The End of Cambodia’s Ersatz Democracy

February 8, 2018

The End of Cambodia’s Ersatz Democracy

by Author: Editorial Board, East Asia 

In 2017, the world’s attention turned to Cambodia for all the wrong reasons.

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Phnom Penh City

When Cambodians went to the polls to elect municipal councils in July, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) saw a substantial boost in its support, particularly in the rural areas long considered a stronghold of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The local results were seen to put the CNRP in a competitive position in the national election scheduled for July 2018.


Rather than prompting the government to become more responsive to the concerns of disaffected voters, the 2017 polls became the trigger for a brazen crackdown on the opposition, the press and civil society. The CNRP has been dissolved in a controversial court ruling, and its leader Kem Sokha has been jailed on trumped-up charges of treason. Media outlets such as the respected Cambodia Daily newspaper and independent radio stations have been shut down. The government is intimidating the largest and most vocal NGOs.

As Astrid Norén-Nilsson writes in this week’s lead article (which is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead), the ongoing crackdown marks no less than ‘the endpoint of Cambodia’s era of electoral democracy — an era in which the opposition may have faced uphill struggles but was nonetheless dependably allowed to contest elections’.

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Certainly, Hun Sen’s Cambodia was no poster child for democracy and good governance before 2017. As political scientist Lee Morgenbesser has argued, after Hun Sen’s rise to power in the 1993 election overseen by the United Nations, the country became a textbook case of ‘competitive authoritarianism’. This is a system in which parties and civil society are allowed enough freedom to maintain the appearance of competitive politics, but where political institutions are so rigged that the opposition has no real path to power. In this view, the mistake of the CNRP was to get too popular, to the extent that a national election victory seemed a possibility — a scenario that Hun Sen could not countenance.

The degeneration of a pretend democracy into outright autocracy also marks the failure of decades of investment in Cambodian democracy and good governance by Western governments and international organisations. It is perhaps a small sense of responsibility for the current predicament that gives urgency to questions about what the world can or should do in response to Hun Sen’s crackdown. At present, targeted sanctions seem ‘the only realistic possibility of a somewhat modified course of government action, though [they are] a highly uncertain one’, writes Norén-Nilsson.


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A peaceful and attractive county side in a rapidly developing and stable economy

The note of caution she sounds is appropriate. Cambodia is no economic pariah; rather, millions of Cambodians are beneficiaries of trade with the West. As Heidi Dahles highlights in her review of the Cambodian economy, trade unions representing garment workers have spoken out against Western economic sanctions. Western governments should take such warnings seriously. Any program of sanctions that harms Cambodian export industries would only play into the hands of Hun Sen and his narrative that the West is out to undermine Cambodia. Heavy-handed sanctions not only fail to guarantee changes in the behaviour of the target regime, but can lead to isolation and economic hardship that serves nobody’s interests (the experience of Myanmar under the old military junta is a cautionary tale).

However Western governments respond, there are ultimately larger forces at work aiding the entrenchment of authoritarianism both in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region. Hun Sen’s crackdown takes place in a world where authoritarian leaders are less dependent on the West for their aid and investment needs — and thus have fewer incentives to cultivate support among Western politicians by promising reforms and democracy. As Norén-Nilsson writes, ‘China’s full political and economic support enables Cambodia’s shift to autocracy, which occurs in the context of President Trump’s voluntary handing over of American regional and global leadership to China’.

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Hun Sen and his CPP can expect to win the July 2018 election decisively in a contest compromised by the effective exclusion of the largest opposition party. By closing off avenues for peaceful opposition, Hun Sen has thrown up hazards for Cambodia’s future. As we have learned from the fall of autocrats from Indonesia to Egypt in recent decades, when struck by crises dictatorships can prove surprisingly brittle — and efforts to unseat them typically lead to large-scale violence.

The West will make noises about the illegitimacy of the Prime Minister’s victory, and will likely continue to apply and even extend sanctions. But Hun Sen is here to stay, and the dictates of realpolitik mean that the Western powers will soon revert to pragmatic cooperation with Hun Sen’s regime when necessary.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

Also read:

Legendary Motorcycle Author Robert Pirsig Dies Aged 88

June 8, 2017

COMMENT: What do Farouk A. Peru, a much younger man at least a few decades apart chronologically speaking, and I (78 years old last May) have in common? Well for starters, we are Facebook pals; we  love to read and pen our thoughts in print; we appreciate culture and the arts and all things of beauty; we are unafraid to express our views openly and critically; we are Muslims; we are Malaysians and we enjoyed reading ZEN.

We admire Singapore’s Pak Othman  Wok, and Robert Prisig who wrote Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (first published  in 1974 and that was when I read it). Both men have since died, and May God Bless their souls.

I stumbled upon Farouk’s article  on Prisig’s magnum opus and also learned of his passing in The Malay Mail this evening (see below).

