Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Asia Times: Baptism of fire for Park

In the shadow of North Korea's universally condemned third nuclear test, the inauguration this week of Park Geun-hye, Northeast Asia's first female president, is a momentous event.

Her father, former president Park Chung-Hee, was one of South Korea's most iconic and controversial figures. Having lost both her parents to political assassinations, and being targeted herself by violent attacks throughout her career, Park's ascension to South Korea's top spot undoubtedly makes for a highly inspirational narrative.

The sight of the president gracefully donning a traditional hanbok dress after returning to Seoul's Blue House after 33 years speaks volumes of the ever-shifting gender roles in South Korea's traditionally Confucian male-dominated society.

In addition to confronting issues of unaffordable healthcare, crippling school tuition fees and the challenges that come with a rapidly aging society, Park also carries the burden of maintaining inter-Korean stability.

While Pyongyang offered signals of diplomacy when it reportedly requested permission to send a North Korean delegation to attend Park's inauguration ceremony, the North's state media appears to have already made up its mind on Park, likening her to a "political prostitute", in addition to a myriad of other colorfully offensive titles.

Relations between the two Koreas hit a low point during the tenure of Park's predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, and Pyongyang has voiced its discontent at what it views as Park's collusion with the Lee administration.

Following its nuclear test this month, Pyongyang threatened Seoul with "final destruction", and the rogue nation will likely offer more provocative rhetoric in the days to come to undermine the transition process.

Even so, the probability of a military strike from the North is low, and its actions follow a predictable pattern of procuring aid concessions in exchange for dialogue. Park campaigned on advocating a softer-line on Pyongyang, which will be difficult to accomplish in the current scenario she finds in office.

The new president has a new opportunity to roll back the policies of her predecessor by engaging in meaningful dialogue with Pyongyang, ensuring that her country avoids falling into serious military confrontation with the North that could potentially yield vast civilian causalities on both sides.

During his New Year's Address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun struck a conciliatory tone toward the South, voicing intentions to bolster his isolated state's moribund economy. It's no secret that Kim is a figurehead backed by close advisers, the most prominent being Jang Sung-taek, known to be the husband of his late father Kim Jong-il's sister.

Park can best ensure the stability of inter-Korean relations by proposing a new inter-Korean dialogue that should take place with the respective nations' power brokers. Economic exchange would be the core of any genuine reconciliation between the two Koreas, and for that reason, the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) is of prime importance.

Undercover reports claim that smuggled South Korean media has started to subtly erode the regime's ideological grip on people in the North, and Pyongyang will certainly be hesitant to facilitate greater opportunities where North and South Korean civilians can interact.

One of the objectives Park campaigned on was reestablishing trust with Pyongyang, and this can best be accomplished by reestablishing the KIZ as an economic space, not a political one. North Korea provides the cheapest labor rates in Asia, and a new emphasis on the KIZ would benefit South Korea's mass-production economy, in addition to providing the North with much-needed financial incentives.

To ensure security on the Korean Peninsula, Park should not lure Pyongyang with concessions, but offer it a tangible stake in both economic and technological development.

Park has previously stated that the North's denuclearization is a perquisite. Washington continues to station 28,500 troops in the South, controlling all military forces south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). At this point, Pyongyang has very little incentive to disarm. After the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, his son, Kim Jong-il oversaw general economic mismanagement and a series of natural disasters that led to widespread starvation.

To legitimize his tenure, Kim Jong-il introduced Songun politics, a "military-first" policy aimed at appeasing the army and building up national defenses. The attainment of a "nuclear deterrent" has been trumpeted as a major accomplishment in domestic North Korean propaganda - simply put, Pyongyang is not going to cease its pursuit of a nuclear deterrent.

Park may be in a better position to negotiate with Pyongyang when the US draws down its forces and hands over operational control of the South Korean military to Seoul, currently scheduled to take place in 2015.

She has spoken of taking a middle-of-the-road approach with the North, but if her policy rests solely on being open to Pyongyang only on the condition that they disarm, the incoming administration will find itself mired in president Lee's legacy of tension.

