Sunday, January 31, 2016

Political Apologies in East and West

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (Reuters Photo/
Apologies are never easy. Negotiating and uttering a national apology about war-time activities is especially challenging and sensitive, charged with strategic implications. And thanks to the profusion of digital media, questionable actions of the past are ever present in public view, crying out for justice and apology.

As apologies come they also invite comparison, and two recent high-profile apologies highlight differences between East and West: On the cusp of the New Year, Japan’s hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a surprising, yet highly specific apology for  sex slavery in Korea before and during World War II. Earlier in October, during a television interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a less official and partial apology, not for the Iraq war, but for relying on misleading information before the 2003 invasion and misunderstanding the consequences of regime change.

Political calculation was seen as a factor in both cases – Abe sensing the benefits of closer ties with South Korea at a time of strategic peril, timely given Pyongyang’s nuclear test just days later, and the former British prime minister hoping that saying sorry might help him avoid legal difficulty ahead of publication of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War.

But there was a key difference in how the gestures were received by their target audiences: Few in Asia bothered to ask whether Abe, the man, really “meant it” when he apologized over Japan forcing Korean women into wartime brothels, and Tokyo also pledged $8.3 million in official funds for surviving victims. Whereas in Britain, the question of how much Blair personally felt regret over Iraq was central to the apology’s reception. Blair’s perceived insincerity – many called his words mere “spin” – may have rendered the gesture meaningless. By contrast, if asked about Abe’s personal feelings in offering owabi, among Japan’s strongest words for apology, to South Korean President Park Geun-hye, many Asians might be tempted to respond that, of course, the hard-line nationalist didn’t mean it.

Yet such a response doesn’t make his gesture less significant. The formal, and not the personal, nature of the event is paramount here. Taiwan and the Philippines offered cautious welcome, and China’s reaction was “wait-and-see,” as opposed to outright rejection, which could be seen as a sign of progress. Most importantly, the apology yielded immediate impact – Abe and Park picked up the phone after the Jan. 6 North Korean nuclear test, pledging to work together over the threat.

When a Japanese prime minister apologizes over World War II, the gesture is ritualized and choreographed. It doesn’t matter whether the leader is a good one or bad, believer or heretic, but, just that he is officially qualified to carry out the task. Abe is the symbolic lightning rod for collective contrition and also, critically, collective shame. This is why apologies are both easier in Japan, and harder. Wartime apologies, according to blood laws, cast shame upon the entire “house” – in fact, the word “owabi” contains the ideogram for “household.” And for Abe’s apology, house or family means country. The crucial point: Japanese acceptance of shame is cast not so much upon oneself or one’s generation, but upon ancestors who were active participants in the war. And for many Japanese, especially older ones, such shame is unacceptable. The Japanese traditionally revere their ancestors, and a butsudan, a family Buddhist altar where incense is lit in prayer for departed loved ones, is still a common feature for Japanese homes.

In both East and West, apologizing is a means of bringing the offender back into the social fold. But in his book "Mea Culpa," sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis helps illuminate a key difference: “It is only by personally acknowledging ultimate responsibility, expressing genuine sorrow and regret, and pledging henceforth (implicitly or explicitly) to abide by the rules, that the offender simultaneously recalls and is re-called to that which binds.” This Western emphasis on the personal nature of apology has far less hold in Eastern cultures.

A Jan. 10 interview for Abe with Japanese national broadcaster NHK was deeply revealing in this respect. When asked about the “significance” of his apology, the Japanese leader cited neither closer ties with South Korea nor the obvious matter of seeking to heal the pain of former sex slaves. The significance, he said, lay in the fact that the two sides agreed the apology to be “final and irrevocable.” That is, Tokyo would never have to apologize again. Abe’s apology was a matter of official business, a concession in a settling of scores, with no particular relevance to his personal vantage point. And oddly enough, for Korea, the success in wresting these words of apology from a conservative hawk may carry greater significance than receiving them from a liberal dove; the apology itself becomes the extraction of a price. Many Japanese could not help but wonder, as one person asked in watching the news, did Abe win or lose?

Abe’s own attitudes toward the war are intimately tied to his own family history. His grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, was charged with Class A war crimes although not convicted. This paradoxically means that, while Abe may not “mean it” when he apologized over comfort women, it’s entirely possible that the words were just as costly, perhaps more so, since there was no catharsis of the sort accompanying sincere regret.

It’s not only in the political domain, but also the personal, that one can find differences between East and West in perceptions of apology. In the West, when one half of a couple feels aggrieved, an apology is obviously useful to setting affairs right. It’s usually part of the process of reconciliation, largely taken care of by time, with resentment continuing to fester until the original offense is forgotten. The apology, or lack of it, is then part of the equation of how long ill feelings last. In Japan, by contrast, and while the process may vary depending on individuals and circumstances, the apology is itself often the key objective. Ayamare! Apologize! – an aggrieved party may demand of a perceived offender. The relationship can remain frozen for an extraordinarily long time over a strikingly trivial matter, until one proffers the magic word: Gomenasai! I’m sorry!

