Ethnic politics makes Malaysia’s transition to a contested democracy fraught and ugly
Sep 10th 2011 | from the print edition
SKYSCRAPERS and lampposts in Kuala Lumpur are still festooned with flags left over from independence day festivities at the end of August. Fittingly, this week they were shrouded in the annual “haze” of smog from forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Malaysia’s politicians are not in the mood to celebrate nationhood and unity. Rather, with an election in the offing, everything is a chance for political point-scoring.
That includes independence itself. One huge banner in the centre of the capital shows the country’s six prime ministers since the British left in 1957, with the incumbent, Najib Razak, in the foreground, gazing into a visionary future. All six hailed from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has led the “Barisan Nasional” (BN) coalition government ever since 1957. Some opposition politicians now complain that the official narrative of Malaysia’s history ignores the role of non-UMNO freedom fighters. Since the most recent general election, in March 2008, the opposition has had a real chance of winning power. For the first time since independence in 1957, the BN lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament that allowed it to amend the constitution on its own. No longer a one-coalition state, the opposition argues, Malaysia has to rethink its own history.
The next election is not due until 2013. But, out of tradition and political calculation, Mr Najib is expected to call it earlier—and to win it. Some think it could come this year, after a generous government budget in October. A crowded calendar of regional summitry makes that awkward, and Mr Najib has other reasons for delay. Since he took over in 2009, he has launched a plethora of initiatives to improve Malaysians’ lives and a “Performance and Delivery Unit” to implement them. Results take time.
Three factors, however, argue for a hasty dash to the polls. The first is that Mr Najib, who took over UMNO and the prime ministership after the BN’s unprecedentedly poor showing in 2008, still had an approval rating of 59% in a recent survey. That is well below his initial popularity, however, and he will not want to mimic Britain’s Gordon Brown in delaying too long before seeking his own mandate. Second, economic storm clouds are gathering in the West. Malaysia’s economy is still growing at over 4% a year, but is vulnerable to a downturn in external demand.
Third, the opposition coalition is in some disarray. Its figurehead, Anwar Ibrahim, is on trial for sodomy, illegal in Malaysia, and many expect him to go back to jail soon, as he did (for the same alleged offence) in 1998. He is a divisive figure. But without him, there is no obvious opposition candidate for prime minister. The president of his party is his wife, and its most impressive politician is his 30-year-old daughter, Nurul Izzah. The other components of the coalition are the Democratic Action Party, which draws its support from the Chinese minority, and an Islamic party known as PAS, whose religious conservatism alienates many liberal Malays. So there is even talk of a revival of the prime ministerial ambitions of Razaleigh Hamzah, a veteran UMNO rebel, as an opposition rallying point.
The government helpfully provided another rallying point with its cack-handed crackdown on an NGO-led protest in Kuala Lumpur in July calling for electoral reform. Mr Najib has since agreed to a parliamentary committee to look into the demands, which are mostly unexceptionable: to clean up voters’ lists, allegedly swollen with “phantoms”; to extend the election-campaign period, at present just seven to nine days; to tighten up the postal-vote system; and so on. But he has not agreed to postpone an election until after the committee has ruled.
Whatever technical reforms are made before the next election, it will still be dominated by the original sin of ethnic discrimination set out in the country’s 1957 constitution. This was designed to allay the fears of the majority ethnic-Malay population of being marginalised by Chinese and Indian minorities, which now make up respectively 23% and 7% of the population of 28m. Perks, much extended after race riots in 1969 (still often referred to in Malaysia as if they happened yesterday), gave Malays privileged access to public-sector jobs, university places, stockmarket flotations and government contracts.
Both government and opposition talk of dismantling these privileges, which have contributed to corruption and large-scale emigration. Mr Najib has indeed started tinkering with Malay privileges, much to the outrage of the UMNO right and a vocal Malay-rights ginger group known as Perkasa. Ibrahim Ali, Perkasa’s front man, argues that, with the Malay vote split, the minorities have disproportionate electoral power, to which the mainstream parties pander.
