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Seeking a new vision for Malaysia

Prof. Murray Hunter

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Authors: Murray Hunter, Azly Rahman

“ … I am indeed proud that on this, the greatest day in Malaya’s history it falls to my lot to proclaim the formal independence of this country.

Today as new page is turned, and Malaya steps forward to take her rightful place as a free and independent partner in the great community of Nations-a new nation is born and though we fully realise that difficulties and problems lie ahead, we are confident that, with the blessing of God, these difficulties will be overcome and that today’s events, down the avenues of history, will be our inspiration and our guide …” – Tunku Abdul Rahman, first prime minister of Malaysia, Proclamation of Independence, 31 August, 1957

Today’s debate in Malaysia has gone down to the lowest ebb. Discourse on democracy is dead; bludgeoned by the caretakers of the cult of secrecy of the ruling regime. The dream of a progressive Malaysia conceived by her freedom fighters and founding fathers and mothers such as Burhanuddin Al-Helmy, Ibrahim Yaakob, Onn Jaafar, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tan Chen Lock, V. T. Sambanthan, and even the much contested heroic figures such as Chin Peng, Rashid Maidin, Mokhtaruddin LassoIbrahim Lasso, and Shamsiah Fakeh has turned into a nightmare in broad daylight. If there is a period of decay in destruction of the democratic institutions yearning to grow well this is the time of chaos and anarchy: of Malaysia in the Age of Corrupt Systems.

The challenges of a nation-state today, seem insurmountable not because the idea of a “nation” of many, hybridizing with the singularity, sovereignty, and sensibility of the modern state is an impossibility, but because there is no political will to make Malaysia that nation-state be realized in its entirety. In other words, Malaysia has been made to become a neo-colonialist divide-and-rule hyper-modern polity. The apartheidization of society is deliberate and necessary a design in order for the political-economic elite to rule. Herein lies our intention to explore the theme of the “Malaysian Dream,” and propose explanations to the reasons for the rotting of this neo-colonialist construct and offer ideas towards a remedy. In doing so, we are guided by these questions: What are the ills of this country? What remedies does she need? How do we Malaysians chart a new world of possibilities? What are our visions? — these are the questions we are exploring in this brief essay on the future of Malaysia.

Malaysia’s predicament

Malaysia’s current situation and social condition is one characterized by violence; from a spectrum of hidden and subtle to blatant and outright display of it. Talks of a possible racially-motivated riot in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur and a US terror alert warning for that area, a massive rally calling for the end of corruption and a call for free and fair elections, the immense complexity of the ENRON-like case of the Malaysian investment project, the 1MDB and its story which read like a Watergate and a pulp fiction of global money-laundering combined, the resurfacing of the call to investigate the gruesome murder of a Mongolian model-cum- Russian interpreter of a governmental French-submarine deal, the ugly spillovers of the current war of political survival and relevancy between the camps of Najib Tun Razak and former prime minster of 22-years, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad – all these happenings within the last few months are symptoms of this Malaysian socio-political cancer, or a noli me tangere as the Filipino nationalist of the 50s Jose’ Rizal would call it.

How do we get to this seemingly point of no-return? Malaysians may now be reflecting on the spiritual aspect of the predicament. As Jesus/Isa said in The Sermon on the Mount, on “The Beatitudes,” one cannot serve god and money at the same time; as Thich Nach Han preached of the path of peace and moderation; as Muhammad spoke of Humanity as one and transcends race and tribalism, and that an Arab is no superior than any other race.

The remedy of these predicaments is what we ought to work on, gradually but surely through a long deliberate process of inner and outer change, one simply called “Education” — that gentle profession that will ensure personal and social progress.

Today there is a talk of crafting a peace-making and peace-building plan by parties interested in reconciliation. Our view is that any “common framework of nation-building” must incorporate the voices of those marginalized, and the aspirations of the diverse peoples, and the intelligent design of social change that puts people first and at the center. This is what ought to be done rather than erect materials and vainglorious infrastructure architectured to oppress and alienate human beings – those pentagons of power build with the blood, sweat, tears, and fears of the poor the rich enslaved through crude as well as sophisticated means.

In Malaysia, it might be a futile effort for political parties craft elegant common frameworks of a new-Malaysian when not enough social-philosophical dialogue is done through mass and frequent meaningful intellectual engagements that include the hopes and aspirations of the people rather that exclude them; dialogue that sought their opinion and suggestions on what matters rather than teach them to chants slogans of change to be shouted in unison at rallies. In short, we need to bring big ideas down to the level of language and meaningfulness of the class of people we wish to develop.

Each party attempting to work together must command the language of participatory social change, of social justice, of culturally-tailored socialism, or capitalism with a moral conscience. Party members must learn to view religion as separate from the state and be the champions of that man-made laws that are collectively crafted by living, breathing and thinking human souls. That document called “The Constitution”, that embody the spirit of a nation with common dream and aspirations and future must be the made to be the bedrock of nationhood.

