After years of winnowing through candidates, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has anointed Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as his successor. Back in 2016 there were six candidates for the role but one by one they were removed from contention, mostly by mechanisms in the form of gifts from the Prime Minister. One of the stronger candidates, for instance, was unexpectedly made Speaker of the House, which put him out of contention.
There is no formal process of selection and the decisions are made behind closed doors, with narratives about the selection process generated retrospectively. The trigger for the final declaration of Heng Swee Keat as the designated successor was his election to the rather obscure position of First Assistant Secretary-General of the ruling People’s Action Party. This election was initially greeted as an indicator that Heng Swee Keat was merely the front runner to be next Prime Minister but in the space of a day it morphed into a declaration of succession.
Heng Swee Keat was already known to be Lee Hsien Loong’s favourite even before 2016. When Heng Swee Keat suffered a stroke during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016 and spent six days in a coma, it was universally accepted as being a blow to Lee Hsien Loong’s succession plans. Only extreme medical intervention saved Heng Swee Keat’s career and brought him back into contention. Since then, the process of selecting the next prime minister has suffered unexplained delays. Now we know why the delay was necessary: to give Heng Swee Keat a chance to settle doubts about his health, while the other candidates were dropped.
Heng Swee Keat was never an obvious candidate. He has a relatively narrow range of Cabinet and professional experience and is a rather awkward public speaker. No one doubts his technocratic competence, nor that he will be ‘a safe pair of hands’ but few, if any, suggest that he has strong political skills. So why did Lee Hsien Loong endorse Heng Swee Keat ahead of younger, stronger and healthier candidates with better political instincts?
The question is easier to answer if we begin by asking who will be the next prime minister after Heng Swee Keat. Lee Hsien Loong’s son, Li Hongyi, is currently a senior civil servant working in one of the divisions of the Prime Ministers’ Office and has been identified by his close relatives as harbouring political ambitions. Li Hongyi denies that he wants to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps but he and his mother have been carefully cultivating his media and social media profiles as one would for an aspiring politician. Rumours are now circulating that he will enter parliament at the next General Election in 2020.
Lee Hsien Loong is 66 and indicated he would like to step down by age 70, which would make Heng Swee Keat about 61 when he becomes prime minister. If his health holds up, Heng Swee Keat can expect to enjoy a decade or perhaps longer as Prime Minister, by which time Li Hongyi would be 45 to 50 — an acceptable age for a prime ministerial aspirant.
Granted that any of the six original candidates would have met the basic threshold of political and administrative competence, the attraction of Heng Swee Keat is his age, health record and ordinary communication skills. In short, he is not likely to disturb a succession plan by overstaying his welcome — as did former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was supposed to be a stop gap between Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong but persisted in the job for 14 years.
The main risk of the Heng Swee Keat succession is that it leaves the government with a Prime Minister who has no record of being an effective politician (as opposed to an effective administrator) at a time when a number of political red flags have surfaced.
The most serious institutional issue is the government’s recent declaration that Housing and Development Board flats will have nil value at the end of their 99 year leases and at that point will revert to the government without compensation. This is a particularly uncomfortable issue because about 80 per cent of Singaporeans ‘own’ their flats and regard them as their main financial asset. The government has also spent decades talking up their values. Now it turns out that devaluing flats is part of its plan.
The government is not going to lose the next election but it does not like to leave anything to chance. In the absence of good political instincts and a mediocre record of administrative achievements, the Cabinet has upscaled the intensity of its repressive actions throughout 2018, continuing a trajectory that has been developing for several years.
This may be satisfactory as a short-term measure to retain control but it is not a great way to launch a new round of change in government, nor to lay the groundwork for the following generation.
Michael D. Barr is Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
Tropical rain is bucketing down when P. J. Thum arrives for our meeting at a semi-outdoor Starbucks amid high-rise public housing flats on Singapore’s unfashionable north side. Seeking quietness, we move inside a nearby shopping mall to a cafe offering beverages of a local flavour: black tea with the option of evaporated or condensed milk – the tannin-laden, chalky legacy of long-gone British military men.
Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, a fellow Singaporean and Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford.
