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Malaysian-Saudi relations: A lesson in the pitfalls of authoritarianism and autocracy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Embattled former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was the main loser in last month’s election upset that returned Mahathir Mohamad to power as his country’s anti-corruption crusader. Yet, Mr. Razak is not the only one who may be paying the price for allegedly non-transparent and unaccountable governance.

So is Saudi Arabia with a Saudi company having played a key role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal in which Mr. Razak is suspected to have overseen the siphoning off of at least US$4.5 billion and the Saudi government seemingly having gone out of its way to provide him political cover.

While attention has focussed largely on the re-opening of the investigation of Mr. Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, both of whom have been banned from travel abroad and have seen their homes raided by law enforcement, Saudi Arabia has not escaped policymakers’ consideration. Mr. Razak has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

The geopolitical fallout of the scandal is becoming increasingly evident. Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu suggested this week that Malaysia was re-evaluating the presence of Malaysian troops in Saudi Arabia, dispatched to the kingdom as part of the 41-nation, Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).

“The ATM (Malaysian Armed Forces) presence in Saudi Arabia has indirectly mired Malaysia in the Middle East conflict… The government will make a decision on the matter in the near future after a re-evaluation has been completed,” said Mr. Sabu, who is known for his critical view of Saudi Arabia.

In a commentary published late last year that suggests a potential Malaysian re-alignment of its Middle Eastern relationships, Mr. Sabu noted that Saudi wrath has been directed “oddly, (at) Turkey, Qatar, and Iran…three countries that have undertaken some modicum of political and economic reforms. Instead of encouraging all sides to work together, Saudi Arabia has gone on an offensive in Yemen, too. Therein the danger posed to Malaysia: if Malaysia is too close to Saudi Arabia, Putrajaya would be asked to choose a side.”

Putrajaya, a city south of Kuala Lumpur, is home to the prime minister’s residence.

Mr. Sabu went on to say that “Malaysia should not be too close to a country whose internal politics are getting toxic… For the lack of a better word, Saudi Arabia is a cesspool of constant rivalry among the princes. By this token, it is also a vortex that could suck any country into its black hole if one is not careful. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is governed by hyper-orthodox Salafi or Wahhabi ideology, where Islam is taken in a literal form. Yet true Islam requires understanding Islam, not merely in its Quranic form, but Quranic spirit.”

Since coming to office, Mr. Sabu has said that he was also reviewing plans for a Saudi-funded anti-terrorism centre, the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), which was allocated 16 hectares of land in Putrajaya by the Razak government. Mr. Sabu was echoing statements by Mr. Mahathir before the election.

Compounding potential strains in relations with Saudi Arabia, Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull, Mr. Mahathir’s newly appointed anti-corruption czar, who resigned from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in 2016 as a result of pressure to drop plans to indict Mr. Razak, noted that “we have had difficulties dealing with Arab countries (such as)…Saudi Arabia…”

The investigation is likely to revisit 1MDB relationship’s with Saudi energy company PetroSaudi International Ltd, owned by Saudi businessman Tarek Essam Ahmad Obaid as well as prominent members of the kingdom’s ruling family who allegedly funded Mr. Razak.

It will not have been lost on Saudi Arabia that Mr. Mahathir met with former PetroSaudi executive and whistle blower Xavier Andre Justo less than two weeks after his election victory.

A three-part BBC documentary, The House of Saud: A Family at War, suggested that Mr. Razak had worked with Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the son of former Saudi King Abdullah, to syphon off funds from 1MDB.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir came to Mr. Razak’s rescue in 2016 by declaring that US$681 million transferred into the prime minister’s personal bank account was a “genuine donation with nothing expected in return.”

The Malaysian election as well as seeming Saudi complicity in the corruption scandal that toppled Mr. Razak has global implications, particularly for the United States and China, global powers who see support of autocratic and/or corrupt regimes as the best guarantee to maintain stability.