Oftentimes development and the institutionalization of national policies are stylized as top-down, commanding, and of late draconian and punishing practices. For one familiar with the process of creating shared vision in an organization, this kind of transmittance of developmental philosophy is not only unacceptable but in due course will be a reason for a revolt of the masses.

We must examine and scrutinize our “commanding heights,” as the Russian leader Vladimir Lenin would say about our economic model and our ideology and our base and superstructure. We must align these with the question of human nature: as human beings what do we want and what do we need, and how do we differentiate between what we want and what we need, so that we will not be confused and our society will not be evolving catastrophically.

Malaysia – is at a historical juncture of suicide; a bipolar nation breaking down into pieces. We had a dream. That dream is destroyed by the Pied Piper who is projecting himself to serve god and fellow men but in reality, is now having money serve him; that pied piper leading us to Armageddon of our own nation-state.

Where did we go wrong? Why are we living this nightmare? How do we craft a new Malaysian dream?

Hard Times for the nation-state

In spite of exposure to the world via internet, news, social media, and travel, the vision of what could be in Malaysia has become a dark and gloomy one. Visions are hopeful and positive aspirations that can be shared as a national narrative, an encapsulated version of what could be called “The Malaysian Dream”.

However any dream has been suppressed with healthy political debate muzzled, academic freedom muzzled, criticism muzzled, where those who dare to dream or criticize the neo-feudal establishment are caste away through various means and neutralized.

The ideological apparatuses are now unashamedly used by the power elite to control, cajole, and coerce the rakyat not only into cultural subservience and political submission but also to instil fear of governmental wrath should citizens speak up truth to power to raise consciousness of injustices. The power elite, those that are ruling the country and whose power is derived not only from elections, arguably dubious in its recent outcome, are those whose hegemony is derived from a massive control of wealth through this convenient system of the Constitutional Monarch; a system that works in symbiosis in the overall framework of “Malay Hegemonic and Trumpeted Superiority,” as leit motif.

This is not just a one sided affair. The opposition forces in Malaysia have also become intellectually bankrupt, have lost any passion for Malaysia, and are locked into their own introspection. Of late, especially after the 13th General Elections and after the incarceration of Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and since the beginning of the Mahathir-Najib mahabharatta and vendetta in one, the Opposition itself has gone through as series of implosions breaking it into pieces leading not only to the inability for the coalition to come to terms with issues to be championed for the next elections, but also the implosion in its member party itself, PAS. The birth of Parti Amanah Negara (PAN), formed by those who no longer have the faith of the progressiveness of the Islam in PAS, signify the new forms of implosion leading to “new politics” in the coalition. Still, the Opposition has successfully been broken up rendering it difficult to play the role of contender of Barisan Nasional. The rakyat has lost faith in the Opposition, especially with the loss of DS Anwar as its mover and shaker as well as a Malaysian “prime-minister-in-waiting”.

This has come to the point where people may not even turn out to vote for the opposition just to protest against the government because of the ‘hopelessness’ they are displaying in terms of providing any alternative national narratives, dreams, and aspirations for a modern Malaysian society. Political analysts and social commentators these days are having difficult time writing about the possible triumph of the Opposition coalition in the coming elections. Internal politics in PKR especially since the much-criticized “Kajang Move,” and the plan hatched as a dawn raid for the Selangor Chief Minister’s position, the ongoing and perhaps no-exit-to-an agreement over the implementation of the “hudud” and the open secret of the hardliners in Pas wishing to make Talibanistic Islam as a model of Malaysia’s Islamic state – these two major factors add to the internal political combustion of the Opposition, rendering it now too weak for the disillusioned rakyat to have faith in a much-needed change. Even the crumbling ruling party, especially the one plaguing UMNO as a consequence of Najib Razak’s escapades, fiascos, and the metastasizing effect of the 1MDB, is benefitting from the implosion of the Opposition.

Global exposure, technology, and education have been wasted on Malaysians who are locked within a Malay-centric psychic dome that is completely opaque to what could be. Whilst globalization as a phenomena of movement of peoples, ideas, technology, and goods demand citizens of the world to adapt and prepare for the challenges of a multipolar, multi-cultural, and multi-perspectived world the Malay mind is still caged by its educational leaders to remain monocultural and to defend the rights to be exclusive and sheltered from the prospects and challenges of the world. This is designed and manufactured so that the incomprehensibility of the war cry and white noise of “Ketuanan Melayu,” or “Self-Ascribed and Trumped Notion of Malay Superiority,” can be maintained as a reason to live, work, and play.

No one today dare talk about what could be the best way to realize a society based on the simple principle of unity in diversity. Those calling for the need to remove the veil of racism, cast aside the garment of prejudice and suspicion, and embrace the idea of multiculturalism are made public enemies. These speaking up for the idea that all those born and breed in the country – Malays Chinese, Indians, etc. — are now Bumipteras or sons and daughters of the soil, are shunned against almost to the point of being charged as seditious people that do not know anything about the history of Tanah Melayu and ought to be charged for sedition. This is the dilemma of speaking up against the self-imprisonment of Malaysians caught in a historical time-warp and not able to see the prospects and possibilities of an emerging Malaysian and cosmopolitan society.

