Monday, 29 December 2014

A year of disaster for Malaysian aviation

The disappearance of AirAsia Flight marks the third incident this year involving a Malaysia-affiliated airline. Why have they been struck by such bad fortune? Before vanishing from radar less than an hour into the flight, the pilot of the Singapore-bound plane contacted air traffic control to request an alternate course to avoid extreme weather conditions.

The AirAsia Flight QZ8501, an Airbus A320-200, was carrying 162 people and is now presumed to have crashed off the coast of Indonesia near Belitung Island, about halfway between Singapore and Surabaya, Indonesia’s second biggest city where the flight originated. Southeast Asia has also been experiencing severe flooding, and intense thunderstorms could have been a major contributing factor in the latest incident.

Though the AirAsia plane may have crashed as a result of severe weather, there is an eerie similarity with MH370, which disappeared in March and presumably flew for hours toward the Indian Ocean after radically changing its flight path. Both planes vanished from radar without any emergency signal or indication of distress.

During the last communication with the plane, the captain requested clearance to fly at a higher altitude to avoid clouds that would have caused heavy turbulence, which is an entirely normal action for a pilot to take. What is strange, however, is that the pilot did not attempt to relay any further information or an emergency signal to air traffic control.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Why ICC prosecution won’t help improve human rights in N. Korea

If improving human rights conditions in North Korea is the real aim of the international community, putting the country’s political leadership on trial is a non-starter.

A recent vote at the UN General Assembly called for North Korea to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over alleged human rights abuses. Pyongyang has faced growing international pressure following the publication of a UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report in February accusing the country of committing crimes against humanity against its own population.

The 372-page report on rights violations in North Korea primarily raises concerns over the country’s penal system, where it claims citizens have been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, executions and deliberate starvation. Authors of the report have made resolute comparisons between Pyongyang’s alleged abuses and those of Nazi Germany.

North Korea has categorically denied the COI’s findings, claiming the report is intended to provide a moral justification for a foreign military intervention into the country under the auspices of protecting human rights – a scenario that would not be without precedent when country-specific UN special procedures have been sought in the past, such as the case of Libya.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

ALBA’s humanistic growth model pushes Latin America ahead

From continent to continent, policies promoting regional integration have become a core tenant of 21st century development strategies. Whether laying the foundations of transportation and communication infrastructure or shaping trade opportunities, broader market access and economic development, the politics of regional integration are central to consensus building and cooperation in our era.

Regional integration in itself, however, has not proven to a recipe for dynamic policies – as evidenced by public disenfranchisement with traditional politics throughout the European Union. The growing popularity of once-fringe nationalist parties throughout Europe should be seen as a response to economic policies centered on liberalization and denationalization by broad deregulation and austerity measures; a disproportionate focus on free trade; the erosion of state sovereignty by supranational bylaws and one-size-fits-all monetary policies.

Events that have unfolded in Latin America over the last decade, although woefully underreported by the globe’s dominant media outlets, have set an example that demands a reevaluation of conventional regional integration strategies. The embassies of Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador recently held a panel discussion in Kuala Lumpur to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Treaty of Commerce of the People (ALBA-TCP), an alternative regional development platform for the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Since its formation in 2004, originally as an alliance between Cuba and Venezuela, the ALBA grouping has positioned itself as an alternative to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement championed by the United States, which sought to remove trade barriers and introduce sweeping intellectual property laws that would have limited the cross-importation of pharmaceuticals. Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and several other Caribbean states later joined the ALBA bloc.

Liberalizing trade regimes and economic policies have failed to achieve economic development and alleviate poverty in Latin America, according to Lourdes Puma Puma, Ambassador to Ecuador in Malaysia, during her address to the panel, explaining the factors that contributed to the expansion of ALBA into a nine-nation regional grouping. Based on the emancipatory ideas of Simón Bolívar and José Marti, both being historical figures that symbolize the independence of Latin American nations from colonial Spain, the ALBA grouping defines itself by emphasizing policies that create social uplift and focus more on complementarity rather than competition.

ALBA’s unique significance compared to other regional organizations, according to Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), is precisely on the tremendous importance it places on human welfare and social justice with programs that provide free medical care and treatment for the disabled. ALBA’s integration strategy is built on the foundations of a people-centered, inclusive model though prioritizing the common distribution of medicines, emphasizing food self-sufficiency, and ambitious projects to eradicate hungry and illiteracy.

One of the features of ALBA’s complementarity economics is the use of compensated trade through direct product exchanges so that countries can use their resource advantages in a mutually beneficial way that doesn’t necessarily imply a financial transaction. A common example of this is how Venezuela provides oil to Cuba in exchange for doctors and healthcare professionals; this system of trade-offs also includes educational and medical services, scientific projects and commodities.

Cuba, which has punched far above its weight in the fight against Ebola, has more doctors per capita than any other country in the world by virtue of its state-run healthcare system. One of the crowning achievements of ALBA’s partnership has been the ‘Operation Miracle’ project that saw the deployment of Cuban ophthalmologists across Latin America to perform surgeries on vision-impaired people suffering from cataracts and glaucoma. Some 3.4 million people have had their sight restored, free of charge.

Throughout the ALBA bloc, 1.2 million disabled people have been treated while more than 2 million consultations have taken place. Another regional initiative has been the Grand-National Project of Literacy and Post-Literacy, offering universal primary education. More than 3.8 million people have been made literate through the “Yo si peudo (Yes I can)” program to promote reading and writing, which has been recognized by UNESCO. ALBA has also incentivized scholarships for higher education and academic exchanges within the bloc.

