are seen to underwrite her Nobel Prize – are a deliberate departure from the position, long held among Southeast Asian policymakers, that regional and local values hold sway in Southeast Asian contexts. Building on the “Asian Values” discourse, Southeast Asian leaders  and diplomats have previously stressed the region’s “incommensurable differences from the West” as reasons to question the universality of human rights. Najib’s statements suggest a clear pivot away from the default Southeast Asian position, and besides voicing indirect criticism at his own region’s lackluster human rights record, they may also imply that the global community (and the support it can offer) seems somewhat closer to Najib at this point than his immediate neighbors.

Image result for Asean and the Rohingya crisis

The Rohingya Issue is an ASEAN and International Challenge

Second, Najib’s comments on the ASEAN Charter raise difficult questions about regional cooperation in a time of fraught relations. In response to the Myanmar government’s statement – which framed the planned protests as an external intervention in its internal affairs, and reminded Malaysia to adhere to ASEAN principles of noninterference –Najib said: “There is an article in the ASEAN charter that says ASEAN must uphold human rights. Are they blind? Don’t just interpret things as you choose.” In any case, he added, “this is not intervention. This is universal human values.”

These remarks come in the wake of palpable friction among ASEAN members over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, and both the United States’ and China’s increasing involvement in the region. Noninterference by regional and global powers alike has been a core tenet of ASEAN’s institutional stability since its inception, and has been credited for promoting peaceful relations in Southeast Asia especially since the end of the Cold War. However, Najib’s comments have flagged up the uncomfortable truth that this insistence on traditional state sovereignty may be less and less tenable in the present global context, and especially with regards to transnational migration. From Malaysia’s perspective, with more than 56,000 Rohingya refugees already registered by the UN refugee agency within its borders, the question of what constitutes “external interference” seems especially urgent. Najib may have a point: that ASEAN’s ability to effectively tackle regional issues is not necessarily helped by its members’ sensitivities to others’ incursions on their turf.

Finally, Najib’s focus on the “root cause” of refugee flight – Myanmar’s internal abuses against the Rohingya – successfully presents the crisis as a national issue, and sidesteps the glaring evidence that countless refugees are trafficked across the region in horrific conditions, and fall victim to the combined effects of patchy law enforcement, organized crime, and Southeast Asia’s insatiable appetite for cheap labor. Many end up in Malaysia and Thailand, or in refugee camps in Indonesia; because none of these countries are signatory to the Refugee Convention, few enjoy the legal right to work or corresponding protections against abusive employers. In late 2015, the discovery of the mass graves of human trafficking victims in Malaysia brought the regional scale of the issue to global attention.

Najib’s call for Myanmar to cease crackdowns against the Rohingya, while valuable in itself, swept this wider incrimination of Southeast Asian governments, including his own, under the carpet. More than a choice of political convenience, it was perhaps a deliberate decision to downplay transnational aspects of the refugee question, and – by drawing on regional and global perceptions of Myanmar as a pariah state in transition – place the responsibility for regional crisis within the already-tied hands of an unstable administration. While raising his human rights credentials vis-à-vis his neighbors, thus, Najib simultaneously exempted them from adopting a concerted response.

For those concerned – as we should all be – about the increasingly dire situation facing the Rohingya in Southeast Asia, Najib’s decision to take the stage with firm words against the events in Myanmar offer limited consolation. Beyond achieving domestic political motives, his remarks have sharpened the existing tensions between global and local values, ideas of regional integration and national sovereignty, and questions of transnational and national responsibility. At best, we can hope that Najib continues to place valuable political capital behind his rhetoric. At worst, the ideals he has promoted may well be eroded by a failure to follow up with policy. It would not be the first time.

Theophilus Kwek is currently reading for a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University. He has served as co-editor of the Journal of Politics and Constitutional Studies, publications director of OxPolicy, and vice president of the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group.