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Kidnapping and ant-Shiite rhetoric stirs Malaysian debate about Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Allegedly kidnapped, forty-three-year old Malaysian activist Amri Che Mat, a foreign exchange trader and mountain climber, has not been heard of since he went missing in November 2016.

An inquiry into his disappearance coupled with an assertion by Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the mufti of the state of Perlis, that Malaysia’s miniscule Shiite Muslim community constitutes a national security threat are but the latest incidents that have raised concerns about the impact of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative strands of Islam.

Shiites in Malaysia, a country of 31 million, are believed to number 40,000. Shiism was banned in 1996, but Shiites are allowed to worship privately.

Mr. Amri’s black four-wheel-drive was found the night of his disappearance near a construction site with its windows smashed, a 55-minute drive from his home in Kangar, Perlis’ capital. Witnesses said his car was blocked by five vehicles when he was snatched close to his house.

Accused of adhering to Shiism, Perlis’ Islamic Religious Department, advised the state’s schools two months prior to Mr. Amri’s disappearance not to participate in programs managed by Perlis Hope, the charity co-founded by the activist. Perlis Hope was donating school bags and uniforms.

The charity, in testimony this month to Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission that is investigating the vanishing of Mr. Amri and three other activists, denied that it was associated with any one religious grouping.

Mr. Asri, the mufti, fuelled debate about creeping influence in Malaysia of ultra-conservatism with assertions earlier this week that Mr. Amri was a Shia, who practised mut’ah, a temporary marriage contract under Shiite religious law.

The mufti accompanied police who came to their house in 2015, according to Mr. Amri’s wife, Norhayati Ariffin, to question the activist about his Shiism, a strand of Islam that Mr. Asri denounces as deviant.

Speaking this week, Mr. Asri said Mr. Amri’s home was decorated with pictures of Shia imams. “The surroundings were similar to a Shia mosque in Iran,” he said.

The mufti denied assertions by Ms. Ariffin in testimony to the commission that his department may have been involved in Mr. Amri’s disappearance. “Maybe her husband has gone off somewhere. Maybe he has gone to Iran. Maybe he has gone to practise mut’ah in Thailand. How should I know?” Mr. Asri said.

The mufti asserted that the spread of Shiism in Perlis and neighbouring Thailand “could threaten national security.” He asserted that Perlis Hope was possibly seeking to establish a theocracy.

The disappearance and Mr. Asri’s remarks follow a string of events and government measures that have sparked renewed debate about what critics have dubbed the country’s Arabization.

Malaysia has long been a target of a long-standing, well-funded Saudi public diplomacy campaign that propagates Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to Iranian revolutionary zeal and Shiite ideology.

Saudi influence was further spotlighted by a scandal surrounding Malaysia’s state development fund 1MDB sparked by revelations that $700 million had wound up in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s bank account in 2013. Mr. Najib said it was a donation from the Saudi ruling family, rebutting allegations it was money siphoned from the fund he had founded and overseen. Malaysia’s attorney-general cleared him of any wrongdoing.

On a visit to Malaysia a year ago, Saudi King Salman inked agreements involving $10 billion of investment in Malaysia and the building of a King Salman Centre for International Peace to bring together Islamic scholars and intelligence agencies in an effort to counter extremist interpretations of Islam.

The centre would work as resource partners with the Saudi-financed Islamic Science University of Malaysia, and the Muslim World League, a Saudi-funded non-governmental organization that for decades served as a vehicle for global propagation of ultra-conservatism.

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Malaysia has also been thrust into the limelight by Mr. Najib’s increased emphasis on Islam and close ties to the kingdom.

Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein said this week that Malaysian forces would remain in Saudi Arabia ” for the sole purpose of providing humanitarian assistance and possibly contribute to rebuilding efforts in Yemen if required.” Malaysia had earlier refused to send troops to fight in the kingdom’s ill-fated military effort to counter Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The government recently backed a parliamentary bill that would allow the shariah courts wider criminal jurisdiction over Muslims in the state of Kelantan. Malaysian authorities last year banned two beer festivals against a backdrop of mounting hostility towards Shiites, atheist and gays.

