Brexit – Lies, lies and statistics

April 25, 2016

Brexit – Lies, lies and statistics

THE debate in Britain on whether the country should get out or remain in the European Union (EU) is fascinating on a number of scores.The statistics often adduced on the cost and benefit of doing one or the other have become mired in a sea of lies and contradiction. Many are confused, and are turning away from the numbers, often disbelieving them.

It has become a strategy the quitters have stumbled upon. They started it by contending the EU cost Britain £350mil a week. Money, they evocatively proclaimed, that is better spent on the ailing National Health Service. When their contention was contradicted, as the UK actually gets back quite a bit of that money, they quietly dropped that particular number.

They still played around with the aggregated £18bil number, ignoring EU rebates and discounts which left the net contribution at £8.5bil.There is no consensus number on how much economic activity and growth the 500 million EU market generates for Britain against that net contribution, but the remain side are clear, should Britain decide to leave on June 23, there would be a loss of over a million jobs, including 100,000 in the City of London. Denied of course by the quitters.

By the time the UK Treasury came out this week with its excellent study on the cost of leaving, all numbers were already wobbling. Thus some sobering numbers from the Treasury report, a £36bil hole in government revenue which would have to be filled either by a rise of 8 pence on basic rate of income tax or 7 pence on VAT, were dismissed as scaremongering.

The calculation that British households would be £4,300 poorer and the economy 6.2% smaller by 2030 was considered as not worthy of consideration coming, the quitters pronounced, from the “unreliable” UK Treasury – with no concern for the reputational damage to an important institution in government whose work is otherwise generally acclaimed.

Instead, an honest admission in that report that Britain was not likely to keep immigration numbers below 100,000 a year while remaining in the EU, was seized upon as failure by Prime Minister David Cameron to fulfill a previous promise.

The End of British Influence in World Affairs–BREXIT

Indeed it is the emotive issues like sovereignty, immigration and David Cameron’s benefit of a few thousand pounds from his father’s off-shore company, that are moving the masses. Never mind no wrongdoing on Cameron’s part was revealed by the Panama Papers – it was the big OC: off-shore company!

This is where the remain side may be losing out, the appeal to emotion, sometimes to some rather base instincts. The speech by Boris Johnson, leading leave proponent, at the start of the official campaign on the referendum a week last Friday, was full of it. It was rabble-rousing, filled with references to French knickers and how empty in the head Romanians were. Who could the remain side rouse the populace against?

Britons, Obama wants to work with Europe for Geo-Political Reasons

President Barack Obama can come along and intone how important the British voice is within Europe, how Britain’s weight would be much reduced outside the EU, and why the European venture started: to stop wars between its big powers and to unite the continent for the benefit of its peoples.

But who among the hoi polloi is going to listen to him, set against how Britain has lost its sovereignty to those bloody foreigners and un-elected bureaucrats in Europe? The scary thing is even the better informed have come to hold this deep grudge against the EU.

By discrediting the numbers the leave side has made the emotive issues the centerpiece, the matters of concern and for decision.Some rather excellent arguments the more level-headed informed public would consider quite persuasive get lost in the jingoistic din.

For example columnist Martin Wolf, who writes for the Financial Times, quite brilliantly made the point as Britain will always have the “perpetual option” to leave, the real question is why it should want to leave now, especially as the quitters have absolutely no idea how they want the UK to be associated with the EU afterwards. And would the other partner in an acrimonious divorce be ready to give any kind of good deal?

On the other hand, he demonstrates with supporting statistics, not all drawn from the Treasury, how exercising the option to depart would deliver immediate losses.But how many people read and understand Martin Wolf? The remain side has to make points such as his in SMS form: Don’t be stupid; We are going to lose our jobs; We have to pay more tax! For good measure, if there is something that could diminish the EPL – such as a freeze on mobility of football talent and higher ticket prices from lower British-centric earnings – the remain side might be on to a winner.

While there is no doubt the statistical cost and benefit analysis, and the geopolitical as well as geo-economic issues, do matter, and will have resonance with sober and informed voters, there are also those who are not particularly bothered about Britain’s voice in the world.

They have to be reached in language and on matters that more immediately concern them. Indeed, Alaister Campbell, the veteran communications practitioner, makes the point that there is a huge gap in the remain campaign – it is not hitting social media and has not addressed opinion formation that is derived from views chat and peer groups are exchanging.

