Thursday, September 28, 2006


Straits Times Interactive - Prime News
Sept 28, 2006 Thu

By Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur and Azhar Ghani, Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta

MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has written to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew seeking an explanation for his recent comment that Malaysia and Indonesia marginalised their Chinese citizens.

Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told The Straits Times yesterday that the letter was sent a few days ago, through the two countries' foreign ministries.

'It seeks an explanation, and pointed out that this sort of statement is not welcome. It is sensitive and dangerous. We are very unhappy,' he said.

Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia T. Jasudasen will be summoned today, and will meet the foreign ministry's secretary-general, he added.

In Jakarta, Singapore's Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri was asked for an explanation by the foreign ministry on Tuesday.

The foreign ministry has also instructed its embassy in Singapore to lodge a protest, said its director for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Mr Yuri Thamrin, yesterday. He said: 'The ambassador was called in to help clear the matter.

'It's an old story. We are seeking clarification from the Singaporean side and we are still waiting for it.'

An official with the Singapore Embassy in Jakarta said yesterday that the Republic would respond to Indonesia through appropriate channels in due course.

MM Lee had made the comments while answering a question at a dialogue for good governance in Singapore on Sept 15.

He said that the attitude of Indonesia and Malaysia, which 'systematically marginalised' their ethnic Chinese minorities, shaped the way they treated ties with the Republic.

He added that the two countries 'want Singapore, to put it simply, to be like their Chinese - compliant'.

Over the past week, leaders in Malaysia, including the prime minister, have spoken out against the comments.

In Indonesia, the issue surfaced on Tuesday after The Jakarta Post ran a report on two legislators criticising MM Lee and demanding an apology.

The paper also noted that almost 10 years after the passage of anti-discrimination laws, there were still
reports of minorities experiencing difficulties in obtaining birth certificates, identity cards, family cards and citizenship certificates.

Yesterday, the Koran Tempo daily ran an editorial which said Indonesia had got rid of many discriminatory laws and regulations since Mr Suharto stepped down in 1998.

It cited the new citizenship law passed in July this year, which exempts Indonesian Chinese from having to produce proof of citizenship or undergo the naturalisation process if they were born to Indonesian parents.

The editorial also noted that while there are still some 60 laws and regulations that are racially biased, this did not mean that Indonesia would continue to 'systematically oppress' its Chinese citizens.

This comes as no surprise.

My win-win scenario was that Lee would explain/apologize without being asked (wishful thinking I know) and that Malaysian government would take the opportunity to engage the population in an open, honest and fruitful debate on the issue (which is even more wishful). (Can’t comment on Jakarta’s reaction as I know precious little about the Indonesian angle).

That the Malaysian government is seeking an “explanation” only suggests that they are in denial. Politically, however, one can see how they are left with little choice, what with the ongoing rift (and hence competition for support) within UMNO.

Seah Chiang Nee provides an interesting take on Lee’s comments, suggesting that Lee wants to remind the new (Singapore) generation that being small doesn’t mean Singapore must be compliant to its bigger neighbours.

Given that the Lee’s remarks were apparently made off-the-cuff during a Q&A session, Seah may be giving Lee a little more credit than is due, but the logic is sound nonetheless. Singapore political and economic survival does require a careful balance of amity and rivalry with its neighbours.

But back in Malaysia, Lee’s remarks could be seen as:

A wake-up call which in the longer term might lead to debate and reform which ultimately brings Malaysians of all races closer (wishful thinking again); or
A “naughty” statement (as DPM Najib puts it) which is divisive, and causes (further) unhappiness amongst the minorities in Malaysia.

Lee would have his own interests and agenda with regards to what he wants to tell Singaporeans and the international community. But it is up to the Malaysian government and media to decide how his remarks are viewed, and will impact upon Malaysia.

I think it is time we all did some wishful thinking.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lee Kuan Yew’s remarks – A painful truth?