Suddenly, the cloud is lifted, and all is well again. One word, and life returns to normal. It is the act perhaps more than the perceived sincerity that matters.

Japan famously makes a distinction between tatemae, fa├žade, and honne, true feeling. Blair’s apology – which when parsed becomes more of an apologia in the Socratic sense, that is, a justification – reveals that the concept is not unique to Japan. One goes about life in the West navigating the same conundrum of needing to disguise the truth for the sake of social acceptability, or in Blair’s case, political expediency.

In the West, there is an unresolved tension between knowing that everybody lies and expecting everybody to tell the truth. In Asia, there is a little more realism in how people take the dynamics of tatemae and honne for granted.

And yet honne matters, too, evident in the magnificent handshake between Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972, sealing diplomatic ties, as well as the warm handshake between Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korea’s President Park after the two sides concluded the agreement on sex slaves.

Deep down, the two politicians may well be poles apart in their personal perceptions of Japan’s responsibility over so-called “comfort women.” But each displayed genuine human feeling in the hope of building a better future together – the key goal in political apologies.

Joji Sakurai is a journalist and essayist based in Piran, Slovenia. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, New Statesman,, Oxford Today, the International New York Times and other publications.


Swiss Say $4b Misappropriated From Malaysian State Firms

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. (Reuters Photo/Oliv
Washington/Kuala Lumpur. Switzerland's chief prosecutor said on Friday that a criminal investigation into state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) had revealed that about $4 billion appeared to have been misappropriated from Malaysian state companies.

The office of Swiss Attorney General Michael Lauber said it had formally asked Malaysia to help with its probes into possible violations of Swiss laws related to bribery of foreign officials, misconduct in public office, money laundering and criminal mismanagement at the fund.

It said it had identified four cases of alleged criminal conduct.

1MDB, whose advisory board is chaired by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, has been probed by Malaysian authorities following accusations of financial mismanagement and graft.

Earlier this week, Malaysia's attorney general cleared Najib himself of any criminal offences or corruption, declaring that $681 million deposited into his personal bank account was a gift from Saudi Arabia's Royal family.

The Malaysian attorney general's office said in a statement on Saturday it would take all possible steps to follow up and collaborate with its Swiss counterpart, but noted that the investigations into donations made to Najib were entirely separate from those into 1MDB.

Najib has consistently denied any wrongdoing, saying the funds were a political donation and he did not take any money for personal gain.

In its statement seeking Malaysia's assistance, the Swiss attorney general's office said: "The monies believed to have been misappropriated would have been earmarked for investment in economic and social development projects in Malaysia."

It added that each case involved "a systematic course of action carried out by means of complex financial structures."

1MDB said it has not been contacted by foreign legal authorities on any matters relating to the company.

The Swiss authorities began investigations last August into 1MDB for suspected corruption of public foreign officials, dishonest management of public interests and money laundering.

Lauber's office said a small portion of the apparently misappropriated money had been transferred to accounts held in Switzerland by former Malaysian public officials and current and former public officials from the United Arab Emirates.

The four cases of suspected criminal conduct related to former 1MDB subsidiary SRC International, Petrosaudi, Genting/Tanjong and ADMIC between 2009 and 2013, it said.

When presenting his findings last week, Malaysia's top lawyer had asked the country's anti-graft agency to close all probes into SRC and the money deposited in Najib's account.

Officials from Malaysia's anti-graft agency were not immediately available for comment on the statement by the Swiss authorities. Genting and Tanjong did not answer calls seeking comment. Petrosaudi and ADMIC could not immediately be reached.

The Swiss statement said Lauber had discussed the 1MDB case with his Malaysian counterpart at a meeting in Zurich in September.

Sources familiar with the September discussion between the two law enforcement officials said the Malaysian official strongly urged Lauber to abandon his 1MDB-related investigation.

1MDB is also under investigation by law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong and the United States, media and other sources have said.

Tony Pua, a member of the Malaysian parliament with the opposition Democratic Action Party, called on the Malaysian attorney general to cooperate fully with foreign investigating agencies.

"Such cooperation will not only go a long way towards identifying the culprits ... but also removing the perception that the Malaysian AG was biased in favor of the prime minister," Pua said.

Malaysia's anti-corruption commission has said it will seek a review of a decision by the attorney-general to clear Najib.

The Swiss statement said the request for mutual assistance is to advise the companies involved and the Malaysian government of the results of the Swiss criminal proceedings, "with the aim of finding out whether losses on this scale have been sustained."



From Beijing to Jakarta, Asia’s lungs take the ‘prize’ for worst year

As large parts of Asia celebrate the arrival of the Lunar New Year (on Feb. 8), it’s in with the Year of the Monkey. But before the lunar year past and the Year of the Sheep fully recedes into memory, we take a look back at the people and events that made headlines across Asia, for good and for bad.

