Malaysia’s Grand Poobah’s Chequebook Diplomacy in Washington DC


September 15, 2017

Malaysia’s Grand Poobah’s Chequebook Diplomacy in Washington can be strategic, admits Ambassador Emeritus Dennis Ignatius

www,malaysiakini.com

 

COMMENT | Prime Minister Najib Razak’s recent White House soirée has brought Malaysia an unprecedented level of scrutiny and negative publicity. All major US newspapers, for example, unanimously panned the visit, highlighting the inappropriateness of inviting someone linked to an ongoing Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation (into 1MDB-related money-laundering charges).

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Najib’s Chequebook Diplomacy–Helping America Great Again impresses Donald J. Trump

It is a measure of just how far his reputation has fallen internationally after once having been feted everywhere as a reformist and moderate Muslim democrat. It is also a reminder of how little all of this really matters in a world dominated by realpolitik and the pursuit of strategic advantage.

Certainly, Najib himself didn’t appear to lose too much sleep over all the bad press. For him, the visit was clearly about positioning himself for the next elections and burnishing his credentials as a well-respected international leader able to run with some of the most powerful leaders in the world.

Image result for Najib and Trump in Washington DC

Taken together with earlier high-profile meetings with President Xi Jinping, King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the meeting with Trump, as well as Britain’s Theresa May, lends credence to Najib’s narrative that under his stewardship, Malaysia has become “a rising star” and a “global player.”

While the urban crowd and opposition supporters will no doubt shake their heads in disbelief, it will play well with Najib’s rural base, effectively neutralising the 1MDB issue, arguably Najib’s most troublesome political challenge.

Najib’s grand strategy

Beyond the optics and the controversy over 1MDB, the visit also revealed a side to Najib that will surely drive the opposition to further despair: he is proving to be a far better strategist than he’s been given credit for.

He has parlayed the powers of his office and all the levers of state control at his disposal to successfully play off both China and the US to his advantage.

It might be recalled that he deliberately pivoted to China after his falling-out with the Obama Administration.

In Beijing, last year, he complained about foreign meddling, of being treated unfairly, of being lectured to by Western powers. In not so many words, he went on to contemptuously dismiss the US and other Western powers as has-beens with no future in Asia and hinted about a new strategic partnership with China.

It appears that Washington, already alarmed at China’s growing clout in the region, quickly got the message. Washington will now play along to get along.

Furthermore, with a more amoral (some would say unscrupulous) occupant in the White House to do business with, and with Beijing beginning to get too demanding (as witnessed by the unravelling of the Bandar Malaysia deal), Najib might have also seen the need to recalibrate the balance between the US and China.

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Playing the China-US Hedging Game

Better relations with Washington will now give Najib more room to manoeuvre. It will also allow Najib to undercut opposition criticism that he is too close to China.

He has thus put both Washington and Beijing on notice: be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you. It is, in fact, the global application of his domestic political approach: as he once told Chinese Malaysians, “If you show support [for UMNO-BN] we have no problem giving more… if not, difficult lah.”

Though it is still too early to predict how all this will turn out, no other prime minister has displayed such a flair for big power gamesmanship as he.

Buying his way to respectability

In order to demonstrate to both the US and China that they have much to gain both strategically and economically by being supportive of his administration, Najib has resorted to a form of chequebook diplomacy hitherto only used by rich and powerful countries – promising contracts, investments and big-ticket purchases in exchange for support and endorsement.

With China, Najib generously granted PRC corporations billions of ringgit in infrastructure contracts, even favouring PRC contractors over our own.

He has also earned the undying gratitude of President Xi by wholeheartedly embracing the latter’s One Belt One Road (Obor) initiative, dismissing concerns about the viability and lack of transparency of many Obor projects.

And under his watch, Malaysia made its first purchase of defence equipment from China.

In Washington, Najib opened his chequebook once again promising to buy more than RM42 billion in new aircraft for Malaysian Airlines (MAS), RM300 million in fighter jets for the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), and to direct RM12 billion to RM16 billion in new investments from the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and Kazanah Nasional to US infrastructure projects.

He also promised to “persuade” AirAsia to switch from British-made Rolls Royce engines to American-made GE engines.

No doubt, this was all music to Trump’s ears, a small contribution to making American great again.

American officials, of course, deny the visit will have any impact on the DOJ investigations but does anybody really believe that Najib would have made all those expensive promises simply to make Trump feel good?

After this, expect European and Japanese salesmen-politicians to come knocking at our doors with hat in hand and high praise for Najib on their lips. For so long as there’s money to be made, inconvenient issues like human rights and good governance will not be allowed to get in the way.

