Posts Tagged ‘Malays’

Malaysia-Singapore Union Flickers Back to Life

May 11, 2018

The election shock brings back Mahathir Mohamad and may give fresh currency to an idea raised repeatedly by the late Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore’s then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (right) meets with then-former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur in 2005.  Photographer: Bazuki Muhammad/AFP/Getty Images

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, was a canny politician, an extraordinary statesman and an astute analyst of geopolitics. At times it was hard to tell which hat he was wearing.

That seems to have been the case when, speaking to the press in 1996, a little more than three decades after his city was ejected by Malaysia and forced to become a nation-state, Senior Minister Lee  boldly speculated on the idea of a  re-merger.

 Image result for malaysian rejoice after election of Mahatmir, photos
Mahathir Mohamad returns as Maysia’s Prime Minister

Let politicians across the causeway that links the neighbors drop race-based discrimination, giving the Chinese and Indian minorities the same rights as the majority Malays, and a reunion wouldn’t be impossible, he said.

While the comment annoyed Malaysian politicians no end, Lee made a similar remark in a 2007 interview. Only in 2013 – two years before his death – did he concede that being thrown out once was enough. Economic ties, which were even then strengthening in the form of Singapore’s investment in Malaysia’s southern state of Johor, were the way forward, he said.

 Image result for singapore, lion, photos

But guess what. The latest Malaysian election, with its big upset, offers a reason to reconsider Lee’s 1996 and 2007 optimism. Maybe the analyst in him was right all along.

Once Anwar Ibrahim is out of prison and in the Malaysian prime minister’s seat, and once he starts taking apart the system of state-sponsored racism that has existed there since 1971, the difference between peninsular Malaysia and Singapore will be of living standards. In fact, with a shared heritage of British-inspired common law and parliamentary democracy, the difference will be even less than it is between Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

Even if you believe that it’s too late for unification, given the investment Singapore has made in forging its independent identity, a “one country, two systems” arrangement is entirely possible.

Such a proposal was on the table even in the run-up to the separation, as Janadas Devan, currently the Singapore government’s information czar, noted in a 2015 speech. Under the plan, Malaysia would have handled defense and external relations for both parts of the confederacy, and there would have been a common market. Singapore politicians, including Lee, balked at the unfairness of having to pay taxes to Kuala Lumpur without political representation. That, plus the Malaysians’ insistence that Singapore stay out of the lives of its own Malay minorities, made the idea a non-starter.

That was then. Much better institutional arrangements are possible now, taking a leaf perhaps out of the Greater Bay Area that Beijing wants for Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province. If the agglomeration proves to be an economic success for Hong Kong, it would again put pressure on Singapore to find the one thing it doesn’t have: a hinterland.

A hinterland, and babies. Almost 25 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million population is below 14 years of age. For aging Singapore, where the figure is 15 percent, the neighbor’s demographic dividend — if harvested well by Anwar — is a valuable resource. Defense savings, should the two countries agree to share resources, are an added attraction.

The fate of a high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore may have become more uncertain now that Mahathir Mohamad is back on the scene. As Malaysia’s prime minister between 1981 and 2003, Mahathir took a hard stance on sales of raw water to its neighbor; He also obsessed over replacing the existing causeway with an S-shaped crooked bridge. Now that Mahathir has wrested power from his protege-turned-foe Najib Razak, whom Mahathir never forgave for not proceeding with the bridge, old tensions could flare up.

Still, don’t forget Mahathir is 92 years old, and is only standing in for Anwar, 70, who needs to come out of jail and get elected as a lawmaker before he can take over from his old boss.

Mahathir is too wedded to the status quo to move the needle on race relations. But if Anwar does manage to plant the seed of equal opportunity and rules-based competition while clearing out the weeds of rent-seeking and cronyism, a mutually beneficial economic union with some sharing of the defense burden is possible.

None of this will occur tomorrow. The shock election result has increased the odds of a loose confederacy from zero to, say, 10 percent over the coming 30 years. Still, that’s a start.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Andy Mukherjee at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Matthew Brooker at



Malaysia’s Ruling Party Sacks Defectors as Election Fight Heats Up

May 5, 2018

Prime Minister Najib Razak is fighting to stay in power, dogged by the continuing 1MDB scandal

Prime Minister Najib Razak at a campaign event Tuesday. His party said on Saturday it expelled two of its best-known members.
Prime Minister Najib Razak at a campaign event Tuesday. His party said on Saturday it expelled two of its best-known members. PHOTO:FAZRY ISMAIL/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTER/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Malaysia’s ruling party said on Saturday that it expelled two of its best-known members and began investigating a third for backing the opposition in Wednesday’s Wednesday’snational election, a fresh sign that Prime Minister Najib Razak might be facing a tougher-than-expected battle to stay in power.