That is the discourse on a true Malaysian identity and a good society that has become a new haram, or a taboo, and displeasing to the power elite.

For this trade, the right to think and express, the Rakyat get in return a vision of introspection that makes the dark Middle Ages look like the Renaissance period in Europe.

More sadly while the rest of the region is moving forward, the Malaysian elite are content with holding Malaysia back to the risk where what we know today could and will implode and bring a brave new world of misery and disappear.

Imploding Questions

The big questions of nation building and bangsa are imploding.

Malaysia has no structured and streamlined operational government any more. It is run by kleptomaniac leaders who are purely concerned with getting what they can for themselves and demanding that they be condoned for it.

The states are failing, many not financially viable anymore, run by more morally bankrupt leaders who take their ques from their feudal lords who they pay alms to for the right to rob the country morally.

There is no such thing as proper federal state relations operating in Malaysia; UMNO tore up the constitution long ago and just ad lib as they go along.

The young of the country are bypassed for the old guard whose “Use by” dates have long gone.

Sabah and Sarawak have been raped and put into subservient position vis the federal government which is run by a crony elite.

Islam is now a political tool of persuasion and control. It’s a tool of the government, of which PAS hand delivered to the government with their insistence on HUDUD without Tawhid.

Education is another handy political tool of subservience. It seems to produce new graduates who cannot t think for themselves in fear of offending. People are being programmed to obey in Malaysia’s higher education institutions, after being taught how to go through life without questioning the status quo in the secondary system.

Today in Malaysia, the rakyat have not experienced good governance with any big picture vision. Rather they have been subjected to a government that is ad hoc and acts on whims. Nobody talks policy in Putrajaya. Policy makers only talk greed. Mega projects are mega bucks, and everyone wants a slice.

Government is a winner takes all mechanism, where those outside can eat the crumbs that the elite don’t want (or more rightly cannot handle).

So let us ponder about what could be past the introspection of UMNO, the leadership of today’s neo-fuel elite, corporate cronies, and opposition forces.

A vision for a new Malaysia

Amidst the chaos engulfing the country circa the 58th. Malaysia Day, what is left is hope, although hopelessness lie in the inability to remove those corrupted sectors – individuals, institutions, and ideology. Malaysia needs a vision, a new national narrative that all can debate and get behind to rebuild the country to the potential it really has. That vision was there before Mahathir took power and transformed it into total power over the course of his 22-years in power. The challenge indeed is to liquidate Mahathirism and start this nation-state at Ground Zero with the following changes to be made:

1.            A debate on Malaysia: A national debate on what Malaysia could and should become a national priority. There is an imperative urgency to this. This dialogue must be done openly through the media, schools, universities and all possible forums. It must begin with a true retrospective local of our history, so that it is appreciated, with a ‘no holds barred’ situational audit undertaken publicly on the nation’s political, social, and economic on the present situation today. One when the past and present is honestly reflected up can a future direction be chartered for all and sundry of what we should all call ‘the great nation of Malaysia’. Given the dire state Malaysia is in, with the institutions crumbling and critical consciousness needed for progress disappearing, it is imperative that systematic effort be engineered and architectured to make the citizens be able to think critically and morally. The ‘hang-up’ on the current narratives of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ and ‘Hudud’, and the acceptance of corruption of the highest order, is keeping Malaysia locking into the past, without hope of ever seeing a bright future where we can be proud of the nation we should be calling ‘great’.

2.            A clear separation of powers: A return to a national unity government with checks balances and power sharing until the country is out of crisis is mandatory if the country is going to be free of the past. This requires political parties to set aside their differences temporarily, come together and work on an agreement to save the nation from further descending into chaos. Each party owes its voters the willingness to see through a country that stops bleeding from years of conflict, corruption, and cultural degeneration.

3.            A transcultural-philosophical Islam: A return of the path of a progressive interpretation of Islam that would be an asset to the country. Focus should be given on the big Islamic issues in economy, business, corruption, and work towards the creation of universal set of morals that society will be proud to live within. Malaysia has travelled the mistaken path of Arabization since the days of “Islamization Project” at the onset of the Mahathir Era. Decades of success of the institutionalization of a spectrum of Islamic concept s and applications have yield what is today a process of inching towards Talibanism. This is particularly evident in this administration of Najib Abdul Razak in which there seems to be a loss of control of the political will to monitor the spread of “intolerant-Salafist” version of Islam. Absent is the flourishing of Islam that promotes critical inquiry and philosophical discourse reminiscent of the rigour and splendour of Islam in Cordoba, Spain at the height of the Age of Transcultural-Philosophical” Islam if there is a designation to that period.

