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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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Southeast Asia

Singapore: A golden treasure of ASEAN

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Inspired by “The theory and requirements of 5 E’s Djawed Sangdel to the global leaders in the world”, it is here to present Singapore to illustrate 5 main pillars of the 5E’s: Esteem, Education, Energy, Entrepreneur, and Economy. For Sangdel a county can’t has the development without the exigency of 5E’s.

Since the independence period from British colonization, Singapore has become stronger and wealthier than any Asia-Pacific region (ranked the second among 43 countries in regards of economic freedom score: 89.4, leading its economy to be the second freest in the 2019 Index). Also, Singapore was the third most globalized economy in the list of 60 world’s largest economies, according to Ernst and Young 2011 Globalization Index).

Certainly, the economy of Singapore is sustainable and keeps growing these days. Also, the Singaporean government has dedicatedly invested in its people for decades. However, this “Asian tiger” has only around 700 kilometers, lacking of both arable and natural resources such as fuels, minerals or metals. Moreover, there is only 1.3% of the labor force working in agriculture, which does not contribute to the majority of the GDP. Thus, it is questionable that does Singapore fulfill the conditions and requirements of the 5 E’s in its developmental process?

Esteem

Charlie Munger once said that Singapore had a better accomplishment compared to the United States in the beginning, and the powerful talented person behind this success was definitely Lee Kuan Yew, the Warren Buffett of Singapore.

It is undoubtedly that Lee Kuan Yew possesses a varied range of wonderful characteristics and personalities since he was born. Growing up in a middle-class Chinese family, and then residing in Singapore since the 19th century. Mr. Lee studied law at Cambridge, United Kingdom, and then coming back to Singapore to study economics, English literature, and mathematics at Raffles College. His education was interrupted by the Japanese conquest. He decided to learn Japanese and became a translator for a news agency. His nationalist pride was strong, which he was aware Singapore has to be independent and free from foreign powers.

Lee Kuan Yew – the founding father of Singapore

Lee Kwan Yew started his political career as an election agent under a pro-British Progressive Party. Then, he co-founded the People’s Action Party (PAP) aiming of ending British colonial rule and reaching to self-governance for Singapore. After that, he became the first Prime Minister of Singapore when winning43 of the 51 seats in the legislative assembly on 30th May 1959.

Taking control of the new nation, Lee Kuan Yew understood Singapore had no natural resources and had to rely on Malaysia to support and distribute fresh water to the people. Along with that, Lee saw that it was vital to have a good relationship with Malaysia for Singapore’s survival. Thus, he initiated the proposal to join Malaysia as one of its member states. However, the merger happened shortly (1963-1965) due to mounting disagreements between the Federal Government of Malaysia and the PAP. Even he was anguish at that time, he had a strong belief in himself and his people for Singapore and continuing to develop a nation that he envisioned it to be, “better and stronger” than Malaysia. Then, Singapore became a sovereign, democratic and independent nation.

Becoming independent from Britain and Malaysia, Lee formed a great team and kept them together as founding fathers of Singapore – Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, S Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye and Devan Nair faced with the survival of the nation and Lee never gave up on his vision and his belief. Lee Kuan Yew was also trying to spread his clear vision for Singapore and shared it to his people in several public speeches.

Moreover, Lee understood the vulnerability of small nations such as Singapore, and believed that “a small country must seek a maximum number of friends, while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign and independent nation”. He desired being global, learning languages (English, Mandarin and Malay) as a multi-lingual orator, giving him the ability to reach the widest audience of the multi-racial, multi-cultural states. He managed to create close-knitted collaboration and be global influence in different races, states and faiths. Thus, Mr. Lee traveled around 304 official trips to 83 countries between 1959 and 2012. He was striving for Singapore’s future in the international arena.

Certainly, Lee Kuan Yew possessed a strong self-esteem to manage his nation effectively and innovatively through dark times and brighten times to have a success of Singapore these days. From his brilliant style of leadership and quick wit, how did he aspire his esteem to his people? How had he managed to bring the prosperity of Singapore?

