Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism


April 12, 2018

Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism

A survey by Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living in ASEAN (HILL ASEAN) found that the middle class has been expanding rapidly in  ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

In 1848, Karl Marx opened his manifesto with an eloquent sentence: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” One hundred and seventy years later, Laos,Cambodia, and Vietnam are among the fastest growing economies of twenty-first century capitalism and the Chinese Communist Party plans to abandon the post-Mao doctrine of putting its assembly above any individual leader. Communism, which once materialised so prominently in East Asia, is little more than a faded ghost, haunting no one. Yet another spectre has taken its place in Asia—the spectre of authoritarianism.

Whether in terms of China’s attempts to establish a life-long chairmanship, Philippine’s systematic dismissal of habeas corpus or—as my work Owners of the Map analyses—Thailand’s new forms of constitutional dictatorship, a new wind of authoritarianism is blowing over East Asia. Contrary to existing theories of the “end of history” or of “democratic transition” this wind does not waft against the wish of the middle classes, but rather with their support, and it is not a temporary breeze, destined to died out, but rather a stable wind, one that carries forward an alternative system of governance.

Much has been written on this trend as the result of geo-political, military, and economic push and pull between the patronage of the United States and that of China. These explanations, while important, miss a central element evident to anyone who spends time with office managers, business executives, and traditional elites in Thailand: the growing popularity of authoritarian ideology among local middle class, a popularity that finds its roots in the shifting local meaning of words like corruption, good governance, and rule of law.

During the last decade, the understanding of corruption among Thai middle classes underwent a radical transformation. Corruption today does no longer refer to someone misusing public office for private gain. The word’s semantic universe has expanded to include three major components. Firstly, a traditional understanding of corruption as taking advantage of your position to steal money or gain. Secondly, an idea of moral corruption, related to the intrinsic immoral nature of one’s personality. And, thirdly, a vision of electoral corruption that reframes any redistributive policy favouring the working masses as a form of vote-buying. Under these new meanings, elections themselves become a corrupt practice, one that favours populist leaders who, through policies, gain popular support without necessarily producing “good governance.”

The discourse of good governance itself has become central to Thai middle classes’ ideological flirtations with authoritarianism. This mantra entered the country after the 1997 economic crisis, pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. These institutions understood the concept as a technocratic category, one that mostly meant efficient and transparent governance. In Thailand, however, the concept was translated by conservative political ideologues as thammarat, the governance of Dhamma, transforming good governance into righteous governance, a governance that does not rely on electoral support but rather on alignment with the monarch, the thammaraja.

While these semantic shifts in ideological categories may take local forms, they do not occur in an international vacuum. Previous authoritarian phases in Thailand—particularly the period between 1945 and 1992—had been supported, both economically and ideologically, by the United States and its anti-communist rhetoric. Since the 2014 coup, the junta has been looking to China for similar patronage.

Image result for The Middle Class in Cambodia

Cambodia is experiencing a rising middle class which has fueled a boom in smart phone access, now the primary access point for the internet.Young Cambodians today are speaking English fluently. Photo/Ian Taylor

The alignment between the two governments has not just been the result of real politic and shifting international alliances but also rooted in parallel claims about the rule of law and corruption. In 2002, the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress endorsed a new rhetoric of legalism, as a more efficient system to deal with equal and fair participation. Political scientist Pan Wei, in a famous article that took the shape of a political manifesto for legalism stated that “rule of law directly answers the most urgent need of Chinese society—curbing corruption in times of market economy. Electoral competition for government offices is not an effective way of curbing corruption; it could well lead to the concentration of power in the hands of elected leaders.”

The middle class president

Jokowi’s developmentalist democracy goes beyond a simplistic personal attribute or set of beliefs: it is inherent to his class status.

 

 

 

 

 

While not as sophisticated as Professor Pan, and not with the same ability to govern as the Chinese Communist Party, the system emerging in Thailand since the 2014 coup looks quite similar: a legalistic system in which non-elected officers create and enforce the law, above and beyond the electoral will of their population. The Thai transition from a polity in which people make the rules through elected parliamentarians to one in which the rules are imposed from above for the people and parliament to follow, has been legitimised on a basic principle: the superiority of unelected “good people” over elected politicians in preventing corruption and establishing good governance.

