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Cabals, Feudalism, and Apartheid: Will these institutions damn Malaysia’s future prosperity?

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“I am a businessman, not a politician” Tajuddin Abdul Rahman Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry at the opening of Herbal Asia, Matrade Exhibition Centre, 1st October 2015.

Unlike most of the rest of the world that is heading along the track of multiculturalism, Malaysia seems to be locked in a limbo of racial introspection it cannot get out of.

This introspection is however more than mere racism, it is the overt part of an elaborate structure that has maintained a small elite in power for over 45 years, since the notorious May 13th riots back in 1969.

The direct discussion of this subject has basically been criminalized since the 1970s and deemed too sensitive to debate, which means there has been little public discourse on the matter of who really exercises power, how, and for whom within the country.

This has helped to enshrine a structure of political-cabalism, based upon a neo-Malay-feudalism, which has used a form of ‘Malaysian apartheid’ to support this elite in position and privilege over the rest of Malaysians they rule (as opposed to govern).

Ever since the British Colonial era, Malaysia has been divided and described through racial paradigms. The major races that represented the Malay Peninsula got together to negotiate and steer Malaya to independence in 1957, and into the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. Perhaps the most important artefact from this era is the race is still recorded on Malaysian Identity Cards today, which is hurting the sensitivities of a number of Malaysians.

However with a rekindled Malay nationalistic sentiment remerging in the 1960s, an opportunity after the 13th May 1969 racial riots arose for a group of Malay politicans to seize the reigns of power. Mahathir Mohamad, supported by a group of ‘ultras’ including Syed Nasir Ismail, Musa Hitam, and Tunku Razaleigh, moved to dispose of the then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, representing the moderate Malay aristocracy.

(Tun) Abdul Razak Hussein (father of the current Prime Minister) was installed as Prime Minister in what some describe as a ‘coup’ to succeed Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1970.

As Tunku Abdul Rahman had already invoked a state of emergency in 1969 after the 13th May riots, and ruled by decree through the National operations Council, (Tun) Abdul Razak as Prime Minister through was able to use this short window was to pass through the New Economic policy (NEP) without any hindrance, as parliamentary approval wasn’t necessary. The NEP was based upon many ideas within Mahathir Mohamad’s book The Malay Dilemma, extremely controversial at the time.

At the time, the NEP was seen, even internationally as a necessary affirmative action policy. The NEP stipulated the use of quotas in granting educational places at school and universities, the use of quotas in the public service, favouritism to Malays in the granting of business licenses, the development of Malay reserve land restricting non-Bumiputera purchases, subsidies on the purchase of real estate, quotas on public equity holdings, general subsidies for Bumiputera businesses, and exclusive Bumiputera mutual funds (ASN, ASB), which gave better rates of return than commercial banks.

When the Malaysian Parliament was reconvened in 1971, both the Sedition and Internal Security Acts were strengthened to limit any discussion about matters concerning Malay special rights, the Malay rulers, and citizenship, under the premise of preserving ‘intercommunal harmony’. These restrictions also applied to members of parliament, thus weakening the principal of ‘parliamentary immunity’, i.e., the NEP was above parliamentary sovereignty, which attracted much international condemnation at the time.

It is during this time that a concerted covert effort was made to create a ‘secret leadership’ to maintain and support what was called the ‘Malay Agenda’. According to an interview with an anonymous high ranking official within the Razak Government at the time, most executive positions, civil service placements, and high ranking police and army personnel were filled with people sympathetic to the ‘Malay Agenda’.

The author’s source also stated that it was during the Razak era that selected bureaucrats and other people stated creating and acquiring corporate assets with the objective of channelling funds back to UMNO to fight future elections, to ensure victory.

The ‘Malay Agenda’ meant running government and agencies within government with the objective of looking after ‘Malay’ interests ahead of others. The ‘Malay Agenda’ was rarely spoken about in the open but had a wide appeal among all levels of Malay society, including some members of royal families, at the time.

This was the start of crony capitalism in Malaysia, the making of a kleptocracy. This loose ruling political-cabal was developed in the Malay-feudalistic tradition, in the sense that it required giving total loyalty to the leader of UMNO, the Prime Minister, without question.

A very small proportion of this group became very rich through the implementation of this special agenda. These original beneficiaries are now considered socially as the ‘old money’ in Malay society today.

Malaysia rejected multiculturalism for its own form of ethno-religious form of ‘Malaysian apartheid’, supported by the Malay-feudalistic social structure that was enhanced rather than dismantled over the two decades after independence from Britain. The mythology that the Chinese, who already control the economy, also aim to take political control of Malaysia was dissipated as propaganda to install a fear into the Malay population. Propaganda became one of the prime tools used by the government with the formation of the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) to indoctrinate civil servants and students on the “Malay agenda”.  

Section 153 of the Malaysian constitution became the proclaimed legal basis of ‘Malaysian apartheid’ measures. The Reid Commission had only intended to be a temporary measure, to be reviewed by the parliament within 15 years. Section 153 states that “….it is the responsibility of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak”, thus turning Malay into political construct, as there is no single Malay tribal grouping. The authorities over the years attempted to Malayanize the indigenous peoples of the Malay Peninsula, the Orang Asli, through encouraging their conversion to Islam and adoption of Malays customs.

When Dr. Mahathir came to the Prime Ministership in 1981 due to then Prime Minister Hussein Onn stepping down because of poor health, he pursued an ambitious agenda which included extending the business interests of UMNO. Much of these business interests were controlled by proxies and nominees such as Tajudin Ramli and Halim Saad. Further, Dr Mahathir with his Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim embarked on a program to produce Malay millionaires who would bring up other Malays into the business sphere.

