Governance Matters–Effective Action speaks louder than words


November 17, 2017

Governance Matters–Effective Action speaks louder than Political Talk

by TK Chua

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Image result for Governance Matters

For whatever reasons or motives, I think we have showered enough praise on Dr. D. Jeyakumar, the MP for Sungai Siput and Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), the only “socialist party” in Malaysia. It is a plus if he is humble and willing to serve his constituents diligently.

But first and foremost, why did he become a politician? He must have believed that his policies and “system of government” would bring the people a better life.

Why do people face systemic problems every day – the problems that the government system is supposed to resolve for them? How effective can he be by helping five people here and two people there, when society churns them out by the thousands each year – problems that are generated out of deliberate marginalisation, neglect, discrimination, incompetency and ignorance?

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Lee Lam Thye and Michael Chong have also done the same thing for many years. They helped some people, no doubt, but have they brought societal change to Malaysia? If anything, they have made those who were supposed to do their jobs even more complacent and lazy. When a person gets beaten up, why must he see Chong and not the Police?

Similarly, why can’t the built-in system in Sosco or any government institution provide efficient and equitable services for the people?

We elect MPs because we want better governance and policy changes, not just to provide day-to-day services to the people.

I maintain that if our governance is right, our civil service professional, and our government competent and corruption-free, the services rendered to the people will be above board and fair.

Over many decades, we have fought over ideologies. From my observations, ideologies do not put food on the table or bring people a better life. Both communism and socialism have failed, as has unfettered capitalism or a version of the two extremes.

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Najib Razak believes in 1Malaysia Governance: Lu Tolong Gua, Gua Tolong Lu

What matters the most is pragmatism, “corruption-less” government and good governance. Seriously, does it matter if the government is neoliberal or neoclassical?

Let’s be realistic: Jeyakumar and PSM can’t bring systemic change to this country, at least in the foreseeable future. Instead of creating dissension, he and PSM should join forces with right-minded politicians and political parties to bring fundamental changes to this country.

TK Chua is an FMT reader.

Comment: Dr Jeyakumar was a devoted Member of Parliament, Sungei Siput, Perak. He earned the reputation of being the man who defeated MIC President Samy Velu. He is a committed socialist. While we may recognise his service to his constituents, we should not glorify him. Here, I agree with TK Chua.

Ideology no longer matters these days. Tell me what is communism with Chinese characteristics? It is no longer Maoism. I think it is Confucian capitalism. Times have changed and so have expectations. Politicians have become dinosaurs for not keeping up with the times. They are short of deliverables; in fact, they have not produced results in terms of improving the lives of the people they seek to serve. Ideology does not create and public goods. What is lacking today is good governance. This seems to be a global problem. Look at Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Congo, and Yemen. –Din Merican

 

American Foreign Policy Endangered


November 13, 2017

The Economist

American Foreign Policy Endangered

America’s global influence has dwindled under Donald Trump

https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21731132-presidential-tour-asia-cannot-hide-fact-america-has-turned-inward-hurting-itself

A presidential tour of Asia cannot hide the fact that America has turned inward, hurting itself and the world

A YEAR ago this week Donald Trump was elected president. Many people predicted that American foreign policy would take a disastrous turn. Mr Trump had suggested that he would scrap trade deals, ditch allies, put a figurative bomb under the rules-based global order and drop literal ones willy-nilly. NATO was “obsolete”, he said; NAFTA was “the worst trade deal maybe ever”; and America was far too nice to foreigners. “In the old days when you won a war, you won a war. You kept the country,” he opined, adding later that he would “bomb the shit out of” Islamic State (IS) and “take the oil”.

So far, Mr Trump’s foreign policy has been less awful than he promised. Granted, he has pulled America out of the Paris accord, making it harder to curb climate change, and abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a big trade deal. However, he has not retreated pell-mell into isolationism. He has not quit NATO; indeed, some of America’s eastern European allies prefer his tough-talk to the cool detachment of Barack Obama. He has not started any wars. He has stepped up America’s defence of Afghanistan’s beleaguered government, and helped Iraq recapture cities from IS. In the parts of the world to which he pays little attention, such as Africa, an understaffed version of the previous administration’s policy continues on autopilot. As Mr Trump makes a 12-day visit to Asia, it is hard to dismiss him as a man wholly disengaged from the world.

