Quest for moderation needed in Malaysia, New Pakatan Rakyat 'wedding' expected, Billionaires versus the people

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

Palestinian worshippers pray the 'Tarawih' prayer before they attend Laylat Al Qadr, also known as the Night of Power outside the Dome of the Rock at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on July 13, 2015.
Palestinian worshippers pray the 'Tarawih' prayer before they attend Laylat Al Qadr, also known as the Night of Power outside the Dome of the Rock at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on July 13, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

1.  Stand together for Malaysia

The country needs to pursue the quest for moderation in a stronger manner now

Wong Chun Wai

The Star/ANN

Every few months, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia would send me a copy of its latest coffee table book.

Through its generosity, my collection of books on Islam has grown over the years, and as a result my knowledge of the religion has grown too.

The museum is located right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur between the Lake Gardens and the National Mosque. It is certainly a world-class museum which houses more than 7,000 artefacts, as well as an exceptional library of Islamic art books.

For this Ramadan, the museum has produced a 334-page collection of rare photographs from around the world capturing the beauty of Islam's holiest month. The Holy Month of Ramadan: A Visual Celebration brings together the works of the best photojournalists and amateurs around the world who visually captured the spirit of Ramadan.

It is probably the world's first and only photo publication dedicated solely to the fasting month, with over 300 pictures.

One picture that caught my attention was that of a Palestinian Christian who served as a Musaharati to wake up his Muslim neighbours for sahur in the old city of Jerusalem.

The Musaharati, or public waker, is the person who rouses Muslims in his neighbourhood during the holy month of Ramadan to take their meals before starting the fast.

The Musaharati's job starts an hour ahead of daybreak when the Muslims start a new fast with the sunrise, according to a report.

He is used to calling each of the sleeping residents by his name and doesn't hesitate even to knock at each door to make sure that they would not miss the pre-dawn meal.

These wakers carry out their job by banging a small drum and chanting a rhyming song learnt by heart while walking through the old alleys. They are rewarded with tips or food, depending on the generosity of the neighbours.

The point is this - the fasting month isn't just about Muslims but also non-Muslims joining in this special month.

Although the Western media prefer to dwell on the conflict of the Middle East, the people-to-people relations are entirely different.

On a trip to Jerusalem more than a decade ago, I have seen how the Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, live together, sharing the same wishes and aspirations, like any ordinary people.

It was perfectly normal for Muslims to sell Christian religious items such as crucifixes at biblical sites located at Muslim areas and it was normal for Muslims to attend church services during Christmas.

Interestingly, it is a Muslim family that holds the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most revered shrines in Christiandom. It is a tradition stretching back more than 1,300 years and passed down through the generations.

This is the site where most Christians believe is the site of the crucifixion, tomb and resurrection of Jesus.

According to one report, since the arrival of Islam in Jerusalem in the seventh century, the key has been handed to a Sunni family to avoid clashes among rival Christian sects for control over the church.

Although the role is purely symbolic, the arrangement is a reflection of tolerance and inter-religious harmony, giving the Nusseibeh family (the current key-holder) a visible role in Christian activities in Jerusalem, as a report aptly puts it.

But what about our own country? I have had the privilege of breaking fast with my Muslim friends and contacts over the last few weeks.

In fact, I am deeply honoured to have hosted a buka puasa for my fellow moderates including Anas Zubaidy, Zainah Anwar, Lyana Khairuddin, Marina Mahathir, Noor Farida Ariffin, Azhar Harun aka Art Harun and my colleagues on the second day of Ramadan. We had so much to discuss that we were the only ones left in the restaurant when the workers started to clean up.

Marina has also been hosting her #Puasa4Malaysia, organised by Malaysians For Malaysia, with non-Muslims at a mamak restaurant in Jalan Telawi, Bangsar, at 4.30am.

Then, there is Syed Azmi - a man with a heart of gold - helping the poor and needy in the streets of Kuala Lumpur during this fasting month.

Lyana, a Universiti Malaya virologist, is supporting Syed Azmi as well as Ramesh Vadiveloo's Meals For All initiative which supplies food to a number of soup kitchens around the city.

"We started last Ramadan, and over the past year, I've noticed the increasing number of urban poor. It's a matter of realising that people are finding it hard to survive out there. Just talking to them humbles me," she said.