That is nonsense. As elections loom, it is the Malay voter whose opinion matters, and he is assumed to resent any effort to curtail his privileges. And that means that both coalitions have to resort to defending the indefensible: a system in which families that have lived in Malaysia for generations are told to tolerate discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, to bolster allegedly fragile racial harmony. Malays and minorities alike lament that the races are living increasingly separate lives—studying in different schools, eating different foods and going to different parties. The divide is further widened as more Malays, who, constitutionally, are all Muslims, become religiously conservative.
The Malaysian malaise stems from the congruence of two seemingly conflicting trends. One is the healthy development of pluralist competition in a system that had seemed stuck for ever in an UMNO-dominated quasi-democracy. The other is the sharpening of ethnic and religious dividing lines. It is alarming that, instead of seeing competitive politics as a way of bridging the ethnic divide, too many Malaysian politicians see the ethnic divide as a way of winning the political competition.
Military service lingers in countries that are poor or small, but elsewhere it is on the way out
Sep 10th 2011 | from the print edition
Your country needs you
PERKY breasts and fluttering eyelashes may no longer help Thailand’s famed ladyboys (pictured) to avoid the draft. The top brass has just requested the removal of the “permanent mental disorder” label that usually bars transsexuals and transvestites from being conscripted. The army is ready. It says “Type 1” men are normal, “Type 2” have surgically enhanced breasts, and “Type 3” have had a full sex change.
Thailand is one of some 70 states, mostly people-rich and cash-poor, that retain conscription. But the subject arouses strong emotions in other countries. After last month’s riots in Britain, tabloid papers and some politicians said restoring conscription would bring alienated and rowdy youngsters into line. Elsewhere, official enthusiasm can be ferocious. In April an Egyptian military court gave Maikel Nabil, a blogger, three years in jail for insulting the military. Among other causes, he campaigned against conscription.
Newly independent South Sudan is a rare example of conscription being introduced (in the hope of supplanting private militias). But the big picture is one of retreat. Even 200 years ago, economists such as Adam Smith and the German Johann von Thünen denounced conscription: the latter blamed it for fuelling Napoleon’s recklessness in Russia. More recently two economists, Panu Poutvaara and Andreas Wagener, said making young people become soldiers was as odd as “forcing all citizens to work as nurses, heart surgeons or teachers.” Their research on members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (a rich-country club) over the 40 years since 1960 concludes that conscription hampers growth.
Making youngsters forfeit part of their productive or educational potential can depress an economy just as heavy government debt or high income taxes do. But people may eventually get some benefit (such as pensions) from sacrificing cash. When the young give up their time, the compensation is harder to quantify. Another study found that Britain’s two-year national service (which ended in 1960) cut later earnings by between 5% and 8%.
Conscription has withered recently, especially in Europe. Germany, Sweden and Serbia have scrapped it within the past year, following Italy, Spain and Poland earlier in the decade. Its heyday, says Christopher Donnelly, a former NATO official now at the Institute for Statecraft and Governance, a think-tank, came when “labour was cheap and when you knew what you were fighting against”. For most rich countries now, warfare is expeditionary and high-tech; lightly trained conscripts are not much use for this.
Universal military duty still makes sense for small countries like Israel that may need to fight all out for national survival. More than 80% of Finns backed it in a recent survey. In neighbouring Estonia (also hard bitten by history) support is well over 90%, says Luukas Ilves, a defence ministry official. He recently finished military service himself (raising eyebrows in Russia, where conscription is only for the hapless: Mr Ilves’s father is Estonia’s president). At the start, he says, “you do a lot of push-ups; an angry drill-sergeant wakes you at 6am; you eat mess-hall food.” But it all helps to integrate Estonia’s Russians and gives conscripts “a sense of proprietorship” about the country.
