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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What Future for Muslim Identity?

Today, the Muslim world faces the most critical period of its history. It is a civilization standing at the crossroads, seemingly unable to carve a niche in the community of nations. The colossal tragedy that struck the United States on September 11, 2001, has once again put the House of Islam at the forefront of world affairs. And it can be decisively argued that a strategy for change in the Muslim world is one of the crying needs of the hour.

Though it would be erroneous to characterize the Muslim world as a monolith, it is fair to argue that not a single Muslim country today meets the criteria for modern political and social governance, religious liberty, economic evolution, gender equality, cultural prosperity, and human dignity. Muslims continue to live under dictators, autocrats, kings, and authoritarian rulers—in grossly oppressive conditions. Having lost the ability to face the outer world, which is motivated by concern for human rights, multiculturalism, and tolerance, the Muslim social fabric has seen little beyond sectarian strife, tribal wars, and suppression of women and minorities. Nearly one-fourth of the human population—1.2 billion people, living in fifty Muslim countries—face a grim and uncertain future. And those who habitually put the blame for their ills upon the colonial oppressors need only to be reminded of intra-Muslim carnage: witness the Muslim-on-Muslim violence that led to the division of Bangladesh from Pakistan, a country born in the name of Islam; the decade-long Iran-Iraq war; and the abject neglect of the Palestinian refugees by the wider Arab community, to name a few examples.

Historically, Islam absorbed and comprehended other cultures and gave them expression. The early Muslim civilization, heir to a rich and diverse intellectual stock—Roman, Greek, Indian, and Persian—accomplished a unique synthesis of ideas in all branches of knowledge. From the eighth to the thirteenth century, there were more religious, philosophical, medical, astronomical, historical, and geographical works written in Arabic than in any other language. And the religious code itself—that is, the Qur'an and the tradition of the Prophet—was a very liberal, forward-looking code of ethics.

So, in turning a critical eye to Islam, my focus would not be on the religious code. Rather, it would be on how to revive the culture of learning, how to revive the culture of tolerance, how to revive the culture of liberalism, which have remained at the core of Muslim civilization for centuries. We must ask: What are the factors that have gone into pushing that culture back into the Dark Ages, which is what we see today all over the Muslim world in this cultural impasse?

The Prophet of Islam, in his own city—in Medina, where he lived the later part of his life after he was forced to emigrate from Mecca—allowed Jews and Christians to coexist there. Did he subdue them? Did he force them to become Muslims? Did he kill them? He did not. This is the ideal. So we need to find out why this ossification has occurred in Muslim thought and behavior, which is now denying or altogether ignoring its own heritage—to its own detriment and to the detriment of the rest of the world. In the last few centuries, Muslim culture has grown inward instead of growing outward. There has been a rejection of anything “other.” It has become xenophobic, not in the racial sense but in the epistemological sense. It has an inward-looking attitude at the global, civilizational, and community levels. And this creates a literalism, which is equal to fundamentalism, that is the rejection of tolerance, the rejection of the other's opinion. This, to my mind, is a great hindrance to the peaceful coexistence of different ideals, different ideologies, and different religions, and it is a great obstacle to the Islamic world becoming a participant in global transformation. So I think this cultural impasse has to do with the current Islamic worldview, and we need a dynamic invocation that can play a pivotal role in breaking its grip on the Muslim mind and culture.

The formation of a democratically governed Muslim world must be driven by an imperative born out of a new Muslim recognition of their rights and responsibilities in a globalized world. For this mindset to emerge, Muslims must learn the magnanimity of critical self-analysis. While democratic freedom does not germinate out of the barrel of a gun, neither is it obtained by being oblivious to self-identity, to our own tradition. According to the teaching of the Prophet, one's cognizance of the Almighty is inseparable from the cognizance of the Muslim tradition of liberalism and tolerance. And the future of Muslim identity in the twenty-first century and beyond lies with that vital cognizance, not with confrontation.


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BJ 6:12 PM |

Monday, August 15, 2005

When A Knowledge-Driven Vision Seems Unclear, Assemble An Inferior Vision?

When A Knowledge-Driven Vision Seems Unclear, Assemble An Inferior Vision?
By A M Ubaidah S

A Brief Reason For This Piece

In the wake of the public uproar over AP Abuse and the Tax Under-Declaration of Imported Automobiles into Malaysia, the issue of the feasibility of Proton, the principal Malaysian national car project has again come into question. This also well coincides with the Malaysian Government’s long awaited re-look into the National Automotive Policy (NAP).

Whatever the views of the Malaysian public over the state of Proton the company and the quality and make of its cars, the dismissal of Tengku Tan Sri Mahaleel Tengku Ariff from the post of CEO of Proton, some three months prior to his contract’s official end, has been seen as a move against a vision that he has championed and shared with the founder of Proton, Tun Dr Mahathir (Dr M).

Though some have pointed to the poor relationship between the Proton Board of Directors and Tgk. Mahaleel as the reason for his dismissal, one would hope that such high-level corporate decisions are made for reasons more fundamental to business than just an issue of personal likes and dislikes. There had been some indication that the main issue leading to the dismissal is the difference in views between the board and the Tgk. Mahaleel-led management on the way Proton is managed, from the management decision-making process, through to Proton’s overall vision.