Succession planning to Singapore

After the British left and Singapore attained self-government, the country faced a myriad of problems such as poverty, poor public health, a severe housing shortage, an inactive economy and an exploding population. How did Lee Kuan Yew govern and solve these overwhelming problems?

First, Singapore officially applied to join the United Nations on 3rd September 1965, after separation from the Federation of Malaysia. And then received acceptance, becoming the 11th UN member state on 21st September in the same year. Lee Kuan Yew and his team realized United Nations has made a safer place for countries like Singapore because it “restrains middle powers from invading small states”. This action has allowed not only to raise the country’s profile but also achieve a high recognition in the international community. Also, it was ‘natural’ for Singapore to adhere the policy of “resolving differences between nations through peaceful negotiations, not by violent means”, proved by holding several global conferences and committees.

In addition, to compete with global giants, Lee needed to provide Singapore people with its housing and employment opportunities to bring economic stability. Thus, Lee and his colleagues established key initiatives and implemented several important policies that tackled every aspect of Singapore society from economy to housing, healthcare and the environment. For this purpose, he established the Housing Development Board and Economic Development Board. The Government gave public housing as its top priority, transforming inner city slums into carefully planned mixed townships sold at low cost and provided superior living conditions for its citizens. Also, to encourage home ownership, Singaporeans were allowed to use their Central Provident Fund savings to pay for these apartments.

Furthermore, the Government installed a strict quota system in public housing to ensure that ethnic groups did not create their own monolithic areas. This action preserved racial harmony and disruption in religious. Enacting the Prevention of Corruption Act, the Government implemented a comprehensive anti-corruption framework that manages laws, enforcement, public service and public outreach. Any unexplained wealth unbalance to known sources of income would be investigated to the Government. During against corruption, Lee and his PAP colleagues usually wore white shirts and white trousers, symbolizing their determination to keep the Government clean and incorruptible. The anti-corruption agency, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), is well-resourced and independent. Its purpose is to investigate anybody from the highest position level to the lowest one to raise public awareness and form social norms.

Another essential action by Lee Kuan Yew, establishing internal rules; for example, banning chewing gum since 1992.There was a report showed that train cabin doors could not close in a proper way because the passengers stuck gums on the doors causing malfunction. Therefore, he and his team were concerned this negative habit was a noticeable enemy of progress on Singapore’s success. Even it was rumored as a nanny state, Mr. Lee said Singaporeans are better behaved and live in a more satisfied place than 20 years ago. He once made a joke, if one cannot think because one cannot chew, try a banana.

There was an aggressive method of avoiding rapid population growth and threaten economic progress, Minister Lee designed the Stop at Two Family Planning Campaign. It was urging families that already had two children to undergo sterilization. It worked effectively during that time. Until now, Singaporeans are simply not reproducing, with a fertility rate of 1.29 and mostly Singapore population growth depends on immigration. The misguided family planning policies have led to a low birthrate even the Government currently encourage married women have three or four children.

Although Lee Kuan Yew passed away at the age of 91, his contributions, strategies and determination with his colleagues respectfully transformed a small port into global trading hub as these days, remarkably receiving hundreds of admirations from world leaders. Lee Hsien Loong, his son, replacing his position to develop and manage as the third President of Singapore, whether he will make great as his father and maintaining its success in a long-lasting sustainable period?

Lee Hsien Loong – continuing stable success and development

Son of Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong, became the third Prime Minister of Singapore. Growing up with the admiration of his father, Lee Hsien Loong passionately follows the instructions and leans in politics, economics in the early ages as Deputy Prime Minister (1991-2004), Minister of Finance, and Minister of Trade & Industry.

This man has been a shadow of the political and intellectual giant, his father, Lee Kuan Yew since he becomes Prime Minister of Singapore. While senior Lee usually tries to implement what he promises in his speech during his term, junior Lee tends to use too many facts and figures to the audiences, which sometimes made them get lost, and did not do what he said.

Moreover, junior Lee is struggling with his inner circle – core colleagues inside the government. His general managers are quite weak to assist him with serious problems and lack of will to tackle the solutions. Thus, Lee Hsien Loong probably needs more talented people from private sectors with hands-on experience to work with him.

