Asean leaders are to be commended for finally being able to do something about the deteriorating situation in Myanmar, one of its member states.
Brunei, this year’s chair, Indonesia, Asean’s primus inter pares, ably supported by Malaysia and Singapore, got all member states to support the chairman’s statement that came out of the Jakarta leaders meeting last Saturday.
It goes to show there can be meaningful Asean action when there is political leadership.
The content of the nine-paragraph statement was laced with the usual Aseanesque of Asean summits, with only the 8th referring directly to the situation in Myanmar, including the five action points of consensus as an attachment to the statement, and the 9th to the need to facilitate the repatriation of displaced persons in Rakhine state as well as the need to address the root causes of the situation there.
It was a good harvest to record also the Rakhine state situation, although the immediate concern of the leaders meeting was the violence and fatalities following the military coup in Myanmar on February 1st and civil action against it.
The “sweetener” of a more general overlay in the statement was proposed by the Brunei chair to get the de facto Myanmar leader to attend. There has been criticism of having General Min Aung Hlaing attend the meeting, but there was really no alternative if the object of the summit is to bring an end to violence in that country. The elephant had to be in the room.
Most of the discussion at the meeting was on the situation in Myanmar, whatever generalities there were in the chairman’s statement. The five-point consensus was clear, specific and succinct: immediate cessation of violence; dialogue for peaceful solution; special envoy of the Asean chair to facilitate the dialogue process; humanitarian assistance; and the special envoy with his delegation are to visit Myanmar to meet all parties concerned.
All are desirable objectives and means to ultimate resolution and immediate end to violence. Of course there is many a slip between cup and lip, and there could be glitches and flare-ups, but the sense coming out of the meeting is that the General is looking for a way out of the hole his military has been digging for him.
Perhaps there should have been something on what would follow non-compliance. However in the exercise of the possible, given that Asean is now actually seized of the matter, it was left implicit.
Nevertheless it is incumbent that the special envoy, assisted by the Asean Secretary General, must not only get moving fast but should also report back to the chair of difficulties and recalcitrance. Asean must do more than just hold a watching brief.
It took some time for Asean to reach this point. Asean could only come out with a chairman’s statement following consultations that took place in early March. While Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have come out with their individual, robust statements, others, like the Thais, had come out to say what was happening in Myanmar were its internal affairs.
Still others were silent. An Asean consensus itself, excluding Myanmar, was hard to form – as if some of the states “suspicious” of intervention were harboring dark acts against their people some time in the future, for which they did not fancy an Asean interest. So it was good to see all agreeing to last Saturday’s Jakarta statement.
Broad as the paragraphs were before the two on Myanmar, apart from two paragraphs on the theme and deliverables of Brunei year as chairman, there were important restatements – reminders not just to Myanmar – of commitments in the Asean Charter to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government, respect for fundamental freedoms, and the promotion and protection of human rights.
There was a reminder too of the need to advance Asean community building, recovery from Covid-19 and to address “pressing issues of common interest to all Asean member states.” The last no doubt referring to the situation in Myanmar but also an opening to involvement in future crises affecting the region.
Passages in the broad paragraphs, further, underlined that Asean centrality depended on unity in engagement with external partners, with China and the U.S. mentioned by name.
The cynic might say there is so much wrong in too many member countries which already are at variance with those commitments under the Asean Charter. While, yes, it is the case, it is not peculiar to Asean and, more importantly, the lead up to involvement in Myanmar means there could be similar “intervention” in other countries when there is violence against and fatalities of their people. There is a limit even as many Asean countries fall short of its own standards.
Now that Asean has done something, it has escaped ignominy. However only a first, albeit all-important, step has been taken. The violence in Myanmar has to stop. Reconciliation has to take place. While stopping the violence is an immediate objective, reconciliation is a medium to long-term process.
What will Asean do if rogue elements of the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar armed forces) went on a rampage? Obviously it cannot do much without any peacekeeping forces on the ground. It is relying on the power, control and honesty of General Min Aung Hlaing. He has to be held accountable.
How deep should the Asean involvement be? It has to rely on good faith which is in short supply in Myanmar.
Reconciliation will take some time. And not just because of what has happened in the recent past since the coup. Can there be a return to the status quo ante? Have fresh elections got to be held? Must the present constitution which gives a special position to the military in the governance of the country be retained?
These issues no doubt are beyond Asean. They are for the people of Myanmar to sort out. Can, and should, Asean facilitation of dialogue between “warring” parties include help in resolving deep and outstanding issues? The word used in the Jakarta chairman’s statement is facilitating “mediation” of dialogue. How deep and how long and how involved are matters not quite clear.
So after a good day’s work, not to mention weeks of preparation, Asean is in a good place, but there is a lot more that lies ahead that needs to be thought through. After this particular statement, and its proposals, Asean leaders cannot all just go home and forget about it – as they have tended to do with many matters in chairman’s statements of the past.
The Myanmar situation requires constant attention and greater involvement if the country is not to fall apart – and Asean severely challenged again.
THE 56 members of the Dewan Rakyat and the three senators are to be commended for calling on Asean to suspend Myanmar’s membership of the regional organisation.
Unless Asean does something drastic, when many are dead and gone, and Myanmar returns to some kind of normalcy, it will have damaged further its vacuous claim to being a political community.
It would seem, as a grouping, the only notion of political association driving Asean is the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, in which case the member states might as well have remained separate as that principle is upheld in international law in the world community.
Even in international law, however, there are covenants against genocide and the use of violence domestically, with particular efforts on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) since 2005, resting on three pillars: the responsibility of states to protect its populations, the responsibility of the international community to assist in such protection, and to so protect directly when states are so clearly failing to do so.
However ineffective international law may be, it is a means of pressure to record wrongdoing, which can go further if powerful states organised around a closer community, like Asean, take action in accordance with it. In the case of Asean, the imbalance between non-interference and violations of domestic populations, is a disgrace.
Asean was not able to do something collectively about the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar. It fell upon Gambia to take the matter to the International Court of Justice in 2019 for crimes against the community and ethnic cleansing, based on the 1948 Genocide Convention.
Where was Asean, which admitted Myanmar to the regional association in 1997, apparently because of the good that would come from engagement, rather than ostracising that country? What engagement took place after 730,000 Rohingya were expelled following killings, arson and rape. The Genocide Convention was the burning crucible within the Asean Charter’s principles of good governance and justice.
Yet Asean was unmoved, locked out by one principle only, non-interference in the domestic affairs of another country. The same holds true today following the coup on Feb 1 by the military, which now rules with force, violence and killing of its own population, who are seeking only that the outcome of the election last November be honored.
The statement by current Asean Chair Brunei immediately after the coup called for dialogue among the parties, reconciliation and the “return to normalcy”. It recalled the purpose and principles enshrined in the Asean Charter, the adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
This was as far as it could go, as there was no consensus to go any further. Whatever it meant was in any case quickly negated by statements from Cambodia and Thailand that what was happening in Myanmar was its internal affairs.
One wonders what Asean member states that are so quick to put up the barricades of internal affairs are storing up for their people. At some point in the future, Asean would imaginably be mumbling words of not much consequence with no action or even a firm warning. The miracle of Asean is how it has survived for so long on this diet of political meaninglessness.
The much celebrated “success” of Asean in keeping the Cambodian United Nations seat for the Khmer Rouge after Vietnam invaded that country at the end of 1979 and installed the Heng Samrin puppet regime, showed that Asean could work together (at the time the fear of Vietnam was great and Southeast Asian countries saw themselves falling like dominoes against the Vietnamese onslaught).
But it also demonstrated that the bestiality of the domestic regime was secondary to invasion, the most direct form of interference in domestic affairs of another country. The Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979, had killed between 1.7 and three million of its Cambodian people. There always is a deathly aftertaste, when evil acts committed behind borders are sustained by keeping domestic affairs beyond the concern of others.
