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How bureaucracy is destroying Malaysia’s agricultural sector

Prof. Murray Hunter

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Over the last 30 years, Malaysia has miraculously grown into a middle income country, transforming itself from a primary producer of minerals and commodities, to a multi-sector economy.

The Malaysian Government has skilfully attracted foreign investment in high technology industries like electronics, multimedia, medical technology, and pharmaceuticals, service sector industries like Islamic finance, and urbanized the country with a rich retail service industry. However, agriculture has been allowed to slip well behind the rest of these sectors within the economy.  

This is normally the case when an economy transforms itself from the status of ‘developing’ to ‘developed’. However the case of Malaysian agriculture characterizes a number of mistakes. These mistakes have cost the country in terms of better food self-sufficiency, rural and community development, regional development, employment, poverty alleviation, and missed some of the great agro-based sunrise industry opportunities of this millennium.

What more, rural infrastructure and agro-based expertize is drastically lacking in Malaysia, since the Mahathir led drive to modernization back in the 1980s.  

This is particularly dangerous with a gloomy global outlook ahead, where Malaysia must become buoyant enough to internally withstand any deep international recession approaching, if it is to stave off great hardship on its citizens.

According to Malaysian statistics cited over various Malaysian Plans, the agriculture sector in 1970 represented 28.8% of national GDP. As of 2013, agriculture represented only 9.33% of GDP. However in some states like Perlis, Kelantan, and Sabah, agriculture still makes up 20-30% of the total economy.

Employment in the sector has fallen from 13% of the total workforce in 2007, to only 9.3% in 2014. However 66% of the people involved in working within the agriculture sector are over 50 years old. The estate sector is primarily staffed with foreign labourers bringing little income benefits to local communities.

The bulk of Malaysia’s agricultural land is utilized for the production of industrial crops, which has risen from 2.1% in 1960, to over 87% of land use today. Palm oil and rubber dominate, with paddy production and declining cocoa production running far behind. Timber is still a major primary product, where reforestation is lagging behind, making the industry unsustainable. Sarawak for many years has enjoyed a successfully developed a pepper industry, and there are pockets of fruit and market vegetables, around the nation.

However, less land is being utilized for agriculture today, as it is more valuable for industrial and housing developments. The composition of industrial crops, and industrial and housing development for land is steadily driving up the costs of food production in Malaysia. Paddy farming is also facing challenges due to declining productivity, increasing fragmentation of land plots, and poor response to changing consumer desires within the marketplace. Even the production of palm oil is expected to decline based upon recent industry predictions.

The push to industrial crops in the 1960s although rapidly developing the agricultural sector, rapidly decreased the diversity of agriculture within Malaysia. Even settlement schemes like FELDA and FELCA shied away from food and cash crops towards the palm oil and rubber because of the relatively large returns available with little need to market and sell their crops. As smallholder farmers have aged, with the youth reluctant to follow in their parents’ footsteps, the production of crops such as coconut, tropical fruits, vegetables, and other cash crops has been declining.

Estate production of industrial crops is now the mainstay of Malaysian agriculture, which is mainly in the hands of Malaysian Government Linked Companies (GLCs) like Sime Darby. Smallholders have been grossly neglected where little has been done by Malaysia’s agricultural research institutions and universities to modernize and develop appropriate technologies, new hybrids of cash crops, and assist in developing modern smallholder business models through the infusion of entrepreneurial thinking in rural communities. In addition, finance for smallholders is extremely difficult to obtain, and farm extension has all but died out two decades ago. The smallholders have been left to themselves, where they face acute labour shortages and little access to markets that would help make their efforts viable.

If one also factors in poor basic infrastructure such as access to irrigation and roads, the poor level of education of most smallholders, resulting in an attitude towards being production orientated rather than entrepreneurial, “conmen” taking advantage and promising big returns to smallholders if they buy seeds from them, and the condescending attitude many government bureaucrats have towards small holders, it’s not hard to understand why this sector is so much in decay.

The Malaysian agriculture situation has reached a point where the estate business model that was once so successful for the production of commodity crops is now stagnating. Malaysia is losing its dominance as the major producer of palm oil, and palm oil itself is under threat from international health concerns, and also concerns from the international community about the environmental record of Malaysia’s palm oil producers. Rubber prices are facing a slump, and paddy production is primarily insufficient to feed the total population, i.e., 35% of Malaysia’s rice needs to be imported from Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, India, and Pakistan.