Junior Lee also seems to be a soft leader and rarely makes hard decisions. He was working in his first five years as Prime Minister with invisible presence, due to the dependence of his team of ministers. However, after losing Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (Aljunied GRC) and receiving the lowest majority votes in any election, he has become more realized to be in action. For example, he said the locals committed more crimes than foreigners when the crime rate rose up, which made the locals scared and be careful with current situations.

In addition, senior Lee usually made a trip to the U.S once a year to have a close relationship unlike his son who only visited the U.S during President Obama’s tenure.  Compared to his father, Lee Hsien Loong does not prefer interacting with international arena but being a domestic position during his 10-year tenure.

Some people has judged Lee Hsien Loong as someone who climbs the politic ladder through his father’s influence. However, they could not know junior Lee wants to prove himself with greater effort to govern and develop Singapore more than what his father did in the past. Certainly, what Lee Kuan Yew did and Lee Hsien Loong is doing now is a different era with different aspirations. Thus, Singaporeans and foreigners should trust in him and what Lee Hsien Loong runs the government to see what will happen.

And what if junior Lee is a failure when the result of upcoming election – whether he will lose some seats or reclaim back Aljunied GRC? And what if he loses his seats, who will govern Singapore more effectively and successfully than Lee Kuan Yew?

Education

Stepping out from 140-year Singapore’s British colonial past, Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP colleagues decided to have an investment in education first, as “to develop Singapore’s only available natural resource, its people”.

Mr. Lee was willing to inherit useful educational models from his enemy as solid foundations to apply in Singaporean education. For example, primary, secondary and pre-university levels operate in four different languages: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, as well as its focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Also, the curriculum for secondary education is modeled on the British O-level and A-level qualifications.

Major education policies since 1959

Being a political independence in 1965, the Singaporean government designed two key goals for education in a new nation: supporting national economic growth and fostering social cohesion in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious population. Besides that, the PAP began classifying curricula, examinations, and teacher qualifications and salaries, as its main target is teachers and students.

In order to support its economic development, the education adopted bilingualism with English (along with the mother tongue of Mandarin, Malay or Tamil), brought a multi-ethnic society’s need for a common language. At the same time, a variety of daily rituals was implemented in schools in order to promote social cohesion and national identity, such as national pledge, awareness of national flag, and singing national anthem.

These two purposes of educational policies have remained over the past six decades. According to 5 E’s, education ranks as the second important element to evaluate the success of the country, this nation has also focused on education to invest on people. Its desired outcomes of education are to “loving Singapore”, and “being enterprising and innovative”.

Key features of Singapore’s education system

One of the most remarkable features is meritocracy, which the PAP has preserved as a founding myth. Its expression is to offer everyone fair educational opportunities and select talent based on individual hard work and merit (individual performance in a series of competitive national examinations).

Secondly, Singaporean education focuses on ability-based streaming, considered as individual differences in ability require unequal curricula. Based on student’s performance in national exams, students would have different courses, levels of complexity in subject curriculum, and different terminal examinations.

Last but not least, the balance between independent schools and the centralization of policymaking of the government established. There are more autonomous schools at secondary level evolving to have freedom in terms of staff deployment and curricula offerings.

Emerging concerns in Singapore education

Successfully, Singapore gradually ranks among top performers in educational attainment measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Developments’ Program International Student Assessment. In addition, its two famous universities are the top 75 in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, as China, Japan, and Germany. However, there still some contradictions in its education system to worry about. The meritocracy has brought several disadvantages as its focus on identifying and nurturing the very best talent and directing it to public service. Moreover, the quick marketization of education (such as promotion of school choice and competition) has created interschool inequalities and social inequalities since the 1980s. Another problematic feature of Singaporean education is the influence of these inequalities on social cohesion.

Energy

Located as a disadvantage position with its neighbor – Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore barely has natural resources, with not much land area. There is only a tiny fraction of the land area is categorized as agricultural, and production contributes a portion to the overall economy. Locals focus on cultivation intensively, growing vegetables and fruits and poultry for their daily consumptions. Also, the local fishing industry supplies a small portion of the total fresh fish requirement, and a tiny aquaculture industry raising groupers, sea bass, and prawns. Thus, Singapore is a key exporter of both orchids and aquarium fish.