The two politicians expelled from the United Malays National Organization or UMNO, Daim Zainuddin and Rafidah Aziz, as well as Rais Yatim, who is under investigation, are closely associated with Mahathir Mohamad. The former prime minister came out of retirement to lead an opposition coalition that aims to unseat Mr. Najib, his former protégé.

Now 92, Dr. Mahathir has blasted Mr. Najib for his management of the country, and particularly his handling of state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB. Dr. Mahathir and many others accuse Mr. Najib of skimming hundreds of millions of dollars from the debt-laden fund, which is the subject of several international investigations. Mr. Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.

Dr. Mahathir’s emergence at the head of the opposition has reinvigorated that movement and put UMNO on the defensive. Opinion polls suggest, however, that the party will be able to form a government, even if it loses the popular vote, as did in 2013.

Mr. Daim, Ms. Rafidah and Mr. Rais, all former ministers, have been openly critical of Mr. Najib in the election run-up and joined Dr. Mahathir at a huge rally Friday. Ms. Rafidah, who was Malaysia’s emblematic trade minister under Dr. Mahathir’s long premiership, urged the crowd to give him a “new contract.” She and Messrs. Daim and Rais didn’t respond to requests for comment Saturday.

UMNO officials said Saturday that they would take action against members breaking ranks, but the defections underscore divisions in the party feeding into uncertainty in formerly rock-solid strongholds. It comes at a time of increasing authoritarianism in Southeast Asia amid challenges on trade and security as the U.S. and China contest for influence in the strategically important region.

A prime example is on Sabah, an oil-and-gas-rich state on the northern tip of Borneo island on the South China Sea, lying near the troubled southern Philippines. Islamic militants from the Philippines have occasionally staged attacks in Sabah or tried to use it as a safe rear area.

The state delivers the third-most seats in Parliament and has long resembled a “fixed deposit,” as Mr. Najib put it, of support for the Front. In 2013, 22 of its 25 seats went to the governing coalition. Parliament has a total of 222 seats.

This time, the opposition in Sabah is being led by a former UMNO vice president, Shafie Apdal, who quit the party in 2016 after Mr. Najib suspended him for being critical of the 1MDB scandals. Mr. Shafie later formed an opposition party in Sabah with opposition lawmaker Darell Leiking.

The opposition rallies in Sabah are heavily attended, including with younger voters who have increasingly been deserting UMNO. Supporters say they are looking for more autonomy for the state.

“I thank God I left UMNO. It was divine intervention,” Mr. Shafie said in an interview. “I have been observing the body language of people. It is very positive for us as the numbers coming out are very good.”

UMNO has been at the center of every Malaysian government since 1957, but it lost the popular vote in the 2013 elections to a resurgent opposition and allied parties in the long-ruling National Front coalition were reduced to insignificance. As the 1MDB scandal gained steam in recent years, Mr. Najib purged challengers and opponents.

James Chin, a Malaysian academic who heads the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said that the most recent defection of former UMNO ministers who served under Dr. Mahathir showed that “more and more senior UMNO people are willing to challenge Najib at the polls.”

“On the other hand, the fact that all these people were in Mahathir’s cabinet gives the impression that May 9 is a fight between the old UMNO elite and the new UMNO elite,” Mr. Chin said.

Write to Yantoultra Ngui at

Only one Singaporean is fit to be president — So who decides in a democracy? — Or who cares if it is a democracy?

September 14, 2017

Or so the government concludes

IT IS very important, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, explained last year, that all Singaporeans feel they have a genuine chance of becoming president. To that end, his government tinkered with the eligibility criteria for candidates. Yet Singaporeans primed for a festival of inclusiveness at this year’s election must be confused. On September 11th a committee of senior officials declared that only one candidate was eligible to stand, and that the woman in question, Halimah Yacob, a former speaker of parliament, was thus deemed to have been elected unopposed. She will be sworn in on September 14th.

