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Cleared of graft charges, Malaysian PM Najib could now focus on economy

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Malaysia has managed to overcome a recent corruption crisis. As usual, the anti-Islamic media were celebrating, for quite some time, the news about corruption scandal involving Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. And they possibly wanted a quick regime change in Kuala Lumpur so that opposition they sponsor could finish off the stable nationalist government of Najib Razak and put in place a new regime to harass him and promote anti-Islamic agenda that indirectly speed up terrorist atmosphere.

PM Najib was buffeted last year by allegations of graft and mismanagement at the debt-laden state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and by a revelation that about $681 million was deposited into his personal bank account. On January 26, Malaysia’s attorney-general Mohamed Apandi Ali cleared Premier Najib Razak of any criminal offences or corruption, closing investigations into a murky multi-million-dollar funding scandal that his opponents had hoped would bring him down.

It is learnt that the money transferred to Najib’s account by the Saudis was a donation meant to help him combat the “rising threat” of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a part of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition in the 2013 election. Even if the Brotherhood was defeated in 2013, this has not stopped similar organizations from crawling out of the woodwork. Most formidable of these is ISIS, which has recently issued threats against the Malaysian government and extended the call to jihad to the country’s Muslim populace.

Attorney general said the huge sum of $681m transferred into Najib Razak’s personal bank account was a gift from Saudi royal family and not linked to troubled state fund 1MDB and as such there were no criminal offences or corruption involved in relation to three investigations submitted by Malaysia’s anti-graft agency and that no further action would be taken.

The involvement of the Saudi royal family is an unexpected twist in a scandal over the mysterious funds transfer and the troubles of indebted state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), whose advisory board Najib chairs.

The Malaysian anti-corruption commission (MACC) had earlier said the funds were a political donation from an unidentified Middle Eastern benefactor. The attorney general said he would return to the MACC papers pertaining to the three separate investigations with instructions to close all three cases.

Najib, who has weathered months of calls from opposition leaders and establishment figures to resign, has denied any wrongdoing and says he did not take any money for personal gain.

Najib, who denied any wrongdoing and said he did not take any money for personal gain, welcomed the attorney general’s statement. “The findings followed a thorough investigation by the relevant institutions, and he has confirmed what I have maintained all along: that no crime was committed,” Najib said in a statement.

Although there still be a lot of people who may still be skeptical and critical of the government. Attorney general Apandi told a news conference no criminal offence had been committed by Najib in relation to three investigations submitted by Malaysia’s anti-graft agency. “I am satisfied with the findings that the funds were not a form of graft or bribery,” he said. There was no reason given as to why the donation was made to PM Najib that is between him and the Saudi family,” he said. The corruption issue has been an unnecessary distraction for the country. Now that the matter has been comprehensively put to rest, it is time for us to unite and move on.

Malaysian opposition parliamentarian Tony Pua told the Guardian the “basis to absolve the prime minister of any wrongdoing is utterly without merit because the ‘personal affair’ does not preclude corrupt motives or transactions”. He added: “The attorney general has provided no new or convincing information or arguments on whether the massive funds were bona fide, which leads to the question whether the newly appointed attorney general is merely covering up for the prime minister.”

However, opposition party leaders denounced the finding, saying the appointment of the attorney-general by the prime minister in the midst of the crisis suggested a conflict of interest. But analysts said it was a victory for Najib that would allow him to focus on winning the next election in 2018.

In July last year, Najib sacked the country’s previous attorney general, who had led the investigation into the scandal, for “health reasons” in a government reshuffle that also saw the dismissal of several officials critical of the premier.

The involvement of the Saudi royal family is an unexpected twist in the saga over the funds transfer and the troubles of 1MDB, whose advisory board Najib chairs. The scandal has shaken investors in south-east Asia’s third-biggest economy and rocked public confidence in the coalition led by Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, which has held power since independence in 1957.

The Barisan Nasional coalition currently consists of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and 11 other political parties. The opposition is made up of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and National Trust Party (AMANAH) and some smaller parties.

In the March 2004 general election, Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi led Barisan Nasional to a landslide victory, in which Barisan Nasional recaptured the state of Terengganu. The coalition controlled 92% of the seats in Parliament. The current Prime Minister is Dato’ Seri Mohd. Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak. He took office following the retirement of Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (colloquially known as “Pak Lah”) on April 2009.