As illustrated below, the energy in Singapore from 2004 to 2013 is classified as population, primary energy, production, import, electricity, and CO2 emission. Singapore does not produce any natural resources, and mostly importing from Malaysia and other countries.

Energy in Singapore
Population
(million)
Prim. energy
(TWh)
Production
(TWh)
Import
(TWh)
Electricity
(TWh)
CO2-emission
(Mt)
2004 4.24 298 0 548 34.6 38.1
2007 4.59 311 0 628 39.1 45.0
2008 4.84 215 0 650 39.6 44.3
2009 5.0 215 0 685 39.7 44.8
2012 5.31 291 7.0 823 46.2 49.8
2013 5.40 304 7.4 855 47.7 46.6
Mtoe = 11.63 TWh, Prim. energy includes energy losses

(Source: International Energy Agency – https://www.iea.org)

In details, natural resources in Singapore can be classified into nonrenewable resources, renewable resources, and water resources.

Nonrenewable resources

Singapore has very limited nonrenewable resources. Therefore, the Government chooses to be dependent on oil and natural gas imports. Also, they took a serious decision to move from fuel oil to natural gas since 2001 to reduce high carbon content and energy of the country. Currently, natural gas accounts for 80 percent of the electricity generation.

Renewable resources

As the limited supply of fossil fuels (nonrenewable resources) spread out the country, Singapore government has taken other alternatives for using renewable energy such as the use of bio mass. Biomass energy origins from organic matters including wood, leaves, animal waste, crops, bones, etc. In another way, biomass can be led to solar energy which could produce electricity or fuel. However, this country seems to have a shortage of land, and the government has to find another solution to manage its solar energy potentially.

Water resource

A big challenge for Singapore is the conservation and management of water resource. Its land usage to conserve water has to integrate with the use of land for socio economic growth. Therefore, water itself is a scarce resource, used limitedly. In the past years, the Government of Singapore had to make a deal with Malaysia to transfer a huge amount of fresh water for Singaporean residents.

Until now, there are still five challenges for Singapore government to deal with: safeguarding water resources, managing cost effective and safe drinking water, reducing the system of water supply to a minimum, water conservation, and finishing the water loop. Due to its drawbacks, Singapore has to initiate an efficient water management policy, guaranteeing its sustainability of water resources in a long run, especially infrastructure investment, technology upgrade, and water management strategies to manage water resource.

Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is an essential factor, staying as the fourth in 5 E’s to develop the country successfully. It creates jobs, expanding economic health, and sustaining growth and prosperity of the nation development.

According to a report from research firm Compass, Singapore ranks as top ten hottest startup ecosystems in the world. This city-state opens to 3,600 startups in a wide range of sectors such as e-commerce, social media, gaming, etc. One of the advantaged reasons to start up in Singapore is its strategic location and connectedness to foreign markets. The 190 kilometers of coastline with natural deep-water ports, and island is located with key shipping routes in Southeast Asia.

In the Asia Pacific region, Singapore ranks the ninth in terms of venture capital funding in the Compass report. Also, it has usually ranked No.1 for its ease of doing business (World Bank, accordingly) while the U.S ranked 7th in 2013 and 2014. It can be seen as hundreds of multinational corporations have decided to locate their Asia Pacific headquarters in this lion city, such as Google, Uber, and Facebook.

In general, the entrepreneurial environment maintains one of the world’s most transparent and efficient. The start-up process is straightforward, with no minimum capital required. Additionally, the labor market with flexible labor regulations is vibrant and functional.

The support of local government

Ranked as the 3rd wealthiest country worldwide by Forbes magazine, No.1 as the best labor force in the world, No.1 as the most politically stable country and No.1 for quality of life in Asia, Singaporeans and international businesses receive hundreds of supports from Singapore’s policy makers.