Without Indonesian leadership, Asean would be in absolute political wilderness. The republic’s foreign minister has been trying her best to whip up Asean action. Brunei has been active. There were strong words from Singapore and Malaysia, but nothing more as violence against civilian populations rolls on.
Where are the others? The Asean charade cannot continue. Decisions by consensus have to be reviewed if clear-cut cases, such as Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing and killings of its own people, are allowed to stand with impunity. On Myanmar in particular, Malaysia — as one of those who pushed strongly for its membership of Asean in 1997 — has a responsibility to be more active in getting Asean to act.
Beyond that, it is about time that Asean is reformed. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, Asean continues to make decisions in a slow and ponderous manner when the need for urgency is greatest, when lives and livelihoods are at stake.
Now, when people are being mowed down in one of its member states, Asean is still not responding with clear and fast action.
Those who have made so many comments in the past about why countries must not interfere in the affairs of another should be careful what they wish for. Life is dear. Suffering has no borders. R2P is not just an international obligation and a moral duty. You could be the next victim.
Aung San Suu Kyi did herself no favours by absolving the Myanmar military of genocide of the Rohingya. Now she is in detention again as is Myanmar under military rule. What goes around comes around.
Meanwhile, Asean is up there for all to see as more interested in allowing member states to carry on within their internal borders in any way they like, without legal or ethical concern for human life.
The writer, a former group editor of NST, is visiting senior fellow and member of the Advisory Board of LSE IDEAS (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy)
IN extravagant prose beyond the reach of most Malaysian understanding given the standard of English in our country, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim tried to offer an even-handed measure of the Tommy Thomas memoir My Story: Justice in the Wilderness.
His conclusion: The book should not be banned. With which I entirely agree. His warning, if I may continue in the vein of Latin expressions in his review: Caveat Emptor. Buyer beware, usually used in the capital market, which could apply equally in the purchase of a packet of cigarettes, or of a book.
In my commendation of the book I had observed and celebrated Tommy Thomas’s “refreshing and open style not characteristic in this country”. Anwar is only implicit on this in his review because, I guess, to refer to one of the extensive quotes, which is his predisposition: “I still have miles to go before I sleep.”
The trouble with writing in English in this country is that neither its language nor its texture is well understood and appreciated. Anwar is not unaware of this. Thus, while his review is mainly directed at those — his multiracial but inadequate base — who are okay with the language and its feel, he could not throw the baby out with the bathwater by fully embracing Tommy Thomas’s book.
He had to treat and save up for that most important constituency — the Malays. Hence, while his review is not without merit, at the end one is left to rue the fact it is somewhat constipated.
He could not come out to tell the Malays they should not be moved by the instinct to bully and threaten, and to go after, like a pack of hounds, something or someone they feel has transgressed their ever-expanding sacred territory. Thus Anwar had to side with the judicial and civil service, even the judiciary that was emasculated by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1988, against criticism in the book, or with the opinion rendered on the May 13 racial riots and Tun Razak’s alleged hand in it — indeed with all matters he saw the Malays could get worked up over.
Nowadays it would seem that Malays get or are made to be enraged over so many things, in direct proportion to incremental accumulated power ever since May 1969. There are even veiled threats of another May 13 if that is what Tommy Thomas wants. Quod erat demonstrandum (Q.E.D.), Tommy Thomas might say.
What instead should be happening is to challenge Tommy Thomas in a civilised manner to provide proof of his assertions. He could be criticised as not having the temperament and character to carry that great office of state as attorney-general. He could even be asked if he was not being racial in many of his aspersions.
The trouble is the ground has shifted so much that so many Malays have become so used to getting their way, come what may. The laws they use to persecute others they believe do not apply to them. We cannot have this situation get worse that some people are above the law.
It is that constituency that Anwar must reach. It is that drift, that has to be checked, the privilege that has reached the point of legal impunity in exercise of political power and domination.
To me, “justice in the wilderness” describes something more than an attack on the judiciary, and other things many see are plainly wrong in our country. It is a cry for justice in the Malaysian political system which, even when you hold a high office of state, as a non-Malay, you are demeaned and denied.
We Malays must think and understand how the non-Malays feel, instead of always wanting to put the boot in. Tommy Thomas opened up because, despite having been a successful lawyer and holding briefly a high office of state (which only received half-cocked acceptance and a cold shoulder from the Malay establishment), he was never allowed to feel the country gave him any love. If not love, not even recognition.
Maybe he should not have lashed out as he did. Even so, I can understand why. Anwar should have, but did not and could not.
This is the narrative Anwar should be coming out with, how this country is so much in need of a reset, a process which everyone thought Pakatan Harapan was embarked on. However, they screwed up on so many levels.
No one took a handle on promised reform. There was no sequence, no communication plan. I had worked something out, was supposed to get something going, but was not allowed to do so because of the internal politics of Tun Dr Mahathir’s office.
In any case, nobody could have saved the day because the promise of reform was a sham and a shambles. It was all Mahathir-Anwar, with Anwar the pupil sitting across the table from Mahathir, notebook in hand, hoping to placate the old man who took him for a ride.
Now Anwar reviews the Tommy Thomas book without even seeing in the totality the anguish, a tortured soul, subjected to and reflecting on so many things wrong in the country.
I have observed previously the Pakatan Harapan victory in May 2018, with not a little to do with their political incompetence, released a race-religion reaction not unlike May 1969, with no physical violence of course, but still with the fist-thumping re-imposition of the perceived order of things — unremitting Malay political dominance, diminution in the rule of law and of the constitution, tightening of Malay economic hold, even corruption justified in the name of religion!
What Anwar should have seen from Tommy Thomas’s book is that the work of reform is still to be done. That, if I may be allowed to refer to Graham Greene’s book, is The Heart of the Matter. Instead Pakatan Harapan continues to talk of Anwar as prime minister and Mahathir as senior minister — what?
It is clear the task of reform and reset lies elsewhere. Have independent people look at the Malaysian political system again. The rights of the Malays, Islam, the non-Malays and their religions should all be clarified and restated. The weaknesses of nationhood should be identified and addressed. The future of the country needs to be secured.
We must have a Malaysia First Council, Majlis Mengutamakan Malaysia, all of its people throughout all of its territorial extent. The person or body that sets this council up will get the eternal gratitude of all Malaysians.
The writer, a former group editor of NST, is visiting senior fellow and member of the Advisory Board of LSE IDEAS (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy)
THE rush is to think about impact on U.S.-Malaysia relations, but the more important thing is to reflect on relevance to Malaysia of what President Biden has to deal with in America.
Deep and bitter division in his country leading to assault on U.S. democracy led Biden to concentrate on American unity in his passionate and moving inaugural address last week. He rose above the fray and addressed his nation as a statesman seeking to bring his country together again to find its inner strength for the greater good.
In Malaysia, starting with Tun Dr. Mahathir from 1981, there has not been a statesman among Malaysian political leaders who has offered and worked towards national unity with honesty and care evident in Biden’s “liberating” ascendancy after almost half a decade of public service.
The Tunku, Malaysia’s founding statesman, brought the races together to achieve independence, but was felled by those in Umno who felt he did not bring the Malays enough economic benefit. From then on, in 1969, the “ultras” had to be placated by the institutionalization of a policy, the NEP, to eradicate poverty (irrespective of race, so very conveniently forgotten by all subsequent leaders), and to erase the identification of race with economic function.
Tun Razak, and his deputy Tun Dr. Ismail, the last two statesmen this country has had in power, conceived the audacious social engineering policy, which was intended to last for 20 years until 1990, to achieve national unity. Tun Hussein Onn, Prime Minister on the hoof after Tun Razak’s untimely death in 1976, was an honorable leader who did not have the time to make an imprint on the country because of his health and short tenure.
