Thursday, 26 March 2015

Lee Kun Yew's Passing

Sin Chew Jit Poh
26 March 2015

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The passing of Lee Kuan Yew is most definitely a passing of an era. He was so synonymous with the city state that he led for so long that it feels that with his death somehow the identity of Singapore has changed as well.

 

Was he a successful leader? Without a doubt that economically he was the most successful leader in South East Asia. No other country has developed at the rate of Singapore. It is now a completely developed nation; any claims that it is a “newly developed” country is merely international diplomatic gamesmanship. Its health facilities, education system, public transport and government agencies are amongst the best in the world. And the almost complete lack of corruption is amazing to behold. Anyone can see that Singapore sits more comfortably amongst Western European countries in terms of wealth and prosperity than it does amongst its poor South East Asian cousins.

 

However in terms of human rights and democratic practices, they are far more at home here!

 

Apart from being the man who masterminded Singapore’s incredible economic development, Mr Lee was also one of the three “strongmen” of South East Asia (the other two being Suharto and Mahathir Muhamad) who ruthlessly put down any opposition to their rule. They dismissed all notions of a liberal democracy with the excuse that development comes first. Together with Mahathir, Lee was a proponent of the “Asian Values” concept which mistakenly presumes that Asians somehow are not concerned about civil liberties. Of course this “philosophy” was little more than an excuse to ensure their grip on power.

 

Today we can see that this idea of Asian nations somehow being exempt from human rights is a concept that leads to great problems. Without the checks and balances of a real democracy corruption becomes rampant. The Indonesians were so fed up with it that they had their “reformasi” which ultimately got rid of Suharto and has changed their nation (at least politically) beyond recognition. In Malaysia we are now feeling the fallacy of the “Asian Values” argument as we live with corruption and incompetence but without any real way of changing it (at least not yet).

 

Yet Singapore is different. Like I said earlier corruption is virtually non-existent and the country cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to be run incompetently. Therefore was Lee Kuan Yew correct?

 

Many say no, with commentators pointing out that Singaporeans are unhappy. Is this true?

 

If one looks at the UN’s happiness index, Singaporeans are sort of in the middle of the road. They are neither very happy nor are they very unhappy. Therefore that data does not prove very much. What is more telling are the polls conducted within Singapore itself which show that a huge number of them (more than half in some surveys) would leave the country if they could.

 

Due to its incredible wealth, this desire to emigrate can’t be for merely economic reasons. There has to be something more than that. I propose it is perhaps the sense of being stifled, of having no real voice, of being stuck in a system that one is powerless to change. In short the intangible qualities of life that provide people with a sense of controlling their own fate; of being free to pursue their own happiness.

 

I may be wrong of course, I am not Singaporean. But it cannot be denied that so many of them simply don’t want to be there. The lesson here is that as successful as Mr Lee was, and it would be churlish to deny it, that old adage still rings true; money is not everything.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Beyond assurance

Brave New World (The Star)
18 March 2015

The purpose of any law, including the POTA, cannot be determined solely on pledges made in Parliament.

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SOMETIMES a government feels that it needs to have draconian laws in order to “protect the people” from very bad sorts.
If this government operates in a country with even a modicum of democracy and the merest whiff of the rule of law, they will try to justify such laws by pointing out the grave dangers the nation is faced with. They will also try to reassure the people that these draconian laws will not be abused.
Therefore the laws will have preambles that state they are meant for only specified purposes (usually to prevent violence), and there may well be impassioned speeches in parliament about how these laws will not be used for political reasons.
If you are above the age of 70 and an avid follower of politics, what I said above may sound familiar.
That is because this is exactly what happened when the Government introduced the Internal Security Act in 1960.
The preamble of the act suggests it is meant to suppress violence (at the time the source of the violence was communist insurgents) and in Parliament Tun Abdul Razak made an eloquent speech about how the Act would categorically not be used against political opponents thus ensuring that Malaysian democracy would not be threatened.
Well, we all know how the ISA was used over the years, don’t we?
Now we are hearing exactly the same sounds with regard to the new Prevention of Terrorism Act, This new Act will allow for detention without trial just like the ISA.
And just like in the past, we hear politicians talking about how utterly necessary this POTA is and how it will not be used for political reasons but only to stop terrorists.
It is like history repeating itself.
Now I can point out many things, like the fact we already have laws that can be used against terrorists.
I could also say that whenever a government wants to introduce something nasty, the first thing they do is try to scare the living daylights out of the people.
Fear makes one blind to many things. I could elaborate on these points, but I prefer to talk about another consideration.
If the ISA could have started life as a law to deal with violence from communist insurgents and with the government of the day’s assurances of its proper use, and yet it later becomes the most notorious law of the country in its use against political dissidents, why then should the new POTA be any different?
I believe that over the last couple of years, the use of laws like the Sedition Act against any voices of dissent against the Government (with the latest target being Nurul Izzah Anwar) is so intensive because the ISA has been repealed.
If the ISA were still around, how many people would now be languishing in detention without trial? Would we be facing another Operation Lallang like in the late 1980s? I submit that this is not outside the realm of possibility.
Therefore, seeing the penchant that this government has in stifling dissent; seeing how they would use any law at hand to do so; seeing as how history has shown us that once a government has a powerful weapon in its arsenal like the ISA, then no amount of parliamentary reassurances and preambles will be of much use against the abuse of power; given all this, then the POTA must be opposed.
Our freedoms are being disrespected so alarmingly that they feel non-existent. The last thing we need is another law to take away what little is left.

