Categories
Politics & government

[2928] Rationalizing the camps in Umno

I had a conversation yesterday, where we tried to make sense of the political situation in Malaysia. It is a confusion situation all-around and the intricacies could only be understood by understanding the disputes in Umno, the one of the major sources of instability in Malaysia.

A systematic way to understand the troubles within the party is to ask two questions:

  • One, do they want Zahid to remain as the party president?
  • Two, do they want to remain part of Muhyiddin’s government?

The combination of the answers provides a clean division of the camps in Umno. See the graphics below:

Theoretically, there should be 4 camps.

But realistically, there are 3 camps only. This is because if a person prefers Zahid to remain as the party president, chances they would parrot his position. That means if they said yes to Zahid, it is likely they would also want out of Muhyiddin government. To signify that, I have struck one of the boxes out.

The 3 camps are:

  • Najib-Zahid camp (Yes to Zahid but no to Muhyiddin). This is the camp suffering from multiple corruption charges.
  • Hishammuddin camp (No-Yes). Hishammudin was one of the Sheraton Move architects.
  • Tengku Razaleigh camp (No-No). Possibly the weakest camp among the three.

The names listed might be inaccurate because it is based on my readings and possibly their sentiment as reported in the press.

Additionally, there are names I put in the unknown brackets, but if the questions are right, then they would eventually be pigeonholed into a camp once the time comes.

And clearly from the chart, it is not exhaustive. It is difficult to know beyond the top names who sits where. This is especially when some of these people like Noraini Ahmad and Zahida Zarik Khan seem awfully quiet, and in some ways irrelevant despite being part of the party leadership.

Finally, some people in DAP have told me it is all about power (who has what and those without are making noises). However when I look at the problem closely, it is a bit hard to systematically rationalize the division through “power.” “Power” does not reveal the camps as clearly as it should. Nevertheless, it is difficult to dismiss “power” as a factor. It might very well be an underlying dimension beneath the two questions I am proposing for benchmarking purposes.

Categories
Liberty Politics & government

[2878] The anti-ICERD protest is a chance to show this government is different from the past administration

This is the first significant protest the current government faces. And this is yet another opportunity for this government to demonstrate that it is different from the previous corrupt racist, fascist regime.

That can be shown by accommodating the protest as much as possible with a view of not being explicitly hostile to it either through speech or action, but by guaranteeing the safety of the protest participants and others while they exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and speech.

I participated in all of the Bersih protests and each time, there was always a dread feeling inside of me expecting the worst to happen. Such feeling was warranted.

Previously, government-controlled media always delivered threatening messages to the masses ahead of any large protest. May 13 without fail was the boogeyman.

My first taste of tear gas happened while I was standing amid a large crowd near the Maybank tower.

I have been chased by the police before. At one time, an officer pulled a gun near Jalan Raja Laut after chaos erupted. There was a time when I walked by a security personnel during a protest, and he verbally abused me.

And the laying out of barbwire and other actions like the conspicuous rolling out of anti-riot assets with security personnel all equipped with armor always threatened the atmosphere of the protest.

Furthermore, it was common knowledge that the party in power then sent provocateurs to create chaos, and create a reason for the security personnel to come in and break the protest.

All this should be avoided by this government. The police should hold back and not purposefully threaten the crowd. No provocateur should be sent by anybody associated with the ruling parties and the government.

It is by backing off from these provocative tactics that we can show to the world that the government is self-assured and strong.

The function of a government within the context of its citizens exercising their rights is to protect those rights and the people who are practicing it peacefully.

We can disagree with the agenda of the protest participants, however racists they are, but we should also respect their right to assemble peacefully.

We can be different and we must be different. We can show to them that there is another way. We do not need to beat our chest to show our confidence and strength.

That is the best way to blunt their message: that we are different and better.

Categories
Politics & government

[2869] That Malaysia in the 1990s

I take pride in knowing my streets and its history. When I drive in the city, I generally go around without any navigation aid. When I am in a rideshare vehicle,  I sometimes override the driver who is totally reliant on his or her not-so-smart smartphone. “No, no, no… please turn left instead. I know a better route.”