Contrary to traditional regional economic intergradation schemes that encourage the scaling back of the state in favor of the market, ALBA countries believe that the state has a role to play in regulating economic activity in the interest of maintaining social welfare. As both an economic and political alliance, the grouping shares common positions on the principals of sovereignty, multi-polarity, self-determination, environmentally sustainable development strategies and an opposition to interventionism and war.

ALBA’s drive to create a complementary economic zone with PetroCaribe, a separate grouping between Venezuela and Caribbean states, has enormous potential for development as a region encompassing 21 nations within a 7 million km zone, boasting a workforce of 60 million people. Investment opportunities are also aplenty, in areas ranging from mining and energy to tourism. The grouping has also launched a bank and a digital currency – the Sucre – as a mechanism for international payments and the use of local currency for payment of imports, in addition to reducing dependence on US dollar transactions.

The United States, with its long-standing hostility toward Cuba and continued unilateral blockade of the island’s economy, views the independent direction of ALBA as an affront to its interests. ALBA countries believe that the media coverage of developments in Latin America throughout the West are tinged with bias and misinformation, which led the bloc to introduce a number of television and radio stations such as Telesur and AlbaTV to present their side of the story to international and domestic audiences.

There are undoubtedly challenges ahead as ALBA solidifies its indigenous regional integration model and deepens cooperation with other regional blocks in Latin America, such as CELAC and Mercosur, of which many ALBA states are participants. In attempting to reverse the legacy of hegemony and dominance in the region, the nations of ALBA understand the limitations of the nation-state. A regional body has far more clout to enact systemic changes that the people of Latin America have been enormously supportive of.

Simón Bolívar once said that it was the inexorable destiny of Latin America to be united – there is no question that ALBA is at the forefront of this struggle for dignity and social justice.

This article was appeared in the November 26, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper.

Nile Bowie is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His articles have appeared in numerous international publications, including regular columns with Russia Today (RT) and newspapers such as the Global Times, the Malaysian Reserve and the New Straits Times. He is a research assistant with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian NGO promoting social justice and anti-hegemony politics. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive takes a great leap forward

Upon becoming general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2012, President Xi Jinping put forward a frank assessment that endemic corruption among party elites and cadres threatens to delegitimize the reform process and undermine the CPC’s rule. Xi announced a broad anti-corruption campaign and vowed that the party’s graft watchdog would be“striking tigers and flies at the same time” – a signal that both prominent officials and grassroots cadres would be equally held accountable.

In the two years since the anti-corruption campaign began, it has proven to be the longest reaching and most impactful clampdown effort since the reform era began in 1978. Anti-graft inspectors have launched thousands of investigations, ending the political careers of hundreds of officials engaged in bribery, embezzlement and acquiring illicit funds through land deals, official infrastructure projects and land development. The scope of the anti-corruption efforts has not spared those in the CPC’s inner circle, creating anxiety within the party.

Zhou Yongkang, one of China’s most powerful men until his retirement in 2012, has been the most prominent official probed for abuses of power. During his tenure as the head of the CPC’s political and legislative affairs committee, Zhou’s only superiors were the president and prime minister. He was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and oversaw the state’s internal security, judicial system, law enforcement, and paramilitary operations, operating with a larger budget than China’s military.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) – the party’s formidable anti-corruption agency – has also detained reputable officials known to be Zhou’s protégés and opened investigations into the extraordinary wealth of his family members. It is widely believed that the long delays in announcing the probe against Zhou were due to huge inner-party resistance, indicating that Xi engaged enormous political capital in order to create conditions for the investigation.

Read the full story on New Eastern Outlook

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

West touting ‘classified’ evidence to avoid impartial MH17 investigation

Western governments insist that Ukrainian rebels assisted by Russia were responsible for shooting down flight MH17, but they are unwilling to disclose their evidence and explain their methodologies.

As the enquiry continues into the demise of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the skies of eastern Ukraine in July, the preliminary findings of the international investigation have done little to develop a clearer understanding of the incident. The parties responsible for bringing down the aircraft, and exactly what means were utilized to do so, have yet to be firmly established.

Due to the continued obstruction and contamination of the crash site as a result of military hostilities, it is highly questionable whether further forensic examinations can be carried out under such protracted circumstances. Another barrier is a lack of political will to consider certain findings, on the part of those states that rushed to make politically charged accusations before any investigation could take place.

The Dutch Safety Board (DSB), which is leading the investigation into the MH17 crash, released a preliminary report in September, which sought to analyze air traffic control and radio communication data, assess the inflight break-up sequences, and conduct a forensic examination of the wreckage. Assigning culpability to any party was not in the report’s mandate; the authors of the text use highly guarded and ambiguous language to explain their findings.

Read the full story on New Eastern Outlook

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Saudi Arabia is shooting itself in the foot by executing Shiite cleric

The House of Saud’s plans to execute a revered Shiite cleric and protest leader reveal the extent to which the regime is vulnerable and desperate to perpetuate itself. Going ahead with the execution would be strategic miscalculation.

Significant political developments have unfolded in Saudi Arabia in recent weeks following a court decision to execute Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a polarizing Shiite cleric and political activist who has campaigned for civil equality, an inclusive socio-political system, women’s rights, minority rights, and the release of political prisoners. Prosecutors condemned the cleric to death by beheading as punishment for charges of sedition, though the execution date has not yet been set.