1MDB: A Scandal of Obscene Proportions

Rakyat Times
16 March 2015

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I just came back from a forum on 1MBD and my mind is full to bursting.
I find economics and finance very difficult to understand anyway, but when combined with a scandal of obscene proportions, I feel like my brain is going to explode.
I will be the first to admit that the entire 1MDB scandal has whizzed by me. I understand very vaguely what has happened, but can't fathom the details.
 
Therefore, when I found out about this forum where Tony Pua and Rafizi Ramli were going to speak, I simply had to make the time and I am glad I did.
I will not try to provide a detailed summary of what happened here.
What I will say is that I am convinced that there has been serious impropriety. Loans which did not exist and then were transferred to a third party.
Companies created as covers.
The circulation of “investments” that went back to one company. The investments in completely unfeasible projects which failed miserably.
The continued support of failed companies. Extremely dubious legal, accounting and auditing practices. The taking of loans twice the amount needed for the actual investment.
And the list goes on.
So much incompetence and in what appears to be corruption.
And that was without staying to listen to Rafizi (after one and a half hours I thought my brain was going to stop and I had to leave). And all backed up by very convincing evidence such as emails; company reports with documentation that contradict them; and many facts that cannot be denied (like the oilfield which 1MDB invested in and yet is in a part of the world which is in dispute between two countries and, therefore, can’t be exploited anyway).
The trick now is for this shameful waste of public funds to be described in a very simple manner so that anyone can understand it.
This scandal must be understood by people of the country to see how much abuse has occurred.
We must be angry because we are not talking about a few million ringgit here.
Instead, we are talking about billions of ringgit that go into the pockets of a few or are washed down the drain in acts of unbelievable incompetence.
When we think about how they want to impose more taxes on the people, how so many parts of the country are still hopelessly underdeveloped, how so many improvements can be made to our public facilities, this kind of wastage is not only potentially legally wrong, it is also utterly and morally reprehensible.
And we got to this stage because all the checks and balances that are associated with a democratic country - including a free press, independent government agencies, the separation of powers - are not there.
Instead, we have members of a ruling class so used to getting their own way for so long that they think they and their cronies can suck this country dry and still get away with it.
Well, we must make sure they don’t.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

IMDB Confusion

Sin Chew Jit Poh
11 March 2015
 
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Economics is not something that I am good at. I studied it in school and it was torture. Even today, if I had to start a business, it would probably go bankrupt within a week.

 

It comes as no surprise then that I am totally lost when it comes to the IMDB affair. Or the more recent scandal involving Felda buying a hotel in the heart of London.

 

One of the problems I have is the sheer amount of money involved. When you are talking about billions of ringgit, I have difficulty in imagining such sums. I think my brain kinds of shuts down and I lose sight of the implications of a scandal involving that amount of money.

 

The government says that the finances of IMDB is above board. The opposition disagrees. The thing is if you gave me the report from the auditing company hired by the government or the reams of documents that the Sarawak Report has uncovered, I still won’t be able to make heads or tails of it.

 

Maybe I am just stupid.

 

But I will still like to know what is really happening. This is because tax payers’ money is involved and that means it is our money.

 

So this is what I would like to learn in clear simple language.

 

Just what exactly was done by IMDB that was unlawful or unethical?

 

Who did this?

 

Who stood to benefit from it?

 

If there was wrong doing, then what are its implications to the people of Malaysia?