Back in 1999, the local government launched a $1 billion “Technopreneurship Fund” which support for local startups, and about $2 million can go to invest any individual company. Moreover, the deputy prime minister added an extra $50 million investment to this fund in 2013 to present the large attention to startup ecosystem. Also, after China and Japan, Singapore has become the third largest venture capital investments in the APAC region, seems the “easy” gateway to Southeast Asia market.

Open market and high opportunity for start-ups

There are no dividend or capital gains taxes, no estate/death/inheritance tax in Singapore. Additionally, the personal tax rates start at 0% and maximum of 20% above $320K, and corporate tax rates are about 8.5% up to $300K. Many free trade agreements and the Investment Guarantee Agreements are open in Singapore. Last but not least, thanks to Singapore’s strict enforcement of its strong intellectual property laws, Singapore protects the ideas and innovations confidentially.

In 2014, the road density in Singapore was only after urban centers in London, New York, and Tokyo, accordingly the data from the Land Transport Authority. Thus, for example, GrabTaxi, a ride-hailing service, first launched in Malaysia, and rapidly expanded to locate Singapore as its headquarter, which purposes to reduce transport headaches across the region. Its idea has raised $680 million over five funding rounds, from high-profile investors in Singapore.

Economy

Singapore has growing successfully with its free-market economy, open and corruption-free business environment, along with transparent monetary and fiscal policies, and clear legal framework. It also ranked as the third highest per-capita GDP in the world in terms of Purchasing Power Parity and its unemployment rate is only 2.1 percent in 2018.

The significance of manufacturing

Agriculture barely contributes to the Singaporean economy whereas the manufacturing sector plays a significant role with about 20-25 percent of annual Singapore’s GDP, and the services sector with around 70 percent in 2017. In details, key industry elements in its manufacturing include electronics, biomedical sciences, chemicals, transport engineering, and logistics. Especially, the petrochemical industry is crucial for local economy when Singapore imports lots of crude oil for purified petroleum products.

Besides, the government has focuses on high-end manufacturing which includes consumer electronics, semi-conductors, machinery, transport equipment, and ships. They additionally have been trying to foster future potential sectors such as precision engineering, aerospace, and life sciences. 

Globalization and free trade

Singapore’s business-friendly environment has encouraged investment not only in manufacturing but also service sector to the economy growth. Service sector has provided jobs to 80 percent of workers, and creates more than 75 percent of the GDP.

Situating as one of the most perfect and busiest cargo ports in the world, Singapore’s port contains hundreds of import/export trade, shipping, and logistics with China, Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, etc. in global. Furthermore, globalization and free trade are favorably welcomed by the government. This tiny nation allows low import tariffs and is an active member of NATO, ASEAN, and other multinational trade organizations. It has become the first ASEAN country to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the European Union in 2016 and many other free trade agreements.

Sometimes, Singapore is called as “the Switzerland of Asia” as banking, finance, and insurance also contributes a large part to the development of Singaporean economy, as well as wealth management.

When Singaporean government opens a free trade environment and commitment to others, it has created an efficient and easy workplace to do business. Moreover, it provides more opportunities with large investments in infrastructure projects, industrial parks as well as high-tech research and development hub. Nevertheless, there is an urging financial inequality among Singaporean population when many expats have worked and been attracted to the city-state for its safe environment and high living standard.

Conclusion

Reflected from “The theory and requirements of 5E’s Djawd Sangdel for global leaders”, Singapore has become “a mission possible” when its nation owns rare energy but still being a healthy developing country compared to developing and developed countries these days. The esteem of Singapore was truly great during Lee Kuan Yew era but it seems pretty moderate with the power of his son, Lee Hsien Loong. Along with that, policy makers always invest on its people for decades, which led to an ambitious education and then entrepreneurship. Undoubtedly, the growth of economy has run efficiently and fast as named “Asian tiger” with its emerging strategies.

Therefore, personally I would think that Singapore can be a wonderful example to apply the 5E to understand its developmental process. Also, we could realize that education is always important to be invested to build the esteem in every country, even without natural resources.

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Southeast Asia

Building cohesive societies: Southeast Asian states take on gargantuan challenge

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Several Southeast Asian governments and social movements are seeking to counter mounting polarization and inter-communal strife across the globe fuelled by the rise of civilizationalist leaders who think in exclusionary rather than inclusionary terms.

