The Asian Voice

Najib in troubled times, high stakes for Asean centrality and algebra of namaste

Commentaries and insights from newspapers in the Asia News Network (ANN).

1. Troubled times for Najib

The Prime Minister's survival is again on the line and the next few weeks will be critical

By Joceline Tan

The Star/ANN


Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak is battling accusations that he received millions of dollars in his personal accounts from a state fund. PHOTO: EPA

For a while, it seemed like the worst was behind him, but Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is once again battling what he calls a political sabotage to topple him.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad arrived for a buka puasa gathering with the Proton Workers' Union in kampung style attire - white baju Melayu top over a burgundy-and-grey kain pelikat, songkok and sandals.

He looked rather homely but Dr Mahathir has this certain flair in whatever he wears and which stands him apart from the rest.

It was not the first time the Proton advisor was breaking fast with the company's union and one of them had even wrapped his arm around the senior's shoulders as they posed for a selfie.

The former Premier seems to be out and about almost everyday. He has also been spotted at a number of Ramadan bazaars, from Kampung Baru to Shah Alam, where he told curious onlookers that he was looking for "popia" (spring rolls).

A day before the Proton event, he had dressed up for buka puasa with the folk at Perkim or the Muslim Welfare Association. Everyone there was younger than him but he looked younger than many of them.

The way Dr Mahathir is going, it is hard to believe he will be turning 90 in a few days' time. The distinctive traits are still there - that certain insouciance, his way of taking in his surroundings at a glance and that soft way of walking, as though he is treading on eggshells.

But he has been like a bull in a china shop when taking on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. His attacks against Najib have eased a little since the start of Ramadan but it is business as usual on his Chedet blog.

Umno leaders are resigned to the fact that he will not stop. But many of them were taken aback when he agreed with the decision by the Umno supreme council to postpone the party elections.

It was the first time in a while he had been on the same page.

Well, it would be unseemly if he disagreed. The practice of postponing party polls began during his time when the quest to win party posts became more urgent than winning the general election.

The party polls, which are due by October next year, was postponed by 18 months. It has taken a lot of pressure off the Umno leadership.

Those holding key party posts are naturally quite happy that their political life-span has been extended. But those down the line are not too happy. They think the Umno divisions, which will start to hold their AGMS from July 28, are entitled to their say.

The rumblings on the ground were loud enough for Negri Sembilan Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan to clear the air about the polls deferment.

He had mooted the postponement during the supreme council meeting and he was aware of the mixed reaction to the decision. He told reporters in Seremban that he wished to take responsibility.

It is quite apparent why Mat Hasan, as he is also known, was keen to defer the polls. His state is seen as "borderline" for Barisan Nasional which has 22 seats against 14 seats by the now defunct Pakatan Rakyat. Another five more seats to the other side and Negri Sembilan would have fallen.

Mat Hasan's concern is that Umno politicians would put aside everything for the Umno polls and if they lost, they would sabotage the party in the general election.

"There is no point winning party posts but doing badly in the general election," he said.

Apparently, two other Mentris Besar who sit on the supreme council had pushed for the the Umno election to take place next year. But the majority of the supreme council went along with Mat Hasan's proposal to defer the polls.

The idea to postpone was already in the air when the Umno division secretaries held their retreat in Janda Baik a couple of weeks ago. The discussion spilled over onto the Telegram chat group of the division heads and there was no stopping it after that.

Thus, it is untrue that the move was, as one Umno politician put it, "to jam Muhyiddin's plan". The postponement was seen as a setback for deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who had mooted the idea at the Umno general assembly last year.

Muhyiddin had meant well when he floated the idea. The polls would enable younger and more energetic faces to move up in the divisions and the party would have a wider choice of candidates for the general election.

But so much has happened since and the postponement may actually be better for Muhyiddin.

There had been talk Muhyiddin would be challenged in the Umno polls. The man everyone is looking at to challenge Muhyiddin is vice-president and Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi who is very popular in the party.

In fact, Ahmad Zahid's supporters were rather disappointed over news of the postponement. They think their man has missed a golden opportunity.

However, the Najib circle claimed that even if the polls were allowed to proceed, he would have prevented a fight for the No.2 post.

It would have been too divisive for the party and the gentleman in him would not want to see his deputy go down in such a way.

The deferred polls decision had added to what many saw as a turning point for Najib following months of attacks by Dr Mahathir and by the UK-based Sarawak Report group of activitists, both of whom are joined by a symbiotic quest to topple Najib via the 1MDB issue.