Our choice last time around for worst year in Asia went to Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority — persecuted at home and increasingly ignored by business and political leaders hungry to engage with the new Burma.  Time will tell whether their plight will be any better under a Parliament new led by the party of one-time democracy activist and icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

When 2015 wrapped, we took to CNN to share an initial take on the best and worst of the year behind us.  A deadly earthquake in Nepal and landmark elections — in Myanmar, of course, but also in Singapore and most recently in Taiwan — as well as South China Sea territorial disputes and trans-Pacific trade deals captured regional news headlines providing fertile ground for our choices.

In some nations, like Australia, government leaders changed quickly. In others, including Thailand, they did not.

 So, as the lunar Year of the Monkey arrives, here is our updated list of this past year’s “winners,” from bad to good.  Congratulations of a sort to all.

Worst year:  Asia’s lungs — for facing down “airpocalypse” now

 All too often and across too many parts of Asia, including in Southeast Asia, starting the day has meant donning a facemask or perhaps a hacking cough. The culprit is the region’s declining air quality as development brought more factories and cars to an increasingly urbanized region.

This is particularly true in some of the region’s largest nations, China, India and Indonesia — but also in their neighbors. Pollution knows no boundaries.

 India’s National Health Profile reported nearly 3.5 million cases of acute respiratory infection in 2014.  That’s a 30 percent increase since 2010.  The World Health Organization says 13 of the top 20 most polluted cities worldwide are in India.

 In China, Beijing issued its first ever “red alert” smog days as the nation’s notorious pollution returned with a vengeance this winter. Now banned in China, CCTV reporter Chai Jing’s online documentary “Under the Dome” told of how her country’s poor air quality contributed to the premature death of 500,000 people from cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory disease.

Development brought more factories and cars to an increasingly urbanized region.

And in Southeast Asia, a “haze” from fires used to clear forest land in Indonesia for agricultural use led to school and business closures. Thousands sought care for respiratory ailments and at least 19 deaths were reported as smoke darkened skies in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and even parts of Thailand and the Philippines.

Bad year: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak — for taking Asian forbearance for granted

The latest development in an alleged corruption scandal from a nation that touts itself as “Truly Asia,” has Malaysian Attorney General Apandi Ali declaring that Prime Minister Najib Razak has committed no criminal offence.

The declaration followed an investigation into how some US$700 million showed up in Najib’s personal bank accounts.  Apandi has said the money was a donation from Saudi Arabia, and has since been returned.

All this followed the Wall Street Journal’s reporting that the money was possibly linked to the financially troubled 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The state-owned investment company 1MDB had been founded in part by Najib to invest in property, infrastructure and energy projects.

What’s next? Stay tuned for the next “1MDB Scandal” episode from Malaysia. The nation’s antigraft agency has sought a review of the attorney general’s decision to clear Najib, and investigations reportedly continue outside the country.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad also continues to call for his successor’s departure.

Not-so-good-year: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo — for believing their own hype a little too much

 Last year, we gave Asia’s “new management” — Modi and Jokowi along with China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe — the award for best year in Asia.  Modi and Jokowi were seen as pro-business and reform-minded with agendas that had the potential to kick into high gear their countries’ economies.

What a difference a year makes.  Entrenched economic interests and a “little bric” of bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism and corruption continue to impede the structural changes needed to attract more foreign direct investment and drive long-term job creation.

Struggling Chinese and Japanese economies, Jokowi’s declining approval ratings and the defeat of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in two regional elections signal that the honeymoon is over.  Japan wrapped up the year by introducing negative interest rates. Meanwhile, China’s currency and stock market interventions risk being seen as more about trust in market manipulation than market forces.

Good year:  Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — for putting some oomph into the US pivot to Asia

Disagreements over “rule of origin” and pharmaceutical and diary products threatened to delay once again the conclusion of negotiations for the TPP, a major international trade pact.  But, on Oct. 5 came news that negotiators had overcome all obstacles and reached agreement.

Begun in 2007 as an exploratory services and investment negotiation between Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore and the United States during the Administration of president George W. Bush, the TPP now encompasses 12 Pacific-rim nations and covers 40 percent of world trade.

TPP signatories Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US, and Vietnam must each now ratify the deal.

That is where the hard work truly begins. This is especially true in the United States where trade agreements don’t fare well during an election year.

Even the leading Democratic candidates have come out to join Donald Trump against what should be one of the Obama Administration’s signature accomplishments. In Japan, Akira Amari, the nation’s economics minister and a leading proponent of the TPP, recently resigned over a bribery scandal.

That doesn’t stop us from awarding the TPP the honor of “good year in Asia.”

Best year: Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) — for shaking up the status quo

 When China first floated the idea of establishing a new development bank to help finance Asia’s infrastructure, critics countered by asking whether it was necessary. Others feared a new China-led AIIB would become an extension of Chinese power and a further challenge to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, led respectively by American and Japanese presidents.

The United States and Japan in particular also raised questions about governance and project-lending “standards” at the AIIB.

But money talks.  The United Kingdom was the first US ally to break ranks with the Obama Administration over joining the new AIIB.

