Going viral in Cambodian Cyberspace

November 19, 2015

COMMENT: Times are changing in Cambodia as a result of peace, Din Merican at his UC Officepolitical stability and economic development following the formation of the Royal Government in 1993 (although the civil war did not end until 1997). Phnom Penh and the provincial cities and towns are now bustling with economic activity.

Education is a top priority – at least in the private sector – and the availability of the internet is helping in the process of intellectual development of the Cambodian people. Students I meet at the University of Cambodia have e-mail, Facebook and Twitter accounts and enjoy internet facilities on campus. Twenty-four-hour internet services are available and shops, cafes and hotels provide internet and wi-fi services.

Students have hand phones to communicate via internet. But internet penetration is second lowest in ASEAN after Myanmar. That means that HE Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen and his Cabinet colleagues and local officials must rely on people to people dialogue, the television and the mainstream media to explain government policies.

Hun Sen at UNGAWith regard to social media, credit must be given to the Royal Government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen for making this possible.  Cambodia has a young population (average age below 25) which has forgotten what their parents and elders went through during the period of the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge reign of terror and the years of international isolation and the sacrifices they made to end the civil war and achieve peace and reconciliation. As a result, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his colleagues face the challenge of managing expectations.

Based on my discussions with graduate students at the Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, I know that the Royal Government is not taking its people for granted. It is creating jobs and business opportunities for Cambodian SMEs, and attracting foreign direct investments into the country. For this to continue, Cambodia needs political stability.

So in my view, adversarial politics is not the way forward for Cambodia in the short term to medium term. What Cambodia needs is a people-centered government. Samdech Hun Sen does not deserve the treatment he received from Cambodians in New York when he attended the UNGA last October.

There is no censorship of information. However, it is natural for any government to ensure that the internet is not used to deliberately disrupt public order and create unrest. Cambodia is no exception. –Din Merican

Going viral in Cambodian Cyberspace

by Sebastian Duchamp


Social media is on the rise in Cambodia, and it may just mark the beginning of the end of the systemic culture of judicial impunity, as well as the long-dysfunctional democratic system.

A Popular TV Station @ University of Cambodia

To shine some context on the matter, social media vigilantes have been busy linking brutal attacks on two lawmakers outside the National Assembly building in late October to military units and Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) loyalists, specifically the Naga Youth Federation; the sworn protectors of Prime Minister and CPP leader, Hun Sen, who had earlier been protesting outside the house of Kem Sokha, the Vice President of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

With many Khmer ‘netizens’ taking to social media to identify more suspects – as there were clearly a large number of protestors – and linking them directly to Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many, it appears that the authorities may be acting in the interests of the people; something rarely seen in Cambodia.

In early November, prosecutors arrested three Cambodian soldiers who turned themselves in for taking part in the attack, and announced they would not be looking for any more suspects.  The same prosecutors – who are rarely said to react without being paid – have recently decided to reverse this decision and have announced, based on the circumstantial evidence revealed by the viral video, that they would continue the search for suspects linked to the beating.

Modern Cambodian Monka

All of this begs the question, just how much of a threat does social media pose to Hun Sen’s control of the state apparatus that has blessed him with almost uninterrupted rule over the country since 1979?

The short answer, is that it represents perhaps one of the biggest challenges in recent times to the strongman’s rule, and largely serves to discredit his public announcements that there would be civil war if the CNRP won.

Although there doesn’t seem to be any reliable statistics, I did some number crunching based on available resources.  Out of a population of 15 million, a good estimate of the number of Facebook users would suggest that there are somewhere between 1.4 and 1.5 million Cambodian monthly active users, a 12 per cent increase in users between 2014 and 2015.  The vast majority of users are between the ages of 18 and 25, and are increasingly using more affordable mobile devices.

There are three reasons why this huge increase in interest and availability of social media. Firstly, it encourages a new level of trust – all but obliterated under the Khmer Rouge regime – and open discussion among the Cambodian people.  The confident growth of societal stability represents a healthy sign for any peaceful transition of power, which is undoubtedly a key precursor for any stable democratic regime to prevail.

Two young boys surfing the internet and chatting online at an internet shop, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Southeast Asia

Two young boys surfing the internet and chatting online at an internet shop in Phnom Penh city. This is a positive development for Cambodia.