There is little evidence to see where local communities have benefitted from the presence of Malaysian GLCs, yet state Governments have been eager to transfer state land to them for development with virtually no transparency. Picturesque pieces of virgin jungle are still being ripped up to make way for new palm plantations, to replace those developed into housing and industrial estates, where the GLCs are making mega-profits.

Malaysia’s agricultural direction was planned through a series of 5 year plans. The Malaysian political/bureaucratic elite have always presented rosy forecasts and gained publicity through staging MOU ceremonies, to announce projects which never happen, or fail through mismanagement.

Part of the problem in the Malaysian agriculture sector is that the politicians and bureaucrats have been thinking big, at the cost of thinking small. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture has developed a list of agro-based industries that should be national priorities. The Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI), and the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) restrict their research to these national priorities, while leaving a void in research on crops needed to spur on the growth and development of small local communities. Consequently, Malaysia’s research efforts have benefitted few communities, which still remain in relative poverty today, particularly in the agricultural dominant states like Perlis, Kelantan, Sabah, and Sarawak. There are a lot of potentially viable crops that should be researched and developed, but are being ignored.

Institutions like MARDI and FRIM have become showpieces to please the politicians.

Further, the bureaucrats involved in these plans implementation have appeared to lack the zeal and commitment to see these plans progress into reality. Managers on the ground have focused upon building hard infrastructure where favoured contractors can be employed to build these projects and facilities, rather than ploughing resources and money into education and extension. The result has been a number of ‘white elephants’ that litter the country.

Corruption, via land grants, misallocation of funds, and building irrelevant facilities, is a major issue hampering effective rural development in Malaysia today.

Malaysia, as an economy skewed towards state planning and intervention has attempted to “pick winners” and develop them through the state apparatus. In the case of herbs and biotechnology, massive funds were allocated in the pursuit of achieving success in these “sunrise” industries, where the funds were predominately channelled into developing ineffective and costly bureaucracy.

The Malaysian Herbal Corporation was formed in 2001 with much fanfare, where it was considered within the bureaucracy to be the driver and ‘flagbearer’ for the industry. The corporation undertook many initiatives, with the staff travelling widely and luxuriously around the world. Today, the Malaysian Herbal Corporation is now defunct.

With former Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s focus on biotechnology as a ‘sunrise industry’ midway last decade, the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation (MBC), along with various state funded biotechnology companies such as Melaka Biotech, J-Biotech in Johor, K-Biocorp in Kedah, and Kelantan Biotech, were all well-funded with hundreds of millions of Ringgit in grants, but have little, if anything to show for it. Most of, if not all of the grants given out by MBC to commercial companies failed to produce any commercialized intellectual property, as university research also failed to do.

Technology Park Malaysia (TPM) built biotech labs around the country in places like Perlis, which are mostly empty. The East Coast Economic Regional Development Council set up herbal parks in Pahang and Terengganu which are basically inactive in regards to their original purpose.

FELDA opened up the FELDA Herbal Corporation which is now replaced with another attempt at developing biotechnology through Felda Wellness. Biotropics was set up by Khazanah Coropration and is basically only producing some cosmetic and herbal products. The Ministry of Health set up NINE BIO to produce Halal vaccines and herbal products.

The Malaysian-MIT partnership hailed as being an example of a smart-partnership, cost the Malaysian taxpayer USD20 Million with absolutely nothing to show.

The Malaysian Government rather than be a driver of the industry became a participant with drastic results.

Just about all these Government interventions into business have failed dismally, losing hundreds of Millions of Dollars for the Malaysian taxpayer.

What is tragic is that there has been no transparency in the way the Malaysian Government handed over responsibility to personnel within these government corporations, and no accountability.

Top down planning with no consultation with local industry, local communities, and local scientists, has led to Malaysian agriculture falling well behind its neighbours within the Asian region. Top down planning has allowed bureaucracy to overrun market considerations in Malaysia’s agricultural and agro-based industry development.

Development programs like the agropolitan schemes in Sabah are conceptualized and developed within the bureaucrats’ paradigms. GLCs are asked to take up large swabs of land, plant palm oil, and develop a small corridor for local villagers. They have been of large benefit for these GLCs, but local villagers have been short changed where GLCs partaking in these projects fail to live up to their responsibilities.