If he had continued longer, corruption surely would not have become rampant as it has today. When Tun Hussein resigned in July 1981, it marked a watershed, between Malaysian leaders of the past who were moved by the idea of nationhood and unity and honorable service, and those driven primarily by holding power through the politics of race and religion.
They used the NEP by prolonging it, emasculating it, and exploiting it for narrow Malay sectional interests, dosed with religious inroads to determine conduct and circumscribe discussion already throttled by strict laws.
There were three major moments since 1981 which gave hope but turned out to be a false dawn in Malaysian political history. Malaysia’s Vision 2020 (1990-2020) was informed by pretty words which gave great hope without honest political commitment, except in wanting the country to be fully developed economically.
The social and political side of being a fully developed nation “in all aspects of life”, was never a serious objective despite uplifting references to terms like “liberal” (now a word used to condemn everyone and everything not liked) and “Bangsa Malaysia” (again now a dirty word, a no go DAP threat).
When it was introduced with the Sixth Malaysia Plan in 1991, it was all so exciting, complete with the 7 per cent economic growth for the next 30 years to achieve developed nation status. I knew intimately all those involved in minting the wonderful words, and they may even have believed in them, but after operation lalang in 1987 and the emasculation of the judiciary in 1988, it was hard not to look at it as just another platform to secure a long reign, not a statesman’s honest target of achieving national unity.
Many events, including major economic and political ones in 1998, too involved to get into here, had already disfigured Vision 2020 before it ended largely forgotten last year.
Malaysia’s New Economic Model (NEM), which then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib unveiled in 2010, was the second moment of hope. A high income, inclusive and sustainable Malaysia, which will reduce the disparity between the wealthiest and poorest, to replace the NEP that had continued beyond its sell-by date, which Najib had criticized for its skewered implementation, was now on offer. It crashed against the hard rocks of Umno-Malay opposition and died with the 1MDB scandal.
This was a tragedy as Najib had the makings of someone who could have led Malaysia forward, if not to the ideal state of national unity, at least away from narrow sectarian thinking. Like his father, he was an able administrator, intelligent and quick to see economic benefit. Perhaps too quick for his own good, but a loss to Malaysia nevertheless of an opportunity to move ahead with a leader who has a vision and can work towards it.
Then, of course, there was May 2018. The biggest moment of all for review, reform and reset for a multi-racial and united Malaysia. Pakatan Harapan (PH) was the best and briefest hope that Malaysia ever had. I never saw or heard non-Malays sing the national anthem with such gusto as after PH came to power. Their country included them! Like everybody else who believed it was going to be the dawn of a new Malaysia they were to be betrayed.
Tun Dr. Mahathir could not rise above the politics of getting rid of Najib, which moved him to join the coalition in the first place, and obsession with making sure Datuk Seri Anwar did not succeed him, which finally caused the PH government to fall apart less than two years after it came to power. Most importantly the politics of race became the leitmotif of conduct which drove a wedge in the coalition with Mahathir ultimately falling on his sword as there were others now who knew better how to use race to cause his downfall.
Mahathir could not become, as so many had hoped despite his past, a statesman to lead the country towards unity and sustainable development, words I am taking from Vision 2020 in 1991. He is the best politician the country has ever had. But, alas, not a statesman Malaysia needed, and now still needs.
So when I am asked by the media to comment on how President Biden would affect U.S.-Malaysia relations, the thought that comes to me first is how much we need a leader like him to put my country together again. Someone who can rise above the politics of division.
Unfortunately there is not anyone in Malaysian politics today. We need first to find common ground from which a new politics not based on race can emerge and, with it, new leaders. How to achieve it should be the stuff of politics, rather than how to stay in power, how to get into power, and how to use the easiest and often basest appeals to stay in or get to power.
And in all this time a political plutocracy has formed which suspects different views, considers many of them as a threat, and rules by the low common denominator, on the foundation of the system and on the details of policy, that only yes-men can provide.
When I saw the attack on the Capitol, the assault on American democracy which Biden seeks to restore and reinvigorate, I also wonder who we have to restore and strengthen the institutions of democratic government in our country. If both the objective of unity and the constitutional governance are not the concern of Malaysian political leaders today, we are in for a dark and retarded period in national history, already blighted by the heavy cost of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Of course U.S.-Malaysia relations are not unimportant, although less important to America than it is to Malaysia. Saying this will upset people who have an interest in presuming how important Malaysia is, whether ambassadors assigned to the task or those whose task it is to elevate those relations.
This is another problem in Malaysia. Not recognizing where we are, not admitting to reality. Always ready to blame the messenger and not look at the news he brings.
We become mediocre that way. What happens to U.S.-Malaysia relations now depends most of all on what we make of it, what we want from it, how we position ourselves to identify and engage and develop those relations. Biden will be engrossed within trying to unite his country once again, although he cannot avoid giving attention to global issues.
Malaysia has to identify which of the global issues are in Malaysian interest and engage the Americans actively in the bilateral relationship as well as in multilateral forums. We must bring activity and quality to the table.
For example if the issue of climate change and sustainable development is of common concern, we should determine exactly how we would like to work with the U.S. on it. Whether at international or regional policy level, whether in economic investment and business or technology activities, which sectors, public healthcare, human capital development, clean energy and so on. We should prioritise and go for it with specifics. We cannot be jejune and driven just by issues which are the flavour of the month.
On the issue of trade, going bilateral is insufficient, as we operate in a multilateral context. That multilateral context is not served just by making generalized statements of belief in a rules-based free trade system. We have to work at it. Do we work in Asean to provide leadership to take a common stand in RCEP, on FTAs, in international forums?
Asean has been dismal at this. It is, for instance, represented at G-20 meetings: Indonesia in its own right, Singapore as leader of the Global Governance Group, and the Asean chair as observer ever since the London Summit in 2009. Have they ever got together to present a common front on the most pressing issues of trade? Would Malaysia want to get this going in Asean, provide leadership in Asean, or are we preoccupied with domestic politics?
Similarly, on the more difficult issue of the South China Sea, we cannot duck having clarity by simply saying we do not want to have to choose between China and the U.S. Biden is likely to reiterate the American position on freedom of navigation and the “global commons”, a stand made clear by the Obama administration since 2010. Does Malaysia support this? Do we stand by the principle that international law must be observed to provide security for smaller states.
Further, we cannot countenance Chinese incursions into our exclusive economic zone, and not prevaricate, as we have done in the past, by saying it is no big deal for us that China does so.
We have to make the point about principles we uphold and actions we do not accept. Singapore, and this is a point which galls many in Malaysia, has been able to be clear on its position, sometimes at cost, from which it has been able to recover through adroit diplomacy.
Even so, there are diametrically opposed views in Singapore on whether Singapore should take a stand. But they are discussed vigorously and resolved in dynamic fashion and then determined policy is executed effectively, with nobody considered negative for having a different view.
In Malaysia there is fear and disdain, if not worse, for those who have a different view. This way policy decisions and conduct do not pass muster.
The basis of our nationhood is severely fractured. Unless this is addressed we will continue to operate as a maimed country. For one, the conduct of foreign policy will be sub-optimal. So, if you ask me how U.S.-Malaysia relations will be affected by President Biden, my answer is, by his example, we should be thinking Malaysia, reflect more deeply than superficial enumeration of this and that.
The writer is former NST group editor and Visiting Senior Fellow and Member of the Advisory Board LSE IDEAS (Centre for International Affairs, Strategy and Diplomacy)
WHERE the country is right now, it is best to concentrate on fighting Covid-19 in the next six months.
While there are the MCOs and SOP in place, and the vaccines coming, the virus is nowhere under control, in Malaysia and around the world.
