Professor Kishore Mahbubani–Asia Rising Again

January 12, 2016

Professor Kishore Mahbubani– The Return of Asia

This is intended for the benefit of my doctoral students at the Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, The University of Cambodia.  I think it is useful to share the thoughts of this controversial and strategic thinker and Dean and Professor Kishore Mahbubani of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore with all of you.

I  also hope my fellow Malaysians can see why our nation is today’s laggard in Southeast Asia. The reason is very simple and that is we have mediocre  and corrupt leadership and  a culture that promotes mediocrity and dependency on a nanny state.–Din Merican

The Middle East: From Arab Spring to Arab Winter in 5 Years

January 10, 2016

Politics in the Middle East: Thanks to The United States and Its Corrupt Arab Proxies

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) applauds as former President George W. Bush arrives on stage at the dedication ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, April 25, 2013. Bush returns briefly to the U.S. political stage with the dedication of his presidential library on Thursday, an event that will offer Americans a fresh look at his eight storm-tossed years in the White House. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) applauds as former Preident George W. Bush arrives on stage at the dedication ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, April 25, 2013. Bush returns briefly to the U.S. political stage with the dedication of his presidential library on Thursday, an event that will offer Americans a fresh look at his eight storm-tossed years in the White House. (Jason Reed/Reuters). Two of a kind — The Creators of the Middle East Mess

Five years after a wave of uprisings, the Arab world is worse off than ever. But its people understand their predicament better

“I AM the free and fearless. I am secrets that never die. I am the voice of those who will not bow…” The voice in question, raised in song amid the crowds packing Avenue Bourguiba, a promenade in Tunis, at the beginning of 2011, was that of Emel Mathlouthi. For a moment of calm in a month of clamour, she gave voice to the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of her compatriots.

On January 14 those protesters forced Zein al Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator for the previous quarter-century, from office. What followed was not easy. Terrorism hindered both economic progress and deeper political reform. But in 2015 the country became the first Arab state ever to be judged fully “free” by Freedom House, an American monitor of civil liberties, and it moved up a record 32 places among countries vetted by the Vienna-based Democracy Ranking Association. In December Ms Mathlouthi sang before another spellbound audience—this time in Oslo, as part of celebrations surrounding the award of the Nobel peace prize to four civil-society groups that shepherded in the new constitution of 2014.

 Sadly, that outcome remains a stark anomaly. There were six Arab countries in which massive peaceful protests called for hated rulers to go in the spring of 2011. None of the other uprisings came to a happy end. Libya and Yemen have imploded, their central states replaced in whole or part by warring militias, some backed by foreign powers, some flying the flags of al-Qaeda or Islamic State. Egypt and the island kingdom of Bahrain are now yet more autocratic, in some ways, than when the protests began. And Syria has descended into an abyss. Half its cities lie in ruins, much of its fertile land has been abandoned; millions have been displaced within the country, millions more have fled beyond it; hundreds of thousands have died; there is no end in sight.

With the exception of its far east and west—the oil-rich Gulf and quietly prospering Morocco, aloof behind a border with Algeria that has been sealed for 21 years—the rest of the Arab world does not look much better. Iraq’s Shia south and Kurdish north and north-east are, in effect, separate countries, while in the war zone of its Sunni-dominated west the fearsomely brutal rule of the so-called Islamic State has taken root. The Algerians and Sudanese have emerged from civil wars to find themselves still beholden to opaque and predatory army-backed cliques. Palestinians, divided into rival cantons, are weaker and more isolated than ever. Jordan remains an island of calm preserved through fear: both the kingdom’s own people and the donor countries that prop it up are too spooked by the chaos buffeting its borders and flooding it with refugees to talk much of political reform.

Change it had to come

In short, Arabs have rarely lived in bleaker times. The hopes raised by the Arab spring—for more inclusive politics and more responsive government, for more jobs and fewer presidential cronies carving up the economy—have been dashed. The wells of despair are overflowing.

The wealthy Gulf states have seen their incomes slashed by collapsing oil prices. The tighter immigration rules they have set up to replace expatriate labour from other Arab states with natives, or Asians, have hit the remittance flows through which they subsidised their poorer brethren. Demographic pressures are unyielding. Some 60% of the region’s population is under 25. Figures from the International Labour Organisation show that youth unemployment in the Middle East and north Africa, already a terrible 25% in 2011, has risen to nearly 30%, more than double the average around the world. Rent-seeking remains rampant, and standards in both public education and the administration of justice are still dismal. Economic growth is slow or stagnant; the hand of the security forces weighs heavier than ever, more or less everywhere. Sectarian divisions and class rivalries have deepened, providing fertile ground for radicals who posit their own brutal vision of Islamic Utopia as the only solution.


The Arab spring seems therefore to have brought nothing but woe. It has become fashionable in some circles to ape Russia and Iran in blaming this failure on supposedly “naive” Western policymakers. Had Western powers not abandoned old allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; had they not intervened in support of Libyan rebels; had they not presumed that the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was just another domino waiting to topple; had they not turned a blind eye to the danger of Islamist fanatics: then all would be well.

This is tosh. To frame the uprisings of 2011 as a sequence of isolated events, each of which had a unique and optimal policy response, is to deny the historical reality of what happened. Such hindsight belies the actual experience of seeing an entire region—and the world’s most politically torpid region, at that—whirl into sudden, synchronised motion. It also denies agency to the actors themselves: to the crowds whose cries of “Enough!” reached critical mass; to the paranoid rulers whose responses exacerbated the protests.

