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Ms. Halimah Yacob – First female president of Singapore



Ms. Halimah Yacob, 63, former Speaker of Parliament, became the first woman and first Malay in 47 years to ascend to the Presidency of Singapore- highest office, after successfully filing her nomination papers on Sept 13 as the sole eligible candidate for this year’s reserved Presidential Election.

She will be officially sworn in as Singapore’s eighth President on September 14 at 6pm, at the Istana, the Prime Minister’s Office announced.

Returning Officer Ng Wai Choong declared Ms. Halimah as the President-elect at the People’s Association headquarters along King George’s Avenue to loud cheers by hundreds of Halimah’s supporters. The last Malay to hold the presidency ill he died in 1970 was Yusof Ishak, whose image adorns the country’s banknotes. Yusof Ishak was President between 1965 and 1970, the first years of Singapore’s independence following a short-lived union with neighbouring Malaysia, but executive power rests with Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s Prime Minister.

Aiming to strengthen a sense of inclusivity in the multicultural country, Singapore had decreed the presidency would be reserved for candidates from the Malay community this time. Ms. Yacob’s experience as house speaker automatically qualified her under the nomination rules. Of the four other applicants, two were not Malays and two were not given certificates of eligibility, the elections department said.

 First Malay President

This year’s Presidential Election was reserved for the Malays in a bid to ensure multiracial representation after Parliament passed into law changes to the Elected Presidency scheme last November. Apart from Halimah, two other hopefuls – chief executive of Second Chance Properties Mohamed Salleh Marican, 67, and chairman of marine services provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific Farid Khan, 62 – had also filed application forms to contest as candidates. However, both men were determined ineligible by the Presidential Elections Committee as they did not meet one of the qualifying criteria, which requires that private-sector candidates must have served as the chief executive of a company for at least three years, with the company having at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, on average, in the most recent three years.

While some members of the public have expressed happiness at Halimah’s ascension to the Presidency, others expressed disappointment that this was only made possible courtesy of a walkover. They want an election for full legitimacy.  However, others noted that Madam Halimah is fully qualified to become the President and will be able to perform her duties well, citing her track record of over 40 years in public service.

Malays make up about 13 percent of the population, and the government is dominated by ethnic Chinese, who make up about three-quarters. There are no Muslim Malays in the top echelons of Singapore’s army, and few among the senior ranks of its judiciary, but a member of its poorest ethnic minority is set to become the first woman President of the Southeast Asian city state this week.

The government initially narrowed the criteria last year to permit only a Malay to serve as the next president, on the ground that no Malay had held the post in the five preceding terms.

The Presidential Election Committee later tightened the criteria, including a requirement that any candidate from the private sector must have been a senior executive of a company with at least 500 million Singapore dollars in equity, or about $371 million.

Two other Malays were considered by the commission, including Mohamed Salleh Marican, chief executive of Second Chance Properties. He had said that if he was elected, he would begin an investigation into the allegations that Mr. Lee abused his power in his dispute with his siblings. Both potential candidates were rejected on the grounds that the companies they headed were not large enough.

 President Halimah

Ms. Halimah Yacob is Singapore’s eighth president and its first woman head of state, in the country’s first presidential election reserved for candidates from the Malay community.

The 63-year-old former Speaker of Parliament was the only presidential hopeful declared eligible to contest by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) “Whether there is an election or not, my passion and commitment to serve the people of Singapore remain the same,” she told reporters.

Halimah Yacob, who was born to an Indian Muslim father and Malay mother, puts minority representation on agenda.

The youngest of five children, Ms. Halimah had described her childhood as a “terrible struggle” following the death of her Indian-Muslim father and family sole breadwinner. Her mother, who died in 2015, had to single-handedly raise the family by selling food on a pushcart. Halimah had studied at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, before applying successfully to read law at the then University of Singapore.

Starting out as a lawyer, Halimah, 62, had spent over three decades in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Before she became Speaker of Parliament in 2013, she had served as Minister of State at the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

She collected her certificate of eligibility at the Elections Department in the afternoon, shortly after witnessing the election of her successor as Speaker in Parliament.

Ms. Halimah was a Member of Parliament and a leader of the People’s Action Party before giving up her seat last month to run for president. “I can only say that I promise to do the best that I can to serve the people of Singapore, and that doesn’t change whether there is an election or no election,” she told reporters Monday after she was certified as the only eligible candidate. Her campaign slogan — “Do Good, Do Together” — was widely panned as ungrammatical.