But the events of the past weeks must have also surely broken the hearts of many Malaysians, especially those who genuinely want only the best for our country.

Rationality seems to have flown out of the window and worse, many Malaysians seem to have taken sides, unable to differentiate between a right and wrong when it involves a dispute between different races.

A simple criminal act can become racial when inflammatory remarks are posted on social media. Many of these remarks by Malaysians of all races have been downright shameful.

Many are quick to jump into the fray without first checking the facts. We seem to swallow whatever is posted on social media and act without any self-restraint.

For too long, the authorities have refused to use the Sedition Act but it is time for the full force of the law to be used against those who make inflammatory racial remarks. There are those who feel they can get away with anything because action is not taken against them.

Malaysia is truly a beautiful and blessed country with so much greatness ahead - what we don't need are politicians who harp on race and religion to win votes.

We need to pursue the quest for moderation in a stronger manner now, no matter how difficult it is, for the sake of Malaysia.

This Hari Raya, more than ever, we must display a sense of togetherness as a nation. We have proven the naysayers wrong and again, we will, as we believe most ordinary Malaysians are good people.

There are only good or bad people - look beyond race, religion and culture.

I wish all my Muslim brothers and sisters Selamat Hari Raya!

2. Funeral over, now for wedding in Malaysian politics

The Pakatan Rakyat marriage was good while it lasted but the political union is over and another 'wedding' will take place not long after Hari Raya.

Joceline Tan

The Star/ANN

Azmin Ali, Mentri Besar of Selangor. PHOTO: STAR

Azmin Ali returned from Mecca on Thursday looking tranquil, untroubled and also much thinner after a month of fasting.

It was his first umrah since becoming Mentri Besar of Selangor. He had also performed his umrah during Ramadan last year. Back then, he had just survived a bruising party election, and the Mentri Besar post had seemed like an elusive dream.

But what a difference a year makes. This September will mark his first anniversary in the hot seat.

Azmin left for Mecca with a huge load off his shoulders - the Selangor government had finally inked the water agreement with the federal authorities. There has been too much politicking over water and Selangorians do not want to live through another horrible water shortage.

Today, his state government will be hosting the Hari Raya open house in Shah Alam. There has been an air of anticipation about it after it was confirmed that the Sultan of Selangor would be present.

The Sultan spends every Ramadan visiting different mosques to join the congregation for buka puasa and to pray.

But he almost never attends the state Hari Raya open houses. Moreover, the Sultan is a very savvy observer of politics and he is very discriminating about events to attend.

No one is more thrilled than Azmin because he knows how important it is for a Mentri Besar to have a warm working relationship with the Palace.

But the same cannot be said of the ties between the three parties that make up his administration.

Speculation is throbbing that there will be a new state coalition not long after Hari Raya. The new coalition, according to the political chatter, will comprise DAP, PKR and the PAS breakaway group Harapan Baru.

But it is still very much a case of building castles in the air because PKR is split about whether PAS should stay or go.

In fact, the three parties are still at odds about whether Pakatan Rakyat is alive or gone.

The coalition is deemed to be dead in Penang but the "funeral" is not quite over. The sole PAS assemblyman in the state, Datuk Salleh Man, is still the Penang Islamic Council chairman and part of the state government. DAP does not dare to touch him yet.

As far as the Kelantan government is concerned, Pakatan is still alive and kicking.

But Pakatan in Selangor is dead to some and alive to others.

Three different scenarios in three different states - that is what politics is like in the new political landscape.

The DAP side insists that the coalition has ceased to exist and that PAS should exit the Selangor government since it was the one that severed ties with DAP.

But PAS is not going anywhere soon. The PAS side says that DAP should be the one to quit in Selangor since it had pronounced the death sentence on Pakatan.

The PKR leadership is split on the question of whether PAS should stay or go. The group aligned to PKR secretary-general Rafizi Ramli wants to replace PAS with Harapan Baru.

The group aligned to Azmin is against any harsh action towards PAS. Azmin is said to prefer the current arrangement, he has no issues with PAS and he wants to take a wait-and-see approach.

Azmin has been silent on Harapan Baru but Rafizi has openly welcomed it and said that he would speak on its platform.

