Will Trump’s Trade War Make America Great Again?


July  19, 2018

Will Trump’s Trade War Make America Great Again?

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The United States has had the world’s largest trade deficit for almost half a century. In 2017, the US trade deficit in goods and services was $566 billion; without services, the merchandise account deficit was $810 billion.

The largest US trade deficit is with China, amounting to $375 billion, rising dramatically from an average of $34 billion in the 1990s. In 2017, its trade deficit with Japan was $69 billion, and with Germany, $65 billion. The US also has trade deficits with both its NAFTA partners, including $71 billion with Mexico.

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Economist Professor Dr. Kwame Jomo Sundram

President Trump wants to reduce these deficits with protectionist measures. In March 2018, he imposed a 25% tariff on steel imports and a 10% tariff on aluminium, a month after imposing tariffs and quotas on imported solar panels and washing machines. On 10 July, the US listed Chinese imports worth $200 billion annually that will face 10% tariffs, probably from September, following 25% tariffs on $34 billion of such imports from 7 July.

Do US trade deficits reflect weakness?

The usual explanation for bilateral trade deficits is price differentials. However, the US accuses such countries of ‘unfair’ trade practices, such as currency manipulation, wage suppression and government subsidies to boost exports, besides blocking US imports.

Trump views most trade deals such as NAFTA as unfair. His team insists that renegotiating trade deals, ‘buying American’, a strong dollar and confronting China will shrink US trade deficits.

But the country’s overall trade deficit, offset by capital inflows, is related to the gap between its savings and investments. The US spends more than it produces, thus importing foreign goods and services. Cheap credit fuels debt-financed consumption, increasing the trade deficit.

Total US household debt rose to $13.2 trillion in the first quarter of 2018, the 15th consecutive quarter of growth in the mortgage, student, auto and credit card loan categories. American consumer debt was more than double GDP in 2017.

US government budget deficits have also been growing. From 67.7% of GDP in 2008, US government debt rose to 105.4% in 2017. The federal budget deficit was $665 billion in FY2017, rising 14% from $585 billion in FY2016.

The US budget deficit was 3.5% of GDP in 2017. According to the US Congressional Budget Office, it will surpass $1 trillion by 2020, two years sooner than previously projected, due to Trump tax cuts and spending increases.

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Dr. Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor of Economics  at Western Sydney University (Australia)

The growing US economy may also increase the trade deficit, as consumers spend more on imported goods and services. The stronger dollar has made foreign products cheaper for American consumers while making US exports more expensive for foreigners.

These underlying economic forces have become more important than policies in raising the overall trade deficit, while bilateral deficits reflect specific commercial relations with particular countries. Thus, disrupting bilateral trade relations may only shift the trade deficit to others.

Have the cake and eat it?

So, why does the US have a structural trade deficit? As the de facto international ‘reserve currency’ after the Second World War, the US has provided the rest of the world with liquidity. Its perceived military strength means it is also seen as a safe place to keep financial assets. Of about $10 trillion in global reserves in 2016, for example, around three fifths (60 per cent) were held in US dollars.

US supply of international liquidity by issuing the global reserve currency offers several economic advantages. It also earns seigniorage from issuing the main currency used around the world, due to the difference between the face value of a currency note and the cost of issuing it.

With growing foreign demand for dollars, the US can run deficits almost indefinitely by creating more debt or selling assets. Demand for dollar-denominated assets, for example, US Treasury bonds, raises their prices, lowering interest rates, to finance both consumption and investment.

While foreign investors buy low-yielding, short-term US assets, Americans can invest abroad in higher-yielding, long-term assets. The US usually reaps higher returns on such investments than it pays for debt, labelled America’s ‘exorbitant privilege’.

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” As the US retreats from the global diplomatic stage, use of other reserve currencies, including China’s renminbi, has been growing, especially in Europe and Africa. Thus, ironically, as Trump wages trade wars on both foes and friends, China will probably gain, both geo-politically and economically.

The resulting global economic shift will not only hurt the US dollar and economy through the exchange rate and borrowing costs, but also its geopolitical dominance”.–Jomo and Anis

Thus, for the US to enjoy the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of the dollar’s role as the major reserve currency, it must run a chronic trade deficit. Therefore, giving up the dollar’s global reserve currency status will have major implications for the US economy, finances and living standards.

Can the US win Trump’s trade war?

Barry Eichengreen noted that countries in military alliances with reserve-currency issuing countries hold about 30% more of the partner’s currency in their foreign-exchange reserves than countries not in such alliances. Instead, Trump has prioritized reducing trade deficits to strengthen the US dollar and dominance while disrupting some old political alliances.

As the US retreats from the global diplomatic stage, use of other reserve currencies, including China’s renminbi, has been growing, especially in Europe and Africa. Thus, ironically, as Trump wages trade wars on both foes and friends, China will probably gain, both geo-politically and economically.

The resulting global economic shift will not only hurt the US dollar and economy through the exchange rate and borrowing costs, but also its geopolitical dominance.


Anis Chowdhury
, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University (Australia), held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development. In 2007, he was awarded received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. He was recently appointed a member of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Eminent Persons Council on Strategy and Policy.

 

 

Naik and Mahathir–Pandering to UMNO-PAS Politics


July 11, 2018

Naik and Mahathir–Pandering to UMNO-PAS Politics

by Cmdr (rtd) S. Thayaparan

http://www.malaysiakini.com

“You perceive the force of a word. He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense… Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world.” – Joseph Conrad.