World’s attention is focused on Ms. Halimah as she will take her oath of office on Thursday, which will mark the start of her six-year term.

Despite being the establishment candidate, Ms. Yacob wears a hijab, which is banned in state schools and public sector jobs that require uniforms. But she has seldom spoken publicly on the issue and there is little sign of change in official attitudes.

 Mixed reactions

 There were three candidates for the presidency poll and they were issued certificates by the Community Committee confirming that they belong to the Malay community. After scrutiny, the PEC found only Ms. Ms. Halimah was eleigible candidate and  informed the other two – marine services firm chairman Farid Khan, 61, and property company chief executive Salleh Marican, 67 – that they did not qualify to contest. Neither had helmed a company with $500 million in shareholder equity for the most recent three years, a key threshold required for candidates relying on their private-sector experience. In rejecting his application, the six-member panel said it was unable to satisfy itself that he had “the experience and ability” comparable to a chief executive of a company of that size and complexity.

The PEC noted the shareholders’ equity of Salleh’s company, Second Chance, averaged about $258 million, a sum “considerably below the minimum” required under the Constitution.  Farid declined to disclose his company’s financials, but its value is believed to be much lower. He declined to show his letter from the PEC to the media. Both said they were disappointed not to be given the go-ahead – but thanked their families and supporters for their support over the past few months, and said they would continue to serve Singaporeans.

 Under the law, the decision of the PEC – chaired by Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo – is final and not subject to appeal or review in any court. The uncontested election drew mixed reactions from observers, who welcomed Madam Halimah making history as the country’s first woman president and the first Malay head of state in 47 years.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh said: “Madam Halimah is a double minority – not only is she a Malay-Muslim individual, but a female.” But Dr Koh felt “the statement of our acceptance of diversity would have been all the more powerful if there had been an open contest”.

However, political science professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore questioned the value of having a contest for a contest’s sake: “Being elected through a walkover does not undermine or delegitimize the winner.”

 For Lee, whose son, Lee Hsien Loong, is now Prime Minister, the answer to social cohesion lay in creating a culture of meritocracy, rather than adopting policies of positive discrimination to boost the chances of advancement for Singapore’s Malay and Indian minorities.


 Singapore officially the Republic of Singapore, is also referred to as the “Lion City”, the “Garden City” or the “Little Red Dot”, is a sovereign city-state in Southeast Asia. Singapore, an island city-state off southern Malaysia, is a global financial center with a tropical climate and multicultural population. Its colonial core centers on the Padang, a cricket field since the 1830s and now flanked by grand buildings such as City Hall, with its 18 Corinthian columns. In Singapore’s circa-1820 Chinatown stands the red-and-gold Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, said to house one of Buddha’s teeth.

 It lies one degree (137 km) north of the equator, just south of the Malay Peninsula across the Straits of Johor, with Indonesia’s Riau Islands to the south. Singapore’s territory consists of one main island along with 62 other islets. Since independence, extensive land reclamation has increased its total size by 23% (130 km2) and its greening policy has covered the densely populated island with tropical flora, parks and gardens.

 Singapore is a global commerce, finance and transport hub. Its standings include: the most “technology-ready” nation (WEF), top International-meetings city (UIA), city with “best investment potential” (BERI), second-most competitive country, third-largest foreign exchange market, third-largest financial centre, third-largest oil refining and trading centre and the second-busiest container port. The country has also been identified as a tax haven.

Singapore ranks 5th on the UN Human Development Index and the 3rd highest GDP per capita. It is ranked highly in education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing. Although income inequality is high, 90% of homes are owner-occupied. 38% of Singapore’s 5.6 million residents are permanent residents and other foreign nationals. There are four official languages: English (common and first language), Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, though almost all Singaporeans are bilingual.