For us in Malaysia, it is interesting to observe how even with an informed and sophisticated electorate, facts and figures can be manipulated and made confusing, even to the point of not accepting self-evident truths.How appeal to base instincts becomes an easy populist option which disfigures facts and, more damagingly, other people. The them, against us. We do this too often in Malaysia, even without the kind of existential debate now taking place in Britain.

For ASEAN, while it should guard against any sense of superiority and complacency, I must confess to a sense of amusement when it was put to me that perhaps our regional association is better founded than the EU. This is a turn-up for the books, as ASEAN has been frequently perceived, especially in academic circles in the UK, as insufficient and deficient.

There is the suggestion that perhaps ASEAN has been wise to proceed with its “community-building” in the way it has done, step-by-step, without rushing, with not too much legalese.

We must, however, not get too carried away. We can not make too much progress just to be safe. There are other regional organizations or associations to choose from which could become more eminent. The challenges within the “ASEAN Community”, such as has been achieved, must be addressed, like the development gap among member states and enhancing the business performance of MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises).

Slow and steady may be good, but it should not become somnambulistic. The EU might be going through a rough time – and the British in particular are now tossing and shaking it about – but the historic magnitude of its achievement should not be under-rated. Against this, Asean still has some considerable way to go.

Tan Sri Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

The Fascination with a certain Dr Zakir

April 19, 2016

The Fascination with a certain Dr Zakir

by Zaid Ibrahim

Dr Zakir Naik is a well-known preacher who has been preaching to sell-out crowds around the world. He is the Muslim version of Billy Graham and other famous Christian evangelists.

The Police first cancelled his forum in Terengganu but the Home Minister himself later allowed proceedings to go ahead in Melaka, with a change of topic from the original “Similarities between Hinduism and Islam”. Now Perlis wants him too. I was amongst the earliest to congratulate the Police for cancelling the permit.

Malays are generally attracted to anything religious, even if remotely so. They are easily fascinated with religious preachers, which explains why Dr Naik has been coming here so very often. Islamic resurgence  has contributed  to  the rise of many successful preachers  in this country, as you can see  from the success of Ustaz Azhar Idrus, and many others on TV .  Now  they  bring in English speaking preacher from India Zakri naik.  How times change. When I was growing up it was  Elvis and the Beatles  that filled the airwaves and the halls  ; now the preachers.

I wish the Malays are  more fascinated  with more worldly  matters , like what is  a bond Issue , or what is  off shore banking, or  a government guarantee. It would help them understand how 1MDB was conceived  and the process by which the  grand theft took place. Tan Sri Muhiyuddin was telling us how difficult  it was for UMNO members to understand 1MDB. I can understand why, with the kind of educational system we give to the Malays. If the Ministers in the Cabinet are having difficulty coming to terms with the subject, how much understanding can we expect from  ordinary intellectually challenged Malays.

Why are the Malays fascinated with religious preachers? Because preachers need not have any  real knowledge, except what they described as divine knowledge. No  understanding is required  from the listeners  of  what they say ; they only need to stir up the emotions. Understanding  1MDB is more ardours;  one needs to understand a little about economics, about banking, about how government works., and how the Prime Minister operates in this country.

I believe the Police made the right decision. There is nothing useful that can be obtained  from  having an “understanding”  of different religions  if the main purpose is to convert the listener . Zakri Naik is proud to be described as a Muslim preacher who has converted many unbelievers to Islam.  When you start talking of how great your religion is , you would in the same breadth put down some aspects of the other religions; otherwise how do you score points?  We do not need more religious rivalry than we already have.

Out of the woodwork came the liberal writers  and the defenders of freedom of speech decrying the decision of the Police. Some of them were quoting Voltaire about defending a person’s right to say whatever he or she wanted without agreeing with him. I tell them wake up. Do they  really think Zakir Naik is here  as an academic ?  No, he is a preacher, a converter,  and is  more likely  to be a  religious mission to convert as many non believers as possible . The law may allow this, but its effects on peace and harmony are matters which the Police must be concerned  with.

Would the government grant the same freedom to Christian and Hindu evangelists  from India  and elsewhere ? I doubt it. The less preaching we have in the country, the better it is for peace and harmony.