Ironically under Dr. Mahathir, a period of liberalization came with Wawasan 2020, where the country grew very optimistic under the premise of ‘Malaysia Boleh’. There appeared to be a great working relationship between the different racial based parties within the Barisan Nasional, and Malaysian appeared to genuinely have pride in their nation.

These short ‘golden years’ for Malaysia were soon eclipsed by the Asian economic crisis of 1997 and the sacking by Dr. Mahathir of his then deputy Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. A bitter election was fought between the BN Government and newly formed Barisan Alternative in 1999, leading to the BN Government winning with a greatly reduced majority.

Many misread the Abdullah Badawi period as further liberalization, although he publically fought corruption. However, Badawi still cracked down hard on dissent such as not allowing open discussion on Malaysia’s ‘social contract’, and allowed the police to act heavy handed at the Bersih rally in 2007. A new group of entities entered into the corporate scene which led to a number of scandals, by the notorious ‘boys on the 4th floor’, who included Khairy Jamaluddin. Dr. Mahathir became Badawi’s chief critic. Badawi’s poor election performance in 2008, and criticism of his apparent enjoyment of the trappings of power led to his replacement with Najib Tun Razak in 2009.

Najib Tun Razak came to power promising a transformation of government and a completely new paradigm in race relations with the well promoted 1Malaysia slogan. However, after being the vanguard of moderation internationally, his actions domestically showed none of the moderation he had promised. Najib was totally silent when organizations like Pekasa made outlandish statements about race. His greatest modus operandi is silence when government organs and NGOs undertake extreme actions in defending Malays and Islam. Bajib’s persona as a moderate leader completely disappeared after the poor election performance in 2013, where he personally blamed the Chinese in his ‘Chinese Tsunami’ statement on election night.

Post GE13, has seen a definitive return to repression by the BN Government in power. Its closely aligned newspaper organ Utusan Malaysia has been continually allowed to publish headlines and statements, such as ‘Apa lagi Cina mahu’, which were inflammatory in the post-election environment.

GE13 also weakened the MCA, Gerakan, and MIC to the point where they no longer have any effective say in government, a far cry from their days of great influence within the cabinet during the 1970s and 80s. All political parties became totally subservient groups within an UMNO dominated BN. This is ironically a result of opposition electoral success in 2013.

Extreme groups have been allowed to make anti-Chinese rhetoric and racial insults with impunity under the Najib Government, thus keeping Chinese groups quiet through producing an atmosphere of fear and tension. This is a purposeful tactic to suppress any opposition.

In terms of popular vote, the BN Government is now in reality a minority one, capturing less than 50% of total votes cast. However through the first past the post voting system, the BN is almost ensured to continue winning elections in the future. This is especially the case with the poor electoral strategy that the Pakatan Rakyat employed last election, focusing on the urban areas, rather than the rural areas. To compete with the BN, the opposition must make major changes to its electoral strategy, but will come up against a ‘hardened Umno’ organization at grassroots level. In addition, the opposition today is in so much disarray, the effective leader of the opposition to the government appears to be Dr. Mahathir.

Rather than reaching out to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of all Malaysians, UMNO has seen the decline of electoral support for BN component parties as an opportunity to consolidate power within its own right. GE13 has allowed UMNO and the political-cabal that controls it to manoeuvre even more on the ‘Malay Agenda’.

Since 2013, economic and social policy has been allowed to degenerate into blatant racial discrimination, and now has become something even more sinister.

The Malaysian civil service is being cleaned out. For example in Sabah, civil servants from ethnic groups like Dusun/Kadazan are slowly being weeded out and replaced. A bureaucratic ethnic cleansing is going on within the civil service. Other indigenous ethnic groups are no longer acceptable. Likewise, the universities are being cleansed of dissidents. There is a purge going on in Malaysia that has even taken the Deputy Prime Minister and attorney general out. This is supplemented with a clampdown on ‘whistleblowers, and anybody within existing agencies that have potential to turn against the political-cabal. Any potential resistance, including reporters and the media, to the political-cabal that currently controls the country is being eliminated. Malaysia is now facing a repressive phase in government that one has not seen since Dr. Mahathir’s “Operation Lalang” in the late 1980s.Only this time it is much wider.

The effects of this imposed policy of ‘Malaysian apartheid’ upon the country today are profound, and can be summarized as follows:

1.            A feudal social structure has been developed with four sections of populace;

i)             The Malay elite who rules the country and their associates,

ii)            A Malay middle class which is predominantly urban,

iii)           A Malay rural class, and

iv)           The rest of the Malaysian population.

Politically, this rural Malay class has kept the Malay elite in power, while the educated middle class is turning away from UMNO.

2.            A brain drain is happening from Malaysia at present, which does not only include Chinese and Indian, but Malays as well. The political-cabal of elite leaders aren’t really concerned with this brain drain, as this seen as a good opportunity to weaken potential future opposition. This loss of creative and innovative people is leaving a rent seeking mentality within the country, at a time, creativity and innovation is really needed to develop the Malaysian economy. The leadership have intentionally nurtured the development of an unquestioning population, which is reflected in the Malaysian education system, as the best means to maintain a docile electorate that will not look at political issues like corruption very seriously.

3.            There has been a general failure to eradicate poverty throughout rural Malaysia, as limited resources have been used to prop up the feudal warlords of UMNO through ‘white elephant’ rural development projects throughout the country. Many UMNO warlords have made it big through receiving contracts while their areas remain inadequate with basic infrastructure, and rural assistance such as farm extension services and even proper roads and irrigation. There are still large numbers of Malays who cannot afford to attend university, through the lack of any general assistance schemes available in most other countries. Poverty is still a major problem within Malaysia, where the government has been claiming undue successes.