Singapore is a unitary multiparty parliamentary republic, with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government. The People’s Action Party has won every election since self-government in 1959. The dominance of the PAP, coupled with a low level of press freedom and restrictions on civil liberties and political rights, has led to Singapore being classified by some as a semi-authoritarian regime. One of the five founding members of ASEAN, Singapore is also the host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Secretariat and a member of the East Asia Summit, Non-Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Singapore is a parliamentary republic with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government representing constituencies. The country’s constitution establishes a representative democracy as the political system Executive power rests with the Cabinet of Singapore, led by the Prime Minister and, to a much lesser extent, the President.[54]The President is elected through a popular vote, and has veto powers over a specific set of executive decisions, such as the use of the national reserves and the appointment of judges, but otherwise occupies a largely ceremonial post

The Parliament serves as the legislative branch of the government

Singapore’s foreign policy is aimed at maintaining security in Southeast Asia and surrounding territories. An underlying principle is political and economic stability in the region.[97] It has diplomatic relations with more than 180 sovereign states. As one of the five founding members of ASEAN,[99] it is a strong supporter of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the ASEAN Investment Area, because Singapore’s economy is closely linked to that of the region as a whole.

 The separation of Singapore from Malaysia gave ethnic Malays a clear majority in Malaysia, while ethnic Chinese formed the majority in independent Singapore. Leaders of both countries, however, recognised that peace and prosperity depended on preserving harmony between the two groups. But living in a Muslim-dominated neighborhood, with Malaysia and Indonesia next door, Singapore’s leaders have long worried about the risk of conflicted loyalties among Malays.


The President of the Republic of Singapore is Singapore’s head of state. In a Westminster parliamentary system, as which Singapore governs itself, the prime minister is the head of the government while the president is largely ceremonial, broadly analogous to the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. A Constitutional Commission recommended changes to guarantee minority representation in the highest office in the land as well as to tighten eligibility criteria in keeping with the economy’s growth.

The President is the head of state of Singapore. The executive authority of the nation is vested in the President and exercisable by him or her or by the Cabinet or any minister authorised by the Cabinet. However, it is the Cabinet that has the general direction and control of the Government, and in most cases the President exercises powers in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or a minister acting under the Cabinet’s general authority. The President only exercises limited powers in his or her personal discretion to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves it did not accumulate, to approve changes to key appointments, and to exercise oversight over the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and decisions of the Executive under the Internal Security Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.. As a component of the legislature together with Parliament, the President is also jointly vested with the legislative power of Singapore.  The President usually opens each Parliamentary session with an address drafted by the Cabinet setting out the Government’s agenda for the session, and may address Parliament and send messages to it

The Constitution confers on the President certain executive functions to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves that it did not accumulate. Thus, a guarantee may only be given or a loan raised by the Government if the President concurs, and his or her approval is also needed for budgets of specified statutory boards and Government companies that draw on their past reserves.

 Before 1993, the President of Singapore was chosen by Parliament. Following constitutional amendments in 1991, the Presidency became a popularly elected office with certain custodial powers, particularly over government expenditure of the nation’s past financial reserves and key appointments to public offices. In November 2016, further amendments provide for “reserved elections” for a particular racial group (Chinese, Malay and Indian/other minority) – if that community has not been represented for five presidential terms.

 The President has been called “Singapore’s No. 1 diplomat” Ambassadors and high commissioners accredited to Singapore present their credentials to him, and he is called upon by visiting foreign leaders. In addition, he or she contributes to the nation’s external relations by undertaking overseas trips on Cabinet’s advice. Presidents have also used the office to champion charitable causes.

The first President elected by the majority of the people was Ong Teng Cheong, who served from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999. The office of President was created in 1965 after Singapore became a republic upon its secession from the Federation of Malaysia that year. It replaced the office of Yang di-Pertuan Negara, which had been created when Singapore attained self-government in 1959. The last Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Yusof Ishak, became the first President. After his death he was replaced by Benjamin Sheares, who served until his death in 1981, when he was succeeded by Chengara Veetil Devan Nair. Owing to personal problems, Nair stepped down in 1985 and was replaced by Wee Kim Wee, who served as President until 1993.

In January 1991, the Constitution   was amended to provide for the popular election of the President, a major constitutional and political change in Singapore’s history. Under the revision, the President is empowered to veto the use of the country’s past reserves and key civil service appointments. He or she can also examine the administration’s enforcement of the Internal Security Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, and authorize corruption investigations The first popularly elected President was Ong Teng Cheong, a former cabinet minister. He served as President from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999.


There are serious elements of discrimination in Singapore against minorities in all walks of life. A government report published in 2013 found Malays felt they were sometimes discriminated against and had limited prospects in some institutions, such as the armed forces.

Malays, who form just over 13 per cent of Singapore’s 3.9 million citizens and permanent residents, also underperform on measures such as university and secondary school education.

The election of a Malay President is by itself unlikely to resolve concerns over under-representation, but analysts and advocates say it could help foster trust among communities.