I think the reason why Zakir Naik is not deported – secret deal or not – is that the Malaysian government does not consider what he is alleged to have done in India a crime. They probably justify those charges as religious persecution against a beloved Muslim preacher. They probably think that anyone who disagrees with what Zakir Naik says is Islamophobic.–S. Thayaparan.

COMMENT | It is really a funny question, right? When I say “our” and there are people who were born here, like Letchumie Sinnan who has been given the run around by the bureaucracy for 20 years and been stuck in permanent resident limbo, while a demagogue, alleged money launderer and extremist sympathiser like Zakir Naik get feted by the political and social elite.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of Indians and Chinese who have to eke out a living and contribute to the economy but are not considered citizens of this country. Over the years, I have met and attempted to help – in my own small ineffectual way – dozens of Malaysians to get their MyKad. It is really galling to witness a religious hatemonger like Zakir Naik being defended by the political elite in this country of the Islamic persuasion, while so many – a legion, I would say – have no one to speak up for them.

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The fact there are Indians and Chinese in this country who are considered, for whatever reasons, permanent residents (if they are lucky) and the state wilfully refuses to recognise them as citizens, while Zakir Naik gets to spread his horse manure in comfort, is an insult for anyone who has served this country, either in the state security apparatus, in the teaching profession or whatever else capacity that has made this country what it is today.

Let me say this. I bet my last ringgit that all these Malaysians who have been denied their citizenship, who have been given the run around by the bureaucracy and who toil in menial jobs unable to get a foothold, I bet that they have contributed more to this country than the radicals like Zakir Naik. All those people I have attempted to help over the years display a profound love and loyalty to this county, even though they have been marginalised.

Someone like me often wonders, how could you love this country when it doesn’t even recognise you? How can you be loyal to this country when it has willfully abandoned you? We live in a great country is their common refrain. Yeah, a great country, where the likes of Zakir Naik get to say what he likes and (now) to be deported only if he misbehaves.

 

Tell me, what does “not creating problems” mean? What would it take for Zakir Naik to be kicked out of this country? What exactly is the threshold here?

We all know that Zakir Naik uses words to instigate, demean and mock other cultures and religions. We know that his words are meaningful to large sections of the Malay polity, even though they may not understand him. We know that he remains unrepentant since he has probably met with every Malay power broker of note in this country. So, what exactly does misbehaving mean? His kind of Islam is supposedly the antithesis of the kind of Islam Harapan wants to propagate. Or is it?

Kudos to P Ramasamy, the Penang Deputy Chief Minister II, for giving it his all when it comes to the extradition of Zakir Naik. What I want to know is why aren’t the rest of the Harapan gang coming out with a unified comment on this issue. Are the major power players in Harapan reserving comment? Are they too busy, thinking up ways of how not to spook the Malays?

Freedom of speech?

Every time I write about Zakir Naik, I get many emails from people – Malays – berating me for insulting this man. I sincerely do not get it. When I provide evidence – Zakir Naik’s own words – of the racist, bigoted and inflammatory speeches he has made, it is ignored. When I explain why non-Muslims would be offended by what he says about our religions, it is ignored or dismissed, as not understanding his intent.

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The Harapan Prime Minister is playing UMNO-PAS politics

When I attempt to provide an analysis of why, even if you were not religious, Zakir Naik’s words amount to incitement against secular democracies, I am told that he is an expert and thus qualified to speak about everything under the sun. Why do we need this man in our country? What possible service has he done for Malaysians that warrant the political elite to think of him as someone who is an asset to this country?

And here’s the thing, if there was freedom of speech like the kind Zakir Naik has for everyone, nobody would have an issue with him. But we have blatant double standards that border on malicious. It is the smirk which tells us that he can say things without consequences but the ‘kafirs’ have to take it.

The last time I wondered if Zakir Naik was a security threat, I got hate mail up the wazoo. Here’s what I wrote – “However, Zakir is a special case. In a time when the Islamist agenda in this country is taking new forms and the agenda is promulgated by new alliances, a preacher like Zakir who specialises in deepening already established cultural and religious rifts is a threat to national security.”

I get it. I see all these huge rallies, and the Malay/Muslim hegemons don’t want to be the Muslims who deported Zakir Naik to India. The country, which even our local preacher took a dig at in a poem which managed to insult the Hindu community, but he insisted was a personal letter to the Prime Minister of India. Nobody wants to be the pious Malay/Muslim political leader who said that Zakir Naik does not belong in this country.

Ramasamy hammers the point home when he reminds the Malaysian government that they deported Chinese Uighurs and Sri Lankan Tamils back to their countries of origin. What is the hold up with Zakir Naik? Why is he a special case?

You know what I think. I think the reason why Zakir Naik is not deported – secret deal or not – is that the Malaysian government does not consider what he is alleged to have done in India a crime. They probably justify those charges as religious persecution against a beloved Muslim preacher. They probably think that anyone who disagrees with what Zakir Naik says is Islamophobic.

Why is it, for some people, the beauty of their religion is only found in the vilification of other religions?


S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Rediscovering the Art of Diplomacy With Vladimir Putin


July 11, 2018

Rediscovering the Art of Diplomacy With Vladimir Putin

Trump has the opportunity for his greatest foreign policy accomplishment yet.