Selayang MP William Leong's tongue-in-cheek take on what lies ahead is that DAP and Harapan Baru, are "already dating".

"We are waiting for the 'wedding day'. It's time to continue with a new partner. Our priority is the Selangor government but we have made our stand, Pakatan does not exist anymore at the national level.

"The PAS muktamar decided that they want to put the Islamic state and hudud on the front burner, they don't want to work with DAP, the ball is at their feet," said Leong.

But PKR vice-president Shamsul Iskandar said that it is premature to assume there will be a new coalition.

"Even without a formal pact, we can still govern Selangor. The government can go on as a loose grouping of parties under the leadership of Azmin," said Shamsul who is also Bukit Katil MP.

But what all these politicians are less keen to talk about is that PAS, despite its shortcomings, is no push-over. Neither DAP nor PKR have the sort of organisation or grassroots that PAS boasts of. It is an established party, it commands the moral high ground among many Malays, and it has run the marathon of politics.

In contrast, Harapan Baru is formed by what many see as "sore losers". There is something not quite democratic in spirit about people who quit a party because they could not accept their defeat and then form another party.

Can this type of people run the marathon of politics? Will they walk off again if they do not do well in their new outfit?

The other concern about this group is their obvious lack of grassroots.

However, the Harapan Baru personalities are planning to spearhead the Bersih 4.0 street protest to show that they can mobilise the masses and flood the streets with people.

The next Bersih rally will be less about free and fair elections than illuminating Harapan Baru's political prospects for the next general election. The street protest will be the group's calling card.

DAP leaders have been the most enthusiastic about Harapan Baru. DAP sees it as the Malay and Muslim face of the new coalition.

DAP is always on the lookout for Malays who do not talk too much about Islam and who do not harp about race and Malay rights.

For instance, a DAP leader recently highlighted former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam as a potential Prime Minister candidate for the opposition.

DAP blames Umno for everything bad under the sun, yet every one of its preferred candidate for Prime Minister is or used to be with Umno - Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and now Musa.

Apart from the Umno brand, Malaysians are being offered one geriatric candidate after another. Tengku Razaleigh is 78, Anwar is 68 and Musa is 81. However, they have yet to proposition Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who turned 90 last week.

The Raya mood will dominate in the next few weeks before the politicians start playing hardball again.

The urban intelligentsia see the open warfare between DAP and PAS as wayang or for show.

"Put yourself in their shoes. You cannot keep quiet, you got to make a big show of it. If the fallout was really about principles, one of them would have walked out long before this. Instead, you have big-guns from DAP and PAS firing empty bullets. It makes a lot of noise but no one dies," said a Chinese lawyer.

The beauty of the Selangor government is that all three parties have equal say. No one party can kick out another party and they need each other to survive.

But that has also become a bane with the DAP-PAS fallout.

The optimists are talking about a new wife and another wedding. But the realists say that the divorce is still not final.

How things unfold in Selangor will depend to a large extent on Azmin because the Mentri Besar plays a key role.

He left for his umrah with a load lifted from his shoulders but he has returned to face what could be the biggest challenge of his political career - holding the Selangor government together.

3. Billionaires versus the people

It is time we understood what the growing number of billionaires means

Jan Svejnar

Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN

After I escaped Communist Czechoslovakia in 1970, I enrolled at Cornell University in the United States. In my introductory sociology course there, I was taught that becoming a billionaire was impossible-in effect, realizing the "American Dream," at least at the very top of the income scale, was over. The last few decades have certainly proved this thesis wrong.

This shift has had significant consequences for income and wealth inequality not just on US shores, but also in many countries around the globe.   In fact, the top 1 per cent globally will soon hold over one-half of the world's wealth. And their share is growing.

This stunning fact makes it all the more important to ask what this means for the rest of us. Given the amazing level of accumulation of wealth at the top, improving our understanding of the economic role of billionaires has certainly become a public policy issue of the highest order.

In order to make headway on understanding the implications, we must obviously do more than just look from one year to the next at the increasing concentration of wealth.

The key questions that need an urgent answer are these: Is a greater presence of billionaires in a country a positive, as some might argue? Or is there evidence that it is a negative? Leaving aside moral questions, do billionaires accelerate or slow down a country's economic growth?