Secondly, given that print media (which rarely makes it to rural areas anyway, where much of CPP’s support lies) and traditional radio or television broadcasting companies are largely owned by CPP-linked elites, unregulated outlets such as Facebook pose an unprecedented forum for voicing discontent.  This poses quite the thorn in the side of Hun Sen.

Both major party leaders, Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, have official pages on Facebook, and it is fairly clear who has more support.  If ‘likes’ are anything to go by, Sam Rainsy clearly eclipses the incumbent Prime Minister; leading by 500,000 total page likes – which have risen at a fairly constant rate week-on-week – to 1,820,588 at the time of writing.

Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen, currently at 1,330,541 total page likes, is trailing his opponent in his Facebook escapade.

Most dubiously, according to Facebook’s own statistics, Hun Sen’s total page likes increased by an erratic 14 per cent in a week.  The peak happened to coincide with the Myanmar elections on 8 November, although it is unclear what to make of this.  What is clear, is that it looks more like a heartbeat surge in popularity, compared to the more credible steady climb on Sam Rainsy’s page.

What is also clear, is that Hun Sen appears to have been greatly saddened by recent protests on visits outside the country to New York and Paris, which many speculate may have precipitated the protests and beatings against CNRP lawmakers.

The Prime Minister has recently been taking a more personal tone against his rival in his latest address to the Khmer diaspora in Paris that even went as far as reflecting on his offspring’s superior academic achievements in comparison to those of Sam Rainsy.  In Cambodia, school grades, of course, don’t always reflect academic ability; and are often an indicator of how much one is willing to bribe their way to success.

Whether these likes are those of genuine supporters, imaginary friends, or those engaging in schadenfreude can only be a matter of speculation.  After all, what’s more enjoyable than watching a well-entrenched strongman implode under the sheer weight of his own ego?

Thirdly, and most importantly, unlike the unfortunate Hun Sen, the CNRP knows how to use social media effectively.  The professional and often emotionally-charged videos (that are often accompanied by a soundtrack that would make John Williams blush) and photos that Sam Rainsy regularly posts on social media stand testament to this.  They also reveal a politician standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Khmer people; something that  Hun Sen repeatedly fails to pull-off.

On a side note, in reaction to the NLD’s sweeping victory in the Myanmar general election, one Khmer netizen replied to a post by opposition leader Sam Rainsy on his Facebook page, “…regrettably that Cambodia country is seems to be late and have to wait for 2018. Cheer! [sic]” 2018, of course, refers to the year of the next general election.

The mood in Phnom Penh, which already has seven CNRP lawmakers compared to the CPP’s five, is that Hun Sen may finally lose the 2018 general election, and with the cat out of the bag so to speak, his loss may be definitive this time.

Sebastian Duchamp is a pen name. The author is a scholar and keen observer of Southeast Asian politics and society.

Please note that my view is that a true scholar does not need to hide under a cloak of anonymity. He should be open and impartial and should not  take a position which is obviously pro-CNRP and Sam Rainsy.–Din Merican 

Editor’s note: On 16 November Cambodia’s opposition leader Sam Rainsy was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and now faces a potential two-year jail term upon his return to Phnom Penh from South Korea for an older charge of defamation.


Council of The Elders and Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister in Waiting

November 15, 2015

Council of The Elders  and Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister in Waiting

by Scott Ng



It seems that Muhyiddin Yassin has at last stepped into his role as Mahathir Mohamad’s appointed successor to Prime Minister Najib Razak. While the move comes somewhat late, Muhyiddin still has some positive public sentiment behind him, and as the Deputy President of UMNO, he still stands as the next in line to the premiership should Najib be deposed.

The problem here is one of reputation. Muhyiddin may not have courted controversy as often as many of his BN colleagues, but one of the questions that was brought up following his removal from the Cabinet was: what leverage does Najib have to ensure Muhyiddin’s silence?

Like any authentic Malaysian politician, especially one who has held power, Muhyiddin probably has skeletons to keep in the closet – iniquities great and small that make up the backbone of a politician’s career. G25 member Tawfik Ismail recently spoke of some of Muhyiddin’s supposed skeletons, mainly the dissatisfaction of Johoreans over management of land during his time as Menteri Besar of the state.