Singapore’s democracy can sometimes seem a little regimented: the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in power since before independence in 1965. So when the government decided to amend the constitution in 1991 to allow direct elections for president, ostensibly to deepen popular engagement with politics, observers were suspicious—and rightly so. The criteria for eligibility were set so narrowly that only two of the subsequent five elections have involved more than one candidate. Even so, at the previous election, in 2011, the PAP’s preferred candidate came within a whisker of losing.

The government says this close shave had no influence on its decision to narrow the eligibility criteria yet more before this year’s election. The intention, Mr Lee explained, was to make sure that none of Singapore’s three main ethnic groups—Chinese, Malays and Indians—was excluded from the job for too long. In November the government duly changed the constitution to reserve presidential elections for members of a particular ethnic group if no one from that group has held the job for the previous five terms. On this basis, the presidential election this year was limited to Malays, who make up 13% of the population but have not held the office of president since 1970. Coincidentally, the new rules prevented the candidate who fell just 7,383 votes short last time, Tan Cheng Bock, from running again, as he is one of the 74% of Singaporeans who are Chinese (9% of the population is Indian).

Cynics point out that the government’s concern with diversity goes only so far. All holders of the much more powerful post of prime minister have been Chinese—two out of three of them from the Lee family. Singapore normally prides itself on being a meritocracy, in contrast to neighbouring Malaysia, where Malays and other indigenous groups are accorded special privileges. And while candidates for president this year had to be Malay, not just any Malay could apply. They also needed either to have served in an extremely senior government job or to have run a profitable company with S$500m ($371m) in shareholder equity. The figure used to be S$100m but a decision to raise the bar was announced last year. Undaunted, two other Malays beside Ms Halimah applied to run, but were judged not to have met the criteria.

Popular and competent, Ms Halimah seemed very likely to win even with some competition. Disqualifying her challengers robs her of the modicum of legitimacy the election could have given her. Voters excited to mark ballots for Singapore’s first female president are particularly disappointed. Then again, Singapore’s repeated tightening of the rules suggests a lack of faith that voters, given a wider choice, would make the right decision.

Former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad urges citizens to join protest against Najib Razak

November 16, 2016


Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has thrown his weight behind a massive rally planned for the weekend to demand that scandal-tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak resign.

Mr Najib, who is eyeing an early election next year, faces outrage over his involvement in a multi-billion-dollar financial scandal at state fund 1MDB, and has used harsh measures to silence critics.

Election reform group Bersih, the organiser of Saturday’s rally, has demanded Mr Najib resign.

Malaysia is “facing a state of panic”, Mr Mahathir, wearing Bersih’s signature yellow T-shirt, said in a video posted online.

“I hope all Malaysians will join this demonstration by Bersih which is aimed at finding a way to fix this country,” said Mr Mahathir, who quit Mr Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in February.

Mr Mahathir, Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister, formed a new political group this year in his campaign to oust former protege Mr Najib.

‘Repeat of racial riots in 1969’

Concerns are growing that Bersih supporters and pro-government groups could clash at the rally, with the group’s chairwoman having received anonymous death threats.

“We cannot stop because if we stop and we don’t protest, then we can’t have any say in any legislation, policies or laws,” said the chairwoman, Maria Chin Abdullah, who led a similar rally last year.

Ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities formed the bulk of the 200,000 protesters at the time.

A six-week campaign by Bersih ahead of the rally has been marred by violent confrontations between the group and a pro-state group called Red Shirts.

Red Shirts leader Jamal Yunos, an UMNO member, has warned of a repeat of racial riots in 1969, when clashes between Malays and ethnic Chinese killed hundreds.

Mainly Muslim ethnic Malays form about 60 percent of Malaysia’s population of 30 million, while ethnic Chinese and Indians account for about 32 per cent.

Lawsuits filed by the US Justice Department in July say more than $700 million of misappropriated funds from 1MDB flowed into the accounts of “Malaysian Official 1”, whom US and Malaysian officials have identified as Mr Najib.

Mr Najib has denied wrongdoing, but has taken steps critics say aim to limit discussion of the scandal, such as sacking a deputy prime minister and a former attorney-general, besides suspending newspapers and blocking websites.



Malaysia: Government of Race Based Parties Spells Trouble Ahead

October 1, 2015

By Shannon Teoh
Malaysia Correspondent
Straits Times

KUALA LUMPUR • The “red shirt” rally in downtown Kuala Lumpur not so much intensified already fractious race relations in Malaysia as brought to light the insecurities felt by the many Malaysians who identify  themselves ethnically, whether they be the majority Malays or minority Chinese and Indians.