Many people find reassurance in the sober, capable military men who surround him (see article). His chief of staff, his defence secretary and his national security adviser all understand the horrors of war and will stop him from doing anything rash, the argument goes. Optimists even speculate that he might emulate Ronald Reagan, by shaking up the diplomatic establishment, restoring America’s military muscle and projecting such strength abroad that a frightened, overstretched North Korea will crumble like the Soviet Union. Others confidently predict that even if he causes short-term damage to America’s standing in the world, Mr Trump will be voted out in 2020 and things will return to normal.

Reagan, he ain’t

For all its flaws, America has long been the greatest force for good in the world, upholding the liberal order and offering an example of how democracy works. All that is imperilled by a president who believes that strong nations look out only for themselves. By putting “America First”, he makes it weaker, and the world worse off.–The Economist

All this is wishful thinking. On security, Mr Trump has avoided some terrible mistakes. He has not started a needless row with China over Taiwan’s ambiguous status, as he once threatened to do. Congress and the election-hacking scandal prevented him from pursuing a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin that might have left Russia’s neighbours at the Kremlin’s mercy. And he has apparently coaxed China to exert a little more pressure on North Korea to stop expanding its nuclear arsenal.

However, he has made some serious errors, too, such as undermining the deal with Iran that curbs its ability to make nuclear bombs. And his instincts are atrocious. He imagines he has nothing to learn from history. He warms to strongmen, such as Mr Putin and Xi Jinping. His love of generals is matched by a disdain for diplomats—he has gutted the State Department, losing busloads of experienced ambassadors. His tweeting is no joke: he undermines and contradicts his officials without warning, and makes reckless threats against Kim Jong Un, whose paranoia needs no stoking. Furthermore, Mr Trump has yet to be tested by a crisis. Level-headed generals may advise him, but he is the commander-in-chief, with a temperament that alarms friend and foe alike.

On trade, he remains wedded to a zero-sum view of the world, in which exporters “win” and importers “lose”. (Are the buyers of Ivanka Trump-branded clothes and handbags, which are made in Asia, losers?) Mr Trump has made clear that he favours bilateral deals over multilateral ones, because that way a big country like America can bully small ones into making concessions. The trouble with this approach is twofold. First, it is deeply unappealing to small countries, which by the way also have protectionist lobbies to overcome. Second, it would reproduce the insanely complicated mishmash of rules that the multilateral trade system was created to simplify and trim. The Trump team probably will not make a big push to disrupt global trade until tax reform has passed through Congress. But when and if that happens, all bets are off—NAFTA is still in grave peril.

Ideas matter

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America’s Flawed Commander-in-Chief, Donald J Trump

Perhaps the greatest damage that Mr Trump has done is to American soft power. He openly scorns the notion that America should stand up for universal values such as democracy and human rights. Not only does he admire dictators; he explicitly praises thuggishness, such as the mass murder of criminal suspects in the Philippines. He does so not out of diplomatic tact, but apparently out of conviction. This is new. Previous American presidents supported despots for reasons of cold-war realpolitik. (“He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard,” as Harry Truman is reputed to have said of an anti-communist tyrant in Nicaragua.) Mr Trump’s attitude seems more like: “He’s a bastard. Great!”

This repels America’s liberal allies, in Europe, East Asia and beyond. It emboldens autocrats to behave worse, as in Saudi Arabia this week, where the crown prince’s dramatic political purges met with Mr Trump’s blessing (see article). It makes it easier for China to declare American-style democracy passé, and more tempting for other countries to copy China’s autocratic model (see article).

The idea that things will return to normal after a single Trump term is too sanguine. The world is moving on. Asians are building new trade ties, often centred on China. Europeans are working out how to defend themselves if they cannot rely on Uncle Sam. And American politics are turning inward: both Republicans and Democrats are more protectionist now than they were before Mr Trump’s electoral triumph.