Looks like MM Lee has shot his mouth off again. Some years ago in 1997, he mentioned in an affidavit (against opposition politician Tang Liang Hong) that Johor had a high crime rate. Just recently, he was quoted at an IMF/WB sidelines forum that Malaysia and Indonesia had marginalized their Chinese populations, drawing reactions, including from PM Abdullah and DPM Najib (discussed in Jeff Ooi’s Screenshots).

Media reports suggest that Malaysia is likely to send a formal protest note, possibly seeking an apology or explanation. Should Lee apologize? An elder statesman such as he should know better. No doubt about it, Lee should apologize for making statements which are:

Undiplomatic? Perhaps.

Insensitive? Probably.

Honest? Definitely.

Let’s face it. Lee’s remarks/observations are not a secret to anyone living in this part of the world. Any honest commentator on socio-politics in Malaysia or Indonesia would have said the same. But that’s a long story for another day.

In 1997, after his Johor crime remarks were publicized, Lee made a public apology (and explaining that the remarks in the affidavit were not intended for the public).

Yet now – almost ten years later – if the reports in recent years of snatch robberies and car thefts in Johor are anything to go by, Lee’s comment “that place is notorious for shootings, muggings and carjackings” does not seem so libelous after all. To the residents and visitors of Johor, the apology is of little value.

What is important here is that we Malaysians must prove Lee is wrong this time. Apology or no apology, let’s not kid ourselves. Failure to redress our discriminatory policies will have an even greater impact on our future than the crime situation in Johor.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Global Malaysian or Ultra Malay?

There have been a few interesting developments since I briefly discussed Khairy Jamaluddin’s ambitions to become PM.

First, Khairy was featured in the media, wearing an arm sling, leading a large crowd, protesting to Condi Rice on the Israeli-Lebanon conflict. This is the sign of a true politician … or politician wannabe. Broken arm or not, he would be with his people on the ground. No ivory tower career for this Oxbridge grad!

Personally, as a Chinese Malaysian, I was happy to see someone like Khairy appear on the political scene. I know that we will not see a minority-race Malaysian PM in my lifetime, and a global, intellectual and moderate Malay is just what we needed. So what if he is young? He’ll have more time to learn about his people, and about leadership.

Then it was reported that Khairy had been given a multi-million-dollar “loan” to buy stock in ECM Libra, where he is a director. So what? As long as the money did not come from tax payers dollars or corruption, he can go ahead. After all, if the stock price should fall (and it did), he would lose money.

As Jerry Seinfeld once suggested, you don’t want to get onto a plane where the pilot is making minimum wage and worrying about making ends meet. Likewise, we don’t want the people piloting your economy to be broke! The amount we pay our politicians is probably less than what the average tout-taxi driver plying the KLCC-KLIA route gets. (At RM500 a pop, it is not hard to see why).

But I digress. Back to Khairy. I am no longer a fan.

Khairy’s recent remarks have disappointed me tremendously. He is reported as saying at an UMNO Youth branch meeting (in the context of stressing the importance of party unity) that non-Malays would take advantage of a weak UMNO. MCA and Gerakan have responded, but Khairy has refused to apologise. His reason is that “we need not apologise to anyone in our struggle for our religion, race and country.”

Maybe he does not owe anyone an apology. But I think the least he could do is explain. Malaysia’s fight for independence, development and excellence is fought by all its component races and religions.

So when he refers to “our” struggle, I hope he is not only referring to Malays and Muslims. Otherwise, I would never want him to be our PM.

It is a good thing he is so young … he still has a lot to learn.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Singapore's Pro-Immigration Policy - We have to reach outward to build within

Here's my 2-cents worth on PM Lee's National Day Rally speech about the importance of a pro-immigration policy to boost the talent pool here.

Well, the Government's valid point of view is to augment our country's competitiveness especially when we need to stay relevant to the burgeoning economies in China and India and to stay ahead of fast-growing competitors in our neighbourhood. What is critical in this push to attract foreigners to take up Singapore citizenship is that these immigrants will "top up" the talent pool here.