Nearly 60 nations, including Myanmar and the rest of Southeast Asia, ultimately signed on as founding members of the new $100 billion institution.  And the first projects are expected to be announced by April if not sooner.

Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo is a Southeast Asia analyst and an associate at RiverPeak Group.


Friday, January 29, 2016

China, detaining Hong Kong booksellers, demonstrates insecurity, willingness to enforce its laws across borders


In an unprecedented attack on press freedom, five men – owners and employees of a publishing house in Hong Kong – disappeared. Three were arrested in mainland China and two abducted from Hong Kong and Thailand, appearing subsequently in mainland China. No charges have formally been laid, but the actions appear to be part of a crackdown on Hong Kong’s freewheeling publishing industry, which the Communist Party fears is undermining the Chinese government.

By openly flouting a commitment to respect Hong Kong’s political system and flagrantly violating Thailand’s sovereignty, attempting to shut down publication of annoying books at the expense of its international reputation, China has demonstrated its deepening own insecurity.

Since 1997, when Hong Kong sovereignty was transferred from Britain to the mainland, concerns about China respecting the “one country, two systems” generally proved misplaced until now. Complacency was rudely shaken starting in October as the men connected with the Hong Kong–based publishing company Mighty Current Media disappeared – one while holidaying in Thailand. An unconfirmed report in London’s Sunday Times claims that the detentions were related to a secret Chinese directive to “exterminate” banned books and magazines at their source, “identifying 14 publishing houses and 21 publications in Hong Kong as targets.” Beijing makes no secret of its annoyance with Hong Kong’s freewheeling press, and many publications have had a tough time: The Nineties, established in 1970, went out of business in 1998. Open Magazine, established 1987, ceased publication in 2014.

But the book publishing industry continued with a proliferation of political and gossipy books sold around Hong Kong and at its airport, attracting the interest of millions of mainland Chinese travelers.

The books, some serious, others more fiction than fact, have provided sensational fare to Chinese who want to know more about insider politics and the personal lives of top officials. Bei Ling, co-founder of the Independent Chinese PEN Center who was interviewed by the Chinese-language site of The New York Times, noted that Gui Minhai, who disappeared in October while in Thailand, has published books titled Mistresses of the Chinese Communist Party, Secrets of Wives of Chinese Communist Party Officials and Women of the Shanghai Clique.

Bei said Gui owned several publishing houses which every month put out four or five books, accounting for about a third of books on elite politics published in Hong Kong.

Other publishers have released serious books, such as the memoirs of the disgraced party leader Zhao Ziyang, who had opposed the use of force to suppress the students in 1989 and who spent the rest of his life under house arrest. His memoirs were smuggled out to Hong Kong and published in Chinese by New Century Press – run by Bao Pu, son of Bao Tong, Zhao’s former political secretary, and his wife, Renee Chiang. The book was published in English by Simon & Schuster as Prisoner of the State: the Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang.

Needless to say, China bans such books, regardless of content, thus lending them the additional cachet of forbidden fruit.

Such books would annoy politicians anywhere, but China may have gone so far as to take the drastic steps – hitherto unimaginable –of carrying out abductions in foreign territory, Thailand, and in Hong Kong. Moreover, both those victims are foreign nationals. Evidently, from Beijing’s standpoint, these books are not merely an annoyance, but rather instruments that could erode support for the Communist Party and ultimately bring about its overthrow.

The Beijing newspaper Global Times, an affiliate of  People’s Daily, justified Chinese action by suggesting that the Hong Kong bookstore had “to a large extent, targeted at the mainland” and “undercut the mainland’s rule of law system.” The Sunday Times report did not provide details about the background of the secret directive but, Ching Cheong, a veteran China watcher in Hong Kong, has asserted in an article in the Hong Kong Economic Journal that the five “disappearances” stem from a struggle within the party over efforts to deal with banned books in Hong Kong – with each side feeding information to various authors and publishers, not necessarily true, to benefit itself.

Former leader Jiang Zemin is seen as a significant player in anti-Xi maneuvers, with certain book publishers supporting him and others supporting Xi. Ching explains that publications of Causeway Bay Books, a subsidiary of Mighty Current Media, have attacked Xi with such titles as 2017: Upheaval in China, with predictions on what might happen during the 19th Party Congress.

In addition to an internal struggle, Ching said, the party as a whole feels threatened and wants to take action against banned books sold in Hong Kong.

Historically, China has opposed the use of Hong Kong as a base of subversion, and the British cooperated during colonial times. The revolutionary Sun Yat-sen was banned from the colony after 1895 because of his efforts to overthrow the Qing dynasty of the Manchus.

After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, China tightened provisions in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, to ensure that the former colony would not be a subversive base. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy and the local government is responsible for running the territory. Mainland security authorities are not supposed to exercise law enforcement functions, but rather seek the cooperation of the Hong Kong police if necessary.

Now, it appears, China is so insecure that it’s willing to jeopardize Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region under the “one country, two systems” formula, which is meant to continue at least until 2047.