Likewise, other bureaucrat concepts such as combining fragmented land holdings into paddy estates run by anchor GLC companies, as promoted by the Performance Management Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) within the Prime Minister’s Department disempower local land owners who are expected to work as labourers on their own land. These types of projects have failed in their conceptualization, let along during the implementation stage.

As a consequence opportunities to alleviate poverty in rural communities have been missed, and opportunities to develop new crops, and create new industries have been ignored.

Many successful programs like entrepreneurship mentorship schemes run at Agricultural Institutes around the country, are starved of funds, because of the preference for the bureaucratic ‘white elephants’ that benefit policy implementers financially.

Malaysian agriculture is now in crisis and there is a need to reinvigorate the sector, particularly with the expected global economic slowdown.

Malaysia is currently importing up to 60% of its current food needs. With the level of national debt, falling foreign reserves due to a low Ringgit, and a potential slow-down in exports due to a sluggish international economy, food self-sufficiency may become more important than ever.

Food self-sufficiency would create an important buffer for rural Malaysia to withstand any deep recession. Without food self-sufficiency the population within the Malay heartlands will suffer immensely. As mentioned, Malaysia imports much of its rice needs, milk, beef and mutton, flour, and fruits.

Within this problem, lays an opportunity. Malaysia’s Neighbour Thailand has been reinventing itself as the ‘kitchen of the world’. Malaysian agriculture with modern farming methods, utilizing appropriate technology, and adopting new branding paradigms through merging GAP and Halal practices into say a “HalalGAP” protocol could enter and prosper in the rapidly growing Halal market worldwide.

Malaysian agriculture needs new farming practices, business models, and reinvented supply/value chains. The decline of the value of the Ringgit will help Malaysian farmers find a new era of competitiveness that the sector has never had.

Now is the time to take this opportunity.

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

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Southeast Asia

Explaining Gendered Wartime Violence: Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing

Devika Khandelwal

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Image source: Al-Jazeera

The United Nations described Rohingyas as ‘amongst the most persecuted minority groups in the world.’ News reports and refugee testimonies have confirmed that the plight of Muslims in Rakhine State of Myanmar is atrocious. The humanitarian crisis taking place in the Rakhine state has led to the death of an appalling number of Rohingya’s Muslims. It has been reported, that nearly 500,000 people have fled destruction of their livelihood and, are currently living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The UN reports suggest that Rohingyas have faced “killings, torture, rape and arson”, by Burmese troops. It has been categorised as a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’ of Muslims in Myanmar.

Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, and the majority lived in Rakhine state before the violence broke out. Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country which has for decades denied Muslims citizenship, they have been subjected to brutal government and police violence, and their identity has been decreased to that of an ‘illegal immigrant.’ On the 25th of August, 2017 the Rohingya militant army launched a deadly attack on the Muslims which has culminated into a systematic case of ethnic violence, turning into ethnic cleansing. They have slowly, but successfully forced majority of the Muslims to flee the country, resulting in one of the deadliest case of violence in the 21st century.

Within this Muslim minority exists another kind of minority, ‘Rohingya Women’ who have been subjected to sexual violence and rape by the army militants. It has been reported that tens of thousands of young girls and women of the Muslim community have been sexually violated and raped by the army militants In the report prepared for the UN Commission on Human Rights, Gay J. McDougall defined wartime rape as “a deliberate and strategic decision on the part of combatants to intimidate and destroy ‘the enemy’ as a whole by raping and enslaving women who are identified as members of the opposition group.” However, wartime rape is not a new phenomenon. Many historical and anthropological researchers have provided us with evidence that rape during war can be traced back to earlier wars. It was reported that during the Second World War, the city of Berlin witnessed extremely high levels of rape and sexual violence against women by the Soviet forces. It has been estimated that around 900,000 women were raped and violated during the war.The infamous ‘Rape of Nanking’ is another case where Japanese soldiers reportedly raped an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 women in the city of Nanjing, China in 1937.

According to the Human Rights Watch report titled ‘All of My Body was in Pain: Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma’, women and girls are brutally being raped and sexually violated, humiliated, beaten up and even killed by the Burmese militants. They also suffer from the ordeal of seeing their children, parents or partners being murdered in front of them. The Burmese militant army is using systematic rape as a weapon of war in the massacre of the Rohingyas – using women to be the easy target, and thereby making the Rohingya crisis a grave gender concern. Priyanka Motaparthy, a senior researcher in the Emergencies division of the Human Rights Watch, mentions in a Human Rights Watch report, “These horrific attacks on Rohingya women and girls by security forces add a new and brutal chapter to the Burmese military’s long and sickening history of sexual violence against women.”

