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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

Japan’s involvement in Myanmar

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After the civilian-democratic transition in Myanmar, the western sanctions on trade and investment in the country were lifted. This led to a huge inflow of foreign direct investment in key infrastructural sectors and energy sector because of the nascent stage of economic progress in the conflict-torn country. Regional giants like China and Japan as well as ASEAN countries have been increasing their economic aid, assistance and cooperation with the country notwithstanding the humanitarian concerns raised by international community. The Chinese involvement in the region, especially its investment in big infrastructure and energy projects in Rakhine province have been a subject of international deliberation and criticism. However, Japan too has been competing with China to check its hegemonic ambitions under the One Belt One Road initiative. Consequently, it has been increasing its existing economic cooperation and financial investment in Myanmar since 2012. Japan’s overall investment pale in comparison to that of China (which over the past 30 years has invested, while it did peak to 1.48 Billion USD in 2017. As of July 2018, Japan was number 10 in terms of investment, while China was number 1.

Japanese involvement in Myanmar has various layers; investments in infrastructure projects ( a strong example being rail system in Yangon), Thilawa SEZ Project, (Japan’s Industrial Decisions firm as well as Marubeni are involved in two coal projects, as well as assistance in capacity building. Significantly, a survey last year revealed that Myanmar population prefers Japanese because investments have resulted in job creation, and assistance to small and medium enterprises. This is also because of the generous loan agreements and economic grants that Japan has made while having a balanced relationship with the erstwhile Junta and the resurgent democratic polity. Resentment against China is not restricted to Myanmar, but has been evident in Africa, South East Asia and even South Asia. The phenomena of Debt Trap Diplomacy has accentuated it as China takes back every last penny and that too at prohibitively high rates.

Japan’s involvement in Rakhine State

While Myanmar has been showcasing the Thilawa SEZ (49% is owned by JICA and three Japanese banks) as one of it’s successes. Japan has been pro-actively involved in development of the Rakhine State (while the state is rich in natural resources, a significant percentage of population is below the poverty line). Foreign Minister visited Japan twice last year and in January 2019, Ms. Toshiko Abe, State Minister for Foreign Affairs visited Republic of the Union of Myanmar and issues pertaining to the Rakhine State were discussed. During her visit to Japan in October 2018, Aung San Suu Kyi had praised Japan for being understanding towards Myanmar’s stand on the Rohingya issue. While Aung San Suu Kyi has been facing widespread criticism for her lacklustre and indifferent approach towards the grave human rights violations against rohingya population, she has been seeking support of the investors like Japan to emphasize the fact that Myanmar being a young democracy can not take decisive action against these violations and acting against military establishment would imperil the stability of democratic government. Nevertheless, Tokyo has been providing noteworthy assistance in state capacity building and economic revival of the Rakhine state. Only recently, the Japan International Cooperation Agency [JICA], and the Japan External Trade Organization [JETRO organized the Rakhine State Forum (February 21-23,2019). State Chancellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, made it a point to mention both these organisations during her address.

While China has invested in Rakhine State. A pipeline which commences from Kyaupkyu in Rakhine and extends till Yunnan Province in China, was inaugurated in April 2018 and China has  also tried to play a role in resolving Rohingya Crisis. Tokyo’s approach towards Rakhine has been far more holistic. Japanese Envoy in an interview to the media, stated that the only way out was all round development – which included economics and politics. The Envoy also said that they would try to draw more investment

In 2018, Japan had announced assistance of over 20 Million USD for the conflict torn region. The Government of Japan and eight United Nations Agencies also signed a US$ 37 million value agreement to implement humanitarian and development projects in Shan, Kachin and Rakhine States.