We all have access to the numbers and challenges: the deaths, total cases, choked hospitals, exhausted frontliners, distribution and efficacy o f vaccines, economies on their knees. The dichotomy between health and economy is a false one.
If the virus is not brought under control, the economy will continue to falter. The British example of holding out for the sake of the economy has resulted in full lockdown, excruciating number of deaths and infections — and seizure of the economy.
We must take care we do not fall between two stools like that, and break the back of our economy. The mix between lives and the economy in this crisis must always favour public health, which is a backbone of sustainable development.
Having said that, the measure of Covid-19 risk and the extent to which economic activity is allowed, are devilishly difficult to determine.
This is a task the country should be concentrating on, to come up within the next six months or less with a pandemic criteria to measure the key performance indicators of the virus spread and the consequent severity of measures to be put in place.
The special committee the prime minister has proposed to advise the king on whether the Covid-19 situation has eased or improved enough to end the state of emergency, is a good idea.
Its advice, however, has to be based on a set of pandemic criteria which has to be developed. A group of healthcare and economic experts from the public and private sectors should be established to achieve this. I know members of the medical profession are an opinionated—and divided — lot, as are the economists.
But, they must get together in the interest of the country to come up with refined and strategic real time indicators of where we are on the pandemic curve and what concomitant measures we should take. The number of new and active cases — and their geographic spread — as well as of deaths, is a good guide which can be refined further, such as by looking at the levels of severity and need or not of hospitalisation, efficacy of home treatment and so on, which health experts will know about.
Similarly the R0, the “R naught”, which reflects how contagious an infectious disease is, in this case Covid-19, can be explained and developed further in terms, for example, of the time series used and why, and in a situation soon of positive impact of the vaccines as they roll out.
The expert group should also look into a clear plan of action on incorporating testing and tracing in the overall pandemic strategy.
This has not been evident to the general public, who only pick up bits and pieces of what is happening in other countries.
The people have placed so much hope in the vaccines, but the jury is still out on their efficacy, with enough scary outcomes to dent confidence in them.
Yet the government has to place the orders and be positive, although we might end up with vaccines the populace may not favour — and unfairly blame the government for it! This virus is in all senses a moving target.
The expert group, therefore, can put some understandable sense and guideposts to available vaccines, and raise the alert that they are not a panacea as well as identify clearly the SOP that must continue to be observed.
Based on all this science, the economists in the group should work with the health experts to determine what economic sectors can operate under what circumstances with what health safety measures.
The debate, I’m sure will be robust, which no doubt already occurs now, but we must develop better defined parameters, which would trigger the required policy mix between lives and livelihoods driven by the science.
It would be remiss of them if the economists did not also look into mandatory inclusive and responsible business practices, the absence of which has caused suffering and spread of the disease.
If these next six months are used to communicate better with the public and have greater transparency about what is being done, what needs to be done, and where we are at in the battle against Covid-19, the country would be better placed than where we are now — gripped by fear of the virus and by uncertainty of government.
The expert group, through the Health director-general, can feed into the special committee which advises the king on the state of the pandemic and provide vital input into whether there is need to continue with the state of emergency.
Alternatively, we can use all of this time to continue with the politicking which has led us to a lack of clear strategy on the Covid-19 crisis and unending political intrigue to topple the government. Many people believe having a general election now is a death trap, pointing to the tidal wave of infections from last September’s Sabah state election as evidence.
On the other hand, some argue if other countries, like the United State s, can hold a massive election in the midst of the pandemic, why cannot Malaysia manage it ? America is not a good example. It has the worst record in managing the Covid-19 crisis, with the highest number of deaths and cases in the world.
To get out of the deep hole it is in, President elect Joe Biden is proposing a huge US$1.9 trillion package.
We do not want and cannot afford to go the American way. Let’s forget about America and just look at the behavioural pattern of our politicians at the best of times.
In a general election where the stakes will be the highest ever, we can expect the worst behaviour, whatever the SOP, and still end up with a hung Parliament!
And thence back to the ceaseless political deal-making we now see happening. Let’s next look at a change of government assuming the Muhyiddin administration is replaced.
How stable will the new government be, with all the leapfrogging that is going on and the fractured opposition — and divided political parties within the opposition?
Just imagine a changing of the guard right now. New personnel coming in. No continuity. Changing direction of negotiations such as on the vaccines. Learning the ropes while the crisis is on.
In the last Pakatan Harapan government they were still learning the ropes with NO CRISIS on. And, most of all, uncertainty of stable government with so many chameleon MPs.
How long would that next government last? Are the people of Malaysia ever going to be served? I am non-partisan, but we are between a rock and a hard place.
If there was trust, it should be acceptable that the powers inherent in the prime minister during the state of emergency will be used to address the Covid-19 crisis exclusively, as he has openly stated, despite whatever is contained in the Emergency Ordinance, which hopefully reflects excess to reserve powers that will not be abused.
Whatever, the Malaysian people should hold the prime minister to his word, as Allah is his witness.
That we need the time to address the crisis, not to make use of the emergency to prolong his tenure in office.
Therefore, it would be good if the expert group was set up to support the special committee to advise the king. Let us put some trust in him knowing, in addition, there is the wisdom in the proclamation of a state of emergency for a limited time, which is to end on Aug 1.
With care not to drag the king and the Malay rulers into uncharted territory, which could have unintended consequences, we must also have faith in our king discharging his prerogative in the interest of the people of the country in accordance with the Constitution.
We should not give cause for the emergency to be extended even as the government must not abuse it.
Most of all, the next six months should be dedicated to coming out with a comprehensive Covid-19 strategy to contain the virus and allow the people of our beloved country to get on with life as much as possible.
The writer, a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political issues
THERE has been so much hogwash commented and written on the attack a week ago on the Capitol in Washington incited by President Trump that I begin to wonder where everyone has been.
Did not the Republican-majority Senate, which is housed in the Capitol building — “the citadel of democracy” — vote to acquit President Trump in his impeachment trial last February of two clear charges: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress?
Is not that same Senate in that Capitol building against a move to consider impeachment even now after the invading rioters had sent them scampering to hiding places behind locked doors and under any table they could find?
Under Nancy Pelosi, the only man in Congress, the House of Representatives is proposing that Trump be impeached after moves to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him because he was unfit to hold office, met Republican resistance.
If nothing is done against Trump, American democracy will be discredited even further, an indelible mark more real than the symbolic meaning of the storming of the Capitol everyone has been talking about.
The argument that any action will divide the country even further is feeble nonsense. The country is divided. Inaction will only encourage the insurrectionists into swirling more confederate flags the next time around. The other side, they will see, has no courage.
With impeachment now the only line of action, arguments are being made it would not be until President-elect Joe Biden has been sworn in before the Senate could consider the article of impeachment from the House.
So what? Constitutional lawyers are firm that an ex-president can still be impeached. There must be a marker. Something must be done against Trump. With impeachment, he will not be allowed to stand again for public office.
The reluctance to take any action against Trump as he violates American democracy with impunity continues. This condemns American lawmakers to being nothing but puny characters with no principles or scruples, who should shut up about democracy in their country.
Now they are safe, the Republican senators are thinking of their political survival again — as they did when they voted against impeachment last February, save for Mitt Romney.
Trump has been a tyrant and dictator who destroyed democracy in his time as president with the acquiescence of the Republican Party.
Only at the last call, when he sought to overturn by riotous force the result of a democratic election, did the Republicans realise democracy was at stake, when their lives was in grave danger from a mob set upon them by their very own president.
One wonders how many of the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump in the 2016 November election have now changed their minds, and are repentant after the insurrection against democracy. Certainly half a dozen Republican senators and many more members of the House of Representatives are not — also housed in that citadel of democracy, which they every day violate.
