South East Asian Cyberspace: Politics, Censorship and Polarisation


November 5, 2018

South East Asian Cyberspace: Politics, Censorship and Polarisation

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

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

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

On the other hand, Southeast Asian governments are growing wary of the potential for the internet to threaten political stability.

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

More internet, more censorship

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

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

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

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

Figure 1: Net Freedom Scores, 2016

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

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

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

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

Figure 2: Key internet censorship issues, 2016

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

Divide the people, conquer the discourse

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

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

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

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

 

The hard line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) more than tripled their support base on Facebook following Ahok’s comments, and figured prominently in the months-long campaign against him. Witnessing the rise of the FPI and other Islamist groups gaining prominence as anti-Ahok movement garnered force, Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan, long seen as a secular Islamic politician, shifted gear to appeal to those sympathetic to the FPI campaign. The online sphere became deeply polarised: a network analysis of those who commented on Ahok’s and Anies’ Facebook posts in the month of December in 2016 (Figure 6) shows that only 16 people cross-commented on both pages out of a total of 9,000 comments.

Figure 6: Network Visualisation of Commenters on Ahok’s (Blue) and Anies Baswedan’s (Red) Facebook Page

Here, Facebook played an important role in catapulting the hard line FPI into mainstream politics. This then contributed to a more polarising political environment in which more Indonesians were politically active online than ever before, but not necessarily engaging with opposing views.

Confronting the challenge to a free internet

Digital rights and digital literacy are the biggest challenges to Internet users in Southeast Asia now and going forward. While global trends suggest that the increasing tide of state surveillance, monitoring and censorship online will not dissipate, Internet users must build greater resilience to protect and defend basic human rights in the digital world, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and privacy.

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Civil society groups, bloggers, human rights advocates, students, journalists, and academics should band together to build the technical and legal capacity needed to defend internet rights within the region against the growth of government surveillance, as well as corporations seeking to capitalise on the plethora of personal information online. Public awareness about digital rights and their importance to a vibrant democratic society is crucial to building digital resilience.

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

Rescuing RELIGION


November 4, 2018

DIVERSITY

Rescuing RELIGION

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

An extract from the Q&A after my talk at the IPS Diversities conference.

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.

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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.

FULL Q&A – VIDEO

 

When we will ever learn to do things on our own,nothing is gained from giveaways


August 23, 2018

When we will ever learn to do things on our own, not depend on others for help. Face it, nothing is gained from giveaways

By T K Chua

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com.my

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“If the new government is to be any better than the old, we must find reasons and justifications before making decisions, not make decisions first and then find reasons and justifications to support them.”–T K Chua

As a nation, why do we always expect that others will help us?

We want others to give us technology without quid pro quo. We want others to give us favourable terms in trade and investment. We want others to concede and suffer with us because of our follies. We want others to teach us how to govern and manage our country.

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This man is the very antithesis of the rugged individual. He ended up selling Malaysia on the cheap.

Unless we are a war-torn nation in utter poverty and destitution, I don’t think we’re going to get any meaningful help from others. Let’s ditch the idea that a foreign nation would help another be strong and competitive. To compete and prosper, each nation must do it on its own.

We can see the success and failures of many nations around us. We can’t complain that others are not teaching us. They can’t and won’t. We have to learn from them on our own.

Learning from other countries means doing what they do, not just talking. We can’t keep condemning the subsidy mentality and “free lunches” but keep doing the same as we have for the last half a century.

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A Miracle is Discipline, Innovation, Entrepreneurship

We can’t keep saying meritocracy is good but keep doing the opposite.We can’t keep saying it’s good to be hardworking, conscientious and thrifty but reward incompetency and irresponsibility with easy money.

We can’t keep saying corruption and cronyism is bad if our fight against these comes only in dribs and drabs depending on the “convenience” of the day.