I am also for freedom of speech,  and I see the benefit of debates and intellectual exchange—but on more suitable subjects. There is nothing intellectually stimulating  discussing religion;  it only will generate  controversy. Talking about other people’s religion  will only  end up  with  heated  exchange and none of the participants will come out of it the wiser.

If the proponents of free speech want to keep themselves  intellectually busy, they should hold forums, debates, exchanges and discussions on science, history or philosophy. Have debates on public policy—on benefit of  off  shore tax havens , for example—or the future of public health. Talk about gravity or interstellar travel for all I care, because these subjects do not lead to fistfights or Molotov cocktails being thrown at offices.

They should know that in Malaysia religious forums are permitted only in a controlled environment, and some religions have more leeway than others.

So stop kidding yourselves that your rights to intellectual discourse or freedom of speech are being denied just because a preacher—who has described Osama bin Ladin as a “Soldier of Islam” and has said that Jews are permanent enemies—is denied the space to continue with his ceramah.

Joko Widodo prefers nuts and bolts approach

April 16, 2016

Joko Widodo prefers nuts and bolts approach

As Joko Widodo clicks through a presentation on infrastructure projects he has launched, an adviser hurries him along, warning that his time is running out. But the Indonesian President is having none of it.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 10, 2016. Indonesia on Thursday opened dozens of sectors to foreign investors in what President Joko Widodo has described as a "Big Bang" liberalisation of its economy, Southeast Asia's largest. Picture taken February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside - RTX26FW2

“No, it’s better I show you,” he says, pointing at photograph after photograph of port, highway and dam schemes he kick-started after years of delays caused by land acquisition problems and intra-governmental disputes.

Eighteen months into his five-year term as leader of the world’s fourth most populous nation, Mr Widodo is persisting with an approach he honed as a small-town mayor and then governor of Jakarta: driving progress, project by project, through spot checks.

“I’ve already been to the toll road in Sumatra six times to check land acquisition and construction,” he says in an interview with the Financial Times, explaining this was the only way to start work on the much-needed highway after 30 years of abortive efforts.

A rare G20 leader happier talking about cement and building permits than big-picture vision, Mr Widodo’s prosaic style has disappointed some of his most enthusiastic backers. But his focus on managing the budget, building infrastructure and trying to reduce regulation has helped see him through a difficult start to his presidency, which was beset by a slowing economy and political problems.

Investor sentiment towards Indonesia has improved of late, with its stock market and currency among the best performing in Asia this year.

Before departing on Sunday for a trip to Europe to drum up trade and investment, Mr. Widodo insists he will push ahead with his plans to deregulate the economy and accelerate infrastructure development.

“I will continue to make economic reforms, removing excessive permits, licences and restrictions,” he says, speaking sometimes in broken English.

“My commitment is to make Indonesia’s economy open and competitive.”

For much of last year Mr Widodo looked uncomfortable as he stumbled from one political problem to another, while the economy continued to weaken because of reduced Chinese demand for Indonesia’s commodities.

A dispute over the appointment of a graft-tainted police chief damaged his reputation for clean government. Policy U-turns, ministerial infighting and protectionist measures undermined hopes for reform — and his uncompromising defence of the execution of foreign drug traffickers prompted a diplomatic backlash.

Chart: Indonesia growth and the rupiah


But now the President who grew up in a riverside shack — the first democratic leader of Indonesia from outside the nation’s crony-ridden elite — is looking more at home in the palace. “I enjoy my job,” the 54-year-old says.

Not a bead of sweat forms on Mr Widodo’s forehead, even though the temperature is well over 30C and the air conditioning in the Dutch colonial-era Independence Palace is off.

A close adviser jokes that the President is a “cool customer”. Perhaps too cool, he adds, because he made a slow start to his presidency. “At the beginning, he did not know many people in Jakarta and many of the ministers initially appointed were not his choice,” he says. “But he is improving.”

Mr Widodo’s preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of road and bridge projects upsets those who were hoping for a bolder figurehead. However, for analysts who have seen previous plans for infrastructure investment and economic reform come up short, his approach is what Southeast Asia’s largest economy needs.

“He is not the guy who wants to come up with a grand plan, but [he is] a doer,” says Ray Farris, Asia strategist at Credit Suisse.