For all its flaws, America has long been the greatest force for good in the world, upholding the liberal order and offering an example of how democracy works. All that is imperilled by a president who believes that strong nations look out only for themselves. By putting “America First”, he makes it weaker, and the world worse off.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Endangered”

Strongmen have a new playbook for consolidating power


November 13, 2017

Strongmen have a new playbook for consolidating power

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://www.arcamax.com/politics/fromtheleft/fareedzakaria/s-2016462

NEW YORK — The news out of Saudi Arabia has been startling. A country famous for its stability to the point of stagnation is watching a 32-year-old crown prince arrest his relatives, freeze their bank accounts and dismiss them from key posts. But on closer examination, it should not be so surprising. Mohammed bin Salman is now applying to Saudi Arabia what has become the new standard operating procedure for strongmen around the world.

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman–Making a Difference for Saudi Arabia

The formula was honed by Vladimir Putin after he came to power in Russia. First, amplify foreign threats so as to rally the country around the regime and give it extraordinary powers. Putin did this with the Chechen war and the danger of terrorism. Then, move against rival centers of influence within the society, which in Russia meant the oligarchs who at that time were more powerful than the state itself. Then talk about the need to end corruption, reform the economy and provide benefits for ordinary people. Putin was able to succeed on the last front largely because of the quadrupling of oil prices over the next decade. Finally, control the media through formal and informal means. Russia has gone from having a thriving free media in 2000 to a level of state control that is effectively similar to the Soviet Union.

Naturally, not every element of this formula applies elsewhere. Perhaps Crown Prince Mohammed will prove to be a reformer. But the formula for political success that he’s following is similar to what’s been applied in countries as disparate as China, Turkey and the Philippines. Leaders have taken to using the same ingredients — nationalism, foreign threats, anti-corruption and populism — to tighten their grip on power. Where the judiciary and media are seen as obstacles to a ruler’s untrammeled authority, they are systematically weakened.

Image result for The Dictator's Learning Curve," William Dobson

In his 2012 book “The Dictator’s Learning Curve,” William Dobson presciently explained that the new breed of strongmen around the world have learned a set of tricks to maintain control that are far more clever and sophisticated than in the past. “Rather than forcibly arrest members of a human rights group, today’s most effective despots deploy tax collectors or health inspectors to shut down dissident groups. Laws are written broadly, then used like a scalpel to target the groups the government deems a threat.” Dobson quoted a Venezuelan activist who described Hugo Chavez’s wily blend of patronage and selective prosecution with an adage: “For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law.”

Classic centralized dictatorships were a 20th-century phenomenon — born of the centralizing forces and technologies of the era. “Modern dictators work in the more ambiguous spectrum that exists between democracy and authoritarianism,” wrote Dobson. They maintain the forms of democracy — constitutions, elections, media — but work to gut them of any meaning. They work to keep the majority content, using patronage, populism and external threats to maintain national solidarity and their popularity. Of course, stoking nationalism can spiral out of control, as it has in Russia and might in Saudi Arabia, which is now engaged in a fierce cold war with Iran, complete with a very hot proxy war in Yemen.

Dobson, however, did end the book expressing optimism that, in many countries, people were resisting and outmaneuvering the dictators. Yet what has happened since he wrote the book is depressing. Instead of the despots being influenced by democrats, it is the democrats who are moving up the learning curve.

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Consider Turkey, a country that in the early 2000s seemed on a firm path toward democracy and liberalism, anchored in a desire to become a full-fledged member of the European Union. Today, Turkey is not far from being an elected dictatorship. Its ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has eliminated almost all obstacles to total control. He has defanged the military and the bureaucracy, launched various kinds of tax and regulatory actions against opponents in the media, and declared one potential opposition group, the Gulenists, to be terrorists. The rulers of the Philippines (Rodrigo Duterte) and Malaysia (Najib Razak) appear to be copying from that same playbook.