Malaysia has always had great ambitions – the “Malaysia Boleh” attitude, so to speak. We started Proton around the same time that Korea embarked on its auto industry. We started the multimedia super corridor much earlier than many others. We have InventQjaya, Biovalley and numerous other development corridors littering the whole country.

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Proton Saga–Malaysia’s Success Story. And so another of the same in Pro-3

But what did we get in the end? Sadly, we are now talking about starting another national car project. We are talking about learning basic things like online marketing from Alibaba. We are talking about revolutionising agriculture when at one time we were the world champion in rubber and palm oil research.

We should not carry our “handicapped” mentality to the international level. When we trade, invest and conduct business dealings with others, we mustn’t expect favours or help from others. We should extract what we can from others and defend and protect our interests based on our faculties and abilities.

At the international level, no one is going to feel sorry for us and our follies. We must have people with faculties holding strategic and important positions in the country.

If the new government is to be any better than the old, we must find reasons and justifications before making decisions, not make decisions first and then find reasons and justifications to support them.

TK Chua is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

 

Rethinking race and its appeal in Malaysia


July 11, 2018

Rethinking race and its appeal in Malaysia

by Tan Zi Hao

Tan Zi Hao is a PhD candidate in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. He is also a conceptual artist whose artworks can be viewed at http://www.tanzihao.net. As both artist and writer, he is interested in the arts, language, cultural politics and mobilities.

http://www.newmandala.org/imagined-minorities-rethinking-race-appeal-malaysia/

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Despite the game-changing outcome of the 14th General Election, the spectre of race lingers in Malaysia. Appointing an ethnic Indian and Christian Tommy Thomas as the Attorney General has already attracted some predictable flak. When Hindu Rights Action Force 2.0 (Hindraf 2.0, a Hindraf splinter group) demanded that MARA University of Technology (UiTM) be opened to entry by all races, an online petition was immediately kickstarted and has collected more than 150,000 signatures in the first two days. The new Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng—also Malaysia’s second Chinese finance minister after a 44-year break—was condemned for uploading a Mandarin translation of his statement, even though it was officially released in Malay, and later translated to both English and Mandarin.

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If race remains as a potent category of exclusion, its perpetuation must have an emotional appeal rooted in the realities and assumptions of those who embrace it. However, public intellectuals who wish to do away with racism tend to give a response that is dismissive in nature: sociologist Kua Kia Soong proposes outlawing racism, law lecturer Azmi Sharom considers racists bereft of ideas, Dialog Rakyat committee member and academician Omar Abdul Rahman pushes for a greater collective effort in eradicating racism.

But these criticisms refuse to acknowledge the sentimental affect of racism. Key to most racial thinking is the seductive appeal of imagining one’s own race as a living minority in need of some protection. It enables a majority to be convinced of their own vulnerability, and to live as, to borrow from Benedict Anderson, an “imagined” minority. Without a doubt, the most vocal imagined minorities in Malaysia are the ethnic Malay majority, and the largest ethnic Chinese minority. They are the two “racialised” ethnic groups who succeed in the enterprise of self-minoritisation.

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To be an imagined minority is not only to assume victimhood, but to believe in the appeal that one’s own vulnerability is racially unique and significantly more urgent than that of others. The more vulnerable your “race”, the better your prospects. Unsurprisingly, the most controversial of all race-related debates in Malaysia revolved around the competitive narcissistic posturing of the Malays and Chinese. Actually-existing minorities—such as the Orang Asli, Orang Ulu and Dayak, or Anak Negeri—hardly make the cut.

The Malays and Chinese each have at their own disposal a plethora of rhetoric to foster their brand of imagined minorities. Among this is their special attention directed to tradition and heritage. From national institutions (e.g. Muzium Negara, and the Malay Heritage Museum) to privately-funded Chinese cultural institutions (e.g. the Malaysian Chinese Museum or Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum), in museumising what is in dire need of preservation they are able to articulate better their vulnerability.