“I will continue to make economic reforms, removing excessive permits, licences and restrictions. My commitment is to make Indonesia’s economy open and competitive.” Mr Widodo’s focus on tactics rather than strategy has proved less effective in tackling Indonesia’s broader social and political problems.

When asked if he is concerned about rising discrimination against homosexuals, Mr Widodo’s perfunctory response is that “we respect human rights but Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country”.

As for the challenge of attracting investment from China while also pushing back against Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, he simply says that “all activities that may increase tension must be stopped”, before adding that it is not only Chinese boats that regularly plunder Indonesia’s fisheries.

After a recent skirmish between Indonesian and Chinese patrol vessels near Indonesia’s Natuna islands, his cabinet members offered wildly conflicting views on how to react. Analysts say the disarray betrayed Mr Widodo’s weakness when it comes to co-ordinating more complicated policy areas.

“The question is whether he can really control his cabinet,” says Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst in Jakarta. Others warn that he needs to lay out a more convincing plan to raise the money needed to fund his pet infrastructure projects. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of focus or leadership on addressing the core revenue problem,” says Mr Farris of Credit Suisse.

Unperturbed, Mr Widodo insists that running a country of 255m people and 17,000 islands is ultimately not that different from being mayor of a city of 500,000. But is the bigger-scale job pushing him to become a stronger leader? “It’s better you ask the people,” he says with a chuckle.

Japan in Prime Minister Modi’s Vision for India

March 30, 2016

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 337 | March 30, 2016

Japan in Prime Minister Modi’s Vision for India

by Titli Basu

Japan constitutes a critical component of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy. Beyond strategic congruence and coordination in Asia, the role of Japan in facilitating Modi’s economic development agenda is indispensable. As Modi envisions India’s ascent in the international order, the need to strengthen the economic foundation takes precedence. Demonstrating his pragmatic leadership, Modi has articulated several national campaigns including ‘Make in India’, ‘Skill India’, ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘Digital India’. Japan’s support for the success of each of these initiatives is crucial.

India began courting Japan primarily to source capital for investment in infrastructure, accessing civil nuclear technology, and securing the supply of high-end defense technology. The two countries redefined the contours of bilateral defense cooperation with the December 2015 Agreement Concerning Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology Cooperation. India’s defense modernization offers colossal opportunities for Japanese industry, which since 2014 is exploring the benefits of eased arms export regulations.

Beyond the scope of joint-development of defense technologies, Japan fits well with Modi’s larger goal to make India a center of global manufacturing. Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative intersects with Prime Minister Abe’s ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure Investment for Asia’s Future’. To facilitate manufacturing, Modi aims to undo hurdles in conducting business, develop necessary infrastructure, and boost the investment climate in India. In this regard, the footprint of Japanese ODA is expanding in Indian infrastructure sectors including high-speed rail, industrial corridors, and urban mass rapid transport systems. Meanwhile, Abenomics is striving to reinvigorate the Japanese economy by benefitting from the growth of the emerging economies. India will continue to be one of the fastest growing economies with a promising market. Japan being a capital rich nation with an aging population and India being a capital poor nation with rich demographic dividends and inexpensive labor compensation underscores the mutuality of economic interests.

Building quality infrastructure and nurturing manufacturing industries is Modi’s priority. While Japan has an international reputation for manufacturing excellence, one of the challenges in the economic profile of this relationship is the limited Japanese manufacturing presence in India. To ease the impediments Japanese firms navigate through while operating in India, Modi institutionalized ‘Japan Plus’, a special management team to accelerate investments from Japan. Advancing industrial networks and regional value chains must be a priority. Japanese corporations are key actors in East Asian production networks but India is yet to significantly feature in them. Robust infrastructure enhancing connectivity between India and the Indo-Pacific region is important for strengthening economic opportunities and meaningfully advancing ‘Make in India’.

Connectivity between India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia is a long cherished goal which benefited from recent Japanese assistance in a Northeast connectivity project aimed at converting the region into a manufacturing center. Japan is offering ODA loans for the North East Road Network Connectivity Improvement Project (Phase I), aimed at strengthening the existing national highway network in and around the northeast states of Meghalaya and Mizoram.

