China & Malaysia: Co-Existing with Asia’s Leviathan


September 28, 2018

China & Malaysia: Co-Existing with Asia’s Leviathan

by Dennis Ignatius

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China’s Dark Spots

Of course, China is far from perfect. Indeed, there is a dark and sinister side to the modern China of high-speed trains and gleaming skyscrapers.

For one thing, not everyone is enjoying the fruits of its progress. Forty million children, for example, still live in poverty. And each day, some part of China is rocked by angry, often violent protests as disaffected and marginalized groups rebel against injustice and governmental abuse of authority.

The lack of religious freedom, too, is appalling. According to UN reports, Xinjiang Province is home to vast gulags where thousands of Muslim Uighurs are incarcerated in “re-education” camps. Falun Gong followers are savagely repressed and yet another brutal crackdown on Christians is now underway.

The Communist Party of China is also entirely dismissive of  basic human rights in violation of its own constitution. Hundreds of human rights activists are routinely jailed, often tortured as well. The death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in a hospital prison last year was a potent reminder of Beijing’s utter contempt for basic human rights.

Thankfully, Malaysia has not seen the kind of brutal and repressive measures that are routine in China today. We can learn a lot of things from China but it is certainly not a country we want to emulate in everything.

China: Vision, Planning and Leadership equal rapid Progress

Perhaps the one lesson we can learn is that where there is vision, planning and leadership, countries can progress rapidly. Countries don’t have to get everything right; success in just a few critical areas can make a huge difference.

China did precisely that and in 33 years has become a behemoth that now challenges our own sovereignty. As I have noted elsewhere, few realize how close we came to compromising our sovereignty under former Prime Minister Najib. His reckless borrowing and lopsided infrastructure projects would have turned us into “a wholly-owned subsidiary” of China.

Whatever one may ascribe China’s rapid rise to, there’s no escaping the fact that we now have a leviathan  at our doorstep and we must, as a nation, rise to meet the challenge it poses.  China is going to cast a long shadow over Malaysia and the region. And we have to be ready for it.

Every Malaysian politician, certainly every Pakatan cabinet minister, would do well to spend time in China – to  learn, to see what’s possible and to understand what we are up against. Perhaps they may return home with a new realism and a fresh determination to prepare our nation for a future in which China is going to figure very significantly.

Preparing for the 4th Industrial Revolution

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The other great challenge that we face is the rapid technological advances – the Forth Industrial Revolution – that is already gathering pace.

As Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Word Economic Forum (WEF) put it: “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”

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A recent WEF study estimates that some 65% of children entering primary school today will end up doing a job that does not even exist now. Artificial intelligence will make millions of existing jobs obsolete while many of the skills we now value will become redundant.

Naveen Menon, President of CISCO Southeast Asia, warns that those most at risk will be those “lacking IT skills and ‘interactive skills’ such as negotiation, persuasion and customer service skills….”

Are we ready for this new world? It’s going to require a massive effort on the part of government, business and educators to ensure that our workforce will have the skills to compete and prosper in the coming decades, not just against China (which is already making quantum leaps in technology)  but even against our immediate neighbours.

It is a sobering reminder that we can no longer afford to dissipate our energies in destructive and divisive arguments and policies that detract us from facing up to the real challenges we face.

Running out of time

Simply put, we are running out of time as a nation. We cannot continue to keep fighting old battles; we either fight amongst ourselves and be left behind or unite to compete with the rest of the world.

Whether we like it or not, we cannot turn back the clock of history:

Malaysia is a multicultural nation with a rich blend of ethnicities, languages, cultures and traditions. We can either make it our  greatest strength or allow it to become our greatest weakness.

 

Likewise, we can harness the power of our respective belief systems to inspire the kind of  unity, integrity and work ethic that is necessary to build a prosperous and peaceful nation or we can use it to justify exclusionary and extremist policies that diminish us all.

We are a nation of many that must become one to prosper, to face the challenges that confront us.

The Challenge of Leadership

Of course, the challenges are enormous. How do you change the mindset of a nation that has long been conditioned to think and act in racial terms, that has long been taught to view each other with suspicion and distrust? How do you even promote much-needed policies that, in the short-term at least, might be deeply unpopular?

How does the government persuade the nation to rise to its greatness when the opposition is trying to drag it down into the gutter of bigotry?