Thum – full name Thum Ping Tjin – is 38 years old, athletic and preppy in tortoiseshell spectacles and a pink shirt. From Singapore’s ethnic Chinese majority, he has an Oxford doctorate in history, is a former Olympic swimmer and has an unblemished military service record. All of which makes him the ideal candidate to go far in Singapore’s kind of meritocracy − perhaps joining the “men in white” of the People’s Action Party, in power since 1959.
Except Thum made the wrong career choice for that. As his history specialisation developed, he’d been thinking of a biography of Vespasian, the Roman legionnaire who, after invading Britain and quelling the Jewish revolt, was installed as emperor by acclamation of his troops and ended a period of instability.
“Then I thought, ‘There are other people who can do that, many people doing way better work on Roman history than I could,’ ” he tells me. “ ‘But who’s going to do Singapore history?’ ”
Soon after his return to a postdoctoral fellowship at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a historic windfall came his way: the British government declassified its archive for the tumultuous year of 1963 in Singapore and Malaya when the two self-governing former colonies were moving to join up in the new, pro-Western nation of Malaysia, standing against the communist tide sweeping South-East Asia.
It contained documents about Operation Coldstore, the sweep by Singapore’s Special Branch in February 1963 to detain more than 100 politicians, trade unionists and activists without trial, ostensibly to prevent the underground Malayan Communist Party instigating unrest to hinder the formation of Malaysia.
From these documents, Thum found the proof of what many had long suspected: that then Chief Minister Lee Kuan Yew mounted Coldstore chiefly to nobble the leftist opposition party, Barisan Sosialis, looming as a serious challenge to his People’s Action Party (PAP) in forthcoming elections. The archive shows Lee virtually admitting as much to British officials. It set a pattern of ruthless use of communist scares and preventive detention powers that Lee employed for decades.
As he wrote and talked about these findings, Thum soon got the answer to his question about who would write Singaporean history.
“Only someone brave or stupid enough,” he says. “Here it is almost career suicide to do Singapore history, because eventually you run into the problem of either you have to censor yourself in Singapore or you leave Singapore and you enter an industry which is not interested nowadays in this sort of niche history.”
Within a year, a senior NUS administrator pulled him aside. “I am not supposed to tell you this, but a directive has come down from the top,” the official said. “You’re blacklisted: no renewal, no extension, no new contract. You’d better make plans.”
Thum went back to Oxford, then returned to Singapore with funding from the Open Society Foundations of George Soros and other donations big and small to start New Naratif, a web platform for research, journalism and art in South-East Asia.
In Singapore he is not alone in myth-busting. In 2014, he contributed to the book Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, which queried many PAP narratives. It regarded meritocracy as a cover for elitism and groupthink; low taxes and migrant labour benefiting the wealthy and punishing ordinary locals; the purchase of government flats a trap rather than economic security.
The writers saw themselves as helping point Singapore to a more sustainable prosperity, explains co-author Donald Low, an economist and former finance ministry official, in what seemed at the time a new era of flexibility and contested policy on the part of the PAP.
In 2011, in the economic doldrums after the global financial crisis, voters gave the party and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew – a severe shock. The PAP vote dropped by 6.5 points to 60 per cent, the lowest since 1963. The Workers Party gained six of the 87 seats, the best opposition result since Singapore broke from Malaysia in 1965. In a separate presidential election, a widely liked maverick came close to beating the PAP’s preferred candidate.
Lee responded with social policy reforms, hints of openness and some humble gestures, notably cutting his own salary by 36 per cent to $S2.2 million and that of his ministers to $S1.1 million. The PAP has long argued that these salaries, still the highest in the world for elected officials, are necessary to attract top talent and lessen corrupt temptations.
However, in 2015, Lee Kuan Yew died, aged 91. After an effusion of national mourning his son called a snap election, in which the PAP vote rebounded to nearly 70 per cent. “The result of 2015 removed whatever impetus or pressure there was, both within and without,” Low tells me, over beers and another local adaptation of British cuisine, crispy-toasted Spam. “The reform appetite has completely gone out the window in Singapore in the last three years.”
