Tuesday, May 24, 2016

China unveils three-year program for artificial intelligence growth

China will speed up the development of its artificial intelligence (AI) sector and create a market worth more than 100 billion yuan ($15.26 billion) over the next three years.

By 2018, China shall build platforms for fundamental AI resources and innovation and make breakthroughs on basic core technology, said the three-year implementation program for "Internet Plus" artificial intelligence.

The plan is formulated jointly by the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the Cyberspace Administration of China.

According to the website, the country shall be in line with global AI technology and industries by 2018. At key regions, the country will cultivate some global leading AI enterprises and set up an innovative, open, cooperative, green and safe AI industrial ecology.

The country will cultivate and develop emerging artificial intelligence industries, promote innovation in intelligent products and enhance the intelligence level of terminal products.

The program will involve key projects such as intelligent home appliances, smart automobiles, intelligent unmanned systems, intelligent wearable devices and robots.

The country will also offer some guarantee measures involving financial support, intellectual property protection, talents, and international cooperation, the program said.

Last year, China unveiled the "Internet Plus" strategy to integrate mobile internet, cloud computing, big data and the Internet of Things with traditional industries and fuel economic growth.

Xinhua contributed to this story.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Indonesia Receives First Batch of New German-made Main Battle Tanks upgraded for urban warfare


The Indonesian Army (Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Darat, TNI-AD) has taken delivery of the first eight of 61 Leopard 2A4 third-generation main battle tanks currently in the process of upgrading 61 Leopard 2 MBTs to the so-called Revolution standard, an urban warfare upgrade package that requires a number of specific modifications requested by the Indonesian military to make the tank more suitable for urban combat.

Overall, the TNI-AD had ordered 103 used Leopard 2A4, designated Leopard 2 RI (Republic of Indonesia) specifically outfitted with bustle-mounted air conditioning systems to suit Indonesia’s Indonesia’s tropical climate.

The recent delivery is part of larger Indonesia-German defense deal that, next to the 103 Leopard MBTs, includes 42 upgraded Marder 1A3 infantry fighting vehicles and ten armored recovery, mobile bridges and military engineering vehicles from surplus German Army stocks. The Marder infantry fighting vehicles and the ten armored recovery and engineering vehicles, along with 42 Leopard 2 RI MBTs have already been handed over to the TNI-AD.

In a November 2013 company statement, Rheinmetall states that as the important supplier  it would supply “logistical support, and ammunition worth roughly EUR216 million [USD 290 million],” based on a contract signed in December 2012, which “now comes into full force following the successful completion of all legal formalities.”

The Leopard 2 MBT is manufactured by Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, but the tank’s fire control technology and C4I systems, along with its 20 millimeter smoothbore gun plus ammunition is supplied by Rheinmetall.

According to IHS Jane’s Defense, “the deal will see the German company transfer undisclosed technologies to Indonesian state-owned land systems specialist PT Pindad (Persero) and the TNI-AD’s Ordnance Depot and Signal Corps.”

In May 2014, Rheinmetall also received a contract to supply the Indonesian military to supply both a driving and gunnery simulator, Leopard Gunnery Skills Trainer (LGST) and Driver Training Simulator (DTS), in order to train TNI-AD tank crews for the new MBTs.

The German-Indonesia arms deal created domestic controversy in Germany, where tight arms exports restrictions still apply, given Indonesia’s poor human rights track record. Concerns over the human rights situation in Indonesia led the Dutch government to veto a possible sale of surplus Royal Netherlands Army Leopard MBTs to Indonesia in 2012. Nevertheless, the German Security Council approved the deal in April 2013.

In the past, Germany—one of the top arms exporting countries in the world—has informally applied the so-called Genscher doctrine, named after former German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher, who argued “that which floats is okay. That which rolls is not,” when it came to selling military hardware abroad.

Genscher’s rationale was simple:  It is much more difficult to suppress a population with ships than with tanks. As a consequence, previous defense deals involving the export of submarines or other naval vessels have proven less controversial than land platforms. By for The Diplomat

The future of the EU-ASEAN relationship


The EU and ASEAN share some relevant aspects but at the same time important differences; both are born out of international (to counter threats from bordering communist powers) and internal (to avert new almost brotherly conflicts) security needs and grow mainly as economic entities: the EU because of the French veto to the European Defence Community in August 1954, the ASEAN because the “domino” theory did not actualize due to the Sino-Soviet conflict at the end of the 1960s and the 1979 war between China and Vietnam.