Moreover, strains with other countries are emerging. The case of Gui Minhai, apparently spirited out of Thailand into China, affects Beijing’s relations with Bangkok, and, since Gui is a Swedish citizen, Stockholm is involved.

Not surprisingly, Gui addressed his nationality while appearing on Chinese television for a confession claiming that his conscience had been bothering him over involvement in a 2003 drunk-driving case resulting in the death of a young woman. He tearfully read from a text: “Even though I am a Swedish national, I truly feel that I am Chinese and my roots are still in China. So I hope that the Swedish side would respect my personal choice, rights and privacy and let me solve my own problems.”

It is perverse, to say the least, for someone in a serious legal bind to declare publicly, in effect, that he does not want diplomatic protection from the country where he is citizen.

Similarly, Lee Bo, the British citizen, reportedly wrote a letter to the Hong Kong police asking them to stop investigating his disappearance from the territory – apparently through illegal means since his travel documents remain at his Hong Kong home.

When British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond asked for information about Lee’s whereabouts during a January  visit to China, Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted that Lee was “first and foremost a Chinese citizen.”

Quiet diplomacy may be underway. Thailand appears reluctant to complain to China and jeopardize visits from a million Chinese tourists a year. Neither Sweden nor Britain is standing up to China for now. The Communist Party seems determined to exercise power directly in Hong Kong despite solemn and voluntary promises made before the United Nations in 1984 – but China should know that the world is also watching the cross-border forays and wondering about its claim to global leadership.

*Frank Ching is a journalist and author of Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family.


Singapore’s New Political Reforms: What You Need to Know. The city-state premier has proposed key changes to the electoral system

This week, in an address to Parliament, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong identified key reforms in the electoral system which he believes would lead to greater political stability.

In summary, he proposed to raise the minimum number of opposition members of parliament (MPs), grant voting power to non-constituency MPs, reduce or merge group representation constituencies while creating more single member constituencies, review the qualifying criteria for the elected president, and strengthen the role of the Council of Presidential Advisors.

Lee, who is head of the ruling People’s Action Party which has been in power since 1959 and clinched a landslide election victory last year, said the proposed reforms “aim to strengthen the (political) system to make it more open and contestable, to keep it accountable to the people, to go into the next 50 years with the best chance of making a success of Singapore.”

If Lee Hsien Loong’s proposed constitutional amendments are passed, Singapore will have at least 21 non-ruling MPs in the next government. Furthermore, the non-constituency MPs will finally have full voting powers on key matters of governance such as constitutional changes, supply bills, money bills, votes of no confidence, and also removing a president from office.

Because of their restricted power in the current system, non-constituency MPs are viewed by many as second class legislators. Lee said he was seeking to change this perception by allowing more opposition voices in parliament.

“We will be aiding the opposition, giving their best losers more exposure and very possibly building them up for the next General Election. But I believe that in this phase of our political development this is good for the government and good for Singapore,” he said.

Lee also discussed the role of the elected president. He reminded the public that “the President is neither the Government nor is he the Opposition. He is a custodian, he is a goalkeeper.” As stabilizer of the political system, the president not only has ceremonial duties but has other powers including the ability to authorize the use of the country’s reserves.

Lee said he believed it is time to review the criteria for choosing the country’s president. Since the president has important decisions to make regarding the financial situation of the entire nation and the next generation, it would make sense for the person holding this position to have senior management competence and experience, preferably someone who led a big company or assumed key positions in the government or the private sector. The prime minister also hopes to devise a mechanism where those from minority groups can be elected as president.

But the prime minister rejected the view of some scholars that it is better for the parliament to appoint the president. He insisted that the president should have the people’s mandate to effectively exercise his or her custodial powers.

Reacting to the prime minister’s speech, the Singapore Democratic Party demanded an overhaul of the country’s political system.

“The electoral system is not for the PAP to tweak and adjust. A democratic election system requires a free media, freedom of speech and assembly, and a transparent electoral process.”

One of the group’s recommendations is to abolish the group representation constituencies which they said has enabled the ruling party to draw constituency boundaries to its advantage and to disproportionately dominate Parliament in number.

Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore has earlier written about the need to elect a president from minority groups.

“In a multiracial society such as ours, there is also merit in rotating the president among the different ethnic groups,” Mahbubani said.

Since Lee has initiated the discussion about the reforms needed to keep the political system relevant, this should be an opportunity for political parties, especially the opposition, to articulate their ideas on how to improve Singapore’s democracy. It should also encourage citizen groups to gather counterproposals from the grassroots on how to rethink Singapore’s political institutions. By Mong Palatino for The Diplomat

Thursday, January 28, 2016

INDONESIA Persecution disguised as fighting terrorism

The razed Gafatar camp at Mempawah regency, West Kalimantan. Photo: Amilia Rosa

In recent news, a minority sect in Indonesia known as Fajar Nusantara Movement, or Gafatar, had its village burnt to the ground on suspicions it was connected to terrorism. Although this comes just days after a terrorist attack in Jakarta, the incident must not be blown out of proportion.

