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Seeking a new vision for Malaysia

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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

Understanding The Different Thinkers and the Issue of Compliance in ASEAN

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Photo: Joshua Rawson-Harris/Unsplash

Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Shubhi Goyal*

Over the years the issue of compliance has been seen through various lenses with its role and function in international law evolving. There has been a transformation in the characterization of compliance with international law which has restructured the maturities and complexities of it. International Law is seen as legitimate due to its clarity, its validation by formal processes, it’s conceptual coherence, and conformity to normative hierarchy of the International rule system. This article draws on the theory of Managerial approach espoused by Abram Chayes and Antonia Chayes and the Legitimacy theory given by Thomas Franck to understand why the ASEAN states have some of the lowest levels of compliance with international law and the possible policy changes to rectify the same.

There are several reasons for why States obey international law: it is in their best interests, they believe in the system, to improve reputation or credibility, for recognition as an international legal person, pressure from the international community, fear of repercussions or retaliation, or to maintain peace and security.

The approach adopted by Abram Chayes and Antonia Chayes, termed as the managerial approach, relies on a cooperative approach to compliance and states that while substantive legal norms and lawyers are important, the law is rarely determinative in international affairs. They see international law as a system to manage international affairs. This legal process will allocate the competence for decision-making between several national and international actors and also restrain and organize the behavior and its interactions with the political, economic, and cultural setting. States, under this theory, obey international law not because of punitive sanctions but because of three factors- (a) compliance reduces transaction costs and increases efficiency, since the need to recalculate the costs and benefits of a decision is eliminated; (b) they are persuaded to comply by the treaty regimes themselves, since they are consent based instruments and therefore intended to serve the need of the participating states; and (c) a general norm of compliance in treaty regimes, furthers compliance. They espouse coordination building efforts such as transparency and clarity in the terms of the treaties as a way to improve compliance, rather than punishment or sanctions. Dispute resolution under this model is only a forum for communication and for expectations to be cleared.

Thomas Franck’s work emphasizes on the transformation of international law post-World War II which has accompanied the transformation of sovereignty. His work is not limited to treaty-based law, like Chayes and Chayes, but also extends to the power of customary rules. He observed that the international system has an abundance of specialized law with very little to do with the law of international organizations or the constitutional law of the global system. He acknowledges that nations obey rules when the benefits of complying exceed the costs; however, he bases this on communitarian peer pressure rather than a multitude of cost-benefit calculations regarding particular rules. His theory, popularly known as the legitimacy theory provides four factors that determine whether a State will comply with international law- coherence, adherence, determinacy and symbolic validation. Franck in his work had emphasized on a lexical priority of legitimacy over justice which should be the prime goal of an international rule system. According to Franck a moral order is manifested in the belief of the right process rather than the substantive outcomes. However, Franck does not delve more into the various modes of institutional interaction that lead to interpretation of norms, nor does he delve into the mode by which international norms are internalized into domestic legal systems.

Franck and Chayes and Chayes understand international law more as a process rather than as a system of rules. Though through different methodologies, Franck and Chayes and Chayes reach the same intuitive answer on why nations obey. They recognize transnational actors to be more likely to comply with international law when it is accepted through some legitimate internal process. Franck says that if nations perceive a rule to be fair then they will obey it, while Chayes and Chayes say that nations will voluntarily comply with norms that regularly justify their actions to treaty partners in terms of treaty norms.

According to Chayes and Chayes there is an issue with compliance due to lack of clarity of rules and capacity. ASEAN has several treaties and agreements, all of which can be found on the ASEAN website, however, most of them are non-binding agreements which were entered into just for the satisfaction of the Member States. The countries making up the ASEAN is an area of extreme diversity. The region has representation from all three of the world’s largest religions- Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. There are countries like Singapore, with a per capita income of around USD 82,000 and frequently counted as among the richest countries in the world, and those like Cambodia, with a per-capita income of USD 3,300. Due to the ASEAN Way several affairs were conducted in a loose and informal way, unclear with their nomenclature with few legally-binding arrangements and weak institutions.

Franck links compliance with the legitimacy of the rules. This theory lines with the non-compliance of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as they still have the use of corporal punishment. These countries do not believe in the legitimacy of the Covenant with respect to caning and death penalty and thus did not sign or ratify the same.

Harold Koh talks about norm internalization and how a transnational legal process is required. Compliance comes about when the particular International Law is internalized within the normative structure of the state. The three phases for the same are interaction, interpretation and internalization. The lack of internalization is one of the issues that leads to the low level of compliance among ASEAN states face, their reluctance to internalize international law because of the very less importance given to the written law in such states, as compared to those in the West.

