August 30, 2008
My article came out in The Sun today, in its Merdeka Edition. it compiles stories on different aspects of Nationality. Mine was titled “Forging a Nation: Are we there yet?”
This is what I wrote, which is also available here.
Forging a Nation: Are We There Yet? by Tricia Yeoh
The Sun, Friday 29th August 2008
Numerous attempts have been made to articulate what “Malaysia” as a nation means. We’ve explored it in a dozen ways, and 51 years after Independence, we are still having teething problems. It doesn’t take a genius to observe that Malaysia is going through a turbulent period. We seem to be fragmented on all possible fronts: ethnic, religious, regional, socio-economic. Fractures also exist within these categories, and not just between them. Things that unite us do not go beyond sharing of festivals, food, costumes and flags – all surfacial and never quite digging into the deeper identity of a nation.
Having said that, 2008 will go down in Malaysian history as the year of reckoning. What the March 8th Elections did for Malaysia was the beginning of the much-needed but also messy process of upheaval – of reconstructing identities, reviewing our values, revamping the nation as a whole. The way people voted in March signalled a change against a race-based agenda and towards one that embraces a multiethnic platform. But is this enough to define nationhood so clearly?
Indeed, it is this moment that together, we will need to take stock of which elements we want to keep, improve or cut off completely in a national charter ahead. What is rotten must be willingly shed. What is precious must be maintained. What are new and refreshing ideas must lay the groundwork for the future. Some urgent, fresh vision is needed, or Malaysia will remain an eternal “could-have-been” nation of unrealised potential.
The CPPS issued a statement this evening on the 2009 Budget that was announced at 4pm in Parliament…
Here it is!
CPPS’ Statement on the 2009 Budget
· Increase in Budget Allocation
This is a record expansionary budget of RM207.9 billion, a further increase of 5% from the RM177 billion budget allocated in 2008, with the express objective of countering the problem of stagflation and overall economic slowdown indicated by the expected 5.4% growth rate for 2009. The fiscal deficit is also expected to increase from 3.7% in 2007 to 4.8% in 2008. Whilst this is acceptable because generating growth is a priority during such economically challenging times, this has to be carefully guarded for the future, as a large fiscal deficit is not sustainable in the long run and should be monitored quarterly. Operational expenditure has increased to RM154.2 billion, from RM128.8 billion in 2008, an alarming increase of almost 20%. This is close to a 200% increase from the operating expenditure in 2000, which was only RM53.35 billion. The government’s commitment in reducing the fiscal deficit as promised must be closely monitored. Secondly, there are no measures mentioned explicitly in tackling rising inflation.
· Policies should be Equitably Implemented
There seems to be a shift in strategy, in that there are no explicit references to closing interethnic inequalities within each of its policies on poverty eradication, urban transportation, health services, public amenities and so on. This is a positive move away from race-based policies. However, the CPPS cautions that these policies be implemented equitably regardless of race, failing which they would fall into the trap of naturally executing incumbent policies favouring one ethnic community over the other.
· Reducing Regional Imbalances
The government has responded to the criticisms of many that its economic budgetary policy has given insufficient attention to Sabah and Sarawak, now evidenced by its allocation of RM580 million and RM420 million, respectively. The entrenched systems of corruption must nevertheless be checked so that the money is rightly channeled, lest they are wasted in the form of massive leakages in both states.
· People-Oriented Budget
The budget puts less focus on mega projects and gives attention to lower income groups. Whilst the budget focuses on addressing rural poverty, very few measures besides increased allocations for public transport are directly related to addressing urban poverty. In a situation of rapid urbanization, with 71% of Malaysia projected to be urban by 2015, urgent measures are needed to alleviate the predicaments of the urban poor.
In light of rising food prices and the increased burden this places on low-income groups, the government has reduced import duties on various consumer durables and full import duty exemption from selected food items. The CPPS however recommends that all food items should be exempt from import duty, since food price increases are affecting low to middle income groups greatly.