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Putin practises tough guy diplomacy with great effect

The United States has enjoyed many advantages over the decades because of its superpower status. As the principal architect of the post-World War II liberal international order, Washington has secured disproportionate security and economic benefits for itself. America’s overwhelming military capabilities have magnified that clout in global affairs. Allies and adversaries alike might grumble at Washington’s preeminence, but they have been prudent enough to avoid direct challenges whenever possible. Even the Soviet Union confined itself (with the notable exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis) to probes in marginal, mostly Third World, arenas.

However, Washington’s dominant position has also led to some foreign policy bad habits. Because U.S. leaders have not had to deal with serious peer competitors in a long time, they appear to have lost the art of skillful, nuanced diplomacy. Even before the arrival of the Trump administration, U.S. policy exhibited a growing arrogance and lack of realism about diplomatic objectives. The upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin affords an opportunity to relearn the requirements of effective diplomacy. If handled poorly, though, it will underscore the adverse consequences of Washington’s rigid approach to world affairs.

 

Too many American politicians, pundits, and foreign policy operatives seem to believe that when dealing with an adversary, diplomacy should consist of issuing a laundry list of demands, including manifestly unrealistic ones, without offering even a hint of meaningful concessions. Critics of Trump’s summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un epitomized that attitude. Some of them excoriated the president just for his willingness to accord Kim implicit equal status by approving a bilateral meeting. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi groused that President Trump “elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo.”

Others grudgingly conceded that the summit theoretically might have been an appropriate move, but argued that Washington should have demanded major substantive and irreversible North Korean steps toward denuclearization in exchange for such a prestigious meeting. In other words, they wanted North Korea’s capitulation on the central issue before Trump even agreed to a summit. Critics were furious that such a capitulation was not at least enshrined in the joint statement emerging from the meeting. And if that hardline stance was not enough, they insisted that Trump should have made North Korea’s human rights record a feature of the negotiations. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asserted that “our wrongful indifference to human rights in the past should not be used as an excuse to justify apologias for dictatorships in our time.”

The lack of realism such positions exhibit is breathtaking. If the hardliners had prevailed, no summit would have taken place. Their demands were multiple poison pills to any feasible negotiations. And the consequences flowing from the course they favored would have been the perpetuation, if not escalation, of alarming tensions on the Korean Peninsula. By spurning their advice, Trump secured a worthwhile change in the dynamics of the U.S.-North Korean relationship. The rapprochement may yet falter, since there are still extremely serious disagreements between the two countries, but the summit was a beneficial reset that has reduced the danger of a catastrophic military confrontation. Because he focused on the achievable, Trump secured a modest, but constructive, gain both for the United States and the East Asian region.

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President Donald  Trump–Diplomacy via The Art of The Deal

The President has an opportunity for an even more important success in his upcoming summit with Putin. But even more than he did with North Korea, he needs to make major changes in current U.S. policy toward Russia and reject the advice and demands that Russophobic hardliners are pushing. Once again, the president must distinguish between achievable and unachievable goals. And he must be willing to make meaningful concessions to the Russian leader to secure the former.

Some of Washington’s existing demands are manifestly unrealistic. Russia is not going to reverse its annexation of Crimea and return that territory to Ukraine. The Kremlin’s move was at least partly a response to the clumsy and provocative actions that the United States and key European Union powers took to support demonstrators who unseated Ukraine’s elected, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, before the expiration of his term. Moscow was not about to accept that Western power play and watch the region containing Russia’s main naval base come under the control of a manifestly hostile Ukrainian regime. Given the stakes involved, Russia is no more likely to withdraw from Crimea than Israel is likely to return the Golan Heights to Syria or Turkey return occupied northern Cyprus to the Republic of Cyprus. Persisting in an utterly unattainable demand regarding Crimea before U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia will be lifted is pointless.

Inducing the Kremlin to reduce and phase out its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine is more achievable. Indeed, despite the hysterical allegations that appear periodically in the Western press, Russia’s backing of the insurgents has been quite limited and is far less than constituting an “invasion.” Putin shows little stomach for making Ukraine an arena for a full-fledged confrontation with the West.

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A similar situation exists with respect to Syria. The Kremlin clearly wishes to see Bashar al-Assad remain in power, and given the extreme Islamist orientation of many of Assad’s opponents, that is not an outrageous position. Nevertheless, Putin has avoided establishing a large-scale Russian military, especially ground force, presence in that country. He apparently wishes to confine Moscow’s role to protecting its naval base at Tartus and assisting Assad’s military efforts with Russian air power. There appears to be an opportunity for Washington to gain assurances from the Kremlin that its involvement in Syria will not escalate and might even recede gradually.

To secure such goals, though, the U.S. would need to offer some appealing concessions to Putin. In exchange for ending Russian support of Ukrainian secessionists and confirming Moscow’s toleration of the anti-Russian regime in Kiev, Trump should be willing to sign an agreement pledging that the United States will neither propose not endorse NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia. NATO’s previous waves of enlargement right up to Russia’s border were a key factor in the deterioration of the West’s relations with Moscow. It is time to end that provocation. In addition to that concession, Trump should pledge that NATO military exercises (war games) in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea will come to an end. In exchange, the United States ought to insist that Russian forces end their provocative deployments in Kaliningrad and along Russia’s frontier with NATO members.