While Japan is playing an important role in ensuring that Myanmar looks beyond China, it will also need to play a role in convincing Suu Kyi to adopt a different role towards Human Rights Issues and avoid curbs on the press (last year two Reuter’s journalists were arrested). While Suu Kyi has been trying to obfuscate, this will not be possible in the long run. The widespread concerns about the ongoings in Myanmar have a huge negative associative value for foreign investors who otherwise view an exceptional economic advantage in this highly under-developed and naturally endowed region with cheap labour. The fact, that some European companies have begun to exit from Myanmar, as a result of the Human Rights violations and EU is has threatened to withdraw the GSP is a strong reiteration of this point. Since investment inflows have a positive network effect that goes beyond geopolitical rivalries, it is important for the existing investors like Japan to urge the Myanmar goverment to take robust action to hold human rights violators accountable. This would go a long way in ensuring the sustainability of economic leverage that Myanmar possesses and lead to a paradigm of socio-economic stability in the region. Given the fact, that Japan, a democracy, is one of the key players in promoting the idea of a ‘Free and Open India Pacific’ (to check China’s rise) it is in a good position to do so. Myanmar will need to decide which path it needs to take – that of other authoritarian states in the region – or of a robust democracy, Japan can play an important role in the same.

*Prannv Dhawan leads the India Pakistan Research Project at the Council for International Relations and International Law. He is also a BA LLB Hons student at the National Law School University, Bangalore.

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Southeast Asia

Take me to Patpong: The forgotten women of Thailand

Rattana Lao

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One of the perks of going abroad and studying in many schools is that I have friends from many nationalities, backgrounds and interests, the privilege to welcome them here in Thailand. Sometimes too many faces and hair colors walk through my house at once that I joke I should receive a recognition from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Not only is it a great way to understand the multiculturalism, it is also a good way to know more about your home country.

Amongst the usual to-do-list includes Grand Palace, Elephant Riding and Jim Thompson. Then came a highly educated, wealthy and a white male friend. He wanted nothing more than having a glimpse of Thailand infamous red right district, Patpong: “If I didn’t get to see Patpong, my friends would have thought I never made it to Thailand.”

Seriously?

He is not alone.

Million of men – not exaggerated – travel through Thailand each year for sex, erotic pleasure and adult entertainment. The demand for sex industry is not just high but quintessential for Thai tourism.

Of course, there is no official records of how many came for paid sex in Thailand. There is no official record of how many women sacrificed their bodies, hearts and souls to be someone sex toys so that they can make ends meet. There is no official record of how many of those women suffer and die from sexual transmitted deceases brought to them by men of different colours, backgrounds and nationalities.

There is no official record of anything.

Why?

Because according to the state perspective – these women do not exist. They are illegal workers of the underworld business.

Not only are they the destination for a lot of tourists, but they are also the contribution of underground world – where officials take unofficial numbers of brides so these parlors can run their business in the open – illegally, of course.

They have no access to official state facilities that will make them parts of the citizens.

How double standard?

Being a buddhist country, sex industry is a sin. But being a hypocrite state, the Thai state has benefited significantly from the pain, suffering and death of these prostitutes.

Welcome to the land of smile.

The election is coming up. If politicians are lacking of idea of what to do with this country, perhaps it is time they take a serious look to the lives and despair of the most excluded and underserved group of the population.

On the international woman’s day, it is the time to recognize of those “hookers” who make so many men happy. It is the time to realize that despite their plight, they are a part of our society. International woman’s day is not just about CEO on Forbes. It’s about every woman live. Because everyone matters.

Prostitutes or not, I wish every woman a happy day.

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Southeast Asia

US-Vietnam economic relations: The China factor

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While addressing a joint Press Conference at Hanoi, after his summit, with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, US President, Donald Trump spoke not just about the Summit, but also the current state of US-China relations.  Trump criticized his predecessors, for not doing enough to address the trade imbalance with China, while also making the point,  that he was all for China’s economic progress and growth, but not at the cost of the US.

If one were to look beyond the Summit in terms of the US-Vietnam economic relations, top US companies – Boeing and GE electric sealed some important deals.

Given the focus of Trump’s visit (which was the Summit with North Korean leader) perhaps these deals did not draw the attention they ought to have. The fact is that the US has begun to recognise Vietnam’s economic potential, as well as geo-political significance in Asia. This paper will give a backgrounder to Vietnam’s economic growth story in recent years, some of it’s key strategic relationships and then examine the nature of the China-US-Vietnam economic triangle.