Like Farouk, I recommend the Zen book (which is subtitled An Inquiry into Values) to my young readers. It is tough reading at first, but it gets easier as you go along with the help of a good English dictionary. But to assist you, I would recommend The Guide Book  To ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE by Ronald L. DiSanto, Ph.d and Thomas J. Steele, S.J., Ph.d (New York: William Morrow, 1990). I congratulate Farouk for reading the book and for his article.–Din Merican

Legendary Motorcycle Author Robert Pirsig Dies Aged 88

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance author Robert Pirsig has died at the age of 88. Pairing motorcycles with philosophy, Pirsig was responsible for inspiring countless motorcycle journeys and road trips.

The book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” sits on bookshelves all over the world. It’s by no means a book about Zen, nor is it a book that tackles the mechanics of motorcycles – it’s a story about a father and son journey aboard a motorcycle that takes them across the western United States. It’s not necessarily a road trip book either. In fact, it’s hard to classify exactly what the book is, but that doesn’t matter – and that’s the beauty of it. It was a book that appealed (and still appeals) to audiences over the world, and is an essential book for any motorcyclist. If you’ve ever been drawn to the road, you and Pirsig would have a lot in common.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence authot Robert Persig

Robert Pirsig: 1928 – 2017

An announcement by Peter Hubbard, the Executive Editor of William Morrow & Co, recently announced the death of one of our favorite authors. Robert Persig passed away on April 24th 2017, “after a period of ill health.”

Zen was first published back in 1974. Pirsig had been rejected by more than 100 publishers before the iconic, semi-autobiographical book ever hit the stores. Despite the difficulty finding a publisher, Zen became a best seller. Pirsig described the nature of the book as an effort to “set out to resolve the conflict between classic values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road.”

Robert and Chris Pirsig

Born in Minneapolis, Robert Pirsig was very well educated and went on to earn a degree in Philosophy, working as a technical writer and English teacher before suffering from mental illness. His battle with mental illness resulted in a motorcycle trip with this son Christopher in 1968 through the western United States, which would become the inspiration for his story.

The preface to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the best way to sum up his iconic book: “What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

Robert Pirsig and his motorcycle

If you haven’t read it, we urge you to pick up a copy and enjoy Pirsig’s journey along with him and his son. It’s a great American story and should be celebrated – and a fantastic read for all of those who appreciate the liberty and freedom associated with the open road.

Here’s to you Robert Pirsig, and thanks for your wonderful insights. You will be missed.

Robert Pirsig

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility, it’s right. If it disturbs you, it’s wrong, until either the machine or your mind is changed.” – Robert Pirsig 1928 – 2017


By Farouk A. Peru (April 28, 2017)

Not one but two writers whose works made an impact on me died. It seems that 2017 is doing to authors what 2016 did to artistes! I had written about the death of Othman Wok and now I find out Robert Pirsig has died.

Often at times, authors or film-makers are defined by a single work but that work is a true magnum opus. They never again replicate the sheer tremor of these works but they do not have to. The deed is done; they have imprinted their names in the annals of literary history.

In the case of Robert Pirsig, that work is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (henceforth, Zen, first published in 1974 ). This narrative has been available in Malaysian bookshops since my own childhood, as I remember.  However, it was only in the early 90s when I picked up my first copy. It was after my SRP and the bookshop was the MPH in Section 14 which has long since closed down.

It was in the New Age/spirituality/philosophy section and I needed something completely different from the boring schoolwork I had been ingesting since the beginning of 1991.

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Zen was not about actual Zen (the Buddhist originated tradition), as I found out on the bus home. Rather it was about a journey undertaken across the American north from Minnesota to California by the unnamed narrator and his son, accompanied by their friends for the first half of their journey.

It was set in the 60s or early 70s. What attracted me to it at first was the journey itself. I loved narratives of long-forgotten places. America, being the gigantic nation that it is, has plenty of places which are unknown even to Americans themselves.

One could liken the geography and culture to the milieu found in Annie Proulx’s works and the visuals akin to the film Brokeback Mountain. Of course, the tagline of Zen being “An Inquiry into Values”, one would rightly expect a philosophical discussion.

One would not be disappointed either but Pirsig delivers it so surreptitiously that readers would feel as if they had “gone under” in surgery and woken up with some philosophical knowledge!

Pirsig ingeniously used the literary device of a third person, thought to be the alter ego of the narrator. He named him Phaedrus who, like the Phaedrus coined by Plato in his dialogues, was an interlocutor, midwifing the truth for readers through his own experiences.

Phaedrus had mental health issues like Pirsig himself but was a child prodigy. These similarities are obviously telling us who Phaedrus represents.

Rereading this book in 2014 (I had found a milestone edition with an introduction by Pirsig himself), I found that Pirsig may have oversimplified philosophy just a little.  His East/West dichotomy saying Eastern is more intuitive and the West more rational had become too simplistic for my liking. Perhaps if he meant dominant trends in each tradition, I would have been more amenable to his view.

To me, philosophy as a subject cannot be extricated into several self-containing traditions. Rather it is a complex network of ideas which feed off its own nodes which we may not even be aware of.  Plato, for example, may have derived his ideas from Egyptian thought, thus undermining the very idea of Western philosophy!

