Singapore: Getting Around with Technology

November 9, 2015

Singapore: Getting Around with Technology

by Surekha A. Yadav


Not everyone has noticed but Singaporeans are living through a revolution right now. An old and arbitrary tyranny is falling around us for a new, better order driven by technology.

Taxi apps are revolutinising our transport space and that’s a pretty big deal.Taxis and the weakness of the Singapore cab system have long been a personal bugbear.And I am not alone.

Often you had to wait more than an hour to get a cab at many points in the city and getting a taxi in the suburbs was well near impossible every weekday morning — crippling facts of daily life for many Singaporeans.

Yet now just months after I last penned my lament on the state of taxi affairs, the situation has turned on its head. Waiting for a cab to get to work in the morning, I’m honestly spoiled for choice. I could use Grab taxi, Hailo or of course, Uber.

At one glance (and a few swipes) I can see what my options are, know which cabs are in the vicinity, get an idea of how much my journey will cost and manage the whole process while scrolling my Facebook feed. I don’t need to make so much as a phone call, let alone walk out onto the street and stand at the corner soliciting stony-faced taxi uncles.

This brave new world is an amazing demonstration of how technology really can change lives and alter the fabric of daily life. Thousands of vehicle owners and drivers are clearly using the technology to such an extent that the triumvirate of traditional taxi companies Trans-Cab, Comfort and SMRT appear to be struggling to find drivers and maintain fleet levels.

Taxi Service in Singapore

These days, you don’t have to fret about not being able to get a taxi in Singapore… taxi apps to the rescue! So far (traditional cab companies aside) it seems to be a clear win-win with drivers getting better terms such as higher revenues or lower overheads and app users getting a faster and more reliable service.

What’s even more striking is that regulators have stepped in broadly to support the city’s taxi transformation. Government legislation is often the bane of innovation. And as taxi apps moved from being a novelty to becoming a regular means of transportation, legislation became inevitable.

There were cries by taxi companies and drivers affiliated with them to outlaw or severely restrict the scope of app-driven hire services. Their argument being that the low overheads and limited legal restrictions in the online space give these apps an unfair competitive advantage.

Basically, the old operators wanted to freeze the taxi eco system and preserve their market share. However, the Bill passed this week does not lock us into the ancient regime. Rather it broadly empowers what it terms Third-Party Taxi Booking Service Providers while ensuring they stick to basic legal parameters.

Uber cars cannot pick customers off the street like regular cabs, and the apps can’t compel you to provide your final destination in advance — lest drivers begin adopting the behaviour of regular taxi drivers and reject customers for going somewhere out of the way.

With a few safeguards in place, it’s really a positive piece of legislation and it’s clear in this case that the government is moving with technology and not impeding it. What this means is the taxi revolution has succeeded and become the new status quo with legislation, users and providers all lined up behind a new world.

Viva la revolution!

Beyond Economics– First Fix the Political Elephant in the Room

October 5, 2015

Beyond Economics:  First Fix The Politics

by Dato’Seri Nazir Razak

Nazir Razak at Khazanah Megatrends

The theme of Khazanah Megatrends this year is around “innovation” and “creative disruption.”

In the next 30 minutes I would like to share with you some personal stories and anecdotes, and perspectives about why Malaysia remains frustrated in its quest for greater creativity and innovation, risk and adventure taking, ethics and integrity in our economy, and how thinking about this problem leads me to the same conclusion as when I think of many other pressing national issues – we must address the “elephant in the room”.


As a 25-year banking veteran, I would be the first to admit that banks have been poor at supporting not just innovation, but many creative ideas.

Some who survived to tell the tale include two young Malaysians who some years ago came to see me about buying an airline for RM1 to build a regional low-cost carrier. I showed them the door very quickly and quite rudely, and was only nice to them when AirAsia was successful and going for its IPO.

Similarly, our experiments at banking start-ups and technology companies did not go well. Banks are by definition conservative, highly regulated and staffed with bankers.

In the mid-1990s, in response to the perceived lack of access to capital for technology start-ups, I was asked to chair the “Industry Action Committee” to set up Mesdaq, the Malaysian Nasdaq.

Even before we had venture capital and proven technology companies, we decided to set up a stock exchange. And lots of money was spent on the new exchange when really it should have just been another board at Bursa; it would have been a far cheaper failed experiment. Till today, I regret not saying no to this project, but it was a good early lesson for me and probably why I do find it hard to keep my mouth shut.

As banks and the capital markets fell short, the government availed lots of money for technology and start-ups in general. Funds like MTDC and several venture companies were seeded by the government. Money itself has never been the problem. The problem was that we never had the institutional capabilities to allocate the money effectively, bias as we were to local intermediaries who lacked experience and networks, and prone as we were to proliferating agencies rather than building large institutions with economies of scale and partnerships with international experience and networks.

Today however, I do think that from a capital standpoint, there is much less frustration on the part of budding entrepreneurs and creative disrupters. Equinas, for instance, has scale and leverages professional fund managers well.