 

Now there is a special task force consisting of the MACC, the police and the AG’s Chambers and they are supposed to investigate this affair. Apparently even the Prime Minister will be subject to their scrutiny.

 

In a perfect world this would be comforting news. Unfortunately as I have pointed out before, there is a serious problem of trust in our institutions. This means that even though logically speaking the three bodies are the natural agencies to investigate this scandal, I am sorry but even after they have done their job I am just not confident that I will be any clearer on the issues nor will I be satisfied with the findings. I hope the task force proves me wrong.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Not just a Benetton ad on the bridge

Brave New World (The Star)
4 March 2015

‘Star Trek’ went much further than any series has gone before, exploring the struggle for understanding and mutual co-existence.

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I GOT a message at 2am on Saturday which said, “Spock is dead”. It was sad news for me, being a semi-hardcore Trekkie/Trekker (I really don’t care which term is used – geeks amongst you will understand).
Now, of course I am not emotionally distraught because as much as I liked Leonard Nimoy’s work on Star Trek, I never knew the man, but there is a sense of loss nonetheless, as the character he portrayed has been part of my consciousness for as long as I can remember.
After I got the news I stepped out onto my balcony, looked up to the stars and wished him well. There was a lovely half-moon with the rather odd appearance of the top part being dark. Rather fitting I thought.
Anyway ...
The geek world is generally divided into two, those who are mad about Star Trek and those who are mad about Star Wars. I like them both (although when talking about Star Wars I do not count the abominations that were the last three films), but I must say that Trek resonates more.
You see, I think Star Wars is more about the struggles of individuals.
The society within which these individuals operate are merely the backdrop and the plot merely a device with which to help the hero find himself.
Trek, on the other hand, is more concerned about the bigger picture.
Sure there were insights into the individual, with Spock being the physical manifestation of the Superego and Bones McCoy the Id, but in the background there is always a concern about societies and communities and how they interact with one another.
Much has been said about how the original series broke so many boundaries with regard to the racial make-up of the crew.
This is certainly true, but Trek went further than just having a Benetton ad working on the bridge.
It worked on the premise that the petty bigotry and prejudice on Earth may have been over, but the struggle for understanding and mutual co-existence continues, if not on the planet, then out there amongst the stars.
To make these parallels more understandable, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, apparently tried to make alien species symbolic representations of earthly nations.
Therefore, the Vulcans were supposed to be the Chinese and the Klingons the Russians. Remember, the original series was made during the height of the Cold War and thus, such thinking was quite expected.
These rather crude caricatures were refined over the years and the following series (there were four spin-off series), but the stories nonetheless still had the crew dealing with problems of culture clashes, war, moral and ethical dilemmas.
The thing about Trek is that although the problems in the series are the same or a reflection of what we see here now, the approach taken by the intrepid crews when faced with problems have generally been enlightened and intelligent, suggesting that humankind has moved forward, we have become better. That was the key hopeful message of the series.
Now, I am not one of those precious artsy fartsy type folks who think that art can change the world. I don’t believe it can.
What it can do is to give life to the intellectual aspirations that we as a species may have. Trek did just that with the noblest aspirations that we have imagined and longed for.
For playing a major part in that effort to bring those dreams to life, Nimoy will always have my respect and affection.

Monday, 2 March 2015

What is the real PAS?

Sin Chew Jit Poh
28 February 2015
 
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When you buy something, you want to know exactly what you are going to get. If I buy a car, I want to get a car and not a bicycle. Simple common sense right?

 

The same applies to politics. When we vote, we want to know what we are voting for. And I am not talking about election promises here. I don’t think there is a single party that has not made promises and then broken them once they get into power.

 

When that happens, the voters will have a choice of not voting for these promise breakers in the next election. Or, worse still, if political parties break their promises too often, then you will get a citizenry who are totally disenchanted with the democratic process and they may choose not to take part at all.

 

This is a problem in the UK where many young people feel so disillusioned and disgusted with what they perceive to be the two faced nature of politicians that they have chosen not to go to the ballot box at all.

 

But this is not what I am talking about really. What I want to discuss here is the very nature of the political party itself.

 

Naturally a political party can change its character. The example I can think of is the Labour Party in the UK. For decades it was a left wing party with its main support coming from the labour movement and those with socialist leanings. This all changed under Tony Blair.

 

In the mid-nineties he brought the party towards a centrist position and by relabeling themselves New Labour and distancing themselves from their more militant past, they appealed to a broader group of the electorate including the more conservative elements of British society.