Image result for Najib Razak and DutertePhilippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and  Malaysia’s Prime Minister  Najib Razak

This is not the picture of democracy everywhere, of course, but these tendencies can be spotted in far-flung areas of the world. In countries like India and Japan, which remain vibrant democracies in most respects, there are elements of this new system creeping in — crude nationalism and populism, and increasing measures to intimidate and neuter the free press.

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Donald Trump, for his part, has threatened NBC, CNN (where I work) and other outlets with various forms of government action. He has attacked judges and independent agencies. He has disregarded long-established democratic norms. So perhaps America is moving up this dangerous learning curve as well.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture


November 9, 2017

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture

by  Ja Ian Chong, National University of Singapore

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for vivian balakrishnanCall on Myanmar State Counsellor, Union Minister in the President’s Office and Union Minister for Foreign Affairs Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on 18 May 2016 during his introductory visit to Myanmar [Photo: MFA]

 

In July 2017, a rare public debate occurred within Singapore’s foreign policy establishment. In contention was whether the city-state should defer to major powers or insist on pursuing its longstanding foreign policy principles.

 

This discussion came against a backdrop of China’s new willingness to assert its foreign policy preferences, apparent fissures within ASEAN as well as US capriciousness. Such developments have the potential to shake longstanding pillars of Singapore’s external relations. The debate reflects unease about shifts in East Asian politics and uncertainty over how best to respond.

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Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong with President Xi Jinping of China–Engaging China while tilting towards the United States

Engaging China — especially in terms of economics — while encouraging comprehensive US engagement in Asia are integral to Singapore’s longstanding approach of ‘not choosing sides’ between Beijing and Washington. This policy assumes significant overlap in US and Chinese interests, shared major power desire for self-restraint and mutual accommodation and US commitment to the liberal international order it created after World War II. Recent developments seem to cast doubt on these long-held presumptions. In fact, the 2017 Qatar Crisis that sparked the debate stemmed partially from US disinterest and ambivalence.

Singapore is especially discomforted by China’s reclamation and arming of artificial islands in the South China Sea despite widespread opposition, and Beijing’s non-participation in and lambasting of the Philippines-initiated arbitration tribunal process. Beijing was also exceptionally harsh in criticising Singapore over the latter’s insistence on the rule of law in relation to maritime issues and the arbitration tribunal. The detention in Hong Kong of Singaporean armoured vehicles en route from Taiwan and the apparent exclusion of the Singapore Prime Minister from Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum further heightened Singaporean concerns.

One of Donald Trump’s first moves as US President was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Other major trade arrangements hang in the balance as the US administration threatens punitive action against trade partners. The rashness with which President Trump seems to treat North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons could also destabilise the region. Potential US global retreat is similarly disconcerting despite reports that the Trump administration dropped calls to make security commitments contingent on payment from allies and partners. Such actions detract from efforts by US officials to assure East Asia of active and consistent US engagement.

Behaviour by Beijing and Washington endangers another important pillar of Singapore’s foreign policy: its preference for international law, institutions and norms. Such mechanisms give smaller states a degree of formal equality with major powers, since all actors are technically restrained by the same rules, requirements, and procedures. Notably, participants in the July 2017 debate agreed on Singapore’s need for institutions such as the United Nations and ASEAN as well as international law to be robust. They differed on how strongly to advance such arrangements.

Beijing’s rejection, mobilisation against and dismissal of the South China Sea arbitration tribunal process along with its expansive maritime claims and broad interpretation of exclusive economic zone rights suggests a desire to adjust internationals laws in fact if not in form. China’s ability to break ASEAN consensus on positions Beijing deems inimical to its interests and Washington’s new suspicion of multilateral institutions — seen in the TPP withdrawal and its criticism of the UN — portend greater pressure on key institutions.

Some ASEAN members seem ready to accede to China on the promise of economic gain, even as Washington appears to be turning into an increasingly unreliable institutional partner. Then there is worry about major powers eroding sovereign autonomy by intervening domestically through business, academia and other sectors. Prevailing laws, institutions and norms are familiar to Singapore and it has historically excelled in working with them to its own benefit. Shifts on these fronts — which Singapore cannot influence — are cause for anxiety.

