Creating political momentum in Malaysia; what connects the people of Asean?

Najib Razak (right) and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin stand in front of an honour guard during the opening of their country's ruling UMNO's annual gathering in Kuala Lumpur.
Najib Razak (right) and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin stand in front of an honour guard during the opening of their country's ruling UMNO's annual gathering in Kuala Lumpur.PHOTO: REUTERS

1. Creating political momentum

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin's frank speech at the Cheras Umno meeting was widely seen as a move to create momentum ahead of the party's division AGMs.

By Joceline Tan

The Star/ANN

Najib Razak (right) speaks as his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin listens during the announcement of the new cabinet ministers lineup at his office in Putrajaya on May 15, 2013.     PHOTO: REUTERS

Datuk Seri Syed Ali Alhabshee is no stranger to controversy and it looks like the Cheras Umno chief has whipped up another political storm.

His division's decision to invite Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to open the Cheras Umno AGM is the talk of the party and the Deputy Prime Minister's speech has sparked off fresh speculation of the split between Umno's top two.

The Umno division chiefs' Telegram chat group has been on fire since Sunday night when news of Muhyiddin's comments on 1MDB went out.

Umno politicians tend to see an agenda in every corner and Syed Ali has come under attack. Some in the chat group have even accused Muhyiddin of betraying his party and the Malays. They have asked him to resign if he is not with Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Actually, what Muhyiddin said was not new. He wanted answers to the 1MDB issue, he said the Prime Minister was the best person to answer and he wanted the investigation into the matter to be completed as soon as possible.

He chose his words carefully and he spoke not like he was addressing a ceramah but as in a formal speech.

He also stressed that he was speaking out because he was concerned for Umno's future and not because he wants the Prime Minister's post.

It did not go down well with Najib's supporters who promptly accused Muhyiddin of trying to be a hero and for announcing that Umno would lose in the next general election.

A text message going around even told him off for agreeing to the postponement of the party polls. The message said that he should have pushed for the polls to be held as scheduled so that he could contest and clean up the party.

To be fair to Syed Ali, Cheras Umno likes to do things in style. Its functions are always graced by big names from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Najib.

"Look, I am a party man. People are blaming me for inviting Muhyiddin but he is No. 2 in our party. I have no control over what they say. They are behaving as though I invited the opposition leader," said Syed Ali.

Well, these are interesting times and some in Umno do see Muhyiddin as the "opposition leader" of Umno.

Besides, the Cheras division also invited Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir to officiate at the joint opening of its three wings.

Mukhriz did not hold back and made a veiled attack about leaders who cannot accept criticism.

But the Cheras division is one of those urban Umno divisions where members are informed about issues and have opinions.

According to Cheras Wanita chief Datuk Zurainah Musa, the meeting's permanent chairman had, at the start of the AGM, asked delegates not to touch on the 1MDB issue.

"We were upset because we want to touch on everything of concern to the party.

"Our delegates just went ahead to speak up because they want answers and solutions. There is no hidden agenda, we just want to move forward," said Zurainah.

The delegates also went on to pass a resolution calling for the entire 1MDB board to be thrown out.

But they also passed resolutions supporting Najib and Muhyiddin and calling for the swift resolution of the 1MDB issue.

The implication is whether what has happened in Cheras will be replicated in other division meetings that will take place until the end of August. Will things snowball from here as others take the opportunity to express their misgivings about the hot potato issue?

"1MDB is the burning issue especially in west coast states.

"Anyone addressing the division AGMs will have to talk about it. It will be crazy if you insist on talking about party unity or something like that," said political analyst Dr Azmi Omar.

Muhyiddin's speech, rightly or wrongly, has been seen as a strategic attempt to create political momentum ahead of the division meetings.

He knew what he was getting into, he was fully aware of how the media would seize on it and he is certainly not naive about how it will be interpreted.

"Tun Mahathir seems to have exhausted his options, he is now repeating himself. I guess it's Muhyiddin's turn to voice out," said Dr Azmi.

In fact, when Muhyiddin returned to his seat after making his speech at the Cheras meeting, he turned to Syed Ali and said rather apologetically: "Syed, I am sorry. This is your function."