Malaysia has also given refuge to Zakir Naik, a militant Indian Islamic scholar who has been banned from entering Singapore and Britain because of his advocacy of the death penalty for homosexuals and those who abandon Islam.

Malaysia’s sultans, in a rare warning cautioned last October that Malaysia’s stability was at risk from political Islam after attempts by two laundromats to service Muslims only were blocked by local authorities.

Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, the sovereign of the Malaysian state of Johor, in perhaps Malaysia’s starkest confrontation of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism last year denounced practices of Wahhabism and Salafism by calling on Malaysians to uphold their country’s culture and not imitate Arabs. The sultan decried what he described as creeping Arabization of the Malay language by insisting on using Malay language references to religious practices and Muslim holidays rather than Arabic ones.

“If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practise Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right, but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is,” the sultan said.

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

ASEAN Summit Meeting 2019: Expectations and Norms

Prof. Pankaj Jha

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The 2018 ASEAN Summit had posed a valid question with regard to the compatibility between ASEAN centrality and the Indo-Pacific concept. ASEAN addressed this impending question through its approach paper on the Indo-Pacific. However, the question remains that whether ASEAN can remain central to the Indo-Pacific or would address regional issues in routine manner which have become victim of ASEAN norms without any strong recourse to regional mechanisms related to security.  ASEAN policy of consensus building has made ASEAN more predictable in terms of its yearly communique and discussions. During the last three years ASEAN Communiqué have outlined lofty ideals and impressive blueprint for future but the core security issues have been sidelined or accorded with a low priority listing, in the face of bon homie between ASEAN member states and dialogue partners. The fault lines on major economic issues, South China Sea, environmental problems such as Indonesian haze and the template for industrial revolution 4.0 needs better focus and strategy along with new ideas and compatible processes.

ASEAN strategy on the efficacy of Indo-Pacific manifests itself in the document which highlights that ‘ASEAN centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, with ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), as platforms for dialogue and implementation of the Indo–Pacific idea, while preserving their formats’. The dichotomy with regard to ASEAN position is that Indo-Pacific is more of a strategic and regional security construct. The subscribers of Indo-Pacific are not very accommodating towards China in the architecture despite the fact that few dialogue partners have expounded the need for the construct to be inclusive. The long drawn US-China trade war and the barb of words on the increasing Chinese assertiveness in South China Sea have made matters more complicated. Further, Vietnam has been highlighting the Chinese bullying tactics in Vanguard bank and also its repeated foreign ministry briefings have stressed that China is trying to make non-disputed zones as contentious zones. Over a period of time, it is expected that US and Vietnam might enter strategic partnership agreement with defence and security cooperation as a priority. This would jeopardize Chinese designs in South China Sea and also bring the Eagle closer to the Dragon’s chest.

The incompatibility between ASEAN centric approach in even regional security apparatus envisaged under Indo-Pacific is a concern. ASEAN has imposed the recurrent and repeated thoughts of Indo-Pacific as inclusive zone and a zone for promoting interconnectedness and dialogue between partners. ASEAN position is understood in terms of maintaining its relevance but it must recognize the fact that Indo-Pacific was not an ASEAN process to serve its interests. The dialogue partners’ interests are involved and they might or might not accept ASEAN diktats on the subject. In that case ASEAN would be seen as the fog horn without much contribution to larger security issues. The synergies envisaged between ASEAN and Indo-Pacific is flawed because ASEAN as an institution has failed in terms of providing maritime security but has been successful in information sharing through institutional mechanisms. Given the limited naval capacities that most of the ASEAN members have, with the exception of Singapore, the efforts for regional maritime security needs a better approach. The naval and maritime security cooperation under ASEAN needs better coordination with dialogue partners and structural support.