It is a lesson that initially was apparent in the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

The rollback of the achievements of most of those revolts backed by autocratic leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bent on reshaping the Middle East and North Africa in their mould has contributed to the mayhem, violence and brutal repression engulfing the region.

In addition, autocratic rule has failed to squash widespread economic and social discontent. Middle Eastern states, including Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon Iran, and most recently Jordan have witnessed  protests against rising prices, cuts in public spending and corruption.

“The public dissatisfaction, bubbling up in several countries, is a reminder that even more urgent action is needed,” warned Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Elections, if held at all, more often than not fail to serve as a corrective in the Middle East and North Africa because they are engineered rather than a free and fair reflection of popular will. Elections in countries like Iraq and Lebanon serve as exceptions that confirm the rule while Iran represents a hybrid.

As a result, street protests, militancy and violence are often the only options available to those seeking change.

Against that backdrop, Malaysia stands out as an example of change that does not jeopardize stability. It is but the latest example of Southeast Asian nations having led the way in producing relatively peaceful political transitions starting with the 1986 popular revolt in the Philippines, the 1998 toppling of Suharto in Indonesia, and Myanmar’s 2010 transition away from military dictatorship.

This is true even if Southeast Asia also demonstrates that political transition is a decades-long process that marches to the tune of Vladimir Lenin’s principle of two steps forward, one step backwards as it witnesses a backslide with the rise in the Philippines of President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarianism, stepped up jihadist activity, the 2014 military coup in Thailand, increasingly autocratic rule in Cambodia, the rise of conservatism and intolerance in Indonesia, and the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

If anything, Malaysia constitutes an anti-dote.

“Malaysia’s institutions proved more resilient…and descent into authoritarianism has been averted – offering a lesson not only to aspiring dictators, but to those in the United States who argue that propping up corrupt leaders is in U.S. interests,” said Alex Helan, a security and anti-corruption consultant.

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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Decoding The MoU Between India And Brunei For Space Research

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Brunei Darussalam or Brunei is one of the oldest continuing monarchies in the world. The ancient name “Negara Brunei Darussalam” means “State of Brunei- Abode of Peace”. Its earliest documented history dates back to 6th century when Brunei was apparently called “Puni” a possible distortion of the Sanskrit word “Baruni”. Brunei was then a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which had linkages with the famed Sri Vijaya and Majapahit empires of the region, as well as with China.  It was in the late 14th century, Brunei converted into an Islamic Sultanate when its ruler, Awang AlakBetatar, married a Muslim Johore princess from Malacca and embraced Islam to become Brunei’s first Sultan – Mohammed Shah.  Bilateral diplomatic relations between India and Brunei were cemented in May 1984. India and Brunei by virtue being developing countries with strong traditional and cultural ties, enjoy a fair degree of commonality in their perceptions of major international issues. Brunei is a constant partner of India’s ‘Act East’ policy and expansion and deepening of cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Diplomatically, Brunei supports India’s claim for permanent membership in an expanded United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and also supported India for its candidature for a Non-Permanent Seat of the UNSC in 2012.

India’s export trade with Brunei in 2013 valued USD 32 million while imports mainly crude oil from Brunei were valued at USD 763 million. According to trade stats, India is the third-largest importer of crude oil for Brunei. The two important reasons enabling a positive bilateral trade have been relatively flexible shipping costs and Brunei’s small population base. Indians constitute around 2.3 per cent of Brunei’s total population. Indian migration to Brunei started since 1929 when oil was discovered in the country. Presently, the majority of the doctors in Brunei are from India and other professionals include engineers, IT professionals, bankers, teachers etc. Indian businessmen have managed to maintain a clear monopoly in the textile industry. According to the Census, there are approximately 10,000 Indian nationals living and working in Brunei.  Bilateral trade between India and Brunei stood at over $504 million in FY 2016-17, according to figures published by Brunei’s Department of Economic Planning and Development. The southeast Asian nation is critical for India’s Look East Policy and geopolitical expansion for strengthening of cooperation with the 10-nation regional bloc (ASEAN). Brunei also has served India’s country coordinator and political facilitator with the ASEAN for three years from 2012.