Cost of Najib’s generosity

The downside, however, is that Malaysia’s already beleaguered opposition, as well as its human rights defenders, can now expect no sympathy or moral support from the US and other democracies.

Najib has neatly turned the tables on his detractors; far from isolating him internationally, he has now marginalised them at home.

Worse still, the nation will have to pay a heavy price for Najib’s extravagant chequebook diplomacy.  We are already heavily indebted to China; now we will be driven into even greater debt with billions of new borrowing to pay for Najib’s Washington promises.That the government of a cash-strapped developing country, which has had to impose a new tax (GST) on its own hard-pressed and long-suffering populace just to stay afloat, would offer such an extravagant economic boost to one of the richest economies in the world is both unprecedented and mind-boggling.

DENNIS IGNATIUS, a former Malaysian ambassador, firmly believes that we should put our trust not in the leadership of politicians but in the sanctity of great institutions – our secular and democratic constitution, a democratically-elected parliament, an independent judiciary, a free press and a government fully accountable to the people. He blogs here.

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ASEAN Chair and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte to meet Donald Trump


May 1, 2017

Today's WorldView

by Ishaan Tharoor

ASEAN Chair and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte to meet Donald Trump in Washington DC

Over the weekend, the White House announced that President Trump had invited President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for a visit to Washington, following what was deemed a “very friendly conversation” over the phone between Trump and his counterpart in Manila.

Despite the close ties between the United States and the Philippines, the move surprised Trump’s critics and allies. In his 10 months in power, Duterte has become one of Asia’s most controversial leaders. He has presided over a vicious drug war that has seen thousands killed by extrajudicial hit squads — encouraged, say critics, by Duterte’s explicit orders. Last week, a Filipino lawyer filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court, accusing Duterte and 11 other Filipino officials of mass murder and crimes against humanity. (Duterte has shrugged off the filing and said it will not deter his campaign.)

The complaint takes into account the killings of 9,400 people stretching back to 1988, when Duterte became the Mayor of the southern city of Davao and began making his reputation as a tough guy willing to do anything to crack down on crime. “The situation in the Philippines reveals a terrifying, gruesome and disastrous continuing commission of extrajudicial executions or mass murder,” read the complaint. An estimated 8,000 people have been killed since Duterte became President last summer (2016).

None of this seemed to faze the White House. In the readout of the phone call, the only mention of Duterte’s astonishing record of violence seemed to be a positive one. It said that the two leaders “discussed the fact that the Philippines is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries around the world.”

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus did his best to evade the thrust of the question when asked on ABC’s “This Week” if human rights were no longer a concern for the Trump Administration.

“Absolutely not,” responded Priebus. “It doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter, but what it does mean is that the issues facing us, developing out of North Korea, are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get.”

Mourners carry the coffin of a person shot dead by unidentified gunmen north of Manila on April 8. (Francis R. Malasig/European Pressphoto Agency)

Mourners carry the coffin of a person shot dead by unidentified gunmen north of Manila on April 8. (Francis R. Malasig/European Pressphoto Agency)

The importance of securing strong Filipino support in dealing with North Korea is highly debatable. But administration officials indicated that the overture to Duterte may be part of a broader and much-needed mending of fences.

“The White House statement could be seen as implicit support, but perhaps is better understood as offering common ground for engaging with Duterte,” said Natalie Sambhi, a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Center in Australia, to The Post.

U.S.-Filipino relations took a turn for the worse last year, Duterte’s first in office and the final one for Barack Obama.

“The relationship between the United States and the Philippines soured under President Barack Obama, who criticized Duterte’s bloody war on drugs,” reported my colleagues. “Not one to take criticism lightly, Duterte snapped at Obama on a few occasions, telling him to ‘go to hell’ and, at one point, using the Tagalog phrase for ‘son of a bitch’ or ‘son of a whore’ when addressing the then-U. S. president. In September, Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte, whom he called a ‘colorful guy.‘ ”

(Obama is hardly the sole target of Duterte’s notoriously salty language: He used similar words for Pope Francis, too, and has sparked global headlines with rape jokes, admiring references to Adolf Hitler, boasts about mass killing and an insistence at one point that he would eat the livers of suspected terrorists. Even Trump was on the receiving end: “Donald Trump is a bigot, I am not,” Duterte told the Associated Press last year.)