In societies divided by language, ending conscription means losing such benefits. It can mean other costs too: German charities lament that young men no longer do community service to avoid the army. Research in France, which began phasing out conscription in 1996, suggests that male educational achievement fell: people used to dodge the draft by going to university. A tax on the time of the young, paid in lost earnings or education, may indeed have good side-effects. Whether these are worthwhile, and if military service is the best way to create them, are questions for politicians, not economists.
PUBLIC grief can be hard to express in a holiday town, built around the promise of heedless fun. Yet late last month, the seaside resort of Weymouth put on a remarkable, heartfelt homage to James Wright, a 22-year-old local man killed fighting in Afghanistan. Mourners report, with pride, how the town’s main church was filled to capacity by his family, school friends and neighbours, as well as by his comrades from the Royal Marines. Several hundred more people gathered outside.
Military traditions were observed. A Royal Marine firing party offered a three-gun salute, a bugler the Last Post. Elsewhere though, the personal and the informal reigned. A cannon fired from a Victorian fort on Weymouth Bay signalled a minute’s silence throughout the town, organised not by the authorities but by a caretaker at Marine Wright’s former secondary school. Further calls for quiet were broadcast at Morrisons supermarket and at the town’s department store. Along the faded Regency seafront, souvenir stalls halted trading, led by staff at a sweet shop where Marine Wright once worked. Oblivious to the grieving around them, tourists chattered, some—it is said—thinking that the cannon’s boom marked a lifeboat launch. Townsfolk lined the pavements in silence, in places three or four deep. Later, the funeral procession was applauded by those along its route.
In Britain, public sympathy for the military has not been this intense for many years, arguably since the Falklands conflict of 1982. It was headline news in late August when hearses bearing casualties of the Afghan conflict stopped driving down the high street of Wootton Bassett, a market town that for four years has saluted the war dead with tolling bells and flag-bearing veterans. The prime minister, David Cameron, thanked Wootton Bassett on the nation’s behalf, and vowed to monitor whether mourning families felt welcome on a new route to be used by funeral cortèges (chosen after a change of the airbase used for repatriations).
Set against that intense support for the troops, polls consistently show the British opposed to the war in Afghanistan (though only a minority want the troops home immediately, with a larger number hoping for a swift-ish exit that denies the Taliban total victory). A 2011 poll by YouGov found the “cost in human lives” the top reason for opposing the war.
A single column cannot offer a scientific survey of this phenomenon. Nor can it offer adequate memorial to Marine Wright, by all accounts a remarkable athlete, soldier and family man, whose death stunned friends who thought him “invincible”. Instead, hopefully, some broad hints can be drawn from the response of one southern English town to a military death (the 378th in Afghanistan since 2001).
Graham Winter is mayor of Weymouth and the neighbouring isle of Portland, and he taught James Wright at primary school. Mostly, he ascribes the turnout at the marine’s funeral to the young man’s popularity and high profile in a small community. But he also notes a trend of rising attendance at veterans’ events. There were large crowds at a homecoming parade in July for Royal Tank Regiment troops back from Afghanistan. The underlying cause, he suggests, is growing awareness of the dangers faced by troops overseas, rammed home by press reporting. That awareness should not be confused with endorsement of government policies, the mayor says: if asked why troops were in Afghanistan, many “would find it hard to answer”.
On the Esplanade, Hazel Coleman, a sixth-form student with a part-time job at a souvenir shop, observed the minute’s silence for Marine Wright. But she says—not unreasonably—that the war has “gotten more complicated over the years”, so she only “vaguely” knows why troops are still in Afghanistan. To her, the public mood is “about respect, and people dying”.
The Wootton Bassett effect
During interviews in Weymouth, the example of Wootton Bassett comes up a lot. Locals needed no persuasion to organise a minute’s silence, says the school caretaker behind the tribute, Geoff Bright. But, he admits, there was a sense of: “If Wootton Bassett can do it, so can Weymouth, no getting away from it.”