As far as ASEAN is concerned in the recent years, after decades of inactivity, a few important projects have been agreed on and (almost) carried out: the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) signed in 1992, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and the ASEAN Charter, a sort of basic law or bill of rights, both signed in 2007; future targets are listed in ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together, November 2015. In the same years important international agreements have been implemented: just to mention one, the Chiang Mai Initiative (2000), later strengthened as the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation (2010), in order to reduce the likelihood of a new 1997 Asian currency and economic crisis.

ASEAN and EU with 620 and 510 million people respectively are the third and the fourth largest entities by population (2015) and the seventh and the first by GDP with USD 2.6 and 18.5 trillion (2014) respectively.

The two groups are quite inhomogeneous as far as ethnic groups, language, religion, history, and values are concerned; the member states are very diverse: in the EU we have Malta with 0.4 and Germany with 82 million people, or Bulgaria and Luxembourg with a GDP per capita five times higher, and in the ASEAN Cambodia and Singapore with a GDP per capita fifty times bigger.

The EU is ASEAN’s second largest trading partner: EUR 180 billion in goods and 70 billion in services were traded in 2014; in the previous twenty years the trade grew on average by 7% annually, with a structural EU deficit. The EU is the biggest provider of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into ASEAN with EUR 23.9 billion, some 22% of the total; at the end of 2013 it held FDI stocks of EUR 156 billion, 60% of which were concentrated in Singapore. About ten million people travel between the two regions each year for tourism, study, business, and otherwise; exchange of scholars and students is rapidly increasing as is the cooperation between research centres.

The ASEAN and EU’s deepest differences concern private-public and interpersonal relations and the importance of laws and written agreements versus long-term informal commitments and familiarity; the wide-spread Confucianism favours harmony even to the prejudice of justice and prefers hierarchical relations to equalitarian ones. This philosophy has been carried by the Overseas Chinese, sometimes the majority (as in Singapore), sometimes a small minority (as in Indonesia), but always in control of the local economies. In Europe there is a union among states, in Asia an association among nations: this is not simply a choice of words.

ASEAN-EU relations have been quite soft up to the end of the last millennium, particularly because Europe deemed irrelevant the whole of Asia. The old colonial powers usually kept strong links with their former colonies pursuing domestic interests, often at the expenses of other EU member states. In 1996 the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) was set up by the then EU-15 and ASEAN-7 plus China, Japan, and (South) Korea; the Asian countries took the initiative wishing to counterbalance the USA hegemony. While the EU never became a real alternative to the USA, ASEM (enlarged to more than 50 countries) is now a very important forum to discuss, and try to solve, global problems and, even more, an occasion to hold informal meetings between conflicting states.

In 2006 a deep crisis explodes: Myanmar, still under the military junta, ought to act as chair of ASEAN; the EU threatens to break all relations if this happens. The solution looks very “harmonious”: under pressure Myanmar renounces to the chair (kept by Thailand for a second year) but reserves the right to ask for it in a successive year at her choice.

In that same year the EU identifies South-East Asia as an area of strategic interest and begins negotiations to sign a FTA. After years of useless meetings it gives up the idea and negotiates bilateral FTAs with individual ASEAN member states; these agreements have different new names to stress their quite wider contents: not just tariffs on goods only but rules on services, investments, competition, property rights, and so on. A joke says that FTAs signed by ASEAN are ten-page long plus a set of appendixes a thousand-page long, detailing exceptions asked by every member state but Singapore.

Presently the EU has signed (even if not yet ratified) FTAs with Singapore and Vietnam, is negotiating with the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar and has signed a special agreement with Indonesia (2009); Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are part of the European Everything but arms (EBA) initiative granting duty- and quota-free access to all goods.

The future of their economic partnership will depend on the policies ASEAN and EU implement in order to win the present, complex, and serious challenges they are facing; in the EU: immigrants, fiscal constraints to growth, banking union; in the ASEAN: economic dualism, middle income trap, rigidity of the non-intervention principle and relations with China (in particular, disputes in the South China Sea).