· Stimulating Investment
The announced measures for stimulating private investment are welcome, but are also lacking. It is recommended that the Foreign Investment Committee guidelines for equity ownership should be loosened to encourage domestic and foreign investment, which will give our economy a much-needed boost, stimulating production. Strict equity restrictions are what turn away foreign investors from Malaysia. Further, these restrictions for approved investments are carriers to investment and do not materially assist Bumiputera growth. Burdensome regulations pertaining to licensing, permits and quotas should also be addressed. Cutting the proliferation of red tape here will only serve consumers by lowering prices and the cost of doing business, which is Malaysia is slipping in.
· Strengthening Institutions
Finally, the Centre believes that it is primarily due to the weakened institutions that implementation of sound policies have failed. The delivery system of the government has to be improved if we are to compete with first world countries. The government must ensure value for people’s tax money and reduce wasteful government spending, which has only grown courtesy of corruption fueled by opaque government policies and practices. As such, greater funds should be allocated to the Judiciary, which presently fails to adapt to private sector needs for commercial dispute resolution, amongst dealing with other legal procedures necessary for efficient operations within both the private and public sectors. The trend of greater independence and funds for the Anti-Corruption Agency should continue to check wastage and leakage in the public and private sectors. Such funds would build capacity and ensure independence and autonomy from the executive, thereby guaranteeing further checks and balances in our system of governance – and ensure that the hefty amounts of funds allocated for the country’s growth do not go to waste.
Last Thursday I was invited to speak on a panel at the Harvard Project for Asian & International Relations (HPAIR) on the topic of “Do Human Rights & Social Justice Objectives Conflict with other National Priorities?” It was a great crowd of highly intellectual students from universities in Asia. I was impressed they had such a high-calibre series of speakers, including Surin Pitsuwan, the Secretary General of ASEAN (former Deputy PM of Thailand); and Perak Crown Prince Raja Nazrin.
It was good fun, speaking on the panel with friend and fellow combat partner Elina Noor from ISIS KL, who spoke on the security aspect of social justice and national priorities. I don’t think I presented all my points thoroughly, but here is the gist of what I said:
- In an ideal world, social justice objectives should be mainstreamed into national objectives, and both should converge easily.
- This holds true even for developmental frameworks that have been proposed by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) amongst others.
- However, this is not the case and we all know it. Asian countries in particular have been struggling to balance the two, often at the expense of fundamental liberties.
- I gave reasons for this: mainly to do with how governments choose responsibilities over rights; economic stability over political freedoms (“rice before rights”); national sovereignty and non-interference principle akin to ASEAN; lack of political will.
- Another issue is the multiethnic aspect of societies, certainly true in Malaysia. I also said that traditional nation-states like Korea and Japan should also start examining this issue, since ethnic minorities although very very minimal will start to emerge as they liberalise their economies – and they had better start thinking about how to balance different national priorities.
- I didn’t give any solutions. But I did say that economic rights are to improve the living conditions of individuals and that governments should actively involve themselves in the allocation of public resources.
- We should be working towards achieving these ideals, where both objectives converge. Even where they fail, this should be the plan/vision/mission in mind.
Full text of my speech is here…
HPAIR, 21st August 2008, PJ Hilton, Malaysia
Do Human Rights and Social Justice Objectives Conflict with other National Priorities?
1. Good afternoon to all present. Thank you Kim and the rest from HPAIR for inviting me to present some of my views at this esteemed conference. This panel’s duty is to make sense of the session’s title, “Do Human Rights and Social Justice Objectives Conflict with other National Priorities?”, and I will be speaking specifically on the balance between economic and developmental goals and human rights protection – first more generally as interactive themes, and then specifically in relation to the region and country I am most familiar with; Asia, and Malaysia.
2. Let me begin by presenting two worlds to you. In an ideal world, there should be no incompatibility between human rights principles and a country’s economic and developmental goals. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) contains principles that could coincide with any country’s national objectives. These include ensuring the right of each person to employability, education and the freedom to pursue economic and social development. In this particular world, human rights principles would be mainstreamed into national economic policy as far as possible. Similarly, emphasis would be given to social justice, narrowing the gap between socioeconomic inequalities between communities.