“I reminded Muhyiddin that there are so many things that he and Dr Mahathir did that people have not forgotten,” Tawfik said. Memories are long indeed in politics, and it seems like Muhyiddin’s alleged sins are still weighed against him. Such is the price of the game of thrones, and Muhyiddin must move forward even with the knowledge that progressive and moderate Malays are not behind his push to remove Najib from office.

The question of unfettered cooperation with Muhyiddin and Mahathir is not one the G25 is willing to answer with a “yes,” and one can assume a similar response from other prominent and moderate or progressive figures.

But the same question that haunted Muhyiddin since his fall from grace now rears it’s ugly head again: what skeletons does Muhyiddin hide in his closet? Will Najib use them against him if he feels that the campaign to remove him is getting too strong for comfort? Perhaps. But as of now, the future doesn’t look too bright for Muhyiddin’s campaign to rise to Putrajaya’s summit.

Muhyiddin and Mahathir must realise that this campaign may not go their way. There are other dramas at play, other missions and causes than theirs. Their alleged sins stand between them and the influence needed to push Najib out of office, and such are the wages of politics. With their agenda rejected by the conservatives and the progressives, where do Muhyiddin and Mahathir turn to now?

Congratulations to New Zealand and The All-Blacks–The World Rugby Champions

November 1. 2015

Congratulations to New Zealand and The All-Blacks and Thank you, Australia for your Grit and Sportsmanship


New Zealand (16) 34 Tries: Milner-Skudder, Nonu, Barrett Cons: Carter 2 Pens: Carter 4 Drop-goal: Carter

Australia (3) 17  Tries: Pocock, Kuridras: Foley 2 Pen: Foley

New Zealand held off a fierce Australian comeback to win a thrilling World Cup final and become the first team to retain their title.

Wonderful tries from Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ma’a Nonu had given the All Blacks a 21-3 lead early in the second half before David Pocock and Tevita Kuridrani struck back.

With 15 minutes to go there were just four points in it, but a nerveless long-distance drop-goal and penalty from Dan Carter snatched back control.

And when replacement Beauden Barrett sprinted away on to Ben Smith’s clearing kick at the death history was made, with New Zealand also becoming the first three-time champions of the world.

Beauden Barrett scores for New Zealand as they beat Australia

Beauden Barrett’s last-gasp try was the icing on the cake for the world champion All Blacks

A fitting farewell

The achievement is a fitting farewell to their phalanx of retiring greats. Carter was outstanding under a ferocious Wallaby assault, landing 19 points from the tee, and his captain Richie McCaw was not far behind as their side was tested to the limit.

They have been the outstanding side of this generation, and once again found a way to win when the heat came on from their great trans-Tasman rivals.

Wins graphic

All Blacks seize control

The All Blacks came out at pace, McCaw smashing opposite number Michael Hooper, Wallabies’ skipper Stephen Moore bloodied in the face and Carter curling over a testing penalty from out wide for 3-0 before Bernard Foley’s simpler effort levelled it up.

Australia were targeting the great fly-half, Scott Sio lucky to escape a yellow card for a late hit and Sekope Kepu giving away a penalty for a high tackle that Carter popped over to retake the lead.

Matt Giteau was next to feel the intensity, clattered trying to tackle Kieran Read and unable to continue with what looked like concussion.

It was often messy and never less than flat-out, New Zealand dominating territory and possession but having to content themselves with a third Carter penalty, this time from way out right.

Then it came, a wonderful team move of magic hands and sweet timing – Conrad Smith finding space down the right, Aaron Smith popping up on his inside, McCaw taking his pass at pace and putting Milner-Skudder in at the corner.

Another perfect kick from Carter added the conversion for 16-3 at half-time and the Wallabies were sinking fast.

Wallaby fightback

Ma'a Nonu scores New Zealand's second try

Ma’a Nonu’s fine try looked to have put the All Blacks out of sight

No team has ever scored so many in the first period of a World Cup final, and the brilliance resumed a minute into the second half.

This time it was Sonny Bill Williams, on for Conrad Smith, who sucked in three defenders before off-loading to Nonu, the wrecking-ball centre careering past the despairing Kurtley Beale and Drew Mitchell on a 40-metre run to the line.