Depending on the answer to these questions, even those generally inclined in the media and politics to boost the fortunes of billionaires might have to rethink their stance.

After all, if it turns out that having more billionaires is not favoring more GDP growth, then the policy suggestion to reduce income concentration at the top moves from a moral argument to one about economic growth and prosperity.

This is the set of questions that I, along with my colleague Sutirtha Bagchi of Villanova University, have examined. Using data on billionaires published by Forbes magazine, we applied econometric techniques and arrived at a finding that will perplex some and delight others: A greater presence of billionaires in a country actually slows down its economic growth.

Controlling for other relevant factors, such as the country's level of income and education, we demonstrate that countries could grow their economies faster if there were less money controlled by the uber-rich. This implies that economies could be more efficient if more money were allocated to others than those at the top of the income and wealth pyramid.

Other key factors to be considered are the sources and nature of inequality. Indonesia and the United Kingdom, for instance, have a similar value of the most widely used indicator of income inequality (the so-called Gini coefficient). However, the two countries differ markedly on the role that political connections play in achieving economic success and, as a consequence, the distribution of income and wealth.

Broadly speaking, billionaires come in two types-those who would not have made it without political connections (i.e., political cronies), and those who became billionaires because of their ingenuity, ability to innovate and willingness to take risks (i.e., the politically unconnected).

These two types of billionaires may have very different effects on the economic performance of countries. While politically connected billionaires may be found in many countries, they are disproportionately represented also in the postcommunist countries, including Russia where many emerged as political cronies of Boris Yeltsin, as well as in China.

Dividing the world billionaires into these two categories, one must obviously take particular care to assign the "politically connected" category of billionaires only to the most clear-cut cases, such as the Yeltsin-related oligarchs or Suharto-related nouveau riches.

Others, such as those in the vein of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet-style wealth, surely also have extra political influence because of their wealth, but political connections aren't the source of their wealth.

We discovered that billionaire wealth that arises from being politically connected has a strongly negative effect on growth. In contrast, the effect of politically unconnected billionaire wealth on the overall economy is indistinguishable from zero.

That means that billionaire cronies constrain economic growth, while billionaires who aren't cronies on average don't do so.

Why are these findings important for the rest of us? They indicate that public policy toward income and wealth distribution needs to take into account the nature of wealth accumulation.

They also relate directly to the findings of economists like Stiglitz and Piketty. They predicted that we live in a world where the rich will get richer faster, which has proved true, and that we ought to develop tax policies that prevent the poor from becoming ever poorer.

The implication for countries such as the United States and others where political cronyism only plays a minor role in wealth attainment is no less spellbinding.

Americans, in particular, have been taught to think that billionaires have a positive effect on the economy. Why? Because they are "exceptional" people who have proved that they can accomplish great things.

The key finding that, on average, they have an insignificant effect on growth prospects, even in the case of the politically unconnected, represents a huge negative surprise for the boosters of the billionaire class.

The author, the 2015 recipient of the IZA Prize in Labor Economics, is the director of the Center on Global Economic Governance at Columbia University.

4. Math in our madressahs?

Pervez Hoodbhoy

Dawn News / ANN

Children pray after studying the Quran at a mosque. PHOTO: AFP

EARLIER this month, Maharashtra's BJP government voted to derecognise schools that teach religion without also teaching the primary subjects: mathematics, science, and English. Although a few Vedic schools are likely to be classified as 'non-schools', this step is primarily directed towards the state's madressahs. To be eligible for state grants, they must now teach primary subjects in addition to traditional madressah subjects. By this decision any child, male or female, will officially be considered uneducated and out-of-school if enrolled in an institution that does not follow the state's formal school syllabus in these subjects.

Is this good or bad? Predictably, Indian Muslims have protested this as anti-Muslim. Indeed, given the BJP's Hindutva agenda, to be suspicious of underlying motives is reasonable. But let us set this aside and judge this new development at face value. It is a fact that children who do not know English, math, or science cannot compete in the job market or benefit from university-level education. They become the victim of conspiracy theories, pseudo-scientific nonsense, and various forms of illogic. Madressah graduates can become maulvis and qazis but not engineers, scientists, or doctors. India sees its madressahs as posing a serious education problem but not - at least officially - as a terrorism problem.