Soon after Tgk. Mahaleel’s dismissal, Wong Sulong of The Star newspaper presented a new spin that Tgk. Mahaleel was dismissed because of just such a fundamental disagreement with the Proton Board. According to Wong’s article, it seems the board wanted Proton to consider amalgamating Proton with all other national car companies and car assemblers in Malaysia into a big consortium to gain ‘economies of scale’. Tgk. Mahaleel believed the idea mooted by the board is not in the best interest of Proton and that Proton can succeed on its own.

Interestingly, Wong Sulong’s article was the first time I, and many, had ever heard of a ‘new vision’ by the government to consolidate the nation’s many auto industries into a single ‘mega-assembler’ so to speak as the reason for the tension with Tgk. Mahaleel; and I for one hope it was not a new excuse someone spun to justify the unjustifiable

Let me start by saying this. In my view, Khazanah’s and the Proton Board’s decision to proceed with the dismissal of Tgk. Mahaleel is flawed especially if it is to advance this so called ‘new vision’ for Proton. This is because this so called new vision for Proton, as part of a mega-assembler instead of a proper car company, is a backward step for Malaysia as a nation.

I have no idea if the Prime Minister, Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, or Pak Lah as we all know him, was well briefed and consulted on this decision. This is as astoundingly when Khazanah allowed Proton’s Board to dismiss Tgk. Mahaleel for the sake of this change of vision, they basically went against Pak Lah’s repeatedly stated public policy of transforming Malaysia from an economy that makes and assembles things, to an economy that is based on innovation!

Why do I say the stated ‘new vision’ for Proton is flawed?

There is one thing that differentiates Proton from any other national car project and the myriad assemblers in Malaysia, or even in the region, including the so-called Detroit of Asia, Thailand. Proton has the ability to design cars from the bottom up. Though many point to this being a result of the 1996 Lotus acquisition, much has changed since the acquisition, such that Proton’s design team now has a Malaysian core, with a higher percentage of its newer cars designed locally, the Savvy and Gen2 being the most recent, quite promising results.

Before anyone scoffs at the idea of the Savvy and Gen2 being promising, note that both cars, as well as the Waja, meet one of the most difficult standards that cars face in the world today, the European emissions/environmental standards. Others may also be surprised to know that the suspension and other structural platform features that are applied on the Gen2 is actually ahead of those of some Korean brands - e.g. the Kia platforms tend to under perform versus engine-size compared to Proton cars because the Koreans have been using old technology in this area.

As such, Proton is currently the only company in Malaysia, or even ASEAN, with the capacity to evolve into a full-fledged global player in the automotive sector.

Why is Proton the only ASEAN car company that can evolve into a global player?

This is because unlike other car companies and assemblers in ASEAN, Proton owns its own intellectual property (IP) in car design. This is in turn significant as the business model of the future in all industries, from cars, to furniture to mobile telephony, the ownership and growth of intellectual property is the key to long-term growth and sustainability. This business model is precisely the type of knowledge driven business model that Pak Lah, and Dr M before him, has been urging Malaysians to pursue.

We see the success of such a business model in mobile phones, where Nokia, a company from Finland, with a population and market far smaller than ours, dominates the global market. Interestingly, Nokia does not own much in terms of assets, as much of their capital-intensive activities, including the making of mobile phones, are outsourced. However, Nokia owns its own intellectual property, and continues to build on it, allowing it to earn enormous profits and to sustain its growth into the future.

And Nokia is not a unique example either. The world abounds with examples of global brands coming from countries with small populations that have not just a significant share of but are acknowledged market leaders in their respective global markets through control of IP. Among them are household names such as IKEA (furniture) from Sweden, and Nestle (food) and Novartis (pharmaceuticals), both from Switzerland.

Let us call this business model that is applied by Nokia and many others, and pursued by Proton under Tgk. Mahaleel, the “Knowledge-Driven Business Model”. This is as opposed to the new vision that was conveyed by Wong Sulong’s article, which I call the “Assembler-Driven Business Model”.

Hence, Proton, as it builds its IP whilst practicing this Knowledge-Driven Business Model, would be rapidly evolving into a model like Nokia's in mobile phones - it is able to transform into an IP, marketing, finance and distribution organisation, where even the few manufacturing assets it owns are also really for production R&D, with the majority of capital intensive activities like assembly and manufacturing being outsourced. This model is being used by other carmakers globally and Proton is the only car company in ASEAN on the verge of achieving this.

Why do I link Tgk. Mahaleel’s vision for Proton to the Knowledge-Driven Business Model here?

Actually, Tgk. Mahaleel as an individual here is less important than the type of individual that he represents. Individuals like Tgk. Mahaleel interestingly understand the importance of pursuing a “Knowledge-Driven Business Model” for Proton and this is publicly demonstrated, both by his words and by his actions. In terms of action, his tenure in Proton has been clearly defined by the following efforts:

1 - Building Proton’s intellectual property, even in a roundabout way if there is no clear direct way. This he picked up from his mentor, the late Tan Sri Yahaya Ahmad (who interestingly is an individual not unlike Tgk. Mahaleel).