The ASEAN summit meeting 2019 might have to address the following issues in a more focused way rather than template responses which now anyone can anticipate. Firstly, it will have to make clear commitment among the members of maintaining the status quo and promising that the skirmishes between the ASEAN member states on South China Sea(SCS)should not be advantageous to China. China has been advocating negotiations through bilateral consultations, incrementally happening in this region. Secondly, ASEAN will have to stop meting out step-motherly treatment to the interest of Vietnam because of the intrinsic Cold war apprehensions. Thirdly, ASEAN must make a strong stance with regard to finalizing the draft Code of Conduct with China on terms acceptable to all the claimant parties rather than towing the Chinese instructions. Fourthly, the dialogue partners have also failed the security initiatives undertaken by ASEAN and it would be prudent for the Dialogue partners to commit to a new framework which might be known as Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) Plus framework which provides natural corollary to offensive action undertaken by any dialogue partner against any ASEAN member, leading to its eviction from the ASEAN and ASEAN centered mechanisms. The consensus laden framework at times leads to constraining action in the regional organization. Lastly, the ASEAN members must institute a South China Sea high powered committee to bring about dialogue and also raise relevant issues of concern without any fear or favour.

It has been seen that the deployment of Chinese survey ship in Vanguard bank for long duration of time defies any logic with regard to any scientific experiments or serious survey. China has used the survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 as a decoy for its strategic military activities and the deployment of large coastguard and naval vessels are a testimony to it. The withdrawal of the survey ship just before the ASEAN summit shows that China does not want SCS to figure anywhere in the ASEAN Communique and thereby taking evasive measures. Also, there is no guarantee that China would not return to the same area in future. The international community must take note of Chinese tactics and must issue a strong rebuttal. Mike Pence, US vice President speech (October 24) during a lecture at Wilson Center said, “…. make it clear to Beijing that no nation has a right to claim the maritime commons as territorial seas”. He accepted that, “the Chinese Coast Guard has tried to strong-arm Vietnam from drilling for oil and natural gas off of Vietnam’s own shores’’. It clearly shows that Chinese activities were illegal and were strong arm tactics, the signs of an irresponsible UN Security Council member. Vietnam would also be joining as non-permanent member of Security Council in 2020, and therefore it is imperative for the country to raise the South China Sea issue at this important forum. Vietnam would also be assuming the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020. It has been seen in the past chairmanship of 2010 that Vietnam has avoided larger discussion on South China Sea. This shortsightedness was detrimental to the interests of Vietnam due to which the South China Sea as a major security hot spot was avoided in subsequent ASEAN meetings. Even in ADMM plus meeting this has to be raised and better rebuttal of Chinese action in Vanguard Bank is needed. China has already established the bilateral consultation mechanism with Malaysia on South China Sea, completely undermining the role and responsibility of ASEAN as a legitimate organization for such discussions. This also forewarns that China might wean away other claimants from the South China Sea consultations, forcing Vietnam to protect its own interest in not so obliging ASEAN forum.  During this year ASEAN Summit Vietnam must do lobbying with dialogue partners as well as claimants to put South China Sea as a main point in the East Asia Summit discussion and also in 35th ASEAN Summit Communique. This would help getting necessary traction in international and regional media.  

In conclusion, one might witness that in this ASEAN summit the resonance of ‘One ASEAN One Identity’, ASEAN Community, sustainable development partnership, marine pollution, haze, culture, strategic trust, defence cooperation, military medicine, cyber security, transnational crime, and industrial revolution 4.0 would be discussed. The ASEAN would have to identify its approach to evolve as the regional organization furthering the needs of the region and consolidating itself as one homogenous identity. Interestingly, the core values of ‘ASEAN way’ and consensus might get reflected in the communiqué under Thailand’s chairmanship. However, much depends on Thailand’s priorities in highlighting issues and taking cognizance of the developments in economic cooperation, security and building strategic trust while keeping the ASEAN values intact. The biggest question is whether ASEAN is ready for its role in ASEAN 4.0. Vietnam would have to make assertive diplomatic approach and not a hesitant demeanor to protect its EEZ and territorial waters threatened by Chinese encroachments.