To the EU it is very relevant that ASEAN might conclude its economic integration process fully and rapidly, eliminate non-tariff barriers and FDI restrictions, liberalize financial markets, harmonize and make more predictable customs procedures. These problems are not simple but can be solved.


Carlo Filippini is an Emeritus Professor of Economics at Bocconi University.

This article originally appeared in Italian journal Rise

The Real Energy Deniers

When man first appeared on Earth he had no implements, no clothes, no farms and no mineral fuels – his only tools were his brains, hands and muscles.

Everything that enables mankind to live comfortably in a world where nature is indifferent to our survival has been discovered, invented, mined or created by our inventive ancestors over thousands of years.

The history of civilisation is essentially the story of man’s progressive access to more efficient, more abundant and more reliable energy sources - from ancestral human muscles to modern nuclear power.

There are seven big steps on the human energy ladder – fire, farming, solar power, gunpowder, coal, the steam engine and nuclear power.

Man’s first and greatest energy step was discovering how to harness fire for warmth, cooking, hunting, metal working and warfare.

For centuries the main fire-energy fuels were organic natural resources such as wood, charcoal, peat, grass, animal dung and fats/oils extracted from animals and plants. As human population increased, these energy sources became scarce as the land and seas around towns and villages were stripped of their natural carbon fuels.

The second step on the energy ladder was built when some smart hunter/gatherers discovered how to access more reliable energy from domesticated animals and plants. Sheep, cattle, goats and pigs provided a steady supply of carbon-based food energy, and dogs, horses, donkeys and camels multiplied human energy for transport, hunting and warfare. Farmers also nurtured fruiting trees and grasses such as einkorn, wheat, rice, barley, oats, corn and sugar cane. These provided more dependable and abundant food energy for humans and their animals.

About this time humans ascended the third step on their energy ladder – the ability to harness wind/hydro/solar power for sailing ships, windmills, water-wheels, grain mills and drying food. The low energy density and unpredictability of these weather-dependent energy sources was obvious, even to our ancestors.

The fourth big step was the invention of gunpowder by the Chinese, which gave humans the first glimpse of the enormous power of concentrated chemical energy. This led to the widespread use of explosives for hunting, armaments, mining, civil engineering and entertainment.

The fifth energy step was a bigger one - the discovery of how to obtain and use coal, and centuries later, oil and gas. The energy density and abundance of these hydro-carbon fuels gave an enormous boost to human access to energy, and massively relieved the pressure on forest fuels and animal fats.

The sixth step on the energy ladder was truly gigantic - British inventors and engineers built the first practical steam engine. That invention transformed the world. Suddenly steam engines were moving trains and ships, pumping water, generating electricity and powering factories, traction engines and road vehicles. Most steam engines were driven by coal, but wood, other hydro-carbons, concentrated solar energy or nuclear power could be used.

Steam cars and electric cars got a good work-out over 100 years ago, but neither could compete with a new invention - the oil-powered internal combustion engine. This small but powerful engine resulted in the replacement of steam and electric motors for mobile engines but the mighty steam engine still dominates electricity generation.

These two engines, running on powerful hydrocarbon fuels, feed and mobilise our world. The transformation is remarkable. Just 3-4 generations ago, a team of up to twenty bullocks took days or weeks to haul a wagon-load of wool bales, forest logs or bagged wheat to markets, and the bullocks needed fresh supplies of feed and water every night. In 1896, Henry Lawson described it well in two stanzas from his great Australian poem “The Teams”:

Cattle and sheep to feed the cities were moved by drovers who spent weeks or even months on the road. Today one diesel-powered road train or semi-trailer can carry its own fuel and water plus a load of livestock to the distant cities in a day or so. Refrigerated trucks do even better – swiftly carrying dressed sides of meat from the abattoir direct to butcher shops.

The seventh step in the human quest for additional energy was the harnessing of atomic energy for generating electricity, fuelling naval vessels, in medical procedures and creating even more powerful explosive devices.

As mankind was ascending the seven steps of the energy ladder from the stone-age to the nuclear age, governments were also expanding their scope, power and cost.

