Who Will Learn From Covid-19?

One week before the Great Crash of October 1929- which precipitated the Great Depression- Irving Fisher of Yale University, perhaps the most distinguished US economist of his time, claimed that the American economy had attained a “permanently high plateau”. Three years later the national income had fallen by more than 50 per cent. No one, not a single economist, had seen it coming.

The usefulness of economics, observed that wittiest of economists, John Kenneth Galbraith, is that it provides employment for economists.

I gave the above example in my Blog post of 26 November 2011, in the aftermath of the so-called financial crisis of 2008-9. Nothing seems to have changed since. Will the Covid-19 crisis spell a similar return to “business as usual” on the part of politicians, bankers and economic “experts’; or will it lead to a radical overhaul of the world’s economic and financial systems and the shallow assumptions about human behaviour on which such systems have been built?

There is no doubt that the global spread of Covid-19 has exposed the lies, hypocrisies and fault-lines that run through many of our societies. If the virus had been confined to the non-Western world, it is unlikely to have become the #1 headline in the world’s media for days on end, as has been the case since first Europe, and then the US, became the epicentre of the pandemic. Just as a receding tide exposes the debris that we would rather not see, the virus has exposed the deep health and economic inequalities within rich nations, as well as between nations. Poor economies are on the brink of collapse. And it is the poor and vulnerable communities within the rich nations that have been disproportionately affected.

It was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that lifted the American economy our of economic ruin following the Great Depression. This was a massive program of government investment in public works which put people back into work; social security for farmers and the unemployed; pension and housing schemes for the elderly; and financial reforms of Wall Street such as the Glass-Steagall Act which separated the operations of high-street banks from merchant houses (an Act that was repealed in 1999 as a result of financial lobbying).

When Bernie Sanders, in his election campaign, proposed an updated version of the New Deal, he was uniformly derided by conservative economists and politicians. “Where will the money for all this come from?” they jeered. Even his fellow-Democrats, such as the archetypal establishment figure Joe Biden, spent so much TV time portraying a vitriolic caricature of Sanders as an angry, obdurate old man who posed a socialist threat to the US’s “thriving” economy. Similarly, in the UK, the Labour Party’s election manifesto, promising increased investment in the National Health Service, a return to free university education and an end to the austerity measures of the past decade, was ridiculed by Tory campaigners who again claimed to be on the side of economic “reality”.

As soon as Covid-19 sent waves of panic across the United States, Donald Trump and his cohorts rushed through a Bill injecting a staggering $2 trillion into the economy. A quarter of that, predictably, goes to the least needy (the wealthy corporations with sufficient assets to borrow without government aid) and less than ten per cent to public services. Nevertheless, “Spend, spend, spend!” seems to be the new socialist mantra of the Right. But nobody is asking the question they put to Sanders, “Where is this money coming from?”

Similarly, in the UK, by a grim irony, Boris Johnson contracted the virus, was treated by the very health service he had planned to sell off to American “investors”, and promptly halted his pre-election Brexit tirade against foreigners (Britain’s health service is heavily dependent on foreign-born doctors and nurses). Criticism of Labour’s “inefficient” plans to revive public services that had steadily been robbed of resources by successive conservative regimes is an embarrassment to the many voters who are now belatedly expressing thanks for a public health service that is the envy of the world.

So, where does money come from? In an earlier age, money was a commodity, a precious substance used in economic exchange. Today, money is a more abstract concept. In rich nations, money is largely credit. When you go to a bank and ask for a loan, the bank doesn’t first check its deposits and reserves to see if it has enough to lend. It is not deposits that generate loans, but loans that generate deposits. Money is created by private banks “out of thin air”. The main function of a Central Bank (like the Bank of England or the Federal Reserve in the US) is to set the interest rate- to determine how much private banks can charge for the money they create. So, when governments justify public austerity by claiming that public spending diverts money from the private sector, they show that they don’t understand money. Government borrowing creates money that did not exist before.

Covid-19 has also exposed how dependent we are on those on the “underside” of our societies. The people at the frontline of the fight to protect us from the pandemic are the very people whom we routinely ignore, sometimes even revile, and- if the hiTech companies have their way- will soon be replaced by robots: those involved in social care, nurses and hospital orderlies, janitors, sales assistants, garbage collectors, undertakers, mental health workers and migrant labourers on farms and in the food industry. The bankers, CEOs, and celebrities whom the mass media normally fawn over steal way in their private jets to their private estates where they can self-isolate in luxury.

Sanders’ political career is over, but the challenge that invigorated his two unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency – that governments must use wealth not to serve as Nanny to business elites but to help those people who actually need help – has to become central to economic and political thinking in the post-Covid world.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Covid-19 crisis should also shake us out of our nationalist biases and lethargy to realise the importance of working for the global common good. The same selfish inertia which has made governments pay only lip-service to the threat of global warming also lay behind those governments’ under-funding of institutions such as the WHO which has been warning us against pandemics like the present one for some time now.