This is not to say that the events of 2011 had no precursors. Algeria’s Islamist uprising in 1991, two intifadas in Palestine, the “Independence revolution” that ousted Lebanon’s government in 2005, even the short-lived “Green revolution” in non-Arab but nearby Iran, all signalled the region’s desire for change. But the world’s democracies were, by and large, correct in judging that what they were seeing in 2011 was something broader, more potent and more difficult to steer than a set of national crises that happened to coincide. Nor were they naive to think that an empowered “Arab street” would seek to move its countries closer to global norms of good governance. That was the demand the demonstrators made in protest after protest, from the Gulf to the Atlantic.

In judgment of all wrong

The West’s naivety, which was shared—and paid for—by those hopeful demonstrators, lay in underestimating two things. One was the fragility of many Arab states, too weak in their institutions to withstand such ructions in the way that, say, South Africa did when apartheid fell. The other was the vicious determination with which established regimes would seek to retain or recapture control. Who could believe that a soft-spoken leader such as Mr Assad would prefer to destroy his country rather than leave his palace? Those were the truths that brought hope to the ground.

Just as the spring itself was more than just a set of national events, so the current period of counter-revolution is an international matter. Conservatives across the region have received powerful backing from the Gulf. One early and stark example of this was Bahrain, where the ruling family called on fellow Sunni monarchs to help it crush a pro-democracy movement championed by its Shia majority. Last year’s intervention in Yemen by a Saudi-sponsored coalition can be seen in the same light. The Saudis are seeking not only to thwart Houthi rebels, whose Iranian backing they revile. They are trying to force a return to the status quo.

The most internationalised conflict is the bitter civil war in Syria, where powers from the region and beyond contend through proxies. The war has long since metastasised into a monumental free-for-all involving dozens of belligerents. But it remains at its core a fight between aggrieved citizens and a narrowly based—and in Syria’s case largely sectarian—elite intent on keeping its hold on power.


In Egypt, a nation-state of longer standing and greater stability, the ancien régime’s fight has—again with help from the Gulf—been won, for now. Egypt has long been seen as the region’s bellwether, and for good reason. Over the past five years it has provided the Arab spring’s most revealing story of failure; today it highlights the degree to which the tensions persist that brought about the uprisings.

The world looks just the same

In 2010, six months before the protests in Tahrir Square turned into the uprising (even Egyptian enthusiasts are now shy of calling it a revolution) that ousted Mr Mubarak, this newspaper warned of looming change in Egypt and suggested that there were three ways in which it might play out. The country might, like Iran in 1979, experience a popular revolution which would then be hijacked by Islamists. Like Turkey in the 2000s, it might become a genuine, if shaky and flawed, democracy, one with the power needed to tame the military-backed “deep state”. Or, like Russia, it might suffer a Putinist putsch, with the deep state reasserting control under a new strongman.

We were too parsimonious. Egypt has, in a jumbled fashion, experienced not just one but all three of these outcomes. Its revolutionaries did overcome, if briefly, the security forces that underpinned Mr Mubarak’s rule. Egyptians then voted in a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood—a government which, rather than shrinking the deep state, tried instead to insert party loyalists into its depths. (As it happens, this is also what Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government has been doing since 2011, with rather more success.) Popular anger against the Islamists, stoked and nurtured by the deep state, then brought Egypt to the Russian option in a soft coup that saw Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a general and the minister of defence, installed as president in June 2013.

Two and a half years later, Mr Sisi’s counter-revolution appears all but complete. Mr Mubarak and his cronies, not to mention the police responsible for killing and maiming hundreds in the clashes of 2011, are out of jail. Tens of thousands of Muslim Brothers, along with hundreds of secular revolutionaries, are imprisoned, in exile, or dead. Nearly 1,000 Islamists were killed when anti-coup protests were crushed in 2013. The Police have killed scores more since then; others have died from torture or neglect in prison.

Mr Sisi’s men have taken particular care to harass the technically adept young people whose social-media skills made the revolutionary experiment possible. And the state has made an unprecedented effort to control the courts, universities and media. A tailor-made constitution that grants sweeping powers to the president and the army, and electoral rules designed to produce a fragmented parliament, furnish it with the trappings of democracy. But it is a sham. The Mukhabarat (secret police) intervened in 2015’s elections to ensure supine legislative loyalty to the president. Not surprisingly, turnout was dismal, particularly among the young. Their disdain proved further justified when the government abruptly cancelled the results of December’s student-council elections in the country’s universities. Pro-revolution candidates had won across the board.

Many Egyptians praise Mr Sisi for delivering the country from both Islamists and revolutionary hotheads. Many more now shun politics altogether, which from the autocrats’ point of view is almost as happy a result. The Muslim Brotherhood remains in shattered abeyance and more radical Islamists, who have mounted terror attacks and grabbed a chunk of territory in north-east Sinai, have not made broader inroads among the general public. Another uprising on the scale of 2011 is unlikely in the near future.