3. Now let us assume that we are still living in this first utopian world, and that as policymakers we have adopted an equally idealistic framework – the developmental one. The developmental framework traces its way from the OECD goals of the post-Cold War mid 1990’s to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) adopted by the UN, and hence many developing countries, today – inclusive of Southeast Asia. Here you will find emphasis placed on poverty reduction, access to water and basic amenities, literacy and governance. Action is taken to advance the rights of vulnerable groups such as women, children, the disabled, and minority groups.
Except for some differences to do with approach, there is no fundamental problem in blending a developmental framework with a human rights one. In fact, they converge because they share similar principles on expected outcomes. Some shared values are participation, empowerment, consultation and partnership amongst civil society, governments and academics. So far, so good. A rights-based approach to development seems to work well in this little world as well.
Last Friday I was honoured to speak at the oldest Catholic parish in the South Diocese (meaning, in Melaka, Negeri Sembilan and Johor). It was the “Church of the Visitation”, whose priest is Father Michael Chua. It was a joint event between the MCCBCHST (Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism), and the Diocese on Interreligious Dialogue.
I spoke on “What it means to be Malaysian”, in conjunction with Merdeka Day coming up soon. The highlights were that: to me, being honest with myself I would say that being Malaysian at this very moment in August 2008 is to be riding an emotional roller coaster simply because the nature of the relationship changes so often, in line with the major changes taking place at the political level. I showed a series of statements people had responded to me with, when I asked that question.
But I later said that this was an important and necessary time. Perhaps it is actually very very good that Merdeka this year is subdued and less flashy. Because it forces us to think. To think about the country that we really want to be, to have. The failures and the successes. I tried to do that last year with the Merdeka Statement, to create that sombre mood for deep thought and reflection. But the matter got condemned by certain quarters and the same “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” story again.
I ended by saying that being Malaysian means needing to come together in such forums to do exactly that – decide for ourselves what we want for the country, lest the politicians wrest away from us what we have in mind. Race and religion are politicised to the extent that we allow it to be so. Politicians say that the reason they argue along racial lines is because that’s what people are like on the ground.
I don’t buy that argument. I think politics is also and more importantly about enlightened leadership.
Anyway, all that is in my full text, which I am pasting below here. 🙂 Enjoy! (Or at least, don’t fall asleep)
MCCBCHST and Parish Ministry of Ecumenical & Interreligious Affairs
Church of the Visitation, Seremban, Malaysia
21st August 2008
What it Means to be Malaysian
Good evening to all of you. It’s an honour for me to be speaking at the oldest church in Seremban. Thank you Father Michael for the invitation to speak. As introduced, I am Tricia Yeoh from the Centre for Public Policy Studies based in KL. We do public policy research and analysis, providing recommendations where appropriate, to Government but mainly form a platform for a variety of stakeholders in society.
Why it is important to articulate
I am speaking to you at a crucial point in the history of Malaysia, the weekend before the upcoming by-election in Permatang Pauh, something I am sure you are all following closely from here. Whatever happens on Tuesday will have deep political implications on the nation – how Parliament will change, whether or not Pakatan Rakyat will grow from strength to strength, how Barisan will react, the power plays between PAS, DAP and PKR, and finally whether or not Malaysia is ready for a new government. These are all important issues to weigh carefully.
But beyond the political mish-mash – and this is changing rapidly by the hour – I think it is even more urgent and pressing for us Malaysians to come together in settings like these. A gathering of Malaysians. Not merely to speculate upon whether or not Anwar really sodomised Saiful, or whether Najib was involved in the Altantuya murder, but more seriously – to do some deep reflecting within ourselves about what kind of Malaysia do we want to see in the future. Regardless of political power plays, regardless of who is in Government (Barisan or Pakatan), what is the vision that we Malaysians have for the country? Do we know what it means to be living in this same common space called Malaysia? Without a strongly enough articulated prescription from the grassroots, from the Joe Public, I fear that politicians will take it into their own hands to define what kind of Malaysia they will pursue.