Each of these museums emphasises narratives of loss and sacrifice, while de-emphasising narratives of elitism and privilege. Whenever narratives of privilege are presented, they are framed as an overdue accomplishment, an exemplary success whose arrival is the fruit of previous sacrifices. Additionally, while anti-colonial struggles are highlighted and detailed, complicity with colonialism is sloppily summarised and omitted.

Beyond infrastructural facilities, another effort in self-minoritisation is to think through racially-oriented solidarity movements and protests. For the Malays, Muslim solidarity movements with the Palestinians, Rohingyas, Pattanis, or Moros, yield a new awareness of being an imagined minority in places beyond Malaysia; for the Chinese, issues pertaining to the dignity of the Chinese language and the official recognition of Chinese independent high schools offer an avenue through which the imagination of being minorities can be constantly reinvigorated.

These movements are valid political expressions. But it remains crucial to question their almost organic proclivity for attracting only a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group. At the outset, their protests appear as reactionary and racially exclusivist, but in fact the principal premise is strikingly similar: a vulnerable minority against a dominant majority, the powerless against the powerful. The very impossibility of imagining cross-ethnic solidarities in these essentially anti-hegemonic movements in Malaysia is, in and of itself, a testament to how one is more appealed to race (or religion) than to the actual oppression at stake.

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That these solidarity movements only lend credence to identitarianism should compel us to question the limits of solidarity among Malaysians. Can a Malay who antagonise the Israeli occupation of Palestine stand in solidarity with a Chinese who calls for the abolishment of Bumiputra policies in Malaysia? Can a Chinese who insists on the recognition of Chinese independent high schools stand in solidarity with a Malay who demands for the recognition of the Pattanis in Thailand’s deep south?

More provocatively, can a Malay who applauds Indonesia’s assimilationism that had stigmatised and marginalised the Indonesian Chinese minority truly empathise with the marginalised Pattanis?

Truly empathise with the marginalised Pattanis? Can a Chinese who disregards the implicit Chinese privilege in Singapore genuinely lament the prejudicial effects of Bumiputra privilege in Malaysia?

These hypothetical questions, at a cursory glance, have little to do with race, but they bespeak the exclusionary temperaments of racial thinking.

The affect that these protests reveal, or at any rate create, is more fundamental than what the movements advocate. One finds in these ritualistic public demonstrations the highest realisation of imagined minorities: the subliminal emphasis on racial–religious identity over power inequality helps mould the psychological temperament that one is born into victimhood. They become symbolic tokens for self-minoritisation. Whereas the abovementioned museums exhibit narratives of loss and sacrifice, these protests stage and perform them, in public and in action. Under this operant self-minoritisation, it is not too far-fetched to claim that to become a “Malay-Muslim” or a “Chinese” in Malaysia, is to first learn to become a victim and to think like minorities.

“Opponents of racism need to understand that proponents of racial politics do believe in race. We need to listen to and explain these affective temperaments rather than dismissing them outright. It is only by first understanding the appeal of race and the complex imagination it summons that one can begin to find ways of uprooting racism”.–Tan Zi Hao

Many who still question why an ethnic Malay majority requires institutional protectionism miss the point. Recall what Arjun Appadurai provocatively identifies as the “anxiety of incompleteness”, whereby postcolonial ethnic majorities are burdened by an unfinished project of obtaining authenticity: equipped with temperaments of loss, a demographic majority will remain “incomplete”, “inauthentic”, and live as imagined minorities in fear of actually-existing minorities.

What is lost to the Malays in colonialism is lost to the Chinese in migration. Both imagined minorities seek to rectify their “incompleteness” by pinpointing, even racialising, one another as the dominant “imagined majorities” obstructing their attainment of an originary authenticity.

There is a seductive appeal to this track of imagination that liberal analysts and public intellectuals disregard. It is an imagination that is grounded on the fact of being “Malay” and of being “Chinese”.

