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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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Eminent Scholars discuss India-ASEAN Engagements through Video Conference

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“We look at India as a very good, close friend. We should continue to work to reenergise the bilateral relationship and need to focus on strengthening people-to-people contact”, said H.E. Dato Nazirah Hussain, who formerly served as Malaysian Ambassador to Thailand and as High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. She was speaking at the Video Conference on “India-ASEAN Trade and Geopolitical Engagements” organised by the Society for Policy Research and Empowerment (SPRE), a New Delhi based think tank, on May 30, 2020.

Ambassador Hussain is a distinguished diplomat and has also served in the Malaysian Embassy in China and Singapore. She was also the Director General of the ASEAN Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia. She shared her experiences of participating in the ASEAN-India meetings. She also emphasised that even at the level of leaders, they need to talk directly on contentious issues and resolve them. Ambassador Hussain also lauded India’s role in the pharmaceutical sector saying that India has been the father of generic medicines.

The session was moderated by Dr. Faisal Ahmed, a leading trade and geopolitical expert on the Indo-Pacific, and an Associate Professor of International Business at FORE School of Management. Dr. Ahmed welcomed the speakers and the participants and presented his initial remarks. He said that ASEAN is an economically progressive, culturally vibrant and a geopolitically significant congregation. He said that India and the countries of ASEAN share a strong civilizational and cultural ties. Dr. Ahmed cited some trade statistics to emphasise on the volume of trade. He mentioned that in 2018-19, the merchandise trade between India and ASEAN stood at $97 billion. The services trade accounted between them accounted for $45 billion.

In his welcome remarks, Dr. Ahmed specifically mentioned about some key frameworks including Act East Policy, and also India-ASEAN FTAs in goods and services. He also emphasized that India and ASEAN are mutually important in terms of resources, sea routes, defence, investments, value chains, regional connectivity, and cultural cooperation, as well. Geopolitically too, he said that, India and ASEAN are indispensable for each other as they share the Indian Ocean resources and the security architecture therein. Moreover, in the Indo-Pacific construct too, he stressed that ASEAN Centrality plays a strategic role. Dr. Ahmed maintained that both India and ASEAN are strategically and geo-economically significant for each other.

After Ambassador Hussain, the next eminent speaker was Prof.Rajaram Panda. Heserves as Lok Sabha Research Fellow, and is also a Member of the Governing Council of Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA). He is an eminent scholar and also served as Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) Chair Professor at Reitaku University in Japan.

Prof. Panda maintained that India’s relation with ASEAN has a long historical past characterised by civilizational linkages. Talking about security and political dimensions, he emphasised that India is a strong participant in East Asia Summit, ADMM+ and other such institutional arrangements and has been playing a very constructive role. He also talked about the South China Sea geopolitics and said that the Sea has emerged as a hotspot. He stressed that China’s aggressive and assertive posturing in the South China Sea is threatening the security of several ASEAN countries including Vietnam. He talked about the 2016 verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration which rejected China’s historical claims in the South China Sea. Also mentioning the nine dash line, he said that India should not feel shy of coming out in support of the ASEAN countries.

Further, Prof. Le Van Toan, an erudite scholar who serves as a Professor in Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics in Hanoi, Vietnam, presented his views on Vietnam-India relations. Prof.Toan, who headed the Indian Studies Centre in Vietnam and has been engaged in several policy level and Track II dialogues with India, said that the future of India-Vietnam relations will depend on what we do today.

Prof.Toan maintained that so far Vietnam has contributed very responsibly in global affairs. He also said that we need to look into the cultural traditions which have shaped India-Vietnam relationship over the years. Speaking about comprehensive strategic partnership, he said that Vietnam already has diplomatic relations with 198 countries in the world, however, it has entered into comprehensive partnership only with three countries viz. India, China and Russia. He said that the relationship between Vietnam and China is a very sensitive one wherein China puts threat and pressure on Vietnam, while Vietnam has always tried to respond amicably. But as far as India is concerned, he said that among the three comprehensive partners, India is the most trusted friend for Vietnam.