The debate abated with a reiteration of longstanding principles by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan without new policies or strategic directions. Such trepidation is unsurprising given the many complex variables currently at play. Circumstances surrounding China’s rise and the United States’ relative decline are unprecedented for Singapore, and the country is on the cusp of a generational leadership transition. ASEAN is no longer the same conservative, anti-communist Cold War club, where member interests were relatively predictable and consensus was easier to develop. Climate change, long-term economic sustainability, and terrorism too present serious challenges.

Singapore is not alone in trying to find its foreign policy footing — the July debate parallels ongoing discussions in Australia, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere about how to reposition strategic priorities. Singapore may ultimately wish to re-examine how best to pursue its enduring interests in maintaining freedom of action, economic openness and the containment of tensions given the evolving external environment.

Possible considerations range from reducing reliance on ASEAN in favour of other partnerships to investing in far-reaching ASEAN reform, perhaps at some expense to autonomy. Contemplating such change, particularly in public, may be uncomfortable for Singapore’s foreign policy traditionalists, but it is necessary for charting the city-state’s future in an increasingly uncertain world and hence deserving of sustained and open discussion.

Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor of Political Science at National University of Singapore.

ASEAN: Politics, Censorship, Polarisation and Cyberspace


November 6, 2017

ASEAN: Politics, Censorship, Polarisation and Cyberspace

by Aim Sinpeng

ww.newmandala.org/southeast-asian-cyberspace-politics-censorship-polarisation/

On 12 April 2017, Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society issued what the Bangkok Post called “a strange government directive”. It prohibited anyone from following, communicating with, or disseminating information online from three outspoken critics of the government—or risk up to 15 years in prison. The statement seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and without any explanation. Does the act of “following” include reading these authors’ posts, or actually clicking the “follow” button on their profile? This was never clarified by the government.

The ambiguity of the Thai cyber laws prompted a local online newspaper, Prachatai, to publish information warning readers about how to avoid being charged with Thailand’s draconian Article 112, which prohibits defamation against the royal family. But the journalist responsible for the article was in turn interrogated by the Thai authorities for a possible computer crime herself. This deadly dose of opaque cyber regulations and an authoritarian political regime has made Thailand’s cyberspace one of the most restricted in Asia.

This combination, however, is growing more and more representative of the regional norm. In Southeast Asia, the liberating effects of the internet coexist in increasing tension with state anxiety about information control. Southeast Asian cyberspace is thus becoming more expansive, yet more restricted. On the one hand, the number of people who have come online for the first time has exploded: Myanmar, for example, went from 1% internet penetration in 2012 to 26% in 2017 thanks to an abundance of cheap mobile phones. Internet users across the region are increasingly spending time online to work, study, connect with friends, and participate in civic and political life.

On the other hand, Southeast Asian governments are growing wary of the potential for the internet to threaten political stability. Cyberspace in Southeast Asia has evolved into a space for contestation over power and control between the state and its societal opponents, with the former exerting greater and more sophisticated control over the latter. As electoral contestation increases in some countries, feuding elites have sought to win the hearts and minds of the ever more engaged and wired citizenry through old tactics of divide and conquer, exploiting deep-seated ethnic, religious and racial cleavages. Social networking sites like Facebook have made it all too easy to spread hate speech and misinformation—further entrenching divisions in society, and inviting yet more state-led censorship.

More internet, more censorship

Viewed globally, the Southeast Asian experience is not an aberration. Freedom House’s Net Freedom Report, which ranks the degree of cyber openness around the world, has recorded the sixth consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom. More than two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where criticism of governments gets censored.

The present reality stands in stark contrast to early optimism about the positive, liberating role the internet could play in bringing about political change in authoritarian regimes—a sentiment which flourished following the “Arab Spring”. The utopian idea that social media could spell the end of despots has now been muted by users’ frustration with increasing crackdowns on the internet and the chilling effect brought on by continued persecution of politically active social media users. Indeed, in 2016 a total of 24 countries restricted access to popular social media platforms and messaging apps—an increase of 60% compared to the previous year. 27% of internet users live in countries whose authorities have made arrests based on social media posts.