Singapore’s economic success and education policies have helped swell the ranks of middle-class Malays, but the last census in 2010 showed they lagged other ethnic groups on socio-economic measures such as household incomes and home ownership.

Farid Khan, one of the unsuccessful candidates and the chairman of marine services firm Bourbon Offshore Asia, told Reuters more Malays now hold political office, and some are making their way in the corporate world, but “there is still room for improvement.”

Yet the reserved election has also injured some pride. “It cheapens the credibility of a Malay person that it requires a token election for us to be President,” said Malay comedian and television personality Hirzi Zulkiflie. “Some people intending to run are very capable.” 


A popular public figure, Ms. Halimah was widely expected to win the presidential election but rejection of other two candidates made the poll fairly easier. West like many anti-Islamic insiders might not like the Muslim woman is elected to presidency in Asia.

Singaporeans are used to predictable elections, with the same party winning every parliamentary poll in the carefully managed country’s 52-year history, last time with a landslide. It’s partly due to loyalty to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), but also because the government tightly controls the media and political freedoms. As the head of state, the president plays a largely ceremonial role and doesn’t hold much power, apart from having say in the use of Singapore’s hefty financial reserves.

Ms Halimah, who is Muslim, is only the second president to come from the Malay ethnic minority. It’s a move that should be celebrated by Singapore, which prides itself on its multiculturalism and diversity. That’s because this election was only open to Malay candidates – the first time the government has reserved an election for a particular race. Otherwise a Muslim cannot t hope to be the elected president, especially in the present era of Islamophobia.

The government, which lauds its careful maintenance of national racial harmony, argued it was necessary to ensure minorities could have a chance at becoming president in Chinese-majority Singapore, which has always had an ethnically Chinese prime minister. But some Malays saw the move as positive discrimination that went against Singapore’s golden rule of meritocracy, which is that the best person gets the job, regardless of background. It also stirred up questions about Malay racial purity, after people realized Ms Halimah was half-Indian, and many have mocked her ethnicity. Singapore’s government has often clamped down on such unhealthy discussions, fearing it would hurt racial harmony.

After getting elected as the first ever female President Ms. Halimah said she is the president of entire Singapore as she is committed to Singapore and Singaporeans. She asked people to forget the differences and instead work on the similarities among them to make the nation achieve greater goals.

Ms. Halimah with a genuinely positive mindset has a long way to go forward to strengthen secular democracy, Singapore too!

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Southeast Asia

Thai universities must look beyond ranking

Rattana Lao



National University of Singapore

Bangkok – The recent 2018 Asia University Rankings published by the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine is calling attention for the state of Thai higher education.

Unlike its Asian neighbors, Thai universities are falling behind.

The National University of Singapore maintained its number one status for the third consecutive year due to its continuous improvement in teaching and research environments, greater citation impact and higher amounts of industrial income, said Ellie Bothwell of the Times Higher Education.

This year, the numbers of universities being ranked increased from 300 to 350 universities. Japanese universities are amongst the most qualified universities in Asia with 89 universities made it to the list. 63 universities from China are included in the top 350.

The picture looks worrisome for Thailand. Only ten universities made it. However, none of them was ranked in the top 50. The best performing university from Thailand was Mahidol– with ranking of 97th place, same as that in 2017, while the oldest higher education establishment, Chulalongkorn University, is only 167th place amongst 350 institutions.

Should we be concerned about this?

Yes, and no.

Given that ranking has been taken as a face value that it equates the overall quality of higher education, the poor performance sends a negative signal. It is a setback for Thailand’s aspiration to become the regional hub of education in Southeast Asia. How can we be a regional center when the best of our universities are far behind that of Singapore and Malaysia?

This is also bad for internationalization process. The low performance is discouraging for potential research partners and foreign students to come to Thailand. It lowers Thailand’s attractiveness and competitiveness.

While the results are not promising, what is worse is how they are used and interpreted by policymakers and the media to create, what professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi of Teachers College, Columbia University called “a scandalization effect”. That means, results from international league tables haven been used as external forces to generate reforms pressure at the local level.

Thailand is no exception. Since Asia Week published the first Asian universities ranking in 1997, Thai politicians, policymakers and the media have used the international results to create reform pressure. A decade long of higher education policy analysis confirmed that boosting the ranking seems to be the only policy goal for most Thai policymakers.

But ranking is not everything.