One of the stated goals of Park's administration is to begin to construct the foundations for reunification. It would be a practical necessity for both Koreas to eventually come to an agreement on security issues, and as long as the US maintains a presence in South Korea, Park's administration must learn to accept Pyongyang's pursuit of a nuclear deterrent, perhaps on the condition that it vows not to threaten South Korea.

In a 2011 article published in the Council on Foreign Relations' Foreign Affairs website titled, "A New Kind of Korea," Park advocated the formation of a cooperative security regime between Asian states that would "help resolve persistent tensions in the region", in addition to threatening the North that it would "pay a heavy price for its military and nuclear threats. This approach is not new, but in order to change the current situation, it must be enforced more vigorously than in the past".

If Park intends on bolstering the status quo foreign policy direction established under president Lee, her administration's objectives of laying the foundations for reunification will not succeed.

2013 will be a critical year for South Korea; it will assume non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council for the first time in its history. The year will be critical in shaping the conditions necessary to bring about a "second miracle on the Han River" that Park promised in her campaign speeches. As a world leader in the production of consumer electronics and boasting the status of the most-wired nation, South Korea is now focusing on building a dynamic economy focused on digital and bio technologies.

As an answer to South Korea's economic problems, Park has advocated a two-pronged approach that utilizes a "creative economy" to counter slowed growth and "economic democracy" to counter growing income polarization.

Park sanctioned the newly created Ministry of Future Creation and Science to combine information technology with various other sectors to provide entirely new jobs to grow the national economy. Critics have scrutinized the fact that "economic democracy" - one of her main election-time slogans - was absent from a recently published list of governance goals, prompting some to raise serious questions about the substance of her goals and the vagueness of her concepts.

"Since the election, she has not made a single detailed reference to economic democratization. Now, the fact that she even removed the phrase from her administration goals sends a message to bureaucrats and to the finance sector that even Park Geun-hye will back down if you push hard enough. From now on, the lobbyists will push even harder," stated Kim Sang-jo, an economics professor at Hansung University.

Park's stated economic objective is to bring about a climate where large corporations and small and medium-sized enteprises can prosper side by side, shifting the focus from exports and big business to domestic demand, services, and small businesses, and marking a clear departure from her predecessor's neo-liberal policy.

Park has also come under criticism for watering down promises to strengthen the sentencing processes for unlawful activity committed by the directors of family-owned corporations such as Hyundai, Samsung, and LG, referred to as chaebol.

Opposition spokesperson Park Yong-jin for the Democratic United Party took aim at Park on the issue. "Lowering the priority of tasks related to economic democratization is more than just a violation of a key presidential campaign pledge. It is sure to spark allegations that all of the talk about economic democratization during the campaign was a lie. We are seeing the same old politics by politicians who don't keep their word," said Yong-jin.

Park Geun-hye has come to power with the lowest approval ratings of any previous president, hovering at 44%. High dissatisfaction exists among the South Korean public toward Park's nominations for cabinet and other key positions; respondents of surveys published in South Korean media gave "mistaken nominations and the hiring of unscrutinized figures" as their reason for Park's low ratings.

She has also indicated significant increases in the nation's defense spending. Recent polls indicate that two-thirds of the South Korean public support the continuance of humanitarian aid to North Korea "regardless of the political situation", with over half the population supporting direct talks with Pyongyang.

The new leader can recapture public support by delivering on her campaign promises and reducing income equality by leveling the playing field for small businesses, but if she pursues the kind of defense policy that she has advocated, she may find herself in an unpopular position with both Pyongyang and the South Korean people.

This article originally appeared in the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Asia Times: Malaysian polls reflect US-China competition

KUALA LUMPUR - In a bid to garner public support and win back several economically dynamic states lost to the opposition in 2008, Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has introduced a series of populist measures to appeal to voters. But while the upcoming election will be decided mostly on domestic issues, the polls will also reflect rising US-China competition for influence in the country.