The attack on the village is certainly devastating and a violation of rights, but the link to international terrorism is tenuous if non-existent. The targeting of this minority group represents just one incident in a long pattern of vigilante violence against minority religious communities in Indonesia. Such violence has affected groups ranging from the minority Shiite community to Ahmadiyah, a group that is said to believe in another prophet after Muhammad.

Indonesia's concern should not primarily be whether this minority group has links to international terrorism. It is domestic radicalism – those who organised the attack on the village – that should be the cause for concern. Local mobs cannot be allowed to take matters into their own hands, orchestrating attacks and burning down villages of religious groups that are so-called 'deviant'.


This problem can be traced to the introduction of democracy in Indonesia since 1998 that displaced the former centre of power – the authoritarian state. This has led to new contests for power and authority including from religious groups. One such source of authority is the informal power of Islamic leaders to issue a fatwa to declare the teachings of a particular group as 'deviant' or outside of orthodox Islamic.

The news that the Indonesian Ulama Council, Indonesia's peak Islamic body, may issue a fatwa against Gafatar and deem it heretical needs to be considered in context. A fatwa, the opinion of an Islamic religious scholar, is not law in Indonesia. Fatwa are not sanctioned by the state.

The impact of a fatwa on the actions of Muslims may vary, and may have no impact at all. For example, the Indonesian Ulama Council has issued  fatwa in the past against smoking and using Facebook. Clearly most Indonesian Muslims have ignored such opinions.

A fatwa by the Indonesian Ulama Council does not have the approval of the government. Although the council claims to represent all Muslims in Indonesia, it is only a quasi-official body with connections to the Ministry of Religion. It is not an official state institution as such. The real problem is that despite the informal status of the council,  fatwa have been used in the past as evidence to convict a person in court for blasphemy.

Some media reports suggest that the Indonesian Attorney-General's Office is now preparing to bring Gafatar or its leaders to court, potentially on charges of blaspheming Islam. This is possibly why the Indonesian Ulama Council may issue a fatwa declaring the group 'deviant' from Islamic teachings.

There is a common connection between a fatwa and criminal prosecutions in Indonesia. A minority religious group ruffles the feathers of established Islamic religious authorities and their orthodox teachings. A major Islamic organisation in the area issues a fatwa against a group. The group or its leaders are reported to police. The public prosecutor then pursues charges of blasphemy.

A fatwa is then used in court as evidence against the group. The courts generally show an attitude of deference to religious authorities, and the person is convicted. This has happened many times before. My research has demonstrated that there have been over 50 court cases, or at least 130 individuals convicted, under the Criminal Code between 1998 and 2012. Many of these were convicted for blaspheming Islam.

The bigger issue in Indonesia is not whether groups like Gafatar have links with international or local terrorist organisations. At any rate there seems little evidence of this. Even if the group has links with a former homegrown organisation al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah, that group was never convicted for terrorism but only for blaspheming Islam. The key issue is that the Indonesian government must take a tough stance against domestic radicalism.

Instead of pursuing criminal charges of blasphemy against the leaders and followers of Gafatar, who have been victims of violence, serious action must also be taken against the mob that burnt down their homes and drove them out of their village. Targeting domestic radicalism would demonstrate that the Indonesian government is taking its constitutional responsibility to protect religious freedom seriously.

Dr Melissa Crouch is Lecturer at the University of NSW. She is the author of Law and Religion in Indonesia (2014).

Japan unveils first stealth fighter jet


The defence ministry's acquisition agency showed off the domestically developed, radar-dodging X-2 fighter at a regional airport near the central city of Komaki.

Its first flight is scheduled in mid-February before delivery to the defence ministry by the end of March next year, the acquisition agency said.

The X-2, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, measures 14.2 metres (47 feet) long and 9.1 metres wide and was built as a successor to the F-2 fighter jets developed jointly with the United States.

Presently, only the United States, Russia and China have been internationally recognised as having successfully developed and flown manned stealth jets, the agency said.

Japan has reportedly spent about 39.4 billion yen ($332 million) to develop the aircraft.

In November Japan's first domestically produced passenger jet, also developed by Mitsubishi Heavy, made its maiden test flight, a landmark development for the country after being barred from developing aircraft following its defeat in World War II.

Same bed, different dreams: China and North Korea after the nuclear test

From the distant vantage point of western countries, China and North Korea look much alike.  They are neighbors, one-party dictatorships, former communist societies, and Korean War allies. 

In short, practically bedfellows.

So whenever North Korea does something that alarms the international community, the call goes out for China to do something about it.  Following the fourth and most recent North Korean nuclear test, the world is again appealing to China to rein in its troublesome neighbor.

North Korean provocations follow a script the actors know by heart.  The play opens with an unpleasant North Korean surprise.  China then assumes the role of the mature parent and calls on all parties to remain calm and resolve their differences through dialogue — although China is unable to resolve its own differences with North Korea through dialogue, as in the recent case of the sudden departure of the all-girl Moranbong band from Beijing. 