Indeed, it was these insecurities that allowed the embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak – embroiled in a financial scandal concerning huge sums of money that flowed into his personal bank accounts – to play the race card, by consorting with the red shirt rally organisers, to gain a lifeline out of his troubles.

The tens of thousands of Malays at Sept 16’s United Citizens’ Gathering – mostly wearing Malay Dignity Gathering red T-shirts instead – had gathered in Kuala Lumpur to galvanise Malays against a supposed plot by the Chinese to usurp Malay political power.

Malaysians gathering for the “red shirt” rally in downtown Kuala Lumpur on Sept 16 to galvanise Malays against a supposed plot by the Chinese to usurp Malay political power. PHOTO: REUTERS

The narrative of the red shirt rally organisers goes that the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) – a largely Chinese outfit – was using a rally last month in the capital, organised by electoral reforms group Bersih, to force the resignation of Datuk Seri Najib.

The proof, they say, was in the majority Chinese turnout at the Bersih rally, never mind that any realistic replacement of the Premier before a general election would have to be made by Umno, the largest party in Parliament. It is part of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition that also includes Chinese-based party Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Indian-based Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

In speeches by rally leaders, the banners displayed and racial slurs uttered by participants, such as “Chinese pigs”, the red shirts’ message was that Malay supremacy should not be challenged.

“There are those that ridicule Islam as Malaysia’s religion. We don’t want Malays to be under people’s feet but we want Malays to remain as masters of this land,” said Mr Jamaludin Yusuf, president of welfare group Pekida, which is better known for its links to often violent individuals acting in the interest of Malay rights.

Weighing in with his own race-loaded comments was Mr Najib who, at an event two days after the red shirt rally, said: “The Malays have rights too… and we can rise up when our leaders are insulted, condemned and embarrassed.”

Governed by race-based parties that have been plying ethnocentric policies for decades, Malaysia simply cannot avoid the question of race, which must necessarily be read with the subtext “Ketuanan Melayu (Malay dominance or sovereignty)”.

Many Malays see themselves as the original community and “owners” of Malaysia, and only grudgingly admit indigenous tribes as co-claimants. But there is a clear economic gap between them and the Chinese who arrived under British rule beginning in the 19th century, a situation that has improved but persists until now, despite growing Malay political power.

Indeed, the argument for greater Malay political control was based on the idea that it was only through such an instrument that the economic imbalance could be corrected, leading to an increasing number of pro-Malay policies and agencies in government that are justified as part of the inalienable rights of Malays, making political discussion of these policies practically taboo.

At the centre of the racial discourse here is the politically sensitive issue of “rights”. The defence of Malay rights has gone on for nearly half a century, and yet “Malay rights” is still an amorphous idea, just like the ethnic-based rights of other groups.

To be fair, many Malaysians do not identify themselves along the various pillars of “rights” that some feel are inalienable to their race. But for those who do, they bristle when questioned, let alone challenged, on them.

For the Malays who identify themselves strongly as such, economic and religious privileges are sacred, despite none of these being enshrined constitutionally, as often claimed, most recently by key red shirt figure and Umno divisional chief Jamal Yunus, who said “my racism follows the Constitution”.

But the Federal Constitution does not mention “Malay rights”, and instead merely safeguards the special position of the Malays and indigenous peoples – the much-used term “Bumiputera (Princes of the Land)” to describe them is also not mentioned in the Constitution – while also taking into account the “legitimate interests” of other communities. This special treatment includes quotas for public sector jobs, scholarships, tertiary enrolment (introduced in a 1971 amendment) and business licences.

Many pro-Malay privileges were introduced only after the racial riots of May 13, 1969, an episode which still haunts the country today. Tun Abdul Razak Hussein – Mr Najib’s father – implemented the National Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971 to correct economic imbalances by redistributing national wealth via pro-Bumiputera regulations such as setting aside 30 per cent equity for public-listed firms as well as private ones operating in “strategic” sectors.

But even though it was to have ended in 1990, these policies – which in practice often leave out non-Malay Bumiputeras – have not only continued but expanded to other areas of life, such as discounts and quotas for housing, preferential treatment for lucrative government procurement deals and, according to the US State Department, other “opaque” preferences and practices within the administration.

The government has argued that these affirmative actions must continue because Bumiputeras are still not adequately empowered as the targeted 30 per cent equity in business has not been achieved. So pervasive is this protectionism that pro-Malay elements now refer to them as “rights” even when there are no laws or binding agreements outlining them as such.