The tensions saw Duterte publicly drift toward China. In a speech in Beijing last year, he told his Chinese audience that “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” He has inked billions of dollars of deals with China, Japan and other countries in the region. As my colleague Emily Rauhala wrote earlier this year, Duterte is playing an opportunistic game, wooing all whom he can as part of a new “independent” foreign policy. But, as Rauhala noted, his efforts fly in the face of public opinion and the country’s political establishment, which largely backs the United States and is wary of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.

Duterte is shown the way by Chinese President Xi Jinping before a signing ceremony in Beijing in 2016. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

Duterte is shown the way by Chinese President Xi Jinping before a signing ceremony in Beijing in 2016. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

The other lens through which to view Trump’s invitation to Duterte is that of the American President’s apparent penchant for strongmen. While the European Union called for an investigation into the referendum last month that conferred vast new powers upon Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump was the first Western leader to congratulate Erdogan on his victory. He also hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, a coup-plotting former army man whose regime carried out a ruthless crackdown on Islamists and dissidents. No matter the geopolitical scenario, Trump seems to have a genuine affinity for men of action who brook little dissent.

“If Duterte were not immune as Head of State, he would be barred from admission into the United States,” noted John Sifton, the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, in an emailed statement. “Existing U.S. laws and policy prohibit visas and entry to persons against whom credible allegations of gross human rights abuses have been made.”

Sifton goes on: “The invitation is an abomination, just as Trump’s invitation to Sissi was an abomination, and although his personality traits would seem to make it impossible, Trump should be ashamed of himself. By effectively endorsing Duterte’s murderous ‘war on drugs,’ Trump has made himself morally complicit in future killings.”

Malaysia-China Relations: Not China but we are the financially irresponsible and reckless nation


April 4, 2017

Malaysia-China Relations: Not China but we are the financially irresponsible and reckless nation

by P. Gunasegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

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Malaysia’s sudden, new-found amour with China in a plethora of business deals worth hundreds of billions, coming in the wake of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal where RM40 billion is already at risk or  wasted, is tremendously worrying.

The huge amount of China borrowings that will accompany such deals, with delayed payment for up to seven years in some cases, will put the country in grave economic danger in the future as many of the infrastructure projects are not viable.

If some of the projects do not raise enough cash flow to start repaying the massive borrowings by the time payments are due, a great strain will be imposed on the country’s financial position and may even result in it becoming unable to meet its obligations, leading to default.

Already, the involvement of China state-owned firms in 1MDB-related projects such as buying power assets and taking stakes in property development ventures have raised legitimate fears that some of these may involve quid pro quo arrangements in other deals which may benefit Chinese firms.

In other words, putting it bluntly, Malaysia may be giving China plum deals in return for help in covering the hole of over RM30 billion in 1MDB. More on that later but first, here’s a list of some mega deals made.

1. Purchase of 1MDB’s power assets for RM9.83 billion cash in November 2015.

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The purchase was made by China General Nuclear or CGN, putting power assets which were purchased from Malaysian private hands into a China state company. That rubbishes any claim that 1MDB was a strategic development company. The price was considered inflated, leading to speculation that other projects will go to China to compensate for this.

2. Purchase of 1MDB land for RM7.4 billion.

Less than two months later, on New Year’s Eve in 2015, 1MDB sold a 60% controlling interest in Bandar Malaysia to a consortium comprising Iskandar Waterfront Holdings and China Railway Engineering Corporation, a China state company. The latter holds a 40% stake in the venture. This is a highly questionable deal surrendering control of one of 1MDB’s two flagship projects to others, including a China company, when there is enough local property development expertise. It lends credence to there being a quid pro quo deal with China.

3. China is expected to get high-speed rail project costing RM40-80 billion.

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The high-speed rail project between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore is expected to go to a China firm despite international tenders being planned. Interestingly, the Kuala Lumpur terminus is at Bandar Malaysia.

4. The RM55 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project announced in November 2016.

China will both fund and build this project which has a seven-year delayed payment provision. Essentially a double-tracking project linking the east coast states with the west, there has been no economic viability study on it. There are genuine fears that the construction cost is terribly overstated and it is unviable.

5. A proposed RM200 billion port development in Port Klang.

China is supposedly in the running for this massive project if it does see the light of day. This is a long-term project which again may be unnecessary considering the number of ports being developed concurrently now.

6.The RM42 billion Melaka Gateway project in September 2016.

This includes four islands – three man-made, in a RM30 billion deal with China companies – a port, a bulk-and-break terminal, ship building and ship repair, mixed development, shopping complexes, ferry terminals, marina and so on. Where is the demand for these going to come from?