A good example of this was Proton’s acquisition of MV Augusta. MV Augusta was not purchased because Proton wanted to start making motorcycles. It was bought so Proton could gain the expertise of building smaller engines. Augusta’s engines, though for motorcycles, were high-powered engines, with engine sizes near the size of small cars - precisely the engine sizes that Proton lacked expertise in.

Tgk. Mahaleel and his team’s plan was simply to gain the intellectual property from Augusta to able to build engines for the class of cars like Savvy, or even smaller, with the vision of eventually for Proton to produce such smaller cars or maybe even to allow Proton to sell such engines to Perodua and other small car companies in the region.

Analysts were convinced that the MV Augusta purchase did not make sense for Proton - but then again, the same analysts may not be individuals like Tgk. Mahaleel and TS Yahaya Ahmad - and hence are unable to see the point of acquiring a company to gain its IP.

2 - Tgk. Mahaleel had repeatedly stated that any alliance between Proton and foreign manufacturer has to make sense to Proton, but where Dr M was keen to protect Proton’s Malaysian ownership, Tgk. Mahaleel has been consistent in saying that the alliance must grow Proton’s IP. In the case of the VW JV/alliance for instance, the first thing that came to Tgk. Mahaleel’s mind on the benefit of the alliance when asked by Malaysian Business is Proton’s urgent need to learn more about power-trains from VW. Other benefits like cost reduction were mentioned later.

3 - One of the greatest battles that Tgk. Mahaleel won for Proton was the battle with EON, with the main issue being that EON did not want to fund development of new IP at Proton. EON then, as sole distributor and main financier, generated far more cash from the business than Proton, so much more so that EON could build its own bank, whilst leaving Proton carrying the higher cost burden as the manufacturer and without IP development monies.

Tgk. Mahaleel succeeded in wresting the distributorship deal from EON and has been building Proton’s own marketing network and financing business, not just to allow Proton to enjoy more % direct profit, but to allow Proton to have access to its own IP development funding.

Even if Tgk. Mahaleel is clearly a “Knowledge-Driven Business Model” supporter when leading Proton, why do I say that his removal and the declared new vision will result in Proton adopting an “Assembler-Driven Business Model”, not a Knowledge-Driven one?

To put it simply, businesses that succeed need to focus on one business model and pursue it to the best of its abilities. This is because different business models require fundamentally different approaches that may be in conflict in each other. For instance, compare the 2 models in question:

Knowledge-Driven model: Significant amount of money needs to be spent on R&D and IP creation, money that is only recoverable if efforts succeed and adds to cost of production in the short run, with the medium-longer term benefit of higher profits from new IP.

Assembler -Driven model: Cost saving model, where all cost are minimized to maximize profit. Majority of IP adopted is to further reduce assembly cost and is not developed in house, but directly or indirectly bought from outside party.

As Knowledge-Driven needs to spend money to develop IP first to make money later and the Assembly-Driven wants to cut ALL cost, a company can only choose to pursue one model in order to succeed.

When we compare all the car producing and assembling companies in Malaysia, it is clear that Proton is the only Knowledge-Driven one, whilst the others, including its nearest counterpart, Perodua, are Assembler-Driven ones. Perodua for instance still does not have a design house capable of fundamental design changes such as to its car’s engine and structural platform, whereas Proton is actually actively pursuing sales of its structural platform designs.

This signals a fundamental difference between Proton’s focus towards a Knowledge-Driven Business Model and the Assembler-Driven model of the other car companies and assemblers in Malaysia.

Therefore, if the government via Khazanah chooses to pursue the merging of all the car producing and assembling companies in Malaysia, only the one business model, Knowledge-Driven or Assembler-Driven can be pursued, not both together. As the majority of car companies in Malaysia are Assembler-Driven and Proton is relatively new in applying a Knowledge-Driven business model, it is more likely that when the merger occurs, Proton will be downgraded from a promising Knowledge-Driven car company into a plain Assembler-Driven one.

But then again, how can you be sure this is the case? Khazanah may still choose for Proton to lead the merger and remain a Knowledge-Driven car company.

Actually, I think this new vision of merging all the Malaysian car-related companies clearly involves absorbing Proton and destroying its Knowledge-Driven drive and establishing a single Malaysian Assembler-Driven car company. This is because all the local business leaders from outside of Proton that are being touted as future successors of Tgk. Mahaleel so far are from Assembler-Driven companies, and so would likely impose an Assembler-Driven business model rather than a Knowledge-Driven business model.

Again, I reiterate that Tgk. Mahaleel the individual here is not as much an issue as the type of person he is. If Khazanah and the Proton board were serious about building Proton as Knowledge-Driven Company, the names being touted would have been different. They would have been people with a reputation in innovation, or senior execs from companies that have a culture of innovation or indeed practice a Knowledge-Driven Business Model.