It would be easy to dismiss these changes has temporary push backs. Yet, my work argues, something deeper is changing around Southeast Asia, something that we will not see or understand unless we stop working under preset theories of democratic transition and we engage ethnographically with the shifting landscapes of class alliances, everyday ideologies, and forms of governance. These transformations, in fact, are particularly resistant to quantitative analysis and questionnaires. Often they do not imply the emergence of new terminologies or ideological concepts but rather the re-signification of words like corruption, good governance or rule of law. It is only when we spend long stretch of time with people and participates to their lives that these new meanings emerge.

The risk of failing to see these transformations is a familiar one to people in the US: becoming aware of the emergence of a new political and social order when it is too late to do anything about it.

This post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.

Mekong River’s Fate : Major Challenges and Opportunities


April 6, 2018

Mekong River’s Fate : Major Challenges and Opportunities for Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam

https://www.asiasentinel.com/econ-business/mekong-river-fate-cambodia/

Image result for Mekong River Meeting in Siem Reap

Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Third Summit of the Mekong River Commission in Siem Reap on April 5, 2018. Facebook

The Prime Ministers of the low-lying countries through which the Mekong River runs – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – have been meeting this week to attempt to reach agreement on strategies to address major challenges and opportunities facing the river’s huge basin, now and into the future, overshadowed by China, which clearly intends to exert greater influence over the river and its riparians, according to critics.

It is questionable whether any of the four, who began the meeting on April 4, demonstrate any real commitment to health of the river, which is vital to the wellbeing of 60 million people whose ancestors have for centuries relied on it for their livelihoods as well as for transport, water for cooking, irrigation, cleaning, and sanitation.

Image result for Mekong River Meeting in Siem Reap

 

Over the past two decades, most of the four countries’ leaders have instead demonstrated a willingness to build more dams on the river because population pressures and the burgeoning thirst for additional hydropower across Southeast Asia. There is little doubt that the character of the river, Southeast Asia’s largest, is under intense stress.

The main aim of this week’s meeting, at Siem Reap in Cambodia, is a discussion of the Mekong River Council Study, a massive 3,600-page attempt to assess the impacts of mainstream hydro projects begun in 2011. The analysis includes hydropower, irrigation, agriculture and land use, transportation, domestic and industrial water use, flood protection and includes climate change. It is described as an “an integrated, cross-sectoral, comprehensive and state-of-the-art study supporting sustainable development in the Mekong Basin.”

Unfortunately, the study findings conclude that the series of 11 large hydropower dams on the lower mainstream of the river and the 120 tributary dams planned by 2040 pose a serious threat to the ecological health and economic vitality of the region.

 

“Major detrimental impacts resulting from current hydropower plans will in turn produce massive trade-offs between water, energy and food,”according to International Rivers, a Berkeley, Calif-based NGO dedicated to protection and preservation of the world’s rivers,  which has dealt exhaustively with the council study. “Predicted impacts include, by 2040; a 30-40 percent decrease in Mekong fisheries — a loss of about 1 million tonnes per year and a staggering 97 percent reduction in the sediment load reaching the Mekong Delta. These impacts are expected to result in a drastic reduction in food security and agricultural productivity, alongside increased poverty levels and heightened climate vulnerability in much of the Lower Mekong Basin.”

Not only are fish populations expected to fall, the study suggests that there will be drastic changes in fish species with  migratory “white fish” species predicted to disappear entirely from Thailand and Laos and being pushed to the brink in Cambodia. Invasive species are expected to take their place, putting pressure on ecosystems.

To date, decisions on hydropower projects have been made by member country governments on a project-by-project basis, without regard to basin-wide impacts. The lower Mekong governments meeting at Siem Reap “must now ensure that the findings of the Council Study meaningfully inform decisions on future projects,” according to International Rivers.

Image result for Mekong River Meeting in Siem Reap

The 3rd Mekong River Commission (MRC) Leaders Summit in Siem Reap hosted by Cambodia’s  Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen.

