History & heritage

[2589] How old is Malaysia again? A layman generalization attempt

Since it will be August 31 soon, I think I want to further develop my thinking about the 55 versus 49 years old debate, i.e. how old is Malaysia?

I have shared opinion on the matter a number of times over the last, probably six years. I was September 16, before there was September 16 (kidding, don’t shoot me). Now, I want to generalize my framework on the matter.

The debate does matter in terms of historical accuracy and its logical implications are huge (honestly though, in the immediate every day, the debate is pedantic but fun nonetheless). For instance, if you understand Malaysia to be born in 1963 and that Malaysia does not exist prior to September 16 1963, then Malaysia was never colonized. What were colonized were the lands that modern Malaysia now encompasses. I think this is a strict observance of definition but many are not really interested in such strict observance.

In fact, many would ridicule that strict observance. When historian Khoo Kay Kim said that Malaysia was never colonized by the British because technically, the lands that came to form Malaysia under the British were protectorates, many thought he was crazy. But technically, he was right though those lands for all intents and purposes were colonized.

So, to many, Malaysia was colonized in the past. Not too many differentiate the history of modern Malaysian state (the 1963 federation) from the history of its member states. Really, if you read history from the perspective of the land instead of the state as an institution, there is no difference between the history of Malaysia and the history of its member states. I do think the history of the land is the lens which most Malaysians see the history of Malaysia.

The proper way to understand history is to consider each state on its own terms but at the same time, take the history of the land as continuous, whatever states that existed in the relevant period (also, history is “borderless“, i.e. one cannot apply modern boundary into the distant past in the reading of history). This allows for consistent and technically precise understanding of history but also allows for the appreciation of history in its widest, complete context. Call it the state-land dichotomy; same-same but different, or so the Indochinese would say.

While it is a dichotomy, the understanding of both is crucial. One obviously cannot understand modern Malaysian history without understanding pre-1957 history of the land.

For instance, how does one understand modern conservative Malay psyche that is a major factor in contemporary politics without knowing the history of Malay sultanates?

Also, history of foreign lands are important as well. But that would digress from my point and so, Iwill stop here as far as foreign lands are concerned.

So, according to the state interpretation, Malaysia is 49 years old. According to the land interpretation, Malaysia the land is, well, I do not know how old Malaysia is. It cannot be 55 years old because the land existed in 1956. In fact, this land has existed since time immemorial.

The third interpretation, which probably an amalgamation of the dichotomy into one, is that all those states or institutions that existed are intertemporally related states that should be taken collectively as the same state from modern point of view (as seen from the current state, which is taken as the successor of previous related state).

This has been the argument that supports the idea that Malaysia is 55 years old. But there is inconsistency here. If these institutions are really the same, why accept 1957 as the beginning? What about 1948 when the Federation of Malaya was formed? What about 1946 during the Malayan Union? There are other dates but it all leads to the same question: when did the first institution was formed? Do we need to go to all the way to Srivijaya’s time? All the way to the beginning of Kedah? I see third interpretation as eventually approximating the land interpretation.It will not have the time immemorial conclusion but it will go far enough into history that it really does not matter to contemporary life.

I know monarchists do take this interpretation in some way, by basing the “Malaysia” institution as the office of the Agong. Since the office of the Agong was established in 1957, then Malaysia is 55 years old. That intepretation does logically lead to the number 55, but I do not subscribe to that. I do not see how the office of the Agong is the state. The state does not take its power from the Agong. The office of the Agong is merely an institution within the state.

Perhaps, the question is not how old the state is but rather, it is a question of independence: how long has the current state been independent? This sidesteps the reference to 1948 or earlier dates. Unfortunately, it suffers from controversial Malayan bias: Sabah and Sarawak (and Singapore) attained independence in 1963.

But whatever it is, something happened on August 31 1957. The Federation of Malaya, formed on January 31 1948, became independent.

Economics Environment

[2137] Of 40% cut in carbon intensity may not be something to shout about

Bernama wrongfully reported that the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, put up a conditional offer to cut 40% of Malaysia’s 2005 carbon emissions by 2020.[1] The same goes with the New Straits Times, except it did it more badly by not directly quoting the Prime Minister.[2] This is sloppy reporting. The truth is that it is a conditional cut of 40% to Malaysia’s carbon emissions intensity in terms of GDP within the base and time frame mentioned. Regardless of the inaccuracy, is the cut impressive?