The next speaker was Dr. Rajan Sudesh Ratna who is an Economic Affairs Officer in the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) in New Delhi. Dr. Ratna, who earlier served in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India for twenty years, including his stint as the Joint Director General of Foreign Trade, discussed about his experiences of negotiating the India-ASEAN framework agreement in 2003. He said that the entire Early Harvest Program (EHP) of India-ASEAN Framework Agreement was dropped because India wanted a very stringent rules of origin (ROO) from ASEAN, fearing that trade would circumvent from China through ASEAN to India. He also maintained that when we started negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2010, we were of course aware about such issues related to negotiating with China. He believed that perhaps it did not reflect good on our negotiations that in 2019, we were still not ready to join the RCEP.

Dr. Ratna, who served as a Professor at the Centre for WTO Studies in Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi, also mentioned that China is the cheapest supplier in the world. If we buy most of our import requirements from other suppliers at a higher cost, our ability to export finished product at a competitive price will also suffer. He gave an example from pharmaceutical sector and said that the sector is dependent on China for its Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) imports. Talking about services, Dr. Ratna said that the major problem is not market access, but Mutual Recognition Agreement by which qualifications can be mutually recognised by India and ASEAN governments. Also, he emphasised that the supply chain of inter-linking services with goods did not happen between India and ASEAN. For instance, he said that during the 2000s, ASEAN was a manufacturing hub of hardware and India specialised in software, yet a mutually beneficial inter-linking between the hardware and software could not be established.

Presenting a perspective from Thailand, eminent scholar Prof.Jaran Maluleem, Professor of Political Science in Thammasat University, Bangkok talked on several issues ranging from trade to education. He said that since the beginning of the 21st century, the relationship between India and Thailand has enhanced to a large extent. Mentioning about the Thailand-India trade agreement, he said that it helped eradicate obstacles to bilateral trade and increased the trade volume between the two countries. He also discussed on the positive role played by the industry chambers in both India and Thailand for enhancing bilateral relations.

Prof.Maluleem also emphasised on the historical and cultural relationship between the two countries, and stressed on the potential for cooperation in tourism, science and technology, investments, strategic and military affairs, and other areas. Being a leading figure in establishing the Indian Studies Program in Thailand, Prof. Maluleem also talked about the educational cooperation between India and Thailand and said that there is a very huge potential for educational exchange and future cooperation in this sector.

Another speaker Dr. Mohd. Faheem, Lecturer, Pridi Banomyong International College at Thammasat University in Bangkok, emphasised on the connectivity issues. He presented his views on the opportunities and challenges of physical connectivity between India and ASEAN. He said that immediately after India embraced economic reforms in 1991, it decided to focus on Southeast Asian countries and adopted the Look East Policy in 1992. Later, the Look East Policy was transformed into Act East Policy. Dr. Faheem further emphasised that Thailand is very strategically located to enhance the connectivity between India and ASEAN. India’s neighbourhood diplomacy, he said, has helped improve focus on sub-regional groups in the region, in which Thailand has a significant role. He maintained that through connectivity, we can improve trade and economic integration, and also enhance people’s mobility between India and ASEAN countries.

During his talk, Dr. Faheem also focused on the importance of engaging youths to enhance bilateral relations. He said that more than half of the ASEAN population is under the age of 35, which provides good opportunity for future cooperation. Dr. Faheem, who is basically a geographer, said that the two most important geographies pertinent to India-ASEAN connectivity projects are Northeast India and Myanmar. He cited the example of two connectivity projects namely Kaladan multimodal project, and, the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral Highway as being crucial and significant for both India and ASEAN.