Certainly, the stakes on the river have increased. The unsettling tendency of the Chinese government to throw its weight around in the lower Mekong basin as well as its frenetic dam-building in the upper reaches, in addition to development on the mainstream of the lower delta are of rising concern. Climate change is becoming an issue as is private funding, particularly by Thai interests, of dams in Laos.

“Beijing has continued to support those countries that are determined to develop dams on the river at any cost,” according to  Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Program for Future Directions International, an Australian research institute. “China provides funds, materials and labor for dam construction in Laos and Cambodia. While both countries see hydroelectric dams as an integral component of their economic development, Laos plans to graduate from least-developed country status mainly by exporting surplus hydroelectricity to its neighbours. China has been willing to help fund those ambitions, as it believes that it will help to further its interests across greater South-East Asia.”

One major issue is the so-called “run-of-river” concept, generally applied to hydropower projects that have only a small reservoir or no reservoir for storing water in contrast to mega-dams that store vast amounts of water and cost billions of dollars to build. The idea is to create sustainable hydro energy while minimizing the impact on the surrounding environment and nearby communities.

The “ROR” dams are theoretically able to harness the energy potential efficiently and without a major environmental impact. Without large reservoirs, they eliminate methane and carbon dioxide emissions caused by the decomposition of organic matter in conventional reservoirs.

Proponents argue that because proposed Mekong dams have limited storage capacity, the hydrological impacts will be minimal, as they allow a ‘natural’ flow of water through the dam, thus aiding the movement downstream of sediment and allowing for the migration of fish .

But, according to International Rivers, “focusing on the overall amount of water passing through a dam does not take into account impacts on flow patterns, including increased water levels during dry season and decreased levels during wet season. The ways in which dams alter seasonal flow patterns has severe adverse implications for downstream ecosystems and agricultural systems that are built around the seasonal flood pulse.”

ROR dams can have equally harmful impacts as conventional facilities, International Rivers says, “particularly on ecosystems and communities downstream. Some of these impacts are inherent; others depend on how a dam is operated. Unfortunately, the impacts of ROR dams tend to be overlooked and understudied, an oversight in part due to the assumption that ROR are less destructive than traditional dams.”

The NGO has published a fact sheet entitled ‘Swindling the Mekong: Run-of-River Hydro’ seeking to address what it calls some of the misconceptions that surround ROR dams, and examines specific case studies in the Mekong Basin.

A Specter is Haunting Asia – The Specter of Authoritarianism


April 6, 2018

A Specter is Haunting Asia – The Specter of Authoritarianism

 

This guest post is published around the Association for Asian Studies conference in Washington D.C., occurring March 22-25, 2018. #AAS2018

by Claudio Sopranzetti, author of Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok

https://www.ucpress.edu/blog/35276/a-new-specter-is-haunting-asia-the-specter-of-authoritarianism/

In 1848, Karl Marx opened his manifesto with an eloquent sentence: “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism.” One hundred and seventy years later, Laos and Vietnam are among the fastest growing economies of twenty-first century capitalism and the Chinese Communist Party plans to abandon the post-Mao doctrine of putting its assembly above any individual leader. Communism, which once materialized so prominently in East Asia, is little more than a faded ghost, haunting no one. Yet another specter has taken its place in Asia- the specter of authoritarianism.

Whether in terms of China’s attempts to establish a life-long chairmanship, Philippine’s systematic dismissal of habeas corpus or— as my work Owners of the Map analyzes—Thailand’s new forms of constitutional dictatorship, a new wind of authoritarianism is blowing over East Asia. Contrary to existing theories of the “end of history” or of “democratic transition” this wind does not waft against the wish of the middle classes, but rather with their support, and it is not a temporary breeze, destined to died out, but rather a stable wind, one that carries forward an alternative system of governance.

Much has been written on this trend as the result of geo-political, military, and economic push and pull between the patronage of the United States and that of China. These explanations, while important, miss a central element evident to anyone who spends time with office managers, business executives, and traditional elites in Thailand: the growing popularity of authoritarian ideology among local middle class, a popularity that finds its roots in the shifting local meaning of words like corruption, good governance, and rule of law.