GLICs have evolved to apply best international standards in investing and now hire – and pay – a much better cadre of professionals for themselves and at investee companies. There has also been a proliferation of private equity and venture capitalists to supplant banks and offer more effective risk and reward structures.

There is room for improvement, of course. I would like to see more funds made available to smaller companies and more focus on how to encourage large GLICs to better support small companies or small deals.

I would also urge that we look at how to make it less punitive for banks to become investors in PE funds given the difference in the needs of our emerging economy versus the more developed markets where these new rules are being written.

Mentoring and international perspectives

Innovation is about three things – insight, idea and implementation. Beyond capital, entrepreneurs need guidance to help them build their ventures. Malaysia has had Technology Park Malaysia and others, and lately MaGIC, with varying degrees of success.

I feel that one thing lacking has been the international element to mentoring. It is unrealistic to think of building sustainable businesses based purely on domestic dynamics in this era of Asean economic integration and an increasingly borderless world.

This is why a few other individuals and I set up the not-for-profit organisation Endeavour Malaysia in 2013. In partnership with Endeavour Worldwide we search for entrepreneurs via a rigorous selection and interview process by first the local management, then the local board and finally the international Endeavour board.

Successful entrepreneurs are badged “Endeavour”, allocated local and international mentors, and are given access an international network of businesses – about 1,100 Endeavour companies worldwide.

Endeavour Worldwide is all about successful business people eager to give back by supporting new entrepreneurs. It does take an entrepreneur to know one and it takes knowledge from all over the world to assess the prospects of the best ideas.

Local mentors for Malaysian Endeavour companies include my co-founders Afzal Rahim, Mark Chang, Brahmal Vasudevan and Tony Fernandes.

Endeavour’s “mentor capitalist” model has worked extremely well in Latin America, where its biggest success story is MercadoLibre, the eBay equivalent. Marcos Galperin started the company in 1999 and was selected by Endeavour that year itself.

He expanded the business across the continent and the company is now listed on the Nasdaq with a market cap of about US$4 billion. Marcos is the perfect example of how a high-impact entrepreneur can have an outsized impact on the ecosystem around him or her. He subsequently became a founder and board member of Endeavour as well role model, mentor or direct investor in a whole string of emerging companies.

I hope that we can rapidly add to the six Endeavour companies that we have so far, but overall Malaysian entrepreneurs now have reasonable choice of ecosystems to help them.

Beyond economics

If we define access to capital and ecosystems as economics, then I would say we have over the years largely addressed the economic issues, but there is still no real breakthrough.

Recent data shows national productivity growth slowing down from 2.7% between 2006 and 2010 to 2.1% between 2011 and 2014. And other worrying data points include the story of two recent big Malaysian innovation success stories – GrabTaxi and HappyFresh – they started in KL but have effectively moved to Singapore and Indonesia for various reasons.

When I asked several entrepreneurs whether if given the choice they would choose to be based in Malaysia, most said no, and those who said yes tended to strongly espouse their nationalistic sentiment. Even though it is just my crude dipstick survey, it is worrying because we are at risk of losing the best companies that we nurture.

So I asked those who said they would move away what their concerns are, without fail, they go beyond economics to the big picture, and relate not just their own concerns but perception of their potential international financiers and partners.

Role of the government

The heavy presence of government in the economy is one issue they highlight. We have spoken and agreed ad nauseam in various other platforms about reducing government involvement in business, yet the data from the past few years show quite the opposite.

Even more important is the role of government in overseeing business competition – the rules of the game in each sector. Much of this has been covered in the New Economic Model, and we are making progress with the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) and Aviation Commission, for instance. But much, much more needs to be done.

The more sensitive area of concern is the perception that people or businesses are not equal before the government and even when one can accept preferential treatment based on our affirmative action policy, the rules are often not clear. Added to that is a culture of top down decision-making, even in the sphere of innovation.

Let me share with you one personal anecdote. In 2004, I was appointed to the board of the infamous InventQjaya, set up by a self-described genius innovator, generously funded by the government with cash and a super smart building in Cyberjaya.

I joined two other independent directors, Tan Sri Shahril Shamsuddin and Datuk Sidek Ahmad. From early on, we sensed things were not right and when we conducted our own technical due diligence there were a lot of question marks around the intellectual property the company had expensively acquired from the genius innovator’s own company back in the US.

The turning point for me was when he showed us his “killer invention” – a glass window which would turn opaque at the touch of a button. Well, massage parlours in Korea had had them for years – so I was told!

Shahril and Sidek, who were both more literate in science than me, also found other dubious inventions. So finally, together with MoF official Datuk Rahim Mokti, we decided that enough was enough, we had to do the right thing.

Truth be told, if we knew how painful blowing the whistle was going to be, I’m not sure if we would have done it!