If North Korea’s provocation is nuclear, the US, along with South Korea and Japan, once again vow never to tolerate a nuclear North Korea.  North Korea basks in its renewed glory and insists that nuclear weapons are a necessary deterrent to American threats.

In Act 2, the US calls on China to use its undeniable economic leverage to tame its neighbor.  China in turn denies having any special leverage and says that the US should stop threatening North Korea and open a dialogue.  South Korea, Japan, and the US make a show of responding to North Korea by resorting to stop-gap measures such as resuming loudspeaker broadcasts into North Korea or flying a B-52 bomber over the Korean peninsula.

By the time the curtain rises on Act 3, the original provocation has been largely forgotten by the news media.  Lengthy deliberations begin in the US, South Korea, Japan, the United Nations, and presumably in China to consider what additional sanctions are possible, although China and Russia will block any vigorous UN sanctions for fear of making the situation somehow worse.  Just before the closing curtain, a few more sanctions are placed on North Korea, which has little trouble evading them through its usual connections with Chinese businesses.

This play seems likely to run for many more years unless North Korea’s military-first script is derailed by anti-regime domestic events, which are highly unlikely in the near term, by foreign military intervention in response to a particularly egregious North Korean military provocation, or by pressure from China, which virtually controls the North Korean economy.

What does China want? 

But what does China really want?  After decades of boasting that their friendship is as close as “lips and teeth,” China and North Korea still aren’t dreaming the same dream. 

The North Korean dream, which is actually the dream of the Kim family because the country is run for their benefit, is that the international community will unconditionally accept the leadership of whichever Kim family member happens to be in power.  China’s dream is for North Korea to transform itself into a Little China with a developed economy and a strong party-led government that is not necessarily headed by a member of the Kim family.

The most obvious reason North Korea can’t accept China’s dream is that it doesn’t necessarily include a Kim.  Moreover, North Koreans don’t trust China any more than they trust any other country.  As for the personal fortunes of Kim Jong-un, he is the third generation of a fabulously wealthy ruling family that faces no competition for power.  Unless he is deprived of his wealth by China, he is unmotivated to make any significant changes.

For its part, China can’t accept the North Korean dream first because China can’t bring the international community to accept North Korea.  Moreover, having a neighbor who is committed to a “military-first” policy is hardly a guarantee for long-term regional stability.  And if that neighboring country must be led by a dictator, China would prefer that it be a Chinese-style “responsible” dictator rather than one of the unpredictable roguish dictators of the Kim family who have ruled North Korea, starting with the founding Kim who dragged China into a costly war.

The devil it knows …

So the dreams are only dreams, and China continues to live with the devil it knows rather than taking a chance on triggering instability that could beget an even bigger devil.  And the US does the same, for its “strategic patience” policy toward North Korea favors a change in the regime over time rather than a forced change of the regime.  China at least has the option of changing North Korea, something that the United States, with little direct influence over North Korea, seems unable to do. 

And yet, the “American dream” is a great drawing card for people around the world, and could become a dream of the North Korean people if they became more familiar with it.  US support for more active information campaigns targeted at the North Korean people, who may one day wrest control of their country from the Kim regime, would be a worthwhile and peaceful means of eventually replacing the North Korean dream with one that is less likely to turn into a nightmare for everyone.

Kongdan Oh is a senior Asian specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA).


Russia Ships Arms to Fiji: What Will Be the Quid Pro Quo?

When the MV Saint Confidence and MV Solidat arrived in Suva Harbor last week to deliver a consignment of donated Russian weapons and equipment to Fiji, it sparked an immediate reaction. Opposition MPs and security analysts have made several claims including: the deal was clandestine, the weapons could potentially be used against Fijian citizens; and Russia’s increased engagement with Fiji is an opening move in a battle for influence in the Asia Pacific region.

The Russian arms deal was not secret but nor was it transparent. During Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama’s inaugural visit to Russia in 2013, five bilateral agreements were signed, including new protocols on military technical cooperation. At the time, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that Russia wanted to pay particular attention to assisting Fiji with its UN peacekeeping deployments. Bainimarama also referred to having secured Russian help for Fiji’s peacekeeping forces in the Golan Heights. In July 2013, the then Land Force Commander, Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, announced that Russia had offered to arm Fiji's peacekeepers. That month also, Fijian Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola stated in the Russian English language press that Fijian peacekeepers would be issued with Russian-made individual combat gear that includes small arms. The details were still to be worked out and were subsequently never officially made known.

Which is why, when the Russians arrived bearing gifts last week, Ratu Isoa Tikoca, Fiji’s opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs and a member of the parliamentary standing committee on defense and foreign affairs, demanded the defence minister explain the consignment and discuss it in parliament.