Sarawak Report had suffered a setback after its sources of information on 1MDB was compromised following the arrest of former Petro Saudi executive and alleged blackmailer Xavier Andre Justo a fortnight ago.

Sarawak Report had apparently been using tampered information from an alleged blackmailer.

But it has come back with a vengeance, making even more serious allegations about Najib, claiming that millions of ringgit were credited into his personal bank account.

The accusations were released on the same day as a closely similar report in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and the reports have since been picked up by news agencies and newspapers in the region.

The well-known blogger Ahirudin Attan also known as "Rocky" has highlighted many sensational stories on Malaysian leaders cooked up by Sarawak Report and which later turned out to be nonsense and lies. He blogged under rockybru.com.my

As such, the allegations by the people in the Sarawak Report were less of an issue than that carried in the WSJ report.

The concern of the government is the WSJ. There has been an immediate stream of denials from the Prime Minister's Office and also from 1MDB which denied ever transferring money into such an account.

Ihsan Perdana, the company WSJ accused of transferring money into Najib's account has also denied doing anything like that.

WSJ's accusations caused ripples because it is an established international publication. Yet, it had made such grave accusations against the leader of a country based on "un-named government sources". It was quite sensational journalism.

It was evident that those who want to bring down Najib are prepared to go to the extremes.

"I don't want to jump to conclusions but this whole thing smells like some grand design to discredit Najib. They take a few facts, add curry powder, salt and pepper and make accusations," said Kapar Umno chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah.

Many in the Umno circles find the allegations questionable. On one hand, they think that no one would be so stupid to allow that; on the other hand, it is the WSJ making the allegations.

But the allegations are very damaging because it is the first time the Prime Minister has been directly implicated to 1MDB's money trail.

The disturbing thing is that Najib's circle believe Dr Mahathir had a hand in all this. If that is true, it will be quite tragic because Dr Mahathir used to condemn foreign elements trying to control the country's affairs during his years in power.

Najib has to act swiftly and decisively to clear his name. He needs to make himself very clear and not to leave questions hanging in people's minds.

He also should not waste time to take legal action against the WSJ if the allegations are not true.

Bank Negara also has to step in to clear the air. WSJ had claimed that the alleged monetary transfers amounted to billions of ringgit.

These are gigantic sums and the regulating body would have been immediately alerted on such movements.

"At the moment, it is sheer allegations. But the way it is handled and explained will determine and shape public opinion. It is important for the PM to deny and explain without delay," said a Najib insider.

Dr Mahathir faced more than his share of accusations of wrongdoing and abuse of power in his heydays but he did not believe in legal suits.

"Najib needs to go the Lee Kuan Yew way - sue them and clear his name," said the above Najib insider.

Najib's survival is once again on the line and the next few weeks will be critical. Does this cat with nine lives have more lives left?

- The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

2. Can Asean centrality reduce major powers' rivalry?

For Asean, the stakes are high as it moves toward one community at the end of 2015. .

Kavi Chongkittavorn

The Nation/ ANN


US President Barack Obama greets attendees during an event with 75 emerging leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as part of the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative in the White House in Washington. PHOTO: AFP

If the assessments of the 2015 US National Military Strategy released last week serves as a weather vane, the Asia-Pacific region in coming years is heading for stronger and colder headwinds. They will cause unpredictable turbulence as the US is determined to promote and sustain its global leadership.

Today, the US is not only up against Russia, the all-time adversary, but also the rising China, the all-weather player.

This emerging strategic chess game provides both challenges and opportunities for Asean to reflect deeply on its strength and weakness in engaging major powers.

According to the national security strategy, at the global level, the US will advance a rule-based international order that promotes peace, security through strong alliances and partnerships, forging diverse coalitions and leading in UN-related and other multilateral organisations.

For the Asia and Pacific region, the current rebalancing effort will be further strengthened through increased diplomacy, stronger alliances and partnerships, expanded trade and investment and a diverse security posture. It is a tall order, given existing domestic constraints inside the US and an unpredictable regional and global environment.

It is interesting to note that the latest US strategic thinking is directly in response to China's assertive economic and security policies under President Xi Jinping, which have suddenly shaken existing regional and international orders.

The establishment of a 57-member Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, with unusually strong backing from the West, was indicative of the current state of China vis-a-vis US economic influence throughout the world. It is a work in progress.