In the most high-brow of various initiatives, King Abdullah of Jordan is scheduled to deliver a keynote address at the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies organized by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) with support from the Singapore government.

Singapore president Halimah bint Yacob has mooted the conference as a high-level forum involving religious leaders akin to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue that for the past 17 years brings together annually senior Asian, European and US government officials in what is Asia’s foremost security forum.

In what amounts to a timely strategic effort to tackle what may be one of the most fundamental threats to peace and security, the conference reflects a growing concern that global polarization and civilisationalism could fuel inter-communal tensions and militancy in Southeast Asian societies.

It crowns a separate Indonesian initiative that targets religious reform and Malaysian willingness to speak out on controversial or sensitive issues.

Southeast Asian concerns include fear that Rohingya lingering in refugee camps in Bangladesh with no prospects could radicalize, the possibility of extremists capitalizing on the fact that reconstruction of the devastated southern Philippine city of Marawi has stalled two years after it was overrun by jihadists, and the danger that suspected sleeper cells of groups like the Islamic State will seek to disrupt the region’s social fabric.

“The social fabric of many communities is stressed by extremism, exclusivism and polarisation. It is important for us to grow trust across communities. This will always be a work in progress, so it is an effort we must constantly invest in,” Ms. Yacob said on the eve of the Singapore conference.

King Abdullah, in a separate statement, warned that “attacking and excluding others, insulting other peoples and their faiths and convictions – this is no way forward. The future lies in unity and respect, not division and stereotypes.”

Ms. Yacob and King Abdullah’s warnings were designed to be an anti-dote to rising prejudice and racism fuelled by the rise of supremacism of various stripes and Islamophobia as well as increased anti-Semitism that often is encouraged by world leaders for ideological or opportunistic reasons.

For Ms. Yacob and King Abdullah, the concern is not a far-from-my-bed show.

Human rights activists were taken aback when Myanmar leader, Nobel peace prize winner and one time human rights advocate Aung San Suu Kyi agreed earlier this month during a visit to Hungary with far-right, staunchly anti-immigrant prime minister Viktor Orban that both Southeast Asia and Europe were struggling with the “emergence of the issue of coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations.”

Southeast Asia and its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are home to the world’s most populous and foremost Muslim democracy, Indonesia, as well as Malaysia that has been among the most outspoken in criticizing Myanmar’s repression of the Rohingya and one of the few Islamic countries to speak out about China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

To King Abdullah, Ms. Yacob’s backyard must look like something approaching paradise. Conflict characterizes all of his kingdom’s borders.

Moreover, the Middle East, beyond Jordan’s immediate borders, is wracked by civil wars, national conflicts and regional rivalries that all involve aspects of prejudice, right-wing nationalism, militancy and sectarianism.

Add to that, the world is holding its breath as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran square off in the Gulf in a dangerous dance that threatens to spiral out of control.

Less highbrow but no less ambitious, Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Sunni Muslim movement, has launched a campaign with Indonesian government backing to “reinterpret and recontextualize” Islam.

The campaign amounts to more than simply confronting ultra-conservatism and militancy. It is a pushback against the notion that secularism and pluralism are expressions of a Western conspiracy to undermine Islam.

If successful, Nahdlatul Ulama’s strategy could have far-reaching consequences. For many Middle Eastern autocrats, adopting a more tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Islam would mean allowing far greater social and political freedoms and embracing concepts of pluralism. That would likely lead to a weakening of autocrats’ grip on power.

Similarly, political scientist and Islam scholar Ahmet T. Kuru throws down a gauntlet in a forthcoming book by arguing that the notion of Islam rejecting a separation of religion and state is based on “a fabricated hadith” or saying of the Prophet Mohammed that has since been perpetuated.

Singapore’s conference like Nahdlatul Ulama’s initiative constitute accepting a gargantuan but critical challenge posed by civilizationalist leaders who reflect deeply rooted currents in societies irrespective of their political systems and/or notions and myths that have been nurtured over centuries.