So where does Southeast Asia fit in this global picture? Despite varying degrees of internet penetration—ranging from 19% in Cambodia to 82% in Singapore—national internet environments in Southeast Asia share three key similarities.

First, there is an overall consecutive decline in internet freedom, which measures the degree to which access is unrestricted. The Philippines stands as the only country in the region that receives a score of “free” according to Freedom House (Figure 1). The rest of Southeast Asian internet users enjoy partial to little freedom in surfing the net.

Figure 1: Net Freedom Scores, 2016

Image result for Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2016

Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2016

 

In all the “partly free” and “not free” states, ordinary internet users have been arrested for their online activities and user rights have been repeatedly violated. Measures to censor critical opinions about authorities can include blocking of websites, content removal, and in some cases arrests and persecution—the latter of which has been taking place more recently, as authorities across the region pay closer attention to social media and chat app content.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoch Nhu or “Mother Mushroom” was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017 for “conducting propaganda against the state”, after she wrote on issues relating to policy brutality, land rights, and freedom of speech. A Thai man has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for Facebook posts the authorities deemed critical of the royal family. This follows the 2016 arrest of eight internet users who ran a satirical Facebook page mocking Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. In Singapore, whose leaders prefer slapping lawsuits upon critics over arresting them, blogger Roy Ngerng was sued for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in posts on his blog. Even a democratic government in Indonesia has sought to censor same-sex emojis from messaging apps and has banned several gay dating apps.

Second, many Southeast Asian states have in recent years sought to institutionalise online information controls through new laws and regulations, typically citing concerns for national security. Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Law openly permits criminalisation of internet activism or communication that are considered “dishonest” and “untruthful” by the regime. Cambodia has had several drafts of the cybercrime law, with each one eliciting grave concerns from rights groups. Article 35 from the 2012 draft, for instance, would criminalise civil society organisations deemed to endanger the security, morality and values of the nation. A 2017 amendment to Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act worsened an already repressive internet law by giving authorities wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone who might be spreading information that would be against the (vaguely-defined) national interest. Indonesia’s newly amended Electronic Information Transactions Law (UU ITE) was criticised by internet rights groups for creating chilling effects online and curbing of freedom of expression. Indeed, the majority of cyber laws in the region are written in vague terms on purpose: they give power to authorities to interpret what is critical to the nation’s security and public safety.

Third, the varying degree of filtering on issues of social, political, and national security importance gives some indication of the country’s priorities on internet control. Censorship is most severe when it comes to criticism against the state (Figure 2). While the growth of internet usage across Southeast Asia caused concern about information control among all of the region’s governments, reasons for such concern vary. Indonesia and Thailand focus their internet censorship efforts on social issues—particularly online pornography—whereas Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar (and to some extent Thailand too) have gone to some lengths to crack down on cyber dissidents deemed a threat to regime stability.

Figure 2: Key internet censorship issues, 2016

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Source: Adapted from the 2016 Net Freedom report, Freedom House

Highly developed Singapore, with its hegemonic party rule, has one of the world’s highest internet penetration rates. Instead of practicing cyber surveillance and filtering, its leaders prefer to rely on non-technological means to curb online commentary perceived to be a threat to social values and religious and ethnic harmony. These “second generation” control mechanisms—such as lawsuits, steep fines, and criminal prosecution—act to deter “inappropriate” online behaviour.

Divide the people, conquer the discourse

But political elites, even if they could, would not want to control the flow of all information. They need the web to be sufficiently open to allow a perceived sense of online freedom of expression, and the proliferation of engaged online discussion. This provides ruling and competing elites alike with opportunities to divide electorates and mobilise their support base against their adversaries. The Oxford Internet Institute’s research on computation propaganda has highlighted how state-sponsored “cyber troops” and trolls are commonplace around the world as means of manipulating public opinion, particularly in support of ruling elites.