Now there are even media reports, especially from The Edge, about Khazanah considering the sale of either a majority or a controlling share of Proton to one of two foreign car companies. In both cases, it seems the aspiration of the foreign partner is to turn Proton into some sort of subsidiary to focus on local or regional production or on assembly of their own marques.

This idea of selling Proton to a foreign entity clearly indicates a view that Proton should not simply to be downgraded from being a potential Malaysian Knowledge-Driven global player in the car industry into a large but local run-of-the-mill vehicle assembler, but that it could potentially be sacrificed to becoming a local subsidiary of a foreign car-maker!

If Khazanah was really interested in having Proton continue to grow and fulfil its promise as a global or even regional car company, I would have expected Khazanah and the Proton Board to be protecting the Knowledge-Driven vision for Proton by seeking individuals with attributes very much like that of Tan Sri Yahaya Ahmad and Tgk. Mahaleel to be its next CEO.

With such aspirations, Khazanah should indeed then leave it to Proton to enhance its Knowledge Driven model and as best as possible support further foreign or even local acquisitions and the formation of alliances for the purpose of nurturing and building Proton’s IP pool. Khazanah could then aspire for Proton and its leadership to then be an example, maybe via industry councils, to transform other Khazanah and other Malaysian companies into Knowledge-Driven concerns too!

In supporting a Knowledge Driven Proton, Khazanah should thus certainly not be contemplating the destruction of Proton’s Knowledge-Driven aspirations by entertaining ideas of diluting Proton’s focus through a merger with other local companies and assemblers, and especially not by surrendering control of Proton to a foreign car company. Such actions would not just result in a loss of business potential, but as mentioned, it would also run contrary to the aspirations of the nation, as repeatedly iterated by Pak Lah in many forums.

If I say that the local business leaders being mentioned as potential successors of Tgk. Mahaleel are unsuitable, does this mean Proton has to consider a foreign CEO to guide it into the future?

I don’t think so. The truth is, there is local talent in Malaysia that fits the mould of a TS Yahaya Ahmad and Tgk. Mahaleel, who were themselves of course local talent with a Knowledge-Driven outlook. Potential successors need neither currently be managers of other local car companies or assemblers nor need be a leader in a company even linked to the automotive industry.

Remember that the mindset of the future CEO is the key to his success in pursuing a Knowledge-Driven future for Proton, a mindset that is preferably nurtured by experience in a company or companies that exercise a Knowledge-Driven Culture. Tgk. Mahaleel for instance had the benefit of experience from a Knowledge-Driven oil company and Knowledge-Driven food company, Shell and before that Nestle respectively. Pick up any business book on these 2 companies and you will see that both are Knowledge-Driven.

The other key players in Proton’s evolution, Tgk. Mahaleel’s mentor, the late TS Yahaya Ahmad and Dr M are also similarly Knowledge-Driven leaders. I am sure there are other leaders of this mould waiting to be given the opportunity to advance Proton into a Knowledge-Driven future.

However, a greater concern for me is the capacity of the Proton Board, or rather its potential lack of, to recognize a person with a Knowledge-Driven leader as a potential next CEO of Proton.

Surely Proton’s Board Of Directors Is In The Best Position To Decide The Most Suitable CEO To Fulfil Proton’s Vision

But that is precisely my concern over the board’s choice for the future CEO of Proton. In the first place, if Wong Sulong’s article was accurate, then the board seems bent on turning Proton into an Assembler-Driven company, despite this being against the public aspirations of Pak Lah for the Government Linked Companies (GLCs). If this is so, how is the board able to choose a CEO suited to mould Proton into a Knowledge-Driven company. The board’s fundamental views on this must first be changed.

In addition to that, the board demonstrated in the treatment of its relationship of Tgk. Mahaleel that it wished to control and reign in the maverick drive that tends to be inherent in leaders of the Knowledge-Driven mould. You see, Knowledge-Driven leaders and CEOs tend to be also difficult and maverick individuals that need a lot of leeway and open support from their company board to succeed. Such mavericks are commonplace in the history of the car industry.

For instance, the great car industry leader, Lee Iacocca, was actually forced to resign by the General Motors (GM) board for his maverick tendencies. However, Iacocca then revealed his brilliance when he turned around Chrysler from being an ailing company into a thriving competitor to GM in the 80’s and 90’s prior to its merger with Daimler-Benz.

Even the founder of the modern car industry, Henry Ford, was once dragged to court, in large part due to his apparent arrogance causing many powerful people to be unhappy with him.

If Proton’s board not only does not have a Knowledge-Driven vision for Proton, but also does not have the patience needed to support typically maverick Knowledge-Driven leaders, how can it be expected to select a Knowledge -Driven CEO? They actually just dismissed a Knowledge-Driven CEO remember? And the CEO they dismissed was actually successful in making Proton profitable and viable for the future!

Ah, but some actually say that Proton has managed to succeed and remain profitable so far, despite the much quoted quality problems of its cars, because it has always been protected by the government through tariffs and high import taxes on foreign cars. Shouldn’t such protection be removed from Proton after 20 years?