Vietnam’s growth story: The key reasons

There is absolutely no denying the fact, that Vietnam has emerged as an important engine of economic growth within Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region in general, and has been able to emerge as a top performer within Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam (CMLV) bloc in particular Economic reforms (doimoi) began over three decades ago in 1986. In recent years, some of the key factors which have driven Vietnam’s growth story, especially its success in drawing FDI are;  a large labour force (57.5 million), lower wages for workers (there are varying estimates, but the wages of production workers are estimated at around 216 USD, monthly, and this is half of what labour would charge in China). Electricity too is way cheaper in Vietnam than other competitors in the ASEAN region. As of June 2018, Vietnam charged 7 U.S. cents per kilowatt hour, while the cost of electricity in Indonesia was 10 U.S. Cents, and Phillipines charged nearly thrice the amount — 19 U.S. Cents.

If one were to look at the growth and FDI figures, they are a clear reflection of Vietnam’s success. In 2018, Vietnam’s growth rate was estimated at a little over 7% (7.08) this was the highest in 11 years. Disbursed FDI into Vietnam was estimated at19.1 Billion for the year 2018 (disbursed FDI for three years was estimated at well over 50 Billion USD). Total FDI for the year 2018 was estimated at 35 Billion USD. Japan with over 8 Billion USD was the single largest investor in 2018. Other countries which have a strong presence in Vietnam are South Korea and Singapore. China is the 7th largest investor in Vietnam. One of the major attractions apart from the economic potential is the country’s location (it is easier to expand to other countries like Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia)

As a result of growing consumer demand and increased tourism, revenues from Retail Sales and Consumer Services and Travel and Tourism also witnessed a significant increase in 2018. Revenue from retail services was estimated at over 190 Billion USD, while from travel and tourism was nearly 2 Billion USD. The increased revenue from travel and tourism it is driven by the rise in tourism in 2018 (almost 20 percent)

Vietnam has close trade relations with both China (Vietnam is China’s largest trade partner in ASEAN) and US. Bilateral trade between both countries for the period January-November 2018 was estimated at 97 Billion USD, though this was heavily skewed in favour of Beijing (the total trade deficit was over 20 Billion USD). In the case of US-Vietnam trade, it is heavily skewed in favour of Vietnam (US runs a trade deficit of over 25 Billion USD).

Strategic Importance

Vietnam’s strategic importance is also increasing. Even before the recent Trump-Kim Jong UN Summit, Vietnam has hosted a number of important events in recent years such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in 2008 (in Hanoi) and in 2017 (in Danang), the high-powered World Economic Forum in 2018, and frequent ASEAN summits.

It is strengthening defense and security ties with Japan, US and India in recent years. One of the key reasons for this pro-active strategic outreach is the China factor.

 During former Vietnam President, Truong Tan Sang’s Japan visit, both sides issued a joint statement which referred to the need for upgrading the bilateral relationship to an “Extensive Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Asia’. The joint statement made references to closer security cooperation, the joint statement made mention of Japanese assistance for capacity building of it’s maritime enforcement agencies. Both sides also reiterated their shared opinion on the South China Sea Issue as well as denuclearization in North Korea. In July 2018, Japan and Vietnam held the 6th Defence Policy Dialogue (this was co-chaired by Deputy Defense Ministers of both countries.   In September 2018,a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) submarine Kuroshio docked at Cam Ranh International Port in Kham Hoa on September 17. While security cooperation has been increasing in recent years, this development emphasized the increasing convergence of both sides on important geo-political issues. Japan has also been batting for greater Japan-Vietnam cooperation in the context of the Indo-Pacific. The Japanese PM, in an interview, in February 2019 reiterated the need for a stronger Japan-Vietnam partnership for pushing forward the idea of a ‘Free and Fair’ and ‘Open’ Indo-Pacific.

Vietnam has also been bolstering strategic ties with the US. In July 2017, Washington and Hanoi conducted the 8th Naval Engagement Activity. The United States is also providing support for Vietnam’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations. In 2018, more than four decades after the end of the Vietnam war, US Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson arrived in the city of Danang a key battle ground during the war. This was an important step in the context of strategic cooperation between both countries,  but to send a message to China that the latter’s militarization and aggression over the South China Sea issue will not be taken lying down.

Vietnam is also enhancing security ties with Japan and India. During his visit to Vietnam in 2016, Indian PM Narendra Modi had offered a credit line of 500 Million for defense cooperation. During Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang both sides resolved to work jointly for a ‘free and prosperous’ Indo-Pacific.