Sheikh Nimr has been the fiercest critic of the Kingdom’s absolute Sunni monarchy for the last decade, but gained a considerable public following after leading a series of protests in 2011 in opposition to the Saudi military’s violent intervention and suppression of the pro-democracy movement in neighboring Bahrain, a satellite state with a Shiite majority ruled by a heavy-handed Sunni dynasty. His sermons and political activism continually emphasized non-violent resistance.

The Kingdom’s decision to sentence Nimr to death has complex implications that will push sectarian tensions to fever pitch inside Saudi Arabia and throughout the region, dangerously sharpening tension with Iran. Prominent clerics in Iran and Bahrain, as well as Shiite militant groups such as Hezbollah of Lebanon and the Houthi movement of Yemen, have all condemned the verdict and warned the Kingdom not to proceed with the execution.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

As Malaysia Airlines bleeds out, twin tragedies are still a question mark

Malaysia Airlines has had a profoundly difficult year. Between two harrowing air disasters and the company’s precarious financial woes, the national carrier faces daunting challenges as it attempts to restructure and recover its reputation as a leading regional airline. Despite poor commercial performance in recent years, it maintained a stellar record for decades as one of the Asia-Pacific's safest and most reliable airlines.

Malaysia Airlines has suffered the two worst disasters in modern aviation less than five months apart. Both incidents involved Boeing 777-200ERs, widely considered being one of the safest aircrafts. Over six months have past since flight MH370 disappeared on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. A multinational search team has scoured remote southern stretches of the Indian Ocean, unable to find even a trace of debris from the aircraft.

A preliminary report on the demise of flight MH17 released by Dutch investigators has failed to provide a wider understanding of the incident, leaving critical questions of culpability unanswered. The crippling impact of the two air disasters has forced Malaysia Airlines into accelerating a major restructuring effort to rescue the brand and return it to profitably by 2017, with plans to relist the company by 2019.

Nationalize or privatize?

As the flagship carrier, Malaysia Airlines is viewed as a symbol of national prestige and development. The state has played a vital role in using public funds to restructure the airline over the years. The key challenges confronting the carrier are competition from low-cost national and regional rivals, high operating costs, unprofitable long haul routes, and a bloated payroll.

The main question going forward is whether further nationalization or drastic privatization will more effectively resuscitate the airline. Khazanah Nasional, a state investment fund that owns about 70% of Malaysia Airlines, proposed a strategy to recover the national carrier, involving plans to take full ownership of the airline and the most stringent job cuts in the company's history.

Unlike the four previous attempts to restructure the airline, which reneged on plans to scale back the workforce under pressure from politically influential airline unions, the company intends to cut staffing by 6,000 jobs or 30% of the carrier's 20,000 employees. Malaysia Airlines has about 30 percent more staff than comparable airlines, and while the cuts will be painful, the status quo can clearly not be maintained under the prevailing circumstances.

Khazanah Nasional will channel around RM6bn ($2 billion) into reviving the carrier, buying out remaining stock from shareholders, layoffs and other restructuring costs, debt settlement and capital injections. Putrajaya claims these funds are an investment, rather than a bailout, expressing its intention to regain the funds when the airline returns to profitability. One can be forgiven for being skeptical of the carrier’s strategy, taking into account the shortcomings of previous restructuring attempts.

An accumulative sum of RM17.4bn ($5.3 billion) was injected into the airline between 2001 and 2014, and losses of RM8.4bn ($2.6 billion) were incurred nonetheless during that period. Malaysia Airlines reported a net loss of RM443mn ($140.8 million) for the first quarter of 2014. Second-quarter earnings following the unexplained disappearance of MH370 in March saw losses of RM307mn ($97.6 million). The second-half earnings are expected to be even grimmer in the wake of MH17, following reports from the airline that average weekly bookings had declined by 33 percent. The company has lost more than 40 percent of its market value this year and has not made an annual profit since 2010.

Shareholders will be meeting in early November to consider Khazanah’s selective capital reduction proposal plan before the recovery plan can go into effect. Although shareholders will be losing money by selling off their assets for lower prices than they purchased them for, the independent adviser AmInvestment Bank advised that they accept the offer, because without the proposed capital injection from Khazanah, the airline will go under and the share price will collapse. It’s better to lose a finger than to lose an arm.

As budget carriers like AirAsia, which was formally state-owned before being taken private, lead the Southeast Asian market, there are those who will view any further capital injection into Malaysia Airlines as an imprudent use of public funds. Khazanah itself has noted that the RM17.4bn used to restructure the national carrier could have helped improve education or provide water and power to remote villages. It also doesn’t make sense to refer to Khazanah’s move to take full ownership of the airline as a privatization since it is a government investment fund; it’s more like a de-facto nationalization.

At this stage, whether Malaysia Airlines is nationalized or privatized is a periphery concern: the real question is how can it be restructured to viably compete with discount airlines that make up some 58 percent of the air traffic in Southeast Asia? There are concerns going forward that Khazanah lacks the expertise needed to micromanage the airline and implement the kind of solutions needed to shift the balance back toward profitability. Additionally, there will be no minority shareholders to scrutinize the management and provide helpful input under Khazanah’s full ownership of the carrier.

