Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What we have in SEA is not Democracy II

My good friend HM, brilliant guy; have known him for 30 years had this comment on part 1 :

Which is not to say that "guided democracies"cannot yield decent economic success eg SG but will more frequently end up like Indo, Phil, Thai, Msia...where a very small number benefit heavily at the expense of the entire country (although not quite yet as bad as the dictatorships of Africa as pretences have to kept up...) and the inefficiencies inherent in such a system is a powerful drain on the country economically...

I think the founding fathers of Malaysia and Singapore (who are still around) have a very paternalistic view of the nation. Perhaps born out of responsibility since they were involved in the process of birthing the nation (for LKY directly involved). Their goal was to bring the young nations from the back waters to a successful country with strong economic growth. To ensure this, they needed “political stability” and a security in their own positions as leader of the nation. Hence, the legacies of the Sukarnos/Suhartos, Marcos, Kuan Yew and Mahathirs of SEA.

They had to strip away any elements of democracy that could see them losing a grip on power and so the journey to amending (read dismantling) the constitutions of their respective nations. They had to justify this by claiming a cause/struggle so that the end justified the means.

So in the 90s, we saw a boom in these economies, the “asian tigers” they called them. They were “guided democracies” which yielded decent economic success. They took pride in the fact that it was the “asian way”, Mahathir’s favourite song “My Way” and suddenly the world took notice. Books were written on the asian miracle. (The asian renaissance – Anwar Ibrahim) The sudden economic boom was in large part because of the privatization of government agencies in these countries. The government then handed over moneys to these newly privatized companies and conglomerates to provide electricity, water, build highways, monorails, airports and bridges and other mega projects. These privatized companies flourished with little accountability and good governance (except perhaps Singapore). Many little companies which spawned from these government projects became highly leveraged expecting the government payments to come shortly. Many political leaders themselves had vested interest and were proxies for these companies. Unfortunately, we know what happened in the asian financial crises and the rest is history…

In truth, if we could learn from the western democracies, it is better for government to do just that; govern. Ensure a level playing field and leave business to businesses. Maybe once the old guards, the LKYs and the Mahathirs have left and their influence no more, maybe there will be more acceptance of basic human rights and checks and balance and separation of powers and all the good stuff of democracy. Indonesia for example, after Suharto and ++ finally have their first directly elected President which now makes Indonesia the biggest Islamic democracy in the world.
Am I a hopeless optimist or what?

Monday, June 26, 2006

A small "amber-glow" of optimism

Thanks guys for engaging with me on this topic. I hear Cheah Weng Sun's skepticism of any progress in the direction of SEA nations. I think this view is shared by many middle class Malaysians. There has been such a feeling of helplesness and resignation towards the progress of democracy in SEA.

In Malaysia, I have a little amber of hope, partly because of the turn of events in the last 9 years beginning with the expulsion and persecution of a malay holding the second highest office in Malaysia. Suddenly, the nation was not divided along racial lines (at least politically) but along the ruling elite, who are in BN's favour and the masses, who are ordinary folks trying to make ends meet. There were chinese dominated parties like DAP who supported and fought for Anwar's release. There were budhists monks who visited Anwar's family to offer prayers for his release. In 1998, there was a malay (islam) opposition leader in Parliament and the BN and UMNO were caught off foot as now, their threat of May 13, 1969 (racial fighting) which they have used to win elections since 1969 no longer works.

The second reason for my optimism is that the people's needs are much more sophisticated now. Although many still talk about making ends meet especially in the rural heartlands, the growing middle class talk about issues of justice, freedom of expression, corruption and quality of life and the environment. I presume that this is the natural progress of any nation seeking economic prosperity. The government therefore have to focus on these issues which many "genuine democracies" in the west cherish as part of their heritage.

The thrid is that the post-Mahathir era is definitely more liberalised. Definitely not as combative as before. 10 years ago, I daren't write about these issues in public forum for fear of persecution from the Special Branch. Even in the government controlled newspapers (I call them Berita BN) these days there are articles critical of the government institutions. It is in this environment that the opposition is able to make their stand heard more and begin to gather some form of support.

The main issue for many who have fled Malaysia for greener pastures is the racial discrimination. That is plain and simple. My contention is that this can only get better (it is now that bad) unless the ruling elite is wanting to see racial riots and civil unrest. The racial climate in Malaysia exist because of the racial policies of the BN government. It is a political party that exist to keep peace among the racial groups. Their popularity depends on how well they "play the game of balancing". When the ordinary malay folk see that its not the chinese stealing their rights to wealth but the "well connected" Dato from the ruling elite their eyes are suddenly opened. Is the recent protest and bloodshed against the petrol hike a fight between the "peasants" and the "politbureau"?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

What we have in SEA is NOT democracy

There has to be a newly coined terminology for the system of government in Southeast Asian nations, which on the surface appear to be a democracy of sorts. In truth it is more authoratarian flourishing with absolute control over government agencies. The Executives yields “dictatorial like” authority with every branch of government under his control. There is therefore little to no accountability in order for the Executive to do as he pleases.

Yet, there are elections although not quite free and fair with evidences of vote buying, ballot box rigging and other dubious forms of winning which only the incumbent can do with the cooperation of the Election Commission, media, police, and military. The people are not allowed peaceful demonstration which is one of the tenets to democracy nor avenues to express oneself without fear of retribution. This of course varies from regime to regime and nation to nation. There is a Parliament and lively debates do occur, however futile it is to shelf the Executives policies. Dr. Mahathir referred to it as a "mere rubberstamp."