When Greta Thunberg spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2020, she was rudely rebuffed and scorned by the US Treasury Secretary who told her to go to college and first get an education on how business runs. Who now needs to learn how business actually runs?

The Virus of Fear

The novel coronavirus, now called SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19 is the illness it causes) was first identified in Wuhan, China, on late December 2019. Since then it has spread to every continent except Antarctica. The mortality rate appears to be higher than that of the seasonal flu in the northern hemisphere, but much depends on the available healthcare system, as well as a person’s age, and underlying health conditions.

Scientists aren’t certain where the virus originated, though they know that coronaviruses (which also include SARS and MERS) are passed between animals and humans. Research comparing the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 with a viral database suggests it originated in bats. Since no bats were sold at the seafood market in Wuhan at the disease’s epicenter, researchers suggest an intermediate animal, possibly the pangolin (an endangered mammal) is responsible for the transmission to humans. There are currently no treatments for the disease, but labs are working on various types of treatments, including a vaccine.

The extreme measures taken by some governments- closing of borders, cancelling flights, shutting down schools, shops and restaurants- are understandable. But I cannot help wondering whether, in this case, the treatment may sometimes be worse than the disease. A narrowly nationalistic outlook (let’s protect our people) may endanger others elsewhere. Many poor, even in the rich world, live on daily wages. For many poor countries that depend heavily on tourism or the foreign labour market, a slowing of the economy will spell the collapse of their already fragile health systems, resulting in greater suffering and deaths not only from COVID-19. Surely, what is required is a globally co-ordinated response. And, in the USA, I can confidently predict that tens of thousands of people will die of gun-related random acts of violence this year. So why not take equally drastic measures to combat what many mental health specialists, teachers and parents have identified as a public health issue of epidemic proportions?

This leads me to highlight a pandemic that is far more dangerous, in the long term, than COVID-19. It is the pandemic of racism and xenophobia that seems to be spreading at an alarming rate and has been responsible for the election of men like Trump, Putin, Johnson, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Modi, Rajapakse and others into positions of power. Much of this is fuelled by fear. COVID-19 has also brought out this fear, at the same time as others have worked tirelessly to care for victims and curtail its spread. In London, a Singaporean Chinese man was assaulted on the street and Chinese shops and restaurants boycotted. In Nairobi, even before the first case was reported, angry crowds attacked Chinese workers. Several incidents of this nature have happened elsewhere.

South Korea has been held up as a model of how countries should be responding to the crisis. But, alas, this is not transferrable to poorer nations. Instead of closing its border to China, the government employed widespread free testing, including drive-through test sites. Technology has aided the tracing of contacts, using GPS tracking. Rather than creating a total lockdown, they opted for physical distancing measures targeting transmission hot spots.

A South Korean friend of mine wrote to me recently:

“The cult called Shincheonji (meaning new heaven and earth) has been the epicenter of the epidemic. They have been using lies and deception in their outreach, and because of their secretive approaches, they didn’t want to be tracked down by the public health authorities which made the whole response extremely difficult. This bizarre case shows public responsibility of a religion. Several churches also became centres of virus infection on a smaller scale, and each case provoked public criticism. Hope we can learn our responsibility in the society through these cases.”

If indeed (and it is still a big “if”) the virus originated from close animal-human contact in public markets like in Wuhan, then it puts paid to the cultural relativist view that one must never challenge the cultural practices (including diets and dress styles) of others. (In any case, such an argument is impossible to practice consistently and is often self-serving).

Cultures and religious traditions must be open to criticism, especially when they endanger public goods. But this includes the intensive meat-eating culture of the USA which is promoted among the urban middle-classes of the global South and which involves not only the inhumane treatment of cattle and poultry, but massive rises in greenhouse emissions which also take their death toll on vulnerable populations.

Europe is currently the epicentre of COVID-19. European colonists, sailors and soldiers once spread European diseases to the peoples of South America and the South Pacific. And the misnamed “Spanish ’flu” of 1918-19 which originated in a military hospital in France was carried by debilitated French and British soldiers returning to their imperial territories. Fatality figures for that terrible pandemic range from 50 million to 100 million. We are nowhere near that with COVID-19.

All this should remind is that we belong to one world, and our destinies are bound up with one other. We cannot afford to think in narrow, nationalist categories that only generate fear of those who are different to us. If what happens in a market in China can affect us all, so does what happens in an American university laboratory or a London corporate board room.

Science cannot provide the antidote to fear, although it can go a long way towards dispelling lies and misinformation. But it’s “love that casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally and that our worth as human beings does not rest on our colour, gender, age or achievements.

Sex and Climate Change

My admiration for Bernie Sanders was badly dented last week by his faux pas: calling for population control by the world’s poor as a way of curbing climate change.

No doubt the poor need better health education and access to reliable contraceptives, but not because in this way we can control climate change caused by anthropogenic global warming. And, as Sanders well knows, if the poor raise large families it is because children are a means of livelihood. So talk of birth control cannot be divorced from addressing the root causes of endemic poverty. And climate change, rather than being caused by the poor, is becoming a major factor in perpetuating poverty in nations as much as in families.