ASEAN has an issue with compliance. In the past only about 30 percent of ASEAN’s agreements were implemented. There are several reasons for non-compliance – lack of capacity, not in line with national interest, (realist and self-interested), procedural issues, ambiguity, ASEAN Way – informal, flexible and non-legalistic, low levels of legalization and institutionalization, path dependence (habituated practice), lack of information, lack of capacity, lack of faith in system, ambiguity, unrealistic and insufficient dispute settlement mechanism, and weak rule of law at national and regional levels.

While the ASEAN Charter under Chapter VIII talks about Dispute Settlement Mechanisms, and there is a 2010 Protocol to the ASEAN Charter on Dispute Settlement Mechanisms, ASEAN is yet to fully establish a functional dispute settlement mechanism. Article 23 of the ASEAN Charter mentions Alternative Dispute Resolution solutions. There are instrument-specific mechanisms which are given under Article 24(1) of the ASEAN Charter. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) of 1976 and the 2004 Protocol on Enhanced Dispute Settlement Mechanism exist as well which are generally used for economic agreements. Article 25 of the ASEAN Charter has a ‘catch-all’ clause for all other disputes that do not fall within the above ambit. However, the TAC is weak, and the 2004 Protocol goes first to consultation and consensus. If it is modelled on the WTO then why is it only efficient to only have 60 days to settle the dispute? According to the theory of Chayes and Chayes this would not be efficient and it is seen that the ASEAN Member States prefer to use other forums such as the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Dispute or the World Trade Organization over ASEAN Charter-sanctioned Dispute Settlement Mechanisms. All ASEAN Dispute Settlement Mechanisms are ad hoc and none are activated.

According to the Report of the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter (EPG Report), ASEAN’s problem is not one of lack of vision, ideas, and action plans. The real problem is one of ensuring compliance and effective implementation of decisions. The solution of which is the establishment of dispute settlement mechanisms, inclusion of compliance monitoring, advisory, consultation as well as enforcement mechanisms, and entrusting the Secretary-General with the role of monitoring and reporting cases of non-compliance. The ASEAN Secretariat should collect, analyze the data and do performance reviews. This would ensure greater transparency and information sharing. Further, instead of using only consensus based and informal mechanisms to deal with conflicts, there is a need for collective effort to build a more rules-based community to accelerate regional integration and future response to events.

*Shubhi Goyal is a graduate of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad and is currently placed as an In-House Counsel with a private sector bank in India.

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Southeast Asia

ASEAN Peace Initiative and the Myanmar Crisis: A Failed Attempt?

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Historically, ASEAN is closely linked with Myanmar. As part of the Southeast Asian region and an ASEAN member, Myanmar enjoys a huge significance. ASEAN has often been criticized outside the region for its role in Myanmar since the Cold War days. The rejection of the electoral verdict in 1990 in Myanmar by the military regime and subsequent brutal crackdown against the National League for Democracy (NLD) activists and protesters put the ASEAN regional group in a dilemma. Nevertheless, ASEAN did not abandon Myanmar and continued its membership. ASEAN has done very little about the brutality and atrocities of the Myanmar military regime against the Rohingyas, who are the largest group of stateless people in the world. The displacement of more than 2 million Rohingyas outside Myanmar, including 1.1 million in Bangladesh, could not draw the considerable attention of its members to take effective actions against the military.

Nevertheless, ASEAN is a key multilateral platform for regional dialogue as well as for promoting peace and stability in the region and specifically in Myanmar against the backdrop of the post-military coup in the country. On February 1, Myanmar’s military seized power. The country’s political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi were detained. Protests have been going on in the country since then. More than 832 civilians, including children have been killed in two and half month protests by the army and police in Myanmar, according to the right group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). More than 3,000 protesters, including journalists and artists have been detained.

ASEAN seeks talks between Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the government of military Junta Min Aung Hlai to restore peace in the country. It sees no alternatives to peace talks in Myanmar. For this, the group has offered to mediate to bring all the disputing parties into the discussion. At the same time, the leaders of the alliance have agreed in principle to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar. Accordingly, the ASEAN convened a special and emergency Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia in April 2021 to discuss a pathway to overcome the domestic political crisis in Myanmar.