Be that as it may, I would still highly recommend Zen to anyone who is looking for a digestible story while at the same time expand his philosophical mind. The book has, after all, sold five million copies. No small feat for a manuscript rejected 121 times before finally getting published!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

The Passing of America’s Sweetheart of the ’50s: Debbie “Tammy” Reynolds

December 29, 2016

The Passing of America’s Sweetheart of the ’50s: Debbie “Tammy” Reynolds

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Debbie Reynolds, who starred opposite Gene Kelly in the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, has died a day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher.

The US actress, 84, had been rushed to hospital with a suspected stroke.Her son, Todd Fisher, said the stress of his sister’s death had been too much for her and in her last words, she had said she wanted to be with Carrie.

US actress Bette Midler said Reynolds was “devoted to her craft” and that her death was “too hard to comprehend”.

Actress Debra Messing said Reynolds, her on-screen mother in sitcom Will and Grace, had been an “inspiration”.”A legend of course,” she wrote in a statement. “The epitome of clean-cut American optimism, dancing with Gene Kelly as an equal, a warrior woman who never stopped working.”

Actor Rip Torn, who worked with Reynolds in her Las Vegas stage show, said: “I was blessed to work with this remarkable woman for 45 almost 50 years. That makes for a very rare bond and unique relationship.

“She was generous to a fault, never caring who got the laugh from the audience. I will always love her.” Veteran comic actress Carol Channing agreed: “She was beautiful and generous. It seems like only yesterday she was having lunch here at the house and we were discussing the possibility of working together in a new show.”

For Star Trek actor William Shatner, Reynolds was one of the last of the Hollywood royalty. “It breaks my heart that she is gone,” he wrote. “I’d hoped that my grieving was done for 2016.

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Reynolds had been at her son’s house in Beverly Hills – apparently discussing the arrangements for Carrie Fisher’s funeral – when she was taken ill.

She was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre suffering from breathing difficulties and her death was confirmed a few hours later. It is thought she suffered a stroke.

Carrie Fisher, renowned for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars series, had died aged 60 the day before, after spending three days in a Los Angeles hospital.

She never regained consciousness after suffering a massive heart attack on board a flight from London to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve.

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Carrie and Todd Fisher
Speaking to the Associated Press news agency about his mother, Todd said: “She’s now with Carrie and we’re all heartbroken.”

Celebrity news site TMZ reported that Reynolds cracked while discussing plans for Carrie’s funeral with her son, telling him: “I miss her so much; I want to be with Carrie.”

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Reynolds married singer Eddie Fisher in 1955 and had two children, Carrie and Todd. The couple divorced in 1959 after news emerged of his affair with movie star Elizabeth Taylor.Reynolds married twice more.

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The actress has a sometimes strained relationship with her actress daughter, who wrote about it in her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. The pair stopped speaking to each other for many years but became closer later in life.

In an interview last month with US radio network NPR, Fisher said her mother was “an immensely powerful woman” whom she admired “very much”.

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As people gathered to pay their respects to the actress at Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one couple, Jose and Daniela Barrera, appeared to speak for many after a year marked by celebrity deaths.

“It’s just, you know, a sad time I guess,” Jose told the Reuters news agency. “With the closing of the year and so many deaths in the year, it’s just sad.”

“It was so sad,” added Daniela. “It was a shocker. I mean, what were the odds of this happening? It was incredible finding out, sad.”

What is your reaction to the passing of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher just one day apart? Have you been affected by any of the issues raised in this article? You can share your experience via

Malaysia Airlines:What Mueller could not do

April 28, 2016

Malaysia Airlines:What Mueller could not do

by Marion Tharsis

Khazanah Nasional Berhad probably expected too much from Christoph Mueller when it hired him to work his charm on MAS. Despite his glorious past, the turnaround expert probably didn’t count on the work culture and ethics and, most of all, the political environment in a government-linked company.

Mueller made all the obvious moves. He trimmed the work force, removed unwanted suppliers and closed unprofitable routes. What he could not do was remove political control. He probably learned soon enough that it would be futile to continue with his work, with so many hands pulling him from all sides to do their bidding.

Another person may try his or her hand at making MAS profitable again, but the same pressures will reduce the CEO’s position to that of a puppet to be manipulated.

So our once glorious airline is back to square one. The competition is overwhelming. Other carriers, including our very own AirAsia, are always looking into ways to make their companies more profitable through innovation.

We should not expect too much from the incoming CEO. He or she may be prevented from cleaning up certain kinds of mess. For example, he or she might not get a free hand to select a management team that would be capable of taking MAS on the path of good and solid governance.

An airline cannot run effectively merely on superficial changes. It needs an operating system that is smooth, unhampered, cohesive, innovative, customer focused, and competitive. Only then can it stay afloat in a tight and narrow market and play on a field that keeps re-inventing itself.

An airline that is subject to too much political control will keep failing and continue to be an embarrassment.

Marion Tharsis is a  FMT reader.



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.

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!