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But that is the true challenge of political leadership: to take a nation where it must go, not where it necessarily wants to go. If anyone can do it, it is surely Dr Mahathir and this government.

Dr Mahathir has shown that he is not afraid to do what is unpopular if it’s good for the nation. And, at 93, he knows he doesn’t have the luxury of time to wait for evolutionary or incremental change; there must be a drastic reordering of the way we do things or nothing will change.

The greatest legacy he can give to our nation is to leave behind a nation with sound national institutions, a grand vision for the future and a reformatted mindset that pulls us together rather than drives us apart. It is perhaps no coincidence that circumstance has brought back the very man who dared to dream of “a Bangsa Malaysia” to lead us again when national unity is most needed.

We have perhaps a five-year window of opportunity (till the next election) to dramatically change our nation for the better. Fate has given us another chance to reinvent ourselves, learn from our mistakes and build that better nation we all long for. If China can do it, so can we.

Let us be that transformational generation  – the generation that makes the transition from the old Malaysia to the new Malaysia.

       

US-China Technology Competition is about “Self Transcendence”


September 13, 2018

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Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 439

Publisher: Washington, DC: East-West Center
Available From: September 12, 2018
Publication Date: September 12, 2018

US-China Technology Competition is about “Self Transcendence”

By Dr. Wenhong Chen

Eric Schmidt, then executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent firm, commented on China’s AI ambition on November 1, 2017, in Washington DC: “By 2020 the Chinese will have caught up (to the United States). By 2025 they will be better than us. And by 2030 they will dominate the industries of AI.” Not to miss the boat, about one and a half months later, Google announced its first major China move after its search engine left the mainland in 2010 — that it was opening a Google AI China Center in Beijing, its first in Asia, led by the Chinese-American scientist Feifei Li.

Disruptive AI, Big Data, and Cloud Computing (ABC) innovations have generated opportunities and challenges for entrepreneurs and policymakers across the Asia Pacific. Given the centrality of ABC policy to national security, economic prosperity, and global influence, it is critically important to understand and assess ABC policy practices and their implications for the digital economy and the US-China bilateral relationship.

Chinese government policy has been credited as a major driver of China’s digital transformation. In the pursuit of the Chinese Dream — a narrative of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people — China has been purposefully and skillfully developing ABC as a top national project since 2013.

First, a series of regulatory and legislative work including the passage and implementation of national, regional, and local policies, laws, plans, and programs (including Made in China 2015 which has become a contentious issue in the US-China trade talks).

Second, financial and institutional support gives rise to national big data pilot zones, ministerial industry demonstration bases, provincial and municipal industrial parks, and numerous national big data and AI research labs. Guizhou, one of poorest provinces for a long time, was selected as China’s first national big data zone and has demonstrated one of the highest annual GDP growth rates in the nation.

Third, the government has been exploring new mode of engagement with established and emerging tech giants such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (BAT) and their younger peers which have been growing primarily outside of the state-owned sector. BAT have been chosen as national AI champions, and as part of the mixed-ownership reform, they were invited to invest in state-owned telecom behemoths for a greater integration of public and private sector digital resources in 2017. During the Two Sessions (China’s parliament sessions) in spring 2018, Chinese tech firms listed in overseas stock markets were invited to return to the Chinese stock markets.

Fourth, China has been promoting cyber-sovereignty through the control of cross-border data flow and the demand of data localization. Domestic and foreign companies are required to store data from China in China. Transnational corporations have been complying – via joint ventures with local, often state-owned partners – and complaining at the same time.

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When asked by Senator Dan Sullivan at the Senate hearing on April 10, 2018 on whether Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg were too powerful, Mr. Zuckerberg redirected: “And when I brought up the Chinese Internet companies, I think that that’s a real strategic and competitive threat that, in American technology policy we should be thinking about.”

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Henry Kissinger lamented that “Other countries have made AI a major national project. The United States has not yet, as a nation, systematically explored its full scope, studied its implications, or begun the process of ultimate learning.” America’s ABC policy has been less systematic than China’s top-down, whole-of-government, national-strategy approach.

The Trump Administration’s ABC approach, if any, seems to center on economic security as an integral part of national security. The Department of Defense spent $7.4 billion in 2017 on ABC, and set AI as the cornerstone of America’s military dominance. Similar to other areas, the Administration is shifting from the multilateral approach to one of bilateralism. As importantly, the Administration has been more confrontational, accusing China of forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft, and threatening tariffs and other punitive actions. In particular, the Administration has demanded that the Chinese government give up its Made in China 2025 plan which aims to develop China’s ABC industries as world leaders.