Structural adjustments are needed to make the airline leaner and more efficient if it has any chance of surviving. Long unprofitable routes that require heavy subsidies should be cut with renewed focus on competitively priced medium-haul services within Asia. The fleet of Boeing 777s and Airbus A380s can be sold off and replaced with more fuel-efficient A330s and the A350s designed for shorter distances.

If employees and unions were better informed about the dire ill health of the airline, perhaps they would agree to voluntary pay cuts for a limited period if it meant retaining job security. Under the current circumstances, bonuses should be suspended and the balance sheet should be carefully scrutinized. In addition to rolling out a public relations blitz to repair the image of the company, Malaysia Airlines should emulate some qualities of their rivals’ business models, but differentiate themselves by offering greater value for money to the extent that a full-service airline can provide.

No answers, no closure

As the enquiry continues into the demise of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the skies of eastern Ukraine in July, the preliminary findings of the international investigation have done little to develop a clearer understanding of the incident. The parties responsible for bringing down the aircraft, and exactly what means were utilized to do so, have yet to be firmly established.

The Dutch Safety Board (DSB), which is leading the investigation into the MH17 crash, released a preliminary report in September, which sought to analyze air traffic control and radio communication data, assess the inflight break-up sequences, and conduct a forensic examination of the wreckage. Assigning culpability to any party was not in the report’s mandate; the authors of the text use highly guarded and ambiguous language to explain their findings.

Due to the continued obstruction and contamination of the crash site as a result of military hostilities, it is highly questionable whether further forensic examinations can be carried out under such protracted circumstances. Another barrier is a lack of political will to consider certain findings, due to the politically charged nature of the Ukrainian conflict, which has resuscitated Cold War-era hostilities, bringing US-Russia relations to new lows.

Though Ukraine, the United States, and other countries have accused Russia of supplying the rebels with surface-to-air missiles and orchestrating the shoot-down of MH17, those governments have yet to declassify their intelligence on MH17, refusing even to discuss the sources and methodology behind their findings. Comments by Russian officials at the UN and elsewhere indicate that Moscow feels its side of the story has been neglected and overlooked.

The satellite images and military data made public by Moscow, which suggest a completely different series of events, have been entirely absent from the media’s narrative. The Dutch findings conclude that the aircraft abruptly ended its flight after a large number of “high energy objects” penetrated the aircraft from the outside, but does not identify the nature of those objects.

Dutch investigators have wholly omitted findings from radar data submitted by Moscow that purportedly showed a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet flying in close proximity to MH17 prior to it disappearing from radar.  BBC’s Russian language service broadcasted a report shortly after the disaster where several local eyewitnesses claimed to see a military aircraft in the sky flying in the vicinity of MH17 as it exploded and broke apart. The investigation has a responsibility to address the question of the Ukrainian fighter jet and its possible role in the incident.

The case of MH370 has proven to be the most baffling incident in commercial aviation history and one of the world's greatest aviation mysteries. Despite the largest multinational search and rescue effort ever conducted, not a trace of debris from the aircraft has been found, nor has the cause of the aircraft’s erratic change of trajectory and disappearance been established.

After a fruitless search in the southern Indian Ocean where the plane is believed to have crashed after running out of fuel, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau leading the investigation has admitted that investigators are not entirely sure if the current underwater search is being conducted in the right spot, although Malaysian officials have been more optimistic.

Tim Clark, the CEO and president of Emirates, questioned the methodology used by investigation team to pinpoint the crash site, claiming it was downright “suspicious” that a Boeing 777 could disappear without a trace with its communications being disabled. Clark also raised concerns that the public was not being told the whole truth about the cargo manifest.

The families of the passengers and crewmembers onboard the missing aircraft recently renewed calls for Putrajaya to release the full cargo manifest, which they say was only partially released some two months after the incident, claiming that there were missing gaps in the document. The manifesto claimed that the cargo contained 2.4 tons of lithium ion batteries and radio accessories and chargers consigned for Motorola, and 4.5 tons of mangosteen.

IGP Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar promised the media that authorities would investigate the mangosteen supplier after the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority claimed that the fruit was not in season, nor were there any orchards in Johor where the mangosteen supplier, Poh Seng Kian, is based. The way in which certain information has allegedly been withheld from the public domain has worked to stoke skepticism that investigators must address. 

Inmarsat, the British satellite telecommunications company responsible for analyzing MH370 satellite data, has also come under scrutiny from independent satellite experts and engineers that found glaring inconsistencies in their analysis. The Atlantic magazine published a report in May based on the analysis of Michael Exner, founder of the American Mobile Satellite Corporation, Duncan Steel, a physicist and visiting scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and satellite technology consultant Tim Farrar.

The team of analysts used flight and navigation software to deconstruct Inmarsat’s analysis, and determined that Inmarsat’s data contained irregular frequency shifts, and even when the values were corrected, Inmarsat’s example flight paths failed to match and proved to be erroneous. In other words, these analysts believe there may be grounds to believe that the search is being conducted on the basis of a false mathematical conclusion.

The authors of the report attempted to reach Inmarsat and other relevant bodies, but they claim that the company did not reply to requests for comments on basic technical questions about their analysis, leading them to determine that “Inmarsat officials and search authorities seem to want it both ways: They release charts, graphics, and statements that give the appearance of being backed by math and science, while refusing to fully explain their methodologies.”