The Philippines—the only country whose internet environment is regarded as free—has witnessed a high density of “cyber troops” since populist maverick Rodrigo Duterte came to power. Duterte’s online army is reportedly paid to flood Facebook with pro-Duterte propaganda, sometimes masking as grassroots activists. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who has a huge social media following, found himself denying buying influence on Facebook after reports that only 20% of his 3 million likes originated from Cambodia (the rest largely being from India and the Philippines). That a septuagenarian former Khmer Rouge leader, who has been in power since the 1980s, felt the need to pay for Facebook likes is telling of the extent political leaders go to in order to construct digital legitimacy, even if it means spreading online propaganda.

But the most prominent example of the potential power of the above-mentioned “divide and conquer” strategy was the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. After ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or “Ahok” made controversial comments about the Quran, anti-Ahok rallies, mobilising over 500,000 protesters at their peak, were led by a coalition of Islamic groups. These religious groups were long unhappy with Ahok in power but did not surge in popularity until Ahok’s blasphemy case came to the fore (Figure 3).

Figure 3: FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)

Image result for FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)Source: author analysis

 

The hard line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) more than tripled their support base on Facebook following Ahok’s comments, and figured prominently in the months-long campaign against him. Witnessing the rise of the FPI and other Islamist groups gaining prominence as anti-Ahok movement garnered force, Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan, long seen as a secular Islamic politician, shifted gear to appeal to those sympathetic to the FPI campaign. The online sphere became deeply polarised: a network analysis of those who commented on Ahok’s and Anies’ Facebook posts in the month of December in 2016 (Figure 4) shows that only 16 people cross-commented on both pages out of a total of 9,000 comments.

Figure 4: Network Visualisation of Commenters on Ahok’s (Blue) and Anies Baswedan’s (Red) Facebook Page

Image result for Source: author analysis. Data are drawn from the period from December 1 to 31, 2016

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This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation.

Opinion: Malaysia’s Broken System


November 4, 2017

Opinion: Malaysia’s Broken System

by John Berthelsen@www.asiasentinel.com

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Journalist John Berthelsen

 

It is ironic that a chorus of leaders from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) have accused critics of scandal-scarred Prime Minister Najib Razak of “seeking to destroy parliamentary democracy in Malaysia.”

There is no parliamentary democracy in Malaysia.  Malaysia’s government is broken. Every institution that exists in a normal democracy to protect the people does not work. That includes the parliament, the courts, the police, the mainstream press and the religious establishment, which all act to perpetuate the ruling coalition – primarily UMNO – in power.

Image result for Najib the Bullshitter

“Constitutional democracy has taken a new meaning in Malaysia and that is the status quo of the incumbent power,” one of the country’s most prominent constitutional lawyers said privately. “There are threats even against me for having acted in my professional capacity as a constitutional lawyer for those who desire to seek change.”


‘Our parliament is a rubber stamp; our judiciary is compromised; our civil service is mediocre and incompetent’


The situation is not new. Najib, who is accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money by critics – but not by law enforcement agencies – is not the cause of the breakdown. He is only a symptom of it. While UMNO has dominated politics since independence in 1957 under the Barisan Nasional, the current system was largely built by Mahathir Mohamad during the 23 years he was in power.

It’s been a long time coming

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The breakdown began decades ago, even before the subversion of the courts by Mahathir in the 1980s, although that was a major contributing factor. The Barisan Nasional inherited a series of repressive laws from the colonial British, including the Internal Security Act, which allows for indeterminate detention without trial. Although the ISA was supposedly suspended as a reform by Najib in 2012, it was replaced by an almost equally pernicious statute, Section 124 of the Penal Code, which allows for the arrest of individuals “for activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”

Another is the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, which replaced similar colonial laws and requires all printing presses to secure an annual license from the Home Affairs Ministry.

The British also bequeathed the Sedition Act of 1948, which banned speech that would “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against” the government or engender “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races.”