While Vietnam has been strengthening it’s strategic ties with the above countries, it has been a tad cautious with regard to the Indo-Pacific narrative and has said that  was against any military alliance as this would have an adverse impact on security in the region.

US-Vietnam relations

If one were to look at the trajectory of US-Vietnam relations (which were influenced by the baggage of the war) have steadily increased over the past two decades. Both sides have made efforts to put behind the acrimony arising out of the Vietnam war – though this is extremely tough given the fact that was amongst the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century.  Some important steps were taken in the 1990’s during the Presidency of Bill Clinton. In 1994, US lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam. A bilateral trade agreement between both countries came into being in 2001 after it was approved by the US Congress as well as the Vietnamese National Assembly.

 During the Obama Presidency again crucial steps were taken to strengthen the economic relationship. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) signed in 2015 for which Obama pushed would have benefited Vietnam immensely as the South East Asian Country would have gained preferential access to US market.

President Trump did make the massive trade deficit with Vietnam an election issue, and US exit from TPP was a setback but a number of important developments have taken place in the context of US-Vietnam bilateral ties. In May 2017, during the Vietnam President’s, Nguyen Xuan Phuc visit to the US, deals worth 8 Billion USD (two major US companies were Caterpillar and General Electric) were signed between both sides. Trump mentioned the US’ trade deficit and hoped to balance that over a period of time.

While addressing the APEC Summit in November 2017, the US President had a word of praise for Vietnam’s economic progress:

….’ Vietnamese economy is one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth. It has already increased more than 30 times over, and the Vietnamese students rank among the best students in the world..’

China-US-Vietnam triangle

After the China-US trade wars many argued, that Vietnam could be the biggest beneficiary. So far, Vietnam has benefitted (export orders to certain sectors have witnessed a rise) but not in a dramatic way (some companies are likely to relocate from China with Vietnam being a possible choice, but current evidence suggests that this has not happened on a large scale.

Deals signed during Trump’s Vietnam visit: How China has sensed an opportunity

As mentioned earlier, during the US President’s Vietnam visit a number of significant deals were signed. Viet Jet will buy 100 Boeing 737-Max jets and 215 GE/CFM joint venture engines, Bamboo Airways (a start up owned by Hanoi-based conglomerate FLC Group) is buying 10 Boeing 787-9 jets.

U.S.-based aviation technology company Sabre also inked a deal with the flag carrier Vietnam Airlines. The deal estimated at 300 Million USD is supposed to help Vietnam Airlines in upgrading its digital abilities, and to achieve its aim of becoming a digital airline by 2020. Total deals signed during Trump’s visit were estimated at 20 Billion USD.

The China-US-Vietnam triangle is interesting not just from a historical context, but also an economic dimension. What is significant is that while there is talk of US-China trade wars and the likely benefit for Vietnam, Beijing kept a close eye not just on Trump’s statements with regard to North Korea, but also the deals signed during his Vietnam visit.

An article in Global Times makes a mention of how China can be part of the global production chain through a “completion and delivery center” in Zhoushan, East China’s Zhejiang Province. Interior work of over 700 planes can be completed in this centre.

The focus of the Trump visit was North Korea, the deals signed will give a boost not just to economic ties between Vietnam and US, and are a clear illustration of how much importance Trump gives to big ticket business deals. It is interesting to see the approach of China towards these deals, while keeping a close watch on the outcomes of the summit with Kim Jong Un, China also closely watched the economic outcomes of the visit and analysed how it could benefit from the same.

The conclusion of the article is especially interesting:

‘China has no reason to be jealous of Trump’s economic gain in Vietnam. In contrast, we hope the US can increase economic interaction with enterprises in Southeast Asian countries. Hopefully, everyone can learn that economic engagement is not a zero-sum game’.

Conclusion

The China-US-Vietnam triangle is important, not just in the strategic context especially with regard to the South China Sea Issue as well as the aim of achieving a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. As for the economic context, both Trump and the Chinese are equally transactionalist and it is interesting to see Beijing de-hyphenate US’ strategic ties with Vietnam from the economic relationship.

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