Tuesday, July 26, 2011

INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MALOTT: The US and Malaysia's political awakening

Written by Wong Choon Mei, Malaysia Chronicle

The July 9 Bersih 2.0 rally for free and fair elections is a landmark event in more ways than one. Not only has it galvanized many Malaysians into action against a system that has long been described as decaying, eaten to the bone by corruption and abuse of power, it has also made many in the influential First World wonder about the political leadership and future of the country.

One such person is John Malott, a former US ambassador to Malaysia, who is still widely regarded for his knowledge of the country and its political dynamics. In the wake of the Bersih rally, he was asked for his assessment by a think-tank East-West Center established by the US Congress, and he offered his opinion in an analysis entitled Malaysia's Political Awakening: A Call to US Leadership.

The analysis was published in the Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin, which is delivered directly to over 1,500 leaders of the US foreign policy community, including Members of Congress and their staffs; officials in the White House, US State Department, and US Defense Department; and will influence leaders in US think tanks, university research centers, and the media.

In his article, Malott minced no words, opining that the idyllic image many top US leaders still held of Malaysia as a "democratic, booming, tropical paradise" was no longer true, and in fact, a reverse situation had been taking place. He shared the opinion of another expert Clive Kessler that this situation has now reached a "most fluid and dangerous" point. Kessler is the Emeritus Professor, Sociology & Anthropology, School of Social Sciences & International Studies, The University of New South Wales.

"The purpose of writing this article was two-fold. One, to get the American foreign policy community to “wake up” to what has been happening in Malaysia and shake off any idealized notion of Malaysia as a democratic, booming, tropical paradise. Two, in the words of Amnesty International, to say that America cannot be a “spectator” as the political situation in Malaysia evolves," Malott told Malaysia Chronicle in a recent interview.

"The United States has many interests in Malaysia, including supporting those members of civil society who are calling for electoral reform and greater democracy. We need to go beyond mere lip service and make sure that we stand on the right side of Malaysia’s future."

A more vocal US

Given the impact Bersih has made on the international community and as more analyses such as Malott's are distributed to specific and specialised audiences in the US, there is likely to be some adjustment in Washington's perception of Malaysia going forward. It is possible the US may be more vocal about their support for democratic development in Malaysia, a signal that should not be missed by the alert in the government and business sectors.

In the interview with Malaysia Chronicle, Malott explained what he meant by "US leadership" and stressed that US concerns did not lie in who formed the government of Malaysia but about the continuation of and support for democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.

"I called for US leadership. By that I mean, we need to be more visible and vocal in expressing our concerns about developments in Malaysia. We need to be more supportive – moral support and encouragement - of those members of civil society in Malaysia who want Malaysia to become a true democracy and have the same freedom that we and others have. We should support the call for electoral reform. It is not up to America who forms the government in Malaysia. But we should be concerned whether the playing field is level," said Malott.

But serious though the current situation is, Malott does not think that Malaysians had reached "boiling point". He also believes it is possible for the BN government to regain control of the situation.

"I don’t believe that the situation is near the boiling point. Malaysians don’t boil. They are a very patient people. That is why July 9 was such a remarkable event. The temperature went up, but it is nowhere near the boiling point. But if people don’t follow through – if the leaders of civil society, the opposition and others don’t follow through, the temperature will go down. If the government carves out more space for those who don’t agree with them, they also could lower the temperature," said Malott.

Two different eras - Mahathir and Najib

He warned the imbalances were real and discontent would continue to fester if reforms were ignored. And while concerned, foreign investors and businesses had not reached the stage where they would shun Malaysia. In the past, especially during the time of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysians and investors put up with his ham-fisted rule because the economy was booming. But not anymore.

"As long as the economy was booming, a lot of the underlying racial and social tensions could be contained. Plus people were willing to grant Mahathir the right to wield his political iron hand in exchange for the economic benefits that the country was getting. Despite the occasional scandals and the cronyism, the Malaysian “man in the street” thought that he had benefited greatly from Malaysia’s growth, and he was right. But now for over a decade the economy has slowed, and investment is down. Many college grads are unemployed. And the Government has removed subsidies on everyday items. So I think the man in the street – the Malaysian middle class, the people who live in the cities -- don’t have the same feeling they had before. They don’t see the same level of economic progress for themselves. They don’t see the government delivering on all the promises it has made."