“When India celebrates the 75th year of Independence in 2022, and if possible, even before, an Indian son or daughter will undertake a manned space mission on board ‘Gaganyaan’ carrying the national flag,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in his 2018 Independence Day Speech. This milestone will make India the fourth nation to send a human in space after the United States, Russia and China. Future plans include the development of Unified Launch Vehicle (ULV), Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), development of a reusable launch vehicle, human spaceflight, controlled soft lunar landing, interplanetary probes, and a solar spacecraft mission. The Department of Space was allocated Rs 8,936.97 crore in the 2018 Budget for various space-related projects. The total allocation for the Department of Space for the second fiscal was around Rs 10,783 crore a leap from Rs 9,155.52 crore allocated for the FY 2017-18 net of recoveries and receipts. ‘Space economics’ suggests that spending on science and technology leads to all-round social development. The Government is also planning on investing extensively in research, training and skill development in robotics, AI, digital manufacturing, Big Data intelligence and Quantum communications, among others. Space Research has been one of the most important areas of interest of the present government.  In the current era of outer space research and development, India is heavily banking on bi-lateral and multi-lateral tie-ups to delve into this area.

The Union Cabinet chaired by the Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi has approved the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between India and Negara Brunei Darussalam on coordination in the operation of Telemetry tracking and Telecommand station for satellite and launch vehicles, and for collaboration in the field of Space Research, Science and Applications. The MoU authorises India to continue to operate, maintain and augment its ground station meant for supporting India’s launch vehicle and satellite missions. This will also enable India to share its experience and expertise in space activities through training of officials and students from Brunei Darussalam on Space Technology applications. Cooperation with Brunei Darussalam through this MoU would facilitate operation, maintenance and augmentation of Indian Ground Station to support India’s launch vehicle and satellite missions. The MoU will provide momentum to explore contemporary research activities in ground station operations and training on space technology applications. The MoU was signed in New Delhi, India on 19th July 2018. India also signed an MoU with South Africa on 26th July 2018, which shall enable both the nations to coordinate on the potential areas of cooperation such as space science, technology and applications including remote sensing of the earth, satellite communication and satellite-based navigation, space science and planetary exploration, utilise spacecraft and space systems and ground systems and application of space technology.

India has also signed similar MoUs with Russia, Oman and Japan for expansion of cooperation in the field of exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes. Joint projects, sharing of expertise and resources, development of space systems and components, scientist training and exchange of vital information are the central components of these agreements. India is marching towards economic prosperity and being labeled as the fastest growing economy in the world, it is geopolitically and strategically crucial for India to have a powerful outer space technology and to have a strong space relationship with other countries.

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Ahok biopic: The making of a man, the unmaking of a nation

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After comedies, ghost horror films are the genre most liked by Indonesians, with 44 percent saying they enjoy them. Apparently they produce a thrill, stimulate the imagination, invite curiosity and induce anticipation that the protagonist will prevail over evil forces.

Personally, I’m not a fan of such movies but I found myself looking forward to Nov. 8, when a “ghost“ movie was to be screened in theatres all over Indonesia. How come? That’s because the film was A Man Called Ahok — yup, about Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, former governor of Jakarta, currently jailed on blasphemy charges. I thought he was one of the best governors Jakarta has had, indeed, one of Indonesia’s best leaders, someone who wasn’t afraid to shake up the status quo.

It was a “ghost” movie in that it contained an apparition of Ahok, which embodied not just his spirit, but also the spirit of values that Indonesia seems to have forgotten, values needed to build a nation.