Dig deeper, he says, and Singaporeans are far from the “crazy rich Asians” of this year’s hit film set in the glittering south side of the island, with its heritage hotels, fusion cuisine and rooftop infinity pools.
For a few, the island is like this. A bungalow sold last month for $S95 million, reflecting the top-end wealth created by income tax rates that plateau at 22 per cent at $S320,000 a year and the absence of capital gains or inheritance taxes. IT start-ups are thriving. British inventor James Dyson has just chosen Singapore to manufacture his new electric car.
For the rest, things are pretty stagnant. Citizens are now only about 60 per cent of the 5.6 million population, their wages and job openings depressed by workers imported from the wider region. The 85 per cent living in Housing and Development Board flats that they have been persuaded to buy have seen values flatten. They are likely to decline steadily once their “ownership” gets to the halfway point of what are actually 99-year leases.
Low and Thum see few responses coming out of the PAP now.
The fall of the similar-vintage United Malays National Organisation in Malaysia’s election this year has been a new shock. Under the returned Mahathir Mohamad, Kuala Lumpur is breaking its mould, ending capital punishment while Singapore steps up its hanging, winding back ethnic Malay privilege, and exposing how Goldman Sachs bankers, some based in Singapore, helped loot the 1MDB fund of billions.
It’s attracting some envy. “Because really we are the same country,” Thum said. “We just got split up by politicians who couldn’t get along. There are so many similarities that Singaporeans look north and see a society that looks so similar to ours but is heading in a different direction, with hope and vision, things that we lack.”
Singapore’s problem is ennui, not massive scandal. PAP leaders look back, arguing about who best embodies Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. In the 2015 election one even boasted about the lack of promises, since promises can be broken.
Lee Hsien Loong is only 66 and highly competent, but looks older than his years, after overcoming two types of cancer, then fainting while speaking at a national day rally two years ago. He has said he will retire at 70, so the next election, widely expected to be next year, will be his last before handing over.
But to whom? The consensus is that a third-generation Lee family member, such as the Prime Minister’s pushy second son Li Hongyi, an IT specialist, could be a risk, especially after a public family squabble about the disposal of Lee Kuan Yew’s old house that diminished the dynastic aura.
The alternative comes down to three candidates among younger ministers, with senior military rank and closeness to Lee Hsien Loong their main selling points inside the party. “They’re all bland, interchangeable, boring, uninspiring male Chinese,” Thum says. “The problem is compounded by the fact there is a clear, popular leader that Singaporeans want.”
This is current Deputy Prime Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 61. A former head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and later Finance Minister, he is credited with the post-2011 reforms that helped the PAP rebound in 2015. But he was then shifted into a vague coordinating role in cabinet.
There is more history here. In 1987, Lee Kuan Yew used internal security powers again, in Operation Spectrum, to detain 22 young Catholic social activists, some of whom, after soft torture, confessed on TV to having been unwitting tools of the communists. Studying at the London School of Economics, Shanmugaratnam had mixed with one of the detainees, and an exiled Singaporean leftist lawyer, Tan Wah Piow. “I can only speculate that the PAP feels that Tharman is a useful tool but he can’t be trusted to lead because he will take Singapore in a very different direction, especially one away from the Lee family,” Thum said.
And of course, he is of Tamil descent. As Flinders University political scientist Michael Barr wrote in his recent book The Ruling Elite of Singapore: “Today the ideal Singaporean is no longer an English-educated Singaporean, but an English- and Mandarin-speaking Chinese.” Lee Kuan Yew got the PAP hooked on the notion that only strong individuals, like the ideal Confucian junzi (righteous gentleman), could preserve the nation, not strong and independent institutions.
Meanwhile, the PAP leadership plays it by its time-tested book of legal action against opposition figures: for defamation, contempt and sometimes minute financial irregularities, such as using office stationery for private purposes.
Three MPs of the Workers Party are in court facing charges of financial laxity in the local council they also run, with the government-owned media breaking away from what Low calls its usual “Panglossian cheerleading” to give the trial reams of coverage.