Mankind has always had tribal leaders, but when farming developed, leaders or powerful land-owners discovered that other farmers and their fixed assets could easily be taxed to pay for their own “protection”. This encouraged the development of central governments with their officials, tax collectors, police and soldiers. To defend their generally increasing appetite for tax revenue, governments needed a continual supply of real or imagined dangers to justify their taxes. 

From this point on, government power has increased with each real or invented community crisis – from village control, to district, state, federal and continental governments. The latest such “crisis” concerns “global warming” or “the climate crisis”, which is being milked to promote global carbon taxes and global government.

Nothing stands still on planet Earth. Since the dawn of time, Earth has seen continual geological and climatic change – shifting continents, rising and falling sea levels, volcanos and tsunamis, droughts and floods, migrations and extinctions, hurricanes and heat waves, ice ages and warm eras.

Humans flourished in the warm eras and suffered in the cold dry eras. Access to abundant, reliable energy enables man to survive these and the future climate challenges which are sure to come.

Today’s massive global human population owes its existence, prosperity and comfort to our economical and reliable energy supplies, particularly the hydrocarbon fuels – oil, coal, and gas. The world supports more people with fewer famines; and those with access to abundant reliable energy supplies have stabilised their populations and contribute most to caring for nature, culture and the poor. And the carbon dioxide recycled by the usage of hydrocarbon fuels is greening the world and adding to food supplies as native and farmed plants flourish in the warm, moist, carbon-rich atmosphere.

This long history of energy progress is now under threat from strong forces using any environmental alarm to deny human access to efficient energy. Using every sensational scare that can be whipped up, they tax, oppose, hamper or restrict farming, forestry, fishing, grazing, mining, exploration, hydro-carbon fuels, steam engines, combustion engines and nuclear power. The “zero-emissions” zealots want us to step backwards down the energy ladder to the days of human, animal and solar power. They have yet to explain how our massive fleet of planes, trains, tractors, harvesters, trucks, road trains, container-ships and submarines will run on windmills, treadmills, windlasses, solar energy, and water wheels.

But their energy-destroying policies will reduce global prosperity and population back towards levels prevailing in those times. Some see that as a desirable goal.

These green zealots are the real deniers – the energy deniers.

By Viv Forbes

Viv has a degree in Applied Science Geology and is a Fellow of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (cartoons by Steve Hunter)


Are the good guys finally winning the war against extremism?

Replay vid

After 15 years of non-stop war against the three extremist militias, are the good guys finally winning? The death of the Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtah Mansour, is progress in disrupting the group. He's only the second leader the Taliban has had. Mansour had been in the post for only two years, succeeding the founder, Mullah Omar.

It's also a sign of rising US impatience – the US drone struck Mansour's car while he was driving not in Afghanistan where the war is being fought but in the neighbouring Pakistan, a violation of the territory of Pakistan, a supposed US ally.

Yet, overall, there is evidence that the Taliban overall are in a very strong position. Last October the United Nations concluded that the group was fighting across a wider area of Afghanistan than at any point since the war began in 2001.

And last month, the Taliban mounted a successful attack in the capital, Kabul, against a building run by the National Directorate of Security.

As for IS or Daesh, there are a number of signs of serious progress against the barbarians and their self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Last year, the group lost 14 per cent of the land area under its control, and the "caliphate" shrank by a further 8 per cent in the first three months of this year, according to the US.

The population under Daesh's control has declined from 9 million to 6 million.

And as it has lost land and population, it has lost tax revenue too. Documents turned up by researchers at counter-terrorism journal CTC Sentinel show that Daesh is having trouble paying for its single biggest expense, the wages for its fighters.

As the Guardian reports, even in oil-rich areas, confiscation now represents 40 per cent of Daesh's income. It has been forced to cut the pay it gives foreign fighters who join its ranks.

The Pentagon claims that the number of foreign fighters entering the "caliphate" has fallen by 90 per cent in the past year.

"When I first got here, we were seeing somewhere between 1500 and 2000 foreign fighters entering the fight," said the deputy US operations commander in Baghdad, Major General Peter Gersten. "Now that we've been fighting this enemy for a year, our estimates are down to about 200. And we're actually seeing an increase now in the desertion rates in these fighters. We're seeing a fracture in their morale."

Daesh has suffered a succession of losses in the last eight months. In Syria, it lost the important centre of Shadadi. In Iraq it has lost Sinjar, Ramadi, Hit and the town of Bashir.