Following the 2008 global economic crisis, Prime Minister Najib Razak looked to Beijing to revive Malaysia's export-oriented economy, emphasizing increased Chinese investment in Malaysian industry. The premier has also moved to expand Sino-Malaysian exchange in areas such as finance, infrastructure development, science and technology, and education.

China is now Malaysia's largest trading partner, with trade reaching US$90 billion in 2011. Malaysia is China's largest trading partner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). During a visit to China's Guangxi autonomous region last year, Najib officiated the launch of the China-Malaysia Qinzhou Industrial Park (QIP), a joint development by a Malaysian consortium of companies.

At the event, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao paid tribute to Najib's late father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who established diplomatic ties with China in 1974 during his tenure as Malaysia's second prime minister. Malaysia was the first non-communist country in Southeast Asia to establish official ties with the People's Republic of China. Under Najib, 2014 has been designated as "Malaysia-China Friendship Year", while China has loaned two pandas to Malaysia for 10 years to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

The diplomacy has brought commercial gains. A sister joint-industrial park in Malaysia's Kuantan region was launched in early February 2013. State media said the complex, including a steel plant, an aluminum factory, a palm oil refinery and the expansion of the Kuantan Port, will create 8,500 new jobs once it comes online. Kuantan was chosen as the location for the joint project due to its proximity to the South China Sea, which offers easy access to fast developing ports located in China's Guangxi Beibu Gulf Economic Region.

Najib was quoted at the time as saying, "Now the world is beginning to recognize that Chinese innovation and domestic demand will prove just as potent a force in the global economy, so on economic cooperation and diplomacy, I am proud to say that Malaysia is ahead of the curve."

Najib's and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman's children are both Mandarin-educated, reflecting the importance top officials place on China's role as an emerging world power. Malaysia has likely taken a soft line on territorial disputes in the potentially oil and gas rich South China Sea due to deepening commercial cooperation between the two countries.
In light of these close ties, Beijing would no doubt like to see Najib's ruling BN return to return to power at the polls. An administration led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is widely perceived to lean closer to the United States, would threaten to interrupt the past five years of investment and security policy synergy developed under Najib. 

Foreign friends and funds

Local analysts have long criticized Anwar for his alleged history of appealing to foreigners to legitimize his positions. Anwar is widely panned in the Malaysian press for seeking to bolster his own political talking points by harnessing foreign influence, from the hardline Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated theologian Yusuf Abdullah al-Qaradawi, known for controversially inciting sectarian divisions throughout the Muslim world, to the likes of former US vice president Al Gore and former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Malaysia's opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition currently controls four state governments and is led by Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the predominately Chinese-led Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the staunchly Islamist Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Those parties are in many ways uncomfortable bedfellows: PAS at one point endorsed the Taliban's insurgent campaign in Afghanistan and turned off many moderate Malaysians with hard-line theocratic discourse advocating the foundation of an Islamic state.

The DAP and Anwar's PKR, meanwhile, have been strongly criticized for accepting funds and training from US government-linked foundations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI), now chaired by US Senator John McCain. In the hot-tempered run-up to Malaysia's upcoming polls, several prominent BN ministers have questioned the opposition's links to influential figures in Washington.

Local media reports claim that Anwar maintains connections with neo-conservative thinkers in Washington, in addition to participating in programs organized by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED has been accused locally of being used by Washington to influence elections and cultivate political forces suitable to US foreign policy.

In 2005, Anwar chaired the Washington-based Foundation for the Future, a think-tank established by Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president, and funded by US State Department grants. While Anwar was on trial for allegedly engaging in sodomy with a male aide (a charge for which he was later acquitted), Gore and Wolfowitz authored a joint opinion piece in support of Anwar in the Wall Street Journal.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, published an editorial calling for consequences that would affect Malaysia's bilateral relations with the US if Anwar was found guilty. Anwar enraged many Malaysians when he stated that he would support a policy to protect the security of Israel in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. This is particularly controversial in Malaysia, where the majority support Palestine against Israel.