4.            A responsive educational system: Innovative education models like the Switzerland system where students are able to master multiple languages should be considered as models to be adopted in multilingual Malaysia. In many places of Europe students are able to attend universities and undertake their work in one of possibly two or three languages. In addition students need encouragement to question what is, and this must start in the classrooms of the nation. No longer should asking questions be considered disrespectful, but rather praised as the ability to think critically. In addition, if Malaysian universities are to excel, they must be de-politicized. VCs must be selected on their ability as professional educators rather than loyalty to the BN Government. No more should BTN connections ever be the qualification needed for a person to hold the highest offices within universities. Reform of Malaysia’s universities must start at the top and be allowed to filter down through autonomy and true meritocracy. Without any changes at the top, Malaysia’s higher institutions of education are doomed to continue their spectacular fall in international rankings.

5.            A new federalism: This is required in Malaysia where there is a genuine respect and acceptance for the division of powers between states and the federal government. This is all laid out within the Constitution of Malaysia but has been abused and ignored by successive BN Governments who have acted to centralize power spurred on by the motivation of greed. State Governments need to be nurtured where good leaders need to be found and developed to look after state interests, independently of any Federal Government. This would be a completely new political paradigm for Malaysia and help bring Malaysia’s leaders closer to the rakyat. National development and management needs to be a cooperative area, free of party politics. Governments must respect the will of the people and work within those wills, whether a State Government be BN, DAP, PAS, or PKR. In addition, BN state Governments must learn to operate independently from the will of the Federal Government leadership, and act on what they have been elected for, the protection of state rights, and development.

6.            A new deal for Sabah and Sarawak: This urgent development is needed; one that follows on in the spirit of federal-state relations, where the 18 and 20 point agreements must be honoured by all, as part of the history and heritage of the formation of Malaysia. New talks about autonomy within the federation must be undertaken within the wide framework of federal-state relations to get the countries bureaucracy working in coexistence and cooperation.

7.            An all-our war on corruption: Malaysians must attack corruption fearlessly and take a lesson from China. Corruption is an Achilles heel of Malaysian Government and is drawing the nation down to a failed state syndrome. A country where corruption prevails has no morals whatsoever. The news of corruption and the nation’s leaders being able to get away with it is not the examples the young generation of Malaysia should be taking their leads from. Radical shock treatment is needed here and it may have to be a death penalty, even though this is an abhorrent punishment. What must be made clearly understood to all is that corruption is not acceptable anymore in the nation of Malaysia.

8.            A civics-minded populace: Malaysians must also play a role in everyday government and this is why local government should be democratized. Local people should stand for local elections for local government and learn the role of authority and responsibility. Local government is the third tier of government which has had little transparency. Local government is actually more relevant to the everyday lives of the rakyat and it’s time for the rakyat to take this responsibility. People with political party affiliations should not be allowed to run public office, so that city councils can remain independent.

9.            A new breed of leaders: It’s time to bring forward the young leaders of this nation into the political arena. No more should politicians whose ‘use by’ dates have long gone take up all the positions of power. It’s time for the younger generation to take over. Within this, the gender balance of national leadership needs a drastic tilt towards more female representation.

10.          A major political paradigm shift: Malaysian politics needs a massive paradigm change away from personality, race, and nepotism and move towards policy. The same stories and narratives about race and privilege are getting Malaysia nowhere. In fact it’s going backwards relative to the rest of the region and becoming deeply introspective. All political discussions should be in terms of policy within the framework of Malaysia’s institutions. That is true constitutional Government at work.

11.          A powerful senate: This means revamping the National Senate to become a true house of review instead of a house of reward and convenience it has become. The Senate should be a true state house where the interests of each state and territory is looked after by members directly elected by proportional representation, rather than the appointment system currently in place. In, addition the Senate should have the power to call inquiries into issues of national interest, and the power to block budget Bills, as a check and balance on the Government of the day.

12.          A passage to decentralization: As Malaysia is a complex country, its time through federal-state relations and local government to decentralise government operations within the country. Malaysia is not a communist country, but insists on operating as one through centralized planning and centralized decision making. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has become enormously powerful and this power and authority, as well as responsibility should be channelled back to local areas where decisions affect the people living there.

13.          A people-first economic philosophy: It’s time for massive market and economic reforms to take place to modernize the Malaysian economy to one that is influenced through market forces rather than regulation protecting the power elite and their cronies. Import permits (APs) must be done away with to allow a level playing field develop in the Malaysian business world today. The current heavy regulation and artificial monopolies that exist in Malaysia just go to keep a small section of society wealthy in the name of the New Economic Policy (NEP). There must be transparency, along with the emphasis on sustainability when land is handed out to corporations. The national land bank is held in trust for all Malaysians and should not be a mechanism to make a favored few ultra-rich. Rather than build luxury resorts where the local economies see little benefit, true community projects should be planned and developed. The gap between those who have and those who have not is widening. Market reforms are urgently needed.

14.          A shared decision-making: Consultants must be stopped from being the instrument that is making so much policy within the Malaysian Government today. Pemandu and the corridor authorities are on a gravy train racking up massive consultancies to develop policy for implementation. The policy making process must bring in public processes that involve the public into the process of determining their own destinies and develop more consultative government.