Image result for Corruption in Thailand

 

During the last decade, the understanding of corruption among Thai middle classes underwent a radical transformation. Corruption today does no longer refer to someone misusing public office for private gain. The word’s semantic universe has expanded to include three major components. Firstly, a traditional understanding of corruption as taking advantage of your position to steal money or gain. Secondly, an idea of moral corruption, related to the intrinsic immoral nature of one’s personality. And, thirdly, a vision of electoral corruption that reframes any redistributive policy favoring the working masses as a form of vote-buying. Under these new meanings, elections themselves become a corrupt practice, one that favors populist leaders who, through policies, gain popular support without necessarily producing “good governance.”

The discourse of good governance itself has become central to Thai middle-classes ideological flirtations with authoritarianism. This mantra entered the country after the 1997 economic crisis, pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. These institutions understood the concept as a technocratic category, one that mostly meant efficient and transparent governance. In Thailand, however, the concept was translated by conservative political ideologues as thammarat, the governance of Dhamma, transforming good governance into righteous governance, a governance that does not rely on electoral support but rather on alignment with the monarch, the thammaraja.

While these semantic shifts in ideological categories may take local forms, they do not occur in an international vacuum. Previous authoritarian phases in Thailand—particularly the period between 1945 and 1992—had been supported, both economically and ideologically, by the United States and its anti-communist rhetoric. Since the 2014 coup, the junta has been looking to China for similar patronage. The alignment between the two governments has not just been the result of real politic and shifting international alliances but also rooted in parallel claims about the rule of law and corruption. In 2002, the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress endorsed a new rhetoric of legalism, as a more efficient system to deal with equal and fair participation. Political scientist Pan Wei, in a famous article that took the shape of a political manifesto for legalism stated that “rule of law directly answers the most urgent need of Chinese society—curbing corruption in times of market economy. Electoral competition for government offices is not an effective way of curbing corruption; it could well lead to the concentration of power in the hands of elected leaders.” While not as sophisticated as Professor Pan, and not with the same ability to govern as the Chinese Communist Party, the system emerging in Thailand since the 2014 coup looks quite similar: a legalistic system in which non-elected officers create and enforce the law, above and beyond the electoral will of their population. The Thai transition from a polity in which people make the rules through elected parliamentarians to one in which the rules are imposed from above for the people and parliament to follow, has been legitimized on a basic principle: the superiority of unelected “good people” over elected politicians in preventing corruption and establishing good governance.

It would be easy to dismiss these changes has temporary pushbacks. Yet, my work argues, something deeper is changing around Southeast Asia, something that we will not see or understand unless we stop working under preset theories of democratic transition and we engage ethnographically with the shifting landscapes of class alliances, everyday ideologies, and forms of governance. These transformations, in fact, are particularly resistant to quantitative analysis and questionnaires. Often they do not imply the emergence of new terminologies or ideological concepts but rather the re-signification of words like corruption, good governance or rule of law. It is only when we spend long stretch of time with people and participates to their lives that these new meanings emerge. The risk of failing to see these transformations is a familiar one to people in the US: becoming aware of the emergence of a new political and social order when is too late to do anything about it.


Claudio Sopranzetti is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red Shirt Movement.

Thaksin Shinawatra prepares his party for elections in Thailand


February 25, 2018

Thaksin Shinawatra prepares his party for elections in Thailand

http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/2134444/hong-kong-and-singapore-thaksin-shinawatra-prepares-his-party

Thaksin Shinawatra with his daughter Pintongta Shinawatra and son-in-law Nattapong Kunakornwong on February 16. Photo: Instagram

Thaksin Shinawatra with his daughter and son-in-law

The self-exiled former Prime Minister and kingmaker looks ready to lead his Pheu Thai back to power from abroad – but the ruling junta has other plans as it seeks to retain control of the country at the polls.

By Bhavan Jaipragas

Post-coup elections are on the horizon in Thailand, and Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive former Prime Minister, appears raring to reprise his kingmaker role put on hold by the ruling junta.

Thaksin raised eyebrows last week as he held court in Hong Kong and Singapore with elders from the deposed Pheu Thai party who had flown in to pay their respects to the man they still refer to as “the big boss”.

Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, Prime Minister and Pheu Thai leader at the time of the 2014 coup, is also a fugitive from the country and was traveling with her brother.