Controversy never seems to be far away from Ahok, from the no-nonsense way he ran his office, his zero tolerance for bad management, laziness and corruption, his unpopular policies (notably the eviction of squatters from slums), his fiery temper and tough talk (which enraptured and excited, agitated and outraged at the same time), his blasphemy trial and subsequent imprisonment, his divorce from Veronica Tan, his wife of 21 years while in prison, but also his amazing achievements during the short time he was Jakarta governor: disciplining civil servants, eliminating the ubiquitous pungli (illegal levies), transparency of the city budget, responding to citizens’ complaints, transforming Jakarta city transportation into one fit for a metropolitan city, cleaning up filthy polluted Jakarta rivers, beautifying and greening the city — achieving many things his predecessors were unable to do.

But you’ll see none of that in the film that was far from controversial. A review of the film stated that the “biopic about one of Indonesia’s most divisive, loved and hated political figures chooses to play it safe through a family friendly narrative and storytelling” (‘A Man Called Ahok: Journey from childhood to prominence’, The Jakarta Post, Nov. 10).

While the review provides a good summary of the film, I don’t think it was at all a matter of playing it safe. The filmmakers made a very deliberate, wise and insightful choice to portray the making of a man, from his childhood origins in Bangka Belitung, which makes us understand better why he turned into the leader that he did.

The film started when Ahok was aged 10 ( 1976), and stopped just about the time he became regent of East Belitung (2005). Ahok was born and raised in Gantong, East Belitung. His father Kiem Nam was a tauke (Chinese businessman), owner of a tin mining company, who raised his five children with tough love, teaching them to cooperate with each other, instilling the values of hard work and ambition, not for selfish personal reasons, but to serve others.

Kiem would drive his wife to despair, as he was always giving out money to people in need, even borrowing, so he could continue helping them. He said to her that their family still had a roof over their heads, and good food to eat. Yes, that was the case, because she sold some of her gold jewelry, so that the family could continue to eat.

While their relationship was often strained, clearly Ahok was a chip off the old block. He gave up being a doctor (his father’s dream) and a businessman (his own dream), to become a politician so that he could help people in a systematic way, unlike his father, not using his own money, but state funds.

The film is a biopic, true, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s in fact a microcosm of Indonesia, raising issues that remain relevant.

Discrimination: despite Kiem’s known humanitarianism and generosity, when Ahok decided to run for office, he faced resistance because of his Chinese ethnicity. As a child, he had once asked his father, “Are we Chinese or are we Indonesian?”. The father responded unequivocally, “We are Indonesians”. The film shows clearly how his father instilled the love of people and nation in his son.

Bangka Belitung has one of the largest concentrations of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, who have helped the tin industry flourish. Indonesia is the second-largest producer of tin in the world, after China, this means the ethnic-Chinese have contributed to creating revenue for Indonesia.

That’s not the only thing they have contributed. They have contributed to our culture (look at all those dragons, phoenix, snakes and Chinese lions motifs on batik!), food (too many to mention), much needed capital, sporting prowess and guess what? Also Islam, which was brought in by Chinese traders in the 15th century. And yet the Chinese remain reviled and have been targeted as scapegoats throughout Indonesia’s history.

Poverty: There was clearly poverty depicted in the film throughout Ahok’s life in Bangka Belitung. While in 2018 poverty has fallen to a historic low, the Statistics Indonesia (BPS) figures show that almost 10 percent (27 million) of Indonesians are poor. That is still a very large number.

Corruption: in the film, there was a corrupt government official who kept trying to extort money from both Kiem, and later Ahok when he was an adult running the company. So far, corruption is still the cancer that is eating up the nation. According to the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Indonesia ranks 96th out of 175 of the least corrupt countries. Well, at least it’s better than in 2007, when we ranked 143rd.

The lack of health services portrayed in the film is still the reality for many families in Indonesia, as are education facilities, still out of reach for many children.

Watching the film was a very emotional experience for me because of the injustice Ahok has had to endure. Talk about being punished for doing good! But it was emotional also because I thought of Indonesia and how the nation is currently ruled by mindless sectarianism, where religion is used to incite evil instead of fostering good, where selfish, narrow group interests prevail over the greater good.