Actually, I tend to agree with this statement. Of course Proton has gained from protection over the many years, and there is no denying that this has helped enormously to ensure Proton’s success and profitability as the leading carmaker in the country. Nevertheless, one should not deny that this success would not be possible if Proton was not able to produce cars that are of increasingly good design when competing against foreign imports, knowing how difficult a market Malaysian can be when it comes to cars. And again, the protection allowed for this success too.

I actually also agree that maybe it is time for Proton’s protection to be removed. Sure, most countries continue protecting their local car companies, directly or indirectly, for more than 20 years, with Korea, the US and India being the most blatant over the past few decades. But Proton has grown sufficiently I feel into an increasingly Knowledge-Driven car company that the protection should be removed as a final test of its resilience.

In addition to the removal of such protection being beneficial by relieving the burden that Malaysians had been in most part willingly supporting to develop our national car industry, i.e. Proton, this would also allow Proton to prove to its detractors that it has the wherewithal to survive on its own, without protection, and that Malaysians should be proud of it for its merits as a national champion.

However, as often mentioned by Tgk. Mahaleel and consistently repeated by Dr M as Proton’s adviser, Proton as an entity need not be protected any longer for it to succeed as a Malaysian, regional, or indeed global car company as long as the government:

1 - Address the problem of AP allocation abuse that were being committed to benefit the individuals now known as the AP Kings and their ilk and partners. It is understood that the government is pursuing this after much public outcry.

2 - Address the problem of under-declaration of price of the imported vehicles. This practice has been allowing Korean car marquees, among others, to be dumped in the country to the detriment of our local car industry and costing government millions to billions of Ringgit in tax income. The guilty parties such as owners and manager of the Naza group for instance should be charged in court for their crimes.

3 - Most critically, the government allows Proton to source its parts from non-local sources, the way Perodua does. At the moment, the national automotive policy forces Proton to be the nursemaid to our local vendors of auto-parts, despite their lack of quality even after many years of experience. Indeed, technical audits have proven that most if not all Proton’s quality problems arise from the poor quality parts supplied by some local vendors that Proton is forced by government to support.

But why should Proton be given a chance to continue as a Malaysian owned and controlled Knowledge-Driven Company if it has not been able to address its quality issues during the period of government protection?

Actually, Proton should be given the chance to prove itself first in an unprotected environment before anyone says it cannot survive without protection! No analysts, journalist, critic or even industry leader can claim to be able to predict whether or not Proton will succeed or fail without protection. However, how will we ever know Proton’s worth as a fledgling Knowledge-Driven entity if it is not first allowed to face the challenge of zero local protection?

Certainly Proton has a lower likelihood of success without protection if the government does not first address the 3 matters highlighted above, but if the government addresses the AP abuse and under-declaration issues, as well as allows Proton to source higher quality non-local parts, Proton has every chance of success.

Indeed, based on the history of other car-makers, Proton certainly has a better chance of succeeding long-term as a Knowledge-Driven car-maker of its own right rather than as part of a patched together mega-assembler of cars or even a subsidiary of a foreign car company; the Rover car story being very instructive in this matter.

Certainly, one of these foreign carmakers that are reported to be interested in controlling Proton sees an inherent value of Proton to their business beyond its cash and manufacturing assets. There must certainly be something in Proton’s Knowledge-Driven core, its IP, which has resulted in this carmaker declaring a clear interest in Proton’s design capabilities. If a foreign carmaker sees Proton’s value as a Knowledge-Driven carmaker, we Malaysians certainly should certainly think twice before abandoning Proton to an inferior assembly-driven vision.

But what if Proton then fails?

If it fails, it fails! What is important is that in that journey to be a Knowledge-Driven carmaker, Proton also provides the opportunity for Malaysians to be exposed to the experience and ability to develop IP and technology in a competitive industry. Such an enriching experience is really the basis of why Proton as a Knowledge-Driven entity is such an important legacy of Dr M’s, not just its potential to industrialize Malaysia and prosper the nation.

To be a truly developed nation, Malaysia and Malaysians must have the capacity to nurture Knowledge-Driven entities such as Proton was evolving under TS Yahaya Ahmad and Tgk. Mahaleel. And even if Proton fails, by that time, its journey would have enriched the nation such that there should be other Malaysian Knowledge-Driven corporate champions competing at a global level.

The author has been an employee of a Knowledge-Driven Oil and Gas Super-Major for 8 years. He has worked in Manufacturing, R&D and Supply Chain Optimisation in operational roles and projects across 6 continents. He is currently performing a Downstream Oil Marginal Economics role from the Asia Pacific regional office in Singapore.

BJ 10:50 AM |

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

We Are All Collateral Damage

By Zaid Shakir

The Roads to Peace

The roads to peace are paths of war,

The gentle dove will leave her scar.

The moral men to say the least,

Will kill us all to get their peace.

The roads that lead to victories gained,

Are filled with people full of pain.

Only our Creator knew,

We’d kill so many to save so few.

The recent terrorist tragedy in London is disheartening. Once again some nefarious force has seen fit to totally disregard innocent human life in pursuit of a vile agenda that few of us know and even fewer could understand. The response of the world leaders assembled in Edinburgh for the G-8 Summit is perhaps more disheartening, as it promises more of the misguided policies that have proven so ineffective in prosecuting the war on terror. The leaders of the Western powers continue to imply that they will fight violence with more violence of their own. If current events are any indicator of future developments, such a policy will only serve to beget yet more terrorism.