Malott was also scathing about the way Prime Minister Najib Razak handled the July 9 Bersih march, where more than 1,600 people were arrested, thousands more injured and one died from the excessive police crackdown ordered by the authorities.

"The actions of the government, before and after July 9, backfired against them. Matthias Chang wrote that they acted with sheer stupidity. The Government still has a chance to turn this around, but that would require them to give more political “space” to those who don’t agree with them, and to make sure that the people get to enjoy the rights that the constitution guarantees them. Will they? I have my doubts. This is a government – even though they have spent millions on PR firms and management consultants – that keeps shooting itself in the foot. The deportation of the French lawyer is only the latest example. Now, for the first time, all the juicy details of that scandal – including the model who was murdered by the PM’s bodyguards – have appeared in the Washington Post. It just adds to the confusion among people here – what kind of a country is Malaysia, anyhow? And is Najib really the person that he has portrayed himself to be?"

Malaysia Chronicle appends blow the unedited full-text of the interview with John Malott, ambassador from 1995 to 1998 and is currently the president of the Japan-America Society of Washington DC

Chronicle: In your article, you mentioned that the Malaysian people showed they would no longer be intimidated by their government. Given the severity of the pre-rally crackdown and the police scare-mongering and yet tens of thousands defied the ban, would you say this feeling of 'defiance' so to speak is deep-seated, has been growing and is reaching boiling point? And why?

Malott: I think that this discontent has been growing for sometime. But the heavy hand of the government in the days leading up to the July 9 rally, and their strange statements and actions – like saying that Bersih was trying to overthrow the government and banning the color yellow – caused many more Malaysians to wake up and pay attention.

Chronicle: If you agree that the feelings of 'discontent' or 'unhappiness' so to speak are deep-seated, does this imply that the political or living conditions in Malaysia have been and are repressive and do not encourage the truth to be openly raised or discussed. And why?

Malott: I don’t know how deep-seated or widespread these feelings are in Malaysia. That’s why I wrote in my analysis that the question for the future is whether the momentum can be sustained. Will an increasing number of Malaysians wake up and understand the status of democracy and political freedom in their country, or will it go back to business as usual, where it is just activists in civil society and the opposition who are vocal. As I said, the actions of the government, before and after July 9, backfired against them. Matthias Chang wrote that they acted with sheer stupidity. The Government still has a chance to turn this around, but that would require them to give more political “space” to those who don’t agree with them, and to make sure that the people get to enjoy the rights that the constitution guarantees them. Will they? I have my doubts. This is a government – even though they have spent millions on PR firms and management consultants – that keeps shooting itself in the foot. The deportation of the French lawyer is only the latest example. Now, for the first time, all the juicy details of that scandal – including the model who was murdered by the PM’s bodyguards – have appeared in the Washington Post. It just adds to the confusion among people here – what kind of a country is Malaysia, anyhow? And is Najib really the person that he has portrayed himself to be?

Chronicle: If you agree that the 'defiance' so to speak is not an overnight or sudden swell-up but has been building up through the years, does this imply the policies - both social and economic - adopted by the BN federal government have not been appropriate, in the sense that they did not treat the wants and needs of the people? And why?

Malott: When I was Ambassador, we always believed that as long as the economy was booming, a lot of the underlying racial and social tensions could be contained. Plus people were willing to grant Mahathir the right to wield his political iron hand in exchange for the economic benefits that the country was getting. Despite the occasional scandals and the cronyism, the Malaysian “man in the street” thought that he had benefited greatly from Malaysia’s growth, and he was right. But now for over a decade the economy has slowed, and investment is down. Many college grads are unemployed. And the Government has removed subsidies on everyday items. So I think the man in the street – the Malaysian middle class, the people who live in the cities -- don’t have the same feeling they had before. They don’t see the same level of economic progress for themselves. They don’t see the government delivering on all the promises it has made. Meanwhile, they read about diamond rings and fancy yachts and $27 million condos in New York. It seems like it is business as usual at the top. One of the articles in your website today (Sunday) said something like ‘Malaysia is now being run not for the benefit of the people or even the Malays. It is being run for the benefit of the UMNO elite.’