Etched in my memory is the day Shahril and I went to report the case at the A-G’s chamber. After spending a couple of hours showing all the evidence, the officer calmly asked “Did you bring your toothbrush?”

He said, based on his experience, people who make accusations are often the real crooks so perhaps he should detain us! So then we spent another couple of hours explaining that it wasn’t us –thankfully, we were convincing enough.

After triggering the institutional processes, we were advised that we had to see and explain ourselves to Tun (Dr) Mahathir who had firmly backed the project. After the A-G Chamber experience, we were too afraid so we ran to the master salesman Tan Sri Nor Yakcop and begged him to carry the news for us. I was told Tan Sri Nor did a splendid job, Tun agreed that we were doing the right thing and we were safe.

The authorities never managed to build the legal case against the inventor. A lot of money was wasted, but a great deal more would have been lost had we, the directors appointed by the government, not done our fiduciary duty and been willing to tell truth to power.

I have never fully traced the history of how and why InventQjaya started, but I was told it was by navigating the corridors of power and convincing the PM. Tun’s idea of a government-backed R&D centre was good, the problem was how it was implemented.

There could have been a tender open to scientists across the globe, for instance, as opposed to one man’s full trust in another who went on to liberally use the threat of his access to power to get his way.

I am sure there are other similar stories. So we need to recalibrate how the corridors of power work, re-establish processes and reaffirm institutional checks and balances. Over the years, power has become too concentrated and system checks and balances are not functioning as they should.

Human capital and education

Another issue that the entrepreneurs highlighted was human capital.I will not delve into education reform as many of our finest, Tan Sri Azman, Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah and Tony were part of the National Education System Evaluation Panel set up in 2011, and from what I gather, the issues are well-understood.

There is of course plenty of research that show correlation between national propensity to innovate and the right educational policies. It’s the political realities of education reform that seem to have held us back. On the wider issue of talent retention or drain itself, again much has been discussed via TalentCorp, etc, but then when I speak to the brightest overseas Malaysians, the most often cited reasons for not coming home are socio-political.

Politics–The Elephant in the Room

The elephant in the room is politics and the socio-economic structures that have evolved in tandem over the years. As we have seen over the last two general elections, the dominant political party system that we have had since independence is at risk.

While we can point to many other countries where the transition to a multi-party system happens peacefully, Malaysia has a unique and complex with a potentially toxic mix of race and religion deeply embedded in the political system, so we can’t take that for granted.

Meanwhile, crucial reform proposals by many of our cleverest people like the NEAC which presented the NEM that proposed major structural reforms, have been frozen by politics.

I won’t try to predict the consequences of continuing with the current trajectory of Malaysian politics. But I will predict that if we don’t undertake major structural reform of our socio-economy soon, we may well lose the international economics game.

Way forward

I propose that we go back in history. Not to the early, joyous, optimistic days of the initial post-Merdeka years.

Instead, let’s travel back to the devastating blow we suffered on May 13, 1969 – a day of infamy in our short history as a nation. A day that punctured our innocent idealism and introduced us to the Hobbesian nature of reality.

In the wake of that tragic and horrific blood-letting, the government declared emergency rule and set up a National Operations Council led by Tun Razak to run the country after Parliament was suspended indefinitely.

Eight months later in January 1970, Tun Razak chaired the first National Consultative Council, or NCC, meeting to examine the ethnic, political, economic and cultural sparks that provoked the May 13 episode and undermined national unity.

The NCC’s members consisted of just three ministers – Tun Dr Ismail, Tun Tan Siew Sin and Tun Sambanthan – as well as representatives from state governments, members of religious establishments, professional bodies, unions, teachers associations and political parties – a balanced representation of the population.

The NCC’s deliberations over a few months produced two extremely significant documents that guided our nation in the post-May 13 years: the New Economic Policy or NEP, and the Rukunegara.

Parliament was subsequently reinstated while the NEP spurred the growth of the government’s involvement in business with the establishment of many agencies to facilitate the rebalancing of wealth among ethnic groups and poverty eradication initiatives, with considerable success. The NEP epitomised what this conference is all about – innovation, creative disruption and inclusivity.

So, here we are today.  The NEP that was set to be a 20-year programme remains 44 years on, albeit in a much mutated form. In the meantime, the world and our place in it have changed, not least with the advent of the knowledge economy and the shift in economic power from large corporates and institutions to individual talent and entrepreneurship. The near future looks even scarier as articulated this morning by Charles Leadbeater.

Supply chains have shifted dramatically and creative disruptors flourish in economies where vested interests are not protected by governments and politics. Is our economic system substantially designed in the 1970s able to cope with the demands of today?

We all seem to know major reforms are needed – there is already much good literature on reforms from the government itself – but implementation has been trapped by realpolitik. Recent events are surely symptoms of systemic strain.