With regard to Syria, Trump should inform Putin that the United States is ceasing its efforts to unseat Assad—a venture that has been a disaster, in any case. To reinforce that pledge, the United States should offer to withdraw all of its forces over the next year. Those moves would tacitly accept Russia as the leading foreign power in terms of influence in Syria. Such a concession is a simple recognition of reality. Syria is barely 600 miles from Russia’s border; it is 6,000 miles from the American homeland. Moscow’s interests are understandably more central than America’s, given that geographic factor alone.

In conducting serious negotiations with Putin, President Trump has an opportunity for a diplomatic (and public relations) success that would exceed his achievement with the Kim summit. To do so, however, he must make a major course correction in how the United States handles delicate and dangerous situations with adversaries. Indeed, he must take an important step in America’s willingness to relearn the techniques of achievable diplomacy.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 10 books, the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 700 articles on international affairs.

UMNO new Leadership Devoid of Honour and Integrity


July 5, 2018

UMNO new Leadership Devoid of Honour and Integrity

By Dennis Ignatius

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Any hopes that UMNO would somehow be able transform itself into a viable political party in keeping with the hopes and aspirations of the people evaporated last Sunday after Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and some of the worst, least credible leaders of the former government were elected to helm the party in the post-GE14 era.

While polls suggested that the wider Malay polity favoured more open-minded and reformist leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin, party bosses went with the status quo. Money politics was also apparently at work once again.

Without principle or honour

What we now have as the face of UMNO are the same people who were Najib Razak’s principal cheerleaders and collaborators, his proxies in effect.

To see the very people who were complicit in all that went wrong during Najib’s administration now strutting around talking about democracy, professing their respect for the Rule of Law and complaining about money politics, is simply revolting. And to watch them pretend that the massive corruption and abuse of power that attended their long years in office was somehow a minor detail, or that they lost the election merely because of the “non-conventional approach” taken by Pakatan Harapan (to quote Zahid) is to witness monumental self-deception first-hand.

The fact is, the kind of massive corruption and abuse of power that went on during the last couple of decades was not just the work of one man – it was a team effort in every sense of the word. Every last one of them aided or abetted Najib by commission or omission. They lied or remained mute witnesses when they should have spoken up. They obfuscated the truth and consciously misled the public to the very end, and continue to do so even now.

How many of them now trying to refurbish their image would even dare declare their assets?

Zahid himself, now under investigation on a number of issues, deceived the public when he claimed to have met the mysterious Saudi who supposedly donated RM2.6 billion to Najib. And now, in response to allegations that some RM800,000 in personal credit card bills were charged to his foundation, he says it was all an honest mistake. Perhaps, but what people want to know is how does a politician rack up RM800,000 in credit card bills in the first place, and then pay it off without so much as a second thought?

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And then there was the shocking re-election of Jamal Yunos (pic above), a racist demagogue given to empty-headed gestures and a fugitive from justice to boot, as division chief. What does it say of UMNO if such obnoxious people can find favour within its ranks?

What we have then, for the most part, are leaders without principle or honour, and without an iota of remorse for all the wrong they did. They betrayed the trust of the people and their obligation to protect and defend the constitution.

Entrusting the leadership of the party to the same bunch of unprincipled and opportunistic leaders that were rejected by the voters on May 9 only suggests that Umno members still do not appreciate the full measure of the disdain in which many ordinary Malaysians hold their party.

Discredited ‘bangsat’ policies

In the hands of such men, nothing more can be expected from the party than the racism, bigotry and dishonesty of the past. In a harbinger of things to come, Najib, their mentor, disgraced and rejected as he is, is claiming that the PH government is neglecting the Malay agenda, sidelining the national language, and undermining the position of the Malay rulers.

And this despite the fact that nobody, absolutely nobody, has done more to damage the interests of the Malays than he and his party. They pretended to be defenders of the faith but defrauded the faithful; they claimed to champion their race but massively cheated their own people.

What Najib and UMNO cannot and will not see is that PH’s election victory was in fact a victory for the Malays by the Malays. Finally, the Malays have rid themselves of the “bangsats” that entrapped and impoverished them in the dead-end politics of race and religion while laughing all the way to the bank. Under more progressive Malay leaders, the Malays themselves are now free to soar like never before. And the higher they soar, the more irrelevant Umno will become.

History catching up

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The final chapter in UMNO’s sordid saga is now being written by the investigators looking into all the allegations of its corruption and abuse of power. When it comes to full fan, many more UMNO leaders will be joining Najib in infamy, and the insidious nature of UNMO will be laid bare for all to see with devastating consequences.– Amb (rtd)Dennis Ignatius

History, it is said, has a way of catching up with the follies of men. The moment party leaders rejected Onn Jaafar’s proposal to make UMNO an inclusive big tent party fighting for the rights of all Malaysians, it sowed the seeds of its own destruction. While many pretended for years that there was something noble in its struggle, there was, in fact, nothing redeeming about its racist approach to nation-building.

The final chapter in UMNO’s sordid saga is now being written by the investigators looking into all the allegations of its corruption and abuse of power. When it comes to full fan, many more UMNO leaders will be joining Najib in infamy, and the insidious nature of UNMO will be laid bare for all to see with devastating consequences.

Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

The University of Cambodia Funding Campaign 2018-2023


July 3, 2018campaignThe University of Cambodia Funding Campaign 2018-2023

 

All my friends around the world. I urge you to participate in UC Cambodia fund raising campaign. Give generously and help us provide quality education for young Cambodians. Those who donate USD20,000 and above will have their names or their institutions engraved on a special bronze plaque which will be displayed in the University foyer. Please write to me at dmerican2@gmail.com and I shall be pleased to provide more details–Din Merican

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15ani

Zainah Anwar looks back on Malaysia’s GE-14- From 2008 to May 9, 2018


June 27, 2018

Zainah Anwar looks back on  Malaysia’s GE-14- From 2008 to May 9, 2018

http://www.thestar.com.my

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She writes:

It may have been a shock win for Pakatan Harapan in the recent election, but the writing has been on the wall for Barisan Nasional for more than a decade.

AH, finally, change has come! It was simply inevitable.

Inevitable change: Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announcing his resignation when Barisan lost GE14 after the people rejected the corrupt practices of some of the Barisan politicians.

I have been writing for over a decade of the politically manufactured extremism and intolerance within Malay society and how the 2006 UMNO General Assembly was the turning point when a party that had prided itself as the bedrock of centrist politics, presented an extremist face to Malaysians on live television.

“UMNO had become a gravy train for personal wealth accumulation for most of its leaders and members. The party had so lost touch with the ground that it no longer cared for public opinion. Their rhetoric of Malay dominance, and race and religion under threat was delusional when more and more Malays were rejecting them in favour of a multi-ethnic opposition promising good governance and equitable citizenship rights”.–Zainah Anwar

 

The histrionics of race and religion under threat, the keris waving, and the full display of Malay-Muslim machismo alienated and scared not just the non-Muslims, but the many moderate and progressive Muslims in the country. UMNO had crossed the line. The belligerent UMNO speakers thought they reflected the mood on the ground, only to fast discover that the ground had shifted from under their feet, as the President tried vainly to do some damage control with his closing speech.

By the 2008 general elections, the resounding victory that then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi enjoyed in 2004 based on his change agenda was overturned. The rakyat inflicted the most crushing blow to Barisan Nasional. Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor fell to the Opposition, and the ruling party lost its much vaunted two-thirds majority.

It all went wrong within just four short years. Abdullah Badawi had led Barisan to its greatest electoral victory ever, winning 199 of 219 parliamentary seats in 2004. He promised to eliminate corruption, to introduce open tendering for government contracts. He regarded the NGOs as the eyes and ears of the government, he stood up for women’s rights and a progressive Islam (Islam Hadhari) that must be re-interpreted to deal with changing times and circumstances. He promised a kinder, gentler Malaysia and more open and democratic politics.

While many of us shared in the fifth Prime Minister’s vision of a democratising, transparent and accountable government and his promise of an inclusive rule for all Malaysians, his failure to deliver on much of this grand vision and his inability to take charge of his change agenda in the face of resistance from powerful centres of power within UMNO, within the civil service, the Police, and even within his own cabinet eventually led to a massive loss of confidence. It was not supposed to be business as usual. But on the ground, it was much too much of the same thing.

From the endless manufacturing of a siege and crisis mentality among the Malays to supremacist speeches in the name of race and religion, from the Lingam tapes to judicial integrity, from rising crime to rising prices, local development without public representation, political leaders behaving badly, and allegations of corruption and cronyism that did not abate…the electorate was in no mood to wait for the promised change to come or to even acknowledge that some change had indeed taken place.

Anything but UMNO

I had written after the 2008 general elections that the massive public repudiation of Barisan was not just a repudiation of the Prime Minister Badawi’s rule, but of all the corrupt, immoral, authoritarianism of Barisan politics and governance in its 50 years of domination. The public has had enough.

That Pakatan Rakyat won votes on a platform of change from “Ketuanan Melayu” to “Ketuanan Rakyat” and a smorgasbord of promises to make democracy and good governance work for ALL citizens was beyond UMNO’s comprehension.

While the new alliance was fast capturing the shifting mood of Malaysian voters to a new political centre of equitable and fairer terms of engagement among the citizens, and between the citizen and the state, and generating excitement among young voters and community groups that their voices could indeed bring change, UMNO members were more preoccupied with power grabbing in the run-up to party elections in December 2009.

They might win party elections whooping their “Ketuanan Melayu” battle cry, but they would cause the party to lose the next general elections, I predicted. The ground had shifted, but they dug deeper into their bad old bag of tricks of race, religion, money politics, and self-enrichment. I never understood what was there for MCA, Gerakan and MIC to stay on with UMNO and its intemperate and relentless stomping and condoning of ethno-religious supremacy that was driving away Chinese and Indian voters into the waiting arms of PKR, DAP and even PAS. The mood indeed was anything but UMNO.

It was clear by 2008 that Malaysian politics was taking off into an epochal transformation from race-based to issue-based, I felt. Increasingly, Malaysians were building new solidarities based on issues, not race or religion. Be it human rights, women’s rights, free and fair elections, democracy, good governance, anti-corruption, freedom of the press, detention without trial, death in custody, local government, environment, land rights, quality education, arts and culture, … it would be issues that would bring Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds together, I wrote then.

So Abdullah was forced into early retirement and Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak became the sixth Prime Minister, warning UMNO to “change or perish”. He called on UMNO members to be the eyes and ears of the rakyat so that UMNO could read accurately the pulse of the nation and translate that into policy and action. In grand style, he called on the people to restore the bridges that brought us together and tear the walls that separated us. He introduced 1Malaysia and he wanted repressive laws repealed and UMNO party rules to be more democratic.

