Love him or hate him, Mahathir Mohamed during his first stint as prime minister was able to instill a great sense of national pride and unity.
Mahathir went on a massive infrastructure drive. Most Malaysians were proud of the Penang Bridge that finally linked the island with the mainland. The North-South Highway project changed the nature of commuting up and down the peninsula. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) was built and the development of Putra Jaya gave the country a new seat of administration.
Mahathir’s fait accompli was the building of the KLCC towers in central Kuala Lumpur, which were the tallest in the world at the time. These buildings are now the country’s major icon. Langkawi became a must holiday place for Malaysians. He brought elite Formula One motor racing and built a special purpose circuit for the event. He promoted the Tour de Langkawi as a local version of the Tour de France. He spared no expense on building massive new sporting complexes at Bukit Jalil to host the Commonwealth Games in 1998.
When the member nations of ASEAN abandoned the idea to build a regional car, Mahathir went alone, picking up old technology from Mitsubishi, creating the Proton Saga for better or worse although the national car project has been roundly criticized for losing hundreds of millions of dollars and costing more in terms of consumer lost opportunity.
Nonetheless, Malaysia became an Asian Tiger and Mahathir himself became an outspoken leader internationally. The country was proud of what it had achieved. He knew the value of national symbols. The slogan Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia Can) was often heard along with the waving of the Jalur Gemilang (stripes of glory – Malaysian Flag) at public displays of national pride and unity.
The Barisan Nasional was a working government coalition that symbolized national unity through the make-up of the cabinet and its true multi-ethnic flavor. Ministers like Samy Vellu from the Malaysian India Congress and Ling Liong Sik from the Malaysian Chinese Association had high public profiles.
Although Mahathir was labeled as an ultra-conservative Malay, he worked with anyone who could help him fulfil his vision. Businessmen like Vincent Tan, Robert Kuok, Lim Goh Tong, Ananda Krishnan, and Tony Fernandez all had very close relationships with Mahathir. Malaysia Inc. was more important to Mahathir than Malay supremacy.
That’s now 30 years ago. The prime casualty has been national pride and unity. The generally positive perception of the Mahathir era drastically changed when he abruptly sacked his deputy Anwar Ibrahim from office in 1998. The accusations and conviction of Anwar for sodomy polarized the population. The goodwill that Mahathir had built up over more than 25 years in public life was put into question.
Although it was his intention to eliminate his nemesis Anwar from politics, he made sodomy a household word in a conservative society, taking luster away from his legacy. He was painted by the Anwar propaganda machine and the alternative media as a tyrant with millions of dollars hidden away in foreign banks. In addition, two years of headlines and court reports about Anwar’s sodomy trial took away a sense of innocence, showing Malaysia’s ‘dark side’ with TV pictures showing a stained mattress being carted into and out of court every day on which Anwar was convicted of performing sodomy.
Under weak successors, belief in government further faltered. Respect for national leaders took another hit with Mahathir’s successor Ahmad Badawi painted as someone who slept on the job and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle while many suffered economically. Badawi was painted by the PKR propaganda machine as corrupt. The dealings of his son-in-law and political adviser Khairy Jamaluddin were portrayed as corrupt nepotism.
Mahathir engineered an ungraceful exit for Badawi, replacing him with Najib Razak in 2009. The Najib premiership was tainted from the outset with rumors of murder and corruption. Najib’s wife Rosmah also became an object of ridicule, bringing respect for the institution of government to an all-time low.
However, it’s not just the corruption of politicians that destroyed respect for Malaysian institutions. The rakyat (people) have always wanted to believe in royalty. Even with stories about royal misdoings, there is no real talk of abolishing the monarchy. Whenever a member of one of the royal families acts in the interests of the rakyat, there has always been public praise and support. However, when members of a royal family act against the interests of the rakyat, the social media react.
Stories have been circulating for years about the misdeeds of Johor Royal Family. The current spat between Tunku Ismail, the Johor Crown Prince, commonly known as TMJ and Mahathir is extremely damaging for the royal institutions. Only the sedition act, a de facto lese-majeste law, is protecting the institution from much wider criticism.
Royal decorations and titles, VVIP service in government offices and special treatment for some citizens over others, shows a muddled Malaysia still clinging to the vestiges of feudalism. These artifacts are doing nothing to unite the country, a hangover from the old days of colonial class distinction.