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Progressive Development of Democracy in Asia-Pacific Region

Shaza Arif

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The Asia- Pacific region is becoming an interesting entity to study as of the various dynamics it entails. This region is characterized with the gradual elimination of poverty resulting from regional integration, cooperation between proximal states, inflow of capitals, and development initiatives. At the same time territorial disputes and regional rivalries also prevail in the region. Likewise, the democratic patterns of the region have undergone a democratic transition.

There has been a prevailing notion that the Asian region has been dominated by authoritarian regimes with very little or no room for democracies. These circumstances have gradually evolved and democracies are consolidated and made their way into the region. Likewise, all the regimes have found democracy as instrumental to elevate their stature in international standing.

Indonesia particularly has been an ardent supporter of spreading democracies beyond its shores. Similarly, circumstances in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand have paved way for democracies to make its way through electoral process.

Historically, the struggle for democracy in the Asian region commenced following the decolonization from the colonial powers. The struggle for democracy suffered as the instability and ethnic rebellions resulted into chaos and created such a vacuum that was filled by elites and left no room for democracy. Secondly, the second wave of democratization initiated in the mid-1980s followed by uprisings against corrupt and oppressive regimes such as the Marcos regime in Philippines in 1986, the removal of military-backed regimes in South Korea and Taiwan in 1987.

Following the fall of Soviet Union, Mongolia also made a transition to democracy. Likewise, this was followed by the resumption of a civilian government in Thailand in 1992.In 1993, democracy made its way to Cambodia with the intervention of the United Nations. Furthermore, Indonesia’s Suharto Regime fell apart in 1998 and in 2001 the U.N made endeavors to bring democracy to East Timor after the termination of the civil war. 

As a result of these transitions, Indonesia, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand and Japan have established strong democracies in the region. In 1997, South Korean voters elected Kim Dae Jung, the region’s most prominent democracy activist to power.  Similarly, Taiwan, and Mongolia are also the examples of successful democracies. In March 2000, the island first democratic transition of democratic power of power in which the opposition leader, Chen Shui-Bian became the president, this was a historic moment for the burgeoning democracy for Taiwan.

In Nepal, following the peace agreement between Maoist insurgents and the government there came a replacement of the royals with the republic after few years and a new constitution was introduced in 2015.In 2008, in Bhutan, the constitutional monarchy substituted absolute monarchy followed by its first political elections. Likewise, in Myanmar, the military paved way for democracy and it materialized into a multiparty election in 2015, the first of its kind in 20 years

Today when different political parties run for elections, human rights is one of the crucial factors on which they compete on, this is opposed to the earlier practices of oppressing the public. Similarly, Mongolia has also encountered with positive changes following the democratic transition along with competitive democratic elections

On the other hand, there are exceptions as well such as China and North Korea. China still has one party system and it poses obstruction to a free and fair elections. Similarly, North Korea has an authoritarian regime which has an absolute control over the lives of individuals. Human rights are violated, freedom of speech is prohibited, regime is worshipped and Kim Jong Un is not accountable for any of his actions. Even, the media is strictly controlled by the government and only a limited number of channels are streamed on the media. Internet and any western content is also banned in North Korea.

Though there are calls that democracy is waning away, for example in Cambodia there has been a severe crackdown on political opposition. Similarly, there have been curbs on freedom of speech along with censorship. Likewise, the military coup in Thailand in 2014 has also affected the democratic values. Also many argue that the democracies in the region are diluted to a large extent yet the fact of the matter remains that democracy is gaining momentum. According to the EIU Democracy Index, when comparing the level of democracy, measured on a 10 point scale from 0 (authoritarian) to 10 (full democracy) over the past ten years, the average democracy score in Asia has increased from 5.05 in 2006 to 5.41 in 2016.This region is making progress at an expedited rate as compared to other regions of the world.

One of the reasons for the burgeoning democracies is the empowerment of the youth. Through the Social media youth has become more empowered and they do not hesitate to speak on the matters on which they feel that the government has acted irrationally upon. Similarly, anything that highlights the misdoings of the leaders becomes viral on the internet, therefore the leaders are subjected to accountability and it ultimately steers in democratic values.