But the effort to build a bigger, stronger “wall of fear” has further alienated Egypt’s people from a state that is not just cruel, arbitrary and unaccountable, but also both too incompetent and too broke to buy their acquiescence. Investors are put off by erratic policymaking, the overweening power of the army and Mukhabarat, and unpredictable, often vindictive courts. Egypt’s government debt remains colossal. The budget deficit has topped 10% every year since 2011; in mid-2015 Egypt’s combined domestic and foreign liabilities pushed past 100% of GDP. The currency is in decline—and so is tourism. Incidents such as the killing of a group of Mexican tourists mistaken for terrorists by the air force, or the government’s farcical handling of what appears to have been the bombing of a Russian civilian airliner on Egyptian territory in October, show the state to be inept. Mr Sisi’s benefactors in the Gulf, who have propped up his regime with perhaps $30 billion in cheap loans, central-bank deposits and fuel, are reputedly running out of patience and risk running out of money. Repeatedly bailed out in the past, Egypt has no more saviours-in-waiting.

Tip my hat to the new constitution

A recent tweet—“Has anyone tried switching Egypt off and turning it on again?”—sums up the despairing mood of this broken country’s people. For lack of an alternative, or an on-off switch, most have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, praying that Mr Sisi will lighten his grip or hoping for a palace coup to install a less military-minded ruler. “The cheapest option is internal change inside the regime,” says Abdel Moneim Abul Fotoh, a former Muslim Brother whose centrist platform captured 4m votes in the 2012 presidential election. “Revolutions are cumulative, and it will take time for pressure to accumulate.”

But if the uprising changed little in the way things work, it changed much in how they are perceived. Hani Shukrallah, an Egyptian commentator, likens memories of Tahrir Square to King Hamlet’s ghost, a presence that may be intangible yet remains the driving force of the drama, and which mutely insists that something is rotten in the state of Egypt.

What underlies the rot, in Egypt and elsewhere, is the failure of generations of Arab elites to create accountable and effective models of governance, and to promote education. After some 60 years of essentially fascistic rule—the forced rallying behind a bemedalled patriarch, pomp and parades and propaganda disguising the reality that the people have no voice—it was perhaps not surprising that the backlash, when it came, was inarticulate and lacked direction. The Arab revolutions produced few leaders, few credible programmes for action, and few ideas. But they did produce much-needed clarity about such things as what political Islam actually means in practice, where the Arabs stand in the world and with each other, and what the weaknesses and strengths of Arab states and societies are.

Before it came to brief and inglorious power in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood attracted believers with the simple but vague slogan “Islam is the solution”. Experience now prompts many more Arabs to ask, which Islam? If it is the arm-twisting, head-lopping version proclaimed by Islamic State (IS), which dismisses all Muslims but its own ardent followers as shirkers and sinners, there are few takers. If it means giving political power to more mainstream religious figures who cannot agree on points of doctrine, this does not look appetising either. Nor do the Muslim Brothers, who revealed themselves to be conservatives bent on capturing rather than reforming the state, hold much more of an appeal.

For decades Arab opinion-makers have ascribed a host of regional ills to Western—and particularly American—meddling, even as its leaders turned habitually to the West for aid or military protection. And the West is hardly innocent; the biggest regional debacle until recent years was America’s spectacularly inept occupation of Iraq. But the morass left by that unforced error, along with the West’s ineffectual response to the Arab spring, have convinced all but a conspiracy-addled fringe that there is not much substance to talk of Western omnipotence, American hegemony or even a Zionist conspiracy. The West’s capacities have been revealed as limited and seldom effectively exercised. It is the region’s own weakness, rather than malign Western intent, that keeps sucking in outside powers.

At the same time many Arabs have also seen, not for the first time but perhaps now more clearly than ever, how weak the links between Arab states actually are, despite decades of slogans proclaiming Arab unity. And they have seen how weak the states themselves are, and more sadly how weak many of their own societies are. Iraqis and Syrians are fond of saying that before the American invasion or the 2011 uprising there were no tensions between Sunnis and Shias. If this is true, though, such solidarity was very easily shattered.

History ain’t changed

If states’ weaknesses stand exposed, so do their workings. In Egypt and Tunisia, and even more so in Mr Assad’s Syria, no one used to know who in which of the many competing security agencies really controlled what, or how. They could not put their finger on the way that, say, a compliant judiciary fitted in to the overall shape of things. Now they can. In Egypt the current crop of thoughtful young revolutionaries shuns the street in favour of drawing up quiet plans for overhauling the police or reforming the judiciary. If another uprising starts, its demands will go beyond the removal of a figurehead and the election of a legislature kept well away from the levers of real power.

Mr Sisi and Mr Mubarak: meet the new boss…

And what else may be on the agenda for change? One place to look is to IS—which, in ghastly irony, is the only truly new model of government that the wave of revolutions has thrown up. The group is monstrous. Its “state” is in many ways a far nastier reproduction of previous autocratic regimes, overlaid with a brutal “Islamic” veneer that most Muslims find repulsive. Yet the fact that this ugly experiment survives at all, despite the world’s semi-united efforts to abort it, holds lessons for the region.

Although IS’s laws are grotesque, other Arab states should take note that its emphasis on quick and firm justice appeals not only to Syrians and Iraqis desperate for order amid chaos. It responds to a burning public need to right decades of perceived wrongs. So does IS’s intolerance of corruption within its own ranks and its focus, even with limited means, on providing services such as health, education and social welfare. Unlike other Arab states, which tend to be hyper-centralised, IS grants broad powers to local administrators. These officials seek to regulate and tax commerce rather than to control it. Instead of assuming ownership of the oil industry, as nearly all other Arab states do, it sells the crude oil in its territory at the wellhead, subsequently exacting taxes from the people who go on to refine and transport it.