Regime crisis

That was 2009. But I wrote early on that Najib might have the dubious honour of being the first UMNO President to become Leader of the Opposition, as I saw no mood for change among UMNO leaders and members. They felt they were the only rakyat that mattered. All they were preoccupied with was to use the race card to enrich themselves – to get more handouts and more contracts into their grubby hands.

Almost 11 months after the 2008 elections, UMNO lost a by-election in Kuala Terengganu as PAS, PKR and DAP displayed unprecedented cohesion and dazzled the voters with their unity, sharing the same platform everywhere.

It had made no difference to UMNO thinking and strategising that 74% of the Malays in the Kuala Terengganu constituency polled a week before polling day believed that “Malay political power was weakened by corrupt and self-serving leaders”, while only 17% said it was weakened by “demands made by the non-Malays”.

UMNO had become a gravy train for personal wealth accumulation for most of its leaders and members. The party had so lost touch with the ground that it no longer cared for public opinion. Their rhetoric of Malay dominance, and race and religion under threat was delusional when more and more Malays were rejecting them in favour of a multi-ethnic opposition promising good governance and equitable citizenship rights.

That a newly cobbled coalition of strange bedfellows could present a united front and work together as a team and sell their multi-ethnic agenda to a Malay electorate showed what a pathetic empty shell Barisan as a multi-ethnic coalition had become.

2009 under the new leadership brought no respite to the rakyat. Incident after incident piled up and we felt as if the country was going to implode. Issues on whether one was a Muslim or not, whether a father who converted to Islam had the right to unilaterally convert his underage children, the sentencing of Kartika to caning for drinking a glass of beer, the arrest and prosecution of then former Perlis Mufti for teaching Islam in a private home in Selangor without a letter of authorisation…the endless sledgehammer of persecution in the name of Islam went on.

By 2010, the likes of the belligerent Ibrahim Ali and Zulkifli Noordin had emerged as the poster boys of UMNO and the future the party believed in. It was their voice and those of their ilk that the government of the day seemed to listen to. Not the voice of Malaysians, who believe in our founding fathers’ vision of a modern, democratic, secular, culturally pluralistic and inclusive political community.

 

Unpopular tactic:: Umno continued to play on the race and religion sentiments to maintain power, like its Umno Youth chief Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, who brandished the “Keris Panca Warisan” at the begining of their assembly in PWTC in 2011.

Unpopular tactic: UMNO continued to play on the race and religion sentiments to maintain power, like its UMNO Youth Chief Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, who brandished the “Keris Panca Warisan” at the begining of their assembly in PWTC in 2011.

Contrary voices were either cowed into silenced or demonised. More demagogues were organised to whip up Malay sentiment against any attempts to discuss concerns arising from the makeover of the Constitutional idea of “the special position of the Malays” into Malay supremacy.

The idea of Ketuanan Melayu sits uncomfortably among many Malaysians, be they Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazan-Dusun, Bajaus, Orang Asal, Eurasians…. It is a racial supremacist idea, a far cry from the simple reality that Malays as the majority population of this country will naturally be the politically dominant group. And a far cry from the constitutional notion of the “special position of the Malays” which legitimised affirmative action as a temporary special measure to enable a historically disadvantaged group to catch up.

Obviously, Malaysia had entered into another “regime crisis”. The NEP-era political phase and governing mechanism exhaled its last breath on March 8, 2008.The Opposition had still not coalesced into a viable trusted alternative with a common political vision of Malaysia. The Barisan Nasional government showed no resolve to deal with the concerns and contestations over matters of race and religion, and human rights and fundamental liberties. This pessimism about the future of Malaysia continued to corrode the body politic and the public sense of well-being.

By mid-2010, I pronounced in this column that UMNO was beyond redemption. It had regressed into a dinosaur, too huge, too old, too fossilised in its ways to be able to adapt to new conditions. The sense of privilege and entitlement was too entrenched for UMNO members to ever want to change.

While UMNO politicians and Perkasa pointed fingers at other races as a threat to Malay political survival, the Malays themselves saw something else. A Merdeka Centre survey revealed that 70% of Malays felt that the main threat to the Malay political position in the country was corruption among Malay leaders. Only 22% believed it was due to demands made by other races in the country. This national survey reinforced the Kuala Terengganu findings of January 2009.

The changing values and changing mood were clear. A significant 40% of the Malay respondents believed that citizens should be treated and accorded the same rights in Malaysia, regardless of race and religion. Forty-five per cent believed that government assistance programmes only benefited the rich and politically connected. The two top issues all respondents identified as being the most important in need of change were: “making the country more democratic” and “making our education system world class”. But 66% of the public felt a sense of powerlessness that they could influence government policy.

And yet UMNO continued to play its dangerous game for the future of Malaysia. And it did not care that continuing to abuse race and religion unabated spelt the death knell to its Barisan partners who could never hope to deliver the minority votes necessary for the ruling coalition to maintain power.

No political will

The then Prime Minister (Najib Razak) made attempts to bring UMNO back to the centre by calling for the voice of moderation to prevail in Malaysia, reminding UMNO members at the 2010 General Assembly that it was the Malay trait of moderation that had enabled the community to be accepted as leaders in a multicultural society.