Despite Carter’s missed conversion the All Blacks appeared unstoppable, but when Ben Smith was sin-binned for tip-tackling Mitchell, Australia struck back – driving a maul off the line-out, Pocock at the back for the try, Foley curling over the conversion for 21-10.

Suddenly the men in gold sensed a chance and when Will Genia dinked a kick into the wide spaces in the right-hand corner, Ashley-Cooper was there to feed Kuridrani and send the huge centre away through Carter’s tackle for another splendid score.

Tevita Kuridrani scores Australia's second try

Tevita Kuridrani’s try gave Australia real hope, but New Zealand regained control

With Foley’s conversion sailing over, 14 unanswered points had come in 11 minutes, and a thrilling contest was wide open once again.

Carter would have his revenge. From 40m out he struck the sweetest of drop-goals to extend the lead to 24-17, and then nailed a penalty from just inside the opposition half with seven minutes left.

Australia kept pressing, but when the ball was turned over in the New Zealand 22 Smith kicked clear, Barrett out-paced the despairing Pocock and the party could begin.

Man of the match – Dan Carter

Dan Carter--All Black

After missing the 2011 World Cup final through injury, this was the perfect ending for world rugby’s perfect 10. Carter could not dream of a better finale to his 12-year, 112-cap All Black career, and few would deny him the moment after what he has given the game down the years.

Read MORE: http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/rugby-union/34671255

Malaysia’s Politics of Survival by Elimination

October 23, 2015

Malaysia’s Politics of Survival  by Elimination

by stratfor



  • In the near term, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will survive efforts to oust him over mounting corruption allegations.
  • Whether or not Najib holds onto power longer, the years leading up to the next general elections will be turbulent ones.
  • Political stability, crucial to Malaysia’s economic rise, will be challenged by demographic changes that stress the country’s delicate ethnic balance. 



A deepening political crisis in Malaysia is highlighting the country’s longstanding ethnic divides and its uncertain road ahead. Since early this year, Prime Minister Najib Razak has been caught in a scandal surrounding the heavily indebted 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign wealth fund. Among other points of controversy, Najib is struggling to explain the source of nearly $700 million deposited in his personal account.

This week, with Malaysia’s Parliament back in session, the opposition is renewing its efforts to oust the Prime Minister through a no-confidence vote — a measure that will succeed only in the unlikely event that Najib’s tightly consolidated party apparatus comes apart. Indeed, Najib is likely to remain entrenched in power for the foreseeable future. In the process, however, the political crisis in Kuala Lumpur will both expose and exacerbate broader challenges confronting Malaysia, particularly regarding divisions between the politically influential “Bumiputera” (the umbrella term for ethnic Malays and indigenous groups) and the economically powerful ethnic Chinese and Indian populations. At risk is the carefully balanced status quo that has enabled the Malaysian economy to flourish without communal disruptions.

A Well-Entrenched Man

On the surface, at least, the hits keep piling up for Najib: A steady drip of leaked documents has magnified scrutiny on the Prime Minister and spawned official investigations both in Malaysia and in countries where 1MDB has been active, including Switzerland and the United States. Najib, who also serves as Finance Minister, has come under fire from the country’s central bank chief, powerful figures from within his own ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and Malaysia’s nine state sultans — whose power is largely ceremonial but who are perceived as guardians of Malay heritage and religion. Most notably, longtime Prime Minister and UMNO boss Mahathir Mohammad, Najib’s former mentor, has gone on the warpath. Since publicly withdrawing support for Najib in mid-2014, Mahathir, who governed for 22 years, has called for more intensive probes, joined a major opposition rally in August, and urged his former adversaries in Malaysia’s long-beleaguered opposition to table a no-confidence vote. (Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, resigned in 2009 at Mahathir’s behest.)

But the Opposition, with just 87 of the Parliament’s 221 seats, does not have the numbers to muster the two-thirds majority needed to remove Najib, even if it peels off disaffected lawmakers from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition’s ethnic Chinese and Indian parties. Moreover, the opposition alliance collapsed this summer, and certain factions are noncommittal at most about ousting Najib — particularly the conservative, Malay Muslim-dominated Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which sat out the anti-Najib rally in August.