 

The success they had was a result of this reinvention and also because people were sick and tired of the Conservative party. This sense of being totally fed up with the seemingly endless rule of the Tories meant that left wingers who may have felt that Tony and gang were going too far and destroying the very fabric of the Labour party, swallowed their misgivings and supported them none the less.

 

Does this sound familiar?

 

Of course it does. For the last two general elections PAS has portrayed themselves as an inclusive party. No longer the Islamic firebrands of the past, they were now a moderate party determined to deal with issues of common concern like corruption and good governance.

Indeed they put aside the Islamic State rhetoric and focussed on the idea of the Welfare State. This move was tremendously successful. Not only with regard to election results which saw the opposition coalition winning more votes and seats than ever before but also in the general attitude towards PAS.

 

They were embraced by those not normally counted as their supporters. This affection was so heartfelt that non-Muslim PAS Supporters clubs sprang up and during political rallies it was very common indeed to see people of all faiths waving that familiar green and white flag.

 

And now, well, we don’t know anymore. It is no secret that PAS is divided between the progressives (whom I believe still hold to the idea of this “new” PAS) and the conservatives who long for a return to the old days. They seem to also long to go to the past when they and UMNO were partners. There is talk of joining with UMNO and putting Hudud law through Parliament thus changing the very fabric of our legal system.

 

Now I have absolutely no problem with a political party campaigning for what they want. If you believe in the democratic system you will defend to the very end the right of anyone to stand on whatever platform they wish even if you disagree with them, and I believe in the democratic system.

 

My point is this, before the next general election, it is the duty of PAS to tell us, if we vote for them which PAS are we voting for. Anything less will be dishonest.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

You can’t be ‘partly’ free

Brave New World (The Star)
18 February 2015

Contrary to recent ratings, freedom may not be absolute in reality but the aspiration of freedom is.

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IN the Freedom House report entitled “Freedom in the World 2015”, Malaysia was classified as “partly free”.
Now I am certain that if this report is noticed by the powers that be (highly unlikely), then the usual claptrap will come pouring forth like “the researchers are biased”, “this is a foreign plot to destabilise us” and for good measure, “the Freedom House is sponsored by Israel”.
I read the report and it says absolutely nothing that we don’t already know. Although I imagine if you have zero knowledge about this country, then it might be a useful taster on the realities of political and civil liberties in Malaysia.
I just wonder how useful these kinds of reports are to us here on the ground. Freedom House has been active in international human rights for 40 years and they describe themselves as an advocate group.
I like advocate groups, but I think their usefulness is more applicable to the national or local level.
Let’s be frank, the only international bodies that can influence a country are other governments. This can take the form of United Nations-authorised activities like sanctions or individual pressure.
However, individual pressure only works if the one that is asserting the pressure is far more powerful than the one being pressured.
Freedom House is an American organisation and seeing as how its president is golfing buddies with our Prime Minister and it wants us to be on board with it for its free trade agreement, I seriously doubt that Freedom House is capable of influencing its government.
Any pressure from the US government would be little more than lip service.
This is no big deal – realpolitik is the way of the world. Besides, I have always felt that for sustainable change to happen, it must come from within and not externally.
It’s nice to get international support, but it would be foolish to place too much hope on it.
Anyway, what I really want to know is how can we be “partly” free? Is freedom something that can be subdivided? I mean, you can’t be “partly” pregnant or “partly” bald. You either are or you are not.
I suppose freedom is conceptual and therefore you can classify a nation as “partly” free. The thing is that all nations are only “partly” free. This is because there is no such thing as absolute freedom.
Hey, can you feel that? I think the ground is shaking because the Inspector-General of Police is doing a jig. “Freedom is not absolute” is exactly the kind of thing that he and his ilk like to say and here I am endorsing their view.
But hold your horses, big boy. Freedom may not be absolute in reality, but the aspiration of freedom is. No one can be absolutely free, but if the aspiration of freedom is not there, then any limitations on it will be excessive.
And that is what happens here. We have men and women in power who appear to have no appreciation of the aspiration of freedom at all.
They seem to treat freedom as a hindrance to them. What should occur instead, from my not-so-humble point of view, is that freedom ought to be the ideal and therefore any limitation on it would have to be very carefully considered to ensure that the ideal is disturbed as little as possible.
This does not appear to occur in our country, either in the making of law or the implementation of law. That is why we are “partly” free.
Be that as it may, I hope that you will have “absolute fun” this holiday season. Happy Chinese New Year, everyone!