The size of the cut seems big but cutting carbon emissions intensity is a lot easier than cutting outright carbon emissions; a cut in emissions is more expensive than a cut in carbon intensity. Achieving 5% cut as demanded by Kyoto is a lot harder than 5% cut in carbon intensity. The difference is clearer when one takes note that emissions itself can increase even under a situation of decreasing carbon intensity.

A demostration is in order. The most convenient way of showing this is by using intensity per capita as a unit rather than per GDP. In order words, this refers to emissions per person.

Assume that the emissions per person is 2 and there are a total of 10 persons in a neighborhood. The total emissions is therefore 20.

Assume further than emissions per person improves to 1.5 and total population increase to 15. Total emissions gets worse: it is now 22.5.

A cut in emissions will address total emissions. A cut in carbon intensity does not guarantee that.

A concrete example is the United Kingdom. According to the National Environmental Technology Centre of the UK, total emissions fell slightly between 1990 and 2005. Carbon intensity? It fell more or less by 40%. [3]

Hence, the act of stressing the difference is not a matter of splitting hair.

Carbon intensity has the tendency to decrease over time due to application of technology. The typical criticism directed at any commitment at reducing carbon intensity is that even without such commitment, carbon intensity will decrease anyway. This is especially true for developing countries where there is a lot of space for technological improvement through by merely copying.

Given this, the Prime Minister’s conditional offer is not something to shout about. China also made an offer to cut carbon intensity and it has been rightly criticized for trumpeting an unremarkable target and then demanding moral authority at the negotiation table in Copenhagen during the 15th Conference of the Parties that ended recently.

(Despite this tendency, Malaysia’s carbon intensity between 1990 and 2004 increased. I suspect a Kuznets curve.[4] The ratio may increase up to a certain level before decreasing. Malaysia after all was industrializing during the 1990s and now, Malaysia is largely done with industrialization.)

It should only be seen as a brilliant diplomatic maneuver and not a big effort at cutting emissions. It is brilliant not just because that the commitment is very likely to be achieved anyway and thus, making the offerers look good, it is brilliant because it makes demand for aid — and making the exercise cheaper than it would — even when the cut in carbon intensity is very likely to be achieved without any binding commitment.

This is not to dismiss the importance of cut in carbon intensity. I myself believe that technology is the answer to climate change but it is important to get the right message across while the Malaysian mass media failed the public miserably.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — COPENHAGEN, Dec 17 (Bernama) — Malaysia has agreed to reduce its carbon dioxide emission to 40 per cent by the year 2020 compared to the 2005 levels subject to assistance from developed countries.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said the cut was conditional on receiving the transfer of technology and adequate financing from the developed world.

“I would like to announce here in Copenhagen that Malaysia is adopting an indicator of a voluntary reduction of up to 40 per cent in terms of emissions intensity of GDP (gross domestic product) by the year 2020 compared to 2005 levels,” he said in his speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 here, on Thursday,

United Nations data shows Malaysia’s carbon emissions in 2006 stood at 187 million tonnes or 7.2 tonnes from each Malaysian. [Malaysia Announces Conditional 40 Per Cent Cut In Emissions. Bernama. December 17 2009]

[2] — PM Najib says Malaysia is committed to do its best in combatting climate change.

MALAYSIA will voluntarily slash by up to 40 per cent her carbon emission by 2020 compared with 2005 levels.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who made this commitment yesterday, said the cut was part of Malaysia’s contribution to global efforts to combat climate change. [40 per cent reduction of carbon emission by 2020. Mimi Syed Yusof. New Straits Times. December 18 2009]

[2] — COPENHAGEN: A roadmap towards realising the 40% reduction of carbon emission per capita from the 2005 level by 2020 will be presented to the Cabinet soon. [40 per cent reduction of carbon emission by 2020. Mimi Syed Yusof. New Straits Times. December 18 2009]

[3] — [Page 18 and 19. Carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption in the UK. The National Environmental Technology Centre]

[4] — See Kuznets Curve at Wikipedia. Accessed on December 25 2009.


[2029] Of goodbye Malaysia

Goodbye dear country. Be a good boy now. Please do not be a pariah while I am away.

Liberty Politics & government

[1990] Of unclenched fist and open hand

As a person who spent parts of his formative years in the United States and, more importantly, shared the ideals which the US is founded on, I cannot deny that I have a certain inclination towards the Land of the Free. And so I cannot help having a sense of joy after seeing the Foreign Minister Anifah Aman having a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Department of State. Finally, here is a chance for Malaysia to have good relations with the US.