So why didn’t the Fijian Government provide the parliament—and the public—with some information about the deal? The best time to have done so would have been in 2014, after the release of the Fijian peacekeepers captured by al Nusra Front in the Golan Heights. The incident highlighted the impact that Western sanctions imposed on Fiji in 2006 had on the Royal Fijian Military Force, reinforcing earlier concerns around military equipment resupply and modernization. The government could have rode the wave of national relief when the soldiers were freed by announcing that Fijian peacekeepers would in the future be better equipped with Russian weapons and kit.

The lack of transparency around the deal has led to some extraordinary and unhelpful comments being made in Fijian and foreign media. These include Tikoca claiming that the weapons deal will enable Bainimarama to control the south-west Pacific. Other analysts have suggested that the weapons, being dual usage, could also be used as crowd control on the local population. The recent delivery from Korea of riot control gear, including tear gas and anti-riot weaponry, to the Fijian Police and prisons has led to some confusion between the two consignments and further fed concerns about internal security.

So, is the Russian deal an indicator, as some analysts have suggested, of Fiji’s pivot away from the West?

Arguably, that pivot occurred around the time Bainimarama took power in a military coup in 2006 and Australia, New Zealand and the United States imposed sanctions. Russia’s equipping of Fijian peacekeepers is as a result of Fiji pursuing non-traditional friends in the face of international sanctions and, as one analyst has suggested, an attempt to diversify patrons and prevent dependence on China. Perhaps. China is rumored to be a potential donor towards the completion of the Blackrock Integrated Peacekeeping Centre. But Russian troops are far more battle experienced than the PLA, especially in regards to terrorism, and a benefit of Russian weaponry is the ready availability of Russian ammunition in the Middle East.

When sanctions were lifted, there was a clear expectation on the part of Washington, Canberra and Wellington that Fiji would come in from the cold and relations would go back to how they were. A series of high level visits by Western powers in December 2014 revealed how out of step the West had become with Fiji. The billboards around Suva depicting the Chinese President Xi and Indian Prime Minister Modi during their respective visits were visual reminders that, during the sanction years, Fiji had built new strategic partnerships. What this means for military-to-military cooperation is that there is a whole new cadre of RFMF officers who received their staff course education in Russia, China or India, for example, and have no ties to Australia and New Zealand; a point lamented by former senior RFMF officers. These officers have built their careers on these new relationships and this has changed both the culture and the trajectory of the military. As a consequence, Australia and New Zealand’s strategic relevance to Fiji has diminished.

Relations between Suva and Moscow intensified in 2013 following Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama’s inaugural visit to Russia (from 2011 there was a series of high-level ministerial visits, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to Fiji). In response to Lavrov’s visit, Australia’s then Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, accused Russia of cheque-book diplomacy. Marles was referring to Moscow seeking the support of Pacific Island states for recognition of Georgian breakaway states South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is a far cry from the cheque-book diplomacy practiced by China and Taiwan, when they were bidding for recognition in the Pacific, but it does demonstrate that the contests on Russia’s borders (both old and new) have reached the South Pacific.

In 2014, to mark forty years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Fijian Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola stated: “Russia is emerging as one of Fiji’s significant partners in its pursuance of its Look North policy.” Lavrov responded, writing that “deepening interaction with the island nations of the South Pacific is an integral part of the Russian agenda in the region.” This agenda is part of Russia's proposal for a new regional architecture to ensure equal and indivisible security in the Asia Pacific which Lavrov promoted at the 2013 East Asia Summit. 

Aside from diplomatic support, what more does Russia want from Fiji?

Russia’s interests in the Pacific go beyond Fiji. The Western Pacific has become a site of Russian power projection and sabre-rattling. In 2013 American F-15 jets were scrambled to intercept Russian bombers and in 2014 Russian strategic bombers (Tu-95 Bear H bombers) circumnavigated Guam. USPACOM confirmed that the Russian bombers entered Guam's outer air defense identification zone.

Russia is clearly set on restoring its maritime power. In 2013 Rear Admiral Sergei Avakyants, Commander of the Pacific Fleet announced that Russia would begin a naval buildup in the Pacific Ocean the following year including a strategic nuclear submarine presence. In 2015 the first of four Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines joined the Pacific Fleet. Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief Viktor Chirkov stated in 2015 that the deployment of Russian ballistic and multipurpose nuclear submarines on operational duty in the Pacific Ocean has increased almost 50 percent over the previous year.

Not surprisingly, analysts are speculating that the next logical step to Russia’s increased submarine activity in the Pacific is a submarine fleet support base in the South Pacific.

Next month the twenty-five containers stored at Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Nabua will be opened and Russia’s gift unveiled. We suspect we will have to wait much longer to find out whether that gift has a price.

Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University and the editor of the United Nations Peacekeeping Challenge (Ashgate: 2015).

Jose Sousa-Santos is a senior strategic and security analyst and an IHS Jane’s contributor on Asia Pacific security matters. He is a former analyst with the United Nations Joint Mission Analysis Centre and is currently researching the nexus between terrorism and transnational crime in the Asia Pacific.

This article first appeared the Interpreter.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force.