Even a stalwart of Lee Kuan Yew’s era, diplomat and “Asian values” proponent Kishore Mahbubani, fell foul of the system. His offence was an op-ed, after Chinese officials blocked the Hong Kong transit of Singapore armoured vehicles being shipped back from exercises in Taiwan, saying that small countries had to put up with such things. He was removed as dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.
In March, Thum himself appeared before the Singapore parliament’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, to argue among other things that a government defending Operation Coldstore had its own problems with truth. He found his academic credentials questioned for six hours in what was clearly a prepared ambush by the law and home affairs minister, K. Shanmugam, the government’s main political attack dog.
Still, history does have its rewards. After one talk, a man in the audience approached Thum. He had been a Coldstore detainee: the stigma of being a communist dupe had remained after his release. Now Thum had shown there was no such evidence. “The man said that because of my work, he can look his wife and children in the eye,” Thum said. “He said: ‘P.J., you’ve given me my pride and my dignity back.’ I will never forget the privilege to be able to make someone’s life better like that.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 10, 2018 as “Singapore sting”.
Hamish McDonald is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.
For almost a decade, the basic strategic issue for Southeast Asia has been how to respond to the changing dynamics of the Sino-American relationship as it enters a new phase of heightened long-term competition.
The U.S. and China will not quickly or easily reach a new modus vivendi. Southeast Asia will have to navigate a prolonged period of unusual uncertainty.
U.S.-China rivalry in the South China Sea has emerged as something of a proxy for their competition. Strategically, the situation is a stalemate. China will not give up its territorial claims and the deployment of military assets. But neither can China stop the U.S. and its allies operating in the area without risking a war it does not want because it cannot win.
The Trump administration has given the 7th Fleet more latitude to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. Japan and other U.S. allies are beginning to push back against China’s claims. The U.S. has signaled its intention to conduct even larger shows of force. This raises the risk of accidental clashes. Still, that risk does not at present seem unacceptably high.
A premeditated war is improbable. China will feel it must fight only if the U.S. supports Taiwan independence. This is unlikely. If an accidental clash should occur in the South China Sea or elsewhere, both sides will probably try to contain it. The Association of Southeast Nations ought to be able to cope with situations short of a U.S.-China war. ASEAN has previously managed far more dangerous circumstances. But this will require greater agility, unity and resolve than ASEAN has shown recently.
The most obvious manifestation of increased Sino-American competition is U.S. President Donald Trump’s “trade war.” Trade is the means; the objective is strategic competition. China accuses the U.S. of using trade to hamper its development. China is not wrong.
Although attention has focused on the tit-for-tat tariffs, the more significant aspect is new U.S. legislation to limit technology transfers to China, which sets new rules that future administrations will find hard to change.
Trump’s attitude toward China is no aberration, but reflects a bipartisan view — widely shared in business as well as politics — that the U.S. has been too accommodating to Beijing. Whoever succeeds Trump will likely stay tough on China.
The Trump administration has often been described as isolationist, but this is a distortion. Rather, it believes that this is an era of great power competition and is determined to compete robustly, with a preference for bilateralism over multilateralism, and a return to “peace through strength.”
China has misread the implications of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 by believing its own propaganda about the U.S. being in irrevocable decline. It missed the souring mood of U.S. business toward China, mainly over intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers. These concerns are shared by businesses in other developed economies, which support Trump’s goals although they may disagree about his methods.
President Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress speech a year ago abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s approach of “hiding light and biding time.” But his main focus was domestic. Xi said China’s new “principal contradiction” was between “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.” This poses a fundamental challenge. Unless those needs are met — which will require immense resources — Communist Party rule could be at risk.
To find a new growth model, the party must balance control and market efficiency. An enhanced role for markets implies a loosening of control.
It remains to be seen what Xi will do. So far he seems to have opted for stronger control, and may have sharpened the problems he faces.
The Belt and Road Initiative is as much about this domestic challenge as China’s global ambition. The BRI exports the old growth model based on state-led infrastructure investment. The BRI buys time to find a new balance between the market and the party.