Since March 8th, and the statements by Pakatan parties, we’ve heard a lot about how we should be moving away from a race-based political system. This is not a new concept. For those of us who are more advanced in the years would know that numerous attempts have been made to form multiracial parties in the past: Parti Rakyat, Parti Gerakan, others – they have failed. Several Barisan politicians I’ve spoken to would argue that politics should reflect the reality on the ground, thereby justifying divisional ethnic politics. My counter-argument is that politics should both reflect ground realities, and be about enlightened leadership. Either way, because a politician’s ultimate goal is power, he relies almost entirely upon the views and criticisms of his constituents.
What I’m saying is this: until and unless the man on the street at large show that they have strong distaste of racial politics, and have a clear articulation of what they do want to see emerging, politicians are not likely to follow suit.
August 20, 2008
Aug 20 2008
Is there a plan to erase Hindu temples and crematoriums in Kuala Lumpur by 2020?
More than 120 temple representatives present at a meeting organised by Malaysia Hindu Sangam at the Dewan Tan Sri K R Soma, KL yesterday were shocked that their temples and 2 existing Hindu crematoriums were not identified at the master Plan of City of Kuala Lumpur by 2020.
The leaders were wondering whether there is a plan to erase off hundreds of Hindu temples and 2 crematoriums at Jalan Loke Yew and Sentul by the year 2020.
There was a feeling of disappointment and disgust when they were briefed on the Master Plan. They were informed that they have to send their note of protest using the appropriate DBKL Form by 30th August 2008. About 100 forms were distributed at the meeting.
Briefings were made by MHS president Datuk A. Vaithilingam, IT Consultant Chin Meng Sun, MHS Temples advisor Ariathavaratnam, MHS temples affairs committee chairman G. Gunaraj and Bukit Jalil social worker Thiagarajan. All those who are not able to obtain the DBKL Master Plan Books are requested to go online and visit <klcityplan2020.dbkl.gov.my> and try and identify the location of their temple. It does not matter whether the temple is registered with ROS or with our MHS or is said to be illegal and if the temple is not identified in the plan please get the forms from DBKL or ring 012-392 5995 (Gunaraj), 012-328 7823 (Chin), 016-3674304 (Thiagaraj) or 016-277 1495 (Ariathavaratnam) for advice or on how to obtain the forms.
All temples are advised to immediately submit their protests to DBKL and send a copy of the protest form to Malaysian Hindu Sangam at No. 67, Jalan PJS 1/48, Taman Petaling Utama 7, 46150 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, fax 03-77847304
All protests must reach DBKL by 30th August 2008
Datuk A. Vaithilingam
Malaysia Hindu Sangam
What are several possible outcomes of the Permatang Pauh by-election coming up on 26th August 2008 (the mother of all by elections)? Political pundits have been at it the whole week, at coffee shop tables and whatnot else.
- Anwar wins. Crossovers from BN to PR in sufficient numbers to take over Federal Government by the anticipated date of September 16th, also Malaysia Day. PR becomes the Federal Government in 25 days from now.
- Anwar wins. Crossovers from BN to PR in sufficient numbers to take over Federal Government by Sep 16th, but PR chooses to delay it till later, mainly for strategic reasons. Taking over so soon after Anwar re-enters Parliament may not be psychologically appropriate since people would be warming up to his presence and his potential leadership in the country. These things take time. PR states continue to govern and takeover will not be talked about until later, here there are two options: (a) PR will make a bid before 2010 (possibly next year) or (b) PR will make a bid in 2010 itself, if General Elections are called then. (GE may be called because even if Pak Lah hands over the reigns peaceably to Najib, he still may need to validate his Prime Ministership)
- Anwar wins. No crossovers are done yet. UMNO Assembly meets in December, Pak Lah is challenged and loses; UMNO changes leadership and Malaysia gets a new PM. It is still a BN-PR fight.