Just as irrepressible is the growth of privileges associated to Islam, including state funding for the religion and even the restriction of other religious practices, leading many to argue that the “legitimate interests” of other communities have been invaded.

But other communities also hold fast to “rights”, not least that of vernacular education, a hot-button topic for the Chinese. MCA leaders, unable to restrain their Umno colleagues in the ruling coalition from endorsing the red shirt rally, took to lodging police reports against participants who called for the abolishment of Chinese schools.

Advocates insist on a universal right to “mother tongue” education in Mandarin despite most of the community not being able to claim the dialect as part of their ancestry, having adopted it only in recent decades. But as eminent law professor Shad Saleem Faruqi pointed out, there is no constitutional protection for vernacular education.

When caught out on the lack of constitutional basis, “rights” defenders tend to then cite an unwritten “social contract” between Malaysia’s founding fathers. But this is a difficult and often divisive concept, with each corner seemingly in possession of a different draft of the contract.

The good news, perhaps, is that contracts can be renegotiated for mutual benefit. The bad news is that nobody seems ready to do so.

A survey by independent polling company Merdeka Centre in 2012 found that just over a third of Malaysians believed that there was “sincere and friendly ethnic unity”, down from 54 per cent five years prior to it. Respondents also admitted to trusting other races less than before.

According to Merdeka Centre, such mistrust is most likely due to the intensified discourse in the media on race and religious politics as well as the impact of incidents that have taken place since 2008 which included arson attacks on places of worship, public debate over school textbooks and controversial statements by public personalities.

But perhaps the issue might be forced, once pockets start to hurt.

Corporate captains tend to steer clear of controversy but Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, boss of budget airline AirAsia, cautioned an economic forum last week that Malaysia’s positive business climate would unravel if the racial divide widens.

In response, International Trade and Investment Minister Mustapa Mohamed, who is also an Umno state chief, acknowledged that the corporate world was concerned over whether race relations can be “resolved once and for all” and called for stakeholders to “go back to the drawing board”.

There is no clearer drawing board than the Constitution. Pressing the reset button won’t be a simple task, but the alternative – negotiating increasingly bitter racial grudges – is becoming a negative, rather than simply a zero sum, game.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2015, with the headline ”Red shirt’ rally brings out Malaysians’ insecurities’.

Malaysia: Police fire water cannon at pro-Najib protesters amid racial tensions at Kuala Lumpur rally — Chinese-run businesses under attack

September 16, 2015

Some 30,000 protesters take to the streets in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday afternoon, but many more are expected to gather for the climax of the rally this evening


Malaysian riot police on Wednesday fired water cannon on ethnic Malay protesters staging a pro-government rally in the capital Kuala Lumpur that has raised racial tensions in the multi-ethnic country.

Police briefly sprayed demonstrators who were chanting slogans denouncing Malaysia’s Chinese minority and demanding access to a tourist street lined with ethnic Chinese-run businesses, witnesses said.

At least several thousand members of the Muslim ethnic Malay majority marched through the heart of the capital to declare support for Prime Minister Najib Razak, a Malay who is facing calls to step down over a financial scandal.

Shadowed by heavy security, the demonstrators also claimed that long-held Malay dominance of the country was being challenged by the Chinese.

“Our Malay way of life is under threat. We want to support Malays, Najib, and tell the Chinese to keep their place,” said demonstrator Faisal Nur, 23.

Pro-government ethnic Malay hardliners wave flags and shout slogans during the rally in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

He was among large numbers of people bussed in by rally organisers from the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) from the party’s rural strongholds.

Many Kuala Lumpur businesses run by Chinese – who make up about a quarter of Malaysia’s population – were shuttered for the day out of fear of disturbances, including the area where water cannon was fired.

A heavy security presence involving hundreds of police and riot personnel were deployed throughout the capital.

Malaysia’s pro-government ‘red shirt’ protestors shout slogans as they march through Kuala Lumpur. Photo: EPA

The rally has been criticised as racially provocative by leading figures in both UMNO and the opposition.

Racial harmony remains a top national concern following deadly sectarian riots in 1969 that are still regularly cited as a cautionary tale.

The demonstration was staged in response to much larger street rallies last month that called for Najib’s resignation and deep reform of a government whose critics accuse it of repression, corruption and electoral chicanery to stay in power.