But the BRI rests on the foundation of U.S.-led globalization. Can it succeed if the world turns protectionist? China may well be the main loser if that global order frays. China cannot replace U.S. leadership. An open international order cannot be based on a largely closed Chinese model. BRI partner countries are pushing back, including in Southeast Asia, and implementation will be problematic.
China is not happy with every aspect of the post-Cold War order based on U.S.-led globalization. China wants its new status acknowledged. But Xi has championed and profited from globalization. The trade war is now hurting China and slowing growth. China may seek to become more self-sufficient technologically, but this will take time while the pressures are immediate.
Some have speculated that there may be opportunities for ASEAN if foreign companies shift production from China. This is possible. But doing so is easier said than done and no one will forgo the Chinese market. ASEAN members must also resist temptations to act as a backdoor into the U.S. for Chinese companies.
A prolonged trade war and concerns that China may have compromised the security of supply chains, are likely to upend existing supply links. This could seriously complicate ASEAN members’ efforts to move up the value chain, for example if U.S. groups relocate business back to America. In response, ASEAN must attract higher grade investments by improving infrastructure and skills, and assuring investors their technology is secure.
Low labor costs and a potential market of 700 million consumers are no longer sufficient to make Southeast Asia an attractive investment destination. The attitude of ASEAN members toward China and the extent to which they are beholden to it are likely to become important considerations in investment decisions.
BALI, Oct 12 — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has lamented ASEAN for not fully tapping its potential as an economic powerhouse, despite having abundant resources and a consumer market of nearly 700 million people.
ASEAN needs to move decisively to hedge against long-term uncertainties, while taking advantage of available opportunities.
Reforms such as the removal of non-tariff barriers and harmonization of ASEAN’s approach toward services and labor mobility could help make Southeast Asia a common production platform. Member states meanwhile should implement plans to upgrade skills and infrastructure. But internal political changes in some member countries could undermine the goal of closer economic integration. Unfortunately, ASEAN has, in recent years, become too timid for its own good.
Ambassador A Large Bilahari Kausikan, a former Permanent Secretary at Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is Chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.
“I would urge every person of faith (in this room) to take personal responsibility to move religion back to where it should be, on the side of right, and on the side of the rights of people.
There are many inspiring stories around the world. In Philadelphia, where I’m now on sabbatical, I visited the leading human rights group that stands in defence of Muslims in in the US, the Council on American Islamic Relations.
CAIR in Philadelphia is headed by a white Jewish American, its legal officer is an African-American Christian, and a Muslim is its education officer (main photo). So its three full time employees are a white Jew, a black Christian, and a Muslim immigrant. And they are fighting for Muslims’ human rights. This is what religion is capable of. It is capable of coming together in interfaith struggles to pursue social justice.”– Singapore’s Public Intellectual George Cherian
Q: To what extent do you think a civic impulse is workable only insofar that we have don’t have religious groups that are seeking to expand?
A: We can tell how open this IPS dialogue is, when we can actually talk about religion, which is a third rail in many societies.
I still think that, despite the worrying rise in aggressively exclusive religious groups around the world that have also inspired groups in Singapore, politically it is not as serious a problem here as it is elsewhere. I study intolerance and hate around the world, so relative to the stuff that is going on in other parts of the world, we are in pretty good shape.
And I’m convinced that one reason why is that no matter how worrying some of these trends are within any one faith group — or more accurately within sub-groups within major religions — there’s a limit to how much damage will be caused as long as those force are not aligned with party political forces. That’s when it becomes very potent elsewhere, when it becomes in the interest of a political party to court and partner with some of these exclusive and intolerant religious movements. And that makes sense in countries with a dominant religion, whether it’s India or Indonesia or Myanmar or the US or most of Europe.
It simply does not make sense in Singapore. A political party could try it, but it would not succeed, because even if you court the 40% Buddhist population out there, you’re going to alienate the 60% that make up everyone else. The same applies to other religions. And that does give us some assurance that there is a limit to how much religious divides can translate into electoral advantage.
Of course politics is more than elections. So religious forces can influence how debates are handled. And yes, in that sense we are in a worrying phase globally as well as in Singapore. For whatever mix of reasons, which sociologists of religion will be better equipped to explain, the centre of gravity in many of the world’s religions is at the more intolerant and exclusive ends of the spectrum.