- Anwar loses. UMNO negotiates with PKR/PAS/PR to form an alternative coalition or bloc. But I doubt anything would emerge from this.
- Anwar loses. Public outcry. Some speculation as to clampdown again?
- Anwar wins. The sodomy charge goes into full swing. Anwar is convicted. Public outcry.
- Anwar wins. Sodomy charge goes full swing. Insufficient evidence to convict. Or PKR produces good counter evidence, as Raja Petra seems to claim exists. PR soars.
There are multiple outcomes and more, beyond the above. Actually I would ideally like to draw one of those branch charts that I used to love when doing probability trees. Remember those? And then we could assign probability numbers and ratios to each branch, and calculate a probability model for possible outcomes. Investors would then use this to calculate political risk in Malaysia – something they really could afford right now.
Maybe I will very well do it….
If I haven’t already blogged about it, the Micah Mandate is a new Christian website aimed at collating stories and commentaries about Malaysia. It will be on a whole range of issues, but this month the focus will be on Citizenship. I will *try* to write for the site, but if not other articles are also usually posted up there from other sources.
Check it out!
I spent two days learning about Sufism at a conference last week at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies – jointly organised with the Department of Malay Studies, NUS. It was truly fascinating, from someone who knew little to nothing of its teachings. A mystical spirituality is taught, that transcends systematic or regulated religion. The Wahabiyah movement would be typically opposed to Sufi teachings, since the former preaches more regulated practice of Islam. In fact, some even argue that Sufism is not Islam.
Neverthless, there also exists tarekah, which means a more organised version of Sufism. This comes in the form of groups that meet regularly. The tasawuf is a movement in reaction to the tarekah. Indonesia has little mushroomings of Sufi groups, although they may not necessarily be called Sufistic in nature. (Since it was a Western term to begin with..)
What was interesting to me was the political dimension of Sufism. The West has been looking to Sufism as an alternative to radical extremist Islam, which is both good and bad. Good, because it is true that Sufism does not preach violence nor hatred. In fact at the heart of it lies love. But it is bad because the only way to counter terrorism through Sufism is to have a systematic response – when Sufism is predicated on non-systematic faith. As a result, you may get a secret society-type movement that is overly reliant upon one leader alone. You know, like how Christian types can get all crazy over a charismatic leader (just because he can speak well and repeats himself five times over).
Prior to this, I’d only read about Maimun and Layla’s story – and the beauty of longing and desire after something so intensely felt – this is the longing of a human after God, it was argued.
I still know very little, but people have been messaging me with little bytes of knowledge. The conference was good since it exposed me to the philosophical ideas of Islam, and finally some good solid Arab music (from Yemen) finished it off nicely.
Although Sufism is not debated widely in Malaysia, I think it would be an interesting idea to discuss it vis-a-vis the Wahabi standards that we currently practice today. Just a thought to simmer in the mind.
Will do a bit of advertising here. During the March Elections, we prepared a daily policy factsheet on a whole range of issues. It was very well received (thanks everyone!). We are resuming it for a total of 6 working days (the entire campaigning period) on a series of other issues again.
You can access them here… and the first two were on National Unity, and the Judiciary. Look out for more!
The whole world will be flocking north to Permatang Pauh this week. Penang’s economy will flourish. I say, take advantage of the situation and sell kuih-muih to maximise profits. Schools will prosper. Families whose relatives die will benefit within this specific period (do it now to optimise!).
The money is also flocking north. Who is keeping check of the loose promises of money that keep spewing out of mouths on either side? Any monitoring of campaign financing? Coincidental representation of an NGO when one is a candidate is not even a valid excuse – in fact when one if campaigning as a candidate one’s affiliations should be cut off so as to remove confusion and overlapping of roles.
Politics will be the death of Malaysia I tell you. But let the year of reckoning come to pass before we can flourish again – yes I still believe the day will come.