‘Red shirt’ protesters clash with the police in central Kuala Lumpur. Photo: EPA

On Wednesday, crowds composed overwhelmingly of young Malay men wearing UMNO’s red colours, many blaring on plastic vuvuzelas, marched through the heart of the city toward a planned rally site, paralysing normally bustling districts.

The demonstration, which seemed otherwise peaceful, was one of the clearest public displays yet of what many Malaysian moderates warn is a worrying trend toward racial and religious intolerance among Malays.

UMNO has controlled Malaysia for 58 years, granting economic and other advantages for Muslim Malays, saying they were needed to prevent their dominance by the sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Pro-government protesters confront riot police during a stand-off in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: EPA

But following a string of election setbacks for the government, party hardliners have increasingly catered to Malay voters by portraying the commercially dominant Chinese as a threat to the Malay privileges.

Najib, who was already under fire over huge sums of money missing from a state firm he launched, has been deeply tarnished by the revelation in July that Malaysian investigators had discovered nearly $700 million in deposits into his personal bank accounts.

His government has called them “political donations” from Middle Eastern sources but has refused to give details. The opposition has called it evidence of rampant UMNO money politics.

Najib subsequently sacked his attorney general and made other personnel moves that critics say have hampered criminal investigations into the funds.



Obama’s East and South China Sea Moves Are All About Big Business, Containing China

April 27, 2014

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (AFP Photo)

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (AFP Photo)

By Pepe Escobar

Pivoting and pivoting like a widening gyroscope, to paraphrase Yeats, US President Barack Obama’s current tour of Northeast and Southeast Asia hides an invisible dragon in the cockpit: China.

It’s all about China, whose “trade bullying” and “military belligerence” a benign US empire swears to protect its Asian allies from.

After eating hopefully non-Fukushima radiated sushi in Tokyo with nationalists/militarist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama – quite undiplomatically – took no time to favor Japan over the serious Senkaku/Diayou islands dispute, referring to a dodgy security treaty which allows the US to aid Japan in case of a foreign attack.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response was swift – identifying the treaty as “a product of the Cold War era” that “cannot be aimed at a third party and ought not to harm China’s territorial sovereignty.”

News agency Xinhua’s response was characteristically blunt: this is all part of “a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing Asia giant” (referring to China).

In Japan, Obama’s focus was essentially on the corporate-negotiated (in secret) Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which, any way one looks at it, is all about US Big Business finally opening the heavily protected Japanese market. Abe did tout the TPP as the “third arrow” of his economic revival of Japan. It’s more like the arrow of death. Still, there’s no way for TPP to happen without a previous, bilateral US-Japan pact – and here problems remains intractable.

Now for the hidden agenda

When Obama hits the South China Sea things will get even choppier. The South China Sea is the heart of Eurasia’s naval hinterland– through which flows a third of the global naval action and of course all those millions of tons of oil being transported from the Indian Ocean across the mega-strategic Malacca strait and then the South China Sea towards East Asia (including, crucially, 80 percent of China’s oil imports.)

The hidden agenda here is for the US Navy to forever remain as the hyperpower in the South China Sea – without allowing Beijing as much as a possibility of reaching parity with it. Thus the Pentagon’s carefully orchestrated propaganda selling the myth that the South China Sea without the hegemonic US would be a hellish chaos.

Obama is visiting Malaysia and the Philippines, two Southeast Asian at opposing poles. Malaysia, for starters, sits between the Middle East and China, at the heart of complex global trade networks. In many aspects, Malaysia may be seen as the heart of Asia.

U.S. President Barack Obama inspects an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at Parliament Square in Kuala Lumpur April 26, 2014. (Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama inspects an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at Parliament Square in Kuala Lumpur April 26, 2014. (Reuters)


Unlike Vietnam – which is hyper-nationalist – Malaysia, crucially, does not want trouble with China. US warships already “visit” Malaysia at least 50 times a year – and that includes nuclear submarines hanging out in ports in Borneo.

Two French-Spanish submarines bought by Malaysia are stationed at a base in Sabah, near the Spratly islands – where Malaysia claims 12 islands or rocks.

The global war on terror (GWOT) was the perfect pretext for the Pentagon to extend to Malaysia some state of the art radar equipment. So, in a nutshell, after Singapore – which could easily be described as a corporate-friendly US aircraft carrier positioned near the Malacca strait – Malaysia is in fact a very reliable US ally in the South China Sea.

That beautiful, and messy, archipelago

The Philippines are immensely messier. To start with, the archipelago of 7,000-plus islands is roughly divided into three groups.