Pheu Thai on Thursday downplayed the meetings as Lunar New Year courtesy calls, but political observers say they are the latest sign that Thaksin will remotely spearhead campaigning ahead of polls the ruling generals have promised to hold early next year.

Thaksin Shinawatra, right, with Pheu Thai member Watana Muangsook when the two met this month. Photo: Facebook

The “semi-public” nature of the meetings meanwhile suggests a degree of muscle-flexing by the still-popular Pheu Thai amid rising public pressure against the junta over corruption allegations, analysts say. The party is the latest iteration of a two-decade-old political mass movement moulded by Thaksin from among the country’s rural poor.

The meetings in Hong Kong and Singapore, publicised by Pheu Thai leaders who met Thaksin, are a means to show his rural base that the party is still “his party, and not the party of some run-of-the-mill politician”, said Patrick Jory, a Thai politics researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Thaksin and Yingluck took in Japan and China earlier this month, where they reportedly also met loyalists.

“You have to understand how powerful the Thaksin ‘brand’ is among his supporters,” Jory said. “For his working class supporters he is still seen as a hero, who delivered to those people who voted for him what he promised, until he was unjustly overthrown by the ‘elite’.”

Thaksin-linked parties triumphed in the six elections held since 2001, but are reviled by the country’s royalist and urban elite. Their dominance has coincided with a decade of political turmoil in the country. The pro-elite military staged two coups in that period – in 2006 and 2014.

Thaksin was Prime Minister from 2001 until his ousting in 2006, when he was also barred from politics and began his self-imposed exile. Two years later, he was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for abuse of power – a ruling he said was politically motivated.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, left, is hoping to stay in power after next year’s election. Photo: AFP

His brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat briefly held the same position in 2008, while Yingluck was premier from 2011 until the 2014 coup. Yingluck was sentenced to five years in jail last year in relation to a failed rice subsidy scheme while she was Prime Minister.

Yingluck’s stint as premier saw her fugitive brother participate in decision-making via webcam from his base in London and Dubai.

Duncan McCargo, co-author of the book, The Thaksinization of Thailand, said despite his nearly decade-long exile Pheu Thai was “inextricably linked in the minds of voters with Thaksin”.

“He was not able to run himself in 2007 and 2011 but his influence remained immense. It’s basically his party,” the University of Leeds professor said.

Another objective of Thaksin’s meet-and-greet with Pheu Thai leaders, analysts say, was to shore up internal unity amid growing fears that the junta is seeking to splinter the party ahead of the general election.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was the armed forces chief at the time of the 2014 coup, is believed to be keen on retaining power after the polls.

 

One way he can do so is by making use of election new rules enacted by the junta that allow a victorious party to appoint a non-elected prime minister.

Kevin Hewison, a veteran Thai politics observer, said Thaksin likely saw “some disintegration” in the Pheu Thai party.

The junta is attempting “to actively recruit former Pheu Thai MPs into the myriad of new parties being set up under the new rules of elections”, said the emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Thaksin, who once dubbed himself the “CEO Prime Minister” for his no-nonsense, technocratic approach to power, is unlikely to take such manoeuvres lying down.

 

Sudarat Keyuraphan, left, may be the next to lead the Pheu Party. Photo: AFP

Thai media, citing Pheu Thai figures who met Thaksin, said the former premier urged them to stand by his long-time ally Sudarat Keyuraphan as party leader.

Sudarat and Thaksin both briefly served as ministers in the 1990s under a coalition government. Sudarat, 56, was one of the founding members of the Thai Rak Thai party, the first incarnation of the pro-Thaksin, rural-based political movement.

Thailand-based political scientist Paul Chambers said Sudarat’s roots in Bangkok could be a shot in the arm for Pheu Thai, helping the party cut into the support of the Democrat Party – the party of choice of the urban elite.

Chambers and other analysts say Sudarat is also favourable in Thaksin’s eyes because she maintains ties with the junta top brass including the second-in-command, Prawit Wongsuwon.

Those ties could prove critical as her political fate – and that of Pheu Thai – ultimately lies with whether the junta follows through with its promise to hold elections.

Jory, the University of Queensland lecturer, said the latest meetings are likely to signal to voters the waning clout of the military.