But wasatiyyah required political courage and grit. No one in UMNO had the political will to follow words with deeds. Its hypocrisy continued to stench. Sisters in Islam was called in twice by the Police for questioning under the Penal Code and the Sedition Act for standing up for Kartika. For the first time too, a state religious authority issued an official Friday sermon attacking Sisters in Islam and urged the congregation to take action against us.

In frustration, I wrote a column in 2011 on whose voice should prevail in this country. Those who perpetually saw race and religion under threat and demanded that every person who believed, thought, behaved, dressed, acted, opined differently should be “fixed” through many state sanctioned operations – boot camps, rehabilitation camps, punished under the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Syariah Criminal Offences Act, or just denounced and demonised as enemies and traitors of race, religion and country?

Or those who envision a democratic and just future, where rights are recognised on the basis of citizenship rather than just race, religion, or sex.

The choice was obvious to most of us, the good citizens of Malaysia who loved this country, and who were determined to be resilient, resourceful, and open minded to face the challenges and realities of the 21st century.

The same old script

I was totally frustrated by the endless manufacturing of many more new threats. From the innocuous fun of poco-poco to the relativism of post-modernism, from calling Muslims opposed to UMNO and PAS unification as “pengkhianat Islam” (traitors of Islam) to accusing Christians of plotting to turn Malaysia into a Christian state! All these of course adding to the existing long list of threats that included pluralism, liberalism, feminism, secularism, kongsi raya, open house, tomboys, yoga…

It was hard to understand why these same actors were trotting out the same old script that cost the Barisan Nasional government so dearly in 2008. It’s like as if nobody had learnt any lessons from that political tsunami. Since attacking liberal Muslims and ungrateful Chinese did not work in 2008, they amended the script to add Christians and even the passé Communists. Why would an unpopular political party create more enemies, instead of making friends?

And to be sure they added the promise of the Hudud law and its grim serving of chopped off Muslim hands and feet, stoning to death, crucifixion! What kind of future is that? “It’s ok to implement the Hudud law because it doesn’t affect non-Muslims.” So it’s ok for Muslims to be brutalised? “Non-Muslims should shut up because it doesn’t affect them.” But they are Malaysian citizens who have every right to speak up on laws that allow for brutal and inhumane punishments against their fellow citizens, the majority population to boot. “Muslims who are not experts on Islam should shut up”. Then please take religion out of the public sphere and make it private between us and God.

By 2012, a desperate UMNO, which for two decades under Mahathir’s rule had been consistently opposed to the Hudud law, embraced it as its own. One state assemblyman in Johor proudly proclaimed that the UMNO Hudud would be superior to the PAS Hudud as it would apply to all citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims! And other UMNO leaders and entities in quick succession echoed the call, lest their piety be questioned. And they stoked the debate further by trying to portray the upcoming general elections as a choice between those who wanted the Hudud and the Islamic state and those against.

I wrote then that the choice before us was not between Islam and secularism, not between Hudud law and civil law, not between tradition and modernity. Those were false dichotomies created to divide us. The choice before us was between democracy and despotism, between good governance and corruption, between equality and discrimination, between social justice and inequity.

The UMNO/Perkasa/Utusan Malaysia nexus and its orchestrated battle cry of “Malays and Islam under threat” stoked Malay anxiety – enough to win Umno support and make a nine seat gain in the 2013 general elections. Malays, who saw UMNO as its protector, bought into the emotive appeal that their special rights would be eroded by a Pakatan coalition that stood for affirmative action based on need, rather than race, and Ketuanan Rakyat rather than Ketuanan Melayu.

But the very political strategy that won UMNO support in the rural areas and among some segments of the Malay community, cost Barisan support among the Chinese, Indians and Malays in urban and semi-urban areas. For the first time, Barisan won the national elections with less than 50% of the popular vote.

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The demands for reformasi that began in 1999 with the sacking and incarceration  of Anwar Ibrahim was steaming ahead. Barisan popular votes went down by 10% then and UMNO and Barisan were saved by support from the Chinese, many of whom were spooked by reformasi in Indonesia. 2004 was just a blip in the downward slide with excitement over promises of change by a new Prime Minister. Performing from bad to worse in two successive general elections was unprecedented.

There were yet more calls for change. This time the then Deputy Prime Minister warned UMNO members to “change or be dead”. But no one was listening. Some UMNO leaders continued to blame others for their failures and shortcomings. And this time they told those who disagreed with them to leave the country. In the past, the retort used to be vote us out if you don’t agree, but by 2013 that was too painfully close to the truth to even utter.

At the UMNO general assembly that year, the debate, in content and tone, did not provide voters with any indication or hope that UMNO was capable of change to win back the support it had lost in two successive elections.

The de rigueur threats were made yet again – from “liberalism, pluralism and secularism”, to threats from people who supposedly attacked “Islam, the Sultans, the national language, the NEP” all rolled in one breath, and threats from oh, those forever ungrateful Chinese. And then, of course, the same old demands for more handouts and economic assistance for the Malays. And nary a curious squeak as to why a Malay dominated government that has implemented affirmative action policies for over 40 years, with billions spent on bumiputra empowerment and economic advancement plus dozens of accompanying policy instruments, have still failed to address the needs of those left behind and build the resilient commercial and industrial community as envisaged.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, UMNO  Deputy President, gave a dire warning in his closing speech – that just a 2% swing in votes will cost Barisan to lose power.