Taking forward the deliberation, Dr. Mana Southichack, an international trade economist and Executive Director of Lao Intergro, a Vientiane based consulting firm in Lao PDR, presented his views on Laos-India engagements. He said that Laos is a small, landlocked country, with a population of 7 million. On India-Laos bilateral relation, he said that it has been growing in the recent years in economic as well as strategic aspects. He stated that Laos has gradually gained from the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community. He emphasised that the level of development in Laos has been increasing in recent years at a satisfactory rate. Also, he said that human resource infrastructure in Laos need to harmonise its system with ASEAN. After joining  ASEAN, he said, Laos experienced some changes in trade and investment and it was good for its economic development. As a land-locked country, he maintained that Laos is trying to enhance the pace of its development by attracting investment. He cited an example of a project on high-speed train connecting China. He said that China is 2nd largest trading partner for Laos, while Vietnam stands at third place; and India is 4th largest export market for Laos. He stressed that the economic relationship between Laos and India is good and improving.

Finally, Dr. Mahjabin Banu, President, SPRE, and Visiting Fellow with the Centre for Vietnam Studies in New Delhi, presented her perspective on Vietnam, ASEAN, and India-Vietnam relations. Starting her talk with history and culture of Vietnam, she emphasised that Vietnam carries a good reputation for successfully hosting global and regional dialogues. It has a shown long standing commitment for ASEAN integration. She said that in 1998, Vietnam hosted a ASEAN summit, and called for enhanced cooperation among the member countries.

Dr. Banu discussed about the Hanoi Plan of Action which called for macroeconomic and financial cooperation, harmonisation of customs procedures, and trade liberalisation. She mentioned that the Hanoi Plan of Action also called for enhancing efforts for the resolution of South China Sea dispute. Specifically, she stressed that if we are talking about the ASEAN region, we cannot escape Vietnam’s concerns about the South China Sea dispute. She said that in recent months, China has illegally entered into the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam several times. She called for quicker implementation of the code of conduct in the South China Sea.Dr. Banu also discussed about India-Vietnam bilateral cooperation in education sector as well as in defence and strategic issues.

After the technical session, the moderator Dr. Faisal Ahmed opened the video conference forum for Q&A session. It included active participation by delegates and speakers joining from India and abroad including those from Vietnam, Lao PDR, Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal, Jordan, Switzerland, South Korea, Ethiopia, and the United States.

(SPRE may be contacted at: spre.india[at]gmail.com)

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President Ho Chi Minh and his ideas about the world peace

Prof. Pankaj Jha

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The world would be celebrating the 130th birth Anniversary of President Ho Chi Minh on May 19th ,2020. He was named as Nguyen Sinh Cung after his birth inHoang Tru in Central Vietnam but adopted Ho Chi Minh (“Ho the Enlightened One”) as his name in early 1940s. He aspired for collective consciousness and loyalty to the nation. He proposed independence within society rather than independence of each individual.

President Ho Chi Minh was one of the strong supporters of Asian unity, and in one of the messages send to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the Asian relations conference he said that this solidarity would make the Asian countries the mightiest defenders for the world speech and democracy. Alluding to the fact that Asian family is critical for unification and independence, he said that the brotherly countries in Asia would support Vietnam so that the objective of unifying North and South Vietnam could be realized.

President Ho Chi Minh was equally concerned with regard to peace in Asia and the world and during one of the welcome party speeches given in the honour of Prime Minister Nehru in Hanoi in 1954, he said that in order to maintain understand and peace, the people and the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam are determined to execute correctly the ceasefire agreement signed in Geneva. He thanked the International Control Commission managed by Indian, Polish and Canadian delegates for having toiled hard and worked closely with the general headquarters of the Vietnam people’s army and gained sound results.

In most of his correspondence related to the ceasefire agreement between France and Vietnam, he was apprehensive that the imperialist powers should show some resolve to maintain peace. In one of the interviews given to the Indian news agency in 1954 on the question of the ending of the war with French, he said his purpose was to ‘…. promote peace, foster unity, independence and democracy across the country’. In performing these duties, he reiterated, “we are willing to sincerely cooperate with Vietnamese individuals or groups who supports such policies, regardless of their political and religious beliefs’’.