I believe it does not take much convincing to say that our relations with the US have been dysfunctional for the longest time. The Mahathir administration was intent in demonizing the US, and the US in return kept criticizing Malaysia’s admittedly unenviable records on human rights. Under the Abdullah administration, Malaysia apparently relegated ties with the US down its priority list. The US meanwhile increasingly looked at Malaysia with a lackadaisical attitude at best or at worst ignored the country altogether with an occasional customary criticism just to keep its educated local audience who can spot where Malaysia actually is on the globe happy.

This happened despite the US being one of Malaysia’s major trading partners and the world’s only superpower. The US has its military all over the world and its political pressure can be felt everywhere. And until recently, its economic influence was unrivalled. The signs insist that Malaysia cannot abuse the US too much and yet we had two consecutive administrations which went against the signs: one was unabashedly anti-US to become a hero of Third World countries like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the other appeared not to care.

The source of rocky relations between Malaysia and the US is none other than the former Deputy Prime Minister Seri Anwar Ibrahim. The US came out to criticize the Mahathir administration against the unjust treatment Anwar received beginning in the late 1990s. Former Vice-President Al Gore later openly declared support for the Reformasi movement, in Kuala Lumpur no less. That was the final straw for former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

And then, of course, there was George W. Bush. The Bush administration’s foreign policy after the Sept 11 attacks made the world environment not conducive for any significant improvement to Malaysia-US ties.

As a person who wishes to see more fulfilling relationship between the two countries, I find this unfortunate because our country was initially close to western countries and by extension the US. At one time, former US President Lyndon Johnson visited Malaysia. That visit in the 1960s remains the one and only time a sitting US President has ever set foot in this rich but problematic country. It was that long ago.

Oh my, how far we have gone in the wrong direction: from pro-western to neutrality and from neutrality to anti-western. In the process, due to prevailing liberal ideas in the West, liberals were victimized as Western countries were demonized. Liberals and the West were equated. It was an unfair equation but far too easy to make because the same ideals were shared by both.

Whereas in the beginning the idea of liberty was imbedded in the constitution of this country, we gradually saw illiberal ideas finding their way into the fabric of our society to usurp liberal ideas. What was supposed to be ingrained in our constitution later was considered as foreign and almost treasonous at times. The equation between liberals and the West was used to cast local liberals as traitors. It was a hurtful experience for liberals, and it still is.

But to borrow John Kerry’s lines used during the US presidential election in 2004, hope is on the way.

Regardless of misgivings I may have towards the Najib administration as well as the Obama administration, signs suggest that ties are changing for the better. The Najib administration so far appears to be less provocative and more engaging in dealing with the US. The invitation the Foreign Minister received from the US Department of State is perhaps a reciprocal sign.

The quick submission of a new name for ambassadorship to the US is another. Notwithstanding the reputation of the person, this may show how the Najib administration is out to repair relations with the US. The submission of a new name is no little matter given that the US has refused to confirm Malaysia’s previous choice to head its embassy in Washington DC due to the candidate’s connection to the disgraced Jack Abramoff.

Despite an implicit request by the US for a new name, the Abdullah administration did not offer a new one. The result? Malaysia has not had an ambassador to the US for more than half a year now. A quick confirmation by the US may lay the path to more cordial bilateral relations between the two countries whose flags likely trace their common origin back to the flag of the British East India Company.

Furthermore, US President Barack Obama appears very sincere in undoing the damage the Bush administration had brought to the reputation of the US in the international arena. To add to that, while Southeast Asia and Malaysia were ignored by the Bush administration as it focused on China, the Obama administration seems intent on bringing Southeast Asia up in its priority list. Malaysia has always been central to Southeast Asian politics and I find it impossible for the US to ignore Malaysia if it plans to again take Southeast Asia seriously.

Improved relations however do present Malaysian liberals with a conundrum.

On one hand, better relations with the US present an opportunity to push for liberal reforms like protection of individual rights, creation of a right egalitarian society and a real democratic society in Malaysia. On top of that, better ties could see less vilification of liberals by the Malaysian government by virtue that liberals more or less share the same ideals as espoused by the US constitution; vilification of liberals may lead to vilification of the US and inevitably hurting ties with the US at a time when good relations are sought. Not too long ago, Barisan Nasional went as far as to accuse liberal ideas as dangerous foreign ideas and collectively an antithesis to Malaysian society and the so-called social contract. A genuine interest to forge closer ties with the US could prevent that from happening again, rhetorically and in terms of policies.