This is a war being guided on both sides by self-righteous hypocrites whose motives and proclamations mirror each other. Each side sees God as being exclusively with them. That being the case, the restraint and judiciousness urged by Christian and Islamic theology to guide the execution of war is cast aside with wanton impunity. Each side manipulates a vulnerable public to create a climate that allows for the perpetuation and the inevitable escalation of the ongoing slaughter. Each side reserves the right to use the spectacle of indiscriminate violence to "Shock and Awe" the opposition, yet will deny that its tactics can be described as terrorism. Each side sees their civilian population as hapless, innocent victims, while the suffering innocent civilians on the other side are acceptable collateral damage.

There will never be any real progress in ending this terror war, until we realize that we have all become collateral damage, unacceptable collateral damage. That being the case, there is no they or we in this affair. We are they and they are we. When a child in New York never sees his mother again because she was crushed in a collapsed tower at the World Trade Center, we all have suffered an irreplaceable loss. When an impoverished family in Afghanistan is bombed from the face of the Earth by a misguided missile, something of our collective humanity is destroyed by the blast. When a child in Iraq is born with gross birth defects due to his mother’s exposure to depleted uranium, we have all been deformed. When London commuters fear ever again entering the underground, because of the ill-advised actions of a handful of desperate fanatics, their insecurity touches us all.

We, the collaterally damaged, will continue to exist in a state of dehumanizing loss, deformity, and insecurity until we rise up, unite, and refuse to support at any level the policies of leaders who continually fail to heed one of the surest of all political lessons: killing innocent civilians will never lead to a positive outcome for the transgressing party. This realization is the first meaningful salvo anyone could fire in a real war on terror. However, as long as we are not as moved by the suffering of innocent civilians anywhere as we are by the suffering of those close to us, it will be a salvo that remains unfired.

Imam Zaid Shakir

BJ 10:43 AM |

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Be part of it

Live8, the biggest rally to pressure the governments of G8 to look at Africa. Bob Geldolf, the original organizer of Live Aid said:

"This is not Live Aid 2.

These concerts are the start point for The Long Walk To Justice, the one way we can all make our voices heard in unison.

This is without doubt a moment in history where ordinary people can grasp the chance to achieve something truly monumental and demand from the 8 world leaders at G8 an end to poverty.

The G8 leaders have it within their power to alter history. They will only have the will to do so if tens of thousands of people show them that enough is enough.

By doubling aid, fully cancelling debt, and delivering trade justice for Africa, the G8 could change the future for millions of men, women and children."

Further Info
Live 8

And please sign the petition.

BJ 5:00 PM |

Monday, June 27, 2005

In Defense of Malaysia and Singapore

In Defense of Malaysia and Singapore

by Andre Vltchek

All of you probably had a chance to hear or read it somewhere: Malaysia and Singapore are two dictatorships, two systems that violate basic human rights and limit freedom of speech and of the press. Their leaders stay in power for too long and their ruling political parties go unchallenged in every election.

Sounds bad, doesn't it? The only major problem with this (mainly Western) theory is that the great majority of the citizens of two above mentioned countries would strongly disagree.

Wee Gee, an owner of a trendy jazz club in Singapore, has his own theory: "They all come here - Australians, Britons and other Europeans, and they can't stand the place because it destroys their theories about Asia. They like to see underdevelopment because it makes them feel secure and superior. After two days in Singapore, they realize that we have probably the best social system in the world, good city planning, clean, safe streets and excellent public transport. So they think: 'Wow, how did these Chinks and Malays and Indians achieve such a high standard of living? There must be something hiding in the closet. And they start bashing us. Understand, for an average white Australian it is simply psychologically unacceptable that there is an Asian country that is richer than his."

Neighbouring Malaysia hardly escapes devastating criticism either. It is bashed in the Western press from the right and from the left, accused of almost feudal governance by some, of introducing affirmative action for the Malay majority by others, for spending too much money on mega-projects (tallest buildings in the world, new capital city, gigantic international airport, the largest Muslim museum in the world to name just a few) or simply for harshly attacking Western foreign policy and two recent US-led invasions.

Both Singapore and Malaysia are attacked by the Western left for being "too capitalist" and by the right for "not having free, open and transparent economies" (referring to extremely cosy relations between local companies and the government, a model that originally comes from Japan and is known in Malaysia as 'Malaysia Incorporated').

So, what is it really that irks the West about these two countries in Southeast Asia that were nicknamed dragons and tigers and other potent creatures before 1997? Without any doubt, the answer is: their success!

Malaysian GDP per head is only 3,920 dollars a year (The Economist: 'The World in 2002'). That's only slightly higher than in Latin American countries such as Brazil and Peru. The difference is that there is almost no extreme poverty left in 'undemocratic' Malaysia, while one would have a hard time trying not to notice the widespread misery in the above mentioned South American countries that we consider 'free' and 'democratic' (and at least it is probably true in Brazil after the latest elections that brought Lula da Silva to power).