Chronicle: Do you think these feelings of resentment so to speak are anywhere near boling point, close to boiling point or have already boiled over and what are the implications for the ruling BN coalition, the opposition, long-term investors and the people? And why?
For example, is this a wake-up call for the BN, opportunity knocking at the door for the Pakatan, a stay-away call for investors? As for the people, do you foresee the start of a new trend for peaceful assemblies, protests ala Thailand? Or in your words - a political awakening - but in what shape and form will this likely take?

Malott: I don’t believe that the situation is near the boiling point. Malaysians don’t boil. They are a very patient people. That is why July 9 was such a remarkable event. The temperature went up, but it is nowhere near the boiling point. But if people don’t follow through – if the leaders of civil society, the opposition and others don’t follow through, the temperature will go down. If the government carves out more space for those who don’t agree with them, they also could lower the temperature.

On foreign investment, I think that foreign businessmen are smart. They will not be scared away from Malaysia because of one demonstration. What concerns them most is corruption, the lack of transparency in awarding government contracts, the ease and cost of doing business in Malaysia compared to other locations, whether Malaysia’s market is growing fast, its competitiveness, the independence of its courts, the availability of skilled employees, and so on. It is those kinds of practical questions that mean the most to them. As the statistics show, over the last decade or so, Malaysia’s share of all the foreign investment coming into ASEAN has been declining. From the point of view of a foreign investor, they have many choices. There are many countries they can invest in. So the question for the Malaysian government is, what do we need to do to increase our attractiveness to foreign investors, compared to our neighbors?

Chronicle: You quoted another expert who used the term "most fluid and dangerous" to describe the situation in Malaysia today. How extreme can the situation become, for example is it possible for Malaysia to regress to a non-democratic state where elections may even be discarded, military or police rule the new order, a 'closing of doors' so to speak? And why? In such a case, who would be the prime-movers - PM Najib Razak and his cousin Hishammuddin Hussein, other factions led by DPM Muhyiddin Yassin or ex-PMs Mahathir Mohamad and Abdullah Badawi or UMNO, the party as a whole? I do not mention the other parties in BN because it is clear they do not have the clout, do you agree? What would happen to the opposition in the country then? And for how long could an extreme situation last?
You also mentioned in your article, the Economist Intelligence Unit says Malaysia is a “flawed democracy”. If this is so, then if in the swing towards a 'full democracy', Malaysia collapses into a police regime - to many who have been following the situation closely, this would not be surprising or be an unlikly possibility at all. But for those who still see the country as per its postcards of sunny skies and ideal racial harmony, this would come as a rude shock. Do you agree and what sort of odds would you give to the worst scenario happening? And why? What other scenarios do you seen? And why?

Malott: Clive Kessler, who knows infinitely more about Malaysia than I do, wrote an analysis recently (which you had on your website) in which he raised the prospect that rather than lose an election, UMNO would declare an emergency and not hold elections. As a former State Department official, I don’t want to comment on Wikileaks. But when I read the latest leaked cable, in which our Embassy said three years ago, in effect, that UMNO would do “whatever it takes” to remain in power, including subverting the institutions of state power to its own purposes, including the police and the courts. Malaysia has seen Operasi Lalang, it has seen the Sedition Act and ISA used liberally, and more recently it has seen denial of service attacks on the alternative media to keep people from reading what the Government doesn’t want them to know. I hope it doesn’t come to that. I am not Clive Kessler, and I don’t want to make a prediction. But I would not rule out the possibility that something like that might happen. What is the probability of it happening? I don’t know. But if it does happen, then as you said, it will come as a great shock to everyone who has been holding a very different image of Malaysia. That is why I wrote my piece. I think the American people need to wake up and understand what is happening in Malaysia today, and to express our concern.