A series of scandals have marred the junta’s time in power. Photo: EPA

The junta is reeling from multiple scandals including a social media campaign against Prawit over the so-called Watchgate saga in which social media sleuths uncovered his collection of some two dozen luxury time pieces.

The meetings meanwhile have taken place despite the junta’s warnings that it is illegal for the fugitive Thaksin to have links or influence over domestic politics.

Pheu Thai’s acting secretary general Phumtham Wechayachai in a statement on Thursday said the meetings had nothing to do with the party’s political affairs.

But Jory said “the fact that Thaksin can move around freely and meet Pheu Thai politicians so easily reinforces the military’s growing impotence.”

Bhavan Jaipragas

Portents of transactional diplomacy in US–Southeast Asia relations


November 12, 2017

Portents of transactional diplomacy in US–Southeast Asia relations

by Alan Chong, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

In the wake of three Southeast Asian prime ministers’ visits to the Trump White House, a new pattern of diplomatic communication appears to be taking shape — transactional diplomacy.

It is well known that the election of Donald Trump triggered a wave of privately expressed unease in many Asian capitals. Trump’s inauguration speech spelt out the cornerstone of his foreign policy in simple terms: ‘We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American. We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first’. In the course of three recent visits by the leaders of Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore to Washington, President Trump has demonstrated consistency in applying these rules.

Image result for Lee Hsien Loong visit The White House

 

What one sees emerging out of the Trump White House is nothing less than transactional leadership translated into foreign policy. Leaders produce compliance from followers by promising tangible carrots and sticks. In managerial settings, this is remarkably effective since followers expect the leader to specify clear key performance targets against which the former can measure their productivity. But in the world of international politics, transactional foreign policy may be complicated to the point of possible failure.

The problem with Trump’s foreign policy is that he takes his ‘America First’ policy too seriously. This has triggered a peculiar foreign policy overture manifested in the visits by the Malaysian, Thai and Singaporean prime ministers to the White House recently: shopping diplomacy.

Image result for Najob Razak visits The White House

During Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit, he made it clear to the media that he was bringing a ‘strong value proposition’ to the United States. It was announced that Khazanah Nasional (the Malaysian government’s sovereign wealth fund) and the Employees Provident Fund (Malaysia’s national pension fund) would invest several billion dollars in equity and infrastructure projects in the United States. Additionally, Malaysia Airlines was pledged to actively explore options for acquiring more Boeing jetliners and General Electric engines to the tune of US$10 billion.

Image result for Thailand's Ocha visits The White House

Not to be outdone, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha had an even longer shopping list to please Trump. Prayut promised that the Thai military would acquire Blackhawk and Lakota helicopters, a Cobra gunship, Harpoon missiles and F-16 fighter jet upgrades to be topped off with 20 new Boeing jetliners for Thai Airways.

Next, in an obvious nod to Trump’s championing of the plight of US workers in the much bandied ‘Rust Belt’, Siam Cement Group agreed to purchase 155,000 tonnes of coal while Thai petroleum company PTT agreed to invest in shale gas factories in Ohio. To top it off, Prayut and Trump signed a memorandum of understanding to facilitate an estimated US$6 billion worth of investments that will purportedly generate more than 8000 jobs in the United States.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong followed a similar script by showcasing Singapore Airlines’ publicly televised signing ceremony with Boeing Corporation for buying 39 aircraft with the attached tagline of generating 70,000 jobs in the continental United States. It did not go unnoticed that Trump smiled broadly and jabbed jocularly at the Boeing CEO while uttering very audibly to the television cameras ‘that’s jobs, American jobs, otherwise don’t sign!’.

Trump was not fooling around for the media. He meant to live up to his ‘America First’ rhetoric. Yet one hopes that Trump and his cabinet appreciate that shopping transactions do not define a whole bilateral relationship. Each of the prime ministers had also sought Trump’s friendship for multiple ancillary issues such as keeping US markets open to their businesses or getting a lift for domestic politics.

All three countries too wished to keep the US military engaged in the region as a stabilising factor vis-a-vis the emergence of Chinese power. In the Malaysian and Singaporean cases, both countries share with the United States a clear joint stake in the defeat of Islamic State-inspired terrorism worldwide. In the Southeast Asian strategic mentality, diplomatic relationships are always viewed in the long term. With or without President Trump in the White House, the United States is a naturalised political, economic and military presence in the region.

