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

Prof. Murray Hunter

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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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Will Mahathir Reset China-Malaysia Trade Relations?

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A shock electoral upset has just returned 92-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad to the prime ministerial chair in Malaysia. The run-up to this climax was muddled by a miasma of fake news, lurid allegations and outright conspiracy theories from eitherside of the political divide. China-baiting was inevitably drawn into this tawdry mix despite mainland investments being a stabilizing main stay of the local economy.

According to an Economic Intelligence Unit report last year, Malaysia was the fourth-largest recipient of mainland Chinese direct investments – right behind Singapore, United States and the autonomous Chinese province of Hong Kong. Although the sum total of Chinese investments in Malaysia has not been adequately tallied,the US$100 billion Forest City project provides a snapshot of the staggering amounts being invested into the local economy.

While former Prime Minister Najib Razak hailed these investments as an imprimatur ofhis government’s investor-friendly policies, the opposition camp (and new government) accused him of “selling out to China”. In reality, one doubts whether foreign consortiums canmatch the scale, cost-effectiveness and speed of execution of many Chinese-led projects in Malaysia.

Business Compradors

Dr Mahathir has particularly taken issue with the inadequate number of local jobs created by Chinese investments in Malaysia. It is an argument not without merit.Overseas Chinese infrastructure projects are known for their heavy reliance on mainland labour, machines and supplies – of the lock, stock and barrel variety – tokeep costs, graft and middlemen interference to the lowest possible scale.

Curiously, the backbone of Dr Mahathir’s electoral tsunami came from the ethnic Malaysian Chinese community who openly hailedthe global ascent of China. That was until theydiscovered thatmainland business models accommodated as few middlemen as possible.It was Alibaba on a massive scale, missing 40 thieves and in perennial need of 40innovators.

Many Malaysian consumerssave thousands of ringgit each year by purchasing a variety of consumer products directly from China instead of forking out a hefty mark-upat local stores.Unsurprisingly, there are now growing calls to tax online purchases from China. This is not going to help budget-strapped Malaysians who voted in the new administration on the back of complaints over rising living costs. Malaysia’s shadow economy has been estimated by various studies to range between 30 percent and 47 percent of its GDPup till 2010.

The anti-China narrative therefore may be couched in terms of multifaceted grievances like jobs and the South China Sea but it primarily boils downtoincentives for middlemen who contribute little or nothing in terms of value-additions to projects, productsor services offered by mainland companies. These modern-day compradors have an ally in another area bereft of value – added or otherwise.

Media Compradors

The biggest impediment to the Malaysian economy is not China, its business modus operandi or the lack of local talent. It is the Malaysian media which has abjectly failed to relay grassroots ideas and innovations to national policy-makers for decades.

The author himself vividly remembers the lament of Dr Mahathir’s former national science advisor on the dearth of science journalists in Malaysia. This translates to recurring losses in taxpayer money.There is an oft-told account of how a fact-findingdelegation to the United States, seeking particular expertise in renewable energy technology,were told that the expert they were looking for was a Malaysian academic back in Kuala Lumpur!

Researchers needing critical economic or scientific data on Malaysia are likely to get them from foreign sources as even google cannot cope with the bottomless insipidity and juvenile meanderingsof the local media. Publicity-seeking experts with dodgy backgrounds are routinely sought for their banal insights and quotes in return for guaranteed filler spaces in a lack lustre media.Malaysia is gradually losing its economic and intellectual competitiveness due to the entrenched practise of mediocrity promoting mediocrity – egged on by Western interests.This forms the main backdrop to the current anti-China narrative.

Local media stalwarts privately blame politicians, in particular Dr Mahathir himself (during his previous 22-year reign) for the lack of media vigour and freedom in Malaysia. While media restrictions undeniably exist, one wonders how proposed articles on topics such as Open Governance could be seen assubversive.

It is high time to drain the swamp in Malaysia. Dr Mahathir has already indicated that the bloated 1.6 million-strong civil service in Malaysia would be pruned to promote economic and government transparency. For decades, successive governments had rewarded personal loyalty with plush posts and contracts. Malaysians now have another chance to demand efficient, meritocratic and transparent governance. Not mass-mediated bogeymen, viral passions and pies-in-the-skies.

The billion-dollar question now is whether the new administration will be able tousher in a transparent and vibrant media – one that can explore greater synergies within and abroad.Otherwise, Malaysia’s relations with its neighbours and trading partners are bound to deteriorate, along with its economy.

An abridged version of this article was published by CCTV’s Panview on May 14, 2018

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Changing dynamics of China-India and China-Japan ties

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Over the past year, there has been a growing interest with regard to the vision of a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’. While this term has been used in recent years by policy makers from the US and Australia and has been pushed forward by a number of strategic analysts, a number of developments since last year have resulted in this narrative gaining some sort of traction.

US President Donald Trump during his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific). On the eve of his visit to India last year, Former Secretary of State, Richard Tillerson while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC) spoke about a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and the need for India and US to work jointly. Said Tillerson:

     ‘The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential’.

In November 2017, the Quad grouping (Australia, US, India and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, US Department of State had said that the discussions were important and members of the Quad were:

‘committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

Earlier too the four countries had coalesced together, but as a consequence of Chinese pressure, the grouping could not last.