This view must be contrasted against Pakistan's which now sees its madressahs entirely through a security lens. From the 1980s, these institutions had been used to provide expendable warriors for use in Afghanistan and then later in Kashmir. Although government-sponsored radicalisation tapered off after 9/11, putting the genie back in the bottle has proved difficult. Dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of madressahs now generate militancy mostly directed against the Pakistan Army and ordinary Pakistanis.

In an analysis of the profiles of suicide bombers who have struck in Punjab, the Punjab police said more than two-thirds had attended madressahs. There are many instances where accidental detonations inside madressah premises have killed would-be suicide attackers. Special Branch has identified dozens of madressahs that are linked to militant groups. Nevertheless a state of denial had persisted and the public was largely inclined towards seeing madressahs as peaceful religious institutions.

Unless horizons are broadened by including secular subjects, madressahs will remain a perennial danger.

This changed, at least for a while, after the Army Public School massacre on Dec 16, 2014. Over the protestations of the JUI and Jamaat-i-Islami, parliament approved the National Action Plan (NAP) a month later. This plan included insistence upon madressah reform as a means of controlling religious extremism. Hitherto unregistered madressahs were to be registered, hate speech and militant activities stopped, and funding sources uncovered. But NAP did not call for a revamping of the content taught in madressahs, and did not insist upon the inclusion of primary subjects. This is a serious omission.

Even if by some miracle NAP's idea of madressah reform could be implemented, it would scarcely change the worldview that makes militancy attractive. Living in a primitive world where he is cut off from modern thought and almost all sources of authentic information, the madressah student can be made to believe anything. Unless horizons are broadened by including secular subjects, madressahs will remain a perennial danger to state and society. Paradoxically, the BJP's approach to madressah reform is the more enlightened one!

Nevertheless, I have no illusions on how difficult a task this will be. On the request of the-then minister for education, Sardar Aseff Ahmad Ali, the five heads of Pakistan's wafaqs (madressah boards) and their deputies had gathered around a conference table. The wafaqs are divided along political and sectarian lines. I was charged with enthusing them into teaching science and math in their institutions. After expressing due deference to these powerful men who control what is taught to millions of students, I then proceeded to give a 20-minute lecture on how Muslim scientific achievements in the Golden Age had established Islam as a great world civilisation.

The bearded gentlemen were unimpressed. If you want to teach science and engineering in your universities that is your business, they said, but leave matters of faith to us. The head of one wafaq said his branch of madressahs already taught science and math, and was not interested in further changes. When the minister offered large sums of money if they modified their curricula, they unanimously said they would welcome the money - but only if it was unconditional. The meeting was a failure.

So what is to be done? As it stands, although faced by NAP, madressah heads have flatly refused to discuss their funding sources or show accounts to the government, and there are probably more unregistered madressahs than registered ones. According to a report in this newspaper (July 16), law-enforcement officials are admitting helplessness in closing down even a single one of the 579 unregistered madressahs in Karachi because of their enormous street power, and the backing provided by religious political parties.

Curriculum reform may, therefore, appear even more difficult. But, in fact, unexploited opportunities are available to the authorities. In 1981 Gen Ziaul Haq had ordered that various levels of madressah asnad (certificates) be equivalenced with regular certificates and degrees (bachelor's, master's, PhD), and the University Grants Commission (now called HEC) was empowered to determine equivalency requirements. This gives the HEC leverage over quality: if madressahs are to teach English, math, and science, they must be tested by the same standards as in public schools. More importantly, HEC can insist on curriculum changes and require that at least some mind-broadening subjects be taught.

Difficult or not, ultimately there is no alternative but for the Pakistani state to bring madressah and mosque under its control. Mere policing will not do. Instead, the content of instruction must be shifted away from a paranoid and destructive vision of the world towards an inclusive and reasoned one. Pakistan must do so even in the face of street power, as well as disapproval by Arab countries that fund those brands of madressahs which serve their narrow ideological interests. Therefore reform must be done incrementally and carefully, and without provoking a massive backlash. But it has to be done.

The writer teaches mathematics and physics in Lahore and Islamabad.