Those people who suffer most from global warming and the resultant severe climatic events, are the ones least responsible for it. One-sixth of the world population is so poor that they produce no significant carbon emissions at all. Yet they are unfairly being blamed because their breeding rates are higher than those of the rich. The issue is not population but addictive consumption and unsustainable energy-generating practices by the rich.

Even though the rate of population growth in Bangladesh is 50 times that of Britain, every new British consumer uses up 45 times more fossil fuels than every Bangladeshi. Households in India earning less than $65 a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one-seventh of the transport fuel of households earning $65 or more. Those who sleep on the street use almost nothing. The British environmental activist George Monbiot once pointed out that an owner of a super-yacht does more damage to the biosphere in 10 minutes of sailing than most Africans do in a lifetime.

The horrific destruction of the Amazon and other rain forests which are the “lungs” of the planet only sporadically make the world’s news headlines. Even as I write over 15,000 fires are raging in the Amazon forest alone. Governments in the region have failed to heed warnings by environmental groups over many years. Ignorant peasant cultivators fell forests to grow soya (sixty per cent of the soy farming in Brazil is funded by three American agribusinesses); and huge mining and logging conglomerates given carte blanche by the current far-right government in Brazil. These forests morally belong to humanity as a whole and not to any nation-state, but we have no mechanisms of global governance to enforce this.

For poor communities all over the developing world who are already struggling with inadequate wages, environmental degradation and poor infrastructure, the higher frequency of dramatic climatic events means less time for recovery and a faster spin on the downward spiral of poverty. Poor communities are already adapting to climate change. But they are not fully aware of the speed at which the climate is changing or how that will directly affect them. This is where outside actors can assist with developing their disaster preparedness.

Classical Christian teaching on sexual chastity is often mocked by liberal elites today, as it was in the days of the early church. But, while recognizing that a well-ordered marriage was preferably to a badly ordered celibacy, some of the greatest theologians of the church encouraged celibacy not as a virtue in itself, but because it brought to a halt the endless cycle of social reproduction. In his magisterial The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, the eminent historian Peter Brown pointed out the radical challenge of celibacy to the taken-for-granted world of civic and class competition and dynastic continuities. (So this was a message of “no sex” addressed to the well-off, not the poor!) Consider, for example, the famous 4th-century Cappadocian brothers, Basil and Gregory Nyssen.

Both came from a high-born class of Cappadocians and knew acutely “the power of the ancient, civic urge to pile up wealth, to gather kinsmen, and to beget descendants.” Basil and Gregory knew what it was to struggle with such drives. It was to tame these, and only incidentally to tame the sexual urge, that Basil had given detailed rulings on the distribution of wealth, on the abandonment of marks of status, on uniform codes of dress that would mark his monastic ‘brotherhoods’. Gregory, for his part, lingered not on sexual temptation, but on the tragic root of pride, avarice, and family honour in the human condition since the fall. “Both believed that through the new, reformed social life of a monastic brotherhood, individuals set free from the demands of a family-based, conventional society could create a Christian society in miniature beside the city. The main effort of the ‘brotherhoods’ would be less to tame sexuality in the few … than to create an example of the husbanding of resources in the light of the needs of the poor. They wished to open the hearts of a small-town gentry so that the river of Christian charity might flow again, from the doors of the rich into the hovels of the destitute.”

Similarly, their (rough) contemporary John Chrysostom, tolled the death knell of the ancient city of Antioch in his powerful sermons. His aim was to rob the city “of its most tenacious myth — the myth that its citizens had a duty to contribute to the continued glory of their native Antioch by marrying. Instead, he repeatedly told his Christian audiences that their bodies belonged to themselves, and no longer to the city.”

Chrysostom’s great hope was the creation of new form of urban community through the reform of the Christian household. “The two great themes of sexuality and poverty, gravitated together, in the rhetoric of John and of many other Christians. Both spoke of a universal vulnerability of the body, to which all men and women were liable, independent of class and civic status.”

Christian men and women were urged, by John, to “extend the heightened awareness of their own bodies so as to embrace with compassion the bodies of others. They must learn to see the faceless poor as sharing bodies like their own — bodies at risk, bodies gnawed by the bite of famine, disease, and destitution, and subtly ravaged by the common catastrophe of lust.”

Here, then, are narratives of “Sex and the City” very different from the shallow fare served up by American TV for global consumption.

The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity

Support for Trump comes at a high cost for Christian witness.

Peter Wehner

Last week, Ralph Reed, the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s founder and chairman, told the group, “There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”

Reed is partially right; for many evangelical Christians, there is no political figure whom they have loved more than Donald Trump.