There have also been discussions of coming up with connectivity projects. While this was discussed during Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump in February 2018. In April 2018, representatives of Japan, US and India met in New Delhi and committed themselves

Indo-Pacific and China factor 

While members of the Quad continuously denied, that the Indo-pacific was specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe, that this assertion. In fact, during a visit to Australia, French President Macron who is trying to position himself as one of the frontline protagonists of liberalism in the Western world, spoke about the need for India,  Australia and France to work together in order to ensure a rules based order.  Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work for a rules based order, and checking hegemony (alluding to China), the French President, Emmanuel Macron, stated:

   ‘What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony,”

Changing dynamics of China-India and China-Japan ties

While it is good to talk about a rules based order, and Free-Fair Indo-Pacific, it is important for members to do a rational appraisal, of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant . especially in the context of two important events. First, the reset taking place between India-China, and second the thaw between Japan-China.

This has already resulted in some very interesting developments.

First, Australia was kept out of Malabar exercises in June (Japan, US and India will be participating).  Australia is a member of the Quad alliance, and has been one of the vocal protagonists of a Free and Fair Indo Pacific Narrative, and a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific.  Australia has on more than one occasion, expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.

Many argue, that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercises, is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations. Though India has been dismissive of this argument,

Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in the (Belt and Road Initiative) BRI,  as long as international norms are met. During meetings between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers (Wang Yi, in April 2018, such a possibility was discussed. During Wang Yi’s meeting with Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe too this possibility was discussed. The Japanese PM who is seeking to improve ties with China, reiterated the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative in giving a boost to the regional economy.

It would be pertinent to point out, that a number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Interestingly,  Japanese led Asian Development Bank ADB which has been funding many projects (spearheaded by Japan) which have been projected as a component of the Indo-Pacific strategy has even gone to the extent of stating, that it does not perceive AIIB as a threat. Commenting on the possibility of cooperation between ADB and AIIB, President of ADB, Takehiko Nakao  stated:

“AIIB, it’s not the kind of threat to us. We can cooperate with AIIB because we need larger investment in Asia and we can collaborate.”

Where does Indo-Pacific go from here?

In terms of strategic issues, especially ensuring that China is not unfettered influence in the region, the narrative is relevant. The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and Quad as being mere froth is an exaggeration. Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi had stated, that there was:

‘no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate”,

Similarly, in terms of promoting Democratic values it certainly makes sense. The real problem is in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India-Japan, none of the members of the Quad have elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen to what extent this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects. Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified. It has been argued, that Australia could play a key role in important infrastructural projects in the South Pacific.

Conclusion

It is fine to speak in terms of certain common values, but to assume that China can be the only glue, is a bit of a stretch, especially given the fact that it has strong economic ties with key countries pushing ahead the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also important, for the Indo-pacific to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders. In the ever evolving geo-political and economic dynamics in Asia, with China re-examining its relations with both Japan and China, the key stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region need to do some serious thinking.

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Infrastructure Drive, Strong Domestic Demand to Sustain Philippine Growth

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The Philippines’ economic growth is expected to sustain its quick pace in 2018 and 2019 as the government’s infrastructure program is rolled out, says a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) report.

In its new Asian Development Outlook (ADO) 2018, ADB projects Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) growth at 6.8% this year and 6.9% in 2019, up from 6.7% in 2017. Rising domestic demand, remittances, and employment, in addition to infrastructure spending, will drive growth. ADO is ADB’s flagship annual economic publication.

“Along with domestic demand, the government’s infrastructure investments will fuel the country’s growth in the next few years, supported by a sound economic policy setting,” said Kelly Bird, ADB Country Director for the Philippines. “We expect this growth to further lift wage employment numbers, add to household incomes, and benefit more poor families across the archipelago.”

The Philippines remained one of the strongest growing economies in Southeast Asia in 2017. Domestic investment recorded 9% growth last year, moderating from a brisk 23.7% in 2016, although growth in fixed investment in industrial machinery, transport equipment, and public construction remained robust. Household consumption grew by 5.8% in 2017, from 7% in 2016, on the back of higher remittances and employment, with the unemployment rate falling by 1.3 percentage points to 5.3% in January 2018 as 2.4 million jobs were added. Public spending rose by 7.3% last year from 8.4% in 2016.

Consumer price inflation reached 3.2% last year from 1.8% in 2016 due to strong economic growth, higher international fuel prices, and Philippine peso depreciation, but well within the 2% to 4% target by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas—the country’s central bank. The country’s external debt further declined to 23.3% of GDP in 2017, from 24.5% of GDP in 2016.

Moving forward, ADB projects services will continue to drive GDP growth, along with manufacturing and construction industries. The approval of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion law in December 2017 will augment tax revenues and provide additional fiscal space for more progressive public spending. The policy reforms are expected to yield additional 90 billion to 144 billion Philippine pesos ($1.73 billion to $2.76 billion) in tax revenue collection in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

With economic growth gaining momentum, inflation is projected to reach 4% in 2018 as global oil and food prices rise, and higher excise taxes on some commodities take effect. In 2019, meanwhile, inflation is expected to marginally decline to 3.9%.

The report notes there are external risks to the Philippines’ growth outlook from heightened volatility in international financial markets and uncertainty about global trade openness, although the country’s strong external payments position would cushion these effects.

A major policy challenge to the country’s growth outlook, according to the report, is managing the rollout of the government’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, which is expected to raise public infrastructure spending to 7.3% of GDP by 2022 from 4.5% in 2016. The report provides suggestions on ways to enhance government capacity, including strengthening coordination between government agencies and improving technical capacity of staff within these agencies, and fostering stronger partnerships between government agencies, the private sector, and development partners.

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