It remains to be seen how the ongoing US-China competition, euphorically known as a new type of relationship for major powers, will play out in the realms of security and strategy in the months and years to come. Make no mistake, the Asia and Pacific region will be the laboratory for their fierce contest.

Diplomatically speaking, Washington has often reiterated that it supports China's peaceful rise and also encourages the country to become a partner for development and a broader global community. But at the same time, the US has also come out with strong rhetoric against Beijing, especially with Chinese claims in the South China Sea of being "inconsistent with international laws."

With major powers upping the ante towards each other, it is a good opportunity for Asean to maintain its cool, in other word its centrality, to ascertain that the deep-root threat perceptions would not at any time break into open conflict or harm the grouping's community building.

With the establishment of an Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in 1995, major powers, big and small, have used this Asean-led platform to exchange views, addressing their difference as well as attempting to eliminate trust deficits among 27 members. China has wisely utilised the ARF platform by supporting the Asean positions on regional and international issues. Together, they have managed to engage and shape the ARF consultative process in ways that strengthen their common positions as the ARF moves towards the preventive-building stage. Other Asean-led forums include the Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

For Asean, the stakes are high as it moves toward one community at the end of 2015. Any rupture between the US-China relations would impact on its community-building and economic integration.

From the Asean perspective, from now on US-China mutual mistrust would be further deepened as the pattern of confrontation and collaboration continued and diversified, but without opting for open conflict. Their cooperation at regional and international levels would be high on rhetoric but limited on action due to their different approaches and value systems.

At this point, with stronger US-China rivalry, Asean is moving quickly to consolidate its consultative process and structure as well as forging common security agenda at the highest level. Asean's senior officials have agreed it is now the time to sharpen its role and focus on strategic matters at the EAS. In previous engagements, the Asean leaders were left very much to themselves to speak on issues of their concern.

A lack of coordination and consultation among Asean members on key regional issues has weakened Asean centrality - with or without common voices.

So far, several recommendations have been made to improve Asean centrality in the EAS, including the setting of a Sherpa (software) system to coordinate views and agenda settings among the Asean leaders and their dialogue partners. A longer session focusing on exchange of views among leaders is being considered in addition to an informal retreat. Officially, they meet for three hours' average and break out for bilateral summits.

The EAS chair will have a stronger mandate to speak for Asean as a whole. The ongoing effort to review the EAS and promote the Asean centrality shows the grouping is more active and creative. It will be the showcase for Malaysia's chairmanship later this year.

After 2011, the US and Russia joined the 10-member Asean, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand - transforming the EAS as the region's most powerful leader-only region-wide strategic forum. The EU and Canada also wanted to join the EAS.

Of late, Russia has moved assertively, raising its profile by boosting ties with key Asean countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

The ongoing sanctions by the West have prompted Russia to pursue the Asean-oriented pathway. Moscow is equally eager to shape and contribute to the regional architecture. Its Framework Principles of Strengthening Security and Developing Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific was taken up by an Asean working group and is waiting further deliberation.

It is clear only an Asean centrality that is stronger and strictly neutral can have far-reaching mitigating impacts on superpowers' rivalry. The options are clear - Asean can stay ahead of the curve or be pushed into a dark alley as pawns in the power struggle for influence and supremacy.

3. The algebra of namaste

It may be time to bid a farewell to the handshake

Raja Murthy

The Statesman/ANN


US President Barack Obama speaks about healthcare reforms and the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare during the Catholic Hospital Association Conference in Washington. PHOTO: AFP

At 3:30 pm eastern time on July 3, US President Barack Obama was online on Twitter, taking questions on his new health care and Affordable Care Act.

Quite likely Obama is unaware of his importing from his India visit this January a lesser known but significant practice to health care: avoiding the handshake.

The farewell to India picture of Obama was my favourite from his visit - the smiling president and his wife Michelle silently saying 'namaste' from the door of Air Force One.

As a greeting or farewell, the sincere 'namaste', 'namaskar', or 'vannakam' (in Tamil) has to rank topmost among the most gracious of human gestures: conveying humility, respect and goodwill to a fellow being.

It beats the handshake hollow. I have no idea how, why and when the handshake first became the global gesture of greeting, but I do know it may be time to bid a farewell 'namaste' to the handshake.

Medical tests prove it. Handshakes are a dangerous enough transmitter of disease that some US doctors have called for the handshake to be banned in hospitals.