4.            The Malaysian economy is skewed with inefficiencies and market restrictions that hinder its transformation into a mature developed sustainable economic system. Companies are allowed to have monopolies, the restricted issuance of import permits has created inefficient markets, and general lack of transparency is making the Malaysian market unattractive to investors. A 2012 Asian Development Bank (ADB) report cites the two main reasons for Malaysia’s net capital outflow as the distortions introduced into the economy by the NEP, and the widespread presence and overbearing influence of Government Linked Companies (GLCs). The restriction of tenders to Bumi companies has created an inefficient Ali Baba business model, which raises the cost of both government and business. GLCs and other government owned companies openly compete with entrepreneurs in the market with an unfair advantage, thus stifling innovation, and the willingness of private individuals to take business risks. Malaysia still needs economic growth to absorb new entrants to the workforce in the coming decade.

5.            Meritocracy doesn’t exist within the Malaysian civil service, universities, or other agencies. People are forced to adopt a feudal stance of seeking favour from superiors to get promotions and survive within these organizations. Under such an environment there is no chance for creativity, critical thinking, or even honesty. ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ is now turning hegemonic is a dangerous way that can spill off Malaysian shores. This stands Malaysian in a poor position to be internationally competitive in the future.

6.            The divide and conquer political strategy of the Government, use of bullying through third party NGOs, and straight threats and arrogance has had a major effect upon the people of Malaysia. Many have lost hope and respect for the leadership of their country. Many are now resentful. There is potential for outbreaks of violence due to the uncontrollability of some extreme ‘ultra’ groups allowed to roam free in society today. The country thinks in terms of race, even to the point where a near diplomatic incident nearly occurred with China a few weeks ago, the second most powerful country in the world. This is not healthy and will not stand Malaysia well within the international community. The dissent generated by this ‘divide and conquer’ political strategy is fodder that allows the political-cabal to use state apparatus to strengthen their hold on power, as the current spate of arrests indicates.

7.            What the policies of the Government and resulting social structure of society has created is a small elite class of rulers who act upon the axiom that ‘we are the law’. Comments by the Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (a cousin of the current prime minister), indicate the ruling elite’s distain even for the constitutional monarchy of Malaysia. The elite is now in an unquestionable position of power unable to be dislodged by the rule of law. They are unashamed by scandal and control all the elements of power through their network of loyalists through the civil service, police, armed forces, and judiciary.

8.            Finally, it could be argued that Malay self-confidence has been destroyed and replaced with a national inferiority complex, that the elite can use and play to at their whim. There is a condescending attitude by the elite that ’Malays are backward’ and need special protection by the BN/UMNO Government. Thus a whole section of the population is continually told they need help. The concept of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’, according to UKM Professor Noraini Othman has connotations of enslavement, with a Malay master and servant relationship implied. Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman went further and said that the ‘special position of the Malays’ in the constitution is a slur on the ability of the Malays.

The political-cabal that was set up in the 1970s by Prime Minister Tun Razak, has been transferred across from leader to leader since that time. Each prime minister inherited a complete network of loyalists to the ‘Agenda Melayu’.

This has been their strength. However cracks appeared in this political-cabal when Mahathir tried to make an agreement with both his successors, which according to him have not been kept. In addition, the scandals of the present prime minister are beginning to test those loyal to the “Agenda Melayu’, to the point where some may begin to feel guilty about their loyalty to the current leadership of the political-cabal and ‘spill the beans’. Hence the sackings, demotions, transfers and arrests of late.

This however will not mean self-destruction to Malaysia’s political-cabal. It’s a fight over control and not reform. Winner will take all. Perhaps Dr. Mahathir was naïve in thinking that he could still exercise control and influence over this political-cabal, once he stepped down from the leadership of UMNO and the nation. This is one of the biggest mistakes of his political career.

The very nature of UMNO itself, once a party of school teachers, junior civil servants, farmers, and fishermen, which transformed into a party of contractors, small entrepreneurs, and professional rent seekers, will serve Najib well as he tries to consolidate his position. The party is run along feudal lines where booty is distributed around the country through lucrative contracts to those who head the party at state and district levels to maintain their loyalty and support. The influence of this on public policy and development planning is rarely discussed, even though it leads to massive misallocations of funds into projects that have little, if any community or economic benefit. This prevents any policy approach to planning and implementation, drastically lowering the quality of government.

Najib can reward his warlords, maintain their loyalty, and even put more of his loyalists in place for the coming election, win it, and even end up having more power than he has now. This scenario is Dr. Mahathir’s worst nightmare, and why he is working so hard to remove Najib before the next election.

To date very few international bodies have heavily criticized this “Malaysian Apartheid”. The Malaysian Government will continue to get away with repressing its populace with divide and conquer tactics. There is no front against Malaysia, like there was against South Africa. No one interested in putting sanctions upon Malaysia.

However, Swiss Islamic intellectual Dr. Tariq Ramadan foresees a credibility gap for Malaysia in international affairs where he says “As Malaysian Muslims complaining about discrimination by the West, should first acknowledge the injustices against minorities in their own country”. Until Malaysia sorts out its own racism, any stand upon Israel and Palestine seeps into hypocrisy.

This Malaysian Apartheid will continue into the foreseeable future and anybody who tries to oppose it will meet the Roth of bullying tactics to subdue them, as is being played out now with the latest round of arrests. The Malay position will remain a taboo subject for years to come, hence Malaysian sensitivities when any non-Malaysian comments on Malaysian internal affairs.