I believe that just as in the post-May 13 era, we are now facing a national challenge. Back then, the fundamental issue was national unity. Today, in the 21st century, the parameters have widened. National unity and the forging of a Malaysian identity are still very much works in progress. But added to them are a plethora of problems ranging from the ethical to the practical, and even our quest to spur innovation and creative destruction leads us to this fundamental national challenge.

We urgently need a new social and economic re-engineering programme to suit today’s challenges and for today’s Malaysians. My humble suggestion is this: the time is ripe for the setting up of a council similar to the NCC. Let’s call it the National Consultative Council 2 or NCC2.

To borrow a leaf from history, let us once again bring together the best and brightest among us Malaysians to huddle and deliberate our options. Let the NCC2 be no different from the first NCC in terms of participation from all members of our Malaysian society.

Its membership should be inclusive, its deliberations wide-ranging, and its reports succinct and practical to implement. And it should be led by someone or some people with the moral authority to bring the good and the great to the table for the sake of the nation’s new future.

My own ideas on how the NCC2 would function are still evolving. Offhand, I would suggest the setting up of six panels to deliberate on the following critical issues, namely:

1) Constitutional reforms;

2) Electoral reforms;

3) Economic reforms-affirmative action, role of government;

4) National unity and the social contract;

5) Preserving and strengthening the integrity of the federation; and

6) Institutional integrity – checks and balances between various branches of government and within government itself.

I make no apologies for adopting NCC from my late father. As I have written earlier, he was a Malaysian to the core, a public servant to the extreme definition of that. I believe his legacy of an inclusive, deliberative, and Malaysian vision and identity, is even more relevant today than it was in the dark days after May 13.


As I said at the start of my speech, there are adults who consider my views on current affairs as unsuitable. And they will look for 1,001 motives behind my suggestion of NCC2 instead of what I have just articulated. That is their prerogative.

Just as it is my prerogative to say we can and must opt for national – politics, economics and social – recalibration. We have to address the elephant in the room. Malaysia needs innovative and creative disruption of a national scale to spur innovation and creative disruption in our economy. Malaysia also needs innovative and creative disruption of a national scale to secure our future and realise the true potential of our great nation. We have done it before, we must do it again.

* Datuk Seri Nazir Razak is chairman of CIMB Group. This is his speech at the Khazanah Megatrends Forum in Kuala Lumpur today.

Watch out: Malaysian Big Brother is snooping on Us

July 13, 2015

Watch out: Malaysian Big Brother is snooping on Us

by John

john-berthelsenIf you live in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam and you are an activist, the government probably knows a lot more about the inside of your computer than you think, and more than you want it to.

On July 5, unknown hackers broke into the computers a shadowy company based in Italy that has become notorious across the world. With offices in Milan, Washington, DC and Singapore, its name is The Hacking Team, and it is one of a half-dozen such firms identified as “digital era mercenaries” because they sell products to governments to spy surreptitiously on their own citizens.

Najib in anxietyHe can go to sleep because he is using technology to snoop  and spinners to dupe Us

Top Asian clients among the countries using The Hacking Team’s services are Malaysia, the seventh-biggest spender, paying The Hacking Team US$1,861,131 for its assistance in spying on its citizens. Singapore is 10th, just behind the US, which is 9th. Singapore paid The Hacking Team US$1,209,963. Vietnam is 21st, at US$560,735, followed by Thailand at US$466,482.

According to the Massachusetts-based CSO cyber-security firm, the US Department of Defense apparently had a contract with The Hacking Team but no longer does. The FBI had an active maintenance contract until June 30 and the Drug Enforcement Agency has a renewal in progress.

The hackers, whoever they were, downloaded 400 gigabytes of internal documents, source codes and email communications with governments and dumped the haul onto the Internet. The documents tell a chilling story of helping some of the world’s most repressive countries including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Azerbijan and Kazakhstan. In all, 38 countries are on the list of clients. According to other sources,  The Hacking Team also expressed the intention to go after Human Rights Watch and other such activist organizations. 


And what do they get for their money? Here is a presentation on the company’s website to entice governments to spy. It is well worth listening to:

“You have new challenges today. Sensitive data is transmitted over encrypted channels. Often the info you want is not transmitted at all. Your target may be outside your monitoring domain. Is passive monitoring enough?  You want more. You want to look through your target’s eyes. You have to hack your target.  You have to hit many different platforms. You have to overcome encryption and capture relevant data. Being stealthy and untraceable. Deployed all over your country. That is exactly what we do. Remote Control System Galileo. The hacking suite for governmental interception. Rely on us.”

Big Bro1

“Without advanced technology, authoritarian regimes would not be able to spy on their citizens,” Reporters Without Borders said. “They sell products that are used by authoritarian governments to commit violations of human rights and freedom of information. They are Gamma, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys and Blue Coat.”

Bahrain’s royal family has used Trovicor’s surveillance and interception products to spy on news providers and arrest them, according to Reporters Without Borders. Blue Coat’s deep packet inspection products have made it possible for Syria to spy on dissidents and netizens throughout the country, and to arrest and torture them. Amesys provided products to the Libyan secret police during the late Muammar Gaddafi’s reign. The Hacking Team and Gamma have provided malware to capture the passwords of journalists and bloggers.