However unscientific or unfounded these racial categories, the temperaments contained in them are disturbingly honest, intimately personal and subjective. Part of the affect of being “Malay” is to first identify how “Chinese” became the cause of their grievance, vice versa.

Opponents of racism need to understand that proponents of racial politics do believe in race. We need to listen to and explain these affective temperaments rather than dismissing them outright. It is only by first understanding the appeal of race and the complex imagination it summons that one can begin to find ways of uprooting racism.

Education in America: Meritocracy, like Democracy, is under siege


July 1, 2018

Education in America: Meritocracy, like Democracy, is under siege

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2018/6/28/meritocracy-is-under-attack

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In recent weeks, you might have heard about two seemingly unrelated issues that are actually quite connected. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio (pic above) signaled his desire to scrap the highly competitive exam for eight New York public high schools, including Stuyvesant High School, and began taking more limited steps to admit more black and Hispanic students.

In Boston, new revelations emerged from a lawsuit that alleges Harvard University systematically discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process. These developments come from very different directions, but they indicate an assault on one of the foundations of modern society — meritocracy.

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Meritocracy is now an idea under siege. On the right, many of President Trump’s supporters see it as a code word for an out-of-touch establishment that looks down on ordinary, hard-working Americans. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a more meritocratic society was assailed on the left as a concept that breeds elitism and inequality.

Let’s remember when and how meritocracy became the organizing ideology of modern society. Before it, people moved up in the world through a clubby, informal system that privileged wealth, social status and family connections. As Nicholas Lemann recounts in his fascinating book “The Big Test,” America was run in every corridor of power by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants until the 1950s. Chief executives, college presidents and senators were, almost without exception, all WASPS. That WASP aristocracy was slowly but surely dislodged through the rise of merit-based systems, largely in education, that opened up elite institutions to people of talent, no matter their background.

The New York challenge to meritocracy involves its selective high schools, which are a wonder of the modern public-education system. Admission is currently based on a single test. Having wealth or connections will not get you in, nor will your race or athletic prowess. As a result, Stuyvesant High School — the most prestigious — accepts a smaller percentage of applicants than Stanford or Harvard. Most importantly, these schools have an astonishing track record of moving smart kids out of poverty and into the middle class.

 

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No matter how you organize society, there will be an elite. The question is: How does it get formed — through talent or other criteria, such as political ideology or financial connections?–Dr. Fareed Zakaria

De Blasio (D) says the schools “have a diversity problem.” Blacks and Hispanics constitute just 10 percent of these schools, compared with 68 percent of the city’s student body as a whole. The tests are said to favor one group, Asians, who make up 62 percent of the students. But de Blasio’s stance is both wrong and wrongheaded. First, these schools are incredibly diverse. The category called “Asians” encompasses people who trace their ancestry to China, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. They come from wildly different cultures and socioeconomic conditions, speak different languages and worship different gods.

Perhaps more important, the test is designed to find talented students, not to raise up specific minorities, which the rest of the vast New York City school system works hard to do. Behind de Blasio’s challenge lies a discomfort on the left with the idea of any kind of hierarchy of talent. In an op-ed in the New York Times supporting the mayor’s plan, scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham wrote, “All of our schools should be elite schools.” This is, of course, a contradiction in terms. No matter how you organize society, there will be an elite. The question is: How does it get formed — through talent or other criteria, such as political ideology or financial connections?

The Boston challenge is different, asking for genuine meritocracy. The lawsuit argues that elite universities pretend to be meritocratic but don’t actually practice what they preach. A mountain of evidence suggests persuasively that many highly selective colleges are systematically biased against Asian Americans. As laid out in recently filed documents, the lawsuit alleges that Harvard uses soft criteria such as “personality” to downgrade applicants with high test scores and grades and considerable extracurricular activities, harking back to methods they began using in the 1920s to reject qualified Jewish applicants.