This also means that the question as to whether the NEP/NDP has been protecting or marginalizing the Malays will not be discussed. This is an important question for the future of Malaysia and the challenges that lie ahead. As former Prime Minister Ahmad Badawi once said “Malays who can’t learn how to walk without crutches will end up in a wheelchair”. Dr. Mahathir took this further and said “Unfortunately, the protection and privileges accorded by the New Economic Policy (NEP) may weaken the Malays further by lulling the next generation into complacency, thinking that the

NEP’s affirmative action will always be there for them to fall back upon….. The NEP can make the users so dependent that their inherent capability regresses.”

This dooms the country into the ‘middle income trap’, where the capabilities, creativity and innovation needed to lift the Malaysian economy into high valued activities, does not exist. Economic and social prosperity is risked so that Kleptocratic rule can continue unabated in Malaysia. Malay self-respect has also been sacrificed in this quest to hold power.

The system of discrimination has only benefitted in preserving a feudal hierarchy within Malaysian society where the new lords are political dynasties which are now fighting each other openly using 1MDB as the platform. This is not about corruption, but which family dynasty and surrounding group rules, rather than any promise of social reform.

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

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Southeast Asia

Towards an Integrated Southeast Asia: Timor-Leste’s Challenges and Opportunities in Joining ASEAN

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Authors: Jalaluddin Rizqi Mulia and Silvia Jultikasari Febrian*

Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN for short, is an organization originally formed to respond to the Cold War in the region by five founding member states: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Thailand. Timor-Leste itself had been attempting to join ASEAN since 2011, considering that Timor-Leste is geographically and culturally a country in Southeast Asia. Despite this condition, the country experienced difficulties in its efforts. These happened due to the unstable situation of the country, particularly in terms of political, economic, and security.

As a regional institution, ASEAN’s role is increasingly developing into a multidimensional organization. In order to strengthen its integration efforts, the ASEAN Community was formed to reinforce the centrality and role of ASEAN as a regional power which plays a major part in designing the territorial framework, accompanied by the signing of ASEAN Charter–marking the commitment of its member states in building the community through cooperation expansion and regional integration. The ASEAN Community itself consists of three main pillars: ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).

Why did Timor-Leste join the regional organization?

Indonesia has been one of the parties which pushed the acceptance of Timor-Leste as a member state since long ago. Nevertheless, it should be noted that every policy issued by ASEAN requires unanimous votes from all member states. The new membership intention itself faced a number of challenges, such as Singapore’s refusal and questioning Timor-Leste’s steadiness and ability. Such a view is based on an assessment on Timor-Leste that it will only be a burden for ASEAN, which is currently on the way for economic integration.

The rationale underlying the appliance refusal is Timor-Leste’s condition to meet the eligibility prerequisites for membership. Timor-Leste itself is a small country with social conditions living in high poverty ($1.90/day in 2022); it is feared that it will only creating hardships on other member states as they are–ethically speaking, obliged to help, bearing in mind that full membership demand payment for around US$2.5 million per year. In fact, locally, President Ramos-Horta faced hesitation due to a lack of human and economic resources in light of ASEAN which conducts hundreds of various-level meetings each year. Other than that, the country’s reluctance to address the opposing stance towards Myanmar junta in the United Nations also caused delay in the joining process.

Even though historically, ASEAN has always welcomed new members regardless of rich-and-poor considerations on countries capabilities or resources. This is what made Laos and Myanmar join in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999. In short, as long as the precondition of geographic location is met, any country is eligible to apply, which is also stated in the ASEAN Charter. Other than that, the candidate must be recognized by all member states, abide the charter, and have the willingness and ability to carry out the membership obligations. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the current ASEAN system can not be completely generalized to that of the 1990s.

In the meantime, ASEAN agreed in principle to acknowledge Timor-Leste. Along with being sent a fact-finding mission from the three ASEAN communities, Timor-Leste was given the status of observer state which allows itself to participate in numerous ASEAN meetings, though could not contribute directly to the process of conveying views to making decisions. Hopefully in the near future, the mission will release a report outlining a roadmap for Timor-Leste’s full membership in ASEAN.

As it holds the ASEAN stewardship in 2023, Indonesia–a country that has been the traditional first visit for new leaders of Timor-Leste, is expected to accelerate the new member acceptance process. The outlook is that Timor-Leste can obtain full membership when Indonesia, as the chairman, hosts the ASEAN Summit in 2023.

The presence of new challenges

Economically-speaking, Timor-Leste’s economic growth is highly dependent on income from the oil business through the Petroleum Fund. Sooner or later, these funds will slowly run out and will only bring downturn effects on public finances, putting risk of economic instability, and eventually reduce the country’s capacity to fulfill the ASEAN membership necessity. At the moment, Timor-Leste is setting out to manipulate its overdependence on oil by shifting on other alternatives, such as industry of tourism and manufacturing. Another potential step is to galvanize the private sector which can attract foreign investments. Institutions, meaning government, become the initial determinant of effective and efficient development achievements. One which needs to be considered is that development mostly requires process to create better life for the society, including in Timor-Leste.

In the context of administrative aspects, Timor-Leste can adjust local policies–as alterable as possible–in line with ASEAN regulations, bearing in mind the characteristic of ASEAN treaties and conventions are legally-binding. These efforts must be directed towards the future of an independent Timor-Leste, as overdependence to foreign parties will only affect the decision-making process. Meanwhile, there are many sources of foreign aid to Timor-Leste, primarily from Australia, Japan, Portugal, European Union, United States (US), and China.