A Man Called Ahok is a timely reminder of what it takes to build a nation. Hopefully, like a good ghost movie, the (good guys) protagonists will prevail over the evil forces currently haunting Indonesia.

An early version of text appeared in the Jakarta Post

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What Were Shapers Shaping at the SHAPE APAC 2018?

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Photo: Career Mentorship series organized by Global Shapers Bangkok Hub

Just over a week ago over 150 young people across Asia-Pacific gathered in Bangkok for four days in an event dubbed as SHAPE APAC 2018. For outsiders little was known about what was to happen. For Global Shapers that are now 7,000 strong globally the event was one not to be missed. The event was organised by Global Shapers Bangkok Hub, an activity largely by and for fellow Global Shapers Community, a volunteer initiative of the World Economic Forum. The Bangkok Hub has been in existence since 2012 just before the first World Economic Forum in ASEAN held in the same year. The past years have seen many changes including in leadership and collective power of young people to contribute for “the greater good”. That said, as the Hub is evolving out of the SHAPE APAC, which is in many ways its tipping point, the question it is being presented is: to what extent can the power of this autonomous collective– run completely voluntarily and without external funding, and now bigger than ever –turn into positive energy that results in lasting change to the outside community, precisely those they are meant to serve? So I made a conscious effort to sit Raghav Mettakhun, the current lead of the Bangkok Hub, down to share his thoughts and vision for Bangkok. Let’s see what we get out of this conversation.

First of all, could you share what SHAPE APAC is all about?

SHAPE APAC 2018 was tasked to bring together Global Shapers from the region under a specific theme. There are 7 more SHAPEs organised annually in other parts of the world map. Our main drive was to connect, empower and inspire young people to initiate impactful projects in their home communities. We selected Green Evolution and Sustainable Lifestyle as a theme as we wanted to raise awareness of the impact of their daily lives on the communities they live in. Participants chose a track that was most relevant to them. We had ‘Blockchain and Smart Energy‘, ‘Sustainable Cities‘ and ‘Future of Food’. We also included filed visits in and near Bangkok to expose participants to sustainability issues in real life contexts. Some of these activities included visiting local neighborhoods looking at how local residents have coped with rapid urbanization and tourism growth. Another one was at local fishing communities in Samutsangkram during which participants had the chance to participate in community lifestyles in the coastal mangrove ecology.

Photo: SHAPE APAC participants at Portuguese Embassy, Bangkok Thailand

Why was sustainability chosen for SHAPE APAC 2018 – what is its significance?

Since 1987 when the term ‘sustainability’ was formally put forward as an agenda to guide the global development, it has transcended from a political rhetoric into fields of business and lifestyles. These were amplified due to recent events related to climate change – record temperature and floods in Japan, tsunami and earthquake in Indonesia, drought in China, you name it. Not only environmental effects but social and economic issues too. Bringing my passion in the environment, we also integrated the resource minimization aspect to it where everyone was encouraged to bring their own refillable water bottles as SHAPE APAC is the first ever single-use plastics-free event.As Bangkok Hub, we realised that these issues should be priorities for young people and they too should have a role to play in driving the change. In shaping SHAPE APAC, we were contemplating over how Global Shapers can make a difference. Our key objective is to get them inspired and implement related projects in their communities.

How were you initially involved in sustainability issues yourself…what was your personal background?

Although I was born and lived in the city almost my entire life I must admit that I’d always lived in the bubble, a pretty big and thick one. I came from a middle-class background where my family is managing a textile business in Bangkok for the past 50 years. I was educated in a private all-boys Catholic school and an international school before heading off to the UK for university for a degree in Environmental Science – the subject that have raised eyebrows of many Asian parents, a subject that is unlikely to bring substantial income comparing to Engineering, Law or Medicine. I have been labelled into so many different things from my surface-level background. I am by no means an expert on the issue but my willingness to make change remains the same. For me, sustainability is not just about protecting the environment, not using plastic bags and straws in the name of saving the world but viewing life and business from the ground up, seeing what we can change, what impact we can make in our community in Bangkok. Let’s try not to fall into the trend and abuse the buzzword that can sometimes lead to greenwashing.