“Online surveillance is a growing danger for journalists, citizen-journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Regimes seeking to control news and information increasingly prefer to act discreetly. Rather than resort to content blocking that generates bad publicity and is early circumvented, they prefer subtle forms of censorship and surveillance that their targets are often unaware of.”

The contract with the Malaysian government apparently was routed through the Prime Minister’s Office, “Malaysian Intelligence,” both listed as “active,” and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, now listed as “expired” according to documents made public by CSO.  Thailand’s contract, with the country’s department of corrections, was listed as expired. A full list of curated documents made available by CSO can be found here.

The Singapore government’s Infocom Development Agency is the unit that apparently purchased the Galileo software. That agency, according to its website, “formulates and develops short- and medium-term infocomm-related policies, as well as standards, codes of practices and advisory guidelines – all of which are enforceable by IDA – pertaining to issues such as licensing, interconnection, resource and competition management, to name a few. IDA also monitors local and global infocomm market trends, developments and regulatory measures, while remaining technology-neutral, to ensure that the current infocomm policies and regulatory frameworks are effective and relevant.”

According to The Hacking Company’s website, “In today’s connected world, data is moving from private devices to the social cloud. Encryption is everywhere to protect the users’ privacy from prying eyes. In the same way, encryption is hiding criminal intents from you. Don’t you feel you are going blind? Sometimes relevant data are bound inside the device, never transmitted and kept well protected … unless you are right on that device.”

The government’s target, according to the website, “can be anywhere today, while your hands are tied as soon as he moves outside the country. You cannot stop your targets from moving. How can you keep chasing them? What you need is a way to bypass encryption, collect relevant data out of any device, and keep monitoring your targets wherever they are, even outside your monitoring domain. Remote Control System does exactly that.”

The system allows governments to take control of target computers and monitor them regardless of encryption and mobility. “It doesn’t matter if you are after an Android phone or a Windows computer: you can monitor all the devices. Remote Control System is invisible to the user, evades antivirus and firewalls, and doesn’t affect the devices’ performance or battery life. Hack into your targets with the most advanced infection vectors available. Enter his wireless network and tackle tactical operations with ad-hoc equipment designed to operate while on the move.

“Keep an eye on all your targets and manage them remotely, all from a single screen. Be alerted on incoming relevant data and have meaningful events automatically highlighted. Remote Control System: the hacking suite for governmental interception. Right at your fingertips.”

Leadership by moral legitimacy

June 7, 2015

Leadership by moral legitimacy

by Graham Harris*

*After completing a degree in Botany and PhD in Plant Ecology atgraham_harris Imperial College, London in the late 1960s, Professor Graham Harris worked at McMaster University in Canada for 15 years where he became a Professor of Biology and carried out research on the ecology and management of the Laurentian Great Lakes.

He came to Australia in 1984 and worked for CSIRO for over 20 years where he held many research management and senior executive appointments. Graham has worked in a range of disciplines including plant ecology, freshwater and marine ecology, space science and remote sensing. He was the foundation Chief of Division for CSIRO Land and Water, and until 2003 he was Chairman of the CSIRO Flagship Programs. After completing this task he stepped down as Flagships Chair and was made a CSIRO Fellow. He left CSIRO in early 2005.

Graham is the Director of ESE Systems Pty. Ltd., a consulting company specialising in research into, and the management of, complex environmental, social and economic systems. He is an advisor to a range of universities, research agencies, private companies and government jurisdictions both in Australia and overseas.

Graham is an Affiliate Professor at the Centre for Environment, University of Tasmania and an Honorary Research Professor in the Sustainable Water Management Centre at Lancaster University, UK. He was awarded the CSIRO Chairman’s Gold Medal in 1996 and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1997. In 2002 he was elected a life member of the International Water Academy, Oslo. He was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal in April 2003 for services to environmental science and technology. Graham has published more than 140 papers, and three books. His latest book Seeking sustainability in an age of complexity was published by Cambridge University Press in June 2007.

The_Thinker_in_NTHU_TaiwanThe Thinker @NTHU, Taiwan

We still seem to be fighting Cold War battles over whether neoliberalism and individualism – the “bottom up” strategy – is the best model for modern democracies, or whether more state intervention – the “top down” control model – is preferable. The debate in the West is quite brutal with polarized politics and biased media coverage frequently providing only a partial view.

[The Web does however provide an antidote to the prevailing ethos by providing access to other points of view; blogs by George Monbiot and Harry Shutt for example.]

When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are under determined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.-G. Harris

As we find we have to deal more and more with systems of systems – which requires both systems thinking and an appreciation of complexity – we are finding that simple slogans and remedies do not suffice (even though the air waves and the Web are flooded with them). To quote H.L. Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The predominant debate is too simplistic and does not provide sufficient nuances or sophistication.