Aside from that, in a social-community context, the condition of Timor-Leste’s human resources is also a notable concern. In 2020-2021, the unemployment rate of citizens aged 25-31 is 43.3%. This situation can actually be minimized by encouraging community capacity education and training, which confidently will boost labor productivity. Given Timor-Leste’s target to avoid dependence on oil commodities, investment in human resources is a noteworthy matter to be acknowledged.

Timor-Leste’s reputation as a developing country experiencing instability, both politically and economically, makes other ASEAN member states in having moral obligations to assist the former. Pursuing economic targets unquestionably demands extra energy for Timor-Leste. Should the issue not be immediately corrected and changes are made, it will assuredly create a steep road when becoming a member of ASEAN later as it takes more time to reach other ASEAN member states’ economic abilities. Without question, this is a big stumbling block for Timor-Leste–the good intentions to admit it as a member might turn into problematic conditions for ASEAN in the future.

On one hand, all challenges have made several parties, particularly Singapore, hesitate to agree on Timor-Leste registration prior to its ratification as an official member. While on the other hand, Timor-Leste’s position in trading activity (exports-imports) is significant in the region, hence potentially becoming an important partner for Southeast Asia countries.

Emergence of potential opportunities

Presumably for the East Timorese, joining ASEAN means an open access for local residents, especially in the field of tourism and manufacturing, which is beneficial in expanding economic capacity. This includes the cross-border employment opportunities, particularly the ASEAN Economic Community which covers eight major industries for an ASEAN market of 683 million people. These opportunities will encourage the diversification of state revenues from oil and gas to other potential sectors, such as agriculture and tourism.

Furthermore in the economic sector, Timor-Leste will gain closer relations with neighboring ASEAN countries. Between 2016 and 2019, more than half of Timor-Leste’s imports originate from five ASEAN member states, amounting to US$2.05 trillion, whereas the figure for exports of goods and services was only US$95 million. Timor-Leste admittance to ASEAN can reduce this level of trade activity gap.

In a geopolitical context, Timor-Leste–as a part of ASEAN–can avoid the possibility of being exploited for the benefit of foreign influences. Timor-Leste’s government even confessed on a likelihood to totally ally with the US or China should ASEAN not agree to the membership application. Nevertheless, it should be noted that China’s role can not be underestimated given that the country has aid to fill Timor-Leste’s infrastructure gap. Its involvement in ASEAN, at least, offers a safety net that the Portuguese-speaking country will adjust its policies to the interests of ASEAN. Perceiving the regional dynamics, political and security reasonings must be made priorities instead of merely economic considerations.

The entrance of Timor-Leste is touted to be a model of democracy. Compared to many other states in ASEAN, including Myanmar and Thailand, which–at some point–are still authoritarian and supported by the military; let alone Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia which are communist countries, the presence of Timor-Leste might help the process of democratization in the region. Certainly, this will be challenging for a small democratic country which is presently struggling.

Moreover, in an institutional aspect, the recognition of Timor-Leste can make the organizational regulations gradually adapt to issues of contemporary dynamics. Moreover, the ASEAN Secretariat might be given authority to have a greater role in active and constructive use to ensure ASEAN’s long-term projects. This notion is not only to accommodate new members, but to model ASEAN as a more adaptive organization which is steady in facing future challenges.

Eventually, Timor-Leste’s membership in ASEAN hopefully can become a new opportunity for well-integrated cooperation. Opportunities for cooperation and markets of Timor-Leste will be wide open and beneficials for ASEAN member states and also its dialogue partners. The reciprocal relationship between the two parties is expected to go hand-in-hand. Thus, ASEAN member states must provide support through the provision of capacity related to building assistance and other forms of assistance relevant with Timor-Leste’s needs. Simultaneously, Timor-Leste is also supposed to exhibit contributions for the development and progress of ASEAN. This will be advantageous in the form of a more active and effective cooperative relation in the future of ASEAN.

*This article is co-authored with Silvia Jultikasari Febrian, an undergraduate student of International Relations, Universitas Islam Indonesia.

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China’s assurance of Rohingya repatriation between Myanmar-Bangladesh

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Rohingya refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Myanmar (file photo). IOM/Mohammed

We now have new hope thanks to news reports that were published in the Bangladeshi dailies on Tuesday and contained the word of Yao Wen, the recently appointed Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, that the repatriation of Rohingyas to their native Myanmar would begin as soon as possible. We believe that the Chinese government is truly considering Bangladesh’s concern over the safe and immediate repatriation of more than a million displaced Rohingyas in light of the Chinese envoy’s pledge.

The envoy reportedly made this commendable remark to our foreign minister at a recent meeting at his office.

If his words are followed by action, we think China’s role in this case will serve as a model for future efforts to advance world peace, particularly in light of the repeated failures of attempts to repatriate Rohingya due to the government of Myanmar’s blatant indifference and partially due to the insincere efforts of the international community. And when it comes to finding a long-term solution to the biggest refugee crisis in history, we wholeheartedly believe in China’s potential. China is a dependable friend of Bangladesh and a major global force. There is no doubting the importance of the newly appointed Chinese Ambassador’s position in this situation.

The Rohingya situation needs to be resolved diplomatically and via political means, according to the international community. The US and other Western nations keep applying pressure to Myanmar even though they are unable to ensure the safe and willing return of the Rohingyas. As Bangladesh seeks the swift repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar, Li Zhiming, the former Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, stated that China would serve as a “bridge of communication” and do its utmost to support a timely resolution. China supports Bangladesh’s desire to begin repatriation, and China will keep assisting the two friendly neighbors in finding a solution to this persistent problem. China will make an effort to address this issue effectively because it is one of humanity.