President Trump ruled with an iron fist riding roughshod over institutions that were supposed to check and balance in this American system of democracy. If that idyllic representation was never total reality, President Trump trampled on it some more in full glare of America and the world these past four years.
Now we are being asked to appreciate this building, this symbol, this citadel, when 47 per cent of the American electorate did not give a toss about his shocking transgressions and Republicans for reasons of politics alone supported him to the hilt — until now. Even now they are against him with prevarication.
Including Vice-President “after all that I had done for him” Mike Pence. Whatever little switch in allegiance there has been comes mostly not from principled belief in the tenets of democracy, but from a calculation Trump may have gone past his “sell-by” date when he overstepped the mark by setting his Rottweilers on the Capitol. Hence, some Republicans are saying Trump should just resign, wanting to see him in the “rear mirror” as the United States moves on ahead.
Yet there are many others, on both sides of the political divide, who know that the chasm in America which Trump exploited remains, and that that tribal constituency might yet be waiting for Trump, or someone of his ilk, to lead them to the “Promised Land” rather different from what former president Barack Obama depicts in his recent book, or indeed from what New York liberals write and say is America.
It is rather touching to read columnists in the Washington Post, for instance, imagining the siege of the Capitol to be the magic moment when America discovers, or rediscovers, itself, rather conversely like, I suppose, the storming of the Bastille in 1789 that brought down King Louis XVI and heralded the French Revolution.
How important American democracy is, and democratic practices are. What America stands for. The promise of this land of opportunity and hope. America will come out stronger.
Just like the symbolic appeal to the Capitol as the citadel of a democracy that has been disfigured, this wistful wish is more melancholic than it is hard-nosed reality. The US is sharply and deeply divided. The Constitution is not widely read or understood. The coastal areas may be well-tutored, but not the Deep South and Mid-West.
There is liberal worry whether Twitter was right to ban Trump from using it. On the contrary, he should have been banned much earlier from spreading his vermin and call to arms.
You do not give a platform to someone who uses it to cause mayhem and disorder and Covid-19 deaths. What gives him more space to do more harm than he has already? Hitler would have loved such licence to kill.
Reports that Trump has declared an emergency in the District of Columbia, where Washington is situated, in the run-in to Biden’s inauguration as president on Jan 20, as well as intelligence from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that plans are afoot to storm all 50 state capitals before the inauguration, show that there is still no end to the mischief the outgoing president can cause.
Is America going to be held to ransom by threat of internal violence, or will the laws in its democracy take their course?
On whose side are the forces of law and order? There are rednecks aplenty, who worry only about gun laws and rights, or when non-whites work harder and do better than them. Best to keep them out so that there is no competitive pressure. They are on a short fuse. Is the US about to descend into total chaos?
The causes to be deeply dissatisfied have come to a boil, fanned by the most evil president America has had in its history. Time is running out.
The disparity of wealth and income in America has reached unconscionable levels. The top one per cent of families in the US hold 40 per cent of all wealth, with the bottom 90 per cent holding less than one quarter. About 25 per cent of families have less than US$10,000 in wealth.
The US has the highest level of income inequality among developed countries. The top one per cent earning an average of US$1.8 million earn 30 times more than the middle quintile at US$59,100. The average after tax income for the lowest quintile in 2019 was US$12,336 and has been deteriorating. The Gini coefficient (which measures income disparity with one being the worst) was almost 0.5, having got worse in the last 30 years.
The plutocracy that is America has fomented a violent disorder against the ruling class snug in “their” democracy in the “swamp”, which Trump calls Washington. The division has never been so deep. Trump was able to feed it and feed on it. This huge American problem is not over with or without Trump.
Biden has his work cut out for him. Talking about healing, democracy etc. is well and good, but unless he addresses the real issues before America, he would only be scratching the surface.
He must give special attention to the underserved and to those who are alienated from the system. The Capitol is no symbol of democracy to them. Indeed the contempt with which the insurrectionists occupied Congress is palpable in the actions of the rioters.
There is a tendency for many in Asia to gloat over yet another demonstration of American decline. We should, however, be careful what we wish for.
We should be wishing that the US will get its act together. We need a strong America. We do not want a unipolar world. But America is slipping down a greasy pole right now. To arrest its decline, concrete actions must be taken to address real issues.
The writer, a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political issues.
THE country desperately needs a period of political stability until the next scheduled general election after July 2023 not only to address and to get out of the Covid19 crisis, but also to implement policies for the future: sustainable and equitable development with application of digital enablement.
However, we are not going to get it with the political leaders that we have. We have government by inducement and opposition committed “to propose nothing, oppose everything and to turn out the government”.
We have discredited political leaders offering themselves to save our country! Where and who is the future? For business leaders, all this is distressing. They see the damage to the economy caused by Covid-19.
Businesses run down and revenues depleted. They see mounting public debt to address the situation, which will be storing huge fiscal challenge in the future which is not being responsibly planned because of political short termism of both the government and opposition.
They see a future that is being seized by countries which are better led and better prepared. They see investment flow in the region favouring Singapore, as always, but clearly now Vietnam, Thailand (despite its own political problems, it has shown an ability and a track record of riding them) and Indonesia, which has a professional and competent cabinet comprised of ministers focused on their job and not on politics.
Look out for Indonesia’s Omnibus Law, which is very foreign direct investment directed and artificial intelligence focused.
With the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and increasing Asean economic integration, these countries will seize market opportunities as Malaysia is gazing at its little political navel.
A general election now will be a public health disaster. Have we forgotten what happened in Sabah? Running for the declaration of a state of emergency would be a fig leaf to hide loss of parliamentary support. It takes us down the dangerous road to government by subterfuge.
Whatever the Umno Supreme Council decides, it must show a sense of responsibility about lives and the need for political stability until the next election.
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin must rise to the occasion by offering a grand coalition instead of being closeted with his narrow range of supporters who are extracting a political and economic cost to the country, hanging like the “Sword of Damocles” over him.
With ministerial or government-linked company positions, the mediocrity of most is the only thing that is shining through, and the uncertainty for and bullying of professional managers will only result in a race to the bottom, as the capable ones leave or are kicked out.
As the economy suffers from unending political intrigue and instability, government revenues will suffer at the time of greatest need.
Building a new revenue base, including by reintroducing the Goods and Services Tax, for example, is going to be difficult if both production and consumption suffer from economic malaise.
I also worry about the impact on the private sector of course, including financial institutions. Growth numbers can be thrown out for this year, whether 3.5 to 5.5 per cent, or even 8 per cent, but don’t forget this is coming from a low negative growth base.
Singapore, for instance, has reported – 5.8 per cent for 2020, and our 2020 performance will be around there. Also, the composition of growth in 2021 is important. Will it skew towards manufacturing, such as of rubber gloves?
In other words, will 2021 growth be broad-based, by how much will the services sector revive and will consumer confidence rise sufficiently?
A lot depends on how we recover from Covid-19. Whatever, my concern about our financial institutions is the same as for the public sector fiscal position.
If companies do not recover and with the extended moratorium, there will come a moment of reckoning. With the banks, will asset quality deteriorate and provisions mount? I don’t think the politicians understand these dynamics as they mess about with selfish politics.
On getting and administering the Covid-19 vaccines, while being among the first to announce that doses are coming, we are falling behind Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand in confirming the vaccine rollout.
Indonesia is preferred by China despite our early announcement of getting Chinese vaccines preferentially. We are becoming like a second tier Asean country.
With continued political instability, a change of government and ministers tripping over each other to extract political kudos, the people will suffer — and die — from irresponsible politicians.
It is not just about the economy. It is to be regretted the proposal by the Asean Business Advisory Council in July last year for the region (650 million people) to make a collective purchase (as the European Union has done for its 470 million people) approved by Asean leaders has not seen the light of day.