15.          A broader choice of political parties: On the political front, parties should be broken up and reorganized into strong grassroots state organizations that pick their own state leaders. State members should select their own parliamentary candidates and political leaders, so that states can operate government independently. National party offices should operate only as peak bodies and facilitators. Such a move will distribute political power back to the grassroots within the parties and prevent any one group dominating the political organization. This means that there may be a much larger number of political parties representing Malaysians much better than the narrow choices available today.

16.          A thinking-feeling-doing civil service: Malaysia once had one of the best civil services within the region. However, Mahathirism whittled away at the independence of the civil service until today it is a zest pit of political cronies there to serve those in power. The civil service needs to become independent again and made more efficient where the spending wastages are eliminated. Meritocracy must be brought into the civil service as a major uncompromising principle if the service is going to become independent and professional.

17.          A new paradigm in economic planning: There is a need for Malaysia to find new industries to invest in. The current portfolio of Malaysia’s earners is very narrow. The country is now suffering from low petroleum and commodity prices, and needs to be urgently diversified so the country can be brought to new levels of prosperity for the next generation of Malaysians.

18.          A return to cottage-based industries: However it is not just large industries that must be sought as winners. The country must focus on developing community based industries across the country. These small scale rural industries must not only be compatible with but act as a means to enhance the nation’s various indigenous cultures. This should include food production and be centred around local trade so that local communities can be self sufficient. Self sufficiency in food production may assist Malaysia withstand the coming ‘Euro’ type economic calamities that are occurring today in countries like Greece.

19.          A new peg for the national currency: With the reputation of the Ringgit partly destroyed by the Kleptocractic elite and massive capital flight from the country, the Dinar and Dirham should be encouraged as an alternative local currency arrangement. Not only would the Dinar hold value (being based on the value of gold), but it would serve as alternative medium of exchange, that is not subject to the forces that have caused the Ringgit to sink in value. This could be supplemented by encouraging local savings cooperatives that are run by the local people, for the local people and are owned by the local people, as alternatives to the large Malaysian Banking Corporations owned by the elite. This will help curb speculation within the Malaysian economy.

20.          A newer vision of a foreign policy: Malaysia’s future relies upon being a contributor and hard worker within the region the nation is domiciled within. Current foreign and economic policy towards the region is ad hoc and requires an intellectual revamp to place the nation within the region as a cultural and economic power once again. A new thought out foreign policy is needed so Malaysia can play a leading role within ASEAN and its entry into the AEC at the end of this year.

21.          A new Malaysian citizenship spirit: The nation must be made to be Malaysian once and for all. Malaysia is one country and cannot be considered in part. There can be no such thing as first and second class citizens anymore. This Malaysian brand of apartheid is morally reprehensible and must be abolished once and for all.

Essentially, below is a grand plan or the big picture of change that need to respectively be created and painted in order for Malaysia to offer a pathway to the realization of the ‘Malaysian Dream,” preceded by key premises.

We cannot escape from the idea that there ought to be winners and losers, whether it is in the way we give grades to students, design economic policies, organise the political system or, ironically, even in the way we understand religion and God and how these relate to what Mohandas Gandhi would call the harijan (children of God).

The continuing issues of succession plaguing the leadership of the major components of all the ruling parties, for example, reflects a virtue-less leadership. It even reflects the system of dictatorship and authoritarianism that we have allowed to take root in all parties. We are seeing the development of another dangerous excess of authoritarianism – the development of political dynasties. We continue to see this culture in the Malay and Chinese political parties as well.

If all that energy is used to design a better system of participatory democracy and philanthropy, and to reach out to other ethnic groups to collaborate in solving the issue of poverty, we, as Malaysians, will become a miracle nation. Poverty is not the problem of Indians or Malays or Chinese – it is the problem of Humanity.

How can the rich be saved if the poor are multiplying in large numbers? We will have a society that will need more sophisticated surveillance system in order to reduce robbery, kidnapping, etc.

The poor look at rich and ask themselves: “Am I poor because I am lazy? Or is he rich because he works a hundred times better? Or is it the system we build that will continue to make the rich richer and the poor poorer?”

What resources do the rich have à-vis the poor to compete in a world that is increasingly technological and technicist and informational? We have created a system of ethically-based structural violence. It is a complex problem but one can certainly make sense of it all.

We need to bring back ‘virtue’ to the forefront of our political philosophies and into our economic paradigm, and next use it to design a virtuous foundation of our economic system. From a virtuous foundation we will then see a healthier characterisation of how we design and reorganise our lives as economic beings.

Education, and education alone, though slow and tedious as a process of transformation, will be the most powerful tool of cognitive restructuring and the teaching of virtue. Education for peace, social justice, co-operation, tolerance and spiritual advancement will be the best foundation of this mode of operation.