Modi’s ‘Skill India’ is aimed at cultivating a professional labor force catering to the manufacturing sector. This is another area where Japanese experience, disseminated through Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO) and Overseas Human Resources and Industry Development Association (HIDA), is valuable. Capacity building has found resonance with the Technical Intern Training Program and Advance Soft Skills Development Project in India, which aim to impart Japanese manufacturing practices critical for the success of the Japanese Industrial Townships in India. Moreover, HIDA has delivered in attempting to support skill development in the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor endeavor.

The core elements of India’s ‘Smart City’ Mission can draw from the Japanese know-how concerning solid waste management, water recycling, urban public transport, and digitalization. There are prospects for joint R&D. In early 2016, the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) and Nikken Sekkei Research Institute (NSRI) agreed to collaborate and design smart technologies to build sustainable cities. Dealing with urbanization, Modi plans to build 100 smart cities which present opportunities for Japanese companies like Hitachi Data Systems with its social innovation solutions. Moreover, Modi’s reform line-up, together with the ‘Digital India’ plan, offers a chance for Japanese corporations to invest in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector where 100 percent FDI is allowed. Joint projects in Green ICT, including green mobile base-stations and ICT for disaster management, are being explored by engaging Indian and Japanese industrial partners.

As India seeks to achieve sustainable economic development, priority is being accorded to enhancing energy efficiency, conservation and boosting renewable energy. As Japan is one of the most energy efficient economies of the world, India will benefit from technological cooperation and innovative solutions for building smarter communities. Japanese New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) have done joint research expanding the scope of cooperation in the energy sector. Meanwhile, Modi demonstrated political will by redefining India’s national solar ambitions, targeting 100 GW by 2022. The objective is making solar energy more affordable, dependable, and unproblematic to connect to the grid. In this regard, there is increasing scope for Japanese corporations in the Indian solar market. Soft Bank, along with Bharti Enterprises and Foxconn, plans to invest $20 billion in solar projects in India and they bagged their maiden solar project at a competitive rate of Rs 4.63/kWh.

Japan has a particularly special place in Modi’s economic and development vision for India. In the Asia-Pacific, Modi’s aim is to bolster India’s emerging power status. For this, he is willing to boldly engage, but not align, with all regional actors including Japan to leverage partnerships without diluting the fundamental values of India’s foreign policy. While some in Japan harbor expectation from India to be a balancer vis-à-vis China, India will not be any country’s formal ally. Under Modi, India is more forthcoming than in the past in articulating its position on few specific regional issues in an unambiguous manner where India’s interest is involved, such as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Modi has articulated India’s vision for the Asia-Pacific, engaged in strategic coordination including India-Japan-U.S. and India-Japan-Australia trilaterals, and accepted Japan’s participation into the Malabar exercise. There is certainly a greater strategic coordination on a few specific regional issues. Despite PM Modi’s high hopes for cooperation with Japan, it also needs to be noted that Modi has simultaneously engaged with China in building a closer developmental partnership, has adopted a different approach than Japan with regard to the AIIB, and conducted a joint counter-terrorism drill with China around the same time when Modi created space for Japan in the Malabar exercise. Therefore, a balance of interests is driving Indian policy. Japan is one but not the only important player in PM Modi’s vision.

India will not align but instead looks to pragmatically engage with all the important players in the Asia-Pacific matrix to pursue its quest for multi-polarity and great power identity.

Dr. Titli Basu is a Researcher at the East Asia Centre of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi. She can be contacted at

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Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah: What’s your deal with Najib Razak?

March 28, 2016

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah: What’s your deal with Najib Razak?

by Mariam Mokhtar

Politicians like Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah cause the electorate to lose faith in politics. Affectionately known as Ku Li, he confirms our suspicions of him. He is all spin and no substance. He joins a long list of sycophants who should have had the interests of the rakyat at heart, but at the critical moment, let down the people and himself. Where are the men of integrity and honour?

Ku Li’s betrayal may not matter now, because a majority of the population still cast their votes. In time, this number will drop because they will see politicians as untrustworthy.So, was it emotion, or political expediency which prompted Ku Li to sign the ‘Kelantan Declaration’?

The Citizens’ Declaration of the ‘Save Malaysia’ movement is supported by former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The Kelantan Declaration is just a vanity declaration, like a love letter for politicians. It is a tit-for-tat move to distract the rakyat from national issues.