However, the most powerful source of destruction for national pride and unity is the ketuanan Melayu (Malay Superiority) narrative which has become much more extreme. One of the basic assumptions is that bumiputeras — indigenous peoples – are the rightful owners of the land. From the point of view of the ketuanan proponents, land is not seen as a national symbol and non-Malays are excluded. This is a great barrier to developing any sense of national pride and unity.
The gulf between Malay and non-Malay has widened dramatically over the last two generations as Islam has grown into a major aspect of Malay identity. Citizens once celebrated their diverse ethnicities in harmony. Decrees made in the name of Islam now discourage this. No longer are Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Christmas shared Malaysian experiences.
The way of life has become Islamized to the point where there is little place for other religions and traditions. Food, dress codes, entertainment, education, the civil service, government, police and the military are all Islamized.
Shared apprehensions about what Malaysia will be have caused the Chinese to close ranks. The influence of Ketuanan Melayu in government policy excludes non-Malay participation in many fields like education, civil service and the military, etc. The younger generation of Chinese today tend to see themselves as Chinese first and Malaysians second. Chinese schools promote language and a strong sense of Chinese culture over a Malaysian identity as a mass defence mechanism.
The New Economic Policy, put in place in 1969 after disastrous race riots as an affirmative action program for the majority Malays, has also done a disservice to those it was designed to help. The thesis of Mahathir’s book The Malay Dilemma was that Malays were basically lazy and needed help from the government is the faulty grounding assumption. The NEP is actually an attack on Malay self-esteem.
Rather than offering something spiritual, Islam has become a doctrine of conformity, where particular rights and rituals must legally be adhered to. Failure to do so in the case of not fasting during Ramadan can lead to punitive legal action. Any views outside narrow social norms lead to heavy criticism. Just recently the Islamic authorities (JAKIM) in Selangor started investigating a discussion forum on women’s choice about wearing the hijab. Not just freedom of discussion is stifled, but also the right to be creative.
Islam has buried the principles of Rukun Negara (national principles), the supposed guiding philosophy of the nation. Rukun Negara was once a symbol of national pride and unity but has almost totally been replaced by a Doa (or prayer) before public events. A sense of nation has been sacrificed for the Islamization of public gatherings. As dr. Djawed Sangdel excellently explained in his 5Es general developmental theory for XXI century, “social consensus makes or breaks nation”.
Today we see much less flag-waving during the Merdeka season. There are more divisional narratives on all ethnic sides. There is disappointment with the political system. Islam is seen by many as something overpowering rather than emancipating. People feel they need to conform to be accepted in society.
National pride and unity are at their lowest ebb since independence, where after 30 years of education the younger generations of Malays see Islam as more important than nationalism. Chinese and Indians are apprehensive about what Malaysia is turning into. Even the Orang Asli – the original inhabitants of the peninsula before the arrival of ethnic Malays from Indonesia — and non-Muslim indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak identify as second-class.
Malaysia has travelled far away from the aspirations of Tunku Abdul Rahman when the JalurGemilang was raised for the first time over a free Malaya in 1957. Malaysia’s economic prosperity is relatively declining in the region and the nation is increasingly strangled by the need to conform. Malaysia appears to be a ship without a rudder, its reform agenda locked away under the Official Secrets Act.
The possibility of racial violence festering once again cannot be overlooked. Divisive narratives are being pushed until one day an unknown tipping point could be reached. The strong sense of social conformity, the exclusion of a national sense of ownership to all, the current totalitarian nature of authority and ketuanan Melayu narratives are a very dangerous mix.
Belt and Road Initiative: Challenging South and Southeast Asia
The euphoria about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Indonesia and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia (SEA) has been felt since 2017, particularly following the country’s participation in the BRI Summit in Beijing that year, where Indonesia (along with other SAARC and ASEAN member states) was expected to receive massive investments from China to support several infrastructure projects.
This year, the debates concerning the BRI are again becoming prevalent after Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan as Indonesia’s representative signed 28 BRI projects last April. Among the various debated subjects is the growing concern about the real nature of the BRI. Is that a Chinese developmental initiative or a geopolitical instrument that uses debt-trap as a tool to bring targeted countries into the desired terms.
The BRI as Chinese debt trap
In the realisation of the BRI, China is targeted to spend US $ 4.4 trillion (Rp 62.7 thousand trillion) which is divided into various infrastructure projects in 65 countries. The funds from China will be disbursed from three main institutions, namely the Export-Import Bank of China, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund. However, the implementation of the BRI caused various kinds of controversy, one of which was related to the fear of a debt trap.