It is believed that sexual violence and rape is systematically used against women during wartime due multiple reasons. In addition to women being ‘easy targets’, they are subjected to this ordeal in order to break down the reproductive cycle of an ethnicity, which thereby can result in eliminating that ethnic population altogether. It is also used to decrease or break down the morale of their enemy population, who are responsible for securing their women and girls, thus weakening their opponents. Therefore, the connecting factor between ‘gender based violence’ and ‘wartime’ are the underlying patriarchal values that persists in societies and dictates their culture. Within this structure, it is often assumed that a woman’s honor resides in her reproductive system, violating her reproductive system is seen as a way of stripping her honor, subjecting her to humiliation and furthermore gaining ‘power.’ It is a way of systematically destroying a community as a whole.

This is not the first time the world is witnessing gender based violence. However, the silence on the issue and lack of action by international authorities such as the United Nations is alarming. Urgent and crucial steps need to be taken by the Burmese government along with other International Organizations to bring relief to these women and girls. There is also an urgent need to implement stringent policies and necessary actions must be taken against people who use of sexual violence during wartime. However, the most urgent need of the hour is to overthrow patriarchal values from societies all across the world. Even though this is optimistic, it is important to instill a sense of equality between men and women, which in turn could help in eliminating the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

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Southeast Asia

Malaysian-Saudi relations: A lesson in the pitfalls of authoritarianism and autocracy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Embattled former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was the main loser in last month’s election upset that returned Mahathir Mohamad to power as his country’s anti-corruption crusader. Yet, Mr. Razak is not the only one who may be paying the price for allegedly non-transparent and unaccountable governance.

So is Saudi Arabia with a Saudi company having played a key role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal in which Mr. Razak is suspected to have overseen the siphoning off of at least US$4.5 billion and the Saudi government seemingly having gone out of its way to provide him political cover.

While attention has focussed largely on the re-opening of the investigation of Mr. Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, both of whom have been banned from travel abroad and have seen their homes raided by law enforcement, Saudi Arabia has not escaped policymakers’ consideration. Mr. Razak has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

The geopolitical fallout of the scandal is becoming increasingly evident. Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu suggested this week that Malaysia was re-evaluating the presence of Malaysian troops in Saudi Arabia, dispatched to the kingdom as part of the 41-nation, Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).

“The ATM (Malaysian Armed Forces) presence in Saudi Arabia has indirectly mired Malaysia in the Middle East conflict… The government will make a decision on the matter in the near future after a re-evaluation has been completed,” said Mr. Sabu, who is known for his critical view of Saudi Arabia.

In a commentary published late last year that suggests a potential Malaysian re-alignment of its Middle Eastern relationships, Mr. Sabu noted that Saudi wrath has been directed “oddly, (at) Turkey, Qatar, and Iran…three countries that have undertaken some modicum of political and economic reforms. Instead of encouraging all sides to work together, Saudi Arabia has gone on an offensive in Yemen, too. Therein the danger posed to Malaysia: if Malaysia is too close to Saudi Arabia, Putrajaya would be asked to choose a side.”

Putrajaya, a city south of Kuala Lumpur, is home to the prime minister’s residence.

Mr. Sabu went on to say that “Malaysia should not be too close to a country whose internal politics are getting toxic… For the lack of a better word, Saudi Arabia is a cesspool of constant rivalry among the princes. By this token, it is also a vortex that could suck any country into its black hole if one is not careful. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is governed by hyper-orthodox Salafi or Wahhabi ideology, where Islam is taken in a literal form. Yet true Islam requires understanding Islam, not merely in its Quranic form, but Quranic spirit.”

Since coming to office, Mr. Sabu has said that he was also reviewing plans for a Saudi-funded anti-terrorism centre, the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), which was allocated 16 hectares of land in Putrajaya by the Razak government. Mr. Sabu was echoing statements by Mr. Mahathir before the election.