UMNO is similarly divided. Several powerful party leaders who have publicly criticized Najib’s role in the 1MDB scandal and expressed concern about damage to the party’s credibility still oppose the no-confidence vote. Even with the opposition at odds with itself and its charismatic leader, Anwar Ibrahim, behind bars, UMNO does not want to chance a snap election with the 1MDB affair still unresolved. It narrowly held onto power after losing the popular vote in 2013, after all. Whatever the Prime Minister’s sins, UMNO lawmakers naturally do not want to see the party fall as a result. The leaked documents have implicated essentially Najib and his wife alone, largely sparing other major UMNO figures. This suggests an orchestrated effort designed to oust the Prime Minister without sinking the entire party.

An internal putsch against Najib is more likely sometime after the parliamentary session ends. But even this is unlikely. Earlier this year, Najib postponed the next party elections to 2018 and purged some of his most powerful detractors. An emergency vote would take two-thirds of UMNO’s Supreme Council or a majority of the party’s 191 divisional chiefs, and Najib reportedly maintains strong support in both of these blocs. Nearly all UMNO lawmakers and leaders have benefitted from his largesse, and the fact that Najib’s political machine has proved resilient testifies to the power of his patronage network. Party dissent will need to reach a much higher pitch to oust him. Despite Mahathir’s best efforts, this has not happened — yet.

Economic Complications

The crisis in the capital comes at a particularly bad time for Malaysia. With or without Najib at the helm (but particularly if he holds on), the years leading up to next elections, currently expected to take place in 2018, will be turbulent. In particular, an array of challenges is threatening Malaysia’s economic dynamism and the delicate ethnic balance that has undergirded the country’s remarkable rise. The political uncertainty is likely to exacerbate both issues, and vice versa.

A leading concern is that the scandal is diminishing Malaysia’s credibility with investors and driving down the value of its currency, the ringgit, which hit a 17-year low this month. Investors reportedly pulled around more than $4.5 billion from Malaysian stocks and bonds in the third quarter of 2015, while approved foreign direct investment declined by more than 40 percent through the first half of the year. Currencies have been racing downward across Southeast Asia, but the ringgit has performed worse than its regional counterparts — despite Malaysia having generally more favorable economic fundamentals and substantial foreign exchange reserves available to buoy it.

The country’s economic woes cannot be blamed solely on the political uncertainty. Even without the political crisis, Malaysia is facing economic headwinds because of low commodity prices and a looming interest rate hike by the U.S. Federal Reserve. But the scandal is certainly playing a role. Malaysia’s once globally esteemed financial institutions are now in question, and 1MDB is involved in nearly every key sector of the Malaysian economy, including energy, agriculture, tourism and real estate. Meanwhile, Najib’s influence over those purportedly investigating the sovereign wealth fund (in July, for example, he fired the Attorney-General) has raised questions about regulatory transparency and rule of law in the country.

UMNO in Power

Moreover, Malaysia’s reliance on semi-conductors and commodities such as oil, natural gas and palm oil leave it fairly vulnerable to global shifts. State investment funds like 1MDB and Khazanah Nasional Berhad (which Najib also chairs) were designed, in part, to give Malaysia additional economic buffer and allow it to use capital in a manner similar to neighboring Singapore. The success of such investment vehicles will become particularly important as China begins to focus on higher-value exports such as semi-conductors. Inversely, the economic woes have magnified the scandal. The commodities collapse, for example, has inflated 1MDB’s debts and shrunk the revenues available for UMNO to dole out to keep the coalition more firmly intact.

There is reason for optimism. Malaysia has relatively low debt and inflation, as well as a healthy resource base on which it can continue to build. Its membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership would, at minimum, help the country diversify, gain an edge over rising regional competition, and position it at the center of global trade flows. So Malaysia’s economic slump alone may not be prolonged enough to sink the ruling party — UMNO survived even the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Nonetheless, Malaysia’s underlying strengths have given traction to the opposition’s assertion that graft and mismanagement must then be playing a singular role in dragging down the economy. This argument will gain strength if the slide continues.