7. The RM400 billion gross development value Forest City off Johor.

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This massive development on four man-made islands, which may eventually house 700,000 people, is being developed by a China company, effectively in a joint venture with the Johor Sultan. Considering that it is a property development which local players could easily have undertaken, what is the rationale for bringing in yet a Chinese company into this?

Not for altruistic reasons

There are more. Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, after a visit to China in November, came back with memoranda of agreement for RM144 billion worth of projects. That list includes ECRL and the Melaka Gateway projects but not the others, which means there are several more projects worth tens of billions of ringgit.

What is very alarming about these projects is their dubious economic value, leading to strong suspicion that they could well be related to covering a hole of over RM30 billion in 1MDB – the Auditor-General’s Report on 1MDB reportedly says US$7 billion could not be accounted for.

In fact, the Financial Times of the UK reported in December that 1MDB is preparing to make a repayment with Chinese assistance to Abu Dhabi’s state-owned fund in settling a US$6.5 billion (RM28.6 billion) dispute over an alleged breach of contract.

The move to begin repaying what 1MDB owes Abu Dhabi’s International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) was confirmed by two people familiar with the matter, the FT said.

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Najib Razak and Big Momma

China has been approached as a source of funds for 1MDB, the FT said, citing three people with knowledge of the matter, one of whom said Malaysia would swap assets for financing.

China is of course not doing all of this for altruistic reasons but to further its own interests. First, it aims to get work for its companies and sometimes its own people – it sends in its own workers for many projects.

Two, if countries are unable to repay their debts, then more assets will have to be handed over to China and the affected countries become ever more indebted and linked to China in other ways, furthering China’s aim of strategic and military influence, as this article titled ‘China’s debt-trap diplomacy’ eloquently points out.

As a small country, Malaysia has been rather adept at playing the role of the nimble kijang or deer which keeps itself from getting crushed when elephants fight. But 1MDB’s problems may be leading us down a path which is even more dangerous than the garden path the so-called strategic development company led us up on earlier.

P GUNASEGARAM says throwing good money after bad is a lousy deal which only the desperate make. Email: t.p.guna@gmail.com.

Malaysia: Impact of defunding Public Universities


January 24, 2017

Malaysia: Impact of defunding Public Universities

by Dr. Lee Hwok Aun
Published in The Edge, January  16, 2017

Malaysia’s public universities are headed for troubled waters and it is unclear whether our policy makers and executers are even on the lookout. The university rankings business is a debatable one, but I bring it up here because it is the government’s ultimate performance benchmark, and recent developments underscore the detachment of officialdom from the institutions’ woes.–Dr. Lee Hwok-Aun

Image result for Defunding Malaysian Public UniversitiesMalaysia’s Finance Minister Najib Razak–Presiding over a soon to be financially insolvent nation

Malaysia’s public universities are headed for troubled waters and it is unclear whether our policy makers and executers are even on the lookout. The university rankings business is a debatable one, but I bring it up here because it is the government’s ultimate performance benchmark, and recent developments underscore the detachment of officialdom from the institutions’ woes.

The University of Malaya’s rise to #133 on the QS World Universities score sheet in 2016, its best position ever on this rankings scheme, was greeted on campus with surprise, nonchalance, and a dash of despair. The sentiments are distinct from previous years. When UM inched up the rankings, from #156 in 2012 to #146 in 2015, these small and steady gains brought relief, and a bigger hop from #167 in 2011 to #156 in 2012 infused a sense of accomplishment. Research grants were quite abundant, there was support for internationalization, for recruiting and retaining talent. Universities were basically supported, we seemed to be doing things better; improvement in the rankings made sense.

Then came the funding cuts. Federal budget allocations for universities were slashed by 12% in 2015, 15% in 2016, and 19% in 2017. UM took the biggest hit in 2016, when it suffered a 27% shortfall from the previous year. And here lies the trigger of despair. This defunding spree, coinciding with a major leap in the rankings, might be taken as vindication, and perhaps embolden further budgetary constriction.

The government will be perilously mistaken to do so. Continual aggressive defunding brings three significant deficits on Malaysia’s public universities.

First, a personnel deficit. Severe fund-slashing compels severe cost-cutting, shock therapy induces desperate measures. Contract staff are one of the first on the chopping block because the funds for this specific category of employees have dried up. Many contracts have not been renewed, and they are not substituted with allocations for part-time instructors or new recruits. Financial dispensability, however, does not equate with importance to core activity and service. Numerous academic departments count on contract academic staff to teach core courses and produce research and publications.