I recently exchanged emails with a pro-Trump figure who attended the president’s reelection rally in Orlando, Florida, on June 18. (He spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, so as to avoid personal or professional repercussions.) He had interviewed scores of people, many of them evangelical Christians. “I have never witnessed the kind of excitement and enthusiasm for a political figure in my life,” he told me. “I honestly couldn’t believe the unwavering support they have. And to a person, it was all about ‘the fight.’ There is a very strong sense (I believe justified, you disagree) that he has been wronged. Wronged by Mueller, wronged by the media, wronged by the anti-Trump forces. A passionate belief that he never gets credit for anything.”

The rallygoers, he said, told him that Trump’s era “is spiritually driven.” When I asked whether he meant by this that Trump’s supporters believe God’s hand is on Trump, this moment and at the election—that Donald Trump is God’s man, in effect—he told me, “Yes—a number of people said they believe there is no other way to explain his victories. Starting with the election and continuing with the conclusion of the Mueller report. Many said God has chosen him and is protecting him.”

The data seem to bear this out. Approval for President Trump among white evangelical Protestants is 25 points higher than the national average. And according to a Pew Research Center survey, “White evangelical Protestants who regularly attend church (that is, once a week or more) approve of Trump at rates matching or exceeding those of white evangelicals who attend church less often.” Indeed, during the period from July 2018 to January 2019, 70 percent of white evangelicals who attend church at least once a week approved of Trump, versus 65 percent of those who attend religious services less often.

The enthusiastic, uncritical embrace of President Trump by white evangelicals is among the most mind-blowing developments of the Trump era. How can a group that for decades—and especially during the Bill Clinton presidency—insisted that character counts and that personal integrity is an essential component of presidential leadership not only turn a blind eye to the ethical and moral transgressions of Donald Trump, but also constantly defend him? Why are those who have been on the vanguard of “family values” so eager to give a man with a sordid personal and sexual history a mulligan?

Part of the answer is their belief that they are engaged in an existential struggle against a wicked enemy—not Russia, not North Korea, not Iran, but rather American liberals and the left. If you listen to Trump supporters who are evangelical (and non-evangelicals, like the radio talk-show host Mark Levin), you will hear adjectives applied to those on the left that could easily be used to describe a Stalinist regime. (Ask yourself how many evangelicals have publicly criticized Trump for his lavish praise of Kim Jong Un, the leader of perhaps the most savage regime in the world and the worst persecutor of Christians in the world.)

Many white evangelical Christians, then, are deeply fearful of what a Trump loss would mean for America, American culture, and American Christianity. If a Democrat is elected president, they believe, it might all come crashing down around us. During the 2016 election, for example, the influential evangelical author and radio talk-show host Eric Metaxas said, “In all of our years, we faced all kinds of struggles. The only time we faced an existential struggle like this was in the Civil War and in the Revolution when the nation began … We are on the verge of losing it as we could have lost it in the Civil War.” A friend of mine described that outlook to me this way: “It’s the Flight 93 election. FOREVER.”

Many evangelical Christians are also filled with grievances and resentments because they feel they have been mocked, scorned, and dishonored by the elite culture over the years. (Some of those feelings are understandable and warranted.) For them, Trump is a man who will not only push their agenda on issues such as the courts and abortion; he will be ruthless against those they view as threats to all they know and love. For a growing number of evangelicals, Trump’s dehumanizing tactics and cruelty aren’t a bug; they are a feature. Trump “owns the libs,” and they love it. He’ll bring a Glock to a cultural knife fight, and they relish that.

Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, one of the largest Christian universities in the world, put it this way: “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys.’ They might make great Christian leaders but the United States needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!”

There’s a very high cost to our politics for celebrating the Trump style, but what is most personally painful to me as a person of the Christian faith is the cost to the Christian witness. Nonchalantly jettisoning the ethic of Jesus in favor of a political leader who embraces the ethic of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche—might makes right, the strong should rule over the weak, justice has no intrinsic worth, moral values are socially constructed and subjective—is troubling enough.

But there is also the undeniable hypocrisy of people who once made moral character, and especially sexual fidelity, central to their political calculus and who are now embracing a man of boundless corruptions. Don’t forget: Trump was essentially named an unindicted co-conspirator (“Individual 1”) in a scheme to make hush-money payments to a porn star who alleged she’d had an affair with him while he was married to his third wife, who had just given birth to their son.

While on the Pacific Coast last week, I had lunch with Karel Coppock, whom I have known for many years and who has played an important role in my Christian pilgrimage. In speaking about the widespread, reflexive evangelical support for the president, Coppock—who is theologically orthodox and generally sympathetic to conservatism—lamented the effect this moral freak show is having, especially on the younger generation. With unusual passion, he told me, “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the Church.”

Coppock mentioned to me the powerful example of St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, who was willing to rebuke the Roman Emperor Theodosius for the latter’s role in massacring civilians as punishment for the murder of one of his generals. Ambrose refused to allow the Church to become a political prop, despite concerns that doing so might endanger him. Ambrose spoke truth to power. (Theodosius ended up seeking penance, and Ambrose went on to teach, convert, and baptize St. Augustine.) Proximity to power is fine for Christians, Coppock told me, but only so long as it does not corrupt their moral sense, only so long as they don’t allow their faith to become politically weaponized. Yet that is precisely what’s happening today.

Evangelical Christians need another model for cultural and political engagement, and one of the best I am aware of has been articulated by the artist Makoto Fujimura, who speaks about “culture care” instead of “culture war.”

According to Fujimura, “Culture care is an act of generosity to our neighbors and culture. Culture care is to see our world not as a battle zone in which we’re all vying for limited resources, but to see the world of abundant possibilities and promise.” What Fujimura is talking about is a set of sensibilities and dispositions that are fundamentally different from what we see embodied in many white evangelical leaders who frequently speak out on culture and politics. The sensibilities and dispositions Fujimura is describing are characterized by a commitment to grace, beauty, and creativity, not antipathy, disdain, and pulsating anger. It’s the difference between an open hand and a mailed fist.

Building on this theme, Mark Labberton, a colleague of Fujimura’s and the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the largest multidenominational seminary in the world, has spoken about a distinct way for Christians to conceive of their calling, from seeing themselves as living in a Promised Land and “demanding it back” to living a “faithful, exilic life.”

Labberton speaks about what it means to live as people in exile, trying to find the capacity to love in unexpected ways; to see the enemy, the foreigner, the stranger, and the alien, and to go toward rather than away from them. He asks what a life of faithfulness looks like while one lives in a world of fear.

He adds, “The Church is in one of its deepest moments of crisis—not because of some election result or not, but because of what has been exposed to be the poverty of the American Church in its capacity to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do. And that vocation is the vocation that must be recovered and must be made real in tangible action.”

There are countless examples of how such tangible action can be manifest. But as a starting point, evangelical Christians should acknowledge the profound damage that’s being done to their movement by its braided political relationship—its love affair, to bring us back to the words of Ralph Reed—with a president who is an ethical and moral wreck. Until that is undone—until followers of Jesus are once again willing to speak truth to power rather than act like court pastors—the crisis in American Christianity will only deepen, its public testimony only dim, its effort to be a healing agent in a broken world only weaken.

At this point, I can’t help but wonder whether that really matters to many of Donald Trump’s besotted evangelical supporters.

Peter Wehner is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

First published in The Atlantic

After a year in power, has Pakatan Harapan learnt enough to save Malaysia from itself?

The question is whether it will be bold enough, united enough, and insightful enough to break the country’s path dependence where governance and politicking are concerned, says Penang Institute’s Ooi Kee Beng.

PENANG: The big debate in Malaysia one year after the change in government on May 9, 2018, concerns the unfolding nature of Pakatan Harapan (PH).

No one seriously doubts that it has charted a vastly different path for the country from that set by the Barisan Nasional (BN) that had ruled the country for over six decades.

The question is whether it will be bold enough and united enough to break the country’s path dependence where governance and politicking are concerned. More to the point, the key question is whether it knows what needs to be done.


Those who are prone to give the government the benefit of the doubt argue for Malaysian citizens to be realistic and patient, and to accept inexperience rather than incompetence as the reason for failures and strategic mistakes.

Those in the other camp continue highlighting the controversial issues of race, religion and royalty (the 3Rs) that have plagued the PH coalition.

Given the fact that the PH won power with only 48 per cent of the popular vote, this opposing camp is not an adversary to be glibly dismissed. Over the past year, this segment’s efforts to persistently discredit the government has been rather impressive.

To be sure, the PH government is new and inexperienced, and the coalition itself is a novel innovation. Although it strategised well enough to win the elections last year, it was not really prepared for power.

Taking over from a regime as central to the system as the BN had been has brought to the fore challenges that the government must now learn to handle on a daily basis.

The embarrassment of losing a stream of by-elections aside, the PH has to deal with the discursive stasis and cynicism that characterise a society used to living under coercive conditions for generations, and is now worn out from being bombarded by daily political contestation.

A third group — a mix of perpetual fence-sitters and sceptics — see PH failures and hesitations as an unveiling of hidden agendas and human weaknesses.

The final picture once all the cards have been laid, they are convinced, will be that PH is not that different from BN; and that this is revealing of the sad fate and path dependence that Malaysia is trapped in.

These fissures in the polity of the country are not likely to disappear anytime soon; but then that is why a movement bannered by the broad notion of “reform” has proven so persistent, and was finally triumphant.

The sense that Malaysia is in a rut where the building of the state, the nation and the national economy is concerned is what grew to reach tipping point on May 9, 2018.

Still, the more countries that in the consciousness of Malaysians were once basket cases — which include China, India, Thailand and Vietnam — surpass or will imminently surpass Malaysia, the greater the need to revisit the deeper mistakes made in Malaysia’s developmental strategy becomes.

The luxury of fixing internal ethnic and religious conditions to suit the BN agenda, it must now be admitted, wasted away many of the advantages the country had from the beginning, such as a good education system, a strong civil service, and a diverse and modernising economy.

For Malaysia to break away from the gravitational pull of the centrifugal forces that have pulled it towards zero-sum politics for so long, it needs to orient all energies towards creating a new escape velocity. The PH’s stunning win in 2018 was a jolt but a much stronger push is needed.


This is what is becoming obvious after a year of reform attempts by the PH government; egged on inexorably by game-changing regional geopolitical and economic changes such as the coming of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the long-term stalling of the global economy.

Calls for a new national narrative to supplant and overcome the binary dichotomies of “Malaysian Malaysia versus Malay Malaysia”, and “Good Governance versus the 3Rs” are being heard from various directions.

Such a narrative, if it is to slingshot the country into a new dimension of economic growth, in my mind, has to be a change in paradigm that focuses the country’s imagination on global opportunities.

In other words, it has to be a clearly externally oriented initiative, one that understands the forces now at play internationally and what Malaysia’s destiny is in that geostrategic whirlwind. Within this scenario, even Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Vision 2020 espoused in 1991 appears inward-looking.

No doubt the more obvious and immediate reforms have been about raising the integrity of key institutions and setting a new direction in judicial thinking.

The results so far have been a mixed bag, with the bigger failures being due to the continued relevance and efficacy of the opposition resorting to identity politics.

But what should be highlighted is the fact that the new government is considering a greater role and an improved reputation for the country on the international arena.

Setting more conducive conditions for the inflow of foreign direct investments, jumpstarting the country’s stalled digitisation, taking strategic stances internationally to enhance the country’s stature, and making the country’s economic agenda more regional in character, offer not only good chances for the country to make up for lost years.

These are also a way to end the isolationism and introvertedness that have encouraged racially charged and feudalist attitudes to flourish for so long.

If we take a historical view, all new nations — and Malaysia is stereotypical of this — go through a period of nation- and state-building configured by conceptual conservatism and stasis.

Over time, no matter how well this process works, an institutional chrysalis forms, turning the country’s political discourse and self-identity into a navel-gazing exercise.

The conceptual isolationism of the early decades, upheld by ethnocentric thinking, mass media control and draconian laws, once left devoid of a nation-building ethos, quickly spun into high corruption and broad authoritarianism.

This is the historical point Malaysia has reached. The present calls for reform and the need for a new narrative are simply attempts to break the isolating and solid shell that the early period of nation- and state-building created, which now chokes further economic and cultural growth.

While observers look at domestic reforms to decide if the new government is capable of carrying out its electoral promises, and whether it is sincere or not in leaving identity politics behind; they should also ruminate over the range of attempts being made to open up the country’s political discourse as part and parcel of the country’s ongoing transformation.

Decades of inward-looking policies and zero-sum identity politics should lead Malaysia to look outwards for inspiration, in charting out its economic ambitions and move the country towards a collective goal to engage the global economy.

Ooi Kee Beng is Executive Director of the Penang Institute and Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. His latest book, Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia was published in 2018.

First published in Channel News Asia

Malaysians forget easily

by M. Shanmugam

Critics are entitled to find fault with Pakatan Harapan for not fulfilling its promises. However, it has been a good year for the country as a whole, with the government taking criticism in its stride and continuing to uncover scams left by the previous regime.

On the first anniversary of the new government, a can of worms opened up in the Defence Ministry (Mindef). Sixteen questionable land-swap deals involving 2,923 acres valued at RM4.7bil were made public.

On paper, the land-swap deals were watertight and supposed to benefit Mindef, with the private sector building new army camps, quarters and other facilities in return for land in prime areas.

However, implementation of the scheme was weak due largely to political interference. At the end of the day, Mindef lost out. It failed to capitalise on prime land it was sitting on in the Klang Valley and other major towns.

Among the parcels are 94 acres in Bandar Kinrara, Puchong, 280 acres in Setapak and 314 acres in Sungai Buloh. All three parcels are located in prime areas in the Klang Valley.

The questionable land-swap deals would not have come to light had there been no change in government. Likewise, many other dubious transactions would not have been exposed either in the last one year. The list goes beyond Felda and Lembaga Tabung Haji.

Who would have thought that the police would seize valuables and cash worth close to RM1bil from the house of former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor and several luxury condominiums belonging to friends of the couple.

In relation to the seizure, the government has filed two suits to seize RM711mil worth of the items from Najib, Rosmah and several others. It will be interesting to see how the suits would be contested, as anybody who puts a claim on the assets would need to prove when, where and how they had purchased the items.

Some parties have already clarified that they do not own the assets seized. OBYU Holdings, a company that is linked to Tan Sri Bustari Yusof, stated that although it owns the premises where some of the items were seized, it has no interest in the things.

Bustari, who is from Sarawak, is the golfing partner of Najib.

A year ago, businessmen, politicians and lobbyists waited for their turn to be called up to have a round of golf with Najib. Today, the former prime minister is said to be playing at golf courses far away from the city with only a few friends.

A year ago, he was the most powerful man in the country. He had a few operatives who provided him with “political intelligence” in return for cash. One of them is Datuk Habibul Rahman Kadir Shah who testified in court recently of the role he played for Najib.

Najib muzzled the mainstream media – through his aides in Putrajaya and those working outside his office.

At one stage in late 2015, the mainstream media was banned from even mentioning the word “1MDB” (1Malaysia Development Bhd) in their daily coverage. Negative news related to 1MDB was not given prominence.

One of Najib’s aides even called newspaper editors to “blackout” news of Jho Low partying in New York.

Today, it’s a totally new game.

People can criticise Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his government. They can hit out at the government without fear, although these very same critics had never questioned the previous government for mismanaging the country’s finances.

Contrary to what some may believe, there is a fair amount of political stability in the country. There are no signs of mass defections of elected representatives that could threaten Pakatan Harapan’s hold on the government.

So far, the ruling party has won four of the seven by-elections. The opposition Barisan Nasional won the last three by-elections, sparking hope for the coalition that was battered a year ago.

Nevertheless, so far, there is no danger of Dr Mahathir’s government collapsing.

The economy is still growing, but at a slower pace amidst a volatile external environment. To keep the momentum going towards a projected 4.9% economic growth for this year, Bank Negara cut the base rate by a quarter percent earlier this week to 3%.

The US-China trade war has had a profound negative effect on global capital markets. At one stage this week, China’s CSI 300 was down 2.6% while the S&P 500, which is a broad measure of US stocks, shed 1.8%.

The benchmark FBM KLCI is also affected. However, the ringgit is holding at about the 4.15 level against the US dollar. There are no riots or people going to the streets.

In comparison, one needs to only look at Venezuela and the chaos the country is in, although it has one of the largest oil reserves in the world. Turkey and Argentina have also seen a significant depreciation of their currencies.

The Pakatan Harapan government is not perfect, but then, it has another four years to improve and fix the economy. And really, if one were to look at the current political scenario, there is no viable alternative today.

Dr Mahathir even takes on the royalty, something that the previous leadership stayed away from. If anybody thinks that the Opposition – in its present state where an alliance with PAS is necessary – is a better alternative, they had better think again.

First published in The Star

Change and hope

In a letter published in The Malaysian Insight, Ding Jo-Ann, a lawyer who was part of the legal support team on the Institutional Reforms Committee, wrote of the many important accomplishments of the PH government but swiftly moved to focus on her disappointments: ICERD, death penalty, Rome Statute, NSC Act, child marriage, Sedition Act, Prevention of Crime Act and Printing Presses and Publications Act, Securities Offenses (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA), Communications and Multimedia Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Added to that was the matter of Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) and the enactment of Freedom of Information Act.

To be honest, I am not at all familiar with the issues surrounding many of the Acts she cited. But her confidence that these reforms can and should be done swiftly stems more from the educated, reform-minded people that she is surrounded by:

I know that some of these reforms may not seem popular with certain groups of people, but I believe that the electorate will respect a government that keeps to its word and conversely, will disrespect one that gives in to bullies.

I think with all the problems that were thrown up with ICERD and Rome Statute she should realize that these matters cannot be rushed into (and there is absolutely no need to rush as they pertain to long term principles). The government backtracked on ICERD and Rome Statute not because it is weak and beholden to threats but because it had not done the groundwork to prepare the people for these developments and allowed them to be exploited.

And looking at the long list of reforms that she has, it is naive to expect these matters dealt with in a year. ICERD and Rome Statute were attempted and failed. IPCMC is under discussion. Child marriage was never on the cards; just an issue raised out of a specific incident.

But what set the impetus for this article is what she said, under the heading “Change and Hope”.

I believe that this government stood for change and hope when it ran in May 2018 – a change from the corrupt ways of the past, and hope for the future by reforming our institutions and ensuring that the abuses of the past can never take place again.

I do not know whether we will ever have this opportunity again to reform our nation’s institutions. We must do so, and dismantle all the tools of authoritarianism and put our country on a solid democratic footing so that whoever is in power, there will be sufficient checks and balances to keep them accountable.

I know that some of these reforms may not seem popular with certain groups of people, but I believe that the electorate will respect a government that keeps to its word and conversely, will disrespect one that gives in to bullies.

I acknowledge that economic conditions must have a priority, but I would like to remind the government that institutional and human rights reforms must have prime importance as well, as it is our future that is at stake.

I know that PH is understandably concerned about losing power in the next general election. But wouldn’t it then be safer to put in place the necessary institutional and structural changes now to safeguard our democracy in case you do lose power, rather than not?

Despite this year’s disappointments, I still believe and hope that you will be able to effect the changes necessary to make Malaysia a truly democratic nation. I hope you do, too.

Basically she is saying, “Forget about popularity with ‘certain groups of people’, forget about re-election, the important thing is to ramp through these reforms to safeguard democracy because this may be the only chance to do so.” But surely popularity and re-election are the mechanisms for government to gauge whether they truly reflect the will of the people?

It is democracy that she wants to safeguard, yet she is willing to ignore the wishes and sensitivities of “certain groups of people” who happen to be the majority. In other words, she understands the need for institutional reform but she brushes aside the need to educate and reform the community. Brings to mind a statement from Lucy of Peanuts fame,

”I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.”