UMNO’s Ethnic Gamble

More problematic over the long-term is the ongoing shift in Malaysia’s ethnic demographics. As in Singapore, Malaysia’s favorable investment climate has long relied on the country maintaining at least superficial political harmony. This is an innate challenge for a geographically fragmented country where the Bumiputera, or “Sons of the Soil,” have stood in contrast to the ethnic Chinese and South Asians, who wield economic influence disproportionate to their numbers.

Malaysia’s political stability has revolved largely around the dominance of the UMNO-led coalitions that have ruled every year since independence in 1957. These coalitions have ensured high-level representation from all major ethnic groups and the farther-flung regions of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo, facilitating flows of patronage to all corners of society and preventing a repeat of the 1969 communal riots or revival of pre-independence racial strife. The effective one-party rule has generally enabled policy continuity and targeted infrastructure and industrial development, minimizing uncertainty for investors and giving Malaysia a leg up over regional rivals. This environment, combined with Malaysia’s resource abundance and fortuitous position as a trade hub in a high-growth region, fueled a steady economic rise and the growth of a robust middle class.

Petaling Street 2

Tan-Sri-Mohd Ali Rastam

But the prospect of ethnic strife and resentment fueled by Malaysia’s affirmative action policies has continued to pose a risk to the country’s economic success. Mahathir, when still in power, tried unsuccessfully to peel back these policies, and it is unlikely that others will be able to do so. And throughout Southeast Asia, economic turmoil tends to lead to a push back against the ethnic Chinese populations. In Indonesia, for example, this has often led to violence. This issue is part of why Singapore is not still a part of the Malay Federation.

The ethnic balance underpinning Malaysia’s stability began to noticeably unravel in the 2008 general elections. Ethnic Chinese and Indian voters began to defect from the ruling coalition, upset with ossifying policies meant to cement the pre-eminence of Malays in political and economic life, as well as anti-minority rhetoric and occasional violence. Barisan Nasional lost 58 seats and its seemingly perpetual two-thirds majority. The shift became more pronounced in 2013, when a multi-ethnic opposition coalition won the popular vote. Today, the main Chinese party in the ruling coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association, holds just seven seats (down from 31 in 2008) and no Cabinet posts. The main Indian party holds four.

Najib has increasingly sought to frame the 1MDB affair in ethnic terms. In this he has taken a cue from Mahathir, whose own rise was fueled by exploiting Malay and indigenous fears of, for example, “the Chinese tsunami.” UMNO has funded and helped organize the Malay nationalist “Red Shirt” movement, whose mass rally in September was narrowly prevented by police from storming a prominent ethnic Chinese business district in Kuala Lumpur. As political strategies go, this may appear exceedingly base, but it also reflects a recognition that Malaysia’s fundamental demographic makeup is changing, most notably among the Chinese. Since 1983, their share of Malaysia’s total population has dropped more than 8 percent, and birthrates among ethnic Chinese are by far the lowest of Malaysia’s main ethnic groups. For political purposes then, rather than wooing back minority voters, UMNO will increasingly work to secure its base and keep the opposition divided along ethnic lines.

This heralds a widening of ethnic divisions — punctuated by growing public unrest more common to Malaysia’s northern neighbors Myanmar and Thailand — that will challenge the core integrity of what is a particularly manufactured form of the modern nation-state. Lacking geographical or ethnic coherence, Malaysia’s solidarity has long stemmed from shrewd, inclusive policy making, with plentiful resource wealth available to grease away any frictions. A broad remaking of this political system — if it fails to preserve the ties binding Malaysia’s far-flung and disparate parts to the state — would thus prove unsustainable. To a degree, this risk will limit how far Najib and UMNO will be willing to push their ethnic advantage. But with the 1MDB scandal and the economic stresses drawing the ruling party into a protracted fight for survival, Malaysia is likely to slip further into an environment of new uncertainties.

Vision 2020 marred by scandals, corruption and abuse of power

October 22, 2015

Vision 2020 marred by scandals, corruption and abuse of power

by Dr. Lee Hwok-Aun

Financial scandals, public protests against corruption and authoritarianism, economic anxiety and a depreciating currency are factors that would threaten the position of any elected national leader. Not in Malaysia.