In Luzon in the north people speak Tagalog. In Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago in the south there are plenty of Moro Muslims – culturally they have more to do with Malays and Indonesians. And then in the middle sit the Visayas, which include Cebu. The whole thing accounts for no less than 35,000 kilometers of coastline to be patrolled, and that in a very poor country.

China is the Philippines’ third largest trading partner. The Chinese diaspora is extremely influent in trade and commerce. The Philippines import all their oil by sea – so the possibility of exploring new oil and gas reserves in the Spratlys and in the fiercely disputed Scarborough Shoal are a matter of national security.

The Spratlys – 150 rocks or islands, only 48 of them above water all the time – were named in 1843 after the master of a British whaler, Richard Spratly. Yet Filipinos call them Kalayaan (“Freedomland”). There’s even a mayor of Kalayaan.

What Obama is getting from Manila is an agreement for greater access for US ships and planes to military bases, after the Pentagon convinced the locals to focus on “maritime domain awareness” with the purpose of – what else? – containing China.

So expect “rotational” US presence in Philippine ports, and even transforming pristine Ulugan Bay on the Western Philippine island of Palawan – very close to the Spratlys – into a future naval base, to the utter despair of environmentalists.

So gone will be the (sovereign) days when Washington was forced to surrender the sprawling Subic Bay base in 1992 (before that, Manila received $200 million annually in military aid from Washington.) There’s a consensus in Manila that the only possible leverage against China’s claims in the South China Sea is an alliance with the US – and that in itself is also asymmetrical. Still, they do want US ships in their waters – following the Singapore (and Vietnam) model; let’s build ports for the Americans, and they will come.

Filipinos are positively paranoid about the Chinese prying everywhere across what they call the Western Philippine Sea – in places like Woody Island and Douglas Bank – planning to take over any particle of rock above sea level. Why? According to the Filipino version, because Beijing badly needs and wants to take over Filipino-owned oil and gas.

No wonder the US Navy was quick to exploit high-level Filipino insecurity to forge what amounts to a neo-colonial relationship.

U.S. President Barack Obama (front R) walks with Malaysia's King Abdul Halim of Kedah (front L) as they participate in a welcoming ceremony in Parliament Square in Kuala Lumpur April 26, 2014. (Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama (front R) walks with Malaysia’s King Abdul Halim of Kedah (front L) as they participate in a welcoming ceremony in Parliament Square in Kuala Lumpur April 26, 2014. (Reuters)


What about the Law of the Sea?

The Obama administration’s “pivoting to Asia” – as in containment of China – always eludes the key question; for Beijing, a coalition of small Southeast Asian powers allied with the US is absolutely anathema. If that’s the case, expect major fireworks.

Washington – as usual – extols the rule of international law, but the US has not even signed the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.Beijing wants a regional order – after all it is the dominant regional power. And it’s adamant on its historical claims – facts on the sea happening way before the Law of the Sea.

Meanwhile, it is a claiming free for all. For example, China claims the waters where one finds the Filipino natural gas fields of Malampaya and Camago.

The current exclusive economic zones, imposed by everyone, led to every player getting in theory energy-wealthy shallow areas near coastlines, while China south of its coastline didn’t get much apart from Pratas island, Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal.

Still, no matter what they could possibly extract and market, Malaysia and Philippines would still have to import oil and gas. So the South China Sea will remain crucial as much as a possible repository of oil and gas riches as for its increasingly congested transit sealanes.

As for the US invoking a legal mechanism to protect “freedom of navigation”, that’s rubbish; the real thing for the Americans is the state of the art Chinese submarine base in Hainan island which houses diesel-electric submarines and nuclear ballistic missile submarines. That’s the real secret of the Southeast Asian leg of Obama’s “pivoting to Asia”. And that was instrumental in the launch of the pivoting itself in 2011.

There is a solution for the South China Sea; deal after deal after deal. They ought to be negotiated in the cadre of the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) – even considering that Beijing can, and does, explore internal divisions.

In a non-Hobbesian world, the ideal, realistic solution would be manageable to the benefit of all players, so everyone would be able to prospect for oil and gas. But the problem is that every player – except Malaysia – is juggling hardcore politics with deep emotional, nationalistic overtones. And in this environment only one external player really benefits; the United “Pacific nation” States of America.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

China gears up a “high-end think tank” to work all issues in South China Sea

February 24, 2014


BEIJING, Feb. 24 — China is building a national think tank on South China Sea research to boost the country’s maritime power strategy and deal with looming maritime disputes. Established in October 2012, the
Collaborative Innovation Center for South China Sea Studies, based at Nanjing University in Jiangsu province, is among the 14 national-level research projects prioritized and supported by the
government since 2011.