The government is due to announce the vaccine programme today. It must be clear, comprehensive and transparent. Are we getting the Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Chinese vaccines as well?
Is the Pfizer vaccine the best choice, taking into account the biology, storage requirements and logistics? Openness please. People’s lives are at stake. Infections are rising.
Saving lives and livelihoods must not be politicised and subjected to opacity and leakages.
The writer, a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political issues
(Keynote address by Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid, Chairman Asean Business Advisory Council Malaysia and of CARI Asean Research and Advocacy, at the Asean Responsible & Inclusive Business Forum, 10th December 2020)
The rhetorical question in the title of my address is predicated on the assumption the Covid-19 crisis has had the profound effect of improving human moral consciousness, and separately of there having been good foundation in our region of responsible and inclusive practices in the business and other spheres.
I am not too sanguine about both suppositions.
Starting with the latter, as you are aware, there are any number of documents and declarations, both at regional and global level, on responsible and inclusive business practices, such as the code ARAIBA (Asean Responsible and Inclusive Business Alliance) is promoting, based on various commitments, for example the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the G20 Inclusive Business Framework, Asean’s own Human Rights Declaration, its CSR Guidelines on Labour, the Asean Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. Most recently in the Asean Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF) adopted last month which had digital inclusiveness as one of its five broad strategies.
All lofty and commendable. But where are we today? Why is there the need to promote the code such as the one ARAIBA is embarked on, when there are already so many of these calls to good, responsible and inclusive practices? Clearly there has not been satisfactory progress and much more has to be done. Where might it be the best place to start?
We read in corporate governance literature about “tone from the top.” I’d like to take a step up today to talk a little about “rot at the head”, especially political rot, which is the fundamental and foundational weakness of all other responsible and inclusive practices in society.
The 1MDB scandal in Malaysia, for example, is the biggest and most shameful violation of trust in governance of a country in modern times. The billions of dollars of debts for non-existent investments which were funneled into accounts of the conspirators, have left a huge liability for future generations which was compounded by projects with inflated costs and terms to generate payments to service those debts through a conduit of money laundering, sinking the country further into the abyss.
The appalling story is not over yet. There is the possibility of political deals intervening against legal lability. In other words, interference against application and sanctity of the law, something not absent in other Asean countries.
I bring this up because of the huge negative demonstration effect violation of the sanctity of the law has, and will have, not just on other political leaders, but also corporate leaders who might deem themselves, because of a cozy link with the politicians, too big to fall – just like the corporate leaders of financial institutions on Wall Street and the City in London were allowed to escape their trespasses in 2008 with both bank and compensation intact.
When there is always the prospect of a “Get out of Jail Free” card if you are well connected, statute or no statute, there is unlikely to be a robust regime of observance of laws or codes.
This nexus, even if difficult to break in high politics and finance, should not ideally be allowed to worm its way into laws and practices pertaining to responsible and inclusive business. Unfortunately it has. The temptation is too great. Bad habits when you are able to get away with it, and where the benefit is considerable and divisible, become attractive.
Let’s face it. The task before us is formidable. But not impossible. It is good, even against the odds, to contribute to society. It is good for fellow men to be treated with decency to bring out of him the productivity whose profit can be shared even if not equally. Nevertheless bear in mind the “self-evident truth” in the US Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776, “that all men are created equal”, has taken some years to be forged, and continues to be fought for.
You might say, surely these high level reflections are over the top when our concern here this morning is the more mundane matter of responsible and inclusive business. However, you must agree with me that fundamentally we have to get the governance right, from top to bottom, from head to body to tail. There must be transparency and accountability. There must most of all be the rule of law. It becomes a real challenge when political systems recognize it only in name but not in practice.
It is something else again when we talk of codes – such as the one ARAIBA is promoting – which do not bind. There are even deeper issues to be discussed. What are the roots of our society. The social contract. I do not want to go into Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau, who first theorized about the best way to establish a human community in the face of problems of commercial society. Suffice to say, the values of a society and recognition of the common good, are defining. During this pandemic, some countries and societies have stood out well, some not, which has not a little to do with value systems, discipline and holding together. For laws, regulations and codes to work, there has to be an underlying ethos of a particular society not marred by corrupt politicians and their ilk.
The plight of the 300 million or so migrant workers who in the last 30 years helped build modern China, relating to issues such as pensions and insurance, got the attention of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party even if it is by no means all addressed. Many, including those employed by foreign firms, head back to retirement in the countryside where they do not enjoy the same social protections as the urban Chinese with permanent residence permits in the cities. The recognition is a good basis for action but, in the end, the action must be completed.
The Gulf migrant workers are left out of the social contract in the societies there. A powerful commentary observed: “When their workday is done, many are homed into spartan dormitories by their employers. Whether visiting workers have lived in the Gulf for two months or two decades, they are deemed to be temporary…” Most citizens treat them as a subservient underclass. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed more bigotry than benevolence.
Sounds familiar? Do not forget your migrant worker is my national, my citizen. The number of migrant workers in Asean is about 10 million. The way one country uses, and treats, another’s citizen, is a constant irritant, not to mention violation of the rights of the workers. Although not mainly from Asean, in Singapore and Malaysia abominable housing conditions of migrant workers were exposed during the current Covid-19 crisis – which would not have come out into the open had it not been for the pandemic. There was no place to hide as the virus spread across the community with no differentiation between national and non-national.
Laws were violated. But more than that, how could businesses be so unconscionable especially when windfall profits were reaped from sales, in Malaysia for instance, of protective gloves against the virus which was then allowed to inflict the very workers who produced them. Would the lesson have been drawn from this unprecedented pandemic which would inculcate more responsible and inclusive business practices?
This brings us to the question I raised at the start whether the COVID-19 crisis has brought about positive change in moral consciousness such that a good new normal has been established, at least in business practices.
Changing after being found out is not a good example of being reformed. Being quick to protect the vulnerable when others are looking raises the question: what about when others are not looking?
From the time of the rush for toilet paper at the start of the pandemic lockdowns to physical distancing becoming social distancing, the wrongly-used term, to disdain for individuals, areas and countries which may have been overwhelmed by the disease, it is still unclear if common suffering from the crisis has resulted in a new human bondage – which would further be tested as the lines form for available vaccines.
Leaving aside individual and societal behavior, improvement in corporate behavior cannot be left to chance. The cozy relationship between governments and employers has to be disintermediated by laws and regulations. And where laws are not applied, or are not applicable, by civil society and by the effort of good people and companies as are involved in this Forum to engender responsible and inclusive business practices.
The Swedish experience of consensus-building, respecting every voice, inviting everyone around the table, should be an inspiration as we in Asean seek to have companies build and grow around society. Their companies such as Ericsson, ABB, Scania and AstraZeneca AB are great success stories, not only of profitability but also of outstanding responsible business conduct, such as in sustainability leadership.
Indeed our very own relative success of holding together against the biggest challenge of our lives should be the foundation of working afterwards in a positive direction.
After the gale of creative destruction (to borrow from Schumpeter), we are still picking up the pieces and are not quite at a new normal which has been prematurely pronounced. Now is the time to think hard about what is the role ultimately of this unit of organization in society – the association of owners of capital and the providers of labour (human capital) in a commercial business we call the company, or the firm.
That part, how they are fulfilling their role in society, composed of workers who contribute to revenue and corporate well-being, has to be made a reporting requirement in the annual reports of companies. There should not be just the gloss of migration from shareholder to stakeholder responsibility. There should be more rigorous requirement on sustainability reporting, as there should be more detailed reporting on how employees are performing and treated. Both should not merely be covered in general going through the motions qualitative statements.
It would be a great statement for the 2021 financial year, would it not, if corporations above a certain size were to announce their employees have been vaccinated against Covid-19 at the company’s cost. After all, vaccine producing companies, such as AstraZeneca, have announced they are offering them at cost with no profit margin. Vaccine availability should not be left entirely to the government in the spirit of employee-care and of contribution to reviving the economy after the most challenging time in living memory.