In truth, Bangladesh, a country with limited resources and territory, is no longer able to handle such a large number of displaced people as it deals with a wide range of domestic and international problems as a result of the recent worldwide pandemic and the war in Russia and Ukraine. Hosting the growing population of Rohingyas, including newborn children, is also not a long-term option for them. In previous editorials, we have emphasized numerous times the importance of finding a long-term solution to this situation.

To protect China’s interests in Myanmar, the Rakhine state must remain stable. The infrastructure that China built in the state of Rakhine will have a big impact on the region’s economic growth. Human resources are also necessary to run all of these facilities. These Rohingyas and Rakhines can be trained by China to work efficiently in a variety of facilities and sectors. A stable Rakhine will draw tourists, and the region’s tourism industry can grow. Rakhines and Rohingyas can work in that sector as well. That will deal with the state’s unemployment issue. The level of racial animosity will progressively decline as the economy improves, and harmony may be guaranteed. The Rakhine region is essential for China’s military plans in addition to ensuring presence in the Indian Ocean.

Given all, it can be concluded that the Rohingya situation will be resolved if China takes the proper action.

Bangladesh desires the safe and honorable return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Bangladesh and China have long-standing, close ties. During a visit to Bangladesh on August 6, 2022, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that Bangladesh is making serious efforts to resolve the Rohingya crisis. During this tour, the Rohingya issue received important discussion. China’s help was requested during this visit in order to play a bigger role in the Rohingya situation and find a political solution that would guarantee return. China has contributed significantly to Bangladesh’s socioeconomic growth by funding numerous economic initiatives there.

We think the Rohingya situation would not have lasted as long if the big nations had shown the kindness and sincerity that we see now. An appropriate solution to the situation would have been achieved by now if the humanitarian component of it had been given precedence above its geopolitical ramifications.

According to our assessment, the main source of the crisis lost steam due to the competing interests of the major players, many of which Bangladesh and Myanmar have bilateral relations with for a variety of reasons.

The Rohingya situation is solely a matter of human rights. Democracy and human rights are related. From that vantage point, it is impossible to deny the significance of democracy for the sustainable return of displaced Rohingyas to their country of origin, Myanmar.

We believe that other global power players cannot avoid their collective responsibility to rise to the occasion above their political lines and assist China for a long-term solution to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, despite the fact that China’s assurance to resolve the Rohingya crisis revives a ray of hope.

Bangladesh and China have close political and military relations in addition to the fact that China is Bangladesh’s top trading and development partner. The Rohingya issue must be addressed in Myanmar, a country that China has significant influence over. As a result, China can make a big contribution to the return of the Rohingya.

To resolve this problem, the regional powers need to step forward right away. Everyone expects that by resolving the Rohingya issue, China, a friendly nation of Bangladesh, will significantly contribute to the peace, security, and stability of the area.

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Southeast Asia

To engage or not engage. Hindus and Muslims suss each other out

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Moderate Muslims and militant Hindu nationalists are strange bedfellows at the best of times, particularly when they come together to reshape Hindu-Muslim relations in troubled India.

Yet, that is what Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) seek to achieve.

Nahdlatul Ulama, arguably the world’s most moderate Muslim civil society group in the world’s largest Muslim-majority state and democracy, is everything the RSS, a notorious Hindu nationalist movement widely viewed as the catalyst of anti-Muslim violence and discrimination in India, is not.

What makes the endeavour even more remarkable is that the two groups have strikingly different visions of what Hindu-Muslim reconciliation should entail.

For Nahdlatul Ulama, engagement with the RSS is part of a bold and risky strategy to persuade faith groups, including Muslims, to confront their troubled, often violent, histories and problematic tenants of their religions that reject pluralism and advocate supremacy.

“Nahdlatul Ulama believes that the only way to overcome entrenched historical grievances and promote peaceful co-existence is to engage all parties and refuse to indulge in the sentiment of enmity and hatred based upon a claim of unique communal victimhood,” the group said in a statement in September explaining its engagement with RSS.

For the RSS, engagement is about redressing historical grievances dating to centuries of Muslim invasions and rule, defending Hindus against perceived contemporary Muslim threats, and ensuring that India is a Hindu rather than a non-discriminatory multi-religious state.

A 2019 amendment to India’s citizenship law suggested how the RSS defines a Hindu state. The amendment extends the right to apply for citizenship to members of religious minorities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians but not Muslims — fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed, an Indian Muslim author and intellectual who maintains close ties with the RSS, insisted in an interview with the author that RSS ideology views Indians, irrespective of their religion, culturally as Hindus.

“They say that Hindu doesn’t have a religious connotation, Hindu being all those people living in this part of the world, they are culturally…Hindus… The religion is Santana Dharma or Eternal Faith (the Hindu reference to Hinduism). Hindu is the cultural identity… That is the middle ground,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

In 2021, RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat launched a widely acclaimed book authored by Mr. Iftikhar that argued in favour of Hindu-Muslim togetherness and harmony.

Nahdlatul Ulama and the RSS’ different visions have consequences for strategy. Although the RSS’ Indonesian engagement is with a movement led by clerics, in India, it tends to interact with secular Muslims who have no authority to reform Islamic jurisprudence rather than religious scholars.

Even so, Mr. Iftikhar said numerous Indian Muslim religious leaders of all stripes were in touch with the RSS, although many of them did so privately.

These include leaders of Deobandism, a revivalist ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim movement, which counts some 20 per cent of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims among its followers.

Deobandism emerged in the mid-19th century around Darul Uloom Madrassa, a religious seminary in Deoband in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to preserve Islamic teachings under British colonial rule.