Before the 1997 economic crisis, Malaysia made incredible progress, mainly due to a well-planned economy, an extremely hard working population, and huge investment in social policies and infrastructure. As was the case in Singapore decades earlier, against all the odds Malaysia became a relatively balanced middle class country, transforming itself from a traditional agricultural society into a developed industrial nation. During the crisis, for which international currency speculators were largely to blame, Malaysia lost around forty percent of its wealth overnight, but, unlike neighbouring Indonesia, did not plunge into chaos.

Today, six years after the beginning of the crisis, Malaysia is again a socially balanced, multi-racial country with relatively good medical care, education and infrastructure. Although the Western media constantly reports on its 'hidden racial tensions', it is probably one of the most tolerant multi-racial nations on earth.

Nearby, Singapore managed to completely eradicate poverty more than a decade ago, creating one of the best (if not the best) social systems in the world that provides not only basics like an excellent medical care and education, but also subsidized housing, advanced public transport and world class cultural institutions including museums and concert halls.

Writing bitterly and defensively, an attitude born out of the1997 crisis, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad snaps at the West: "We have tried to defend ourselves as best as we could, but, for some of us, every move we make to revive our economies has been immediately condemned as a ploy to help members of the ruling parties and their cronies. It is impossible for non-Asian foreign detractors to believe that Asian government leaders can be honest at all. If Asian leaders do anything at all for the good of their countries, it must be because they are corrupt and want to help their cronies and their families. Such prejudiced and stereotyped views will, I fear, persist for a long time to come. The people who espouse such views, it must be remembered, are the descendants of the old white-supremacist colonialists. They cannot get rid of their old bugaboos no matter how far their civilizations have supposedly advanced. We simply cannot expect justice and fair play for Asians and Africans; we have had to ignore all the prejudice and get on with rebuilding our economies." (Mahathir Mohamad:"A New Deal For Asia", Pelanduk, 1999).

It is true that Malaysia and Singapore (as well as other developed Asian countries) are facing continuous and vicious attacks from the West. Malaysia is far from perfect, but in no way can it be called a dictatorship. After the 1997/98 crisis that impoverished millions of Malays while enriching hundreds of foreign speculators, Mahathir declared that the free market system had proved to be a failure and fired his finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Mr. Ibrahim was beaten by police, and accused of sodomy and corruption. Almost one year later, he was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison.

That was enough to trigger an enormous media campaign against Malaysia in general and against its political system in particular. The fate of Anwar Ibrahim attracted more attention from Western analysts and media than did the millions of citizens of Malaysia who became victims of an inhuman, brutal global economic dictatorship and saw the fruits of decades of their hard work being wiped out overnight.

The opinion of foreigners about Malaysia didn't change much even after Ibrahim's wife, Azizah Ismail, formed a new opposition 'National Justice Party' but gained only five of the 193 seats contested in the November 1999 elections.

So why are Malaysia and Singapore the centre of negative attention for people in the West, while there is generally a consensual silence about so many other places on earth where injustice is undisputable? Speaking about 'political cronyism' (the highly popular expression for describing Southeast Asian leaders and business elite) one doesn't have to leave the West itself to find examples that would make almost any Southeast Asian nation look like a model of order and civility by comparison. Italy, for example, with its Fascist and criminal Prime-Minister Silvio Berlusconi who, (just by coincidence?) exercises almost unlimited control over the media.

In the great majority of 'democracies' in the Western Hemisphere, Malaysian economic, social and political standards (not to mention Singaporean standards which are even higher than those in the United States) would be seen as an impossible dream.. One explanation could be that almost all injustices in Latin America are the result of the Western (white) colonial rule. Our policymakers, analysts and servile media do not want to touch and illuminate issues that could remind us how undemocratic was, and still is, our rule over the world. Most of the people in Latin America are still controlled by a white minority, especially in countries where indigenous people form the majority. Those who dare to challenge this state of affairs are either killed, marginalized, ridiculed or driven into exile. Even the Peace Nobel Price Laureate Rigoberta Manchu was forced to leave her native Guatemala after vicious attacks against her (her main fault, it seems, was that she was 'fat, indigenous and a woman') and move to neighbouring Mexico.

The distribution of wealth in our Latin American protectorates is the worst in the world, and coherent social policies are almost nonexistent. Freedom of the press is mainly the preserve of those who can afford to print newspapers and magazines. However, there is almost no serious criticism of Latin American semi-dictatorships by our media.

n comparison to most of the 'third world' countries, Malaysia is a star. To make things even worse and more dangerous for the Western post- and neo-colonialists, it promises hope and shows alternatives. Its social model is applicable more or less everywhere, its proud (but pragmatic, non-extremist) refusal to follow European and North American economic and social models can eventually attract followers from all over the world, undermining Western hegemony of global power. Last year in Lima, I was even told by Raffo Munoz (First Secretary of the Communist Party of Peru) that he "is studying the Malaysian model very carefully and is extremely impressed by its achievements".