But institutional reforms can be rolled back. Community reform is the safeguard to ensure that institutional reforms remain.

She did say “I believe that this government stood for change and hope” albeit it was framed in the past tense. But she ended her letter with “I still believe and hope that you will be able to effect the changes necessary”.

My point is this, we need to accept that change in the community must necessarily take time and will not happen in a straight line. It will be messy and it will likely not end up to be what we imagine it to be. Very unlike institutional reform where we are in full control. If we accept that both institutional reform and community reform are necessary, then we need a government that we believe in and we need community leaders, including civil society, to educate and empower the values they espouse, rather than merely push for reform and criticise. And we should work to keep that government in power. Civil society wants to claim the high ground of being apolitical criticising everything they can criticise. And in doing so impede the reforms they want. We should empower those who wish to do right, and uphold the values they stand for.

Right now, with BN showing the classic symptoms of denial, and with all that has been said and done by PH, I’m with PH.

Do you think PH is doing a good job managing race and religious relations?

So I was filling up this questionnaire that The Malaysian Insight sent as part of their assessment of the 1 year anniversary of the PH government. And this question, “Do you think PH is doing a good job managing race and religious relations?” was the hardest to answer and in the end I chose “I don’t know”.

The thing is that I think race and religious relations have been going downhill since a long time ago when BN became more and more Malay-Islam centric and allowed the rise of the notion of ketuanan melayu into the the Malaysian vocabulary. Wikipedia suggests that it was during Badawi’s time that the language came into common discourse although the notion existed long before. This not only legitimises the idea that one race is superior, but cements the presumption that this is a right. This statement in 2003 by Azimi Daim captures the mindset: “In Malaysia, everybody knows that Malays are the masters of this land. We rule this country as provided for in the federal constitution. Any one who touches upon Malay affairs or criticizes Malays is [offending] our sensitivities.”

The spirit and principles of Rukunegara that were established by Tun Razak after the 1969 riots are largely forgotten and ignored. These principles formed the Malaysian national philosophy instituted by royal proclamation on Merdeka Day, 1970 and reads as follows (translated in English):

WHEREAS OUR COUNTRY, MALAYSIA nurtures the ambitions of:

  • Achieving a more perfect unity amongst the whole of her society;
  • Preserving a democratic way of life;
  • Creating a just society where the prosperity of the country can be enjoyed together in a fair and equitable manner;
  • Guaranteeing a liberal approach towards her rich and varied cultural traditions; and
  • Building a progressive society that will make use of science and modern technology.

WE, HER PEOPLE, pledge our united efforts to attain these ends guided by these principles:


Race relations these days are a far cry from the ideals of Rukunegara. BUT it has certainly improved from the past few years when even a major Malay newspaper can run a headline “Apa lagi Cina mau?” which although translates simply as “What else do the Chinese want?” is framed in a rude and derogatory way.

Today the challenge is how to deal with UMNO and PAS who believe that their only recourse to power is to appeal to Malay-Muslim sensitivities and tries their level best to paint the government as one that does not defend the rights of the Malay-Muslim community. The situation gets worse when Muslim religious leaders and royalty enter the picture.

At the same time, in the more open atmosphere that the PH government has fostered, other communities, not least civil society advocates, also clamour for support of their issues, including Sabah and Sarawak over their rights as established during the formation of Malaysia.

As a fledgling government it is not easy to assert authority and as a government committed to respecting all communities neither is authoritarian rule its chosen approach. But at some point all parties need to rally round the government or we will be in danger of drifting further apart. All of us have a stake in this because the alternative, communal disintegration, or held together by force of law, will be detrimental to all, but especially the poor and defenceless.

The answer to the question is that race and religious relations, indeed unity, does not lie solely in the hands of the PH government but on all stakeholders and all of us as Malaysians. And we need to pray that God will instill good people to come to the forefront to forge a strong foundation for unity. And certainly resurrecting the Rukunegara would be a good starting point.

A Nation in Shock

It is a week since the terrible bombings of hotels and churches in Sri Lanka and the ensuing heavy loss of life. The economy, too, will take a long time to recover, dependent as it is on tourism and foreign investments.

Questions of motivation in suicide attacks like this always defy rational explanation. And speculation has been suppressed by a blackout of all social media in the country.

Such a blackout was sensible in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy as a measure to prevent anti-Muslim violence which has been a feature of Sri Lankan society in recent years (see my Blog post of 17 March 2018- ‘“Religious Violence” Sri Lanka-Style’- and the warnings I issued to the authorities in a newspaper article).

But the longer it continues, along with the sweeping emergency powers under which any criticism in print publications of the government and security forces is forbidden, the greater the danger to the political health of the nation. We fear a return to the dark days of authoritarian rule and the suppression of valid criticism. And, given an understandable zeal to redeem themselves, the security forces (now armed with powers to detain suspects without following due process) are likely to over-reach.

So the less I say the better.

First published in vinothramachandra.wordpress.com