It’s important to realise that this wasn’t always the case. I’m convinced this moment will pass. It is up to us collectively to make sure this moment passes. It is especially up to those who are the most devout in your respective communities to make sure this moment passes.
It was not too long ago that religious groups were at the forefront of progressive change around the world. Think of the major successes in human rights and democracy over the last 200 years. Most of them were fronted by religious organisations. The Quakers in Britain helped to get rid of slavery. Think of the church’s role in the Philippines’ People Power movement or the American civil rights movement. Think of religion’s role in Indian nationalism, which we benefited from as well. So there is a strong history of religion being on the side of tolerance and expanding human rights.
It is depressing to see how this strong tradition of religions standing up for the rights of others, including the rights of other faiths, has somehow been relegated, and instead the wind is at the backs of those who are more exclusive. I would urge every person of faith in this room to take personal responsibility to move religion back to where it should be, on the side of right, and on the side of the rights of people.
There are many inspiring stories around the world. In Philadelphia, where I’m now on sabbatical, I visited the leading human rights group that stands in defence of Muslims in in the US, the Council on American Islamic Relations. CAIR in Philadelphia is headed by a white Jewish American, its legal officer is an African-American Christian, and a Muslim is its education officer (main photo). So its three full time employees are a white Jew, a black Christian, and a Muslim immigrant. And they are fighting for Muslims’ human rights. This is what religion is capable of. It is capable of coming together in interfaith struggles to pursue social justice.
One of the proudest achievements of Singapore is to host the world’s oldest interfaith organisation, the Inter Religious Organisation. This is one of the resources we have. Sadly, though, that’s not where the action is, so to speak, in public life. Sadly, the agenda has been seized by a minority of leaders and members within the world’s great faith groups, that are pushing intolerance and exclusivity. That needs to change.
The shocking fall of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional government in the recent general election was not only historic but also game-changing. As Malaysians usher in a new era, three evolving scenarios are worth watching, writes Yang Razali Kassim.
The ruling juggernaut, the UMNO-led coalition, had never been defeated since independence in 1957. The coalition finally lost power at the hands of the country’s most potent political duo: Mahathir-Anwar. In the aftermath, at least three evolving scenarios are worth watching:
Scenario 1: A New Order?
If the newly-elected Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope) coalition government can last at least two terms, we will see a different political order take hold. The people’s rejection of the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and UMNO is a new phenomenon in Malaysian politics. Increasingly, the emerging narrative is that of a “New Malaysia”.
What this New Malaysia is, however, has yet to be clearly defined, as it seems to mean different things to different people. The popular view is that it is simply the antithesis of the old era; anything that was bad about the old must not be part of New Malaysia. Even Mr. Mahathir himself has called for a break from the past:
“The New Malaysia should even be an improvement on the period during which I was prime minister for 22 years.” The government should “have to go back to democracy and the rule of law and respect the wishes of the people.”–Mahathir Mohamad
Two wishes in particular: First is cleaning up the mess of corruption left behind by the Najib administration. Reformism will be the order of the day, possibly leading eventually to some form of systemic change. Ironically, Mr Mahathir, who was known as an autocrat, has become the “New Reformer,” embracing Anwar Ibrahim’s battle-cry of ‘Reformasi’.
Second, Mr Mahathir and his team will be under pressure to prove that the new government can fulfill the people’s expectations. The previously disparate alliance will have to demonstrate that it will not be a photocopy of the old regime.
Scenario 2: Existential Crisis
All that said, the power vehicle the PH alliance overthrew is not to be trifled with. At the core of the dethroned BN coalition is UMNO, the linchpin party that won independence from the British. Once thought to be invincible, BN disintegrated as soon as it lost power. Several partners deserted it, leaving only three original component parties, the pillar of which is UMNO.
UMNO itself is facing an existential crisis. It is under threat of being deregistered for failing to hold internal party elections, in breach of political regulations. Should it be struck off, this will not be the first time after surviving one in 1987, ironically when Mr. Mahathir was its president; but the political impact of a replay will be far-reaching, as the party, though out of power, still symbolises the aspirations of the majority ethnic group.