As countries come out of the crisis, all the talk is about digitalization, or tech-celeration, as it has been dubbed. The pandemic accelerated the pace of digitalizing a lot of everyday life, much of business and government operations. There are inevitably issues of responsible and inclusive business responsibilities that have to be addressed. The “All-in For Digital Transformation” clarion call of this Forum must have this subtext to it.
A few things to note as we prepare for in this Brave New World. We have to make Build Back Better real rather than just nice-sounding alliteration. Businesses have a responsibility towards sustainable development which they could work towards, for example, in terms of immediate healthcare, like Doctor on Call, telemedicine, epharmacy, but also in relation to infrastructure as in good sanitation and clean water.
The convergence of digitalization and healthcare and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) is well enunciated in “A Pathway Towards Recovery and Hope for Asean” (Pathway 225) a set of 225 actionable steps that should be taken to have Asean Build Back Better, which was prepared by the Asean Business Advisory Council together with Joint Business Councils the world over and CARI. Enhancing health systems and strengthening human security are two of the five broad strategies in the ACRF. Both documents face the daunting task however of implementation which has always blighted Asean regional initiatives, including in responsible and inclusive business.
Pathway 225 and the ACRF underline the need for sustainable development, the green economy and green finance while not forgetting employee safety nets and ensuring inclusive digital transformation. The last is very important so that Asean workers, economies and countries are not left behind. It must be part of responsible and inclusive business practice that companies take on the task of reskilling and up skilling their workers. Employment displacement is a serious risk to social and political stability although it is not all bleak in the digital transformation process on that score. Companies invested in advanced technologies such as Amazon went on a hiring spree of 175,000 new employees since the lockdowns began in March as did Netflix that continued to hire throughout the pandemic.
It will be a mixed employment picture. A lot depends on what companies invest in, including how they use existing and bring in new members of staff.
There are two particular matters which I would like to bring up that have not been sufficiently discussed in Asean in the context of the digital revolution which have a bearing on conduct of business.
First, there will be a rise in gig-work platforms, a kind of out-sourcing model whereby the workers are not on the firm’s payroll. We should in Asean anticipate this and lookin detail into the rights and privileges of such workers who otherwise will enjoy no social benefits whatsoever. There is a need therefore to have some kind of statute of rights for such workers, perhaps as addendum to existing employment laws.
Second, the history of technological change in the advanced countries shows the falling away of workers unions following greater sophistication in the production process. With more readily available data and clearer KPIs there have been more transparent measures of performance and fewer work disputes. There should be a code of management discipline on this in Asean to protect workers’ rights and to ensure fair treatment.
From the standards of national governance to responsible and inclusive business practices to individual decency, there is a long way to go in Asean towards which those committed to make grand declarations a reality have to dedicate themselves. Laws and codes will help, but the real test is in enforcement, adherence and, not least, inculcation of sound societal values.
Companies in the region should support efforts such as that by ARAIBA and must come out to play a greater role than they have done in lifting the standards of corporate governance and contribution to their workers and to the wider society. This has been done in countries such as Sweden without any loss of profits. Why not in Asean. We do not want to enrich just the few and to leave the majority behind. The polarization that will then come will cause serious fractures that could be destructive of integration at country and regional level.
(This article also appears in today’s New Straits Times)
In foreign relations “…..Biden will find when you pawn the crown you cannot expect to get it back at the same price.”
The toppling of the evil US President Donald Trump is the best piece of news in this horrible COVID-19 year. President-elect Joe Biden is to be congratulated for achieving this.
The time for celebration – and Trump’s scorched earth legal actions to nullify the American people’s vote – will soon be over. The reality of where America is and where America is in the the world will then have to be faced.
There is first the reality of Trump still in the White House. It is 10 weeks before Joe Biden is sworn in on January 20th. While once Biden’s victory is officially declared, all the organs of state, like the military, the CIA and so on, will divide their advice and attention between the incoming and outgoing President, even as a lame duck President Trump remains as commander-in-chief. He still has his finger on the nuclear button.
This despicable man will not let go. The transition, under the Presidential Transition Act 1963 and its various amendments, assumes good faith in a complex and complicated process. Trump can sabotage the incoming administration and, indeed, harm American national interest by embarking on something outrageously dangerous, by taking away or withholding critical information and by collapsing the national administration at a time when there are vacuums to be filled.
There is the story of the second US President John Adams refusing to vacate the White House in 1801 after being defeated by Thomas Jefferson. However all his belongings were just moved out and administrative support terminated.
We can have visions of Donald Trump being frogmarched out of the While House on January 20th 2021, but that is the least of our worries. What he will do meanwhile is the cause of greatest concern.
So while there is rightful celebration of American democracy, there is the test yet to come of governance at the executive level during this transition. With Trump anything is possible. Like a wounded and cornered beast he can wreak havoc. There have to be mechanisms in place to arrest this eventuality.
There were many “Arrest Trump” banners on the streets of American cities in the celebration of his defeat. Joe Biden has already reached out calling on Americans to unite and not think of opponents as enemies. Trump has so far not responded, not even recognizing Biden’s victory. There is an immediate uncertain and perilous period ahead.
Trump may finally be dragged out of the White House. We must not forget, though, Trumpism is a virus that has infected both the Republican Party and America at large. The country is bitterly divided, evidenced by the split in popular votes: about 74 to 70 million. It is potentially ungovernable, if the Republicans control the Senate (unless the Democrats win the two run-offs in Georgia on January 5th) and play hardball, with the stimulus package to revive the economy, one of Biden’s priorities, at risk.
There are other priorities, such as healthcare, climate change and rooting out institutional racism, at the mercy of a possibly recalcitrant Senate. The most urgent item on Biden’s agenda, to control more effectively the Covid-19 pandemic, will have to be one of the items to be implemented by executive order. At the time of writing, of close to 50 million cases in the world, about 10 million are in the U.S.; of one and a quarter million deaths worldwide almost a quarter million are American. One fifth each time. Not a league table any country would be proud to top, let alone allegedly the world’s most developed and powerful country.
It will however be two months before Biden can get the task force he has set up to roll back the grip of the virus on American lives and livelihoods. Meanwhile, tragically, more Americans will unnecessarily suffer, because of Trump and unless he cooperates in the transition.
In days gone by in America such people – indeed too many innocent people as well – are lynched. Trump must not continue with the damage he has already visited on America and on U.S. relations with the rest of the world. With so much to do at home, it is unsurprising foreign policy comes after domestic priorities are addressed, even for the leading global power. America’s place in the world has been greatly diminished, a decline in this 21st century which took a plunge under Trump.
Biden’s climate change and Covid priorities however will bring the US back to world councils where it will conduct itself in a civilized and not Trump boorish manner. It would be good for the world when the US is re-engaged with the Paris Agreement on climate change from which Trump had withdrawn in June 2017. The impetuous withdrawal from the WHO, which would have become effective on July 1st 2021 will also be reversed. There will be a different face to U.S. multilateral engagement which will be welcomed all over the world, by friends and protagonists alike. But, Biden will no doubt learn that when you pawn the crown you cannot expect to get it back at the same price.
It will be a hard graft and severe test of American diplomacy. If American diplomats come to the table with too much of a sense of entitlement they would be in for a surprise. There is now greater need for subtlety and persuasiveness. Perhaps rock star Vice-President elect Kamala Harris can be asked to play a role in some circumstances, even if the expectation is she would have a largely domestic policy responsibility.
U.S. with China are obviously front, back and centre of the international political system. Biden will be watched both at home and abroad on how the relationship is conducted. In old international relations jargon, will he be able to turn swords into ploughshares?