Mrs. Ruangrat Wongpramote, Assistant Secretary General of the Education Council poignantly said: “ranking helps us to mirror the reality. It is a good tool for us to know where we are standing in comparison with others. But it does not tell us everything. There are more pressing issues in Thai higher education.”

These issues include quality of the students, quality curriculum and quality teaching.

Firstly, Thailand has to shift its focus from quantity students to quality students.

For the past 100 years, the system has done well in terms of access. There were only five universities in the first 50 years of Thai higher education and all of them were established in Bangkok Metropolitan area. Now the official record reported that there are 151 universities across the country – with 81 public universities and 75 universities in most of provinces. The expansion has made it available for more than 2 million enrollments.

While the massification provides more equitable educational opportunities for students, the mismatch between skills and jobs requirement, low quality of English proficiency and lack of critical thinking are amongst key issues that need to be seriously addressed.

Secondly, Thai curriculum needs to be upgraded. The Office of Higher Education Commission has implemented Thailand Qualification Framework or TQF with the hope of improving and standardizing Thai curriculum. However, what the government has had in mind is counter-productive to improvement of the curriculum.

TQF is academics worst nightmare. It requires academics to fill in lengthy lesson plans, detailed description of their syllabus and anticipated unimaginable outcomes. The rubrics are demanding and micro-managing. Instead of improving curriculum, academics report they cut and pasted, worst, lied just to complete the form.

This policy takes away precious class preparation time for nonsensical administrative things.

A more efficient and collegial way of improving the curriculum is needed.

Thirdly, quality teaching must be improved. Large classrooms are not in and of themselves problematic. But ones that are passive, top-down and lecture-based are outdated. Lecturers must work harder than regurgitating the texts to students. Classrooms need to be conducive space for learning where conceptual debates, analytical discussion and constructive dialogues are promoted. In the era where students can google to get basic facts, university students must be pushed harder to think critically. Students must learn to ask difficult questions and come up with creative answers.

A bad ranking is a good wake up call. But what we will do about it is what matters most.

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Southeast Asia

Malaysia’s Efforts in Improving Education: Lessons for Developing Countries

MD Staff



Image from the Malaysian Times

Malaysia’s efforts to tackle education challenges, particularly through the establishment of a ‘delivery unit’ that tracks results, can help other countries seeking to improve implementation in the sector, says a new World Bank report.

The report, Improving Education Sector Performance: Lessons from the Delivery Unit Approach, highlights the role of the Education Performance and Delivery Unit, or PADU, under the Ministry of Education, in improving education outcomes, a key government priority.

The report examines how PADU facilitated program implementation and delivery of results through the Literacy and Numeracy Screening program, or LINUS. Unlike other interventions, the LINUS task force – comprised of several divisions – worked closely with agencies across government to provide an effective framework for coordination, tracking, monitoring and reporting.

“Following the World Bank’s analysis of the LINUS approach, we are glad to share the approach with other countries seeking to improve education outcomes,” said Dato’ Seri Mahdzir bin Khalid, Minister of Education. “As we progress, we will constantly refine ways of delivery and continue to engage relevant institutions such as the World Bank to gather feedback and improve implementation.”

The Government Transformation Program, announced in 2009, set improving education outcomes as a key priority, and a detailed plan in the Malaysian Education Blueprint followed.  Making improving education outcomes a national priority can elevate the profile, stakes, and resourcing for the initiative. Building in evaluations of impact into the program design would further bolster efforts to improve education outcomes.

“The delivery of the essentials of a thriving nation – better schools, healthcare, public transportation – is a mutual goal of all nations, but implementation is a common challenge. The delivery unit approach taken by Malaysia is a creative and effective way to address this challenge,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Group Representative to Malaysia. “This report distills useful lessons learnt in improving the performance of its education sector, and makes recommendations to bring Malaysia one step closer towards its aspirations of becoming a high-income country.”

The study is the latest installment in the World Bank Group’s Outbound Knowledge Report Series that curates, distils and disseminates Malaysia’s development experience. This report is part of the Malaysia Development Experience Series, which strives to capture key learnings from Malaysia that are relevant for developing countries around the globe as they transition out of poverty and into shared prosperity.

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Southeast Asia

Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development

Dr. James M. Dorsey



A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.

The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.

Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.

Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.

That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.

Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.

If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.

Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.

History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.

Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.

The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.

What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.

To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.

Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.

The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.

The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.

“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.

Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.

With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.

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