“The difficulty is that contrary to the RSS, Muslim authorities in India do not have a strategy. Theologically, they have not accepted India’s existence but, for political reasons, do not challenge it. It’s an attitude they have yet to abandon,” said an analyst of Indian Islam.

In a separate interview on an Indian Muslim television channel, Mr. Iftikhar argued that the Muslim community had failed to address its differences with the RSS.

“The community has avoided any discussion or debate on that. It has always taken refuge behind others, whereas the challenge was ours. The response should have been from us, and we should have tackled those issues. The issues are challenges that India as a country and we as Indians…as one single nation, are facing. It is not a Hindu challenge; it is not a Muslim challenge,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

In a chapter that he contributed to an edited volume on the politics of hate in South Asia, Indian Islam scholar A. Faizur Rehman seemed to spell out Mr. Iftikhar’s castigation of the Indian Muslim leadership and align himself with Nahdlatul Ulama’s call for reform of Islamic law.

Mr. Rehman took the Muslim community to task for not countering their own ultra-conservatives and militants on multiple issues, such as the defense of relations with non-Muslims, the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim minority communities in Muslim lands, and draconic blasphemy laws in countries like Pakistan.

“If the Muslim community fails to question and stop these fanatics, it would be unwittingly contributing to Islamophobia,” Mr. Rehman said.

Mr. Rehman argued that Muslims needed to clarify their beliefs by stating that India is not part of the Muslim notion of an abode of war and, like Nahdlatul Ulama, declare that the concept of the kafir or infidel does not apply to non-Muslims.

A gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama clerics ruled in 2019 that the concept of the kafir was no longer legally valid.

Mr. Rehman contended that Muslims should discard the concept of dawah or proselytisation “as a tool of supremacism” and abolish apostasy and blasphemy as capital crimes under Islamic law.

“In short, what is needed…is a radical rethink of Muslim theology,” the scholar said.

Three years into the dialogue, the jury is still out on Nahdaltul Ulama’s interaction with RSS, which started as a cautious dialogue and has expanded into a degree of cooperation.

So far, the endeavour, embraced by moderate Indian Muslims and reformers, appears to have worked more in the RSS’ favour than that of Nahdlatul Ulama.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s credentials offer the RSS Muslim legitimisation.

The RSS has used the Muslim group’s push for reform of religious jurisprudence, the concept of a pluralistic Humanitarian Islam, and unequivocal endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to tell India’s 200 million Muslims, the world’s largest Muslim minority, what their faith should look like.

To be fair, there may be no Hindu-Muslim reconciliation without the RSS, a five million-member-strong movement whose disciples constitute the core of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and government. The RSS is the ideological cradle of Mr. Modi, who has been a member since childhood.

In a rare recent interview published in Hindi and English by two RSS sister publications, Mr. Bhagwat, the group’s leader, discussed the movement’s strategy and objectives that frame engagement with Nahdlatul Ulama although he did not refer to the Indonesian Muslims.

Mr. Bhagwat’s statements offer reasons for both optimism and pessimism.

From a tactical point of view, Nahdlatul Ulama is likely to have taken note of Mr. Bhagwat’s acknowledgement that the RSS can no longer refuse accountability for what its associates in office do.

“People forget that swayamsevaks (RSS associates) have reached certain political positions through a political party. Sangh (RSS) continues to organise society for organisation’s sake. However, whatever swayamsevaks do in politics, Sangh is held accountable for it,” Mr. Bhagwat said.

“Even if we are not implicated directly by others, there is certainly some accountability, as ultimately it is in the Sangh where swayamsevaks are trained. Therefore, we are forced to think – what should be our relationship, which things we should pursue with due diligence,” Mr. Bhagwat added.

To be sure, Mr. Bhagwat was talking about the RSS’s relationship with the BJP and its current accountability rather than the historical responsibilities of the group and Hindus at large. He stressed that the RSS was concerned about “national policies, national interest, and Hindu interest,” not electoral politics.

By drawing a line between the RSS and the BJP, accepting the principle of accountability, and framing the groups’ political involvement, Mr. Bhagwat appeared to hint at a potential divergence between the movement and the party.

“The RSS thinks about the endgame. Bhagwat thinks about the future. He is not elected and does not have to worry about re-election. The BJP does. That’s why the BJP is more prone to polarisation. The RSS does not need polarization for electoral purposes,” said an analyst who closely follows the RSS and BJP.

Even so, Mr. Bhagwat did not shy away from polarizing language when he asserted that Hindus were engaged in a “1,000-year war.” Moreover, Mr. Bhagwat magnified the notion of war by insisting on the RSS’ majoritarian vision of India, or Hindustan in his words. as a Hindu rather than a multi-cultural nation.

The RSS leader defined the war as a fight against “foreign aggressions, foreign influences and foreign conspiracies” that seek to force others “to accept their path as it’s the only true path. And if you refuse to do so, you will have to choose between our mercy and death.”

Mr. Bhagwat made clear that he was referring to Muslim rather than Christian proselytisers by insisting that “Muslims should give up the mindset of superiority…(and) ‘we can’t live with others.’”

Mr. Bhagwat asserted, “foreign invaders are no longer, but foreign influences and conspiracies have continued. So, there is a war to defend Hindu society, Hindu Dharma (cosmic law), and Hindu culture.”

Drawing a contrast with Hinduism, Mr. Bhagwat asked rhetorically: “What is the Hindu worldview? Does a Hindu ever say that everyone should endorse his faith? This is not how we think. We want to present an example for others to see. We want to have (a) dialogue with everyone. Those who wish to improve will follow our example. If they do not, we do not intend to harm them.”