How do we even begin creating a republic of virtue if we do not yet have the tools of analysing what a corrupt society is and how corrupt leaders are a product of the economic system created to reproduce more sophisticated forms of corruption?

We must engineer a revolution of our very own consciousness. From the revolution in our minds, we move on to the revolution of our consciousness, and next to our collective consciousness. Gradually, as we realise that a better collective consciousness can be created, we will be aware of the oppositional forces that are making real human progress disabling.

We must now become makers of our own history and help others do the same. We must first learn to deconstruct ourselves and draw out the virtue within ourselves, even if the process can be terrifying. We must then each create a manifesto of our own self and de-evolve from then, until we tear down the structures within and outside of ourselves and reconstruct the foundations of a new republic.

Our first move

In conclusion, here is the essential question: Where do we go from here — from the premises of change and considerations we outline above, to a course of action framed thematically? What ideas do we need to move in order for our nation to progress the way our common dream pictured? Here are our concluding thoughts on a new Malaysia one which needs the following:

“ … a brand new political will, radical political change, an overhaul of the system, a fresh new and different mandate, a prison complex big enough to incarcerate the long-time corrupt ones, a plan to redistribute wealth, to dismantle educational apartheid, a rewriting of Malay and Malaysian history, a re-threading of the moral fibre of the armed personnel, a massive arrest of political tyrants of past doings, a restructuring of the casino capitalist economy, a stronger local government established, a clampdown of racist and hate-groups, a return to the rule of law, a return to agricultural society, an experimentation with a radically new form of communal-styled living, a dismantling of systems that allow global corporate giants to continue to prey upon the natives, a return to the cooperative system, strengthening of labour, a re-education of political official on management, ethics, and political philosophy, the separation of religion and state, the dismantling of useless cultural and religious rituals, a restructuring of society based on the principles of radical multiculturalism and the celebration of transcultural philosophies, the reduction of TV time and TV channels, the introduction of the reading of the great works of arts, humanities, and literature from the cradle to the grave, the curbing of rhetoric on Islamic or any religious state, the compulsory teaching of philosophy from the cradle to the grave — all these and more to overturn the system on its ugly head.

As Malaysia’s most revered founding father said in 1957, proclaim in the country’s independence:

“ … But while we think of the past, we look forward in faith and hope to the future; from henceforth we are masters of our destiny, and the welfare of this beloved land is our own responsibility: Let no one think we have reached the end of the road: Independence is indeed a milestone, but it is only the threshold to high endeavour-the creation of a new and sovereign State. At this solemn moment therefore I call upon you all to dedicate yourselves to the service of the new Malaya: to work and strive with hand and brain to create a new nation, inspired by the ideals of justice and liberty-a beacon of light in a disturbed and distracted world. … “

Indeed, when people believe in the future of their nation, it will be strong. That belief in Malaysia must be rekindled and recreated.

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

France returns to Laos

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The geographical location of Laos, a small landlocked state surrounded by China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, has made it imperative for this country to pursue a well-balanced multi-faceted foreign policy that hinges on the development of a mobile system of economic and political counterbalances.

Regional integration is key to the economic development of Laos. A major integration mechanism is ASEAN, of which Laos has been a member since 1997. 99% of Laos’ residents believe that their country’s membership in this organization yields tangible economic benefits; 92.5% say it has improved their personal financial standing.

As a member of ASEAN, Laos is committed to developing relations with China, Thailand and Vietnam but pursues a preferential policy as regards each of them.

China remains number one investor in the Laotian economy ($ 8.5 billion) with the bulk of the finances channeled into the mining, transport infrastructure and energy sectors. In 2016, trade turnover between the two countries reached $ 2 billion , a significant amount for Laos with its less than 7 million population. The largest Chinese-Lao project is the railway from Kunming Province (PRC) to Laotian capital, Vientiane. China is ready to inject more than $ 6 billion in the project

Meanwhile, Laos has been stepping up cooperation with Vietnam, which maintains a wait and see position in relation to China. Laos views Vietnam as a political and ideological counterweight to China. Cultural ties with Vietnam serve as an additional means of preventing the transformation of Beijing’s economic influence into the ideological one. Members of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party of Laos receive training in Vietnam.

With a view to diversify foreign economic and foreign policy relations, Laos is developing contacts with France, whose colony it used to be in the past. Paris is seen as a remote neighbor of Laos, a partner in the economic and cultural spheres. Since 1991 Laos has been a member of the international organization for the cooperation of the francophone states “Francophone”. According to the French Embassy in Vientiane, the number of Laotians who speak French amounts to 3% and has been increasing over the past 12 years.

Laos is home to two branches of the Institut Francais du Laos (IFL) – an organization that promotes the French language and culture abroad; the French language is on the curriculum of three of the country’s five universities. In March 2018, Laos was visited by leaders of “Francophone”, and in May 2018 – by representatives of the Francophone University Agency. The official mission of the latter is to create a new French-language communication and educational space. The visits resulted in the signing of agreements on further cooperation with both organizations.