Some level of Daesh concern over its retrenchments seems to be indicated by the remarks by the so-called caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who said in comments made public last December: "Don't worry, O Muslims, your state is fine and expanding every day and with every harshness that comes upon it, it spits out the hypocrites and agents and becomes more firm and strong."

As the Iraqi government troops mobilised on the weekend for the assault on Daesh forces holding Fallujah, important because of its location 50km from Baghdad, Daesh spokesmen made similar comments telling followers not to be troubled by any impending loss of territory.

But could their situation be as dire as described by a US military spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, who said that "we've got a foot on his neck but he's still got some fight in him"?

Professor Amin Saikal of ANU says that, if the Iraqi forces can retake Fallujah, it will be an important step in shoring up the precarious position of Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

"The next task would be Mosul, and that is the big prize" with 2 million people at the time Daesh took it, says Saikal, "but al-Abadi is in very deep trouble domestically. His government is dysfunctional and corrupt. Protesters have twice invaded the Green Zone and occupied parliament – he can't get his cabinet through the parliament.

"Even if Daesh is driven out of Fallujah and Mosul, even if they're driven out of Racca in Syria, it's not the end of Daesh – it's not even the beginning of the end.

"They would still be able to wage guerilla war." And the extremists have since expanded into Libya, Sinai, Yemen and Nigeria.

Professor Peter Leahy of the University of Canberra, chief of the Australian army from 2002 to 2008, agrees.

"To say that it's a stalemate" overall against Islamist extremism "would be optimistic. We are seeing pockets of light but no change in the overall situation. I don't see any reduction in the fervour of their ideology.

"If the issue is their ideology, what are we doing to tackle that? Knocking off a few leaders and taking a town like Fallujah are minor victories in a major campaign."

Leahy says that he remains concerned about the forgotten enemy, al-Qaeda. With recent revelations of a much bigger training camp in Afghanstan than any western government thought possible, it's clear that al-Qaeda is rebuilding.

"They're waiting," says Leahy. "I think they're the real enemy."

Overall, says Saikal, "the US and its allies are only dealing with branches, not the roots."

Two years ago, Leahy foresaw a century of struggle. Today he thinks his prediction is still on track.

Peter Hartcher is international editor Sydney Morning Herald

Illustration: John Shakespeare


‘Carrier-killer’ missiles: Will China succeed where the Soviet Union failed?


Recently on these very digital pages I noted how the Pentagon made almost no mention of the latest anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) being developed by Beijing, the DF-26, in their recent annual report to Congress. While the authors of the report were sure to note the conventional, precision-strike capabilities of the weapon as well as a nuclear-tipped variant, almost nothing was mentioned of the ASBM version of the missile.

And considering the ramifications of such a weapon—a reported maximum range of 2500 miles that would greatly enhance the anti-access/area-denial capabilities (A2/AD) of the Chinese military—it makes sense for the Pentagon to comment publicly in some fashion. This all changes of course if there are doubts or if there is simply not enough information to fill out detailed analysis of the missile—no need to rile up defense experts or the informed national security public if we simply can’t make an educated determination as to the weapon’s capabilities.

Moving targets at sea

Indeed, at least in some US government circles, there does seem to be some doubts when it comes to the DF-26s ASBM capabilities. The most striking was commentary in the most recent US China Economic Security Review Commission report:

“Official commentary at China’s September 2015 military parade stated that the DF-26 also has an antiship variant, indicating it has joined the DF-21D as an ASBM. If true, this variant likely would enable the PLA to target US aircraft carriers and other vessels as far as Guam (its precise range has not been confirmed). However, as stated by Andrew Erickson, associate professor at the US Naval War College, the reconnaissance strike complex that supports China’s ASBMs remains a work in progress. The PLA has not conducted a successful publicly-reported test of either missile against a moving target at sea, and the additional range of the DF-26 likely complicates the targeting challenge China already faces with the DF-21D. China’s ability to employ DF-26 ASBMs in precision strikes against US carriers near Guam will thus remain uncertain until the PLA demonstrates this capability, but the possibility that a large quantity of these missiles could be fired, and the fact that the PLA has apparently deployed them as operational weapons, indicates they could still be relevant in a conflict.”