So did Ku Li sign because of his 30-year-old grudge against Mahathir, whom he challenged for the UMNO party presidency in 1987 but lost by a whisker? There were irregularities in voting, and Ku Li’s supporters mounted a legal challenge. The High Court declared UMNO an illegal party and forced Mahathir to form UMNO Baru, and Ku Li, Semangat 46.

Was Ku Li exacting his revenge on Mahathir? Or did Najib Abdul Razak whisper sweet nothings into Ku Li’s ears and promised him a role more prominent than that of a mere MP? He is free to sign the Kelantan Declaration and express his loyalty to Najib, but in the past, why did he have to string some of the rakyat along, and say that he cared?

Ku Li has expressed dissatisfaction with the government on numerous occasions. When asked why he refused to leave UMNO Baru and fight for change from the opposition benches, his answer was always “No!” He claimed to be more effective, fighting for change from within.

His critique of the government convinced some of the opposition that he could be an interim prime minister should GE14 result in a hung parliament, or if the no-confidence vote against Najib had been successful. Some people may remember that at the convocation ceremony of the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), in June 2014, Ku Li moaned about the division of race and religion, the low standards of fluency in English, and Malaysian education.

He reminisced about his teenage years when athletes were selected on their sporting prowess, and Malaysians were united in their support of them, irrespective of their race. He recalled fond memories of Wong Peng Soon, the All-England badminton champion, in 1950 and 1951.Today, he supports the leader of a party which condones division in society.

In 2010, Ku Li said that in the 1980s, the government was spending money like water, and the Defence Ministry would purchase Exocet missiles, at RM2 million each, for target practice.

Why regurgitate these issues?

Why regurgitate these issues, decades later? He once held the portfolio of finance minister, and had to sign the chits, but did not complain about the frivolous spending on the armed forces.

He held two heavyweight ministerial posts, (finance and international trade and industry). His arguments would have carried weight. Why were these matters not highlighted, then?

A few days ago, Mahathir stunned Malaysians with the revelation that Ku Li and a group of UMNO Baru leaders had secretly plotted to oust Najib. Mahathir said, “He (Ku Li) came and met me, and said he wants to push for a no-confidence vote. He said he can get the majority, but he failed.”

The irony is that having been defeated, Ku Li later signed his allegiance to the man he had wanted to topple.How are we to have any confidence in our politicians, if they fail us when they fall at the first hurdle? Where is their persistence, and their moral duty?

On September 16, 2008, former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim failed in his bid to secure enough defections in UMNO Baru to oust the erstwhile PM Abdullah Badawi. Anwar was subsequently demonised by UMNO Baru politicians. Today, the same politicians keep silent about Ku Li’s tactics, which were similar, and also failed.

If there is any threat to the stability and national security of the nation, it is from politicians who have abrogated their duty to serve the rakyat.  Our enemy is not from outside, it is from within. Our enemy is made up of politicians who fail to act against corruption, injustice, and divisive and racist politics.

Members of the political elite want only one thing, to hang on to their seats. And power.You know what you must do in GE14


Cambodia: Whither Sam Rainsy and Scandal ridden CNRP?

March 23, 2016

Cambodia: Whither Sam Rainsy and Scandal ridden CNRP?

Suffering from scandal and disarray, a leader missing in action, and losing ground on the all important social media front, the Cambodia National Rescue Party might need saving itself. Scott Rawlinson reflects on the chances of survival for Cambodia’s all-important opposition party. 

As results were announced following the 2013 National Assembly elections in Cambodia, it was quickly apparent that something unprecedented was unfolding.

The long-time incumbent Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) took 68 seats in the 123 seat Assembly, six more seats than the 62 required for a majority.

Yet, what was shocking were the losses experienced by the CPP – the party took 90 seats in 2008 – and the gains of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which notched up a total of 55 seats and 44 per cent of the vote.

That the opposition was likely to make gains was a fact well-known to the ruling party. However, the extent of dissatisfaction and the opposition’s ability to rally  youth and first-time voters caught them off-guard. The result compelled the party to take a long hard look at itself, to re-calibrate and re-organise in preparation for 2017’s commune elections and 2018’s national elections.

Samdech Hun Sen’s  “Charm Offensive “–Effective Use of Facebook

As such, 2015 was a busy year for Cambodian politics. In the long build up to elections in 2017 and 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been on something of a “charm offensive”. This has mainly been through the strategic use of social media, most notably Facebook. It is now easier than ever to follow the Prime Minister as he meets foreign diplomats and leaders, delivers speeches on numerous public works projects, and interacts with ordinary – notably young – Cambodians.