As contract staff are ushered out, the same workload gets distributed among the remaining staff, increasing their burden and contributing to the second deficit, in morale. Academics will likely see burdens increased, while concerns toward the funding cuts are typically dismissed by invoking the seemingly non-negotiable policy of reducing public subsidization of university expenditure. The Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025 outlined new funding formulae, with performance-based allocations and per student funding as appealing new features. This formulae is to be rolled out on a “gradual”, “gate-staged” basis.

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ISEAS-Yusuf Ishak Institute Senior Fellow, Dr Lee Hwok-Aun

“Performance funding” is especially contentious. If fixated on numbers and not adequately anchored to the public interest and long-term objectives, as seems to be the case, there is every potential for the system to be gamed, for example, by lowering academic rigour to boost completion rates and student satisfaction, or pursuing quantity over quality of research. Given these complexities, one would expect the policy to be agonizingly deliberated, and gradual and systematic if implemented.

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But Universiti Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia have already, for 2016 and 2017 respectively, been administered huge funding cuts of 27% and 31%. Why? Enrolments have not fallen precipitously, nor have the universities massively scaled down operations. Have they performed so badly? The lack of coherence and transparency in the targeting of funding cuts, compounded by drained research grant reservoirs, are disconcerting, and cannot be good for morale in the academic community.

Some initiatives with good potential risk derailment. At the University of Malaya, to allow for academics to play to their relative interests and strengths, different career tracks – focused on research or teaching – are also being rolled out. But in the hasty pursuit of extracting more output from less resources, research track targets have been made frighteningly difficult to hit. Few select that option, and some – the more diligent, productive, conscientious ones – have been forced to take it against their wishes, to the detriment of their morale.

What of the next generation of academics? Policy brims with rhetoric of talent development, and reference to the Higher Education Talent Roadmap, but the Malaysian approach diverges from the practices in recognized institutions. Globally leading universities excel by attracting talent, then trusting them, through their dynamism, creativity and self-motivation, to research, teach and contribute to public knowledge with light monitoring. Malaysian universities are increasingly inclined to do the opposite – micromanaging rewards for formulaic outcomes, distrusting the industry and capability of staff, monitoring for compliance and resisting change, which seriously risk repelling and losing talents that are drawn to institutions that safeguard trust, autonomy and freedom.

Which brings us to a third deficit that can grow as public financing shrinks: our international profile. Malaysia’s public universities, having made inroads in internationalization, could see these gains reversed. The public universities are subject to the public services employment scheme, including the rule that a non-citizen cannot be hired on a permanent basis. All non-Malaysian academics are on contract, predominantly short term. The more contracts are not renewed, the less international our profile. Will Malaysia’s public higher learning institutions, especially the research universities, become more domestic, less global? That might happen, and if so, our presence on the world academic stage will fade. A specific recruitment scheme for public universities, promoting secure employment of international academic staff, is worth considering.

The presumption that rebalancing of university funding sources and reducing of government subsidy necessitates budget cuts also warrants scrutiny. These can be achieved by maintaining the federal allocations, while facilitating growth in other sources. There is currently a baffling downward spiral and multiple moving targets. Both the share of government subsidies and the overall expenditure of universities are falling – why?

Suppose a university currently spends RM100 million and receives RM90 million from government, in line with the current 90% subsidization rate. Expenditure of RM120 million in ten years would be a reasonable projection. If the government share declines to 70%, then in ten years – a “gradual” rollout as the Blueprint stipulates – the government’s contribution would amount to RM84 million, or basically holding steady, not dropping steeply.

Will the government assess the impact of the funding cuts and reconsider the policy – at least its pace and severity? This will take courage, since reducing public funding has been high on the higher education agenda for a decade, and the government defends the deep cuts apparently as a mark of its resolve.

But at the rate we are cutting funds, it will be impossible to avoid deficits in personnel, morale, and international profile.

Dr. Lee Hwok Aun is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusuf Ishak Institute.

 

2017 — A Thunderous Clash of Politics, Economies and Policies


January 6, 2017

2017 — A Thunderous Clash of Politics, Economies and Policies

Martin Khor is Executive Director of the South Centre, a think tank for developing countries, based in Geneva.

The Paris agreement, which was adopted in December 2015 and which came into force in record time in October 2016 as a demonstration of international concern over climate change, may face a major test and even an existential challenge in 2017, if Trump fulfils his election promise to pull the US out. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS.

The Paris agreement, which was adopted in December 2015 and which came into force in record time in October 2016 as a demonstration of international concern over climate change, may face a major test and even an existential challenge in 2017, if Trump fulfils his election promise to pull the US out. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS.

PENANG, Jan 2 2017 (IPS) – Yet another new year has dawned.   But 2017 will be a year like no other.

There will be a thunderous clash of policies, economies and politics worldwide.   We will therefore be on a roller-coaster ride, and we should prepare for it and not only be spectators on the side-lines in danger of being swept away by the waves.

With his extreme views and bulldozing style, Donald Trump is set to create an upheaval if not revolution in the United States and the world.

He is installing an oil company chief as the Secretary of State, investment bankers in key finance positions, climate sceptics and anti-environmentalists in environmental and energy agencies and an extreme rightwing internet media mogul as his chief strategist

US-China relations, the most important for global stability, could change from big-power co-existence with a careful combination of competition and cooperation, to outright crisis.

Trump, through a phone call with Taiwan’s leader and subsequent remarks, signalled he could withdraw the longstanding US adherence to the One China policy and instead use Taiwan as a bargaining card when negotiating economic policies with China.  The Chinese perceive this as an extreme provocation.

He has appointed as head of the new National Trade Council an economist known for his books demonising China, including “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon”.

Trump seems intent on doing an about-turn on US trade and investment policies, starting with ditching the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement and re-negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Other measures being considered include a 45% duty on Chinese products, extra duties and taxes on American companies located abroad, and even a 10% tariff on all imports.

Martin Khor

Thus 2017 will see a rise in protectionism in the US, the extent still unknown.  That is bad news for those developing countries whose economies have grown on the back of exports and international investments.

Europe in 2017 will also be preoccupied with its own regional problems.  The Brexit shock of 2016 will continue to reverberate and several European countries facing elections will see challenges to their traditional values and established order from xenophobic and narrow nationalist parties.

As Western societies become less open to the world and more inward looking, developing countries should revise their development strategies and rely more on domestic and regional demand and investments.

As North-South economic relations decline, this should also be the moment for expanding South-South cooperation, spurred as much by necessity as by principles.

2017 may be the year when resource-rich China, with its huge Road and Belt initiative and its immense financing capacity, fills in the economic void created by western trade and investment protectionism.

But this may not be sufficient to prevent a finance shock in many developing countries now beginning to suffer a reversal of capital flowing back to the US, attracted by the prospect of higher interest rates and economic growth.

Several emerging economies which together received many hundreds of billions of dollars of hot money in recent years are now vulnerable to the latest downturn phase of the boom-bust cycle of capital flows.

Some of these countries opened up their capital markets to foreign funds which now own large portions of government bonds denominated in the domestic currency, as well as shares in the equity market.

As the tide turns, foreign investors are expected to sell off and transfer back a significant part of the bonds and shares they bought, and this new vulnerability is in addition to the traditional external debt contracted by the developing countries in foreign currencies.

Some countries will be hit by a terrible combination of capital outflow, reduced export earnings, currency depreciation and an increased debt servicing burden caused by higher US interest rates.

As the local currency depreciates further, the affected countries’ companies will have to pay more for servicing loans contracted in foreign currencies and imported machinery and parts, while consumers suffer from a rapid rise in the prices of imports.

On the positive side, the currency depreciation will make exporters more competitive and make tourism more attractive, but for many countries this will not be enough to offset the negative effects.

Thus 2017 will not be kind to the economy, business and the pockets of the common man and woman.  It might even spark a new global financial crisis.

The old year ended with mixed blessings for Palestinians. On one hand they won a significant victory when the outgoing President Obama allowed the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories by not exercising a veto.

The resolution will spur international actions against the expansion of settlements which have become a big obstacle to peace talks.

On the other hand the Israeli leadership, which responded defiantly with plans for more settlements, will find in Trump a much more sympathetic President.  He is appointing a pro-Israel hawk who has cheered the expansion of settlements as the new US ambassador to Israel.

With Trump also indicating he will tear up the nuclear power deal with Iran, the Middle East will have an even more tumultuous time in 2017.

Some countries will be hit by a terrible combination of capital outflow, reduced export earnings, currency depreciation and an increased debt servicing burden caused by higher US interest rates.

In the area of health care, the battle for affordable access to medicines will continue, as public frustration grows over the high and often astronomical prices of patented medicines including for the treatment of HIV AIDS, hepatitis C, tuberculosis and cancers.

There will be more powerful calls for governments to curb the excesses of drug companies, as well as more extensive use of the flexibilities in the patent laws to counter the high cost of medicines.

Momentum will also increase to deal with antibiotic resistance which in 2016 was recognised by political leaders meeting at the United Nations to be perhaps the gravest threat to global health.