The missing ingredients in this formula are obvious: a basic respect for human rights and for diversity, systems of accountability, a method of lawmaking that pays heed to the will and interest of the public and not simply religious texts or the whims of a so-called caliph. Such essential components of good governance are often lazily bundled together as part of a grab-bag labelled democracy. The Arab spring showed that it may be these constituent elements, more than such theatrics as toppling tyrants or holding noisy elections, that are the key to success.

In the tense calm that has settled over countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, in the brittle peace that will no doubt eventually prevail across Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and during the continuing, ever-expectant pause endured by other Arabs as they wait for change, it is these kinds of institutional building blocks that need attending to. Arabs may take heart from the fact that in Europe, the supposedly revolutionary years of 1848 and 1968 produced little forward motion; indeed their immediate effect was to prompt a conservative backlash. A.J.P. Taylor, a historian, described 1848, a year of continent-wide insurrection against autocracy, as a moment when “history reached a turning point but failed to turn.”

But in both cases revolutionary change did come, in protracted form, in the next generation. It was brought about less by street action than by quiet evolutions in culture, society and the economy, and by the building of new and stronger institutions. It is not as intoxicating as mass action in Tahrir Square. But if some future season of rebirth is to lead to a lasting summer, there needs to be some thoroughgoing climate change first.


Saudi Money and the Spread of Wahhabism In South Asia

January 8, 2016

Saudi Money and the Spread of Wahhabism In South Asia

By Akhilesh Pillalamarri, Columnist

The Spread of Wahhabism

A new school of Islam from Saudi Arabia is transforming South Asia’s religious landscape. Wahhabism, a fundamental Sunni school of Islam originating in Saudi Arabia, entered South Asia in the late 1970s. With public and private Saudi funding, Wahhabism has steadily gained influence among Muslim communities throughout the region.

As a result, the nature of South Asian Islam has significantly changed in the last three decades. The result has been an increase in Islamist violence in Pakistan, Indian Kashmir, and Bangladesh. While governments in South Asia have not initially made the connection between Saudi Arabian money and the radicalization of Islam in their own countries, it is now clear that Wahhabism’s spread is increasing fundamentalism in South Asia.

Islam in South Asia has traditionally been distinct from Middle Eastern Islam. Sufism –mystical Islam – as well as elements of syncretism with Hinduism and other native religions characterize South Asian Islam. Muslim rulers throughout South Asia in the medieval period were often isolated from the rest of the Muslim world and relied upon a large number of non-Muslim subjects.[1] Consequently, South Asian Islam incorporated customs mainstream Islam frowns upon, such as visiting the shrines and graves of holy men, meditative practices influenced by yoga, and the use of music for worship.[2]

Due to the influence of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, South Asian Islam began to change as private individuals and the Saudi government poured money into South Asian mosques and madrassas.[3] As a result, many South Asians are now Wahhabis or members of related sects that practice a form of austere Islam similar to the type found in Saudi Arabia. One of these sects is a conservative movement known as the Deobandi movement, which, while indigenous to South Asia, is influenced by Wahhabism. The great rivals of the Deobandis in South Asia are adherents of the Barelvi movement, which was formed in reaction to the Deobandis and seeks to preserve the Islamic practices of South Asia, especially pilgrimages to graves and shrines.

Saudi influence entered Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent war in the 1980s, in the form of funds for madrassas and mosques in Pakistan, in order to create and train mujahedeen to fight atheistic Soviet Communism. Saudi Arabia’s government money funded both Deobandi and Wahhabi madrassas throughout Pakistan, and Saudi charities also poured money into Pakistan with the blessing of the Saudi government.[4] Initially, the mushrooming of Wahhabi and Deobandi groups worked to produce mujahedeen to fight in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Later, elements of the Pakistani government, notably the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), saw the spread of Wahhabism as useful in creating jihadist proxies to influence Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir. As a result, despite the end of the Soviet-Afghan war in 1989, the influence of Wahhabism continued to grow in Pakistan. Additionally, due to the poor nature of Pakistan’s education system, Saudi-funded madrassas educated many of the most impoverished who would have otherwise not had a chance to go to school.

Today, Saudi money continues to fund Wahhabi and Deobandi groups that promote their ideology in Pakistan with the tacit approval of the Pakistani government. The success of Saudi money in converting Muslim groups to Wahhabism has since been replicated in other parts of South Asia, including parts of India and Bangladesh. In the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Saudi influence has led to 1.5 million people, from a population of 8 million, to affiliate with Wahhabi mosques.[5] A Saudi-funded group, Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith claims 16 percent of Kashmir’s population as its members and has built 700 mosques and 150 schools.[6] Police in Jammu and Kashmir believe this is the result of a $35 billion plan approved by Saudi Arabia’s government in 2005 to build mosques and madrassas in South Asia.[7] Additionally, Saudi Arabia distributed free religious literature and provided stipends to Wahhabi preachers.[8]

In Bangladesh, individuals radicalized in Wahhabi-funded mosques have coalesced under the fundamentalist organization Hefazat-e-Islam, which was implicated in the January 2014 incident when its members took to the streets in violent protests and demanded the implementation of Islamic law in Bangladesh.[9] In Jammu and Kashmir, the practice of visiting shrines has declined and the use of burkas among women has increased.[10] There is a general fear that the influence of Wahhabism throughout South Asia will dilute moderate interpretations of Islam in South Asia.