Whatever the model is, it is not Falklands Britain. Trawl through archive copies of the local newspaper, the Dorset Evening Echo, covering the period of that conflict, and a barely-recognisable country swims into view. In 1982 deaths are reported briskly, and upper lips are still stiff. Opening a large Falklands homecoming fete, a naval officer declares tersely: “I wish you could have seen how our chaps behaved under not ideal circumstances.” Returning troops are greeted with a mixture of amateurish cheer, bunting and alcohol: there are endless reports of “champagne welcomes”, an improbable “sherry reception” for commandos, and—in Dorchester—1,000 free pints of beer.
Three decades on, a new tolerance for public emotion has strict limits, however. One of Marine Wright’s former teachers, now retired, caused anger by telling local reporters that, as well as pride, he also felt sorrow at a “futile waste of a young life”. A “totally inappropriate” comment, retorts a serving school colleague.
Yet if the current public mood is patriotic, it is not deferential. Phil Thomas, headmaster of Marine Wright’s old school, senses local communities sending a message to the government: “We are recognising these individuals, they are dying on your behalf, make sure you have your policies right.”
Such talk alarms British military commanders. They yearn for public support for the troops, not sympathy, and fret about a debilitating focus on individual losses. A visit to Weymouth suggests they are too late. Overt grief is part of life now, stoked by a public and media hungry for human interest. Will it make future wars harder to fight? Probably. But there is no going back.
Published: September 6 2011 17:27 | Last updated: September 6 2011 17:27
Switzerland’s reputation as a safe haven has long supported the country’s currency and Tuesday was not the first time that the central bank has tried to put a ceiling on the franc’s appreciation.
In October 1978 – a little more than five years after Switzerland abandoned its fixed exchange rate – the Swiss National Bank set a ceiling above which it would not allow the Swiss franc to rise against the Deutsche mark.
The central bank faced similar circumstances then as it does now. A rise in the Swiss franc had raised the chances of a recession and deflation. The SNB had intervened in the foreign exchange market but with little success. It had introduced levies on foreigners’ Swiss franc deposits – again to little avail. With interest rates already very low, the SNB regarded the ceiling as the only option left.
In one regard, the ceiling worked. The Swiss franc declined against both the Deutsche mark and the dollar. But inflation rose. In order to defend the ceiling the SNB had to buy foreign currency in exchange for Swiss francs. But the central bank was forced to buy foreign currency on such a grand scale that the amount of Swiss francs in circulation rose to a level that caused inflation to rise, eventually peaking at 7 per cent in 1981.
The SNB abandoned its fixed exchange rate in 1973 for similar reasons – inflation had surged to as high as 12 per cent in the early part of the decade. Throughout the 1970s, very loose US monetary policy – and high global inflation – not only pushed the Swiss franc higher but contributed to price pressures when the central bank tried to cap the currency’s gains.
More than 30 years later, monetary policy in the US – and across advanced economies – is equally loose. But, so far, central banks’ willingness to cut rates and increase the size of their balance sheets has not pushed inflation to the levels of the late 1970s. The SNB will hope Switzerland does not prove the exception.
In New York, there was no escape from the tempest of information and debate
When Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, relates the story behind his iconic venture, he likes to use a picture of a flock of birds. The reason? As Stone tells the story, he first appreciated the power of social media a few years ago, when he watched a crowd suddenly arrive at a bar after exchanging messages on a phone. That event, Stone says, helped him to understand how social media enabled people to suddenly congregate with unforeseen speed and force. To put it another way, what 21st-century tools do is enable people to “flock” together – around ideas, emotions, places or events. Hence that picture of birds.