PM Lee mentioned Mustafa's Mr Mustaq Ahmad in his rally speech. Surely, more Mustafa shopping centres in Singapore will be nice. =)

The net gain of increasing the foreign talent pool to the well-being of our economy is said to be beneficial. (Top economists In the US have contended that immigration has been a net gain for American citizens. See the Independent Institutean "Open Letter on Immigration" signed by top economists and addressed to George Bush and members of Congress)

At the end of the day, the Government's intention is benign - It’s about making sure Singapore grows bigger, be it in terms of population or economic size. (see Kway Teow Man's thoughtful discussion at Singapore Angle)

Yet, whether it's packaged as 'pro-immigration', 'attracting foreign talents', or 'immigrants - not enough', any suggestion that Singapore needs to be more open to immigration have drawn and will continue to attract much flak.

The concern here appears to be simple and clear - attracting more foreigners will have serious implications on one's rice-bowl (livelihood), thus increasing the fear of retrenchment. To quote a concerned Singaporean who expressed his views on ST Forum, "the lesson to be learnt here is that Singaporeans have to compete with foreign talents in their quest for a job and the competition will intensify with more foreign talents". (ST Forum Online 29 Aug 2006) The opposition political party National Solidarity Party (NSP) has also jumped into the fray and argued for strict quotas on the number of talented foreign professionals allowed into Singapore. (See NSP press release on 22 Aug 2006)

Certainly, the concerns are not unique to Singaporeans. Around the world, immigration has become a hot political potato for politicians and voters in oft-said advanced democracies. In the US, critics are arguing for stricter immigration regulations to curb the rising influx of illegal immigrants. In Germany, millions of Turks continued to be called 'Gastarbeiters' or 'guest workers' without citizenship, despite many of them were born and bred in Germany. In the UK, public fears of migration are putting pressure on the government to impose control amid revelation that almost 600,000 Eastern Europeans have moved to the country to look for work. Furthermore, British authorities are realising the pitfalls of immigration laxity and are taking action against preachers of religious hatred who have not only fail to integrate into the local community, but have made use of years of lenient immigration and asylum policies to advocate racial-religious strife and violence against the nation-state.

Here's how I see it - the problem do not just boil down to jobs / bread-and-butter issues. There are serious nation-building considerations to be mindful of.

On one level, while Singapore celebrates ethnic and cultural diversity, the task of helping 'new citizens' integrate into the local community is an arduous challenge.

I stand corrected that no quantifier can accurately measure something as abstract as assimilation and patriotism. As top civil servant Chiang Chie Foo puts it, "there isn't a programme where you go through and you become transformed and integrated". For sure, how the 'new citizens' perceive events in their 'motherland' would have considerable implications for their successful assimilation into Singapore's local community.

On another level, anti-immigration views expressing the insecurities of the people cannot be ignored but has to be carefully managed. Xenophobia directed at foreigners or (in general) at people different from one’s self, can result in political campaigns for cultural purification and worse, aggression against the aliens (both 'new citizens' or otherwise).

Around the world, the anti-immigrant populist message of far right political parties continue to find resonance among the electorate, notwithstanding that it's more than half a century since the fascists inflicted much bloodshed with their murderous deeds during WWII.

Here in Singapore, we can ill-afford to have the Jean-Marie Le Pens and Pauline Hansons to tear the social fabric of our society that we have painstakingly nurtured over the 40 odd years of nationhood.

Undoubtedly, it takes more than a stroke of luck for the pro-immigration policy to work. Instead, the cohesion of our nation is a deliberate man-made endeavour. I understand that there are existing organisations such as the Hua Yuan Association which was set up to help new immigrants from China, to adapt to the nuances of local community.

Yet, while we demand new immigrants to blend in with society, Singaporeans have to also adopt an open heart to accept these new immigrants. The importance of grassroots activities cannot be overstated.

Indeed, while we reach outward to attract more 'new citizens', it must be noted that the task of 'building within' is an important ongoing challenge.