Chronicle: From your article, it looks like the United States is still in the postcards-and-sunny-skies group? Is this view still very entrenched or have there been significant shifts of late? Given the very sizeable investments the US has in Malaysia, should not American foreign policy makers make better efforts to assess the situation? Should they not take some action or send stronger signals to help keep democracy alive in Malaysia? In other words, has not the time come to take sides? What are the things that US bodies could do?

Mallot: I think to the extent American think or know about Malaysia, most of them are still in the picture postcard stage of awareness. So that is why I sent my wake-up call. Let’s see what happens. Some of us – all friends of Malaysia -- will continue to do everything we can to keep up awareness. Amnesty International said America “should not be a spectator,” and I agree. I called for US leadership. By that I mean, we need to be more visible and vocal in expressing our concerns about developments in Malaysia. We need to be more supportive – moral support and encouragement - of those members of civil society in Malaysia who want Malaysia to become a true democracy and have the same freedom that we and others have. We should support the call for electoral reform. It is not up to America who forms the government in Malaysia. But we should be concerned whether the playing field is level, and whether all the parties have an equal chance to access the media, and so on. RTM and Bernama belong to all the people of Malaysia, not to UMNO. They are paid for by all the people of Malaysia, not just those who voted for UMNO. Bersih’s demands all seemed quite reasonable to me. When Najib arrived home from Rome the other day, he held an airport press conference and said that Malaysia’s elections already are free and fair, and that UMNO has never cheated in an election. Does he really believe that? That is not what all the independent academic studies have to say. And then he went out to meet the people, and according to an article in Malaysiakini, he proceeded to pass out white envelopes with 200 ringgit inside to the people who were there.

Chronicle: Cleaning the Malaysian electoral system and making sure it reflects accurately the wishes the majority seems to be the best way or one the best ways to ensure human rights, cvil liberties and democratic practises prevail. Do you agree and how can the US help to promote such a practise in Malaysia given that the existing BN federal government is insistent that nothing is wrong and is likely to resist efforts to revamp?

Malott: I read that the European Union office in KL is going to recommend that the EU send observer missions to the next election. That is good. That is leadership. I think that some of our organizations – the National Democratic Institute, the International Republic Institute, the Carter Center - should prepare to do the same. The Vice Chair of the Elections Commission said that foreigners would never understand Malaysia’s election laws. That was an offensive statement. And it also was strange, since his boss the EC chairman was at that very moment in Bangkok, monitoring the Thai elections.

We should be very visible in our support of Bersih and its goals. I hope that our Embassy and the academic and think tank communities in the US will help our policy makers and opinion leaders understand what the true status of democracy and elections in Malaysia is. For example, an American think tank could invite Ambiga to the US so she can explain directly to us what Bersih is all about. It would be useful to benchmark Malaysia’s electoral laws and rules against those elsewhere in the world. For example, how many countries allow their citizens living overseas to vote? What is the minimum age for voters in most countries? How do other countries handle postal ballots – who is allowed to use them? In other countries with publicly-owned television and radio networks – Japan, Britain, America, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, etc. – how do they ensure that political and election reporting is balanced? How do they provide access to opposition candidates? How do other countries ensure that their election commission is independent? Malaysia needs to make sure that what it does matches the prevailing international standards in other democracies.

I am sure that the Government will resist this. But we should not give in. They can resist, and we should insist.

Chronicle: Do you see any similarity between what is happening in Malaysia and the so-called Arab Spring?

Malott: Well, Malaysia is certainly not Libya or Syria or Yemen. Najib is not a Qaddafi. But still, I was surprised to see that Najib is still saying that the Bersih movement is a veiled attempt to topple his administration through street demonstrations, like those that are now claiming Middle Eastern despots. He said, “It’s not so much about electoral reform. They want to show us as though we’re like the Arab Spring governments in the Middle East."

Well, if that is Bersih's goal, then why did Najib act like an Arab Spring government? It's only a question of degree. The Malaysian police did not use lethal force, but the mentality is the same. Suppress whoever disagrees with you. Maybe you don't use tanks, but you use water cannon. It's not bullets, it's tear gas. But the authoritarian mindset is exactly the same as the leaders of the Arab Spring governments. Just because you use non-lethal force doesn't mean it's OK. -

ENDS

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