So while the above does express some carefully worded doubts when it comes to this next-generation ASBM—the report on multiple occasions calls the ASBM “unproven”—its capabilities in the months and years to come will likely grows as Beijing perfects targeting technology, making its eventual emergence a near certainty, whether now or in the near-future.

But healthy skepticism is a good thing considering what China is trying to do—launching a missile from potentially hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, and hit a target moving at 20 knots plus that will certainly be doing all it can to avoid destruction—and that no other country has successfully deployed such a weapon.

USSR dropped ball

In fact, while it is not widely known, the former Soviet Union also attempted to develop its own sea-launched ASBM in the early 1970s—and failed. As Andrew Erickson,  the first person to identify the dangers of anti-ship weapons like the DF-21D, explained in a recent article for Jane’s Navy International (sorry, this one is paywalled):

“China is not the first nation to invest in ASBM development. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union attempted to develop the world’s first ASBM, the R-27K (SS-NX-13), to be launched from a modified Project 629 ‘Golf’-class submarine.

Despite the extensive Soviet constellation of Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellites (RORSATs) and Electronic intelligence Ocean Reconnaissance Satellites (EORSATs), however, this nuclear armed system suffered severe target location problems, had a 370 m circular error probability (CEP), and never became operational. In rare western coverage of the subject, the noted analyst Norman Polmar said Moscow cancelled the weapon system because of its implications for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), but this was likely making virtue of necessity. While this example reflects the difficulties in developing an operational ASBM, it also indicates industrial-age limitations concerning vacuum tube and early transistor technology. China has mastered ballistic missile technology and enjoys better satellite capabilities in today’s information age than the Soviet Union had then.”

Clearly China has come much further than the Soviets in developing ballistic anti-ship weapons, leveraging their massive technologically sophisticated industrial base while looking to other US weapons platforms, like the Pershing II, which utilizes a maneuverable warhead, or MaRV, to enhance its capabilities. But Beijing may have challenges the further afield as they try to lob warheads at any moving target, especially at a target that isn’t sitting still and will deploy the latest of countermeasures.

The most likely scenario is that China’s DF-21D, with a range of roughly 900 miles, and with the longest development cycle, is the most capable and accurate. The newer DF-26 will need time to develop the necessary C2 and C4ISR to hit targets at its maximum 2500 mile range. But considering how many times Beijing has surprised western security experts with its latest and greatest weapons systems—nothing is off the table, and all contingencies must be prepared for.

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) is a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest and is now a Senior Editor at The National Interest. He is the author of a new monograph on Chinese military modernization: The Tao of A2/AD.


Malaysia’s Opposition: The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight

Malaysia’s opposition parties, disorganized, squabbling among themselves and fighting over power, have driven reformers to despair, with some who decline to be named saying they simply no longer want to bother working with them. One top lawyer flatly called them a “bunch of idiots” and vowed to cease any relationship with them.

 “They just can’t help themselves,” said a businessman who asked to remain nameless. “They are all using each other to get where they want. Their egos are so big, they keep screwing each other up. The Sarawak episode [in which the opposition was drubbed in a state election] has made even the most optimistic guys pessimistic about the opposition’s chances in the next polls.”

The latest fiascos occurred last week. Lim Guan Eng, a Democratic Action Party leader and chief minister of the state of Penang, is enmeshed in questions over whether he bought his home from a supporter at an artificially low price. Also Rafizi Ramli, the secretary-general of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the party founded by now-imprisoned leader Anwar Ibrahim, apparently sent a WhatsApp message to a chat group alleging that members of the Selangor state government, which the opposition controls, had demanded sex and money during contract negotiations. Azmin Ali, the chief minister of the Selangor government, for several months has been at odds with Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife and the current party leader. Azmin is regarded by Wan Azizah’s forces as unduly ambitious and attempting to take over the party, which leads the coalition.

Whether the allegations of corruption are true or not, they are an indication of the fractured nature of not only PKR but the entire opposition, cobbled together by Anwar prior to the 2009 general election despite drastically differing aims. They included Anwar’s PKR, made up largely of urban Malays and refugees from the United Malays National Organization; the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party; and the rural-based, fundamentalist Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS.

With no common goals – indeed conflicting ones — the three parties share only a wish for power.  That has been a recipe for political disaster.