It is a thought-provoking image, and it feels particularly pertinent to New York right now. Last weekend I hunkered down, along with millions of other New York residents, as the tropical storm-cum-hurricane known as Irene ripped along America’s East Coast. In some senses the experience turned out to be far less dramatic than many had initially feared: though the East Coast was battered with powerful winds and lashing rain, and there was terrible flooding inland, New York itself suffered far less damage than predicted. Before the storm hit I moved out of my apartment, which is next to the river, to stay with friends elsewhere. But my girls and I slept soundly during the night (much to the fury of my daughters, who were hoping that the winds would wake us so they could hold a midnight feast).
While Hurricane Irene might have spared New York in physical terms, the experience was nonetheless striking, for reasons that Stone observes. In earlier periods of my life, I have experienced moments of adrenaline-fuelled anxiety, holed up in a hotel in the middle of a civil war, or marooned in a remote outpost by snowstorms. Those occasions were marked by long spells of boredom, punctuated by flashes of anxiety, since I was dependent on a crackling radio or creaking telephone for news.
However, living in a hurricane in the age of social media takes adrenaline to a new level. Wherever you sheltered in the city last week, there was almost no escape from the tempest of information, debate and analysis flying around. Television and radio offered non-stop coverage, which became distinctly hysterical. The internet provided multiple tools to track the storm in real time. And as it approached, a gale of social media messages swirled, as New Yorkers “flocked” together, trying to make sense of events. (Apparently, there were 36 times the number of tweets per second than there were during the civil war in Libya.)
Is this a good thing? From a practical viewpoint, it might appear so. Some of the messages posted on the “Irene” Twitter page were distracting or trite (“Hello Apocalypse Irene”; “Loving the new hairstyle – I guess the wet look is in”, and so on). Many others were informative: citizens tracked the path of the rain, and government agencies sent out a blitz of practical advice and updates. The office of Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, was particularly efficient and co-ordinated; one could track almost all the events from that Twitter feed alone. “City bridges may be closed”; “There are 78 hurricane centres and 8 special medical centres across the City”; “We are in the midst of the most dangerous period of the storm … continue to remain indoors.” Or – eventually – “By 3pm we will officially lift the evacuation order.”
. . .
Yet there was also a dark side to this “flocking”. A week after the event, some political rivals have accused Mayor Bloomberg of over-reaction. The television coverage has been criticised. What also needs to be debated, however, is whether this cyber “flocking” heightened public emotion too. After all, the more that people share their thoughts and fears in cyberspace, the more they create echo chambers. To use another metaphor, Hurricane Irene was producing an emotional “wind tunnel” last weekend, as news and moods were channelled into a small space and funnelled back and forth between media outlets, over and over again.
This was addictive, but the flurry of debate was disturbing, too. And while Bloomberg’s office was clearly determined to corral this information tempest – and did so, in my view, with some success – it faced a tough challenge. After all, fear is contagious and social media is anarchic, even – or especially – in 140 characters.
There is no easy solution to this. Just before the storm began to affect New York, the mayor’s office warned in a tweet that the electricity could fail (“If low-lying areas begin to flood, there is a chance that Con Ed will have to shut down the grid in parts of the City”). If that had happened, it would have been fascinating to see how New York would have behaved if all those modern forms of communication had shut down. Would people have panicked? Would they have been happy to rely on old-fashioned, battery-powered radios for news instead? Might that have been a relief? No one knows. One thing that is clear is that the impact of these emotional “wind tunnels” requires more debate. They will stay with us long after the hurricane season is past, and in far more places than New York.
Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. By Gordon Mathews. University of Chicago Press; 240 pages; $19 and £12.50. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
THE walk down Nathan Road to Kowloon’s promenade along Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong takes the sightseer through a hyper-modern commercial avenue, overhung with LED signs and trimmed banyan creepers, to the stately Peninsula Hotel, the futuristic Hong Kong Cultural Centre and one of the most celebrated skylines in the world. Every year the avenue is more lustrously paved with the gold of a million spendthrift tourists from mainland China.