All countries pledged to come up with national action plans to counter antibiotic and anti-microbial resistance by May 2017 and the challenge will then be to review the adequacy of these plans and to finance and implement them.

The new year will also see its fair share of natural disasters and a continued decline in the state of the environment.  Both will continue to be major issues in 2017, just as the worsening of air pollution and the many earthquakes, big storms and heat-waves marked the previous few years.

Unfortunately low priority is given to the environment.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are allocated for highways, railways and urban buildings but only a trickle for conservation and rehabilitation of hills, watersheds, forests, mangroves, coastal areas, biodiversity or for serious climate change actions.

2017 should be the year when priorities change, that when people talk about infrastructure or development, they put actions to protect and promote the environment as the first items for allocation of funds.

This new year will also be make or break for climate change.  The momentum for action painfully built up in recent years will find a roadblock in the US as the new President dismantles Obama-initiated policies and measures.

The Paris agreement, which was adopted in December 2015 and which came into force in record time in October 2016 as a demonstration of international concern over climate change, may face a major test and even an existential challenge in 2017, if Trump fulfils his election promise to pull the US out.

But Trump and his team will face resistance domestically including from state governments and municipalities which have their own climate plans, and from other countries determined to carry on without the US on board.

Indeed if 2017 will bring big changes initiated by the new US administration, it will also generate many counter actions to fill in the void left in the world by a withdrawing US or to counter its new unsettling actions.

Many people around the world, from politicians and policy makers to citizen groups and community organisers are already bracing themselves to come up with responses and actions.

Indeed 2017 will be characterised by the Trump effect but also the consequent counter-effects.

There are opportunities to think through, alternatives to chart and reforms to carry out that are anyway needed on the global and national economies, on the environment, and on geo-politics.

Most of the main levers of power and decision-making are still in the hands of a few countries and a few people, but there has also been the emergence of many new centres of economic, environmental and intellectual capabilities and community-based organising.

2017 will be a year in which ideas, policies, economies and politics will all clash, thunderously, and we should be prepared to meet the challenges ahead and not only be spectators.

Malaysia’s Budaya Tipu in Academia


June 20, 2015

New York City

Malaysia’s  Budaya Tipu–Academic Plagiarism and Intellectual Fraud

 by Rom Nain
COMMENT: Malaysian Higher Education, evidently, is once again in the limelight. Once again, for the wrong reasons.

Over the past couple of days, news has gone around that four researchers from a local public university had deliberately manipulated images in a co-authored article published in a prestigious international academic journal.

The four, from Universiti Malaya (UM) – our oldest and,  often enough claimed, our most prestigious, public university – were initially accused of duplicating and manipulating images of cells in their article.

An article which allegedly had three versions was published in three separate journals. Sadly for them – and certainly for UM – the allegations initially exploded over the scientific community’s social media and then spread to other platforms, finally catching the attention of the mainstream scientific media.

The main author, not surprisingly, initially brushed off the charges, providing ‘reasons’ that even non-scientists who had examined the article found rather incredulous.

Now, it has come to the attention of the Malaysian Higher Education Ministry and the authorities at UM. And UM has acted swiftly enough to investigate yet another potential scandal and possibly discipline any wrongdoers.

There will surely be more revealed over the next few days and, I’m sure, there will be demands that the heads of the four researchers, if found guilty, roll. But will they? And even if they do, will the wider problems be resolved?

Going by previous incidences of this nature, one doubts anything major will be resolved. In 1994 a professor at the same Universiti Malaya went to court to defend herself against allegations of plagiarising the work of her students. Despite the evidence, she remains a professor till this day.

A couple of years back, the infamous Ridhuan Tee, while an Associate Professor at the Armed Forces University, was accused of plagiarism as well. Again, despite the clear evidence, he was able to move to another university on the east coast, getting a promotion to full professor to boot. That is classic Malaysian academic culture.

Then there is the infamous University of Bath-UiTM debacle earlier this year, when graduates from the UK university discovered that their theses had somehow found their way into UiTM’s repository, with UiTM’s copyright and watermark on them.

UiTM, predictably, apologised, asserting that it was a technical error that had caused it all. It is still unclear today why the Bath papers were gifted to UiTM by a staff member, and whether she or he had the right to do so.

Fundamental issues of Integrity–The meaning of the word Integrity.

Needless to say, there are a number of things we can – and must – take away from these cases that strike at the core of fundamental issues of integrity. Namely, the integrity of individuals, the integrity of the Malaysian academic profession and, yes, the integrity of our institutions.