Anyone familiar with Umno politics would know that very controversial issues are often brought up at Umno division AGMs every year, most of which go unnoticed and unreported.

But this is no ordinary year. Najib has been under attack by one of the most awesome personalities in Umno. It is evident that he and his deputy are no longer on the same page and Muhyiddin apparently did not attend Najib's birthday do last week.

Are things about to blow wide open?

Najib reacted immediately and reminded everyone, including Muhyiddin, of the ongoing investigation on 1MDB and asked them to wait for the outcome.

Najib likes to sit on issues and his swift reaction showed that he wants to prevent a snowball effect.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Najib. He is the epitome of the Malay gentleman but he is a political animal through and through.

For instance, Najib will be officiating at the division AGM of Semporna which is headed by Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal.

Shafie was his one-time loyalist who is now seen to be with Muhyiddin. Najib keeps his friends close and his ex-loyalists even closer.

2. What really connects the people of Asean?

With the 50th anniversary of Asean approaching, it's worth asking what really connects people in the region, amid all the past achievements.

Achara Deboonme

The Nation/ANN

Representatives from member nations of the ASEAN met in an emergency meeting to discuss transnational crime concerning the irregular movement of people in the region.   PHOTO: AFP

Next year marks the 49th anniversary of a historical turning point for this region. On August 8, 1967, the leaders of five nations - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - sat down together and signed what was to become known as the Asean Declaration, the founding document of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

The five countries envisaged a cooperation that would span the economic, social, cultural, technical, educational and other fields, while also forging regional peace and stability. Over the past 48 years, the number of member states has increased to 10 and much progress has been achieved. Despite domestic challenges, every member country has managed to attend annual meetings, where they could boast of having embarked on action to further regional cooperation. Most have joined the single visa scheme, to allow citizens of other member states to make short trips to their countries visa-free. Universities in Singapore have seen a continuous of flow of students from other Asean member countries, while hospitals in Thailand have welcomed patients from our regional neighbours. Migrant workers have become an integral part of Thai society, working as housemaids or as workers in factories, construction sites and food shops.

Rather than fighting for unilateral rights over a large gas field in the south of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have reached an agreement to jointly develop the reserves. A similar agreement is in the works for an offshore gas field bordering Thailand and Cambodia.

Excitement in the region, including Thailand, is growing over preparations for the Asean Economic Community (AEC), slated for launch at the end of this year. The advent of the AEC will give workers in eight professions freedom of movement across the region. Financial authorities across Southeast Asia are busy forging rules to facilitate cross-border securities offerings. With Asean member states looking for new investment opportunities, central banks are working to improve the cross-border payment system. Banks are establishing branches to accommodate greater investment by Asean companies within the region.

With the 50th anniversary of Asean approaching, it's worth asking what really connects people in the region, amid all the past achievements.

The physical aspect of regional connectivity is obvious. A network of highways now link several countries in the region, with roads designated "AH" affording unbroken travel from the north of Thailand to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Train projects in the pipeline will boost that connectivity.

Business linkages are increasing as the AEC looms into sight.

But it will be cultural links that form the strongest bonds between citizens of the region's countries.

Despite shared historical roots that can be traced back to the heyday of the Chinese and Indian empires, it seems that people of our region do not yet feel a strong sense of cultural connection. The exception would be the ethnic Chinese, who have migrated to Southeast Asia over the past two centuries and are still bound by old beliefs and traditions. Hindu roots still rise to the surface in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia - most obvious in water festivals such as Songkran and mythological figures like Rama.

But differences are obvious in the area of popular entertainment. I have to admit that I had never heard of Indonesian star Anggun before she appeared on TV as one of the judges of "Asia's Got Talent". And how many Indonesian know about Nadech Kugimiya, the Thai model and actor?

Differences are also obvious in the area of food, some of which can be out down to changes in climate and soil from country to country, giving rise to different types and quality of agricultural products. Take stir fried noodles as an example. One can find this dish in several countries in the region - from Thailand (phad mee) and Indonesia (goreng) to the Philippines (pansit). Yet, each national noodle speciality contains different ingredients and tastes unique. The same goes for spicy papaya salad. What's known as som tam to Thais is called tam bak hung in Laos and bok lahong in Cambodia, and each has a distinctively different flavour.