So building on from this big SHAPE experience, which was somewhat a “gamechanger” for Bangkok Hub? What’s the Hub’s gameplan in relation to sustainability issues looking ahead?

As many previous SHAPE organisers have said, organising SHAPE is either make or break. I am sure that everyone in my team would agree with me that it is the former. We became closer than ever before. Continuing on from SHAPE APAC, we will bring topics of SHAPE APAC’s tracks to integrate into existing projects from now, at least for the year ahead. We plan to seek collaboration from neighbouring Hubs and roll out some of these projects. Maybe I am over ambitious but I think it is not impossible. I have seen positivity from participants attending, and I am sure many will be more than willing to lend us a hand to impact a couple of hundred to many thousands! One of specific plans I have in mind include implementing tree plantation and monitoring across cities in ASEAN, educating locals on compost, and blockchain 101 for beginners.

Let’s zoom out just a little bit. So Bangkok Hub has been existing for six years now? What do you think is special about the Hub and the Community itself?

The hub has come pretty far since our founding curator Nick Pisalyaput, Director of Sasin Entrepreneurship Center, who was nominated by the Global Shapers Community in 2012.  What is special about the hub is the members – its utmost important composition that keep the Hub going. Our members came from all walks of life and nationalities, from a hotel owner, social enterprise leaders, to human rights expert and food connoisseur. Our hub is more diverse than ever before with a common goal of adding value to making Bangkok a better city to live for all. We look for young people who are passionate, driven and committed.

Photo: Some of Global Shapers Bangkok Hub 2018

I think that what we do should at least resonate with the World Economic Forum’s vision which is ‘Committed to Improving the State of the World’. Not only do we look for talented young individuals but we also look for those with exceptional level of integrity and service mind because without the will to serve the community, especially on a voluntary basis, members can be easily distracted by their full-time job and other priorities.It is really important especially in the volunteer setting that members get to know each other. Projects are best executed when there is trust, and teamwork is an absolute vital. Previously members were mostly from recommendations and referrals within our network of friends but now we strive to be more inclusive, what I mean is people with whom we are less likely to cross path in our daily lives. My aim is also to recruit more volunteers from the creative sector to enhance our diversity – with this could create comprehensive projects with greater impact.

Any final thoughts you want to share?

My vision is to educate and empower local communities to be more aware of the impact we are currently making in their daily lives – and how we could make a real difference. Resilience and adaptability are the keywords I would like to emphasise during my tenure in leading the Hub. For example, how we could live our lives sustainably through technological disruptions, demanding skill sets, increasing stress, higher cost of living but not higher income and climate change. The Hub will plan to create mini-projects led by Hub members e.g. mental health, environment, career planning, blockchain technology and sustainable fashion while we would concurrently drive a bigger project at the same time. Actually, we will have the meeting in a few weeks’ time to discuss next steps in more detail. So, let’s see.

It seems that the Hub’s ambition is still running high under the current leadership. Like any other human structures, it seems that leadership is one of the key ingredients in shaping the overall direction and success for the Hub. However, the definition of success for Bangkok Hub should derive not from its members benefiting from the structure itself, but how much impact it truly creates on the community they live in. I suppose there is only one way to find out! If anything, SHAPE APAC 2018 was an instance of what young people can achieve when they come to work together and a reminder of the reason that a structure such as Global Shapers Community exists. To hear more about Bangkok Hub or support the group you already know how to find them!

The SHAPE APAC 2018 summit was sponsored by Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage and Thai Beverage PCL. Also supported by SPCG, Tesco Lotus, TCEB, Six Network, Alvaascé, Makkha Spa and 192 Logistics.

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