Hong Yinxing, chairman of the board for the center, said it was established to meet the country’s strategic demand to safeguard maritime rights and interests, develop resources and energy,  and promote regional peace and development.

Covering 3.5 million square kilometers, the South China Sea is home to vast natural resources — including oil and gas — and gathers major international maritime routes. China said it has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters, including the Nansha Islands.

Since the 1970s, several countries in the region have challenged China’s sovereignty over the islands. The Philippines has hyped and exaggerated the disputes in recent years to fan regional tensions.

Hong, who is also Party chief of Nanjing University, said the complexity of the maritime issue has required the country’s research sector to eliminate barriers among the subjects and agencies to improve efficiency.

The center should also play a leading role in figuring out the key mid-and-long-term projects, and in building a cooperation mechanism to gather efforts from different research fields, the military and those agencies that
need the information, Hong

Based in Nanjing University, the center has already attracted top researchers to conduct studies on a comprehensive range of issues regarding the South China Sea and to provide supporting information and policy advice.

“The center will become a high-end think tank for South China Sea policymaking, a dialogue platform for international communication, and a training center for outstanding talents on maritime affairs,” Hong said.

The university has a long history of studying the South China Sea. It helped the then-Kuomintang government decide on maritime borders in the sea and give Chinese, English and French names to the various islands in the 1940s.

The university has cooperated with other research agencies in providing more comprehensive information on the South China Sea than any other think tank.

The center has built cooperative relationships with counterparts in Taiwan that have abundant historical documents on the sea. The center has also worked with counterparts in countries such as the United States.

So far, the new think tank has accomplished a range of studies, including examples of joint maritime development, law enforcement, and international arbitration case regarding the Philippines.

Hong said the center has built up a new model of think tank that is devoted to basic research but will respond to the country’s emergency strategic demands. It is also pushing forward the exploration of translating its scientific research into market products.

Skills shortage

The tough prospects for China’s maritime sovereignty have raised concerns over the national shortage of qualified maritime-affairs personnel skilled in international dialogue and cooperation.

Hong said one of his center’s top goals is to cultivate interdisciplinary experts on maritime affairs to address urgent issues, including the protection of rights and interests, resource development and international liaison.

The center has added 41 PhD tutors and 12 divisions for cultivating postgraduates. It plans to cultivate some 100 doctoral students and 300 master’s-degree students within four years.

“The training is no longer geographically dispersed, and the number of trainees has grown rapidly,” Hong said.

“The new cultivation style gathers maritime talent in different subjects and sciences, prompts them to learn from each other, facilitates brainstorming and then gives a boost to the integration and comprehensiveness of research. This is something unimaginable in the past.”

Hong said as one of the urgent tasks for the center is collecting evidence to safeguard China’s rights and interests in the South China Sea, and the center is building a comprehensive database of information for this purpose.

Although other institutions have already built databases to gather documents related to maritime studies, establishing a comprehensive database of fundamental information is of great urgency for Chinese researchers.

The center has obtained 30,000 documents from a range of institutions. Two atlases have been compiled, including geological information and detailing the evolving situation in the area.

The center has also effectively promoted China’s research regarding the sea, and a senior expert also lauded its contribution to the industry.



China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said Chinese think tanks traditionally place more emphasis on historical studies than legal studies, and the aging of scholars is also a problem.

“With such serious challenges in the maritime situation, the center functions as a national think tank and is capable of integrating resources and addressing challenges, which is of huge significance,” Wu said.

The center will facilitate China’s ambition of having a bigger say in the world as well as its public diplomacy, and it is expected to reduce the waste of research resources, Wu said.

According to Hong, in a bid to build the center into a leading national-level think tank, the center will facilitate its exchanges with top overseas think tanks to learn from their advanced methods of working.


Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy Jiangkai-class frigate Linyi (FFG 547) moors alongside the Luhu-class destroyer Qingdao during a visit to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Chinese navy ship launching missiles during training

Above: China says it has sovereignty over all inside the “Nine Dash Line” as seen here.

Map of South China Sea

China has claimed much of the South China Sea for itself —  claims that have upset many in the region, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. A huge wealth of untapped oil is believed to be below the sea here.

The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law.