I believe Lee Kuan Yew called this system of government -“guided democracy”. The founding fathers have put it upon themselves as the guardian of peace and growth for the nation. The believe is that the new state needs stability for growth and a change in government is not stability. They delve into politics and business in the believe that it is necessary for the economic growth of the nation be it to the detriment of the nation. Yet for the international stage and trade purposes they allow "opposition parties" to exist. If the opposition speaks too much, the full might of the government will be upon them at lightning speed.

In Singapore, the wife of the Finance Minister and now Prime Minister, Ho Cheng heads Temasek Group. How does the wife of perhaps the most powerful man in Singapore be found heading one of the largest corporations in Singapore. Temasek has reported to losses of $550 million recently. In Malaysia, we have our very own Scomi Berhad, headed by the son of the Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Scomi revenue increased 42% and share price increased 64% since listing in May 2003. Is it a coincidence that PM Badawi also took office that same year. His son-in law also has shares in ECM Libra, one of the biggest investment banks in Malaysia. Thailand’s Thaksin has his hand in a multiple of businesses as well.

How will foreign investments ever flow in to such a volatile economy where the life of a business is so closely linked to the political stability of a particular leader or political party. To the west, this is called "conflict of interest". You cannot be the referee and the player of a football match at the same time. It is hard enough to be seemingly unbiased just being the referee alone. How would foreign investments flow in freely when government is so involved in business? It is time governments in Southeast Asia favour a true market economy where government is meant to referee the playing field only and not play football. So that the smaller and weaker players can have fair game and the economy do not depend on the life and popularity of a politician.

The US founding fathers upon writing the constitution believed that "man is inherently sinful or bad." When left to themselves they will tend towards evil. Therefore, it is necessary for checks and balance within government by the various branches of government. It is necessary that there is no aboslute power and therefore there is the route of impeachment even for the President of the United States.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"Close one Eye" cannot acheive 2020 vision...

Here is an excerpt from Ms. Alicia Au's letter to Malaysiakini with regards to her experience in Tioman island. It is the shoddy maintenance of public amenities/services like these that prevents Malaysia from becoming a big player in the Tourism Industry. About 6 months ago, I brought an American friend and his family to Sungai Gabai, a beautiful natural waterfall near KL. The newly built building at the carpark which was supposed to house a toilet and some shops were half completed with no water or electricity. The waterfall area had broken glass. My friend and his daughter had glass cut into their feet.

The reason for all this is a simple Malaysian disease called "Close one eye" syndrome. Its ok, close one eye, let it go, tak apa..... Hence we get uncompleted projects, unmaintained toilets and public amenities, haze every year, accidents on the roads from unmaintained busses and lorries and buses which spew black smoke...destroying our beautiful environment. Incidentally it is hard to acheieve 2020 vision when you've got a Close one eye (COE) atitude!

......When making a police report, we were advised that Bluewater had been receiving a large number of summonses during the day mainly for this practice of overloading and we were further advised that cross-decking of passengers is only allowed under the direct supervision of the maritime authorities. This operator shows a blatant disregard for passenger safety, their arrogance and the high-handed manner they deal with their clients has to be experienced to be believed. At the very least, the captains of Bluewater ferries 8 and 9 should have their certification revoked, their comments and attitudes show them to be quite unfit to hold a position of any responsibility. One can only surmise, as on this occasion they were lucky. Should an accident have occurred, they would no doubt be running for cover and pointing the finger of blame everywhere except at the people it should be pointed at, themselves. Issuing summonses against the operator is a joke. Any paltry fine likely as the outcome of this weekend’s shenanigans will be far outweighed by the collections from fare-paying clients they regard as so much cattle. Again at the very least, this company’s licence to operate should be revoked with immediate effect, and thus send a message to all ferry services that such downright dangerous practice and poor service attitudes will no longer be tolerated. The real losers here are the Tourism Board of Malaysia, and the resorts and diving operators on Tioman, whose hard work has been wasted. We as a group will not return to this location, you can be certain that word-of-mouth from such a large group of people will dissuade even larger numbers of people to change their vacation locations to elsewhere. How long can such poor service be tolerated? Or are the authorities simply waiting to react to a large-scale disaster involving one of these cowboy operators before wringing their hands and saying they were not aware of the situation?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A good thought from a Malay Scholar...

An excerpt from Dr. Azly Rahman's column in Malaysiakini..............He comments on the economic state of the Indian community in Malaysia. Some good thoughts and ideas which help build bridges in our community instead of walls. A refreshing thought from a malay scholar.

"The thought that the top 10 percent of the richest Malaysians are earning more than 20 times compared to the 90 percent of the population is terrifying. What has become of this nation that promised a just distribution of wealth at the onset of Independence?

I have a perspective to resolve the issue of the Indian community. The Malays and the Chinese too need to help the Indians progress. Malay and Chinese multimillionaires and billionaires can set up grants to help the poor Indians succeed in all fields of human endeavour. The Malays can get Mara (Majlis Amanah Rakyat) to share ideas, expertise and technology to make Indian children succeed and learn entrepreneurship skills. The same strategies of affirmative action given to the Malays must be extended to the Indians and designed for their children. The Chinese can help with sharing of good business strategies that will help the Indian community create opportunities for their children. Indian graduates can continue to help the children of the less fortunate ones see the importance of education so that we will not see high dropout rates. "

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Australia is really quite beautiful

Just got back from a week in Melbourne. The city is really quite beautiful. Australians are very proud of their envirnonment and protect it religously. They are really quite strict at the immigration as far as bringing anything which might carry a new insect or organism.
I had 3 picture frames which I was planning to put up at my exhibition booth, and they had to double check that it was ok.

I enjoyed the fresh air for a change and clear blue skies! Wish Malaysia could get rid of the soot spewing trucks and busses that ply our highways everyday!