During the June 1954 Prime ministers of China, India, and Myanmar signed a joint declaration which stressed of the five guiding principles(Panchsheela) which included the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; do not violate each other; do not interfere into internal affairs of each other; treat each other equally on the basis of mutual benefits and live peacefully together. President Ho Chi Minh completely endorsed these five principles of peaceful coexistence.

In his separate meetings with the three leaders of China (Zhou Enlai), India(Nehru) and Myanmar (U Nu), he buttressed the need for Asian peace and understanding. In one of the interviews given to the Indian New Age weekly on the question of building of military alliances and bases, he said that these military blocs and bases are threat to peace in Asia and the entire world. He also indicated very often to the growing coalition movement of Asian and African peoples. He always aspired for peaceful unification of North and South Vietnam and holding of elections under democratic process as further enunciated by the Geneva accords.

President Ho said in one of his speeches given on February 7th 1958, ‘at the present time, peaceful forces have been developing, more and more people have been raising their voices for disarmament, stopping nuclear testing and hydrogen bomb, protesting NATO, Baghdad and South East Asia bloc, requesting the world leaders to organize conferences for minimizing the tensions across the world.’

In the joint statement given during his visit to India in 1958, the two leaders (Ho Chi Minh and Nehru) specifically indicated that ‘the developments in the areas of aeronautics, atomic and hydrogen warfare has put the need for peace more than ever’. The two sides agreed that it was imperative to organize a high level conference to find solutions so that the atomic and hydrogen weapons test can be stopped. There was a need for gradual disarmament and easing of the world situation, and expressed the hope that the conference will soon be convened addressing the subject. The two sides stressed that the military blocs have made the international situation precarious and determined that there is need for ideological adversaries to maintain the world peace as well as develop understanding among nations.

In his congratulatory message given on the occasion of India’s Afro Asian solidarity conference 1955, he said, ‘…the conference would be contributing to the cause of fight for the end of colonialism, disarmament and the end of the Cold War to protect freedom, independence and bring peace’.

President Ho Chi Minh was also very influenced by the Buddhist ideals of peace, forgiveness, spirituality, minimalism, and non-ego as the critical elements of human survival and global peace.Ho Chi Minh idea was to develop human affection, sacrifice world pleasures for the people; self-improvement, regular quality exercises, developing human ethics, forge close bonding with people and creating a mass grassroots movement for people’s solidarity. He also looked into the Buddhism ideals which included philosophy, developing a peaceful outlook towards the world, sincerity, goodness, beauty, mercy, impermanence and protecting oneself from misfortune, and the problems germinating because of more pompous live than usual. He even during the visits to different nations and official letters alluded to the spiritual integration, mercy, altruism, ethics, human quality and empathy with fellow human beings.

In fact, one of the ideas that President Ho Chi Minh derived from Buddhism was related to peaceful humanity of Buddhism and Buddhist consciousness in every activity.

If one analyses the resonance in President Ho Chi Minh ideas, it was primarily aimed at bringing about global peace through anti-colonialism and reducing the influence of imperialist powers so that development and growth can be ushered among the newly independent nations. In his letters, he has reposed faith with regard to Geneva accord and time and again in his personal correspondence stressed on democratic principles and respecting will of the people. However, he was conscious of the fact that imperialist powers will not give away easy freedom to the colonies that they possess. In order to pressurize the imperialist powers, he had urged the newly independent countries to avoid power bloc politics and strive for the betterment of the people. His commitment towards his people and unification of Vietnam through peaceful means has been largely unreported but looking into the letters that he had sent to various leaders one thing crops up in each of the letters that he had always striven for global peace and development. It was the last line in most of his letters.

During his visit to India, he had visited Punjab to look into the construction of the Bhakra Nangal dam and was astonished to see that how a single dam could resolve the problems related to power generation and dedication in that particular region. Also during his leadership, he was very of the fact that prolonged wars are not good for the society and the general people. His stress on disarmament, and against Cold War highlights this fact that he was foreseeing the tension which might get intensified because of Cold war. He had full faith in the UN as an institution and was categorical that the global body must undertake initiatives to protect the rights of the people and the suffering of the people in the dependencies should be reduced.