Local journalists have recently uncovered letters written by Anwar, two of which were sent to National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman in Washington, that discussed sending an international election observer team to Malaysia and issues related to electoral reform. Since 2011, Malaysians have shown support for anti-government demonstrations calling for clean elections organized by Bersih, an association of nongovernmental organizations known as the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.

Ambiga Sreenevasan, the ethnic Indian former president of the Bar Council who leads the coalition, has under pressure recently conceded that her organization accepts funds from US government-linked foundations. Malaysian authorities are concerned that these recipients of US aid have based their programs around casting doubt on the nation's Electoral Commission, and thus the very legitimacy of the ruling coalition and the country's democratic process.

Malaysia's Electoral Commission has consistently refuted allegations of electoral discrepancies made against it by several US-funded NGOs. A parliamentary select committee agreed to implement recommended electoral reforms raised by civil society groups and has since passed 18 amendments to the electoral roll.

Meanwhile, Najib has rolled back the Internal Security Act, which controversially allowed for indefinite detention without trial, and has liberalized rules regarding the publication of books and newspapers. BN has long been criticized for curbing dissent and criticism through civil liberty-curbing laws and regulations.

BN has largely delivered on its previous campaign vows to manage fast economic growth and greater freedom of expression, witnessed in a vibrant Internet and critical blogosphere. While Najib also has good rapport with several Western leaders, he is not ready to complicate upbeat Sino-Malaysian ties as Washington moves to "pivot" its military muscle towards the Asia-Pacific region to counterbalance China.

Anwar, on the other hand, has long been viewed as a darling of the West, and he would clearly be a more attractive candidate in the eyes of the US. Malaysia's former premier Mahathir Mohamad has insinuated that Washington's democracy promotion amounts to backing regime change through efforts that favor the opposition. NGO and youth activists have been dismissive of such insinuations, viewing them as well-worn pre-election diversionary rhetoric from the ruling coalition.

While many Malaysians have expressed disappointment in BN's leadership, a victory for the untested opposition has the potential to derail many large-scale, growth-promoting development projects, including Chinese-invested initiatives in property, industry and infrastructure. US investment bank JP Morgan recently issued a note of concern over market unpredictability in the case of an opposition win. While voters deliberate between Najib and Anwar, they will also indirectly be choosing between China and the US.

This article originally appeared in the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at

Monday, 18 February 2013

Malaysia's Najib eyes the Chinese Vote

In the run-up to Malaysia’s pivotal general elections, Prime Minister Najib Razak has put due emphasis on visiting opposition-held states in a bid to shore up support for his re-election. Appealing to the first time voter demographic, now consisting of over five million young people aged 20-29, most of whom with no clear political affiliations, appears to be a priority of the Najib administration. The appearance of South Korean K-pop star PSY at the Barisan Nasional Chinese New Year open house in Penang is seen by many analysts as an attempt by the government to latch onto pop culture rhythms to appease Malaysia’s youth. It is also another reminder of the Najib administration’s lenient and moderate interpretations of Islam, in stark contrast to the Islamist Party (PAS) who have advocated gender segregation, dress code requirements, and a ban on all concerts – a political program that would likely stifle expression and personal freedom to pursue lifestyle choices if the opposition found its way to power.

Najib recently made a landmark visit to the Chinese New Year Open House hosted by Chinese education group Dong Zhong (United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia). The visit is significant because Najib is the first Prime Minister to attend the annual celebration; additionally, capturing the hearts and minds of the Chinese community is a major necessity if Najib is keen to retake Putrajaya in the coming general elections. Dong Zhong has been perceived by many as being somewhat critical of the Malaysian government’s education policy in the past through their outspoken views toward promoting Chinese-language education. The Prime Minister’s appearance was clearly aimed at building better ties between the government and the Chinese community, and Najib will be perceived in a positive light after agreeing to address the grievances of the minority community.