I am reminded of David Berlinski’s concluding words in “On systems analysis: an essay concerning the limitations of some mathematical methods in the social, political and biological sciences” (1976): viz. “Grand efforts brought low by insufficient means”.

When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are underdetermined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.

Faced with such a situation we have both a knowledge problem and a collective action problem – and they are inextricably intertwined. The conjunction of constraints, complexity and community provides us with a perfect epistemological, political and moral storm. There is a moral space for communities to fill, but it is presently vacant. We require a new approach.

David Colander and Roland Kupers in “Complexity and the art of public policy: solving society’s problems from the bottom up” (2014) – hereafter C&K – have provided an alternative – middle ground – view on how to organise institutions and economics in a complex world. They favour what they call laissez-faire activism – combining both top down and bottom up innovation and facilitation. In a complex system of systems knowledge will always be partial, and neither the market nor state regulation will be able to provide complete solutions. History shows us the truth of this.

We can do without the brutal debates between the political right and left (they are more and more indistinguishable anyway), between the positivists and the relativists or between, say, the followers of Hayek or of Keynes. Indeed C&K show how the debate has been engineered to deliberately polarise the political and economic landscapes. The original positions of many intellectual luminaries were much more nuanced and sophisticated than is now made out. It is the old story: the messiah got it right – just beware the disciples.

Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.–G. Harris

As Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued in “Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers” (2006) the prevalent liberalism and positivism favours the belief in value free (scientific) “facts” because we can hold and assert our own individual beliefs. Values, on the other hand, are more about things we share and how we deal with each other in communities. So values require us to discuss and debate their context and efficacy, but because the mantra is “there is no such thing as society” we rarely do this.

C&K take an optimistic view of people as “smart and adaptive” and argue that the role of government is to set norms for behaviour and to provide leadership by moral legitimacy. They agree with Kwame Anthony Appiah who argued in “The honour code: how moral revolutions happen” (2011) that it is morality and values – our shared norms – that best regulate how we deal with each other and our environment.

Alasdair MacIntyre in “After virtue” (2007, 3rd Ed.) has argued that one of the main failures of modernity has been the demise of morality and the instrumental behaviour of bureaucrats and corporate managers in commercial and institutional settings. There is much confusion of means and ends and people and the environment frequently get used and abused. This is also true of politicians and politics and it explains why there is an evident and rapid decline in trust.

Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.

At the moment there seem to be few sanctions for unethical or even criminal behaviour in many spheres of public life. Despite clear indications of criminal activities associated with the financial crash of 2008 and of irregularities in global markets since – collusion and market rigging – very few sanctions or criminal prosecutions have been pursued. Worse there is no evidence that anyone feels shame or remorse. The guardians have been inactivated.

Environmental degradation is, likewise, a moral issue. No amount of attempts to monetise environmental values or design market-based instruments will alter this. Easily quantifiable substances like water and carbon dioxide may be traded, but for complex 2nd order cybernetic entities like ecosystems everywhere is different. Concepts like markets for ecosystem services and biodiversity offsets are therefore a fraud. We cannot swap like for like and ill-defined incommensurate values cannot be monetised. Offset payments to a conservation fund are a sop for the conscience.

To arrest the decline in trust and moral behaviour Appiah and MacIntyre argue that we need a return to concepts of virtue, honour, shame and esteem. To grease the wheels of society we need a debate about codes of honour that are compatible with morality and professional ethics. We can have positive regard for people who meet certain standards of behaviour and we can sanction those who do not. Those standards need to be debated, clearly stated and enforced.

C&K see a key role for government in providing the leadership and in setting those norms. Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit have noted in “The economy of esteem: an essay on civil and political society” (2005) that because we all (should) have a stake in making society work the cost of policing an honour world is very low and we do not have to worry about who is guarding the guardians. We all have a role to play.

Now I am sure some will argue that liberalism and modernism have defeated such outdated concepts, but the failings of Western politics since the 1970s are now clear: instrumental reason, rising inequality, environmental degradation, lack of political will and moral corruption. Governance and leadership by moral authority and legitimacy? Now wouldn’t that be something to behold!

Najib’s Political Battles Pose a Challenge to his Foreign Policy Agenda

January 23, 2015

Najib’s Political Battles Pose a Challenge to his Foreign Policy Agenda

By Murray Hiebert and Nigel Cory
January 22, 2015
Murray Hiebert is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Nigel Cory is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair.

4th PM of MalaysiaChallenges at home suggest Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak could face an uphill battle in pursuing his foreign policy goals in the year ahead. The long-simmering battle between Najib and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has erupted into a public spat that must have Najib looking over his shoulder given Mahathir’s role in ousting his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi.

As a result Najib finds himself flanked on the right by Perkasa,the equivalent of the Tea Party within his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and on the left by the opposition coalition led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. No move Najib makes will please all Malaysians, and perhaps not even many, in this constrained environment.