Najib still enjoys the backing of most of UMNO’s powerful division chiefs. Even his fiercest internal critics, such as influential former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, accept that he cannot be unseated.

Although Malaysian politics has been relatively stable, critics allege that the government, ruling party, and government are intertwined with few countervailing forces. However, since the 8 March 2008 General Election, the media’s coverage on the country’s politics has noticeably increased with a little interference from the government. Judiciary is relatively free and independent.

The Malaysian government intensified efforts on 6 March 2008 to portray opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim as a political turncoat, days ahead of the Malaysian general election, because he posed a legitimate threat to the ruling coalition. Malaysians voted 8 March 2008 in parliamentary elections. Election results showed that the ruling government suffered a setback when it failed to obtain two-thirds majority in parliament.

Malaysia is a major Muslim nation and hence the enemies of Islam target this nation to get it destabilized, people killed as well. Unlike elsewhere in the world, the minorities in the country, especially Chinese and Indians have a major say in the government policies.

Malaysia has had a multi-party system since the first direct election of the Federal Legislative Council of the Malaya in 1955 on a first-past-the-post basis. The ruling party since then had always been the Alliance Party (Malay: Parti Perikatan) coalition and from 1973 onwards, its successor, the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition.

Human rights violations were reported but now the situation has improved considerably. In 2007 the Malaysian government briefly detained de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and arrested a human rights lawyer and about a dozen opposition leaders, amid growing complaints that the government was cracking down on dissent. In fact as the government charged the opposition leader Ibrahim with corruption and other serious charges, these media outlets began searching for opinion makers to malign the government.

Najib’s acquittal has certainly brought a lot of relief in the PM office at Kuala Lumpur, finally.

Economy

Malaysia is a rapidly developing economy in Asia. Malaysia, a middle-income country, has transformed itself since the 1970s from a producer of raw materials into an emerging multi-sector economy. The Government of Malaysia is continuing efforts to boost domestic demand to wean the economy off of its dependence on exports. Nevertheless, exports – particularly of electronics – remain a significant driver of the economy.

Oil remains a crucial source of revenue in Malaysia, contributing almost 30 per cent of government revenue.

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Malaysia expanded 0.70 percent in the third quarter of 2015 over the previous quarter. GDP Growth Rate in Malaysia averaged 1.29 percent from 2000 until 2015.

Economy has been the chief focus of Malaysian government. Security issues aside, Najib’s greatest concerns over the coming year most probably relate to the domestic economy.

On 2 May 2009, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced the government’s plan to develop a new economic model that will speed Malaysia’s transition to a high income country. The plan will emphasize ways to increase the income and productivity of workers by encouraging knowledge industries and increasing investment from overseas. At the time of the plan’s unveiling in 2010, per capita annual income in Malaysia stood at 23,100 Malaysian ringgit, approximately $7,000 in US currency; under the plan that figure would more than double to RM49,500 (US$15,000).

Malaysia has implemented measures to attract and maintain foreign investment, including a moderation of preferences designed to benefit ethnic Malays. Specifically, these reforms include allowing foreign investors to hold majority stakes in most enterprises excluding “strategic” industries such as banking, telecommunications, and energy, easing insurance regulation, curtailing powers of the Foreign Investment Committee and lowering the minimum quota for Malay ownership in publicly traded companies from 30 percent to 12.5 percent.

By being party to organizations such as ASEAN and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), that Najib’s government will be able to achieve its Vision 2020 aims. Although the Vision 2020 is in place to help Malaysia achieve increased incomes, the outlook for 2016 remains uncertain, chiefly due to slowing economic growth in China, affecting South East Asia where Malaysia being the second-largest oil and natural gas producer. The recent slump in global oil prices certainly has its impact on its economy.

The Malaysian economy is stable and among the contributing factors is the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Najib, who is also the Finance Minister, said the Customs Department had collected more than RM51bil in revenue since the implementation of the GST, compared with a collection of RM37.2bil in 2014 without the GST. He described the additional collection as extraordinary as and higher than the original projection, which enabled the government to face the economic uncertainty in the world economy currently. GST does not burden the people, on the contrary the GST is savior of the people. With the drop of crude oil to around US30 per barrel, Malaysia is still able to maintain all economic commitments.