Mr. Bhagwat’s polarizing rhetoric notwithstanding, Nahdlatul Ulama sees common ground in the RSS’ rejection of what the Indonesian group describes as “obsolete and problematic elements within Islamic orthodoxy that lend themselves to tyranny.”

Nahdlatul Ulama, a conservative, nationalist organisation in its own right, hopes that its willingness to confront head-on intolerant and supremacist tenants of Islamic law will convince the RSS to develop a Hindu equivalent of Humanitarian Islam and take a critical look at Hindu theology, history, and anti-Muslim attitudes.

In an article entitled “What the media has misunderstood about Mohan Bhagwat’s interview,” Ram Madhav, an RSS executive committee member and associate of Mr. Modi, sought to finetune Mr. Bhagwat’s reference to war.

“The UNESCO Constitution begins with the statement that ‘wars begin in the minds of men’. Bhagwat’s emphasis was actually on removing that mindset of war. It is a historical fact that India has been subjected to various political and religious aggressions over millennia. That history has left an imprint, leading to occasional aggressive outbursts in sections of the society. Bhagwat was categorical that such aggression was uncalled for,” Mr. Madhav said.

“If there is a Hindu who thinks like that, he should discard it. A communist should also shed it”, Mr. Madhav quoted the RSS leader as saying.

In his interview, Mr. Bhagwat downplayed aggression by RSS members. “Since there is a war, people are likely to get overzealous. Although this is undesirable, yet provocative statements will be uttered,” the RSS leader said.

The dialogue with Nahdlatul Ulama did not stop the Indian group from accusing in its March 2022 annual report “a particular community” of seeking to “enter the government machinery” to further its ”malicious” agenda” as part of “a deep conspiracy.”

The report repeated allegations of imaginary Muslim jihads, such as the alleged forced conversion of Hindus to Islam.

“This challenge has a long history, but, of late, different newer ways of converting new groups are being adopted,” the report said.

Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar. discounts Hindu fears of a demographic threat to their majority status in India but acknowledges that deep-seated distrust dates to the 12th-century Muslim conquests.

“By the turn of the 20th century, a deep distrust developed between Muslims and Hindus. The Muslims came to be seen as outsiders who had come to conquer and convert the original inhabitants of the subcontinent to Islam, “Mr. Rehman said.

Noting that Hindu distrust is rooted in the insistence of Muslim conquerors that India was Islamic territory, Mr. Rehman conceded that Hindu fears are fueled by “clerics and televangelists in India (who) continue to display their supremacist arrogance.”

Mr. Rehman points to ultra-conservative and militant clerics who forbid Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays and denounce the operation of non-Muslim houses of worship in Muslim lands.

Another Muslim reformer traces the roots of strained relations to Muslim invasions that started with the Umayyad conquest of Sindh in the 8th century.

“It all began with Muslims invading, slaughtering, enslaving Hindus, and burning their temples. Today, the demographic fear may be blown out of proportion. But how long would it take deer to overcome their fear of tigers if tigers became domesticated and tigers stopped killing deer? This is the way Hindus look at Muslims. The fear is still there that Muslims continue to believe that they should dominate and prey upon non-Muslims,” the reformer said.

For his part, Mr. Iftikhar, the Muslim intellectual, insisted in his interview with the author that Indian Muslims were as much victims of Muslim conquests as were Hindus.

“All the Muslims who ruled India in the last seven, eight centuries were either Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Uzbeks or Iraqis, not Indian Muslims… We have never ruled India… So why should I take it on myself when I was not part parcel of that history?… We belong to this land. We stayed here by choice. We are the citizens of this country. So why should we take the baggage of the foreign Muslim rulers?” Mr. Iftikhar asked.

The latent fear of Muslims, fuelled by perennial Indian-Pakistani tensions, enabled ideologues and politicians to weaponize demographic concerns in a population for which it is primarily a lingering prejudice rather than a living memory or a daily life challenge.

Moreover, the population figures speak for themselves. Muslims account for 200 million of India’s population of 1.4 billion. Demography, in the best of cases, is only a potential concern, if at all, if Indians look at South Asia as a whole. The subcontinent is home to three of the four largest Muslim populations that, alongside India, include Pakistan, with 231 million, and Bangladesh, with 169 million.

Even so, Mr. Bhagwat asserted in October that “population control and religion-based population balance is an important subject that can no longer be ignored” because “population imbalances lead to changes in geographical boundaries.”

Countering Mr. Bhagwat, Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar, argues that “Hindu-Muslim mistrust in India today is based on imaginary fears. Both communities are not responsible for what their respective ancestors did. But they would be if they buy into the politically motivated propaganda that seeks to keep them divided.”

For his part, Mr. Iftikhar expressed support for Muslim dialogue with the RSS.

“If you keep a distance and detachment as your strategy, as your policy, then whatever opinions you form are stereotypes. Stereotypes are untested, untried so-called facts. If they become the source of opinion-making and opinion-building, then you can imagine that the argument will never have a logical base,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

The author went on to say that “the Muslim community should come forward and instead of putting conditions, raising doubts and making it an issue that do this and then it will happen, no, relations are not build up, understanding is never achieved as a goal when you put conditions. Engagement is the way forward, sit, talk, interact, exchange, put forward your viewpoint, listen to the other viewpoint.”

It’s an approach that Mr. Rehman and Nahdlatul Ulama embrace. For them, as well as for Mr. Iftekhar, the onus is on all parties. For Muslims, that means conceptual and judicial reform; for the RSS, it means defining accountability in word and deed.

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