The US inter-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has been tightening scrutiny on Chinese investment in US critical infrastructure and technology. A bipartisan bill further expands and strengthens CFIUS oversight.

In addition to these protectionist measures, the Administration recently released a factsheet showcasing its AI efforts and achievement in terms of military and unclassified R&D investment, government service, regulatory barrier removal, talent training, and international collaboration. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) organized an AI Summit with more than 30 American corporations and various federal agencies for better public and private AI coordination in May 2018. Although observers have different assessments on the Administration’s protectionist approach, it is time for the US to step up, starting with a long-term, more comprehensive tech policy framework, as well as greater investment in R&D.

While acknowledging the importance of ABC to national security and government efficiency, the federal government has been facing challenges such as 1) an aging IT infrastructure, 2) shortage of IT talent, and 3) tight budgets. Since President Trump took office, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the White House hub of innovation for the last four decades, has experienced substantial decline: the director position has not been filled and staff has dropped from 135 during the Obama administration to 45, and the majority have no science background

As media and pundits fixate on a binary US-China tech competition, both Washington and Beijing need to carefully gauge the benefits and costs of US containing or engaging China as a strategic competitor. ABC related policies and practices are at the frontline. Perhaps Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, says it the best that the aim of US-China relations is about “self-transcendence rather than replacing each other.”

Dr. Wenhong Chen is  a visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington DC and associate professor of media and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is serving as the chair of the Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology Section of American Sociological Association (CITAMS). She can be contacted at Wenhong.Chen@Austin.UTexas.edu.

WEF on ASEAN: Key Agenda


September 8, 2018

WEF on ASEAN: Key Agenda

by Chheang Vannarith / Khmer Times
 
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Justin Wood, Head of Asia-Pacific, Member of the WEF Executive Committee told reporters on September 6 (Photo: VNA)

 

The World Economic Forum of ASEAN will discuss the Fourth Industrial Revolution, powered by a wide range of new breakthroughs. Chheang Vannarith writes these new technologies are revolutionary due to the speed, breadth and depth of anticipated change they will bring and warns that if Asean leaders do not think regionally, they will miss out on opportunities and fail to address growing challenges.

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN is going to take place in Hanoi on 11-13 September, with the participation of, if nothing changes, seven state leaders from ASEAN member states, namely State Counsellor of Myanmar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

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The main theme of the forum this year focuses on how Asean can embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution – which generally refers to technological revolution in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing. This is a new, critical area of regional cooperation as Asean moves towards building a genuine people-centered, people-oriented community.

Opportunities are present, stemming from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and we need to be aware of and get ready to face emerging challenges such as job losses and disruption, inequality and political instability, and cyberattacks. With the accelerating pace of change and transformation in almost all dimensions of social, economic and political landscapes, Asean member countries need to accelerate their comprehensive reforms, especially regulatory reforms, in order to grasp the benefits and overcome the challenges.

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Information and knowledge sharing is critical to building national and regional capacity in navigating through these transformations and uncertainties. The less developed economies like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar need more international support in building their digital infrastructure and human capital to survive and stay economically competitive. If not, they risk being left far behind. Be aware that widening the development gap within the region will prevent the realisation of a genuine regional community and could potentially trigger regional division and instability. A two-tiered ASEAN is not a healthy ASEAN.

The report by the World Economic Forum and the Asian Development Bank in 2017 suggests that regional governments must be fast, agile, experimental, inclusive, and open in developing an ecosystem for digital integration. Being inclusive in policy design and execution has been one of the main shortcomings in regional integration in Southeast Asia since regional projects are chiefly led by political ruling elites with low participation from the private sector and civil society. It is commonly said that ASEAN is an elite-driven regional project.

How to transform this unprecedented breadth and depth of technological revolution into a source of inclusive and sustainable development remains the top challenge for ASEAN and its member states. It is proven that inequality is one of the root causes of political and social instability and ASEAN must develop a strategy to link technology with the narrowing development gap – one of which is to promote “an inclusive Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

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The new Cambodian government to be formed today has included digital economy into its development agenda for the next five years, with the expectation that it will help Cambodia to compete with other regional countries within the context of intensifying market competition, the gradual collapsing of labor-intensive manufacturing industry, and the concentration of market power by multinational companies.