In this battle for survival, UMNO is going through an internal debate over direction and its own identity. The future of UMNO now depends very much on how far the younger generation will succeed in taking over the leadership and charting a new course. Nevertheless, the introspective search for a new identity for UMNO is unprecedented, reflecting the country’s new terrain.
The course taken by UMNO will partly be influenced, if not defined, by the broader political landscape now dominated by the Mahathir-Anwar leadership 2.0. Collectively, the deadly duo has come to symbolise a political ethos around “post-identity”. If PH succeeds, Malaysian politics may increasingly move away from primordial attachments towards a common centre, where greater acceptance and tolerance of each other will be the new norm. How far this will go will also depend on how effective the pushback is from a tentative UMNO alliance with the Islamist opposition PAS.
Scenario 3: Beyond the Border
The political shifts do not stop at Malaysia’s border. As one of the most developed economies in Southeast Asia, the country’s political dynamics – especially those that affect its stability and security – will be of importance to its neighbours in the region and beyond.
Nothing underscores this better than Mr Mahathir’s wooing of Indonesian President Jokowi for a partnership to stave off European pressures on their palm oil industry.
With neighbouring Singapore, Mr Mahathir also created some ripples when he threw a spanner in the works of a joint high-speed rail project signed by the Najib government, though this has been deferred for now. Mr Mahathir also suggested renegotiating the long-standing supply of water from Malaysia’s Johor state, a strategic resource for Singapore.
Mahathir’s biggest challenge is, however, further afield, in Beijing. China is at the heart of some financially troubling megaprojects initiated by Mr Najib. Mr Mahathir has taken issue with the Asian giant for financing these projects, which were placed under investigation in Kuala Lumpur following the defeat of the BN administration.
Mr Mahathir himself traveled to Beijing in August to re-negotiate with Chinese leaders the China-funded projects in Malaysia, part of a larger goal to cut down on the massive national debt inherited from the previous government.
At the end of his trip, Mr Mahathir announced at a press conference in Beijing that Malaysia would now cancel the frozen projects – only to tone it down later to “defer” them instead – a decision he said Chinese leaders had “agreed” on. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism,” said Mr Mahathir after his meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.
What is equally troubling Mr Mahathir is the Chinese model of economic collaboration. At issue is Beijing’s preference for extending loans with high interest rates rather than investing directly in the projects, and for payments to Chinese contractors based on timelines rather than project deliveries.
Another is the Chinese propensity to use their own resources, workforce and expertise for the projects, instead of relying on local firms and creating jobs domestically. This model that some call Beijing’s “debt trap diplomacy” has also been questioned in several countries in Asia and Africa for the problems and social tension they generate.
Mr Mahathir, however, is striking a careful balance in resolving the mountain of debt left behind by his predecessor. Important to him also is preserving good relations with a rising economic superpower that is a significant market for Malaysian products. “We do not blame the Chinese government because their companies signed an agreement or several agreements with Malaysian companies under the auspices of the government of the day,” Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told The Straits Times.
Unlike in the past, the political earthquake in Malaysia this time is clearly reverberating beyond Malaysia’s border. Before he finally calls it a day again expect Mr Mahathir to make more waves as he brings his assertive persona to the international stage, perhaps even to the United Nations. It’s in his DNA.
Yang Razali Kassim is senior fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This is part of an RSIS series on Malaysia’s 14th general election and its aftermath.
“Dismantling a 70-year-old system of conflict and confrontation is an enormous and complex task. As Pompeo rightly stated, North Korean denuclearisation will take a long time. But the goal to which Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington have committed is not just denuclearisation: the goal is a lasting and stable peace. Building that will take a great deal more patience than we have tended to see in Washington.”--Charles Armstrong
The 12 June US–DPRK summit meeting was vastly oversold, not least by US President Donald Trump. The day after the summit, Trump tweeted that the North Korean nuclear threat had been removed, even though Pyongyang had taken no verifiable action toward eliminating its nuclear program. On 12 July, one month after the summit, Trump brandished a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who declared their Singapore meeting ‘the start of a meaningful journey’ and said he was looking forward to their next meeting. Trump took this as a reflection of the ‘great progress’ that the two countries had made despite the frustrations that had beset US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his recent visit to Pyongyang. Six weeks after the Singapore summit, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has not diminished, US and UN sanctions against North Korea remain in place, and the US government continues to forbid US citizens from visiting North Korea (and vice versa) without special permission.
