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Southeast Asia

Malaysian launderette owner stirs Asian hornet’s nest

Dr. James M. Dorsey



Uproar about a launderette owner’s decision to bar non-Muslims from using his service has focused a spotlight on broader discriminatory attitudes in Malaysian society as well as elsewhere in Asia that are reinforced by Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam.

In contrast to many Asian leaders who have been reluctant to confront-ultra-conservatives head-on, Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Sultan Iskander, the sovereign of the Malaysian state of Johor, did not mince his words in forcing the launderette owner to rescind his ban on non-Muslims and insist that Johor was “not a Taliban state.”

The silver-lining in the launderette owner’s controversial move is the fact that it sparked debate about discrimination in Malaysia. Malaysian opposition member of parliament Teo Nie Ching announced that she was considering introducing legislation to strengthen anti-discrimination in the country’s legal code. It was not immediately clear whether she would tackle Malaysia’s banning of the use of the word Allah by Christians and repression of the country’s miniscule Shiite community in any proposed legislation.

Similarly, Malaysian lawyer Syahredzan Johan asked on Twitter what the difference was between between a launderette owner refusing to service non-Muslims and Malaysian Chinese accepting only Chinese roommates or Malaysians refusing to rent properties to Africans.

“We need to look at the aspect of discrimination within our society… I think these are discussions that need to happen moving forwards instead of just pigeonholing it as something like increasing Islamisation or Talibanization,” Mr. Johan said.

The launderette uproar was but one of several incidents in Malaysia sparked by Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism. Ultra-conservatives stirred a furore over this year’s Better Beer Festival in Kuala Lumpur.

In contrast to Sultan Ibrahim’s response, Kuala Lumpur’s municipality caved in to Islamist agitation by refusing to authorize the annual event that aims to promote smaller breweries because it was politically sensitive.

Similarly, a decision by religious authorities in the Malaysian state of Kelantan to recommend counselling and impose a fine on a Muslim man for wearing shorts in public triggered fierce debate on social media. “Slowly, those educated in religious education in Middle East is trying to turn Malaysia into Taliban country,” said John Brian Anthony on Facebook.

The debate sparked by the string of incidents goes to the core of concern across Asia about a rising threat of jihadism as the Islamic State (IS) loses its territorial base in Syria and Iraq and looks for new pastures in South, Central and South-eastern Asia. A IS-affiliated group has been battling security forces in the Philippine city of Marawi for the past three months while Islamic militants are blamed for sparking the latest Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.

The challenge for Asian governments is to complement law enforcement and military measures to counter militants with inclusive policies that ensure that all segments of their populations have a stake in society.

That is proving to be a tall order for leaders like Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has used Islam to shore up his image tarnished by a massive corruption scandal, as well as Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Like others, the two leaders face popular pressure from Saudi-inspired Islamic militants. Similarly, Pakistani military and civilian leaders see militants as useful proxies in their dispute with India and geopolitical manoeuvring in Afghanistan.

There is little indication that Asian governments are capable or willing to confront deeply ingrained attitudes that have in part been fostered by a global, four-decade old, $100 billion Saudi campaign that propagated ultra-conservative visions of Islam in a bid to establish the kingdom as the leader of the Muslim world and to counter the revolutionary appeal of Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled a monarch and an icon of US influence in the Middle East.

The campaign has not only influenced segments of Muslim society across Asia, but also ensured that discrimination is enshrined in legislation in various countries that politically would be difficult, if not impossible, to revise.

Repealing blasphemy laws in countries like Indonesia and Pakistan would spark popular revolts. So would rolling back Saudi-inspired anti-Ahmadi legislation in Pakistan and anti-Shiite laws in Malaysia and discrimination of Ahmadis as well as gays and transgenders in various parts of Asia. Militants this year successfully blocked a Christian from running for re-election as governor of Jakarta after ensuring that he was convicted on blasphemy charges.

In Pakistan, a country in which Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism has left one of its largest footprints, supporters of a preacher who adheres to a strand of Sufism, a mystical wing of Islam denounced by ultra-conservatives, attacked a party in a region bordering on Afghanistan for playing music The incident demonstrated the pervasiveness of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism.

“If you use force to make people more religious or make them understand religion the way you understand it, then you are bringing more harm than benefit to the religion,” said Mustafa Akyol, a prominent Turkish intellectual and journalist, minutes before boarding a plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport after he was detained for 24 hours for giving a university lecture allegedly without having proper credentials.

In an indication of the risks of ingrained discrimination and racism, Malaysian authorities this week arrested an Indonesian supporter of IS who was on his way to Myanmar to support the Rohingya by attacking Myanmar targets.

The arrest highlighted the degree to which Asian leaders would have to think out of the box to tackle drivers of militancy and work towards religious and ethnic harmony. The Rohingya issue poses a threat that goes far beyond immediate humanitarian concerns or where to temporarily locate hundreds of thousands who in recent weeks have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, a patchwork of 135 predominantly Buddhist ethnic groups.

Differences of opinion about who the Rohingya are and where they belong among Myanmar Muslims and non-Muslims alike are not going to solve a problem that is fuelling militancy and potentially is becoming a rallying cry for the Muslim world.

“We don’t want to simply go back to Myanmar to be non-persons. We want to belong somewhere,” a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh was quoted by news media as saying.

The refugee hit the nail on the head. The Rohingya will continue to be a festering problem as long as no permanent solution is found. The stakes are not defining who they are or where they historically belong but creating a permanent, solution for a group whose unresolved plight goes to the future of Asia. The stakes are what kind of Asia Asians want and to what degree Asian leaders and societies are willing to confront problems head-on.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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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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