The introduction of this tax could not have been better timed. It has helped raise revenues and has saved the government from an otherwise difficult position due to the massive decline in oil prices.

It has been a rather challenging year for the Malaysian economy. Political disruptions and economic shocks have rocked the nation. Prime Minister Najib Razak has been strenuously committed to undertaking fiscal reform. He has repeatedly stressed the importance of reducing fiscal deficits.

China, Malaysia’s top trade partner, is almost surely going to disappoint Malaysia with its slow growth figures. There are estimates that the Chinese economy may grow at about 6.2 per cent next year, much lower than recent trends. If the US economy does prove to be the one bright star globally, it will only bring darkness to the Malaysian economy as a US economic recovery is likely to be followed by interest rate hikes in the USA.

A country that once experienced consecutive years of high growth will have to be content with more moderate rates. In 2000, Malaysia’s growth rate was 8.9 per cent. In 2016 it is more likely to be around 4.5 per cent. Despite this, Prime Minister Najib is valiantly soldiering ahead.

A revised budget has just been released which aims to accommodate this short term change of fortunes due to low oil prices, attempting to optimize operational expenditure to maintain both long term strategy as well as the welfare of the nation’s populace. With the government being cash-strapped, the fiscal reform process is likely to pick up speed. This indeed is a big challenge.

In the face of depleting government revenues caused by sinking oil prices, there may be no choice but to raise taxes and reduce subsidies. The populace has little time to adjust to price increases and rising costs of living.

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Southeast Asia

Malaysia’s Efforts in Improving Education: Lessons for Developing Countries

MD Staff

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Image from the Malaysian Times

Malaysia’s efforts to tackle education challenges, particularly through the establishment of a ‘delivery unit’ that tracks results, can help other countries seeking to improve implementation in the sector, says a new World Bank report.

The report, Improving Education Sector Performance: Lessons from the Delivery Unit Approach, highlights the role of the Education Performance and Delivery Unit, or PADU, under the Ministry of Education, in improving education outcomes, a key government priority.

The report examines how PADU facilitated program implementation and delivery of results through the Literacy and Numeracy Screening program, or LINUS. Unlike other interventions, the LINUS task force – comprised of several divisions – worked closely with agencies across government to provide an effective framework for coordination, tracking, monitoring and reporting.

“Following the World Bank’s analysis of the LINUS approach, we are glad to share the approach with other countries seeking to improve education outcomes,” said Dato’ Seri Mahdzir bin Khalid, Minister of Education. “As we progress, we will constantly refine ways of delivery and continue to engage relevant institutions such as the World Bank to gather feedback and improve implementation.”

The Government Transformation Program, announced in 2009, set improving education outcomes as a key priority, and a detailed plan in the Malaysian Education Blueprint followed.  Making improving education outcomes a national priority can elevate the profile, stakes, and resourcing for the initiative. Building in evaluations of impact into the program design would further bolster efforts to improve education outcomes.

“The delivery of the essentials of a thriving nation – better schools, healthcare, public transportation – is a mutual goal of all nations, but implementation is a common challenge. The delivery unit approach taken by Malaysia is a creative and effective way to address this challenge,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Group Representative to Malaysia. “This report distills useful lessons learnt in improving the performance of its education sector, and makes recommendations to bring Malaysia one step closer towards its aspirations of becoming a high-income country.”

The study is the latest installment in the World Bank Group’s Outbound Knowledge Report Series that curates, distils and disseminates Malaysia’s development experience. This report is part of the Malaysia Development Experience Series, which strives to capture key learnings from Malaysia that are relevant for developing countries around the globe as they transition out of poverty and into shared prosperity.

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Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.

The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.

Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.

Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.

That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.

Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.

If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.

Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.

History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.

Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.

The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.

What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.

To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.

Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.

The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.

The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.

“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.

Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.

With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.

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Our teachers need a stern lesson

Rattana Lao

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Outspoken Thammasat graduate Rattana Lao has very definite ideas on how to reform the education system. (Photo courtesy Ms Rattana)

It is no surprise that our local news reports on education have usually been replete with how bad the Thai learning system is.