Belief in 'Asian Values' (although this expression itself can be a bit dubious, and those very values can sometimes be compared with old Christian fundamentalist values of the past, as Mahathir himself admits) are putting Malaysia and Singapore in the forefront of the movement for Asian (or at least Asia-Pacific) unity and resistance against foreign domination and negative influence.

And let's not forget that the Malaysian government is extremely outspoken when it comes to criticism of the Western invasions and 'world order', our economic and cultural hegemony, our re-emerging habit of disregarding international opinion and our willingness to act openly in (exclusively) our own interests.

It seems obvious that the unpopularity of both Malaysia and Singapore in the West is because almost all the achievements of these two countries were based on domestically grown models and had their roots in local cultures. The main purpose of those models was, and is, an improvement of the lives of Malaysian and Singaporean citizens. Enrichment of our Western companies was something secondary, nonessential. We have never been able or willing to tolerate such an approach! In the past, we destroyed entire countries, killed democratically elected Presidents and supported vicious right-wing dictatorships for much lesser shows of independent thinking.

In many Asian countries there is still a popular belief that the 1997 crises was triggered by the West, in order to prevent the Asian model from truly taking off. Although there is no proof that there was any coordinated, pre-meditated design to ruin the Malaysian, South Korean and Philippine economies after the collapse of the Thai baht (although the pressure of international advisors and organizations on the then still well-performing Malaysian economy to devalue the ringgit only because of the speculation that 'it will not be able to be competitive after a Thai devaluation of the baht' did enormous harm to start with), it was obvious that the world's institutions and most powerful governments did nothing to stop the insane and unjust economic downward spiral of the late nineties.

Today, Malaysia is again a developing country with first world infrastructure and social systems. Its streets are safe, its hospitals clean and its highways as good as those in Germany or France. Its bookstores are well stocked, providing the latest reads from all over the world, except for a few censured titles. There are no homeless people on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, no ghettos for minorities, and no child prostitutes.

There is a death penalty for drug traffickers. For those of us who see the death penalty as something immoral and perverted, this system cannot be viewed as perfect. For those of us who write books, Malaysia is a place that should improve in many ways. For those of us who believe that one of the basic and undeniable human rights is to have his/her religion or to have no religion at all, the constant emphasis on fate may be something deeply annoying and disturbing.

The Singaporean government cravenly supported the US invasion of Iraq, despite public opinion against the war (but was it much different in Spain, Italy or Japan?). Malaysian 'cooperation with the war on terror' leaves plenty of space for criticism, as does its mishandling of illegal immigrants (mainly after 9-11), in Kalimantan (Borneo) and elsewhere.

However, to deny Malaysia and Singapore their greatness just because of those issues would be a mistake. There is no perfect society on this planet. In other societies with less than 4,000 dollars GDP per capita (as in Malaysia), millions of people starve or live in subsistence conditions. They rot in understaffed hospitals with no basic medicine. They live in polluted, overcrowded cities with enormously high crime rates. Malaysian achievements (not to speak about Singapore's) are enormous.

If I had to choose either to live in increasingly orderly Kuala Lumpur or in insanely divided, polluted and poor Lima, I, as a writer, would choose Lima. However, there are not many writers in the world, but there are enormous numbers of people who don't want to go back to colonial and post colonial misery, who want to have their own house and small car, a good, safe school for their children, clean, attractive streets for walking and fast trains to get them from point A to point B. These people with families and children who aim at security and good middle class life wouldn't hesitate one second: they would choose Kuala Lumpur.

We all know that with such a small GDP per capita, countries like Malaysia "shouldn't have all these social privileges". According to our world order, the Malaysians should concentrate on feeding OUR economies, OUR companies, sacrificing their children and their families in the process. The reason our media people and opinion-making gurus hate Malaysia and Singapore is not only because these countries learned how to say "NO" to us, but also because they are putting the interests of their own people first. That's why we can't forgive them, but at the same time can forgive everything to our Latin American colonies and their white elites who are always happy to sacrifice entire nations for their allegiance to their European/Western blood and culture. We can forgive them their many forms of apartheid as well as the swollen bellies of the starving children in Northern Nicaragua and South-western Honduras. We can forgive racial segregation in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia; former strongholds of great cultures that we managed to destroy! We can forgive Mexican latifundistas and still call Mexico a democracy.

But we can never forgive those who are not willing to sacrifice their own people on the altar of our greed.

Every inch of progress made in Malaysia and Singapore is another nail in the coffin of Western domination and modern day colonialism. Malaysia should reform, it should drop censorship, but it should stay on course. It should never change its principles, its essence - it should always put its people first and we (those who oppose this insane world order and Western dictatorship) should defend its right to do so, instead of bashing it. Malaysia should teach other developing countries world-wide to do the same, to care about the welfare of their own people, to unite in order to defend its culture and principles, to say 'no' to the superpower, even to the entire world order if necessary.

During the Spanish Civil War, Czech anti-Fascists and volunteers used to say: "In Madrid, we are fighting for Prague." This old expression can be now paraphrased: "They are building new Lima and new Abidjan in Kuala Lumpur".

Copyright © 2003 Andre Vltchek and World Confrontation Now

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