Saudi Arabia has several motivations in spreading Wahhabism throughout South Asia. The first is a genuine zeal for spreading the movement’s teachings. It has been the policy of the Wahhabi movement to evangelize from its inception, and Saudi oil money gives it the means to do so.[11] Saudi Arabia’s initial success in Pakistan showed Saudi Arabia that South Asia, with its relatively weak governments and lack of regulation on foreign money, is fertile ground for the spread of Wahhabi influence.[12] Additionally, Saudi Arabia noticed the ease with which Wahhabis formed strong bonds with the region’s native Deobandis.[13] Another reason Saudi Arabia is spreading Wahhabism in South Asia is to counter the influence of Shia Iran. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 created an expressively Shia state, Saudi Arabia has promoted Wahhabism wherever it could in order to fight Shia Islam. This includes South Asia, where Saudi Arabia wants to counter Iran’s tendency to use Shias groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan to expand its political influence in those countries.[14]

Unless governments throughout South Asia take steps to limit the influence of Saudi money and encourage alternative sources of funding for mosques and madrassas, Saudi-funded Wahhabi influence will continue to spread throughout South Asia, radicalizing its Muslims, and hampering efforts by South Asian governments to fight radical Islam and promote modernization.

[1] John Keay, India: A History (London: HarperCollins, 2004), 279.

[2] Barbara D. Metcalf, Islam in South Asia in Practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 13.

[3] Ahmad Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (London: Allen Lane, 2012), 202.

[4]Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), 191; Riaz Muhammad Khan. Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity (Washington: The Woodrow Wilson Press, 2011), 185.

[5] Tariq Mir, “Kashmir: The Rise of a Hard Faith,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, December 13, 2011,

[6] Asit Jolly, “The Wahhabi Invasion,”India Today, December 23, 2011,

[7] Jolly, “The Wahhabi Invasion.”

[8] Tariq Mir, “Purifying Kashmir,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, May 8, 2012,

[9] “Anarchy at the Ballot Box: Bangladesh Rising,” Vice News, April 15, 2014,

[10] Jolly, “The Wahhabi Invasion.”

[11] Ed Husain, “Saudis Must Stop Exporting Extremism,” The New York Times, August 22, 2014,

[12] Chowdhury, “Muslim by Religiously Liberal.”

[13] Khan, 186.

[14] Abbas Nasir, “Zia’s Long Shadow,” Dawn, July 6, 2012,


First Year of the ASEAN Community

January 6, 2016

First Year of the ASEAN Community

by Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid

munir majidAT the start of every new year, there usually will be reflection on the last one just gone by, to learn from and build on it, and to resolve to do better.

In the past year, the ASEAN Community has been pronounced. But there are detractors. Does it really exist? What exists?There are national preoccupations that take priority. In four ASEAN member states there will be new or realigned political leadership. Political challenges are faced by all ASEAN countries, in different shades of the existential.

At different levels of threat, there are economic headwinds caused by depressed commodity prices, slower growth in China and increasing interest rates. While the ASEAN Economic Community has been pronounced, with all the potential of a single economy, each member state faces its particular challenges on its own to avoid social stresses and political consequences.

So what difference does the ASEAN community make?The first thing to remember is that ASEAN does not displace the individual nation-state. Each member state has chosen not to subsume any part of its sovereignty to a larger ASEAN institution or entity. Certainly in respect of internal affairs the principle of non-interference is sacrosanct. Therefore it would be misplaced to expect Asean to make a direct difference in the solution of the many challenges its members states will face in 2016.

However, all these problems could become more numerous and complicated if there was no ASEAN. For example, ASEAN cooperation makes it more difficult for terrorist groups to conduct their acts of violence within or outside individual countries. Clearly, abetment of internal insurrection has pretty well been absent as ASEAN grew and became member states seeking to be a community for peace, development and prosperity.

ASEAN Summit 2015

It is also often contended that if there was no ASEAN, the level of non-regional foreign interference would be so great as to divide South-East Asian states, even set them at loggerheads with one another.

This point is salient when we consider the situation in the South China Sea where four ASEAN states have territorial claims together with China (and Taiwan). How this matter is resolved – and with what level of extra-regional involvement – is something that affects the whole region and not just those four countries.

South China Sea

Will The South China Sea Dispute break up ASEAN?

That is why the South China Sea disputes have become the touchstone of the contention ASEAN keeps disturbing outside interlopers out and the region together. In 2016 – if there is to be any belief in the ASEAN political community – the absolute minimum must be the conclusion of the binding code of conduct on the South China Sea, as presaged in the Declaration of Conduct with China in 2002.

However, if China continues with establishing the series of fiat accompli through reclamation and other works while dragging its feet on the code of conduct, there has to be an ASEAN Plan B in 2016 on the involvement of the United States in the South China Sea disputes. That conversation some individual ASEAN states – like Singapore – have already had but has to be developed at the group level when ASEAN holds its summit with the Americans in California on February 15-16, 2016. (And not just for everyone to spend the time checking on progress of the Star Wars Theme Park in Disneyland).

ASEANn now has a strategic partnership with the United States. It has to work out in 2016 what this means. It has also, more immediately, to have that Plan B clear in the head. Otherwise we can look forward to a messy US-China struggle and the end of stability in the region which the ASEAN community is supposed to preserve.