Compounding potential strains in relations with Saudi Arabia, Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull, Mr. Mahathir’s newly appointed anti-corruption czar, who resigned from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in 2016 as a result of pressure to drop plans to indict Mr. Razak, noted that “we have had difficulties dealing with Arab countries (such as)…Saudi Arabia…”

The investigation is likely to revisit 1MDB relationship’s with Saudi energy company PetroSaudi International Ltd, owned by Saudi businessman Tarek Essam Ahmad Obaid as well as prominent members of the kingdom’s ruling family who allegedly funded Mr. Razak.

It will not have been lost on Saudi Arabia that Mr. Mahathir met with former PetroSaudi executive and whistle blower Xavier Andre Justo less than two weeks after his election victory.

A three-part BBC documentary, The House of Saud: A Family at War, suggested that Mr. Razak had worked with Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the son of former Saudi King Abdullah, to syphon off funds from 1MDB.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir came to Mr. Razak’s rescue in 2016 by declaring that US$681 million transferred into the prime minister’s personal bank account was a “genuine donation with nothing expected in return.”

The Malaysian election as well as seeming Saudi complicity in the corruption scandal that toppled Mr. Razak has global implications, particularly for the United States and China, global powers who see support of autocratic and/or corrupt regimes as the best guarantee to maintain stability.

It is a lesson that initially was apparent in the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

The rollback of the achievements of most of those revolts backed by autocratic leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bent on reshaping the Middle East and North Africa in their mould has contributed to the mayhem, violence and brutal repression engulfing the region.

In addition, autocratic rule has failed to squash widespread economic and social discontent. Middle Eastern states, including Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon Iran, and most recently Jordan have witnessed  protests against rising prices, cuts in public spending and corruption.

“The public dissatisfaction, bubbling up in several countries, is a reminder that even more urgent action is needed,” warned Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Elections, if held at all, more often than not fail to serve as a corrective in the Middle East and North Africa because they are engineered rather than a free and fair reflection of popular will. Elections in countries like Iraq and Lebanon serve as exceptions that confirm the rule while Iran represents a hybrid.

As a result, street protests, militancy and violence are often the only options available to those seeking change.

Against that backdrop, Malaysia stands out as an example of change that does not jeopardize stability. It is but the latest example of Southeast Asian nations having led the way in producing relatively peaceful political transitions starting with the 1986 popular revolt in the Philippines, the 1998 toppling of Suharto in Indonesia, and Myanmar’s 2010 transition away from military dictatorship.

This is true even if Southeast Asia also demonstrates that political transition is a decades-long process that marches to the tune of Vladimir Lenin’s principle of two steps forward, one step backwards as it witnesses a backslide with the rise in the Philippines of President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarianism, stepped up jihadist activity, the 2014 military coup in Thailand, increasingly autocratic rule in Cambodia, the rise of conservatism and intolerance in Indonesia, and the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

If anything, Malaysia constitutes an anti-dote.

“Malaysia’s institutions proved more resilient…and descent into authoritarianism has been averted – offering a lesson not only to aspiring dictators, but to those in the United States who argue that propping up corrupt leaders is in U.S. interests,” said Alex Helan, a security and anti-corruption consultant.

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Indonesian Muslim leader signals global shifts in meetings with Pence and Netanyahu

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Yahya Staquf, a diminutive, soft-spoken leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim movement, and Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s advisor on religious affairs, has held a series of meetings in recent weeks that reflect the Muslim world’s shifting attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinians and a re-alignment of socially conservative Muslim and Christian interests.

Just this month, Mr. Staquf, a staunch advocate of inter-faith dialogue and religious tolerance, met in Washington with Vice President Mike Pence, a devout evangelist Catholic who has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” and in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Messrs. Pence and Staquf were joined by Reverend Johnnie Moore, an evangelist who in May was appointed by US President Donald J. Trump as a member of the board of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Mr. Staquf’s discussions would likely raise eyebrows at any given moment.

But they take on added significance because they came in the wake of Mr. Trump’s controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, stepped up US support for Israel in United Nations bodies, and in advance of a whirlwind visit to the Middle East by US peace negotiators Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority has refused to engage with the Trump administration since the US recognition of Jerusalem and Palestinian officials were unlikely to meet with Messrs. Kushner and Greenblatt during their Middle East tour that focused on a draft US plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Details of the plan, described by Mr. Trump as the ‘deal of the century,’ remain under wrap, but Palestinians fear that it will be heavily geared towards supporting Israeli negotiating positions.