From a national perspective, the country’s recent Ordinary National Educational Test (O-Net) test results for Grade 12 students reveal the average scores are below par in all subjects. The only subject that the average score is higher than 50% in is Thai language. This does not mean the average quality of students’ Thai language competence is high or adequate.

The World Bank’s report provides a bleak picture of the level of Thai language attainment among students. Its report states that 32% of 15-year-old students in Thailand are “functionally illiterate”. This means their reading comprehension is so poor that they barely understand what they read, hence they even struggle to survive or cope with menial jobs.

When it comes to an international comparison, Thai students are falling behind their peers in Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. This is most evident in the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) which evaluates the ability of randomly selected 15-year-old students to attain scientific literacy, reading literacy and mathematics literacy. Sadly, for the past 10 years, Thailand’s performance in the Pisa test has never met the world standard. The average 15-year-old Thai student is 1.5 years academically less competent than their peers in Vietnam.

Thai educators are well aware of how bad the system is. For decades, considerable energy, attention and resources have gone into education reform in order to revamp the system. However, the system has not changed much. Since the National Education Act was promulgated in 1999, the system is still heavily centralised and overtly unequal resulting in low academic achievement of students.

One of the main problems of the Thai education system is the rampant rote learning pedagogy. Thai classrooms apply a top-down approach that lacks interactive engagement with students. Teachers stand in front of the class with the expectation to know it all and be the masters of knowledge, while students are given limited engagement and thus show little enthusiasm.

To make matters worse, teachers are not always present in class. The Quality Learning Foundation reported that Thai teachers spend more than 42% of their time outside the classroom.

Worst of all, Thai schools are overloaded with demanding curriculums. Students are expected to know so many topics without being provided with substantive explanation or examples of difficult concepts. They are expected to learn through memorisation rather than understanding, or acquisition of knowledge.

In the recent bi-annual meeting of Anandamahidol scholars, Charas Suwanwela, President of the Education Reform Committee appointed by the current government, offers a compelling insight to the reform process. He highlighted why the two decades of education reform do not produce the needed result and what needs to be done.

Firstly, our education system must shift from a top-down approach to a bottom-up one. By all standards, the Thai system needs greater decentralisation. Reformers of the 1999 National Education Act were aware of this and put decentralisation at the forefront. However, realistically speaking, most — if not all — decisions and resource allocations still depend largely on the discretion of the Ministry of Education, which is heavily bureaucratised and highly hierarchical. Such reliance and dependency has limited the ability of educational service areas to be able to perform.

“To successfully implement any kind of reform, such effort must be bottom up where everyone owns it. As things stand, nobody is accountable for educational problems in Thailand. We all blame each other but nobody takes charge of how things must change”, Mr Charas said.

Greater participation of the public and private sectors is needed. For so long, educational responsibility has belonged to the state, which leaves the rest of the society inert and irresponsible for change. But education is the responsibility of every party: The state, schools, families, private sectors, communities and even temples. Everyone must participate to make a difference.

Second, there must be a renewed sense of hope for teachers and students.

“Teachers and students must be empowered to become active agents. For teachers, they must be motivated to constantly acquire new knowledge to inform and inspire students. While specialisation teachers in all subjects are needed, we do not have the resources to do so. Therefore, teachers must be eager and empowered to improve themselves”, Mr Charas said.

The heart of it all, however, is that students must be awakened. In the new era of digital technology, students cannot rely on top-down, rote learning and memorisation as the method of education. They must learn to be digitally literate so that they can acquire information on their own. A digital revolution is needed for students to learn online, on-air and on the ground.

Third, education reform must take the issue of inequality seriously. Prasarn Trairatvorakul, National Economic Reform Chairman, recently shared his vision of the state-run Equitable Education Fund that aims to address educational disparity.

“A new law is being drafted to mobilise [financial] resources from national budgets, donations and lottery profits to create an Equitable Education Fund in order to mitigate educational inequality,” Mr Prasarn said.

“The annual educational budget is around 500 billion baht. This new law will propose that 5% of that will be allocated precisely to offer educational resources to support the most marginalised and underprivileged in the country. Starting from early childhood education, this new fund aims to offer financial supports for students up to upper secondary schools.”

The system cannot be overhauled overnight. However, with vision, collaboration and real commitment, there is a beaming light of hope that education in Thailand might improve over time.

First published in Bangkok Post, repost under author’s permission

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