Inclusiveness is the magic wand touted by all seeking to halt a slide toward societies characterized by fragmentation, political polarization and inter-communal discord. Yet, the enormity of the challenge lies in addressing deep-seated grievances and challenging taboos.

Discussing the rise of populism in the West, politics scholar Matthew Goodwin identifies what he terms the four Ds that drive democracy’s turmoil: distrust of political institutions that have become less representative; the destructive impact of fear of loss of national identity, culture and way of life; ethno-national deprivation fuelled by liberal elites’ focus on migrant and minority rights; and the dealignment of significant segments of the electorate with the traditional parties they long supported.

Mr. Goodwin’s four Ds are likely to challenge cohesiveness even if, as Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper notes, their foremost political beneficiaries are being sucked into the swamp they vowed to drain.

US president Donald J. Trump, Brexit party leader Nigel Farage, Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, former Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, and billionaire Czech prime minister Andrej Babis are all fighting off allegations of wrongdoing.

The allegations and their legal entanglements mean that they risk losing the high ground on issues of corruption, alongside immigration and security, a key pillar of their recent success.

Putting forward an optimistic argument, Mr. Kuper notes that concerns about migration and security no longer top Europeans’ agenda with younger voters mobilising around climate change.

Polls, however, suggest that the popularity of leaders accused of illegitimately benefitting from wrongdoing or questionable practices and their political parties have lost little of their allure despite climate change increasingly becoming a major concern.

Populists’ current Teflon effect means that building cohesive societies will have to involve finding a middle ground between majoritarian concerns and concepts of diversity, multiculturalism and minority rights.

It amounts to manoeuvring minefields and treading on uncharted territory irrespective of culture and political system.

In the absence of the perfect blueprint, countries like Singapore, New Zealand and Norway have in their own ways taken a lead in attempting to make inclusion a pillar of policy.

While inter-communal harmony has long been a driver of Singapore’s social and economic policies, New Zealand and Norway responded to traumatic acts of political violence by bucking the trend towards polarization, profiling and concepts of us and them by saying not me instead of me too.

The proof is in the pudding.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who became an icon of compassion and inclusivity with her response to the killing of 50 people in March in two Christchurch mosques, recalled a Muslim woman reacting to the government’s response by telling her that, despite having been a target, she had “never felt more at home (in New Zealand) than she had in the last 10 days” since the attacks.

Singapore’s creation of a global forum in which opposing views and grievances are aired constitutes a vital contribution towards creating the environment for the building of more cohesive societies. It is a vital cog in a mesh of attempts to achieve legal reform and call out abuse and violations of human rights.

Taken together, they hold out the promise of a concerted effort to counter debilitating prejudice and bias even if a truly cohesive, harmonious society may prove to be a utopia.

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Southeast Asia

Thailand’s Inequality: Unpacking the Myths and Reality of Isan

Rattana Lao

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A local farmer’s market in Isan Credit: Tim Bewer

For decades, the ethnically and linguistically diverse people of Isan, Thailand, have been the subject of pervasive bias, often described as docile and uneducated, or as “unsophisticated peasants” who can be bought and manipulated by ambitious politicians. Bordered by Laos and the Mekong River to the north and east, and by Cambodia to the southeast, these 20 provinces in Thailand’s northeast have long been the country’s poorest and least fertile region. But Isan is also Thailand’s most populous region, with 22 million inhabitants, 33% of the country’s total population. It is a population that matters deeply to the country’s future prosperity.

A major new study from The Asia Foundation, Thailand’s Inequality: Myths and Reality of Isan, sets aside these prejudices to instead offer a comprehensive understanding of a region deeply in need of development. The study, conducted from late 2017 to April 2019, explores the perceptions of the people of Isan themselves—how they see their lives today and their prospects for the future, the challenges and opportunities before them, what matters to them, and what they expect from the government. Based on a randomized survey of 1,400 households, and 160 semi-structured interviews and focus groups, Thailand’s Inequality explores public attitudes on fundamental topics such as economic status, optimism about the future, health, education, migration, and public policy.