The public relations offensive has fed into the implementation of policy. For instance, the government scrapped the toll on National Road 4, ending a 15-year controversial contract with private enterprise, and is committed to gradually increasing the pay of civil servants. Clearly, the government’s implementation of popular policies is designed to claw back and generate support from demographics the party was perceived to have neglected.

Hun Sen also personally intervened in the teething problems associated with a traffic law to reduce road deaths and injuries. He was encouraged to act after receiving a number of messages on his Facebook page to the effect that there were problems with the new traffic law. The move demonstrated not only his pre-eminence as an executor but also his flexibility.

There may also be faint signs of a lean towards more efficient governance and management. The latter part of February saw the stepping-down of the now former governor of Mondulkiri after numerous complaints regarding the slow development of the province. He has since been replaced by his Deputy, who Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has encouraged to push forward with development plans.

Furthermore, at the recent closing ceremony of the annual meeting of the Ministry of the Interior, Hun Sen lambasted several underperforming ministries, with the Ministry of Public Works and Transport singled out in particular.  And, as promised, Hun Sen has followed through on his plan to reshuffle the cabinet. Recalling the disappointment of the 2013 election result, a major motivation for the Prime Minister has to be a desire to see much speedier, reactive and proactive initiatives being carried out by his ministries and ministers.

CNRP scandal and disarray

Meanwhile, the CNRP is dealing with an alleged sex scandal involving the party’s acting leader, Kem Sokha. That said, and with the past as precedent – Kem Sokha was the subject of a previous “sex scandal” – in the long-term the issue is likely to be more of an irritant than an indicator of the opposition’s terminal decline.

In response, Kem Sokha has implored his party to maintain unity in the face of scandal and politicking by the party’s political opponents. There also remains the issue of Sam Rainsy’s absence, which seems to have sown some discord within the opposition, particularly among younger activists. The long-time leader in exile has also just been hit with another defamation charge for a Facebook post he made regarding the PM’s ‘likes’ on the same social media platform.

Regarding popular policy, Kem Sokha has claimed that many of the government’s policies have their origins in the opposition party’s seven-point program.

From the government’s point of view such an approach makes sense. By carrying out the CNRP’s main goals they see an opportunity to defang and undermine the very raison d’etre of the opposition, nullifying them in time for the next polling day. For the CNRP it is potentially devastating — hence the efforts of Kem Sokha to broadcast his party’s role in applying pressure on the government when shaping the direction of public policy.

Furthermore, as other analysts have observed, the CNRP needs to focus on its own internal organisational strength and build from the grassroots. That need still remains.

No time for complacency

Phnom Penh at Sunset–Years of Impressive economic growth

However, the government cannot afford to be over-confident, nor neglect the fact that serious institutional reforms are still pending. The spectre of 2013 still looms, and while the CNRP looks down it is certainly not out.

A recent annual report released by the local election monitor Comfrel scrutinised the Royal Government’s major policy platforms. It concluded that 26 per cent of respondents were satisfied with government performance in numerous policy areas. However, 62 per cent were only partly satisfied, and another 12 per cent  were not satisfied. Many of the government’s key policy platforms remain only partially fulfilled.

This is perhaps to be expected with the government just over halfway through its mandate. But, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Now the full weight of the CPP-led government’s time and resources need to be focused on the full fulfilment of numerous objectives. The laundry list of ‘must dos’ includes:  improving transport networks, particularly in Phnom Penh where rush hour congestion poses daily frustration;  providing a reliable electricity and clean water supply to all corners of the country;  building colleges to raise the country’s knowledge and human capacity; and  devising a pension system that covers workers from all branches of work, among others.

At the moment, the CNRP is unlikely to implode or explode any time soon – nor would it be helpful if this scenario played itself out. However, there remains a serious need for the party to get its own house in order. A strong opposition is crucial in Cambodia, as in any country, in order to hold the government to account, provide a check and balance, and pressure the Council of Ministers to implement laws that generate development and an improved quality of life for all.

Scott Rawlinson received his MA in South East Asian Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is currently a Fellow, and Coordinator for Fellows, at the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS), Phnom Penh, and will commence his PhD at SOAS in September 2016. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute.