Category: Sea Disputes

Malaysia’s next election?​

Sourced from Straits Times, Singapore – 5 October 2017 – Wan Saiful Wan Jan

Malaysia has been in general election fever for almost a year, if not more. The power to dissolve Parliament, which will lead to a general election, lies with Prime Minister Najib Razak. He has been very busy touring the country to give speeches that can easily be taken as campaigning. But he does not seem ready to make the actual call.

Some say that Datuk Seri Najib is strategising and waiting for the right time. Others suggest that he is dithering because he is not sure if he can produce a sufficiently good electoral result to secure his own premiership for the foreseeable future. And some say that indecisiveness is his trademark.

Whichever it is, Mr Najib does have good reasons to dither.  The best time to call an election was probably last year, when the opposition block was in tatters.

But Mr Najib missed the opportunity and now he has to carefully weigh the risks.

The opposition parties are slowly and gradually uniting under the newly formed Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. And Umno is being rocked by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister and former Umno president, and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president until he was sacked by Mr Najib last year.

Even though PH’s registration as a political party has not been approved yet, Dr Mahathir has been named as the coalition’s chairman. Interestingly, he is now working with Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister whom he sacked back in 1998. Anwar is PH’s overall leader, or ketua umum.

The new partnership between these two old foes creates a lot of uncertainties, adding to Mr Najib’s dithering.

For the upcoming general election – known as GE14 because it will be Malaysia’s 14th – Barisan Nasional (BN), the Umno-led ruling coalition, looks confident at the federal level. But the situation is less certain if we examine the situation state by state. Under Dr Mahathir’s aggressive drive, PH is making headway in quite a few states.

In the northern state of Kedah, many are saying that PPBM has a good chance because it is Dr Mahathir’s home state. He and his family are well liked there. His son, Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, is vice-president of the party and is the leading candidate for chief minister if they win. That has a lot of traction among voters, especially the younger ones.

PH is also making headway in the relatively more multi-ethnic Perak. The state was won by the opposition coalition in the 2008 General Election, only to see Umno taking over after defections in the state legislative assembly a year later. Umno retained the state in GE13, but their majority is a wafer-thin three seats. The opposition remains popular. When Dr Mahathir toured Perak last month, thousands gathered to hear him.

A surprise is perhaps in the offing in the southern state of Johor. Traditionally known as an Umno bastion, Johor has suddenly turned risky. Dr Mahathir chose this state for his first speech after being named chairman of PH. Many of the Malay villagers I met at that event in July in Kota Tinggi said they are Umno members and will not leave the party for fear of victimisation. But they will vote for PPBM as they are upset with the way Mr Najib treats Mr Muhyiddin, a Johorean. Mr Muhyiddin, as Johor state chairman for PH, has been mobilising his people and quietly penetrating Umno strongholds. The strength of the silent protest is difficult to measure and that is why things have become risky for Umno there.

The biggest question mark hangs over Sabah and Sarawak. These two states have been BN’s vote bank for years. But state nationalism is strengthening in both states. The locals are demanding greater autonomy from Peninsular Malaysia. PH is riding on this wave by allowing local opposition parties and local figures to lead their campaign there, without demanding that they officially join the coalition. This helps create the impression that their movement is local to the states, rather than being led by Peninsular politicians, as is the case for BN component parties over which Umno has an iron grip.

In 2008, then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi led Umno to retain the federal government, but lost four states to the opposition. Umno subsequently pushed Datuk Seri Abdullah out of office and Mr Najib was the main beneficiary from that putsch. But that was also a lesson to Mr Najib, who knows it is not enough to win the polls at the federal government level because if Mr Abdullah was forced to resign after performing badly in the states, then he is also at risk of becoming a victim of the precedent that he himself set.

That is why Mr Najib needs to improve the outlook for state-level polls before calling a general election. He is working hard to ensure just that and there are indications that his strategy may be working. He has successfully pulled the Malay-majority Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) out from PH by dangling issues like the supremacy of Islam and Malays as carrots.

Mr Najib does not need PAS to join his BN coalition. He just needs to be confident enough that PAS will put candidates in as many seats as possible, therefore creating three-cornered fights nationwide. Such a situation will split opposition votes and that is a sure tactic to benefit Umno and BN. Once he can confirm that, there will be no more reason to dither.


Bangladesh-Myanmar agreement on Rohingya refugees

Al-Jazeera on 23 November reported Bangladesh and Myanmar have finally signed a deal for the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Cox Bazaar.  In the same week, the Myanmar Times constructed a triumphantly sounding report declaring, “Refugee deal inked, repatriation to begin”.

It is understandable that, after years of senseless genocide, mass displacement compounded with Myanmar’s stubborn headedness in accepting the Rohingya as its constitutional citizens – the news might come as a change in tone to most.

However, there is a need to dissect this matter to provide an intelligible conjecture.

It is worth noting the MoU between Bangladesh and Myanmar is signed at the executive level. Union Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor, U Kyaw Tint Swe and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali represented each country in inking the document.

However, the agreement at the executive level has also excluded key Myanmar military officials.

This is an important observation to be brought to the light of the day, considering how the persecution of the Rohingya’s is strategized and coordinated largely by the Myanmar Military. The monopoly of such critical portfolio equals to Tatmadaw’s coverage on policy and decision making power. In addition, the Military fills a quarter of Parliament’s seats, enough to block any constitutional amendment that would limit its authority.

Hence it is fair to argue the recent MoU can’t be taken at its face value. Ministries headed by civil officers and Ministers including Aung San Suu Kyi arguably do not have any control over the country’s military forces that are enacting the brutal campaign against the Rohingya.

As put forth but various commentators in the region, the signing of the recent agreement may have meant as a strategic effort to mitigate Myanmar’s image abroad after receiving a barrage of criticism on its Rohingya policy. Others have also pointed how it may have been executed to prepare for the arrival of Pope Francis to Myanmar in the same month.

For the record, the pope has been an ardent critic of Myanmar’s treatment of the minority group in Rakhine.

Ferooze Ali

Jakarta governor found guilty of blasphemy


The Indonesian court has found Jakarta’s outgoing Christian governor guilty of blasphemy against Islam.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, was sentenced to two years imprisonment on Tuesday in a south Jakarta courtroom over comments he made regarding what he believed to be the misinterpretation of certain verses of the Quran.

Purnama lost his bid for re-election in an April runoff – after the most divisive and religiously charged election in recent years – to a Muslim rival, Anies Baswedan.

Thousands of security personnel have been deployed in Jakarta in case clashes break out between Purnama’s supporters and opponents who have demanded he be dismissed and jailed.

His supporters, for their part, delivered thousands of red and white balloons to City Hall in advance of Tuesday’s court session.

“Both groups will have the opportunity to demonstrate, but we are taking steps to prevent clashes,” said Setyo Wasisto, the national police spokesman.

Prosecutors had called for a suspended one-year jail sentence for Purnama on charges of hate speech. However, his opponents believe that is too light. The maximum sentence is four years in prison.

ASEAN may need specialize think tanks on South China Sea dispute

This article will explore the need for specialise ASEAN think tank on South China Sea dispute for two reasons. First, is to ensure a credible production of knowledge on South China Sea dispute. Second, a think tank at ASEAN level – may assist the region in charting its own strategic direction.

The study on South China Sea dispute is multidimensional. The scope goes beyond the aspect of legal, military or the issue of historical waters. It broadly covers the logic of Geostrategic, International Relations, Socio-Political studies and even South East Asia maritime history. Thus to produce a holistic understanding of the South China Sea dispute – a form of combined studies ideally should be explored.

On the contrary, a piecemeal approach may not provide a complete and intellectually balanced discourse. Online discussions on the South China Sea is scattered with various writers offering differing perspective, speculations or at times contradicting views.

Upon establishing, ASEAN Think Tank for South China Sea issue should aim to strategize on two fronts.

FIRST – is to organise a coherent SCS discourse with interrelated clusters. In this context, specialise think tanks on the South China Sea should consist of various sub-discipline headed by experts.

Maritime legal scholar, oceanographers, Chinese and SEA historians, China’s and ASEAN political analysts, diplomats and of course political appointees. Ideally, experts are expected to analyse and brainstorm SCS dispute from various angles. This initiative is done with a final aim of producing an integrated and well synthesise understanding.

This form of arrangement can prepare a think-tank to be at the credible position to advise the ‘best course of action’ for ASEAN. On a side note, given a Think-tank relative independence, experts involved in such institution may offer candid views. Foreign Ministries are at times constraint in making direct commentaries due to diplomatic and protocol constraints.

SECOND – upon instituting, SCS Think Tank must get into advocacy programs. Advocacy initiatives should involve, meeting with key experts, the organising of public foras or the production of journals. By this approach – specialised Think-Tank can play a role in advocating the importance of the issue to the public including their collective rights to the waters.

It is worth noting that, from a recent poll done by Institute of China Studies, Universiti Malaya (UM), only 38 % of Malaysians are aware of the South China Sea dispute. Those who are not aware totalled to 56%. In this context – what would the statistics be for the broader ASEAN?

It with a hope that this short article shall be the catalyst for further thinking amongst the academic and policy-maker to explore all the possibilities broached.

Looking at Jakarta 2017 Governotarial Election


According to a quick count released by several pollsters, the current Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – popularly known by nickname Ahok – and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat gained only about 43 percent of the votes, while their challengers Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno are likely to win with roughly 57 percent.

Though a final result will only be announced in this month May – the quick count has more or less sealed Ahok chances in continuing to govern Jakarta as its Governor.

Analysts are divided on the cause of his defeat – with Western observers largely zeroing on the rise of Islamist. It is undeniable that, Islamist has been extremely successful in injecting the Islamic element in the whole issue, thus invoking a strong sense of guilt and responsibility for Islamic voters to oust Ahok.

However, realistically speaking – Islamist contributed only a part of the bigger socio-political backlash, which we have witnessed on 19 April 2017. It is worth noting that – in late 2014, Islamist did organised a rally against Ahok. The rally garnered a lukewarm response from Jakarta citizens.

Instead, what we see in the recent Jakarta election is a culmination of various genuine socio-cultural and economic dissatisfaction – which over time has been framed as a socio-religio issue by religious and seculars politicians alike.

To begin with, Ahok’s approach and ethics towards the Governorship post sets him apart. As someone who is willing to get down to the streets and listen to people’s grouses, Ahok approach is relatively personal and non-elitist.

In a book titled ‘A Man Called #Ahok Sepenggal Kisah Perjuangan & Ketulusan‘ by Kurawa, the Jakarta Governor is even described by members of his own constituents (Belitung Island) as a charitable personality who would donate money for building Mosques.

Though, in retrospect to the high-spirited and visionary work ethics, he has a distinct form of leadership. Temperamental, brash, outspoken and decisive – these traits characterises Ahok’s approach towards managing people and Jakarta public projects. For the polite and shy society of Javanese and Betawi, his logic of communication, however, may not be in-line with the generally accepted socio-cultural norms. Some have even suggested that his tough talk and Sumatran style has either captivated or appalled people in equal measure.

Secondly, are his policies. Arguably, the slum clearances at the controversial seafront Luar Batang in 2016 – though were popular with the middle class, did not go down positively with the poorer segment of Jakarta inhabitants. The relocation of Luar Batang dwellers which majority comprises of poor fisherman to new locations far away from the seafront has affected the source of livelihood of this group.

It was at this juncture that Islamist group such as FPI (Islamic Defender Front) begun showing solidarity with Luar Batang residents by making the Luar Batang mosque as the rallying point. In April 2016, it was turned into a humanitarian shelter for residents affected by the relocation exercise. Similarly, a controversial FP leader Habib Rizieq visited and handed out Rp 100 million, (USD 7500.00) or (RM 32,579) to residents affected.

This move has broad consequences.

First and foremost, this solidarity raises the plight of Luar Batang’s residents beyond the affected location. The plight equally resonates with the lower-middle income to poor Muslims segments – which already make the majority citizens in Jakarta. More importantly, it raises Islamist group as a credible movement to be fighting what now seems to be Ahok’s perceived discriminative and oppressive policy against Jakarta poor Muslim neighbourhood.

The big break for the Islamist movement came when Ahok is accused of uttering blasphemous insult against a paragraph in Al- Quran. Despite the recording of the incident itself is questionable, it has been widely circulated on Youtube prompting a broad backlash from Muslim community and religious conservatives.

Compounding all the above issues and framing it as a form of Islamic struggle – Islamist group such as FPI and FUI (Indonesia Ulama Council) in November 2016 organised a public demonstration attended by nearly 50,000–200,000 people demanding for Ahok’s resignation and trial. In December, another rally was held in Central Jakarta, which attended by an estimated 200,000 people.

Demonstrations in late 2016 provided a strong ripple effect towards Jakarta April 2017 Governor’s election.

These culminations of events opened window of opportunity for Muslim moderate politicians, which in this case – Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno to jump into the Islamist bandwagon and packaged their campaign in line with the broader grouses. Clear contrast can be seen in campaigning style. Ahok focused on policy, while Anies and his allies focused on religion. Another Indonesian political heavyweight – Prabowo who himself is a military and nationalist-oriented leader is reported to have sided with the Islamist through endorsing Anies and Sandiaga candidacy.

These strategies paid well when Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno as we know it won the Jakarta Gubernatorial election in April 2017.

In a nutshell, there are two key take away facts worth noting from all these development.

First, notwithstanding how successful the Islamist movement was in framing the anomaly that is Ahok – the major successors that took the Governor’s office – has ironically not been anyone from the Islamist movement. As a matter of fact, it is the two moderate and secular politicians, who happened to be Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno.

This leads us to a second conclusion, that is, the preoccupation with the rise of Islamist Indonesia and the downfall of religious tolerance narrative – has only provided a partial understanding of the political dynamics. I would argue that the recent development has not shown any clear indication that the “rising Islamist element” could compromise Indonesia’s established religious, social and political tolerance, in the long-term.

Instead, the clear fact is – the issue of religion and race can be utilised as a convenient but impactful force to discredit leaders in Indonesia. Moreover, given the success in April 2017, such strategy may be employed again in the future. I suspect Jokowi given his liberal political outlook may face a similar challenge with his 2019 Presidential re-election.

On Ahok’s side – his downfall could possibly be traced to his failure to understand the finer nuances of Indonesia socio-cultural politics. In this context, he should have understood that his actions rightly or wrong have the possibility to be taken out of context, if he in the first place, does not tread his style of communication tactfully.

His future with Indonesian politics will largely depend on how he makes amends with the grass-root segment in Indonesian politics. He still has a sizeable support and sympathisers in both Jakarta and Belitung. Now, all that he needs is to reassure the broader voters that he would not positively approach his public and political work as he did previously.

The above article has appeared earlier in The Malay Mail Online 2 May 2017 with a different title. The content, however, remains the same.

Ahok concedes Jakarta election to Baswedan


Jakarta’s incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) has conceded defeat in the race to become the city’s new governor. This is after unofficial quick count results showed a former Indonesian education minister, Baswedan taking the polls.

Analysts are divided on the cause of his defeat – with Western observers largely zeroing on the rise of Islamist sentiment in Indonesia. However, the rise of Islamist is part of the broader socio-political issue, which has impacted Ahok’s Governor post.

Despite his popularity with middle-class Jakartans for his efforts to stamp out corruption and make the overflowing polluted city more livable, his upfront manner and evictions of slum communities could have alienated many in the city of 10 million.

The final straw, which may have broken the camel’s back, came when he was perceived to have ridiculed a passage in the Holy Al-Quran. Though the recording itself is questionable, it has been widely circulated on Youtube prompting a broad backlash from Muslim community and religious conservatives.

Baswedan, a highly educated Muslim moderate, is seen to have capitalised on the backlash against Ahok by courting the support of conservative religious leaders and figures on the radical fringe who opposed electing a non-Muslim.

Thailand and the Philippines to emphasise freedom of navigation in the South China Sea

Duterte and Thailand

Thailand and the Philippines have agreed to emphasise freedom of navigation in the disputed the South China Sea as a core value in securing peace and prosperity in the region.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shared the same stance on the maritime territorial disputes in the area during a joint press conference at Government House Tuesday,  21 March.

They also agreed to push for the completion of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2017.

“Maintaining peace, stability, and security as well as respecting freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea are in the interests of all countries, within and outside the region, as they are fundamental conditions for growth, development and prosperity,” Mr. Duterte said.

Meanwhile, Gen Prayut said Thailand believes the ultimate goal should be for the South China Sea to be the “sea of peace, stability and sustainable development” in order to benefit the region and its people.

The issue of the South China Sea and the bilateral relations between Thailand and Philippines is a complex play.

Thailand last year in September stated that it supports China’s work to “promote peace and stability” in the South China Sea. The statement is considered controversial as it was done hours after the Philippines made public images that it said show China preparing to begin island construction activities on the Scarborough Shoal.

The latest stand made between Duterte and Prayut, however, suggest that Thailand may slightly be inching towards a middle-ground policy on the South China Sea dispute.

Though much is left to be seen. Thailand’s true stand largely depends on its action pertinently in pushing for the completion of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) as soon.