While the investigation teams are doing their level best to establish accounts of the two Malaysia Airlines disasters, there is undoubtedly a dimension of political pressure involved that can create various barriers to understanding. The astonishing nature of these two incidents demand that uncomfortable scenarios and questions be addressed and examined. The media still has an important role to play.

This article was appeared in the October 28 and 29, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper.

Nile Bowie is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His articles have appeared in numerous international publications, including regular columns with Russia Today (RT) and newspapers such as the Global Times, the Malaysian Reserve and the New Straits Times. He is a research assistant with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian NGO promoting social justice and anti-hegemony politics. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

Occupy Central is undermining stability

Hong Kong has been brought to a standstill over the past several weeks as the territory’s pro-democracy movement clogged major roads and transport arteries, blocking traffic in a sustained campaign of civil disobedience. Clashes between demonstrators and local business owners, taxi drivers, and other residents have become commonplace due to the strain placed on the economy by the protest movement.

Irrespective of whether one supports the movement or not, it is self-evident that the sustained protest strategy has long ceased to be constructive. The number of participants has dwindled to the low hundreds in most cases. As evidenced by reports and video footage of chaotic altercations, the persistence of the movement is undermining the city’s social fabric and stability. Support for the Occupy camp is also eroding as business and transport disruptions persist.

Occupy Central is the latest manifestation of an increasingly common kind of movement, whereby a consolidated group of frustrated young demonstrators occupy public areas and refuse to disperse until their demands are met. Elder protest leaders and opportunistic opposition politicians set the agenda, while hordes of students enforce their demands on the street. In the push to achieve the goal of the campaign, the negative impact on local businesses and people’s lives are of little concern.

While movements like these tend to crop up in highly polarized societies, protestors will shrewdly accept nothing less than their demands, even if they represent a contentious minority position. That these groups sing the praises of ‘democracy’ makes for good satire. However, to dismiss these movements altogether as an annoyance or threat to public disorder obfuscates important political signals which need to be listened to.

As it pertains to Hong Kong, an extremely complex set of social and economic factors motivates and fuels the protest movement. The rising eminence of mainland cities as shipping and financial hubs casts a shadow over Hong Kong, which has long ceased to serve as an exclusive gateway into China for foreign investors and banks.

Beijing has taken a hands-off approach to Hong Kong, allowing the territory to operate with a high degree of political autonomy. While there is little evidence of the central government trying to assert its authority and systems onto the territory, the large volume of mainlanders who come to Hong Kong as tourists and property-buyers have instilled in many the notion that Hong Kong risks being absorbed into the mainland’s social and cultural milieu.

The idea of protecting the territory’s unique identity from absorption into the larger polity propounds demonstrators with an ardent sense of urgency and justice. It is undeniable that Hong Kong is rife with chauvinist attitudes toward mainlanders. The demonstrations, in turn, have become an avenue for protestors to assert their status and identity, veiled under a homogenizing pro-democracy banner. Mainland reactions to the protests have been lukewarm because these sentiments can be widely inferred.

Another more obvious factor is economic in nature, pertaining to the territory’s soaring income inequality and the increasing difficulty to make ends meet. The ‘Hong Kong dream’ is fast evaporating, as young people increasingly view barriers to home-ownership and greater material affluence as becoming ever more pronounced. Most poignantly, there is a major trust deficit toward the current administration that could continue to widen and polarize society. 

International media coverage, which has echoed the sympathetic statements made in favor of the protestors by Western governments, has oversimplified the Occupy Central movement by overlooking questions of identity and dislocation. The movement has been framed through a familiar cookie-cutter narrative that is averse to criticizing the student movement whilst often exaggerating the extent of police misconduct.

Teargas was used to disperse the protestors, which had the unintended effect of galvanizing support for the movement, only when students attempted to storm government buildings. In contrast to the heavy-handed conduct and police brutality that has been repeatedly demonstrated in Europe and the United States, the actions of the Hong Kong police were highly restrained throughout. These demonstrations have proved beyond doubt that the Hong Kong authorities have respected their citizens’ rights to assemble.

Western media has also mischaracterized the historical treaty between Britain and China that set conditions for the handover, while obfuscating a critical point: that implementing the universal suffrage system was Beijing’s idea. Nowhere in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration is universal suffrage mentioned. As it pertains to the territory’s Basic Law, the chief executive will be elected by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee.

There is no substance to the allegation that China ‘reneged on its commitment’ to offer universal suffrage, because the law always stipulated that a nominating committee would approve candidates for chief executive. By selectively reporting from pro-Occupy perspectives, the Western media has created an impression that Beijing is suppressing democracy, when in fact the population will be directly electing the chief executive through one-person-one-vote for the first time in history in 2017.

The one-person-one-vote system was never a feature of life under British colonial rule. By 2020, both the chief executive and legislative council be will elected through universal suffrage, representing a move toward popular ballot-box politics. A 1,200-member electoral college currently elects the chief executive; therefore, the accommodation of direct elections will be undeniably more representative than the current arrangement.

It is hardly surprising that the figures associated with the Occupy Central movement, be they student leaders or opposition politicians, have a relationship with the US government, through its foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The organization channeled hundreds of thousands into programs to mobilize university students to demand universal suffrage, while the media has campaigned on their behalf, romanticizing the so-called ‘Umbrella Revolution’ on 24-hour news cycles in the West.