ASEAN foreign ministries need to get moving in 2016 not only because of the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea. There is also the real danger of deep division being exposed this year under Lao PDR chairmanship which might be overly influenced by China – and then have the division accentuated when the Philippines takes the chair in 2017.

That ASEAN nightmare must be avoided. The community will crack before it is fully formed. If protected what is promised will begin to be experienced, even if not to the fullest extent. However there is work to be done in the first year of the ASEAN community to give an experience of being Asean to the common man. Many now laud the existence of ASEAN lanes at airports. It will not be a giant leap this year to make them available at ALL points of international entry in ALL ASEAN countries.

There are many other simple steps that should be taken in 2016 to give that ASEAN experience to the common man. It does not take much to have the ASEAN Business Travel Card given that there is already the Apec Business Travel Card among six ASEAN members states in APEC. Issue a supplementary card? Call it ASEANn instead of APEC? Anyone got a handle on this?

There are a few other simple propositions which I have enumerated ad nauseam in these columns. A good start to 2016 is to get cracking on them: ASEAN food stalls, cafes, boutiques, internships. Who has been put in charge to drive these things? It would not be a sovereignty-threatening move.

We are here talking about very simple measures in the context of the people-centered and people-oriented ASEAN community, made much of in its pronouncement and in Vision 2025. We are not even approaching issues such as greater protection of human rights and better governance which, realistically, would not be something to be expected in 2016, or at the near end of the Asean community.

But let me reflect finally on the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) which has received the most attention among the three community pillars. AEC Vision 2025, as with the other pillars, sets another marker, but it should not be used as another date that pushes out the moment of truth.

Former Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, when speaking at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in November, related how when he first attended the ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting (AEM) he had asked if having the AEC in 2015 meant at its start, in the middle of the year or at its end. Everyone sheepishly finally settled on December 31, 2015.

This instinct, to push out, and then to rush towards a minimalist end, is ASEAN. Apologists say this is the way ASEAN does not break up. But this is the way also ASEAN could crack up. Like against urgent issues such as the South China Sea disputes. Like with a young ASEAN population that is less patient and more enjoined with one another through social media as well as fast information flows.

ASEAN cannot continue to always push dates out and work like mad at the end of a period. Vision 2025 therefore must start in 2016. What was not achieved at the end of 2015 must be addressed at the start of 2016, not towards the end of 2025.

The AEC Vision 2025 talks about the non-tariff barriers (NTBs) that remain. ASEAN Economic Ministers committed to the Asean Business Advisory Council (ASEAN-BAC) that there will be a concentration on at least four sectors to remove the significant NTBs. This is supposed to be achieved in 2016. Let the work begin.

The role of the private sector is also supposed to be enhanced to drive the AEC integration process. This also has to be worked out at the start of 2016, including the strengthening of ASEAN-BAC and the involvement of well-resourced ASEAN and non-ASEAN business organisations.

As the dust settled at the end of the 27th ASEAN summit  last year, it felt rather like everyone packing up at the end of the school year, and then going away. There usually is a hang-over and a lot of scratching about as the new year starts. In ASEAN’s case, it should not be allowed to be as the new ten-year start.

Tan Sri Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.


OPEN LETTER: Malaysian Bar, Advocates’ Association of Sarawak and Sabah Law Association to Prime Minister of Malaysia

January 6, 2016

OPEN LETTER: Malaysian Bar, Advocates’ Association of Sarawak and Sabah Law Association to Prime Minister of Malaysia on NSC Bill 2015

aas.sla.bc.malaysian bar

The Malaysian Bar, the Advocates’ Association of Sarawak and the Sabah Law Association are seriously concerned with the National Security Council Bill 2015 that was passed by the Dewan Rakyat on December 1, 2015 and the Dewan Negara on December 22, 2015.

It is worrying that this far-reaching piece of legislation has been hastily dealt with by Parliament despite widespread concerns expressed by various parties. The government’s refusal to engage meaningfully with critics of the bill and to properly respond to the mounting criticism of it is regrettable.

We are disconcerted that the government has failed to fully explain the reasons for the Bill. There have been some references to the Lahad Datu incident and the creation of Eastern Sabah Security Command. However, these references are questionable because first, the Lahad Datu incident took place more than two years ago. Thus, there was no reason for the sudden rush for this bill in the past month.

Second, Article 150 of the Federal Constitution provides for the proclamation of an emergency, which would provide sufficient powers to address any future incidents of territorial incursion, like that of Lahad Datu.

We wish to briefly highlight some of our serious concerns on the bill, as follows:

There is an absence of any reference to relevant provisions of the Federal Constitution such as Article 149 (Legislation against subversion, organised violence, and acts and crimes prejudicial to the public) or Article 150 (Emergency Powers) of the Federal Constitution in the preamble to the bill despite the wide powers on matters concerning national security and, further, the provisions for the exercise of emergency-like powers.

The bill creates a new statutory entity called the National Security Council. It is clear that NSC is markedly different – in its composition, scope of function and responsibilities — from the existing administrative body also known as the National Security Council. There has been no explanation as to why NSC has been established as a statutory body by the Bill and clothed with the wide powers under the bill.

NSC is to be “the government’s central authority for considering matters concerning national security”. Thus, this suggests that NSC will have executive power on national security matters and will have the final say on this critical matter.

NSC’s scope of authority on matters concerning national security is unduly broad, as “national security” is not defined in the bill. NSC would be able to treat almost any matter as one of national security for the purposes of the bill. There are no checks and balances to this seemingly unbridled executive power in the hands of NSC.