Another time-honoured diplomatic virtue practised by Southeast Asian governments is that of making gifts as a material representation of friendship. Gifts need not be a sign of surrender or weakness on the part of the giver. They are an indirect language for affirming respect despite political inequalities between great powers and weak states, and they signal the durability of strategic partnerships painstakingly built up since the Cold War.

Southeast Asian states will be more than well-rehearsed for this chapter in US–Southeast Asia relations. Many pundits are also speculating that China will also follow the same tack by decorating President Trump’s upcoming official visit to Beijing with even more dazzling multi-billion dollar energy and high tech deals. Today, diplomacy by gifting has found a new frequency in the Trump White House.

Alan Chong is Associate Professor at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A version of this article was originally published here on RSIS.

 

Think For Yourself


August 31, 2017

Image result for tunku abdul rahman merdeka kartun

 

COMMENT: Normally, I will join fellow Malaysians to watch television with my wife, Dr. Kamsiah Haider to celebrate  Merdeka Day.  However, this milestone year, the 60th Anniversary of Independence, we choose to spend our time together in stead of witnessing a farce at Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur. Kamsiah and I feel there is nothing to rejoice.

Our Malaysia today is not what I had expected when my teenage friends and I–I was 18 years old– welcome Merdeka on August 31, 1957. My generation listened to Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj’s Independence Proclamation in a newly built Merdeka Stadium amidst pomp  and ceremony with excitement and hope.

Image result for Tunku Abdul Rahman quotes

Today we are divided, unequal in terms of rights, opportunities, and widening income disparity. We are identified by race and religion; and we are being governed by a corrupt and inept Najib’s UMNO regime which disregards the rule of law. Tunku, Tun Razak and Tun Hussein Onn would be disappointed to see what we have become.

Dr. Kamisah and I would like to advise millennial Malaysians  to “Think for Yourself”. The future of a wonderful country is in your hands. You can make a difference. You can work to achieve Tunku Abdul Rahman’s dream that “We are all Malaysians. This is the bond that unites us” come true. That bond is broken  by the present generation of political leaders.–Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican

Ivy League Scholars Urge Students: ‘Think for Yourself’

by Conor Friedersforf

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/08/ivy-league-scholars-urge-students-think-for-yourself/538317/

As the fall semester begins, 15 professors from Yale, Princeton, and Harvard have published a letter of advice for the class of 2021.

 

Fifteen highly accomplished scholars who teach at Yale, Princeton, and Harvard published a letter Monday with advice for young people who are headed off to college: Though it will require self-discipline and perhaps even courage, “Think for yourself.”

The “vice of conformism” is a temptation for all faculty and students, they argue, due to a climate rife with group think, where it is “all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion” on a campus or in academia generally.

They warn that on many campuses, what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of public opinion” doesn’t merely discourage students from dissenting from prevailing views:

It leads them to suppose dominant views are so obviously correct that only a bigot or a crank could question them. Since no one wants to be, or be thought of, as a bigot or a crank, the easy, lazy way to proceed is simply by falling into line with campus orthodoxies. Don’t do that. Think for yourself.

They go on to explain what that means: “questioning dominant ideas,” and “deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions,” even arguments “for positions others revile and want to stigmatize” and “against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.”

They go on to explain what that means: “questioning dominant ideas,” and “deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions,” even arguments “for positions others revile and want to stigmatize” and “against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.”:

Monday’s letter argues that “open-mindedness, critical thinking, and debate” are “our best antidotes to bigotry;” that a bigot is a person “who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices;” and that the only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate “are the actual bigots, including those on campuses or in the broader society who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.”

The letter’s signatories are Paul Boom, Nicholas Christakis, Carlos Eire, and Noël Valis at Yale; Maria E. Garlock, Robert P. George, Joshua Katz, Thomas P. Kelly, John B. Londregan, and Michael A. Reynolds at Princeton; and Mary Ann Glendon, Jon Levenson, Jacqueline C. Rivers, Tyler VanderWeele, and Adrian Vermeule at Harvard.