In keeping with other campaigns that have been bolstered by NED’s largesse, the protest movement brands itself with a symbol or color – the umbrella in this case – which is peddled as a fashion statement. The fact that these movements speak with emotions rather than facts make ‘revolution’ a very easy product to sell. Washington’s statements in support of Occupy Central are staggeringly hypocritical given the heavy-handed suppression of the US Occupy movement over the years, in addition to the regular accounts of police brutality that have enflamed race-relations in places such as Ferguson.

US support for the demonstrations in Hong Kong should be seen as part and parcel of a wider strategy by Washington to encourage agitation in China’s periphery regions and territorial disputes. It is only a matter of time before the protest movement loses steam, but the complex attitudes driving the discontent will not be easy to placate. Dialogue between the government and opposing forces will need to take place eventually, but the movement needs to know when to compromise.

A version of this commentary appeared in the Global Times.

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Hong Kong’s ‘Semi-Autonomous Democracy’ is still a leap forward

As the Occupy Central movement cries foul over electoral regulations imposed by Beijing, few acknowledge that the proposed reforms are far more representative than any previous electoral mechanism in Hong Kong’s history.

Tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets of Hong Kong in recent days, defying calls to disperse demanding the Chinese government agrees to allow residents to freely elect the city’s next leader. The student-led demonstrations have sparked the worst unrest seen in the Asian financial hub since the 1997 handover which saw China regain sovereignty over the former British colony.

Demonstrations have expanded throughout the city calling for the resignation of chief executive Leung Chun-ying, bringing shopping and business districts to a standstill. Members of the protest movement, known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace, attempted to invade the city's main government compound, prompting riot police to disperse crowds with tear gas and pepper spray.

The conduct of security forces galvanized sympathy for the movement, causing its ranks to swell over the weekend as the value of the Hong Kong dollar tumbled to a six-month low. Student leaders have vowed not to attend classes indefinitely until the city’s top leader steps down, while activists set up barricades and vow to continue their civil disobedience campaign.

Hong Kong operates with a high degree of autonomy under the framework of the “one country, two systems” model, which grants residents of the semi-autonomous island a higher degree of civil liberties, press freedom and political expression than citizens in mainland China. Activists believe the government in Beijing is intent on tightening control over the area to undermine existing freedoms.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Can Malaysia withstand the next financial crisis?

As developed economies of the world still continue their struggle to recover from the global financial crisis in 2008, the lack of confidence in global economic stability has placed greater demand on emerging markets to cushion themselves for the next crash. While woefully unsustainable debt levels deepen and weak regulatory oversight persist, the lack of tangible reforms creates an imperative for countries like Malaysia to stay ahead of the curve.

This was the theme of the Perdana Leadership Foundation’s sixth CEO Forum held in Kuala Lumpur last week, where more than thirty panelists analyzed the shaky state of the global economy and offered insights into Malaysia’s strengths and vulnerabilities, as well as the country’s susceptibility to external economic turbulence. In addition to market-related vulnerabilities, panelists also identified inter-religious anxieties between communities as factors that could put national unity and political stability at risk. 

Tan Sri Dato’ Dr. Lin See Yan, a trustee of the Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, identified how high fences built to withstand economic shocks and de-risk the financial system are seldom designed for all possibilities. He branded the European Union as the weakest link in the global financial system, noting that the bloc’s debt problems kept growing, austerity has proven to be counter productive, the euro currency remains overvalued, and the European Central Bank (ECB) has stagnated in the midst of its bond-buying strategy.

Lin also noted the possibility of another crisis originating from within the United States due to vulnerabilities posed by the country’s ballooning $17 trillion debt levels, the growing housing bubble, and the persistence of trading high-risk financial products backed by complex securitizations. He also raised concerns over recent data on the Chinese economy, which has shown a decline in fixed asset investments, raising speculation about whether or not the Chinese authorities would introduce a stimulus package. 

Tan Sri Azman Yahya, executive chairman of Symphony Life, believes that growth in China will continue to be on the upswing despite concerns of deceleration, even without significant investment, by virtue of Beijing’s prudent economic reforms. China has already announced at the recent G20 meeting of finance ministers that it will not make major policy adjustments in the form of stimulus despite slightly lower growth indicators. Reforms will be prioritized to stabilize employment and contain systemic risks such as widespread default. 

High government deficits, unprecedented government and private sector debt levels, and low household savings are deeply worrying trends in mature economies, according to Yahya, who claims that eventual tapering by the US Federal Reserve to cease quantitative easing (QE) measures could trigger a loss of confidence in the US dollar, causing an offloading and crash of US securities capable of tanking global markets. 

Yahya identified the risks posed by the lack of tangible financial sector reforms, the unsustainable US debt bubble, the growing loss of confidence in the US dollar, and surmised that the next crisis may strike within five years. He identified the high growth levels of Asia-Pacific countries as a buffer to crises emanating from stagnate western economies, noting how China’s middle class is set to expand to one billion by 2025, while growth will be increasingly be powered by consumption. 

Panelists at the forum generally agreed that the Asia-Pacific region is in a far healthier state today in comparison to the 1997 crisis, as China’s growth strategy moves away from the investment-driven template to more sustainable consumption-led expansion. Countries in the ASEAN region are also cooperating at higher levels. Analysts agree that Malaysia has proven to be fairly resilient and adept at crisis management, as it managed to navigate through treacherous economic periods while retaining consistently healthy growth levels over the past two decades. 