The handshake is easy transfer of lethal micro-creatures like the Escherichia coli (E.coli) bacteria, found researchers David E. Whitworth and Sarah Mela of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Wales. The American Journal of Infection Control published their study in July, 2014.

Longer and stronger the handshake, more dirt and sweat lovingly and warmly gets exchanged. The firm, strong handshake may show character, but it also shows how strongly delusions infect our daily life.

And it also shows how readily we give up wise ancient traditions to adopt less-clean habits as 'civilised' manners.

On the other hand, we are less ready to adopt the best of western culture like strong work ethics, discipline, being polite and not dirtying and littering streets and public places.

We often forget to say 'please', 'thank you' or use the dust-bin, but we rarely forget to shake hands.

Over ten years ago, a research finding startlingly declared that the human palm contains more germs than a toilet seat!

I remember that particular bit of news because not only did I write an article about it in the Mumbai tabloid Mid-day, but I also tried my best to get the handshake out of my life. No point exchanging grime in the guise of greeting.

It does not always work. Either of the two happens: a) the handshake has become such a reflex action on meeting someone that the right hand almost automatically extends, or b) refusing to shake hands by ignoring a proffered hand obviously gets interpreted as an insult, rudeness, arrogance and very bad manners.  

Or c), in real time, it's a bit difficult to tell the other person, "Shaking hands would mean you only get the dirt and sweat I may have in my palm."

So I tried another option the past few years: a closed-fist greeting. The person's hand in greeting touches my enclosed fist.

This way, the hand shaken greeting becomes less a hearty exchange of 'yecch' stuff we don't like to see mentioned.

When thinking of the handshake, just think of all the possible places where the hand or fingers have recently been ….sure, not exactly things to be discussed at the dining table.

That is also why the term 'dirty money' is actually dirty money, as in coins and currency notes passing through thousands of hands.

The closed fist greeting works somewhat - but it again promotes the delusion that there has to be some physical contact involved in a greeting. While researching this article today, I found President Obama is already a proponent of the closed-fist greeting. The fist pump, the Wales Institute of Biological, Environmental Research found, is 20 times more hygienic than the handshake.

By year 2030, the hand shake might have as much social approval as animal sacrifice and sniffing cocaine. Even now, if world leaders insist on continuing their frequent handshaking ways, they could include among their entourage a water basin carrier for them to frequently wash and disinfect their hands.

The infamous Roman governor Pontius Pilate washing his hands takes a whole new non-biblical meaning in the new world order of better sense: "I wash my hands to ensure the next person who shakes my governing hand does not bag all the accumulated grime and less visible gory things."

Yet whether it is handshake, fist pump or high fives, an exchange of dirty stuff happens depending on how lengthy is time and area of contact. One option for those believing physical contact is "essential" to signify warmth (not really) could be the E.T version of greeting.

Like in the promotional poster of Steven Spielberg's 1982 smash hit movie E.T, touch an extended forefinger as the gentle extra terrestrial being and the boy Elliot did.

"A few weeks ago, we took a look at non-verbal greetings around the world," said an American journal. "In Japan, they bow. Ethiopian mentouch shoulders. And some in the Democratic Republic of the Congo do a type of head knock." The 'namaste' was not mentioned in Michaeleen Douclef's article in the amazingly titled publication 'Goats and Soda'.

The Los Angles Times that reported, "Public health experts are urging handshakes to go the way of cigarettes, at least in healthcare settings," also seemed unaware of the 'namaste'.

This respectful greeting could be India's next beneficial gift to the world. A New York professional Jalanda James's blog 'stophandshaking.com' - possibly the only one of its kind - mentions 'namaste' among alternatives to the handshake.

Other subtler reasons exist for avoiding casual physical contact, realities a Vipassana practitioner experiences as a truth of mind-matter.

No good actually comes out of a handshake, but then we more readily embrace the harmful and mentally keep resisting the good.

The handshake is part of what I call our 'ulta-pulta' (upside down) perspectives of life: what tastes sweet could be actually poisonous, a charming 'friend' may be a tempting enemy, what we possessively own in reality owns us.

Like the handshake as greeting is a friendly exchange of germs, we necessarily have to work to penetrate the apparent truth, to get beyond to the deeper territory of actual truth.

That reality may be to our liking or dislike, but therein are real solutions to problems big and small. Besides, there is no escape from the truth.