But yesterday was one of those little humbling moments. I have never had any reason to visit Pandan before. But Mahathir was speaking there last night. I wanted to see and feel how it was like to be in such a crowd during the campaigning week. I am in some ways a protest junkie. I enjoy witnessing people converging for political purposes. In order to not get lost in Pandan in the dark, I needed direction.

Kuala Lumpur was wet last night. It drizzled but that did not stop any political event. Mahathir, Muhyiddin, Wan Azizah and the local candidate spoke. Mat Sabu arrived later close to midnight, having to crisscross the city to speak at multiple venues. Earlier in Bangsar where I was, a loud multiracial crowd had their colorful umbrellas opened against the orange streetlight. A stranger shared her umbrella with me by the road. Even the poorly attended Umno rally filled with demotivated bored men (no women) talking something about the NEP went on.

Both Pandan and Keramat along with the more famous Kampung Baru are in the same parliamentary district of Titiwangsa, where I have been voting since 2008. The Pandan local economy is more integrated with the one in Pudu, which means it should have been part of the Cheras seat within the geographical context of Kuala Lumpur. But the electoral map in Malaysia is contorted to take into account other considerations to benefit the ruling party in an unfair fight, not so much what makes sense on the ground.

Pandan is an urban Malay kampong in the same way Kampung Baru and Datuk Keramat are. Tall buildings rise outside Pandan. The Exchange 106 in the new business district that symbolizes the corruption 1MDB stands tall close by, making it impossible for local residents to miss it. While trying to keep rallygoers occupied, somebody on the stage pointed out that if the trees were removed, we all could see the Towers from here. This is a complete contrast to the experience of the other two kampongs: the Petronas Towers loom large while the ugly menacing Barad-dûr-like monolith glass tower is far on the horizon.

The candidacy of Mahathir for prime minister is about attracting Malay votes away from Umno and Barisan Nasional. Mahathir was there within a collection of Pandan low-cost flats to tell the Malays there that it was okay to vote for change. Mahathir has been telling all Malays to make cultural and economic change for ages, but it is only in the past two or three years that he has developed the courage and the appetite for political change.

I had expected a largely Malay crowd. I was wrong. Instead the crowd was quite multiracial, almost as diverse as the one in Bangsar except bigger. The Chinese of Pudu and Cheras must have come here to listen to Mahathir together with the locals. I myself, who is now living on the other side of the city, took a 45-minute drive to get to Pandan to listen to Mahathir. It would be a shorter ride from Pudu.

But I wonder…

I have this theory that it was really only in the 1990s that we had something that we called Malaysia. It is not Malaysia per se, but an idea of Malaysianness as the primary identity. It is the Malaysian nation, the bangsa Malaysia. It is something I have been writing for the past two years and hoping to finish in the next two.

But in short, before or after the 1990s, there was none of that sort. Bangsa Malaysia has always been unnatural to Malaysia. Malaysia is not a nation-state from the very beginning. The nations that exist in Malaysia in the modern post-1963 sense of the word, are not Malaysians, but Malays, Chinese, Indians, and many others. British colonialism has made this land diverse in a spectacular way, both as a blessing and a curse.

The Malays before the 1970s, and even before Malaya became part of Malaysia, felt economically marginalized compared to other communities. So marginalized were the Malays that they refused to be called Malayans despite Malaya was named after them. To them, the Malayans were the others, the Chinese, the Indians, the Eurasians, the immigrants.

When Malaysia was established, the Malay identity did not go away because the economic marginalization did not disappear. Merdeka and Malaysia were largely a political change. It was less an economic one. That made the Malays disillusioned, and angry at Tunku Abdul Rahman.

And the others, the Chinese especially, after 1969 racial riots felt they were politically marginalized. The government in response to the riots became very interventionist and began to integrate the Malays into the modern economy better. The New Economic Policy sought to redress economic imbalance that existed between ethnic groups.

It was a redistributionist policy: there were winners and there were losers. The winners would call it justice and the losers injustice. In the meantime while pushing Malayness as the foremost Malaysian identity, topics regarding Chinese schools and language were fiercely fought at the parliament. The assimilation policy was pursued doggedly by the government led by the Malays, and the Chinese were deeply bitter about it. Some, even up to these days.

The twin-marginalization — it does not matter whether it was an actual marginalization as what is important is what the group itself feels — discouraged the creation of a bigger nation that goes beyond ethnicities. The marginalization strengthened group consciousness and identity. Unity across races was impossible, unless you were of a certain class.