The functions of NSC include “to perform any other functions relating to national security for the proper implementation of this Act” (see Clause 4(d)). NSC will also have the power to “control” and “issue directives” to “any ministry, department, office, agency, authority, commission, committee, board or council of the Federal Government, or of any of the state governments, established under any written law or otherwise” on operations or matters concerning national security (see Clauses 2 and 5).

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak inspects the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) youth during the annual assembly in Kuala Lumpur

Thus, a whole host of instrumentalities of the Federal Government or State Governments – which could include Bank Negara Malaysia, Securities Commission and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission – would be made subservient to NSC. The independence of these entities could be irreversibly compromised or undermined. Further, the authority of state governments can be overridden.

It is of critical importance to note that the extensive powers of NSC over instrumentalities of the federal government or state governments is exercisable without a declaration of a “security area”.

This appears to be an unprecedented conferment of executive powers on a statutory body by the Parliament, and these enormous powers are available to NSC even where the conditions for the declaration of a security area (as stated in Clause 18) are not met. In short, the NSC’s powers are akin to emergency powers, but exercisable without a declaration of emergency under Article 150 by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

The bill enables NSC to command the Armed Forces, thus violating Article 41 of the Federal Constitution, which states that the Agong is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the federation.

The Bill further infringes Article 137(1) of the Federal Constitution, which states that it is the Agong who shall be responsible for the command, discipline and administration of, and all other matters relating to, the armed forces. In addition, Section 168(3) of the Armed Forces Act 1972 states that no power vested in the Agong may be affected by any written law.

The composition of NSC is troubling, as all the members are appointed by the Prime Minister, and NSC will therefore not be an independent body. The Director-General of NSC is also to be appointed by the Prime Minister.

In contrast, the equivalent NSC in France – the Council of Defence and National Security – includes the Head of State (the President) in its composition, which provides a measure of check and balance.

It is further troubling that the NSC is empowered to demand that all government entities shall transmit national security-related information or intelligence to it immediately, making the NSC the sole intelligence coordinating agency of the country.

NSC is empowered to advise the Prime Minister to declare any area in Malaysia as a “security area” if NSC is of the view that the security in that area is “seriously disturbed or threatened by any person, matter or thing which causes or is likely to cause serious harm to the people, or serious harm to the territories, economy, national key infrastructure of Malaysia or any other interest in Malaysia, and requires immediate national response”.

This provision gives NSC a broad discretion, predicated on wide and vague grounds, to advise that an area be declared as a “security area”. Thus it undoubtedly allows for the exercise of emergency powers that only the Agong may exercise under Article 150, and is therefore a provision that is unconstitutional.

The declaration by the Prime Minister for an initial period of six months and “may be renewed by the prime minister from time to time for such period, not exceeding six months at a time”.

Thus, the Prime Minister may extend the period of the declaration for an unlimited number of times, and therefore for an indeterminate duration of years. There is provision for the declaration to be “laid before the Parliament” but this is in the nature of notification to the Parliament and not for the purposes of debate and ex post facto sanction by the Parliament.

Upon a declaration of an area as a “security area”, NSC would have wide-ranging executive powers. It may issue executive orders that would include the deployment of security forces (such as the police and the armed forces) in the security area, and may appoint a director of operations who is answerable only to NSC.

The bill does not provide for the qualifications of the Director of Operations, who is to have enormous and unrestricted powers, such as the power to remove any person from the security area, impose curfew, and control movement of persons or vehicles.

As regards the deployed security forces, they “may, without warrant, arrest any person found committing, alleged to have committed or reasonably suspected of having committed any offence under any written laws in the security area”.

The security forces also have powers to stop and search individuals; enter and search any premises; and take possession of any land, building or movable property (such as cars) in a security area.

All constitutional guarantees and fundamental rights of citizens in respect of arrest, search and seizure of property can be ignored or suspended for infringing “any written laws in the security area”. This is a grave violation of the Federal Constitution.

The bill allows for the creation of a security area where the military may be deployed by NSC for the purpose of an internal security operation other than armed conflict. Here, the bill places the command of the military under a civil agency, which is unusual.

Further, the law of armed conflict dictates that unless the threat is a “real threat” and “not a perceived threat”, and that it is an act of war between nations, the threat falls within the jurisdiction of the police or any other government agencies, and not under the military.

The bill also appears to violate the Rules of Engagement (Rules of Confirmation) of the military, by allowing for any member of the security forces to use “reasonable and necessary” force.

Finally, there is power to dispense with inquests in respect of members of the security forces and persons killed within the security area, as long as a magistrate “is satisfied that the person has been killed in the security area as a result of operations undertaken by the security forces for the purpose of enforcing any written laws”.

“Written laws” are not defined, and could well include laws in respect of minor offences. Thus, this provision permits security forces to use disproportionate force that could result in the loss of lives, with impunity.

We consider the bill to be a serious threat to our system of constitutional government. It is apparent that the bill vests and concentrates enormous executive and emergency powers in NSC and the prime minister.

This upsets the delicate separation of powers in the constitution between the executive, legislature and judiciary on the one hand, and the constitutional monarchy on the other hand.

It would appear that the powers are in effect emergency powers, but without the need for a proclamation of an emergency under Article 150. This usurps the powers vested in the Agong, and effectively resurrects the powers granted to the government under the Emergency Ordinances, which were repealed by Parliament in 2011.