If travel is the best way to connect the people, then there's a chance that cultural connectivity will be boosted.

In 2001, 10.06 million tourists arrived in Thailand, of which 2.24 million, or 22.28 per cent, were from other Asean member countries. Last year the number rose to 6.46 million Asean tourists, or about one fourth of a total of 26 million.

Travel opens eyes, ears and minds. Visitors taste the local food, watch local TV and talk with locals, often via the "bridge" tongue of English.

In time, we might imagine the advent of som tam tours, offering a chance to taste the salad in all the countries that offer the dish. Or what about a tour to the most popular islands across the region, made affordable and convenient by the number of local low-cost airlines?

Not long from now, Thais might find their minds straying more and more to the possibilities that regional neighbours like Indonesia and the Philippines have to offer.

3. The burden of obesity is too heavy for world

Addressing the problem of obesity requires sustained and well-coordinated action.

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram

China Daily/ANN

Gyms like Powerhouse have been popping up in China to help the Chinese fight obesity.    PHOTO: ST FILE

About 2.1 billion people, or almost 30 per cent of the world's population, are regarded as overweight (defined as a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 or higher) - double the number in 1980, and more than 2.5 times the number of people who are chronically hungry.

In fact, according to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, being overweight or obese is now linked to 2.8 million deaths a year - more than those associated with being underweight - via non-communicable diseases like type-2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. This is a serious problem, and addressing it will require sustained and well-coordinated action.

The data are unambiguous. In the United Kingdom, for example, 37 per cent of the population is now deemed overweight, with a quarter of that group qualifying as obese (a BMI of 30 or higher). Though being overweight or obese is often perceived as accompanying wealth, the problem has disproportionately affected lower-income communities.

Moreover, in recent decades, the scourge has been spreading rapidly in many developing countries, especially the more prosperous among them. In the emerging economies, the rate of increase in the number of overweight and obese children has been more than 30 per cent higher than that of developed countries in recent years. In fact, the trend is accelerating everywhere, with the number of overweight people worldwide having increased by some 40 percent in the past decade alone. At this rate, half of the world's adult population will be overweight in about 15 years.

The economic burden that this imposes is massive. Accounting for diminished economic productivity, direct costs to healthcare systems and the investment required to mitigate the impact of obesity, the McKinsey report places the annual losses at US$2 trillion (S$2.73 trillion) or 2.8 per cent of world GDP. This grim situation has led the World Health Organization - and the UN more generally - to recognise obesity as an epidemic that must be addressed urgently.

As the McKinsey report notes, no single intervention will have a sufficient impact; a comprehensive strategy is needed. Based on an assessment of 74 potential measures, the report offers several recommendations. These include reducing fast-food portions, restricting food and beverage advertising, providing consumers (especially parents) with better nutrition information, reformulating processed foods, requiring more exercise at school, and ensuring balanced, varied and healthy meals at school and workplaces.

The key to progress will be strong political will. First and foremost, policymakers and the public must recognize the scale of the problem. Following the Second International Conference on Nutrition, organized by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization and the WHO in Rome last November, some worried that the extent of nutrition issues (including under-nutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and excessive weight), as well as their human and economic burden, were overestimated. But recent numbers suggest the opposite: the conference underestimated these figures - not least with regard to obesity.

Likewise, public and private investors should be made aware of the very high returns associated with tackling nutrition issues. As it stands, only about 1 per cent of total aid is allocated for this purpose, as investors prefer to focus on projects that pay off quickly, rather than on those that require a longer-term commitment. If they understood the longer-term benefits of investment in tackling nutrition-related challenges, they might be willing to reconsider this approach.

With coordinated and concerted policy action, we can make great strides toward eliminating malnutrition in all its forms, including hunger, micronutrient deficiencies (or "hidden hunger") and the diet-related non-communicable diseases associated with obesity. With obesity rising fast, there is no time to waste.

* The author, coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization, received the 2007 Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.