Anwar, a gifted politician, managed to keep the three together until he was imprisoned last year for the second time on trumped charges of sexual misconduct with a male aide.  The coalition’s high water mark was the 2013 general election, when it won 50.87 percent of the vote to 47.38 for the government coalition. However, gerrymandering preserved the government’s majority in parliament.  It has been downhill ever since.

Malaysia is currently embroiled in one of the world’s biggest scandals, with the possibility that US$11.4 billion has gone missing from the government-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd fund –whose economic advisory chairman is the Prime Minister, Najib Razak and who by statute had final say on investment decisions. 

On top of that, the United Malays National Organization, which leads the government, for more than a decade has been little more than a vehicle to loot the state coffers for its leaders, many of whom have been bribed to keep Najib at the head of the party. His family appear to be the target of a major investigation for money-laundering by the US Justice Department. At least five foreign governments are investigating money laundering charges surrounding 1MDB, Timothy Leissner, the former Southeast Asia chief for Goldman Sachs, has been named in newspapers as being investigated for complicity.

Thus if there were ever a time for the country’s long-suffering opposition to scent a chance to overthrow the old order, this ought to be it. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has played a role in bringing down three previous prime ministers, is leading the van in what he calls a Citizens’ Declaration to gather enough signatures to drive Najib from power. However, Anwar this week handwrote a letter from prison telling his followers not to trust Mahathir – the man who first orchestrated his imprisonment in 1998 on trumped-up charges of sexual misconduct.

Anwar himself stumbled in 2013 by driving out the previous Selangor chief minister, Khalid Ibrahim, and forcing a by-election to make himself chief minister and give him a platform to attack the government.  Instead, he was charged with sexual misconduct and had to drop the plan. He then sought to use Wan Azizah as his surrogate, only to have that blocked by the Selangor sultan, possibly at Azmin’s behest. Azmin followed by keeping PAS in the government despite the split over shariah after the party split in two. On top of that, the DAP has grimly fought PAS at every turn over the shariah and other issues.  

The mess was never more starkly outlined than in recent state elections in the Borneo state of Sarawak, where the opposition was drubbed by state parties aligned with the government in Putrajaya. The Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat contested each other in six state constituencies, splitting the vote and handing easy victories to an already-powerful Barisan headed by Adenan Satem, the Sarawak chief minister. The opposition came away with just 10 of 82 seats.

Tellingly, the Pakatan Rakyat coalition cobbled together by Anwar is now known as Pakatan Harapan (Hope Alliance) after PAS more than a year ago sundered into two parts, with conservatives driving out moderates over the issue of implementation of Sharia law in the eastern state of Kelantan.

Pakatan Harapan has a slight chance to redeem itself in two by-elections scheduled for next month to replace two lawmakers who were killed in a helicopter crash while campaigning in Sarawak. However, that appears to be another mess, with PAS, which is still flirting with the opposition, demanding to field the sole opposition candidate in one of the elections, in Selangor state, or it would leave the government. Azmin Ali, the chief minister who is the apparent target of Rafizi’s charges of sexual misconduct, has in turn threatened to boot both PAS and Pakatan Harapan out of the state government. If that happens, it would in turn open the way for the government to take the state back from the opposition.

 “The opposition coalition touted themselves as the Great Big Hope and many Malaysians wholeheartedly believed and supported them only to see them turn into the Great Big Disappointment,” said Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob, a political observer who lives in Selangor state.

So despite all attempts to unite, with civil groups backing their efforts, the contesting political forces continue to tear themselves apart. The next national elections – the chance to take on the Barisan and seriously contest for an electorate largely fed up with the coalition’s scandals – are in 2018. It seems almost impossible to think that the opposition could get untracked.

“It is not too wrong or fictitious to suggest that for as long as the opposition political parties collaborate out of convenience that is in reality fueled by that hope of riding on each other’s backs to gain power, voters will only keep dropping you like a hot potato,” said J D Loverencear, an opposition figure, in a letter to Asia Sentinel. “So, to DAP, Amanah, PAS, and PKR, the Barisan toasts a thank you for helping them. And at this rate Malaysians are far, far away from the post of a two party system like in the rest of the developed world democracies.”

Asia Senitnel By John Berthelsen