Chungking Mansions, which stretches from 36-44 Nathan Road, comes as a shock of otherworldly proportions. Teeming, crumbling and motley in the extreme, it is a structure to attract or repel the people of Hong Kong, like the Spaceport Cantina in the original “Star Wars”. Pushtun touts, Nigerians slinging fake Rolexes and a flock of Indian prostitutes in garish saris congregate at its maw. Inside, a glittering and stinking confusion of shops, food stalls and dormitories is piled on itself in an impossible jumble—17 storeys high and covering most of a city block. Is it even a building? The “Mansions” is a singular noun, but most people who live and work there speak of its five blocks, A to E, their lifts connecting only at the dim and claustrophobic bazaar on the first two floors. South Asians and Africans: people from at least 129 different countries have thronged to this warren to trade, talk, eat, pray and fornicate, all in a context of mild lawlessness and constant flux.
Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, spent his every free moment from 2006-10 absorbing this place in an effort to bring analytical light to its darkest corners. The clarity reveals a marvel. Hong Kong Chinese, which make up 95% of its neighbours, tend to regard the place with a kind of horror, as a heart of darkness that just happens to be located in the heart of their city. This is partly a matter of racism, but mostly it reflects their vague awareness of the criminality that makes the building hum. Mr Mathews starts with the assumption that “whereas the illegalities in Chungking Mansions are widely known, the wondrousness of the place is not.”
It turns out that there are three buildings, more or less. They have become what they are, a trading centre for the still-poor world, for three reasons: Chungking Mansions is cheap; Hong Kong allows easy entry; and southern China, just over the world’s busiest border, has become everyone’s manufacturer of choice.
There are drugs—heroin, mostly shot up by a few dozen Gurkhas on the dole who sleep in an alleyway—and there is sex. But these are footnotes. Mobile phones and cheap textiles are where the real money is. Mr Mathews identifies Chungking Mansions as “a central node in low-end globalisation”, by which he means “the transnational flow of people and goods involving relatively small amounts of capital” and informal transactions that mark “the developing world”. The model might be a Tanzanian trader who travels to Hong Kong for a week to source a few hundred used phones imported from Europe, “refabbed” over the border in Shenzhen, specially packed to disguise their counterfeit batteries and then brought back to Africa as extra luggage—facilitated by undocumented labour. His coffin-sized room costs less than $20 a night and the trip nets him $400-1,300, if nothing goes wrong. He makes multiple trips a month.
Mr Mathews’s book is an exercise in ethnography, the discipline of describing individual lives in detail. It sings in the chapters where the author and his researchers transcribe the personal stories of the traders, shopkeepers, asylum-seekers and Hong Kong policemen who inhabit this stupendous building, making side trips to Kolkata and Lagos along the way. Every gritty question is answered; at times it reads like a how-to guide for low-end globalisers. Academic language rarely intrudes, aside from the odd “transgressive other”, and the self-disclosure peculiar to field anthropology has a charm, as Mr Mathews deploys it.
He plainly loves the place. He credits Islam and neoliberalism as the forces that keep its many people living harmoniously in close quarters. “Ghetto” might be a misnomer, unless one allows a cosmopolitan and bourgeois ghetto. Chungking Mansions turns out to be “a staunch bourgeois enclave of chamber-of-commerce capitalism, albeit with a few corners cut”. Everybody is there to do business. The multicultural frisson is no more than a happy by-product.
Like Hong Kong itself, Chungking Mansions exists to fill a gap between different kinds of economies, the middle-income and low-income. Its residents are the arbitrageurs of goods and labour. In this way it is like the Hong Kong of old, and a living map of the former British empire too. The likelihood is that it will end some time soon (either as a result of Chinese traders cutting out the middlemen, the legal pressure of too many asylum-seekers or because mainland Chinese buy out the building). Unmentioned goes the fact that Hong Kong too is likely to pass into history, its special role withering as China integrates more fully with the rest of the world. Chungking Mansions is already becoming more “normal” as the world outside grows everywhere more exotic.