Sri Lanka is one of the BRI participating countries that must give up on China’s debt. The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) project in Sri Lanka which costed US $ 190 million (Rp 2.7 trillion) with an interest of 6.3 percent did not benefit from the airport’s operations.
As a result, the Sri Lankan government is losing money. This made the country unable to pay debts to China. The inability to pay credit or interest, at the end of June 2016, led Sri Lanka to make an agreement with China in the form of equity (surrendering land for lease) for 99 years to the country.
According to a well-known SAARC strategic analyst based in India, Brahma Chellaney, what China does with its BRI is a debt-trap diplomacy effort, where this type of diplomacy is a bilateral relationship that is interwoven on the basis of debt. In its operations, this type of diplomacy involves a creditor country that deliberately extends excessive credit to the debtor country. If the debtor country cannot fulfill its debt obligations, often the creditor country will make it possible to interfere with economic and political conditions in the debtor country.
Acknowledging this, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in August 2018 said his country would stop funding-backed projects from China, including a railway line worth US $ 20 billion as there is a possibility that the country would be trapped in huge debts.
“We should avoid binary categorisations… However, a bilateral approach in developmental strategies historically does not bring back satisfactory results. Besides the Bretton Woods instruments – often enveloped in controversies, do not forget developmental champions. All of them are multilateral institutions of fair conditionalities, of balanced and transparent instruments: UNIDO, ADB, but also Islamic Development Bank, OFID or UNCTAD. If not a loan, ask them at least for advice”, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic reminded us recently in Kuala Lumpur at the Economic Forum.
Indonesia and lessons from Malaysia
The same concern is also prevalent in Indonesia, given that the country, in the midst of many of its own problems, the government seemed to be incessantly ambitious to continue to take part in the BRI. It is important to remember that currently Indonesia’s external debt has reached US$387.6 billion at the first quarter of 2019. It consists of government and central bank external debts of US$190.5 billion that have slightly rose by 3.1 percent (year-on-year) and private external debts of US$197.1 bilion that have rocketed by 12.8 percent (year-on-year).
Although the ratio of Indonesia’s external debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is relatively safe at the level 36.9 percent and S&P Global Rating has just raised the long-term sovereign credit ratio for Indonesia from “BBB-“ to “BBB”, the Indonesia’s economic foundation is very fragile.
In 2018, for instance, the massive capital outflow made significant depreciation of the Rupiah against the US dollar due to the hike of Fed Fund Rates and the contagion of Turkish lira crisis. The currency hit about 15,000 rupiah against the greenbacks, the lowest level since the 1998 financial crisis, and made it one of the worst performing currencies in the region.
The extreme volatility of the Rupiah causes payments of interests and foreign debts more expensive. The 1998 financial crisis provided a precious experience that many companies faced default and the country’s economy experience chaos with economic growth of -13.1%. With such conditions, how come Indonesia dear to magnify its debts by signing massive BRI projects?
There is also a concern that the BRI projects is, instead of profiting Indonesia, putting the country at a disadvantage. One example comes from the Palembang LRT project, which has the same potential as the airport in Sri Lanka, is empty with little visitors. In fact, this project must suffer losses with an operating burden of Rp. 8.9 billion (US$618, 545) per month.
By looking at the fact that infrastructure projects have not been able to improve economic growth and to the gap in inequality – especially in the East – as well as various other disputes, the government’s decision to sign many BRI projects is certainly questionable. Also ironic is that the implementation of infrastructure development in Indonesia remains suffering from overt corruption practices. Instead of aiming at the welfare of society, infrastructure projects often become fields of concern for interested parties. Overall, there is a possibility that Indonesia will face Chinese debt trap is it is not careful, which would have negative impacts on the Indonesian economy.
The government needs to be able to make sure that participating in the BRI would not led to its loss. As what Malaysia has done, Jakarta may need to renegotiate with China on the terms and conditions of those projects. Indonesia must realise that China needs them more than they need China as the planned maritime route under the BRI would not be realised without Indonesia. Malaysian case demonstrates that negotiation is possible with China. Failure to do the above, it would not be surprising if what happened to Sri Lanka would also happen to Indonesia.
*Dendy Indramawan is a research assistant at Jakarta-based Institute for Development of Economics and Finance.
From our partner International Affairs
ASEAN Summit Meeting 2019: Expectations and Norms
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.
Progressive Development of Democracy in Asia-Pacific Region
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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