The country defied the IMF’s economic orthodoxy and introduced capital control measures during the 1997 Asian financial crisis to counter the short selling of the Malaysian ringgit by currency speculators, which triggered dramatic depreciation and rapid falls in stock market capitalization. Malaysia recovered faster than its neighbors and consolidated its banking system, putting buffers in place by introducing broader market regulations and strengthening banks to withstand shocks. 

During the global financial crisis in 2008, triggered by the bursting of the US housing bubble and the subsequent collapse of large financial institutions trading toxic mortgage-related financial products, the country found itself better prepared. The way the crisis struck in 1997 took Malaysian policymakers totally off guard. The country’s economy was highly stable and experiencing growth at 8 percent; loans were being repeatedly prepaid and Malaysia was stepping in rescue Thailand after attacks on the baht.

The current scenario also demands that countries expect the unexpected. The general consensus among panelists the Perdana forum was that a new financial crisis could present itself at some point within the next eighteen months to five years, with the potential for several mini-crises to bubble up and trigger recessionary depression. It is nearly impossible to accurately pinpoint when the next crisis will hit, but there are numerous flashpoints to consider.

In addition to vulnerabilities stemming from uncontrolled derivative trading and speculative hot money flows, debt and bubbles loom. During the 2008 crisis, insolvent private banks and lending institutions were deemed too-big-to-fail, but today, central banks are on the road to inheriting that status. Debt levels have ballooned to unprecedented levels driven by QE and low interest rates. Stagnate wages and easy credit has goaded consumers to keep borrowing to maintain consumption.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are experiencing high unemployment levels and dramatic income inequality, giving rise to greater levels of social unrest while the stock markets of both countries have performed above par – surpassing the highs of pre-crisis levels. The sharp ascent of share prices, which has been heralded as proof of an economic recovery, does not correlate with rising activity in the productive economy or with per capita income.

The distinguished economist Ha-Joon Chang has referred to these developments as ‘the biggest stock market bubble in modern history.’ It is clear that share prices do not reflect real economic activity. The core of the problem is that successive rounds of QE have increased liquidity rates and fuelled asset bubbles rather than being channeled into productive assets.

Panelists addressed how many of the new jobs being created in mature economies are low-wage positions that offer little career mobility. The broad appeal of protest campaigns organized by fast-food workers to demand a living wage is a testament to the strains on ordinary people who are unable to meet the cost of living. Americans are pessimistic about their nation’s economic recovery policies because many find themselves facing more trying domestic circumstances.

Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad attended the Perdana forum to give the closing keynote address, where he likened the implementation of solutions to avert economic crises to a medical doctor treating a patient, stressing the need to understand the systemic contradictions of the global financial system. Dr. Mahathir denounced fractional reserve banking practices, which result in banks lending far greater amounts of money than they actually possess in cash reserves, and the leveraging practices taken advantage of by currency speculators and hedge funds.

The former Malaysian prime minister accused Europe and the US of being in a state of denial as to how markets are manipulated, primarily because the political classes themselves benefit from speculation. Dr. Mahathir believes that the role of the financial sector is overemphasized in national economies and advised greater market regulation. Governments must be ready to step in to limit the abuses of the banking system, according to Mahathir, who characterized the inherent inequality of the modern age as one where 99 percent of people are beholden to the ultra-wealthy 1 percent, citing the slogan popularized by the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.

Mass protest movements demanding accountability from Wall Street have remained potent because the underlying conditions that generated the crisis have not been addressed in any meaningful way. Instead of steering monetary policies in a sensible direction and broadening regulatory oversight to identify risky financial products and prevent predatory speculation, the banking lobby has strong-armed western politicians into accepting a growth model where short-term profits for the few take precedence over long-term investments in productive assets for the many.

Elsewhere in the world, the economic power and political autonomy of BRICS countries and their plans to establish a development bank to finance infrastructure growth throughout the developing world offers a far more sustainable investment model. To offset the risks of future crises, it is imperative to find the political courage to reduce the importance of the non-productive financial sector in national economies in favor of investments into productive assets that create infrastructure and job opportunities.

Panelists at the Perdana forum argued that even if measures are taken to bolster productive assets, financial and economic crises may strike in unexpected ways: resulting from cyber threat vulnerabilities, sudden geopolitical instability, conflicts over resources and the pricing of resources, and complications that can result from the use of non-traditional currencies.

Malaysia is considered a safe investment destination due to its political stability and imperviousness to natural disasters; the country’s competent young workforce is eager to enter innovative service sector positions, a major asset in contrast to other Asian countries struggling to maintain population growth. To meet the present development aspirations, it is necessary for the country to protect against both external and internal crises.

The Malaysian leadership faces a difficult balancing act on all fronts. It must do more to improve inter-communal harmony without rolling back civil liberties. Despite the country’s strong performance legitimacy, trust and confidence in the government and the integrity of institutions remains low due to endemic corruption. There is a need for a comprehensive social safety net system to address rising income inequality on a needs-basis.

Simultaneously, economic circumstances demand that developing countries remove energy and social subsidies in order to increase efficiency and become a more attractive destination for capital. Navigating through the crises ahead will require bold leadership. Malaysia will be in a better position to withstand turbulence if it takes meaningful steps to reduce income disparities and pursues inclusive social policies that will restore grassroots trust in the leadership.

This article appeared in the September 29, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper.