PM in CNY kajang

Najib agreed to reassess the government’s position on allowing recognition of Unified Examination Certificates that are offered in 60 independent Chinese high schools throughout the country, in addition to the building of more Chinese independent schools. “We are sincere in our efforts to improve Chinese education and our relationship with the government is becoming stronger. They are working well to resolve issues,” Dong Zhong deputy chairman Chow Siew Hon was quoted as saying. Najib was photographed with Dong Zhong leaders ceremonially tossing yee sang to top off the appearance. Najib’s effort to extend support to the Chinese education community is a move that will undoubtedly resonate well with Malaysia’s Chinese minority, who view access to educate as a key priority in the coming elections. 

Under Najib’s administration, Malaysia’s relationship with China has expanded tenfold and cooperation has never been better. Following the global economic crisis of 2008, Najib looked to Beijing to revive Malaysia's export oriented economy, emphasizing increased Chinese investment into Malaysia and expanding the base of Sino-Malaysian trade in areas like education and student exchange, finance, infrastructure development, science and technology, yielding lucrative and mutually beneficial results. China has been Malaysia's largest trade partner, with trade figures reaching US$90 billion in 2011; Malaysia is China’s largest trading partner among ASEAN nations. It was Najib’s father, Malaysia's second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, who made the landmark visit to Beijing to establish diplomatic relations in 1974. The children of both Prime Minister Najib Razak and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman are Mandarin-educated, reflecting the importance that Malaysia has placed on Chinese-education and toward China as an emerging world power.

Some of the Prime Minister’s comments given in a speech at a separate location created a negative backlash among social media users. Najib was quoted as stating, “The Chinese community’s success is also because the government has created an environment that enables the Chinese to make a good living. If not for the success of BN leaders in maintaining harmony and implementing good policies, even if we were hardworking and had good business skills, we would never have been successful.” Many vocal social media users lashed out at the Prime Minister for downplaying the plight and struggles of the Chinese community in Malaysia’s Muslim-majority climate that grants preferential treatment to ethnically Malay Muslims. One web user commented, “We have done well because we are hard working and taking whatever opportunities available. We do not only look at local environment but also the global opportunities and that is why we do well. It is utter nonsense that we Chinese are successful due to your discriminatory policies.” 

Another social media user stated, “BN [Barisan Nasional] has always been asking us to be grateful for ensuring harmony and implement good policies. In my honest opinion, these are basic responsibilities of a government. We don't owe it to BN, and don’t forget there are unquestionable restrictions in place in our constitution.” Its clear that the Najib administration is pulling out all the stops to appease minority communities and voters in opposition-held states – but is he ready to deconstruct the indigenous-non-indigenous dichotomy that has long been the framework of the ruling party’s ethno-communal policies? Malaysia’s longstanding New Economic Policy (NEP), which grants economic incentives to Malay Muslims, is a sensitive subject and has been consistently perceived by non-Malays to be a discriminatory policy that alienates economically disadvantaged minority communities who struggle to penetrate into circles of higher education and good employment.

PN in CNY kajang

Najib has campaigned on promoting national unity under the auspices of his 1Malaysia platform. To more effectively meet the needs of the citizenry, and to win their support in the process, the ruling party must reassess its support for the kind of policy that reinforces ethnic distinctions rather than doing away with them. Najib’s remarks have been critically interpreted by many, however the point the Prime Minister was attempting to emphasis was that under the ruling party, the Chinese community have been able to practice their culture and religion without hindrance, and pursue their business interests with minimum intervention from the state. Despite the discontent voiced by social media users, it’s difficult to imagine how the Chinese community could fair any better under a hypothetical alternative Malay ethno-nationalist regime, or an Islamist regime. The ongoing perpetuation of Malaysia’s relatively secular and tolerant foundation is a perquisite for any ethnically and religiously diverse state – Malaysians have long recognized this. The incoming leadership must work to phase out ethno-communal policies in favor of a more representative platform to adhere with the current administration’s drive toward national unity.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at