Forty-four of the 133 Parliamentary seats Barisan held were regarded as “grey” seats where the party had won by a mere majority of between 0.1 and 5.9%. Without new initiatives to appeal to the electorate, Barisan would be in a “precarious position”, he warned.

I met a few UMNO leaders who were at that general assembly who said they cringed listening to the speeches and the non-debates. They felt they were in a sinking ship.

Then why didn’t you and people like you in UMNO speak out, I asked.One said, “Are you kidding me. I speak out, I turn my back, no one is behind me.” Another said, “I speak out, they will send the income tax guys knocking on my door at 3am.”

The dinosaur was truly paralysed and rotten to the core. Malaysia has changed, more and more Malays were changing, but UMNO remained trapped in a dance hall, partying to its own music, oblivious that extinction was near.

In July 2015, I wrote a column, feeling choked and suffocated that this country and its rakyat were being crushed and pummelled by wrecking balls. The wrecking ball of race and religion, of insatiable greed, of desperation to stay in power, of never-ending sense of entitlements, of unpunished crimes and abuses, of ideology over rational thinking, justice, and fair play. These concerns were nothing new. What was new was the breathtaking scale, the endlessness of it all, and the shamelessness with which the perpetrators displayed their unscrupulous, destructive and criminal behaviour, in words and deeds.

The 1MDB scandal had broken. We began to live in an Orwellian world where bad was good and good was bad, where those who revealed abuses and scandals were detained, questioned, prevented from travelling, charged in court, sacked from their positions, while those accused proclaimed their innocence and carried on unimpeached, and buttressed to remain in power.

By this time, I felt UMNO was committing hara-kiri. It added yet more mind-boggling threats – “national security” and “parliamentary democracy” it seemed were now under threat as more and more damning evidence of kleptomaniac behaviour at the very top was revealed. To continue to talk about it posed a threat to the stability of the ruling party and therefore a threat to democracy and national security! What a mind leap we were supposed to exercise to believe in this Orwellian construction of truth.

I never understood why UMNO leaders or all the Barisan MPs still could not see that their rule was over. If the Prime Minister continued to lead the party, they would lose GE-14. Didn’t they consider working together to put pressure on him to step down in order to save the party and the country? Didn’t they consider working together with the Opposition MPs to mount a no-confidence motion in Parliament? It was staggering that a Prime Minister could ever accept RM2.6 billion dollars into his personal account – and still remain in office. It was as simple as that.

But too many on the UMNO bandwagon remained dazzled by the millions that had been dispensed to them and the many more millions that they could still make in power. So right up to May 9, they believed they would still obtain a handsome victory at the polls. The unthinkable, they thought, could not happen with the money spent, the gerrymandering and malapportionment, the mid-week polling day, the mainstream media on their side, the threat of arrests under the fake news law, the threat of an emergency under the new national security act.

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But we Malaysians have had enough. The promise of change and the reality that it could happen was electrifying as a 92-year-old indefatigable former Prime Minister stomped the country to convince enough of those who were scared of change that they would be in good hands with him at the helm. My friends and I knew this was the best chance to overthrow a party that had been in power since independence day. For the first time ever, we collected money to donate to candidates of our choice.

Many of us in the women’s movement volunteered for Maria Chin, raised funds, managed her Bilik Gerakan, helped with her communications, outreach, worked as PACAs, pounded the streets at markets and neighbourhoods, and trudged up and down low-cost flats, to reach out to the voters in Petaling Jaya.  We headed to as many ceramahs as possible in the Klang Valley. The idealistic fresh faces standing on stage promising a new democratic, inclusive, and clean government gave us hope.

While so many friends were still too scared to predict the outcome for certain, I just felt it in my old bones that Pakatan Harapan would sweep into power.

UMNO has no one else to blame but itself that Malays no longer see it as the protector of the race and religion. In swinging to the far right and representing the interest of only one segment of the Malay community, it lost the faith of many others that it was able to steer a moderate path to maintain Malaysia’s political stability and prosperity in collaborative partnership with others.

Today, the sun is shining again and I am so, so proud to be Malaysian. We bucked the global trend of elections bringing into power conservative and right wing parties. My friends abroad were thrilled that we Malaysians did it! – Through peaceful elections and a relatively smooth democratic transition to a new ruling coalition that stands for reform. If in the recent past they had asked me in despair what went wrong with Malaysia as it became known for the biggest kleptocracy scandal ever, this time with envy, they asked, “How did you do it?”

The Malaysian electorate has for decades wanted to see change in the way this country is governed, how law is applied, how politics is conducted and how business is run. The long standing public demand for greater transparency and accountability, independence of the judiciary, a free and responsible press, free and fair elections, a more just and open political system, an end to police abuse and misuse of power, and an end to the intricate web of business and politics that bred cronyism and corruption, that for decades remained unmet, now seem possible.

For Pakatan Harapan, winning was the easy job. The hard work now begins. And I have no doubt that the rakyat will throw them out if they fail to deliver on their promises. For this election victory is as much ours as it is theirs. It was us who led the demand for change for decades, and we never gave up. We delivered the victory to Pakatan. We all feel very precious about what we have achieved and we will remain vigilant. And we will not be cowed into silence.

Today, we live in hope and optimism that all good things are possible in this new Malaysia. Salam Malaysia Baru, my beloved.