Dismantling a 70-year-old system of conflict and confrontation is an enormous and complex task. But tensions on the Korean Peninsula have eased and that is a major step forward in relations.
Still, despite the largely critical coverage from the Western press — the media in Asia, including in South Korea, has generally been more positive — it is far too early to tell whether the Singapore summit was a success or a failure. Kim’s ‘nice note’ is correct: the meeting of the two leaders was only the start of a journey and was the beginning of a long and unpredictable process of normalising relations between two countries that have been in conflict for 70 years.
As critics were quick to point out, the joint declaration was remarkably vague — not much of a ‘deal’ at all. Trump offered North Korea unspecified ‘security guarantees’ in exchange for which Kim Jong-un ‘reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’. The one concrete action proposed was the return of US soldiers’ remains from the Korean War. Here some progress has been made: according to a US official who was present at the North Korea–US talks on 16 July, North Korean has offered to send back the remains of over 50 US servicemen on 27 July, which is the 65th anniversary of the Korean War armistice.
The summit was oversold in North Korea as well. The Trump–Kim meeting was covered extensively in the DPRK media, and the usually virulent anti-US propaganda has softened. There has been a new focus on economic development in recent months, and the summit was supposed to be a breakthrough moment that allowed North Korea to shift from nuclear weapons to rebuilding its economy. But the economy still languishes; according to the Bank of Korea in Seoul, North Korea’s GDP shrank by 3.5 per cent in 2017 — its worst performance in two decades. On 20 July, Pompeo reiterated the US position that sanctions could not be lifted until North Korea takes further steps toward denuclearisation, and he criticised Russia and China for failing to enforce sanctions on North Korean oil imports.
As with US–Russia relations, there can be a sizable gap between statements from the White House and the actual policies of the administration. While Trump and Kim (as well as South Korean President Moon Jae-in) emphasise peace and cooperation in more general terms, Pompeo and others in the administration speak the old language of CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program) as a precondition for any change in the US–North Korea relationship. These two approaches may be complementary, but more often they appear contradictory and confusing. Trump himself seemed to walk back on his bullish statements on North Korean denuclearisation by announcing on 20 July the ‘unusual and extraordinary threat’ North Korea still poses to the United States.
In the meantime, relations among the countries of Northeast Asia are moving forward — with or without a dramatic change in US–DPRK ties. Russia and China have so far resisted US calls to block oil deliveries to North Korea. Kim’s three meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in less than two months reflect the rapidly warming ties between North Korea and China after several years of cool relations. Russian media recently reported plans for a Kim–Putin summit. President Moon spoke to the Russian lower house on 21 June — the first South Korean president to make an official visit to Russia since 1999 — where he called for greater cooperation between Russia and the two Koreas on economic development and denuclearisation.
On the Korean Peninsula itself, the Moon administration remains upbeat about relations with the North three months after the inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom, which called for a peace agreement to replace the Korean War armistice by the end of this year. Reunions of Korean families separated by the North–South conflict are scheduled for August. Joint inspection has started for reconnecting North–South railway lines. But only so much can be done while North Korea is under heavy UN sanctions. South Korea has requested (and received) special permission from the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee to allow the equipment and materials for communication between the two Koreas’ militaries. Establishing liaison offices between the Seoul and Pyongyang governments, another goal of the Panmunjom Summit, faces similar sanctions obstacles.
Dismantling a 70-year-old system of conflict and confrontation is an enormous and complex task. As Pompeo rightly stated, North Korean denuclearisation will take a long time. But the goal to which Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington have committed is not just denuclearisation: the goal is a lasting and stable peace. Building that will take a great deal more patience than we have tended to see in Washington.
Charles K Armstrong is The Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences at Columbia University and author of The Koreas.