Let’s be clear. Tests are not perfect, and they should be supplemented by other factors, but we should be wary of de Blasio-type efforts. They could lead down a path that returns the selection process to one in which elites make highly subjective judgments, as in the days of the old-boy networks. Historically, that was a process that smuggled in prejudice and preferences, based on class, race, religion, politics and money. It did not find or promote talent, nor create much social mobility.

Meritocracy is under assault, but those who attack it should ask themselves: What would you replace it with? To select a society’s elites, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, a meritocracy is the worst system — except for all the others.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Dissecting the 2018 Election in Malaysia


June 28, 2018

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Dissecting the 2018 Election in Malaysia: The End of Cronyism?

Left to Right: Asia Centre co-founder and Chairman, Board of Directors Dr. James Gomez; Dr. Victor Karunan; Mr. Lutfi Hakim; Prof. Dr. Mohd Azizuddin bin Mohd Sani; Mr. Scott Edwards; Asia Centre co-founder and Executive Director Dr. Robin Ramcharan

The key challenge of undoing six decades of cronyism, patronage and money politics was a central point highlighted during Asia Centre’s Roundtable discussion on the Malaysian elections held in May 2018. Despite the political earthquake, the end of Barisan Nasional’s (BN) rule in Malaysia after 61 years and the defeat of former Prime Minister Najib’s government, fundamental change is not guaranteed.

All speakers at the roundtable, held on 22 June 2018 at Asia Centre, observed this critical point. It remains to be seen if the new government of Pakatan Harapan (PH) can usher out the politics of ‘money, race and patronage’.  After all, PH is led by a member of the old guard, 92-year old PM Mahathir, who had mentored former PM Najib  and helped to build up that system.

PM-in-waiting, 70-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, has forged an alliance of convenience with his former mentor and tormentor, Mahathir. Should Anwar be designated PM, is he likely to bring fundamental change?

The desire for change among a large percentage of the youth was raised as a factor tipping the balance in favour of PH, which appeared on the political scene at the perfect time. Another key immediate factor was the disaffection of voters with the well-documented corruption scandals rocking former PM Najib, which resulted in a drift towards authoritarianism and harassment of political opposition to his Government.

Creeping authoritarianism, including recent attempts to stifle freedom of expression through hastily passed ‘fake news laws’ prior to the election, was a noticeable feature of the Najib’s rule over the past decade, amidst other longer term factors affecting the election. Already in the 2013 election, it became apparent that minority groups, notably Malaysian Chinese,were less willing to accept the national affirmative action plan that has privileged the Bumiputra. Indigenous peoples, such as the Orang Asli, also have become wary of their routine treatment by politicians as ‘second class’ citizens.

Splits in the BN coalition had begun to appear well before May 2018. In addition, the new administration will need to contend with an economy that has featured rising costs of living in recent years.

Resolute action to tackle these deeper problems will be a drawn out affair, especially in the uncertain leadership transition that is set to take place in two years, with Anwar assuming the mantle of Prime Minister, while his family presumably gives way as he succeeds.

The rich discussion was moderated by Dr. Robin Ramcharan of Asia Centre. The discussion was animated by expert commentators from Malaysia and the UK: Dr. Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani (PhD), Professor of Politics and International Relations at the School of International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM); Mr. Lutfi Hakim, independent consultant and an associate of IMAN Research, where he was previously a research lead; Dr. Victor Karunen, lecturer and former UN official with UNICEF; and Mr. Scott Edwards, doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Cooperation, Conflict, and Security (ICCS).

The Roundtable set the scene at Asia Centre’s third anniversary celebrations, where Asia Centre announced its new branch in Malaysia. The second Centre in Johor Bahru will be rolled out over 2018-2019. All expressions of interest for collaboration in Malaysia can be sent to contact@asiacentre.co.th.

 

 

Photos from the event are available here. This event was held with the support of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.