The public mudslinging between Najib and Mahathir could weaken and distract the Prime Minister even as 2015 presents opportunities for Malaysia to make its mark on the international stage. Malaysia’s ruling party generally hides internal conflict from public view.But the escalation in political maneuvering between two of the party’s key leaders has changed this dynamic.

Old corruption charges have been rehashed against Daim Zainuddin,Daim an outspoken critic of Najib. Daim isan UMNO insider, financial power broker, and two-time Finance Minister under Mahathir. He is seen as a proxy forthe former Prime Minister and, to real insiders, may even be the one pulling the strings on his former boss.

The government-controlled media took the unusual step of covering the case against Daim in detail, which some interpreted as a coordinated political attack and which prompted proxies on both sides to take the fight to the internet.

The split between Najib and Mahathir burst into the open when the latter, now 89, publicly withdrew his support for Najib in an August 2014 blog. Mahathir blamed Najib for the ruling coalition’s poor showing in the 2013 national elections, attacked him for his efforts in 2011 to abolish the draconian Internal Security Act, and criticized his earlier plans to scale back the affirmative action program that provides special privileges for the country’s Malay majority. On all these issues, Mahathir has strong support from UMNO’s most conservative wing.

The bitter dispute between the two men and their respective camps appears to have picked up in earnest after a dinner between them in December did not go well. A thorny issue reportedly discussed at the meeting was the sovereign fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., which has been plagued by charges of mismanagement and corruption and is reportedly suffering from billions of ringgit in nonperforming loans. Najib is chair of the fund’s advisory board.

Mahathir retains significant public and political influence in Malaysia as an elder statesman, particularly among conservative Malays. His profile stems from enduring public popularity, especially among older  members of society who are nostalgic about his 22 years in power. Mahathir’s political influence within UMNO has loomed large  over his successors since he stepped down in 2003. He leveraged this influence to undermine and ultimately remove his anointed successor, Abdullah, in 2009. Then Deputy Prime Minister Najib stepped up to become Prime Minister.He most certainly sees the possibility of history repeating itself.

And Malaysia’s economy is not going to provide any respite for Najib. The sharp drop in oil prices has created some stiff headwinds for Malaysia’s economy. Oil and gas exports account for a fifth of the country’s exports and a third of government revenue. It was therefore little surprise that Najib on January 20 announced $1.5 billion in spending cuts and said Malaysia’s economic growth has been revised down from 6 percent to between 4.5 and 5.5 percent for 2015.

anwar-ibrahim-recentUnder withering attacks from Mahathir and party conservatives, Najib has backed off many of his earlier political and economic reform plans. In recent months, his government has been criticized by the United States and human rights organizations for repeatedly using the colonial-era Sedition Act against critics. Anwar Ibrahim is awaiting a court verdict on another round of sodomy charges that could once again see him sent to prison. The verdict, expected in the next few weeks, would undoubtedly lead to further criticism from the international community.

Najib’s domestic challenges could pose risks for his foreign policy goals in 2015. This year is shaping up as an important one for Malaysia given its chairmanship of ASEAN and its non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. As ASEAN chair, Malaysia can be expected to play a key role in pressing the grouping to take steps to complete regional economic integration, keep tensions in the disputed South China Sea under control, and explore ways to bolster the role of the East Asia Summit.

TPPA Protest

Negotiators of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Malaysia joined in 2010, are scrambling to complete the trade agreement by March. But for Malaysia to get to the finish line will require some tough decisions by Najib and his cabinet in such areas as state-owned enterprises, pharmaceuticals, and investor dispute mechanisms. Even before his latest broadsides against Najib, Mahathir, who oversaw Malaysia’s earlier transformation into an industrial powerhouse, had  harply criticized the TPP as an attempt by foreign powers to colonize Malaysia. Anwar and the opposition have also sought to foil Najib’s reform effort.

The coming months could provide an opportunity for Malaysia and theNajib and ObamaUnited States to put more substance into the comprehensive partnership they announced last April when President Barack Obama visited Malaysia. But the visit marked only the beginning of the process, which requires more work by both sides to achieve deeper ties, including such things as stepped up cabinet-level exchanges,more military cooperation and intelligence sharing, and closer economic ties.

Najib’s golf outing with Obama in early January showed the depth of personal camaraderie between the two leaders, which could help them achieve greater depth to the comprehensive partnership before Obama visits again in November. However, the sharp criticism Najib received for golfing in Hawaii while parts of Malaysia faced terrible flooding highlights some of the challenges he could face in the months ahead as he seeks to deepen the country’s regional and global foreign policy opportunities.

The United States will need to make some tough decisions in the coming months about how to engage Najib and Malaysia. The country is a vital partner and a key to strengthening ASEAN. The White House will face pressure from various advocacy groups to limit or curtail engagement and there will be congressional pressure during the TPP approval process. The administration will have to step carefully but be guided by the strategic need to support political and economic reform in Malaysia. For his part, Najib will need to harden his resolve to pursue that reform.