It is, after all, easy to apportion blame to individuals, such as the four UM researchers or the professors who blatantly plagiarised the works of others But, unfortunately, these cases – alleged by many in Malaysian academia as barely ‘scratching the surface’ – will continue if the core issues and problems are not located and sincerely addressed.

Of course, one could say that they indulge in these activities because they feel they can ‘get away with it’. But why do they do it in the first place? And why does it seem so prevalent these days?

To begin to answer these questions, we would have to at least go back to this relatively recent phenomenon of university academics needing to meet pre-determined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

But, unfortunately, these cases – alleged by many in Malaysian academia as barely ‘scratching the surface’ – will continue if the core issues and problems are not located and sincerely addressed.Of course, one could say that they indulge in these activities because they feel they can ‘get away with it’. But why do they do it in the first place? And why does it seem so prevalent these days?

To begin to answer these questions, we would have to at least go back to this relatively recent phenomenon of university academics needing to meet pre-determined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Pre-determined, often enough, by university administrators more concerned about pleasing their political masters than they are about the welfare of their staff and, even less, about any commitment to a particular academic ethos.

Hence, meaningful university teaching and research be damned. Instead, a bureaucratic or mechanistic view of what higher education, particularly the role of universities and academics, is advanced. Indeed, in Malaysian academia, increasingly it has become a case of institutions and individuals having to meet certain, often quantifiable and quantitative, targets.

And achieving high international rankings yearly has become the name of the game. For some public universities, especially those designated as `research’ universities, publishing in top-tier Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) and Scopus journals now is the main, sometimes determining, criterion for promotion.

It is within this cauldron of quite rapid change and shifting of priorities – often directed by politicians and their ministries – that we find many of our public universities and their faculty members.

Things have gotten worse for Malaysia under Najib Razak

This, of course, hadn’t been the case for a long time. Indeed, it could be argued that the slide began the moment politics and notions of what has derogatorily been called kulitocracy (skin based meritocracy) took top priority from the 1980s onward.

Policies that led to the recruitment of faculty due to their skin tone and, more subtly, their political affiliation, rather than the grey matter in their head, led to a culture of conformity and mediocrity being developed. For some critics this gradually replaced the emphasis on dedicated teaching and learning, and doing good research that had been cultivated in the 1960s and 1970s.

‘Carma’ academics

This was facilitated by (administrative) structures that policies and strategies that (still) disproportionately reward what the national laureate, A Samad Said, has rightly called the ‘carma’ (cari makan) academics.

These often are the apple polishers, those who turn academia into an arena where rapid advancement means getting on with their bosses and courting top UMNO leaders and moving up the administrative ladder; from section to department head, to program chair, to head of school, to dean, deputy vice-chancellor and vice-chancellor. Stopping briefly on the way, of course,to obtain a datoship from corrupt political leaders.

And this group has grown significantly as the number of public universities has rapidly increased. Often quite clueless as to what constitutes good – let alone path-breaking and innovative – research, yet now needing to ‘publish or perish’, they look high and low for the ‘right’ ingredients, however “halal” or “haram”, to enable them to come up not only with publishable papers in referred journals, but also those that often have to meet international criteria and standards for scholarly research and peer recognition.

Unfortunately, when the environment all this while has not helped to nurture whatever research and writing skills they may have, and they now have to regularly produce ‘international’ publications, many find themselves in a ethical quandary.

And so the illicit options become more enticing.Indeed, more widespread, arguably, is this practice of putting one’s name as a co-researcher on the work done by one’s research assistant or graduate student. Even when all the work was done solely by another person.

Of course, dodgy publishing houses have cottoned on to this widespread desperation by academics. So, we have the case of academics (often aided by their institutions) paying substantial sums to purportedly international publishers to get their articles published in  journals and books of questionable quality.

Needless to say, it is within this wider context – of dodgy academic standards, a legacy of a mediocre research culture and environment and a rapidly changing academic milieu and, of course, a general lack of integrity from the top downwards – that we have to locate the alleged offences committed by the UM4 and others.

Virtually nothing happens in a vacuum. Yes, if found guilty, the wrongdoers must be truly punished – and not just transferred to some other university where they are promoted later.

But issues of integrity, dignity and ethics will not and cannot be simply resolved that way. More detailed and critical examination of the environment, the policies and the strategies that have led to this sorry state of affairs, will need to be conducted.

This would require political will–this is sadly lacking in Malaysia today– and a genuine commitment to removing the rot that has set in public – and increasingly private – universities. And I don’t believe that many of us are so sanguine as to believe that this will happen any time soon under this regime.

Read more: https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/345887#ixzz4C6pT1S7W