The supreme coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing arrived in Jakarta on his first foreign trip since the military coup in Myanmar and joined the special meeting of the regional alliance ASEAN of 10 countries. During the summit, the ASEAN leaders voiced the demands such as stopping the bloodshed in Myanmar in the name of suppressing the protests, keeping the door open for talks, restoring democracy and releasing the political prisoners. Joko Widodo, the President of Indonesia, the host country of the summit stressed that the junta government must promise to end violence in Myanmar. Democracy, stability, and peace must be restored. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhiuddin Yassin called for an end to the ongoing killings and atrocities in Myanmar as he reiterated, “I hope Myanmar will unconditionally consider Malaysia’s offer to release political prisoners immediately.”  The Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Long expressed hope that the military would comply with the call and initiatives of ASEAN countries to restore peace in Myanmar.

Following the summit, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi delivered a press conference on behalf of the group. He expressed his deep concern about the ongoing violence in Myanmar. The number of killings and injured is constantly increasing. There are no signs of restoration of democracy in the country. ASEAN issued a statement expressing a “five-point consensus” on Myanmar’s crisis. It called for the immediate cessation of violence, a dialogue among all concerned parties, and mediation of the dialogue process by an ASEAN special envoy, provision of humanitarian aid through ASEAN channels, and a visit to Myanmar by the special ASEAN envoy to meet all concerned parties. ASEAN hopes to initiate a longer-term framework process, starting with ending the violence that will help facilitate dialogue among all the stakeholders in Myanmar, not just with the military regime.

On the ground, the ASEAN peace initiative has raised more questions about its implementation. The Myanmar Junta government has hardly listened to the ASEAN peace initiative and subsequent ASEAN diplomatic strides. It has even blatantly failed to keep their own words promised in the special summit. Demonstrations have continued in many parts of the country since meeting, as many have been killed, arrested and attacked by security forces. More ominously, the military regime, in an utter violation of the spirit of the summit, launched an initiative to dissolve the National League for Democracy (NLD), a party that swept in the 2020 elections by a landslide victory of winning 399 seats exceeding the number of seats of 322 grabbed in 2015. It won more than 80% of the votes proving its epochal popularity among the masses in Myanmar. The military-appointed Chief of Myanmar’s election commission, Thein Soe, declared the possibility of disbanding NLD over allegations of fraud. It has literally killed the prospect of any positive changes by the ASEAN peace initiative. Besides, the opposition political parties and Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) leaders also expressed their doubts about the success of the peace initiative due to ASEAN’s ineffective and mild approach to the Junta government.

In this context, a successful regional organization like the ASEAN cannot sit idle to such acts of the military regime in Myanmar. As part of short-term role, ASEAN should, at least, tackle the situation in a way that would allow open discussion on any urgent action that its member states can take to de-escalate political tensions, prevent bloodshed and to put a stop to hostilities perpetrated by the military junta. This could help prevent the loss of life and the further deterioration of the economic and political situation in the country. The ASEAN should treat the Myanmar issue as a matter of utmost urgency precisely because of two important considerations.  First, it is a critical matter that ASEAN has the prime responsibility to respond to the current political crisis in Myanmar that has a colossal impact on basic tenets of democratization, human rights, human security and livelihoods of people. The second vital factor is to avoid the recurrence of spill-over effects that the on-going political turmoil in Myanmar may produce cross-border and regional repercussions. Particularly, it would negatively impact neighbouring countries. For instance, if the crisis escalates to an unprecedented level and is not resolved peacefully, it will more or less produce similar cross-border repercussions exemplified by the aftermath of the 1988 student uprising and the May 1990 elections. 

The massive exodus of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh is the biggest tragedy of the contemporary world linked with the actions of the military leaders in Myanmar over the decades. If these cross-border issues and consequences are to be prevented from happening again, ASEAN member states must deal with the Myanmar debacle squarely and resolutely. ASEAN can, at least, put effective pressure on the military Junta to first and foremost respect the results of the November 8, 2020 elections, release Suu Kyi and all political detainees, then go back to the negotiating table and discuss with the legally constituted and democratically elected members of the NLD on how they can work together to resolve their differences. ASEAN and the rest of the international community must not allow the political situation in Myanmar to further deteriorate as it would lead to the worsening of an already dire situation for its people and the region. ASEAN member states must heed to the call of the people of Myanmar for help and assistance. Their safety and security heavily rely on the continued support of the international community in general, ASEAN in particular. Experts argue that whether ASEAN succeeds or fails in providing a solution to the Myanmar crisis would determine its final score in the larger geopolitical strategic game. It is more so when the global and regional powers are engaged in geopolitical rivalry sacrificing the interests of people, including the marginalized communities such as the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The failure of ASEAN will turn into a disaster in regional diplomacy to deal with the Myanmar crisis.