The interests of both countries will not change. But the China as threat narrative has to be transformed into acceptance of competition and better management of contestation. The style of engagement will help but core interests will remain. Both sides can move away from the Trump copybook and look afresh at how much they can accommodate each other’s interests without having trade wars, or worse.
For us in Malaysia, Biden’s election as President has to be welcome news, after a dysfunctional and erratic Trump. We are friends of the U.S. just as much as we are of China. Trump was a big turn-off. Perhaps Biden can recover lost ground. The most important factor for us is positive engagement without being pressured into siding one or the other other as they contest for power and influence in Southeast Asia.
(This article also appears in today’s New Straits Times)
As shown in Sabah, a general election now will cause a huge increase in Covid-19 infections with a sharp spike in deaths.
The Sabah state election was held on 26th September. The Director General of Health reported last week out of 110 deaths since the end of that month, 35 of them were classified as “brought in dead” (BID) cases – all in Sabah.
As of last week out of 1202 Covid-19 hospital beds in Sabah 63 per cent have been taken up. Of total ICU beds 85 per cent were being used, with 66 per cent take-up of Covid-19 ICU beds. Of 193 ventilators, Covid-19 and non Covid-19, a full one third were in use.
The Health Ministry has set up low-risk centres nearer to the community – to avoid more body bags coming in.
Just imagine if all this was happening across the country during and following a general election. Already of 16,060 Covid-19 available beds 40 per cent are utilized. Health facilities will be stretched.
Not only will there be a spike in Covid-19 deaths. The front-liners might also drop dead.
The numbers of infections and deaths in Sabah should be a wake-up call to all politicians, government and opposition, to work together in battling the pandemic and in getting the economy – people’s livelihoods – going again.
The Agong, after consultation with the Malay rulers, did the right thing in exercise of his discretion under Article 150 of the Federal Constitution by not accepting the Prime Minister’s advice to proclaim a state of national emergency. We are not in a situation where parliamentary government of the country has become impossible, whatever its difficulties, or the Covid-19 pandemic is totally out of control.
But we could arrive at such a situation in two circumstances.
If the Supply Bill (Budget) is not passed there will be no money to run the administration. Hence the Agong, again, reflected wisdom when he advised our politicians to get the Budget through and also to work together for the greater good.
This advice, distinct from His Majesty’s prerogative under Article 150, is a persuasion akin to what Walter Bagehot had described in The English Constitution (1867) as the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.
The political parties have reacted differently to this advice. Umno almost immediately came out to say the party would support the Budget but wants elections to take place once the Covid-19 pandemic was “brought under control.”
This was an expression of “adat Melayu” by acceding to the monarch’s advice, although with some qualification. Even so, within Umno itself, there were less pliant voices still talking about a no-confidence vote against the government – as is their right in the system of Parliamentary democracy.
Times have gone past when they could be considered “Hang Jebat” to Umno’s “Hang Tuah”. We are living in a different world now under a different system of government.
PKR appeared to embrace the Agong’s advice and wanted to work with the government on the Budget to get it passed. Their main proposal was for the budget to extend the loan moratorium, which had ended on 30th September, by a further six months – which is a popular remit of distressed companies and individuals in an economy severely damaged by lockdown and contraction.
The DAP, careful to show they were heeding the Agong’s advice, wanted discussion on the Budget to address particularly what must be done to bring relief to the hardest hit in society.
The Budget is due to be tabled on Friday. It would be a show of good faith for the government to at least have discussions with opposition parties on what can or cannot be done at this stage, or what could be introduced later to accommodate some of their ideas which would show it also wants all sides to work together as the Agong advised. It is good to see this happening.
An adversarial attitude begets opposition hostility. Of course the Prime Minister may take the view, if the Budget was not passed, his initial advice to the Agong to declare a state of emergency could be revived with evidence of Parliament blocking the government from governing.
An emergency therefore is still possible as having an election now is fraught with Covid-19 risk.
However, there is many a slip between cup and lip. In case the Budget was not passed it would also have been demonstrated the Perikatan Nasional government does not enjoy Parliamentary support and the state of emergency is a means to circumvent Parliamentary democracy – which would not be a good mark to carry into the next general election.
Nevertheless unless the bickering opposition can unite around one of their number to become the next Prime Minister, it is likely the Agong will proclaim a state of emergency, probably for a period of time, possibly six months.
His Majesty, once again, will be exercising royal prerogative to protect Parliamentary democracy – and not any of our politicians who would have failed the country.
It would be an outstanding act of leadership if the Prime Minister were to reach across the aisle, engage willing opposition parties, and see what can be done in the immediate term about the Budget.
Even more profoundly the Prime Minister could establish a consultative mechanism to think through Malaysia’s immediate and future challenges.
As It does not seem possible to have a government OF national unity, there must be instead a government FOR national unity.
It would be a good idea therefore to establish a Consultative Council, comprising no more than 40 persons, half of whom can be primarily opposition politicians, but the other half non-politicians, and chaired by a non-politician.
Its proceedings should be televised live, so that there will be no political grandstanding and content of discussion would be substantial and well-prepared.
There are so many issues on which it could provide input to the government, in the current Covid-19 crisis and for the restart and revival of the economy.
For instance the Covid-19 vaccine. There are financing and reliance issues. China says, after its own population, it is Asean that will get supply. We must not forget, in our excitement, that China has a population of 1.4 billion, and not note, it has already promised 250 million doses to Indonesia.
It is not clear how much the vaccine would cost, how reliable it would be, what alternative sources we are looking at, and what kind of financing is being put in place.
At the Asean private sector level, we have put together 225 proposals (A Pathway Towards Recovery and Hope for Asean) a couple of which relate to using the bargaining strength of 650 million people for bulk buying of vaccines. I have not seen the Malaysian government position on this. It is busy fighting domestic political fires.
How do we revive very quickly the dying tourism industry? How do we use digitalization to address sustainable development goals by bringing to the people the benefits of public health, good sanitation and clean water supply, greater productivity not just in manufacturing and services but also in agriculture and so, so many other matters of significance.
Instead what we get is political bickering. The Prime Minister has to rise to the occasion as he has done in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic up to now.
We must not forget the Tabligh cluster which spread the virus in February-March this year, as the politicians conspired and manoeuvred. And of course what is happening in Sabah from an election that need not have happened.
Now the state assembly in Sarawak must be dissolved in June, although an early election can be expected in December. The Sarawak government is mindful of what has happened in Sabah and undertakes there will be strict SOPs in the campaign.
Let us hope the comings and goings between Sarawak and the peninsula too are closely monitored.
In his address on the Covid-19 situation last Saturday the Prime Minister alluded to the upcoming Sarawak election and underlined the critical need for SOPs to be observed – while also hinting at the possibility of a state emergency to postpone the election if the Covid-19 situation warranted it.
The second circumstance to force an emergency therefore would occur when the pandemic risks getting totally out of control, whether caused by irresponsible politicians or not.
Coming back to the Umno point about wanting a general election when the pandemic is “under control”, it is interesting to note the Director-General of Health has asked for the Health Ministry to be given the power to prevent elections. This is going to be contentious.
That aside, the question of when the pandemic can be considered to be under control should be left to the science and not to the politicians. If it is defined as the situation when the infection rate (R0) is less than 0.5, so be it.
We are back to the need for a polity and a Parliament of responsible politicians who do not cause a situation where Covid-19 overwhelms the people, and brings about the suspension of Parliamentary democracy.
The current R0 is moving down from 1.5, and there is every prospect of achieving 1.0 soon if the present CMCO is stringently observed. The projected number of cases with R0 1.0 is 950. At the end of October the actual number of cases was 799. There is hope for R0 0.5.
Will this potential progress be overturned by politicians who seek confrontation instead of cooperation when the country faces the greatest challenge of our lifetime?