There is good news to report. Data from the National Statistics Office shows that the number of people living below the poverty line has declined substantially, from nearly 5.7 million people in 2007 to 2.4 million people in 2016, a significant improvement for a majority of the population. Yet, people in Isan are still concerned about the overall direction of the country. When asked whether Thailand is going in the right or the wrong direction, 55% of respondents in this heavily agricultural region said the country is going in the wrong direction, citing a bad economy (74%) and poor crop prices (50%).

Looking at incomes in the region, 44% of respondents reported that their incomes have been stagnant, and 36% said that their incomes have decreased. Meanwhile, both farm and nonfarm costs are rising. Some 38% percent of all respondents said that investment costs have increased in the past year. Eighty-eight percent of all respondents said they are in debt, and 45% of all respondents said their debt is due to loans for investment in either a farm or a nonfarm business.

In the agriculture sector, rents for agricultural land, the cost of labor, and prices for pesticides and other inputs have all increased. One-third of the region’s population, 7.8 million people, are farmers, and the majority produce cash crops such as rubber, sugarcane, and cassava that are sensitive to volatile international markets. With stagnant incomes, fluctuating crop prices, and the growing cost of investment, Isan farmers are struggling to maintain their quality of life.

Although personal indebtedness has increased nationally in Thailand, debt levels in Isan are particularly troubling. The population of Isan has an average debt of about nine months of earnings, or 75% of annual income. In 1996, the average household debt was 36,204 baht. Today that indebtedness stands at 160,000 baht.

Overall, low productivity, fluctuating crop prices, stagnant incomes, and rising debt make it harder to live well in Isan. Yet, a striking aspect of Thailand’s Inequality is the portrait it paints of resilience and perseverance. Some 57% of respondents think their livelihoods will improve in the future, while just 10% think their livelihoods will get worse.

Stories of resilience come through clearly in the qualitative component of the research. For example, organic farmers in the village of Na Wang Yai, a hundred kilometers from the city of Khon Kaen, were eager to describe their efforts to rise above the level of subsistence farming. They explained why organic rice is a better crop that earns them a better price, they lamented the growing cost of investments, and they talked about new kinds of financing that financial institutions have introduced.

Interviewed shortly before the latest elections, these farmers were articulate about what they wanted from the government: better public policy. They had met all their politicians, and they were used to hearing promises that would never be kept. They didn’t want 500-baht handouts to secure their votes, they said; what they wanted from the incoming government was “water” and “technology.”

Currently, many villages have limited access to water and a small collection of agricultural equipment that everyone must share. “More of these would be better,” said one farmer, “even if the government would pay just half.”

These farmers represent the changing face of Isan, where agriculture is evolving, and aspirations are emerging for new tools and knowledge. They were outspoken and sophisticated, far from the demeaning stereotypes. Despite the widespread lack of formal education among farmers and informal workers in Isan, respondents were well-versed in the spectrum of government services. When asked about their satisfaction with the performance of 20 government programs, they spoke clearly about what these programs had been doing for them and their hopes and expectations of much more.

A fascinating aspect of this underdeveloped region was the strong bond Isan farmers, workers, and students feel toward their hometowns. “Isan is home,” was a common refrain in the semi-structured interviews and focus groups. “We want to work closer to home.” “We want to study closer to home.”

The strong attachment of Isan people to their hometowns can be seen in the decline of worker emigration from the region. While studies through the 1990s found rates of labor migration that ranged from 38% to 68% of the population, just 25% of respondents in this study have lived elsewhere for more than a year.

The Isan region is Thailand’s poorest, and life there is tough, but this research found that Isan farmers and workers are determined. They understand the government’s safety-net programs and make the best of them. These programs play a vital role in alleviating their hardship, and what the government does significantly affects their quality of life. There is also plenty of room for these programs to improve.

Thailand’s Inequality highlights the voices, perceptions, and aspirations of the people of Isan. An honest, straightforward, and bipartisan conversation is now needed to turn this evidence into meaningful development projects and programs that will help empower residents to lift their region out of poverty and toward sustainable growth and equitable development.

Thailand’s Inequality: Myths and Reality of Isan was funded by the government of the United Kingdom and The Asia Foundation.

Author’s note: first published with InAsia

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