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Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s success in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic

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Vietnam’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been lauded globally. The total number of covid19 as of May 15, 2020 was estimated at 312, and  the country has not reported a single death.

Vietnam’s success in dealing with the pandemic has been attributed to some decisive, but tough, steps which it enforced without dithering like  some of its neighbors in ASEAN. These measures included, a lockdown from April 1, 2020 (which lasted for less than a month) , quarantining of international travelers for a period of 14 days, effective tracing,  Vietnam’s experience in dealing with the SARS epidemic of 2003 also stood the ASEAN nation in good stead. The fact, that Vietnam a country with a population of over 900 million people, has performed far better than many developed countries, has also been recognized globally. Vietnam’s effective handling of the pandemic is all the more remarkable given the fact that it shares a border, and close economic linkages, with China.

Economy

While the ASEAN nation has been able to control the virus, like other countries its economy is likely to be impacted adversely. It’s growth, rate this year has been estimated at 2.7% this year according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (according to the World Bank, Vietnam’s growth will be around 1.5%, but it will escape a recession). Even in the aftermath of the pandemic, Vietnam is likely to fare better, in terms of GDP, as compared to other ASEAN nations, but this is nowhere near the robust economic growth witnessed in previous years(in 2019, Vietnam grew at 7.02%). In recent years, the ASEAN nation emerged as an important manufacturing hub, and has been able to draw in significant FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in manufacturing from a number of countries, including Japan and South Korea, and  has not been dependent merely upon China. In 2019, pledged investment in the manufacturing sector was estimated at a little less than 25 Billion USD (24.6) USD.

Investor friendly policies, efficient labor force and the country’s strategic location have played an important role in Vietnam’s success in drawing FDI, and emerging as an economic hub, not just within Asia but globally. Addressing a business conference, on May 9, 2020, attended by participants from multilateral institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, Chambers of Commerce, and domestic and international business groups, the Vietnamese PM, Nguyen Xuan Phuc sought ideas to kickstart the economy. He also stated, that his governments would make all necessary efforts, to ensure that Vietnam attains 5% growth. The Vietnamese PM stated that foreign investments would be crucial, if Vietnam was to achieve this objective.

 Vietnam’s economy post-covid

The question on most people’s minds is that how will Vietnam deal with the economic challenges posed by the covid19 pandemic. While in the short run, there are numerous challenges, the fact that many companies are keen to shift out of China is likely to help the ASEAN nation. According to many analysts, while some companies are likely to shift to other Asian countries like India and Bangladesh, Vietnam is likely to emerge as a preferred destination, as a result of it’s location, logistical advantages and trade pacts with numerous countries including the US.

 It would be pertinent to point out, that Vietnam had benefitted immensely from the China-US Trade wars, with numerous companies clearly preferring Vietnam, over its other competitors.

Japan which has earmarked over 2.2 billion USD for its manufacturing firms to shift from China, is likely to encourage it’s companies to move to Vietnam (Japan was the second largest investor in Vietnam in the first quarter of 2020). Strategic ties between both countries have also witnessed an upswing in recent years. It would be pertinent to point out, that Vietnam along with Japan, also happens to be a member of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and this will help in bolstering economic linkages with other member states (already some member states within TPP are working closely to keep supply chains intact)

Steps taken

Apart from its economic relevance, Vietnam is also important from a strategic context. It is the ASEAN chair for 2020, and its increasing relevance in the Indo-Pacific region mean that not just Japan, but even other key players in the Indo-Pacific, are likely to bolster strategic and economic linkages with the ASEAN nation in a post corona world.

Vietnam’s stature has risen not just because of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but also ramping up of medical equipment production — such as masks. It was able to provide masks not just to neighboring countries in ASEAN, but also the US, Russia, Germany, France and UK. The ASEAN nation, despite paucity of resources, has emerged as a key stakeholder in the battle against the deadly pandemic. In a post corona world, the ASEAN chair is likely to emerge as an important global player, both in the economic and strategic context.

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