The local enterprises, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), will face mounting challenges to remain competitive in the market that will transition to virtual products and services than real ones. Technology remains unaffordable and inaccessible for many SMEs in the region and there is an urgent need to develop a support mechanism, both financial and technical support, to assist SMEs in utilizing the benefits accorded in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Another interesting agenda of the forum is the dialogue session on the future of the Mekong region – a new growth center and strategic frontier of Asia. The leaders from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam will present their views on the current state of regional development and integration in the Mekong and the management of the Mekong River. There are increasing concerns that hydropower dams being constructed and planned along the mainstream of the river will severely affect the livelihoods and ecosystem in the whole Mekong River Basin. The recent dam collapse in Laos has prompted riparian countries to review their hydropower projects.

The two downstream countries, Cambodia and Vietnam, are the most affected countries. They have put certain pressures on upstream countries, particularly Laos, to conduct trans-boundary environmental and social impact assessments before constructing dams. Data sharing on water flow and quality is another key area of cooperation, especially in the dry season. There are many outstanding issues and emerging challenges that the Mekong countries need to overcome and find suitable solutions for all. A win-win cooperation must be real on the ground, not only in diplomatic statements. The perception of the local people, not the ruling elites, is the best indicator to reflect and prove whether a development project is a win-win project.

ASEAN and other sub-regional institutions such as the Mekong River Commission share one common weakness which is the lack of implementation and enforcement. Policies abound – either in the form of blueprints, declarations, or joint statements – but implementation is lacking. Next week, ASEAN leaders will share their perspectives on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Mekong River. It will be a reminder that people want to know concrete actions and solutions that benefit whole societies and not small groups of political and business elites. That is what inclusiveness is all about.

Chheang Vannarith is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

 

Our Infant Information Revolution


June 15, 2018

Our Infant Information Revolution

 

In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that advances in computers and communications would lead to the type of centralized control depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. Today, billions of people have eagerly put Big Brother in their pockets.

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CAMBRIDGE – It is frequently said that we are experiencing an information revolution. But what does that mean, and where is the revolution taking us?

Information revolutions are not new. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press launched the era of mass communication. Our current revolution, which began in Silicon Valley in the 1960s, is bound up with Moore’s Law: the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every couple of years.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before, for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations and non-profit organizations to criminals, terrorists, and informal ad hoc groups.–Joseph S. Nye

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, computing power cost one-thousandth of what it did in the early 1970s. Now the Internet connects almost everything. In mid-1993, there were about 130 websites in the world; by 2000, that number had surpassed 15 million. Today, more than 3.5 billion people are online; experts project that, by 2020, the “Internet of Things” will connect 20 billion devices. Our information revolution is still in its infancy.

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The key characteristic of the current revolution is not the speed of communications; instantaneous communication by telegraph dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. The crucial change is the enormous reduction in the cost of transmitting and storing information. If the price of an automobile had declined as rapidly as the price of computing power, one could buy a car today for the same price as a cheap lunch. When a technology’s price declines so rapidly, it becomes widely accessible, and barriers to entry fall. For all practical purposes, the amount of information that can be transmitted worldwide is virtually infinite.

The cost of information storage has also declined dramatically, enabling our current era of big data. Information that once would fill a warehouse now fits in your shirt pocket.

In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that the computers and communications of the current information revolution would lead to the type of centralized control depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Big Brother would monitor us from a central computer, making individual autonomy meaningless.

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Instead, as the cost of computing power has decreased and computers have shrunk to the size of smart phones, watches, and other portable devices, their decentralizing effects have complemented their centralizing effects, enabling peer-to-peer communication and mobilization of new groups. Yet, ironically, this technological trend has also decentralized surveillance: billions of people nowadays voluntarily carry a tracking device that continually violates their privacy as it searches for cell towers. We have put Big Brother in our pockets.

Likewise, ubiquitous social media generate new transnational groups, but also create opportunities for manipulation by governments and others. Facebook connects more than two billion people, and, as Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election showed, these connections and groups can be exploited for political ends. Europe has tried to establish rules for privacy protection with its new General Data Protection Regulation, but its success is still uncertain. In the meantime, China is combining surveillance with the development of social credit rankings that will restrict personal freedoms such as travel.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before, for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations and non-profit organizations to criminals, terrorists, and informal ad hoc groups.