Coming to the conclusion there are a number of measures which can accelerate the progressive development of democracy in any region. For example, democracy should be considered as a bottom-up process where the individuals are considered the foundational elements and should be taken in this regard. Individuals should be involved in the decision making through the effective delegation of power. Likewise, Urbanization is also one of the triggers for augmenting democracy since it leads to more awareness which ultimately demands the notion of accountability. Likewise, if the youth of the country fully involved in the political affairs then it can avert the prospects of circumventing from democratic values. If these patterns prevails then democracy will nurture to a great extent in the region.

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Indonesia’s new electric car may disrupt its relations with Japan

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Authors: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, Dimas Permadi, and Ramadha Valentine

President Joko Widodo has recently signed a presidential regulation on electric cars. The regulation instructed several things, including forming a coordinating team to support the implementation of the electric vehicle program.

Jokowi hopes that electric vehicles will be able to replace fuel oil vehicles.

Due to air pollution in large cities such as Jakarta which continues to increase, Indonesia sees it important to begin using electric cars for the general public.

Jokowi also views the opportunity for Indonesia to develop electric cars because Indonesia has the main raw materials to build them. In Jokowi’s statement, he stated: “We know that 60 percent of the key to electric cars is the batteries and we have the components to make them [such as] cobalt and manganese in our country,”

To implement the agenda, the Indonesian government is likely to collaborate with various partners, including China. Although it is still a prediction, this was indicated by China’s intention to move its electric car companies to Indonesia, namely BYD Auto Co., Ltd and JIC. Moreover, Chinese car manufacturer Dongfeng Sokonindo (DFSK) also intends to produce DFSK E3 Glory cars in Indonesia which will be marketed in ASEAN. This strengthens the possibility that China will play a role in Indonesia’s plan.

China’s entry into Indonesia’s plan for electric cars could be a reasonable move and may be welcomed by Jakarta. Nonetheless, there is a potential that it may disrupt Jakarta’s long ties with Japan as its largest partner in the automotive sector.

Japan: Indonesia’s long-time automotive partner

When it comes to automotive, Indonesia has been relying hardly on Japan. As reported by the Association of Indonesia Automotive Industry, the majority of cars used in Indonesia are Japanese ones. CNN’s polling also shows that Indonesians prefer Japanese cars more than those produced by Europe, Korea, and China.

Another case which exemplifies the strong automotive ties between Jakarta and Tokyo is the Indonesian-made car “Proton” which was made under a special collaboration between Indonesia and Suzuki.

Considering the position of Indonesia as a country that has just stepped in to the business of electric cars, Indonesia seems to be very careful in involving foreign investors. Indonesia sees goods from China as relatively cheaper and of comparable quality.

In addition, Chinese companies applying for relocation in Indonesia was also considered as a serious step to strengthen the relations that had been built by the two countries.

Indonesia’s plan, which was conveyed by the Deputy for Infrastructure at the Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs, Ridwan Djamaluddin, to involve China in making electric cars is likely to disrupt the stability of its long-time cooperation with Japan.

This could be true, especially if we look at how Indonesia has increasingly become a battleground between Beijing and Tokyo such as in the recent bidding for the construction of a railway between Jakarta and Bandung, whereby China succeeded in winning the bid. Japan, which has made a number of preparations to obtain Indonesia’s permission to participate in the project, feels disappointed as expressed by its Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga.

Looking at this, electric cars can be another battleground between Japan and Indonesia.

Indonesia may take careful steps

To this date, it remains unclear whether Japan or China who will have a considerable take in Indonesia’s move towards electric cars.

Nonetheless, in the midst of the potential rivalry between Beijing and Tokyo, Indonesia may take careful steps. The government in Jakarta will try to ensure that it would not hurt the two sides. It is likely to weigh the interests and opportunities of both parties.

On the one hand, it needs to maintain close relations with its long time partner in the automotive industry, while on the other hand it sees considerable opportunities in cheap Chinese raw materials.

The three authors are analysts on Indonesian political economy

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