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Southeast Asia

China – Myanmar relations

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While addressing a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi expressed China’s grave concerns over the Myanmar issue. Wang reaffirmed China’s commitment to continue playing a constructive role, saying that China is all ready to work with ASEAN on Myanmar-related problems. Wang Yi was addressing the special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting to commemorate the 30th anniversary of dialogue relations held on June 7, 2021, at Chongqing Municipality, South West of China.

Wang further emphasized that all parties in Myanmar should prioritize the interests of the people, exercise moderation, and eradicate all forms of violence. China can assist in economic recovery, enhance its people’s livelihoods, and protect their rights and interests. He stated that China welcomes all parties to conduct political discourse under the constitution and legal framework to resume the path of democratic change, adding that China remains ready to cooperate with ASEAN to give help to Myanmar in the face of COVID-19.

China has always remained a proponent of peace and stability in Myanmar. The relations between two, have been characterized as “kinsfolk” (pauk-phaw in Burmese), a phrase coined in the 1950s. The relations between China and Myanmar have gone through various ups and downs. Formal relations between the two dates back to late 1940 when both countries mutually recognized each other. Until the 1960’s two nations have enjoyed warm bilateral relations. Things got complicated in 1967 when anti-Chinese riots erupted in Yangon. Bilateral relations between them again touched a high point in 1988 when they signed a ‘cross-border trade agreement’ that finally put an end to Myanmar’s lengthy isolation from the rest of the world. China was thus vigorously seeking a strategic channel to the Indian Ocean, mainly for its landlocked provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Later, the Chinese presence in Myanmar enlarged significantly in terms of financial and domestic affairs. In 2018, China was the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar with a direct investment of more than $15 billion on 126 business projects. In the 1990s and early 2000s, China was Myanmar’s principal source of arms and ammunition. In more recent times, the Tatmadaw attempted to shift its arms supply dependence on China, though China is still the leading supplier, accounting for almost 50% of Myanmar armaments. Moreover, Myanmar is amongst the largest receivers of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funds. It has continuously having China’s massive financial support for a set of infrastructural projects along the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) including projects related to transportation, industry, finance and communication. The construction of a deep-sea port and the development of a Special Economic Zone at Kyaukphyu, in Rakhine State that connects Yunnan province via railway, are among the utmost significant developmental projects.

The recent coup of February 2021 raised serious apprehensions for China due to the factors which are multifold. Firstly, given the past events, it poses severe security threats to the neighboring Yunnan province as a spillover effect, for instance, 2017 had seen the death of five persons on the China side and the migration of thousands of refugees into the Yunnan Province in combat between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army, one of the four (Ethnic Armed Organizations)EAOs of the Northern Alliance. Additionally, it can halt the economic development of Yunnan, an impoverished province, draws investment because of its strategic location as a doorway to Southeast Asia. Secondly, Instability in Myanmar can be ruinous for China’s flagship project, Belt and Road Initiative. For the success of BRI, stability in neighborhood is indispensable. Thirdly, China can’t afford to have turmoil in the neighborhood. The instability in Myanmar is causing disturbances in the neighboring states too, as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh when Myanmar’s army launched a brutal campaign on them in August 2017.

While China was enjoying stable and friendly relations with the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the recent coup is by no means in favor of China Yun Sun, a co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C stated that  “A coup in no way is in Beijing’s interests. Beijing was working very well with the NLD”, he further added, “If Beijing has a choice, I think they would prefer the NLD over the military. But they don’t have a choice… so they have to deal with whatever comes along.”

China has always remained a proponent of peace and stability in Myanmar. In the current scenario, China can play a constructive role in somehow settling the Myanmar issue and support the ill-fated country to embrace stability.

Firstly, since the outbreak of Covid19, things got worse domestically in Myanmar due to the lack of a proper health care system. It can be a blessing in disguise for China and provides a golden opportunity to score some diplomatic points by providing vaccinations and playing a significant role in solving the combined public health and economic crises that would be a win-win situation for both nations. Secondly, China can use its influence being the sole and long term partner, to bring conflicting parties to the table to find amicable resolution of the conflict. Thirdly, China should keep investing in Myanmar and help it building its economy through more investments especially in development sector. Finally, China can utilize ASEAN option as mentioned by Wang Yi in latest statement. ASEAN and China can collaborate to devise amicable and practical resolution of the Myanmar problem.

Stable and peaceful Myanmar is in the interest of the whole region and China in particular. Considering, chaos in a neighboring country can have grim implications for China and its developmental projects,  China along with other regional actors need to find realistic solutions for durable peace and stability in Myanmar.

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