The sedition act has been used repeatedly as the current scandal has grown in proportion, with its most notable potential victim Clare Rewcastle Brown, the UK-based journalist and blogger whose Sarawak Report has played an instrumental role in exposing corruption connected to 1Malaysia Development Bhd, the state-backed investment fund that has amassed RM42 billion in debt. Scores of others including opposition politicians, activists, academics, journalists and cartoonists are being investigated or have been charged.

Image result for I am loyal to Najib says Zahid Hamidi

Good Luck, Malaysia with these UMNO 3 Stooges in Command

“Our parliament is a rubber stamp; our judiciary is compromised; our civil service is mediocre and incompetent led, by a bunch of apple polishers; our police force, which is headed by an Inspector General of Police, treats us like enemies of the state, not as taxpayers and citizens who should be protected from criminals,” said Din Merican, a Malaysian Malay university professor now teaching Political Science and International Relations at the University of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. “Our fiscal management is in a total mess because we have a Finance Minister who regards our national coffers as if they were his own and mismanages our economy. We have rampant corruption and abuses of power.”

Rigging the game

Things really began to go downhill in 1986 when the country’s highest court ruled that the government’s cancellation of the work permits of two Asian Wall Street Journal correspondents was unlawful. That was followed by the High Court’s decision to issue a habeas corpus writ for the release of opposition leader Karpal Singh from detention.

Then Justice Harun Hashim declared UMNO illegal and dissolved the party. An outraged Prime Minister Mahathir fired the chief justice and subsequently moved parliament to amend the constitution to say that the courts would only have judicial powers “as may be conferred by or under Federal law,” making Malaysia the only Commonwealth country whose courts do not have judicial powers unless the legislative branch says so.

As a result, the courts are clearly in thrall to the governing party, as witnessed by the two farcical trials that put opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in prison against all evidence, and a long string of decisions that have cleared government leaders despite strong evidence of their guilt.

Democracy itself is broken, with gerrymandering keeping the opposition in its place. Witness the 2013 parliamentary election, which the Barisan actually lost, 51.39 percent to 47.79 percent, although it retained 133 seats to the opposition’s 89. It was an election won on vast infusions of apparently illegal money, if the latest revelations are true that Najib’s US$681 million “donation” diverted into his account was to help him fight the election. Top leaders of the ruling party are ignoring the deepening scandal because the prime minister has paid them continuing rounds of ill-disguised bribes to keep their loyalty. In addition, the election commission comes under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office, rendering it toothless.

Broken presses

In addition to being muzzled by the printing act, the idea of a free press, which would keep a watchdog eye on the government, has been subverted by the fact that virtually all of the major media, both in English and Malay and including newspapers, television and radio, are owned by constituent parties of the Barisan. Najib used his powers recently to shut down the two most critical newspapers, both owned by The Edge Group, for three months after they reported on the 1MDB mess. Neutral or hostile online media, which is freer but subject to partisan pressure, are constantly threatened with lawsuits that can’t be won in the kept courts, or by sedition or other charges.

Bad religion

The ruling party also has become adept at using Islam as a cudgel to beat other races, particularly the Chinese, and to scare the kampungs, or rural villages, back in line while splintering the opposition.

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“We have become a racist and theocratic state led by men and women who no longer uphold the traditions of public duty,” said Din Merican. It is hard not to agree.–John Berthelsen

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Opposition leaders and others have accused Najib, with some justification, of being behind a “unity government” strategy to support the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia in its effort to implement hudud, or harsh Islamic law, in the state of Kelantan, which it controls. The idea is to destroy a shaky opposition coalition cobbled together seven years ago out of disparate elements. That effort appears to have succeeded, with PAS splitting the opposition coalition earlier this year.

It is the use of religion for cynical political ends that may be the most dangerous part of the UMNO strategy. The so-called Group of 25, comprised of senior civil servants, former diplomats and others, issued an open letter in December calling for moderation; they have renewed their call, saying the imposition of hudud would tell the world that the country has abandoned its once-moderate path.

“We have become a racist and theocratic state led by men and women who no longer uphold the traditions of public duty,” said Din Merican. It is hard not to agree.