This does not mean the end of the nation-state. Governments remain the most powerful actors on the global stage; but the stage has become more crowded, and many of the new players can compete effectively in the realm of soft power. A powerful navy is important in controlling sea-lanes; but it does not provide much help on the Internet. In nineteenth-century Europe, the mark of a great power was its ability to prevail in war, but, as the American analyst John Arquilla has pointed out, in today’s global information age, victory often depends not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins.

Public diplomacy and the power to attract and persuade become increasingly important, but public diplomacy is changing. Long gone are the days when foreign service officers carted film projectors to the hinterlands to show movies to isolated audiences, or people behind the Iron Curtain huddled over short-wave radios to listen to the BBC. Technological advances have led to an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty”: an abundance of information leads to scarcity of attention.

When people are overwhelmed by the volume of information confronting them, it is hard to know what to focus on. Attention, not information, becomes the scarce resource. The soft power of attraction becomes an even more vital power resource than in the past, but so does the hard, sharp power of information warfare. And as reputation becomes more vital, political struggles over the creation and destruction of credibility multiply. Information that appears to be propaganda may not only be scorned, but may also prove counterproductive if it undermines a country’s reputation for credibility.

During the Iraq War, for example, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay in a manner inconsistent with America’s declared values led to perceptions of hypocrisy that could not be reversed by broadcasting images of Muslims living well in America. Similarly, President Donald Trump’s tweets that prove to be demonstrably false undercut American credibility and reduce its soft power.

Public diplomacy and the power to attract and persuade become increasingly important, but public diplomacy is changing. Long gone are the days when foreign service officers carted film projectors to the hinterlands to show movies to isolated audiences, or people behind the Iron Curtain huddled over short-wave radios to listen to the BBC. Technological advances have led to an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty”: an abundance of information leads to scarcity of attention.–Joseph S. Nye

The effectiveness of public diplomacy is judged by the number of minds changed (as measured by interviews or polls), not dollars spent. It is interesting to note that polls and the Portland index of the Soft Power 30 show a decline in American soft power since the beginning of the Trump administration. Tweets can help to set the global agenda, but they do not produce soft power if they are not credible.

Now the rapidly advancing technology of artificial intelligence or machine learning is accelerating all of these processes. Robotic messages are often difficult to detect. But it remains to be seen whether credibility and a compelling narrative can be fully automated.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author of Is the American Century Over?

 

New tech and old loyalties mash up a historic contest


April 13, 2018

New tech and old loyalties mash up a historic contest

by Ross Tapsell

http://www.newmandala.org/new-tech-old-loyalties-mash-historic-contest/

What does a 92-year-old former prime minister and a smartphone have in common? Both have become critical factors in deciding who wins GE14 next month.

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Najib Razak–Baca Doa, invoking God’s Help!

Kampung Tok Senik is a leafy wooden-hut resort in the middle of Langkawi island, off the north-west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Built during Langkawi’s tourism boom in the 1990s, its website proudly claims it’s “where genuine Malay heritage flourishes”. Today, paint strips off the walls, tiles are broken, the waterslide looks like it would distribute splinters rather than exhilarating rides. Various websites now list the resort as “haunted”. So when the 92-year-old former prime minister arrived for a campaign strategy meeting, foreign tourists would be forgiven for thinking they had seen the resort’s resident ghost.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad is indeed back from the dead, and Prime Minister Najib Razak is spooked. Dr Mahathir is making meaningful inroads in the northern peninsula states of Perlis and Kedah, which includes Langkawi, where he’s seen as the island’s “father”. Many people I speak to recall the “boom” days which saw resorts like Kampung Tok Senik flourish as solely Mahathir-inspired; the resort’s now stale, dishevelled appearance seems a metaphor for the Malaysian state. Over on the mainland in Guar Chempedak, 3000 people watch Mahathir speak at an opposition rally, a further 1000 attend a similar event in Perlis a day later. In response, Najib has promised several grandiose government programs for the region, including five projects for Langkawi worth RM1.3 billion (A$430m). As Muhamad Sanusi, Deputy Commissioner of the Islamist party (Pas) in Kedah said, “UMNO’s biggest concern is to make sure Mahathir doesn’t win. Mahathir back in parliament would be a dangerous thing. By hook or by crook, they will try to stop him. If Mahathir stands in Kedah, UMNO Kedah will be given a special job and loads of money to try to stop him.”