On the other hand, in the interest of improving ties with multiple important countries which lack enough reverence for human rights, the Obama administration may decide to tone down its criticism. There is a precedent for this: in her first visit to China in her capacity as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was quiet on issues of human rights in China.

My fear is that the Obama administration may adopt the same stance with Malaysia. The danger is that it may embolden the Najib administration to test the boundary of individual liberty in this country knowing full well that the US may be unwilling to criticize the Malaysian government too harshly. A US that is less willing to criticize means one less big international pressure off the back of the Najib administration.

During the joint press conference at Foggy Bottom, Clinton was asked about the charge of sodomy — believed by the US as being politically motivated — made against Anwar. Her answer was most diplomatic, content to say that she raised the issues of rule of law and that ”that speaks for itself.”

The trade-off between good relations and criticism is real on government-to-government basis but for me as a liberal, I want good relations as well as that criticism too to help prod Malaysia farther towards the goal of liberal democracy. I would not be able to fully appreciate good relations with the US where the US keeps mum on violations of individual liberty that may happen in Malaysia in the future.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

First published in The Malaysian Insider on May 20 2009.

History & heritage

[1779] Of the myths surrounding the formation of Malaysia

Several myths about the formation of Malaysia require addressing.

First revolves around the notion that Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined Malaya in 1963 to form Malaysia. This is simply untrue because all member states of Malaysia federated to form a new federation called Malaysia. Nobody joined Malaya in 1963.

The second myth concerns how Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined Malaysia. This is at best inaccurate and at worst downright false. The rationale against this myth is the absence of Malaysia as a state in prior to 1963. Instead Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore helped establish Malaysia.

Those who believed in either the first or the second myth tend to cite the United States of America as an example of how changes in the number of membership do not affect a state as an entity. The comparison however is flawed because the history of the US does not run parallel to that of Malaysia.

It differs in a way that 37 states other than the original 13 states of the United States joined a pre-existing union. The United States was formed as an entity in 1776 and 37 other states joined that union after 1776.

In the case of Malaysia, nobody joined any pre-existing entity simply because there is no pre-existing entity to join into. There was no Malaysia as a state to join into prior to September 16 1963. What existed were the Federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.

The example of the US is only applicable for Malaysia if there are changes in membership after 1963. Just how addition of new member states into the union does not affect the United States’ status as a state after the formation of the state, any change of membership of the federation — save total dissolution of Malaysia — after 1963 will not affect the status of Malaysia as a state. It is for this very reason that Malaysia still exists after Singapore was expelled in 1965. If Brunei is to join Malaysia in 2009, Malaysia will still be the state it was in 1963.

Third myth is about Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya coming together to form Malaysia. This too is false though compared to the other three myths, this does come closer to the truth since the contrary is certainly arguable given how the Malaysia Agreement was signed and executed. Nevertheless, all 14 member states of 1963 Malaysia, each as a separate entity, federated to form a 14-state federation and this is made clear in the Malaysia Act 1963.[1] It was not a 4-state federation. The member states of Malaya did not participate in Malaysia as a unitary Malaya but rather, they joined the new federation on individual basis. In forming Malaysia, the Federation of Malaya was immediately dissolved to allow the 11 states of Malaya along with three other states to federate; the Federation of Malaya ceased to exist upon the establishment of Malaysia.

The final myth confuses Malaya with Malaysia. The difference between Malaya and Malaysia goes beyond superficial change in name. The 20-point agreement between signed at the time between Sabah and the would-be federal government of Malaysia specifically mentioned that the Constitution of Malaysia is not the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya.[2] Therefore, the two Constitutions are two different documents and each document governs different state.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — (1) For the purpose of enabling North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore (in this Act referred to as “the new States”) to federate with the existing States of the Federation of Malaya (in this Act referred to as ”the Federation”), the Federation thereafter being called Malaysia, on the day on which the new States are federated as aforesaid (in this Act referred to as ”the appointed day”) Her Majesty’s sovereignty and jurisdiction in respect of the new States shall be relinquished so as to vest in the manner agreed between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Federation and the new States. [Malaysia Act 1963. Office of Public Sector Information. Accessed September 16 2008]

[2] — Whilst accepting that the present Constitution of the Federation of Malaya should form the basis of the Constitution of Malaysia, the Constitution of Malaysia should be a completely new document drafted and agreed in the light of a free association of states and should not be a series of amendments to a Constitution drafted and agreed by different states in totally different circumstances. A new Constitution for North Borneo (Sabah) was of course essential. [20-point agreement. Wikipedia. Accessed September 16 2008]