That fear has been reinforced by the Trump administration’s fiery support of Israel in the UN. The United States this month withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council, citing, among other reasons, the council’s repeated criticism of Israel.

Whether by design or default, Mr. Staquf’s meetings appeared to reinforce efforts by close US allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to stifle opposition to Mr. Trump’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Turkey has been in the forefront of condemnation of US policy that resonates in Muslim public opinion, particularly in Asia.

Frustration with US and Israeli policies has undermined popular Palestinian support for a two-state solution that envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, has facilitated weeks of protests along the border between Gaza and Israel in support of the Palestinian right to return to lands within Israel’s boundaries prior to the 1967 Middle East war during which Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

Israel has since annexed East Jerusalem and withdrawn from Gaza, which it blockades together with Egypt in a bid to undermine Hamas’s rule.

At least 142 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since the protests erupted in late March and some 13,000 wounded.

Mr. Netanyahu trumpeted the political significance of his meeting with Mr. Staquf in a statement following their encounter.

“Muslim states are becoming closer to Israel because of the common struggle against the Iranian regime and because of Israeli technology. … The prime minister hopes that there will be progress in our relationship with Indonesia, too,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said.

Indonesia and Israel do not maintain diplomatic relations but do not stop their nationals and officials from travelling between the two countries. Mr. Staquf has insisted that he was visiting Israel in his private capacity rather than as an advisor to the Indonesian president.

Indonesia recently revoked Israeli tourist visas in protest against Israel’s hard-handed tactics in Gaza. In response, Israel has threatened to ban tourist visas for Indonesians. Some 30,000 Indonesians, mostly Christian pilgrims, obtain visas to visit Israel each year.

Indonesia in May exempted Palestinian imports from custom duties in a bid to support the Palestinian economy.

Mr. Staquf insisted that his visit to Israel at the invitation of the American Jewish Congress was intended to promote Palestinian independence. “I stand here for Palestine. I stand here on the basis that we all have to honour Palestine’s sovereignty as a free country,” he said in a statement posted on his organization’s website.

Nonetheless, Mr. Staquf did not meet Palestine Authority officials during his visit. Osama al-Qawasmi, a spokesman for Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah group, charged that his visit was “a crime against Jerusalem, against the Palestinians and Muslims in the world, and constitutes support for the criminal Israeli occupier against our fighting and resolute people.”

Mr. Staquf was the second NU leader to visit Israel in the past two decades. Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid travelled several times to Israel before and after his presidency but not while he was Indonesia’s head of state.

Muslim leaders, many of which have long reconciled themselves to recognition of the State of Israel’s existence, have largely been reluctant to publicly engage with Israeli officials as opposed to non-Israeli Jews as long as Israel and Palestine have not made substantial progress towards peace.

Mr. Staquf like Mr. Wahid before him broke ranks by travelling to Israel, a move that sparked criticism and condemnation on Indonesian social media and from some members of parliament.

While the criticism has focussed on Mr. Staquf’s visit to Israel rather than his meeting with Messrs. Pence and Moore, it is also rooted in widespread perceptions of evangelists as purveyors of rising Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Lost in that criticism is the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being hailed by some evangelists as heralding a new era with his projection of greater religious openness in the kingdom and his unprecedented statement that both Palestinians and Israelis “have the right” to have their own land.

“You know I couldn’t believe my ears actually when I was watching the news report where the crown prince of Saudi Arabia said directly, verbatim, He said this kingdom will become a kingdom for all religions. I had to watch it again and he was crystal, crystal clear.

You know as evangelicals this is a new day for us in the Middle East. Evangelicals are the baby Christians in the region… What we’re seeing is a new openness to what evangelicalism is, which I think is a move of the Holy Spirit.” Mr Moore said.

Mr. Staquf projected his visit to Israel as promoting the concept of rahma or compassion and mercy as the basis for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the forging of relations between Israel and the Muslim world.

In practice, by design or by default, it supports US and Saudi efforts to impose their will on the Palestinians and the larger Middle East that potentially could produce as many problems as they offer solutions.

In doing so, it pays tribute to Prince Mohammed’s ability to project himself as an agent of change in Saudi Arabia even if the precise contours of his vision have yet to emerge.

In a twist of irony, it is a tribute by the leader of a movement that was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim worldview that long shaped Saudi Arabia and that Prince Mohammed is seen as disavowing.

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