Nile Bowie is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His articles have appeared in numerous international publications, including regular columns with Russia Today (RT) and newspapers such as the Global Times, the Malaysian Reserve and the New Straits Times. He is a research assistant with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian NGO promoting social justice and anti-hegemony politics. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Selangor crisis brings Pakatan’s inadequacies to the fore

After eight months of protracted quarrelling that widened political divisions between the component parties of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition, the appointment of PKR deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali to the helm of the country’s richest state has now drawn the Selangor menteri besar crisis to a close.

PKR has maintained over the past several weeks that it would only endorse its president, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah, for the MB post. Though the DAP supported Wan Azizah’s nomination, the party also expressed openness to the idea of Azmin replacing embattled MB Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim. Wan Azizah withdrew her candidacy for the position shortly after the Sultan of Selangor announced his decision to choose Azmin for the post.

PKR’s leadership has understood that antagonizing the palace will not serve to further its interests in retaining the state. In the midst of drawn-out political turbulence, the party ultimately consented to Azmin taking control of Selangor to avoid the possibility being punished by a fatigued electorate if snap polls were held, which could result in the loss of seats for the party.

The menteri besar crisis, triggered by the ill-fated Kajang move, has widened the spilt between PAS and its partners in the opposition coalition. Internal discord within the Islamist party has strained cooperation between the conservative ulama and moderate figures regarding differences over the menteri besar candidacy.

PAS President Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang has been criticized by figures within and outside the party for his reluctance to support the stance of PKR and DAP, who backed Wan Azizah’s nomination for MB. At the recent PAS annual assembly, Hadi insisted that PAS would stick to its own principles rather than unquestioningly toeing the line of its coalition partners.

Speculation has been rife that the Islamist party would mull exiting from the opposition coalition during its assembly, as proposed by influential clerics in the party who feel that PAS’s alliance with opposition partners could potentially undermine the party’s philosophical underpinnings. Hadi dismissed that the Islamist party would break its partnership with Pakatan Rakyat. Far from being conciliatory, Hadi’s maneuvering is based on realpolitik.

It is widely accepted that PAS would be relegated to the political fringes if it abandoned its coalition partnership with PKR and DAP. Hadi has acknowledged that the party could never survive on its own in Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious political landscape.

The Islamist party was the worst performing component party of the opposition coalition during last year’s general elections and it has failed to obtain a state or federal seat in Sabah or Sarawak throughout its entire history. PAS’ fumbles in Terengganu and Kedah have only compounded the party’s lukewarm reception at the polls.

During the assembly, Hadi went on chastise his coalition partners, who he described as being 'intoxicated with power.' Reports also indicate that top DAP and PKR leaders snubbed PAS by failing to attend this year’s assembly, demonstrating the coalition’s fraying unity, though the PAS leadership brushed off their absence and downplayed the evident friction within the opposition coalition.

As a new menteri besar takes control, the attempted Kajang move, engineered by PKR to bring its president to power in the country’s most strategic state, has proven to be an ill-conceived gamble that has gone awry in nearly ever aspect. It has undermined the opposition coalition by widening the discord within Pakatan Rakyat while spurring on budding factionalism within PAS as an unintended consequence.

After failing to grasp Putrajaya during the last elections, PKR became intent on using Selangor to showcase its brand of governance. Residents in the state have been relatively satisfied with Abdul Khalid, who served as menteri besar since 2008. There have been no broad grassroots protest movements demanding his resignation during his tenure.

PKR expressed their disapproval with Abdul Khalid earlier this year, over his lax handling of the bible seizure issue, blunders and delays related to the state’s water shortages, and other issues that were used by the party to dent his image. It should be noted though that under his leadership, the state’s financial reserves have been the highest ever achieved in the history of Selangor, with a significant portion of annual budgets being channeled into developmental expenditure.

PKR should have addressed the perceived shortcomings of Abdul Khalid’s leadership with a program of coherent political solutions; it could have certainly concentrated on solving these issues in a practical way. Instead, the PKR leadership opted for an underhanded move to topple its own state government, inciting a political crisis to the detriment of the opposition coalition.

The failed Kajang move has undermined public trust and widened perceptions among the coalition’s support base that the opposition is just as capable of executing crude political maneuvers that smack of ‘old politics.’ These developments have sparked unhelpful hostility between Pakatan Rakyat and the Sultan of Selangor, exposing the poor internal communication and coordination infrastructure within the opposition coalition.

Chinese support for PAS and Malay perceptions toward the DAP are likely to be bruised by this incident, which has also worked against Wan Azizah, furthering impressions of her being a placeholder for the opposition leader as members of the coalition openly questioned her leadership capability.

PKR’s leadership is now the awkward position of having to settle for a menteri besar candidate that they did not choose, someone who may be more defiant than his predecessor on certain issues. Azmin is known for breaking with the party line to speak his mind, especially in cases where he has been put off by the theatrics of the opposition leader.

Azmin notably snubbed Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim over his botched mass protest campaign following last year’s defeat at the polls by failing to attend rallies; he raised eyebrows when tweeting about his disapproval with ‘politics that are over the top’ and urged his party to accept the election results and ‘focus on the rakyat, not yourselves.’

While a new meneri besar has been sworn in, it does not mean that the spectacle of vitriolic infighting within the opposition coalition will subside. This period of prolonged political crisis and failed Kajang move that gave rise to it has fueled perceptions that the coalition is in fact a tattered marriage of opportunism rather than a dependable partnership. The damage is already done.

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.