And then came the 1990s, that decade of great economic growth. The 1990s and the 1980s were a period of Malaysia’s own industrial revolution.

The Malays began to feel less marginalized economically. With less marginalization, came confidence for political concessions: for instance, Mahathir unbanned the lion dance in the 1980s. The Chinese meanwhile starting to feel less of the redistributionist policy because economic growth made the pie bigger for almost every group. Mahathir himself liberalized the NEP to enable rapid industrialization through exports-driven model.

Economic growth lessened the marginalization each group felt, allowing all to come together as one. The Malays felt they were Malaysians, the other felt they were Malaysians too. There was, perhaps, for the first time, a Malaysian nation. The song Saya Anak Malaysia finally meant something.

But that nascent Malaysianness fell apart in the late 1990s. The political and economic crises Malaysia experienced beginning 1997 undid the progress for bangsa Malaysia. The regression was partly Mahathir’s doing.

I am still trying to understand, prove and explain many factors relating to this. But I wonder, were the non-Malays coming to listen to Mahathir, to support him, in the middle of a very Malay Pandan was looking back, longing for that decade of bangsa Malaysia?

Later in the night, when everybody was exhausted, tired of standing for more than two hours, the organizer played a video of Mahathir explaining why he was doing what he was doing. Mahathir claimed he did wrongs and he wanted to right those wrongs. He had very little time left.

I spotted an old Chinese couple nearby me. Their eyes were fixed on the screen. I thought I spotted tears on their cheeks.

Categories
Economics Politics & government

[2844] Evolution of corporate ownership in Malaysia

Terence Gomez is embarking on a massive project investigating quantitatively the influence of government-linked companies in the Malaysian economy. The dominance of government in business and in the economy is no mystery. What is special here is that he is analyzing the numbers more comprehensively than many had done before. He is currently focusing his research at the federal level but if I remember correctly, he plans to delve into state level bodies, looking into bodies like Kumpulan Perangsang Selangor, which are much less known than those like Khazanah Nasional.

Together with Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Gomez in 1997 wrote the go-to book — Malaysia’s Political Economy: Politics, Patronage and Profits — exploring the ownership of corporate Malaysia in the 1990s and its links to politics, namely Umno. To understand political financing during the Mahathir era, this is the book to read.

The scale of Gomez’s latest project on ownership is larger than anything available before. There have been work done on corporate ownership in Malaysia after his 1997 book but they provided only partial view of the whole story while nibbling at the edge.

Gomez in his lecture, which I attended at the University of Malaya earlier this year (and later at an event organized by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs; Ideas is funding of the project) made the connection between previous ownership literature and showed how the majority ownership changed from the 1950s to the 2010s, the present time.

He is continuing the work pioneered by James Puthucheary, who back in the 1950s went through official colonial and Malayan documents to understand who owned what in the economy. Through that, he corrected the idea that the Chinese had controlled the economy when in fact it were the Europeans. Gomez mentioned Lim Mui Hui’s work as the other important literature in the 1970s tracing capital ownership in the Malayan-Malaysian economy in the early days of the New Economic Policy period.

Gomez in his lecture showed just as Puthucheary demonstrated decades ago that the British and other European bodies controlled the majority of the top Malayan companies in the 1950s. This changed in the 1960s and the 1970s when Chinese tycoons rose up in the list. By the 1980s and the 1990s, due to the implementation of the New Economic Policy and Mahathir’s industrialization drive, the list was dominated by Malay industrialists. The ownership list was also more diverse than it ever was, with Genting, Berjaya and YTL were among the biggest then.

But in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, something fundamental happened. Most of top Malaysian companies were owned by the government and no longer belonged to private individuals or groups. There were bailed out or acquired by the government through the Government-Linked Investment Companies. Gomez listed the usual seven: the Employees Provident Fund, Kumpulan Wang Persaraan, Permodalan Nasional, Lembaga Tabung Haji, the Armed Forces Fund, Khanazah Nasional and the Ministry of Finance Incorporated. Many of the Malay industrialist companies like UEM were now owned by the government.

Not all of those seven government-linked investment companies are the same. The EPF, for instance, is not strictly a government company, in the same Khazanah is. But nevertheless, the EPF does have an extremely strong presence in the Malaysian economy, in both the equity and the debt markets.