The period that saw a catastrophic fall in the demand for the French language in Laos since the mid-1970s is coming to an end. Nevertheless, the Lao Ministry of Education has designated English as a compulsory subject in schools for the 2019 academic year. The decision was prompted by the currently prevailing position of English worldwide and Vientiane’s intention to develop economic ties not only with the Francophone, but also with the Anglosphere.

Along with the cultural influence, France is trying to build up its economic presence in Laos. In May 2018, a French delegation led by French Ambassador Claudine Ledo visited a special economic zone in the province of Savannakhet to examine the prospects for French investment. For Laos, France is the ninth largest trading partner accounting for only 0.2% of the Lao market but it holds top position among non-Asian countries in the volume of investment.

Trade turnover between Laos and France has been fluctuating in recent years between $ 34 and $73 billion. France is prepared to invest in the Lao economy but the volume of investment is determined by the extent of Vientiane’s openness to foreign investment flows and the ability of the Lao economy to ‘digest’ them.

The year 2019 will mark greater cooperation within ASEAN for Laos. Last year, economic issues within ASEAN prevailed over political ones in connection with trade conflicts between the United States, the European Union and the People’s Republic of China. ASEAN countries are planning to launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership program (RCEP).

If the program is fulfilled, it will become the largest trade agreement in the world. The cumulative GDP of the countries participating in it makes up 25% of the global GDP, the population accounts for 45%, and the trade turnover amounts to 30% (5). Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea may all be attracted to the program. This will provide Vientiane with more opportunities to diversify foreign economic relations amid China’s growing financial presence in Southeast Asia.

France was the first European country to sign a partnership agreement with ASEAN. Paris regards this organization as key to its policy in the Indo-Pacific region and a major economic partner. The volume of French investments in the ASEAN economy in 2017 reached € 16 billion. France’s share in the ASEAN market is 1.6%. This figure has not changed for ten years.

Paris aims to give cooperation with ASEAN a new impetus, which will impart more momentum to French-Lao relations.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Southeast Asia

On Refugees… And Myanmar: It’s Not Just The Rohingya

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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… And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring; Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,  Of my heart too sad to sing.  — Paul Laurence Dunbar

The world now has more refugees than at any time since after WW2, more than the population of Britain.  They are often the consequence of wars usually instigated by great powers directly or through proxies.  Civil strife accompanied by the demonization of minorities, killing and expulsion is another reason.  Such is the story of the Rohingya in Burma, or Myanmar as it now likes to be known.

It is a country with the river Irrawaddy as a central artery.  Bordering it is the heartland, peopled by the Bamar who make up 68 percent of the population and are Buddhist.  The Rohingya are Muslim, look different and have lived in Rakhine state for at least five centuries.  During WW2 they supported the British while the Buddhist Burmese supported the Japanese, their coreligionists.  It brought lasting enmity.  After years of propaganda and vilification, the Rohingya were stripped of citizenship.  Not unlike Nazi Germany targeting Jewish people, new restrictive laws curtailed liberties, marriage rights, even children — limited to two.  The vilification turned most neighboring Buddhist villages against the Rohingya, and those attacking and burning their villages were often these neighbors when not the military.

In this latest violence, 90 percent of the Rohingyas were driven out and about three-quarters of a million sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh.  The story does not end with the Rohingya for there are other threatened minorities in Burma occupying the periphery in the north and south:

In northern Shan state, a simmering conflict with the Taang National Liberation Army dating back to 1963 has displaced 300,000.  The army emboldened by the relatively meek response to the assault on the Rohingyas have intensified their efforts also against the ethnic Kokang’s  Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.  The consequence is an addition to the tens of thousands that had streamed from earlier conflicts over the border into China.  Also in the north the largely Christian Kachin minority formed the Kachin Independence Army to defend their villages.   The ongoing conflict has displaced more than 135,000 internally.  And in the south the conflict with the Karen (Buddhist, Animist and 15 percent Christian) resulted in over 100,000 refugees … this time in Thailand, plus a 100,000 diaspora to the rest of the world including some 65,000 in the US.  Myanmar’s perverse antipathy towards all its minorities makes a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, its leader.  Is meaningful censure an answer, or is innate tribalism an unconquerable primitive amygdala response?

The top five refugee hosting countries might also come as a surprise.  Amid all the news of Angela Merkel’s generous offer to accept everyone entering her country, Germany is not one of them.  Shortly thereafter her party lost by-elections and she is departing.  The actual figures are Turkey (3.5 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million) and Iran (0.98 million).  The chaos in countries adjoining them (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia) explains why, and the great power with a finger in each pie, when not actually baking it, is also not difficult to discern.

Imagine being forced to flee with just the clothes on your back or just a bag.  A word here also for the people who had to do just that to escape wildfires.  They all have our heartfelt sympathy, often taking a concrete form through donations to help.  A happy new year to everyone and a better one for the unfortunate among us.  We can try to make it so.