Lee_Hwok_Aun_0511-480x360Faced with the above, Dato’ Seri Najib Razak has maintained his grip on the prime ministership. But with his credibility damaged, public trust shattered, and his signature 1Malaysia concept buried, his policy record increasingly hinges on fulfilling transformation.

The Global Transformation Forum, running in Kuala Lumpur October 21-23, will showcase Malaysia’s new policy making and monitoring model, and perhaps cast a warm glow on the administration.

Malaysia’s economic and government transformation programs are driven by Dato’ Idris Jala, Najib’s cabinet appointee and CEO of the performance management and delivery unit, and chief proponent of the “Big Fast Results” method for undertaking such endeavours.

The Prime Minister’s continued blessing for such programs has been returned with loyalty, such that even the crafting of political funding reform was entrusted to Idris and Paul Low, the Minister of Governance and Integrity.

Notably as well, Najib withdrew from launching a major global anti-corruption conference in August, but delivered the opening address of this forum. How far can the programs transform Malaysia and preserve the power of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition? The regime counts on two important balances tipping in its favor: short-term gains outweighing long-term goals and service delivery overshadowing government integrity.

Malaysia’s policy horizon is short, by destiny and by choice. Less than five years remain until the nation’s day of reckoning with Vision 2020, a grand mission launched in 1991 by then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Come 2020, Malaysia is supposed to already be a fully developed nation, attaining high income, capability and technology, and fostering a democratic, liberal, progressive and innovative society.

But in reality, reaching these lofty goals will take a longer time, beyond 2020. With Malaysia’s economy continuing to grow faster than the high-income entry bar, it will join the club, although when is uncertain.

Achieving that target will also yield political returns. It is a distinct and quantifiable accomplishment. Continual public spending of growth dividends on the lower-income population does provide some help in times of economic stress, while shoring up electoral support.

Short-term bias is accentuated by design; Malaysia’s transformation model favors programs that generate big fast results and filters out those that do not.The selection process is disinclined toward initiatives that require long and slow gestations, although a number of such projects will make it through.

idris-jala-pemandu-genericOn the one hand, commitment to short-term fixes is spirited, such as the implementation of Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia — or better known as BR1M — a program of massive cash transfers to lower-income families. On the other hand, the government is lukewarm in its pursuit of systemic, broad-based innovation and sociopolitical maturation.

This trumping of immediate, quantifiable targets over gradual, qualitative progress is particularly stark in the education system, which is vital for sustaining socioeconomic advancement over the long term.

In schools and universities, learning outcomes and performance targets are spelled out while resources and personnel are constrained by standardization and audit requirements. Inquisitiveness, creativity and critical thinking remain barely encouraged. International recognition of this model revolves around its methods more than its contents.

PEMANDU has instituted a streamlined mechanism for consultative policy formulation, detailed planning, internal monitoring and performance assessments. The methodology has clearly spurred heated discussion and generated novel programs.

But far-reaching transformation entails major structural change, even disruptive contents and breakpoints. Leadership change often precedes transformational change, and there must be substantial cohesion between messenger and message, between the authority and the agenda.

Malaysia’s transformation is now being executed by a scandal-tainted Prime Minister heading a controlling and change-resistant establishment — the Barisan Nasional coalition that has held power for almost sixty years.

Governments the world over gain legitimacy and placate discontent by providing material goods and managing economic affairs. But in Najib’s case, the onus on government service delivery to scrub away doubts about his personal integrity is particularly high.

Transformation halts at pivotal points. From the political funding reform dialogue so far, it seems the US$700 million deposited into the Prime Minister’s personal account has already been exonerated as a “donation.”

Transformation into a more responsive government requires consultation in policy formulation and regular self-reporting of performance outcomes. But Najib’s government remains decidedly opposed to freer and fairer elections, accountability of the executive to parliament, rule of law, and freedom of information.

To be fair, these bigger issues lie beyond PEMANDU’s ambit; its programs specifically address economic and government transformation. But the exclusion of political transformation is precisely the problem from a national standpoint.

As technocratic as PEMANDU may be, the enduring impact of its programs lies in the hands of Malaysia’s untransformed political masters. – Nikkei Asian Review, October 22, 2015.

* Dr.Hwok-Aun Lee is a senior lecturer in development studies at the University of Malaya.