In a different talk of a more casual style, historian Khoo Kay Kim claimed the Germans controlled the Malayan economy before the First World War. Their influence diminished after their lost the war and was replaced by the Japanese during the interwar period. I have not read a proper document to ascertain the claim but I have read from various sources that Japanese companies were active in Malaya prior to the Second World War.

Gomez’s work has implications beyond economics. Control over of these government-linked corporations and entities enables political control and enhances political power, just has the Umno’s ties to various the 1980s-1990s Malay industrialists had kept the party’s machinery going. But unlike then, when those funds were private money from private companies (public companies privatized), the government today does enforce spending or procurement requirement to benefit certain parties. While Gomez did not cover 1MDB, the 1MDB corruption scandal, provides the starkest example of public resources being used directly and illegally to finance Umno’s (and even its president’s personal) requirement. The connection is starker and more corrupt now than ever before.

The evolution of corporate ownership in Malaysia simply does not inspire confidence, and the completion of Gomez’s work will truly show how big the beast has become.

Categories
Politics & government

[2793] Choice of words and the shaping of opinions

When I think of the terms “coup d’tat”, “overthrow”, “topple” and the like, I would think of a violent change in government. The revolutions in Egypt and Ukraine would come to my mind. Closer to home, having tanks rolling through the streets of Bangkok is another excellent example.

In contrast, when I think of the case of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi — backstabbed by his UMNO colleagues and pressured to resign what seems ages ago — the whole episode falls under the realm of peaceful power transfer.

It lacks the violence or coerciveness that colors the words “coup d’tat”, “overthrow” and “topple” so thickly. The events in 2008-2009 were messy but democracy is always unruly. It is never as clean as an autocrat dressed in a democrat costume would like. These autocrats think modern democracy is about having regular elections only while ignoring other prerequisites that are just as important.

I do not think the definition of “topple” I have outlined exists only in my mind. The violent undertone it brings falls within the everyday understanding of the word. If “topple” had been used to describe the end of the Abdullah-led administration, then I would think the term has been abused grossly.

And so I frown when Najib Razak’s supporters and the police chief especially throw around that word to describe attempts at removing the prime minister from power through a vote of no confidence in Parliament. So insecure they are that even calling for his resignation is a go at coup d’tat.

But perhaps after so much power and institutional corruption committed by UMNO and their BN allies in government, it is only natural for the same side to corrupt the language we use every day.

I would think they know they are twisting these words beyond their intended meaning. It is a purposeful exaggeration to meet their selfish political end, which is to stay in power even at the expense of the country.

The bigger problem is when the intended recipients of the political message, mostly men and women on the streets, accept the word subversion without critical examination and then blindly reuse it in that unnatural way.

To understand why this is an issue worth highlighting, we have to understand that language has the power to shape our opinion. Language is not merely a neutral medium of exchange but it also influences how we perceive information, and from there on shapes our views.

Since “topple” comes with the violent connotation, applying it in the context of peaceful power change would likely cause the uncritical message recipients to balk and recoil from any call for change. They would hesitate from supporting change out of fear, merely because the words used.

That is the purpose of word subversion. It tries to pollute the legitimate peaceful means of change with the created image of smoke, fire and death. It is done to instill fear in us, make us feel hopeless and convince us to do nothing even in the face of injustice. It is to discourage the case for peaceful power change.

The sages of old told us not to judge a book by its cover. But let us face it. We almost always act on the first impression. We read the headline and prejudge without reading the whole article. We live in the too-long, didn’t-read culture.

In the same line of reasoning, most of us do not think too much of how “topple” has been used. I have spotted too many innocent men and women reusing the word in the corrupted context without realizing it, thus perpetuating fear and serving the pro-Najib camp.

I am sure I am guilty of the same sin I warn of here in other cases elsewhere. It is truly tiring trying to be critical about every single word uttered, read and written all the time with a thick dictionary by my side.

But during this chaotic dishonest period when words are abused frequently, meanings are not so straight forward and outright doubletalk is the norm, we must stand guard for the tabula rasa that still exists in the corners of our mind. We just cannot afford to be the uncritical blind consumers of language waiting to be exploited in these deplorable days full of deceits.

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 Malay Mail on August 25 2015.