Yet it would be wrong to see Dr Mahathir’s persona as the only factor in voting here. His messages, and his party, Bersatu, are predominantly an anti-Najib machine. Almost all Bersatu party members are disgruntled former UMNO [Najib’s party] cadres fed up with Najib’s rule, which they see as corrupt and self-serving. One cadre in the Bersatu Women’s Wing tells me, “UMNO people are stupid [bodoh], always blindly following Najib”.

There’s little in Dr Mahathir’s campaign speeches to suggest that if he does miraculously become Prime Minister again, he or any of his senior party members have a visionary plan for the country’s future. Rather, his speeches are piercing analytical take-downs of the current administration, linked to corruption, taxes, the rising cost of living, and a flailing economy. Would a Mahathir-led opposition in alliance with a freed Anwar Ibrahim bring about comprehensive changes to the system? After all, Bersatu is being described as “UMNO 2.0”. But for UMNO, an “alternative UMNO” with a more popular leader is a serious problem.

While the resurgence of the “old” Mahathir is a key factor in this election, another game changer is the emergence of the “new”: the smartphone. Cheap, Android mobile phones are ubiquitous in Malaysia. In 2016, according to Malaysia’s Multimedia Commission, 77% of Malaysians had access to the internet, and around 90% of those users were using Facebook on a smartphone. But it’s the growth in Malay semi-rural and rural areas that matters here. Prior to the last election in 2013, only around 58% of internet users were ethnic Malay. In two years, that number had grown to 68% and continues to grow. In rural Kedah, most people I talked to under the age of 40 were all using a smartphone with Facebook and WhatsApp installed. This matters because they have access to a wider array of information and disinformation (90% of respondents said they used their phone to “get information”). As one local candidate told me, “we have problems understanding the decision of first-time voters, and this is because they all have smartphones. We can’t rely on them to vote the way their parents voted or other family members vote because they are more individuals in terms of the information they receive through these devices.”

When Kedahans I spoke with discussed the election, invariably they began to talk about Najib and the 1MDB wealth fund controversy. When I subsequently asked where they got their information (given Malaysia’s mainstream media mostly avoids reporting this issue), they would almost always say “Facebook”. For all its serious flaws around data privacy and the spread of disinformation, Facebook and WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) are the two most common ways that ordinary citizens receive alternative news and views on their smartphones in Malaysia.

Their usage and impact are central to understanding Southeast Asia’s rapidly shifting information society. One newspaper has already described GE14 as the “Whatsapp election”. Earlier this month, Malaysia’s parliament passed the highly controversial Anti-Fake News Bill. Analysts watch with concern as to whether the bill will be used to negate the spread of anti-government information online, in particular with further details about the 1MDB saga.

But let’s return to Kampung Tok Senik, “where genuine Malay heritage flourishes”, because it’s the ethnic Malay vote in places like here, in semi-rural and rural areas of the peninsula, that will decide the election. The opposition wants to win 100 out of 112 seats on the peninsula—it holds out little hope of winning many seats in Sabah and Sarawak—and to do this, they need a so-called “Malay tsunami”, where an enormous swing of Malay voters, abandoning UMNO and Pas, vote for the opposition. Senior local operators and pollsters in Kedah’s UMNO-led government remain confident of keeping the state. They have campaign teams using WhatsApp and Facebook, and small groups of campaigners on the ground countering Mahathir’s messages. Pas says its loyal voters will not budge, and they claim the arrival of Bersatu is good because it reduces UMNO votes and could place Pas in a better position. Of course, everyone is talking a big game prior to the campaign.

What they all agree on however is that the arrival of new parties Bersatu and Amanah (a splintering of Pas) means ethnic Malay voters have more choice in this election. And coupled with smartphones allowing for more personal interaction with individual parties and candidates, the local candidate is crucial. As one villager in southern Kedah told me, “things are changing. My grandfather voted for Pas his whole life. My father voted for UMNO his whole life. But me? I will choose the best candidate.”