Malaysia can’t afford a botched handling of MH17

July 20, 2014

MY COMMENTWe have been hit by two tragedies, MH 370 and MH 17 a few days ago,Din Merican both within a space of four months. MH370 is still shrouded in secrecy and  it is a public relations disaster; our leaders and public and security officials handled the foreign media poorly. MH17 was brought down by Russian made missiles in the hands of Ukrainian rebels backed by  Prime Minister Putin’s government. Our political leaders and officials are again in the eyes of media. Let them handle the situation better this time.

Those who are behind this dastardly violence must be brought to account. Our diplomats and those of countries which lost their citizens and the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon must act in concert to ascertain the facts about the downing of this ill-fated 777 aircraft. At home, the new Transport Minister has to ensure that there are no cover-ups, blame games, excuses, and conflicting or contradictory statements. Please provide facts as they come to light, and do it well and ensure that there are no fumbles.

I am glad that our Prime Minister has allowed debate in our Parliament on MH37. I hope Parliamentarians on both sides of Dewan Rakyat can be rational and constructive in their deliberations so that we can achieve consensus on what we should do to restore national self confidence and pride in our national flag carrier, Malaysian Airlines.

No shouting matches please. Bung Mokhtar types must not be allowed to disrupt the debate or make fools of themselves. In this time of national crisis, UMNO-BN and Pakatan Rakyat must stand together. The debate should result in a plan of action for the government. To nudge the debate along orderly lines, there should be a White Paper to Parliament on MH17 in which the government can present its views on what it has its mind to deal with the aftermath of MH 17.Din Merican

Malaysia can’t afford a botched handling of MH17

by William Pesek (07-18-14)

There’s nothing funny about Malaysia Airlines losing two Boeing 777s and more than 500 lives in the space of four months. That hasn’t kept the humor mills from churning out dark humor and lighting up cyberspace.


Actor Jason Biggs, for example, got in trouble for tweeting: “Anyone wanna buy my Malaysia Airlines frequent flier miles?” A passenger supposedly among the 298 people aboard Flight 17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine yesterday uploaded a photo of the doomed plane on Facebook just before takeoff in Amsterdam, captioning it: “Should it disappear, this is what it looks like.”

That reference, by a man reportedly named Cor Pan, was to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, whose disappearance in March continues to provide fodder for satirists, conspiracy theorists and average airplane passengers with a taste for the absurd. On my own Malaysia Air flight last month, I was struck by all the fatalistic quips around me — conversations I overheard and in those with my fellow passengers. One guy deadpanned: “First time I ever bought flight insurance.”

MH17 CrashThere is, of course, no room for humor after this disaster or the prospect that the money-losing airline might not survive — at least not without a government rescue. This company had already become a macabre punch line, something no business can afford in the Internet and social-media age. It’s one thing to have a perception problem; it’s quite another to have folks around the world swearing never to fly Malaysia Air.

Nor is no margin for mistakes by Malaysia or the airline this time, even though all signs indicate that there is no fault on the part of the carrier. The same can’t be said for the bumbling and opacity that surrounded the unexplained loss of Flight 370. Even if there was no negligence on the part of Malaysia Air this week, the credibility of the probe and the willingness of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government to cooperate with outside investigators — tests it failed with Flight 370 — will be enormously important.

As I have written before, the botched response to Flight 370 was a case study in government incompetence and insularity. After six decades in power, Najib’s party isn’t used to being held accountable by voters, never mind foreign reporters demanding answers. Rather than understand that transparency would enhance its credibility, Malaysia’s government chose to blame the international press for impugning the country’s good name.

The world needs to be patient, of course. If Flight 370’s loss was puzzling, even surreal, Flight 17 is just MH 17plain tragic. It’s doubtful Najib ever expected to be thrown into the middle of Russian-Ukraine-European politics. Although there are still so many unanswered questions — who exactly did the shooting and why? — it’s depressing to feel like we’re revisiting the Cold War of the early 1980s, when Korean Air Flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet fighter jet.

More frightening is how vulnerable civilian aviation has become. Even if this is the work of pro-Russian rebels, yesterday’s attack comes a month after a deadly assault on a commercial jetliner in Pakistan. One passenger was killed and two flight attendants were injured as at least 12 gunshots hit Pakistan International Airlines Flight PK-756 as it landed in the northwestern city of Peshawar. It was the first known attack of its kind and raises the risk of copycats. The low-tech nature of such assaults — available to anyone with a gripe, a high-powered rifle and decent marksmanship — is reason for the entire world to worry.

The days ahead will be filled with post-mortems and assigning blame. That includes aviation experts questioning why Malaysia Air took a route over a war zone being avoided by Qantas, Cathay Pacific and several other carriers. The key is for Malaysian authorities to be open, competent and expeditious as the investigation gains momentum. Anything less probably won’t pass muster.