We are aware of the constant refrain that new powers, such as found in the bill, are necessary to combat the threat of terrorism. However, we would remind the government that it has more than enough laws giving it powers to address security concerns.

The bill extends those powers even further, allowing the government to restrict movement, abandon civil liberties, and administer areas centrally and directly, bypassing state and local government. It avoids public scrutiny and proper accountability, and promotes unfettered discretion and an environment of impunity.

The Malaysian Bar, the Advocates’ Association of Sarawak and the Sabah Law Association urge the government to seriously reconsider the bill and not bring it into force, and to engage with all concerned parties on the proper role and function of NSC.

There are fundamental concerns and consequences associated with the NSC Bill that require careful discussion by, and input from all stakeholders involved. The government should take a step back to properly address these concerns for the sake of the nation. – January 6, 2016.


ASEAN at court in Sunnylands

January 6, 2016

Foreign Affairs: ASEAN at court in Sunnylands

by Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum

At the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, in November, 2015. President Barack Obama reached out to elevate the United States–ASEAN relationship to a ‘strategic partnership’ and invited ASEAN Leaders to a summit that, it’s now been announced, will take place at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California on 15–16 February. This is a bold initiative of possible geopolitical consequence.

Obama–In search of a Legacy

This will be the first such summit hosted by the United States with ASEAN leaders. Its declared aim is to build on ‘the deeper partnership that the United States has forged with ASEAN since 2009 and will further advance the Administration’s rebalance to Asia and the Pacific. For nearly 40 years, the United States and ASEAN have worked toward stability, prosperity, and peace in Southeast Asia. This summit will provide leaders a forum to strengthen cooperation under the new United States–ASEAN strategic partnership, launched in Kuala Lumpur, on political, security, and economic issues.

When President Obama issued the invitation, he made clear what the US agenda would be. He commended ASEAN’s ‘vital role in advancing a rules-based order for the Asia-Pacific’ and for working to ensure that all nations uphold international law and norms, including the peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. He applauded ASEAN’s work to create a code of conduct for the South China Sea. And he urged that claimants should halt reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas for the sake of regional stability. He lauded the formation of the ASEAN Community as another major step toward integrating economies and greater regional stability. And he identified the United States, a major investor that did an enormous amount of trade in ASEAN, as a continuing and reliable partner. He saw climate change, educational and scientific exchanges and cooperation in counter-terrorism as ongoing areas of focus in the dialogue with ASEAN.

Sunnylands is, symbolically, where Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping met for their G2 Summits over the past two years. The meeting with the ASEAN leaders will seek to broaden the budding ‘strategic partnership’ between ASEAN and the United States. This relationship has grown out of the US ‘pivot’ towards Asia. On the economic front, the major objective at the summit will be to woo ASEAN majors, such as Indonesia, towards participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) once it is implemented down the track. On the political front, the not-so-hidden agenda will be laying down some markers on how to deal with the rise of China.

The political leaders are likely to be accompanied by an entourage of business heavies on both sides. Immediately after the summit, on 17 February, the US–ASEAN Business Council will sponsor a conference in San Francisco for visiting government and business leaders.

One idea is that the Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) agenda between the United States and ASEAN put in place a couple of years ago might be transformed into something that provides a platform for active engagement of non-TPP ASEAN members in long-term participation. But the main focus should be the ASEAN Economic Community, the centrepiece of the 2016 ASEAN Summit, the occasion of Obama’s last visit to Asia as President.

With ASEAN at sixes and sevens on all these fronts, it’s difficult to foretell where the outcome of the summit might land. Leadership on these questions in ASEAN is strikingly absent.All of this leads one to reflect on the passing of Lee Kuan Yew and the role of Singapore in crafting Southeast Asia’s future.

Lee and Dr. Mahathir

ASEAN in need of Action, not just Big Ideas

In this week’s lead essay, Michael Barr notes that, after a spectacular win in this year’s election the People’s Action Party (PAP) — Lee’s political legacy — is left holding the prize of Singaporean leadership but having precious little idea about what to do with it.Significantly, many of the challenges Singapore faces, says Barr, ‘are municipal and small-picture in nature, reflecting the limited horizons of politics in the city-state. These include building new flats and railway lines; breaking the weekly cycle of train breakdowns; keeping a cap on both the rate of immigration and the cost of living; installing and spreading a new raft of welfare benefits without building an expectation of entitlement; avoiding man-made floods in downtown Singapore; and spreading health coverage while keeping costs down. These are the front line challenges in Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew’. Even in the international arena, the front line issue is remarkably ‘domestic’: stopping the haze from Indonesian forest clearance.

Singapore was a pioneer of export-oriented industrialisation in Southeast Asia, Barr points out, sucking in American capital and spewing forth goods for American consumers, but neither American capital nor the American consumer market is quite so rich these days — and in any case they have plenty of other options now. In the early 1980s Singapore was also ahead of the world in investing in China, and made itself integral to a China-based international manufacturing network. Singapore is still integral to all of this, but Chinese growth has slowed to less than 7 per cent per annum, and — just as in the case of the United States — China has many more options now.

Singapore, like ASEAN, is now desperately in need of big new ideas. With the ASEAN Economic Community, the prize is there for the taking, so it will be important, amid the temptations of diplomatic attention over the coming year, not to be distracted from securing it.

Peter Drysdale is the editor of the East Asia Forum.



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