A common saying amongst pollsters when assessing winning seats here is “tengok calonlah”, meaning “wait and see who the local candidate is before assessing who will win the seat”. Of course, personal and family ties to parties, as well as effective party machinery, still matter in how people choose the “best” candidate. But this suggests an unlikely “Malay tsunami” solely to the opposition or indeed to any one party, given all parties have decent hard-working candidates, as well as complete duds. At least prior to the official campaign period, I did not see signs of an enormous swing towards the opposition. Perhaps it’s no surprise that technology allows for more individual choice of news and views, and an individual candidate’s performance trumps entrenched party loyalty.

Despite Malaysia’s entrenched authoritarian regime with a ruling party which has won every election since Merdeka in 1957, there is still much uncertainty and anxiety around the precise outcome of the election—and what kind of outcome is best for Malaysia’s future.

 

GE14: Last chance for change


March 22, 2018

GE14: Last chance for change

by Dennis Ignatius

GE14: Last chance for change

We are now at the cusp of GE14, one of the most momentous political events that any of us will quite possibly experience in our lifetime. Rarely in the history of a nation has so much depended upon a single decision: who we vote for will quite literally decide the destiny of our nation.

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To be sure, many are piqued and frustrated that it has come down to a choice between Najib and Mahathir. But this election is much more than a choice between personalities; it is a choice between two very different futures for our nation.

Politically moribund

UMNO-BN has now been in power for some 60 years. Like all political parties that have overstayed their welcome, they have become politically moribund. They have lost their way, their integrity, their credibility. They have neither the vision to inspire nor the moral authority to lead.

In almost every area of governance and leadership they have failed our nation.They have been extraordinarily incompetent and reckless fiscally, forcing our nation into levels of debt that were unheard of before. Billions of ringgit in public funds have also been looted with utter impunity or squandered through mismanagement and waste. GST is the price we are paying for their profligacy.

The 1MDB scandal, in particular, has been especially damaging to our nation’s international credibility, not to mention the loss to the nation’s coffers. More than 50 years of diplomacy promoting and positioning our nation has gone down the drain as a result.

It should be clear by now that they do not have the political will to eradicate corruption. When the system jails those who expose corruption and protects the scoundrels who rob us, you know the battle against corruption is over, and we’ve lost.

Under their watch, many of our once proud national institutions have been compromised or reduced to mere appendages of the ruling party.

Despite having amassed more power than any other administration since independence, they still feel vulnerable, still feel the need for yet more power, yet more limits on our freedom. Executive power is now so pervasive that we teeter on the edge of autocracy.

Can we trust a political party that has consistently abused their power with yet more power? Under their watch, our democracy has been hollowed out; gerrymandering and malapportionment have made voting itself increasingly meaningless. In fact, this might well be the last meaningful elections to be held in Malaysia if UMNO-BN is returned to power.

In the meantime, life continues to be a struggle for many. Twelve percent of our young people below 24 are unemployed; thousands of graduates cannot find jobs; the majority of young workers cannot earn enough to live decently. And while Kuala Lumpur has more millionaires than Abu Dhabi, 90% of rural, mostly Malay households, have zero savings.

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And this after 60 years of development, after decades of the NEP and other programmes.

Charting a different course

We must now ask ourselves whether or not we can afford another five years of UMNO-BN rule, another five years of the same failed policies that have impoverished our nation, undermined our unity and weakened our democracy. Can we afford another five years of corruption, scandal and international shame?

If we are willing to look beyond the personalities, if we are willing to overcome our fears and UMNO-BN’s scaremongering, if we are willing to settle for the pragmatic over the ideal, we might just discover that we actually have a unique opportunity to break with the past.

For the very first time, we have a multiracial coalition [Pakatan Harapan] led by experienced political leaders who are genuinely able to unite our nation behind a vision for reform and renewal. They may not be on the same page on all issues but they are united on the things that matter most – respect for the constitution, rule of law, national unity and good governance.

As for Mahathir, there is every indication that he will honour his commitment to ‘reformasi;’ it is his last hurrah and he wants to get it right. In any case, Anwar, Mat Sabu and Lim Kit Siang will be there to ensure that no one hijacks the reform agenda.

It won’t be the end of the struggle to reform our nation but it could well be the beginning that we have long dreamed of.

A second chance

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It is going to be an uphill battle to unseat UMNO-BN but we are now closer than ever before. The future of our nation is in our hands. We must seize the moment and do everything in our power – campaign, donate, support and vote – to ensure victory.

Few nations get a second chance; this is our tryst with destiny and we must not squander it.