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Southeast Asia

In Thailand, Mahathir offers a hypocritical take on ASEAN unity

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“The stability and prosperity of our region,” Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad claimed earlier this week, “rely heavily on a united and integrated ASEAN.” The call for regional unity came as Malaysia’s prime minister was conferred an honorary doctorate in Thailand in the field of social leadership, entrepreneurship and politics, an occasion that marked Mahathir’s second visit to the country since winning a landmark election in May this year. His earlier visit saw him pledge to facilitate peace in the southern border provinces of Thailand amid a persistent separatist insurgency.

While his speech may have been stirring, Mahathir’s grandiose vision of a more unified ASEAN community does not extend to his own government’s policies, at least judging by the escalating border dispute Putrajaya has ignited in recent weeks with neighbouring Singapore. The same Mahathir that called for regional unity in Thailand is refusing to remove ships from disputed waters, while a senior member of his party threatened Singapore with “pain by a thousand cuts”. The provocative language harkens back to the long and tense relationship between the two countries since their 1965 split, with boundary issues typically flaring up in parallel with domestic politics.

This latest dispute straddles two sets of issues. On the maritime side, Malaysia’s October claim to extended limits of the Johor Bahru port has been rejected by Singapore on the grounds that the new boundaries exceed previous claims. In terms of airspace, Malaysia has voiced opposition to the Instrument Landing System (ILS), an assisted navigational aviation facility for Seletar Airport. Malaysia protests the system’s implementation on the grounds that it infringes on national sovereignty and creates adverse impacts on flight paths and shipping in Pasir Gudang.

Mahathir’s renewed aggression toward Singapore marks a notable about-face from predecessor NajibRazak’s efforts to build stronger ties between Malaysia and the city-state. Najib sought to increase mutual trust through cross-border infrastructure and education projects. “We certainly do not want to return to the era of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric between our two countries,” he declared earlier this year in a barely-veiled barb at Mahathir’s preceding stint in office. “It was an era that we want to forget.”

That attitude was echoed by international observers, who held high hopes for bilateral relations upon Mahathir’s election as PM in May despite his widely-known frosty attitude towards Singapore. A few months in, those hopes have given way to somber disillusionment. The tensions of the past several weeks have revived uncomfortable memories of cross-causeway relations during Mahathir’s first stint in power, when he ruled Malaysia with an iron fist from 1981 to 2003.

One focal point of tensions is Mahathir’s so-called 2001 “crooked bridge” plan, designed to replace the causeway linking the two countries with a bridge to allow ships to cross the Johor Strait. Singapore refused to back the project, declaring the bridge unnecessary as long as the causeway was in good condition. Mahathir’s insistence on building Malaysia’s end of the bridge, and more recent attempts to revive project discussions, have confirmed fears that his return to power would revive old issues previously laid to rest.

It’s difficult to determine exactly why Mahathir is so blatantly after confrontation with Singapore. Two main theories have emerged to explain the PM’s enmity towards Malaysia’s tiny neighbour. According to the first theory, the idiosyncratic Mahathir holds a grudge from his university days in Singapore, where he faced anti-Malay prejudice and condescension from Singaporeans.

Mahathir does indeed have a history of holding grudges. Long before the Seletar airport issue and the revival of the Johor Strait bridge project, Mahathir had one-time protégé Anwar Ibrahim thrown in jail on trumped up sodomy charges after they disagreed over financial policy in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Anwar, who has since re-emerged as a critical political ally for Mahathir, was just one of a long list of political opponents to suffer similar fates during Mahathir’s first tenure.

That trend has carried over into the premier’s second term. Having already spoken at length of his soured impression of successor Abdullah Badawi, the newly reinstated leader is now going after predecessor Najib. Arrested in July in connection with the billion-dollar corruption scandal surrounding state investment fund 1MDB, Malaysia has also filed criminal charges against Goldman Sachs for its involvement in the embezzlement of large sums of money. The unfolding case against Najib is being held up as a litmus test of Mahathir’s commitment to justice. The supposedly “bitter” Mahathir is unlikely to disappoint.

The second theory, however, may offer a more straightforward explanation. It suggests Mahathir is using this latest spat with Singapore as a means of drawing attention away from domestic problems. A Nikkei Asian Review report released earlier this year held Mahathir’s government responsible for a rapidly declining ringgit, with the new administration lacking in substantial new economic policies and failing to curb capital outflow.

Mahathir’s economic woes are compounded by rising concerns over Malaysia’s ballooning debt. In the wake of the 1MDB scandal, realizations that government debt exceeds RM1 trillion – more than $238 billion – are ringing national alarm bells. The benchmark FTSE Bursa Malaysia Kuala Lumpur Composite Index has fallen nearly ten percent since Mahathir took office.

Amid rising debt, dubious economic policies, and broken election promises, Mahathir’s comments in Thailand earlier this week belied what could very well be a conscious strategy of exploiting regional tensions to maintain domestic control. While ASEAN unity almost certainly is the only path to shared regional prosperity, Mahathir does not seem to be to be listening to his own advice.

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