Monday, February 13, 2017

Trump: Making ISIS’s Threat in Malaysia Great Again

Trump’s immigration ban
Should Malaysians be concerned with the internal immigration policy of a foreign country? This was a comment post to my face book page in response to Pakatan Harapan’s protest before the American embassy. Malaysians should be concerned because Trump’s Muslim refugee ban coupled with UMNO’s politicization of Islam is making the ISIS’s threat in Malaysia great again.

Trump’s populist Islamophobia driven approach to deal with terrorism will induce many young Malaysian Muslim youth rendered susceptible to Jihadist-Salafism by the decades-old UMNO/PAS politicization of Islam and Najib’s recent co-option of conservative Salafist-influenced Islam, to join ISIS ranks bent on converting Malaysia into an Islamic theocratic state not through the ballot but by the bullet.

Trump’s ban is a lifeline to ISIS
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (“ISIS”) are facing setbacks in Iraq and Syria, all indications point to the group crumbling. A senior military official of the US-led coalition said an estimated 50,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since August 2014. The coalition’s spokesman in Iraq said ISIS are losing fighters at an “unsustainable rate.”[1] The only thing keeping ISIS from imploding are new recruits which makes winning the propaganda war critical.  Trump’s Muslim ban has thrown a life-line to the ISIS recruitment drive. Such recruits particularly Malaysian Muslims have serious ramifications for Malaysia’s security.  

Validates ISIS narrative: West out to destroy Islam
Some Malaysians ask what is wrong for Trump delivering on his campaign promises to make America safe from terrorism. Terrorism is a crime, it is wrong. There can be no justification for the killing of innocents or attacks on civilians and public institutions. The violence of the Jihadist-Salafist must be condemned. Each government is of course entitled to maintain the security of its own country but not by endangering the security of others. Trump’s Muslim refugee ban is a disingenuous ploy to pander to his populist supporters, but it does not deal with the root causes of terrorism. Instead of making America safe it makes America and the rest of the world a more dangerous place.  

Trump’s executive order validates the ISIS-Jihadist terrorists’ narrative that “the West and its allies are out to destroy Islam and it is each Muslim’s sacred duty to carry out a jihad to save it.”[2] The ban will give impetus for fresh recruits to replace ISIS’s dwindling number of fighters.

Trump’s ban is inhumane, bigoted and shameful but it is the hypocrisy behind it that will resonate with young Muslims because it authenticates ISIS’s message that “our Caliphate is the only effective means of defending Islam from both the near-enemy and the far-enemy.”

The “far-enemy” is the United States. The “near-enemy” are the repressive regimes in the Muslim world. Trump’s purported rationale to protect US against terrorists from the countries listed in the ban, cannot withstand scrutiny. No terrorist from these seven countries: Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Iran, Sudan and Yemen have carried out attacks on US soil. On the other hand, the countries that produced and supported the greatest number of anti-US terrorists: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Lebanon are excluded from the ban.[3] Of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, 2 from UAE, 1 from Lebanon and 1 was Egyptian. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi Arabia citizen and the current al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri is Egyptian.

The countries excluded from the ban are dictatorial, autocratic and repressive regimes. These regimes which have persistently denied and violated the democratic and human rights of their own citizens and neglected their social, political and economic development are maintained and supported by the US. The US have declared the oil reserves in these countries are of strategic interests and an important reason for US support for these regimes.

Trump in excluding these regimes reveals his lack of bona fides. There is no political will to deal with the root causes of terrorism. Support for ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Jihadist terrorist is rooted in opposition to US Middle East policy in respect of the US invasion of Iraq, the protection of Israel and the plight of the Palestinians, inaction in Syria and support for corrupt repressive dictators in the Muslim world. Trump’s ban driven by US geostrategic, economic and populist interests, risk the US and its allies paying a heavy human price in response to the injustice and humiliation provoked.

Validates ISIS Narrative: Atrocities against Muslim civilians is Collateral Damage
Trump’s pledge over a Christian broadcasting network to give priority to Christian refugees over others serves to confirm a second ISIS-Jihadist narrative that the US and the West are indifferent to the atrocities committed against Muslims and carry out policies that actively harm Muslims. This narrative has been a centrepiece of their recruitment policy. What motivates many to join the ISIS-Jihadist terrorists is the idea of responding to defend Muslim communities under threat from the West. An example of this narrative is found in Dabiq, the ISIS online magazine, justification for the execution of James Foley:

The US has killed women, children and the elderly, during its direct occupation of Iraq prior to its withdrawal. There are countless accounts of American soldiers executing families and raping women under the sanctity of the US military and Blackwater. Muslim families were killed under the broad definition of ‘collateral damage,’ which the US grants itself alone the right to apply. Therefore, if a mujahid kills a single man with a knife, it is the barbaric killing of the ‘innocent.’ However, if Americans kill thousands of Muslim families all over the world by pressing missile fire buttons, it is merely ‘collateral damage’.”[4]   

Trump’s ban on Muslims fits this ISIS-Jihadist narrative precisely. Trump is banning refugees fleeing from the horrors caused by the US which played a key role in destabilizing and destroying these seven and other Muslim countries. Violence, terror and death have become commonplace in these countries where civilian casualties and deaths is denoted as a footnote under collateral damage.

The US has repeatedly attacked civilian facilities such as hospitals and schools in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. A US airstrike in Afghanistan on 6 July 2008 killed civilians in a wedding party including the bride. On October 9 2016, US-armed Saudi coalition bombed a Yemen funeral killing 140 and wounding 525. The 2014 Israeli military operations in Gaza to stop Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel resulted in the deaths of thousands, the vast majority were Gaza residents. Various human right groups contended both sides violated international laws and committed war crimes but US stood by Israel with its veto rights in the UN. The US Congress expressed vigorous support for Israel and passed legislation providing Israel with an additional USD 225 million in military aid and missile defence. Bush declared the War on Terror and invaded Iraq based on non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Obama has bombed five of these seven countries and two (Iran and Sudan) were punished by heavy sanctions.

In executing the presidential order, every Muslim family unfairly detained at an airport, every Muslim who worked for the US and forced to return to face certain persecution and death and every statement that privileges Christians over Muslims will inspire ISIS-Jihadists terrorism. Trump’s ban provides the reality that gives ISIS-Jihadist propaganda teeth.

Islamophobia: “Us” against “Them”
Trump’s ban is the very response the ISIS-Jihadists want from their terrorist attacks. ISIS’s goal is to divide the world into two camps: “the crusaders” and “the caliphate.” No Christians living in Muslim lands. No Muslims living in Christian countries. Its message to Western Muslims is that they do not belong there. “Come to the caliphate where you can live as a true Muslim.” ISIS argues that Muslims in the West are living in a “grey zone.” “Grey zones” are areas where Muslims practice their religion peacefully in non-Muslim countries. ISIS wants to eliminate these zones, in part by turning non-Muslims against their Muslim neighbours. Each terrorist attack chips away the grey zones as Westerners marginalize Muslims, pushing them, ISIS hopes, into the Caliphate’s open arms.

The objective of the ISIS-Jihadists in carrying out the terror attacks is to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is about provoking fractures between Muslims and the citizens of the West. It is about making Muslims feel they will never be welcomed in European, American or Western society. Their goal is to feed a fear of and hatred for Islam, for the West to associate Islam with danger and violence. It is to spread insecurity and social instability along religious fault lines. It is to ferment Islamophobia.

In responding to the terror attacks, it is important to keep in mind that the jihadists and extremists do not represent Muslims and Islam. Knowing that ISIS and terrorist groups want to instil fear and deepen divisions at the international level, it is important to guard against a natural reaction to define oneself as Muslims and non-Muslims, “Us” against “Them.” Hate and anger add blindness to an emotional reaction stoked by fear. When we turn to populism without grappling with the root causes, we succumb to politics of fear and prejudice giving rise to Islamophobia, precisely ISIS’s goals.      
Trump’s Muslim refugee ban is institutionalized Islamophobia. It will become the tipping-point for many Muslim youths turning to ISIS-Jihadists groups and the world will become a more dangerous place. Malaysian Muslims have shown to be particularly susceptible to the lure of the ISIS-Jihadists group therefore Trump’s Muslim ban will increase the risks of ISIS attacks in Malaysia.       

Malaysia’s terrorist groups have direct links to ISIS-Jihadist groups
Malaysia’s jihadist terror groups are directly linked to Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Jemaah Islamiya (“JI”) formed in January 1993 became the leader among militant Islamic groups seeking to establish a “caliphate” in Southeast Asia. JI went on to serve as a platform for international terrorist groups.   

JI’s Malaysia cell has international links to Al-Qaeda through its associations with Al-Qaeda in Pakistan as well as splinter groups within Southeast Asia such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (“MILF”), the Moro National Liberation Front (“MNLF”), the Abu Sayyaf Group (“ASG”), the Free Acheh Movement (“GAM”) and the Southern Thailand Patani groups. International recruitment and operations were conducted in Malaysia for more than a decade. It may be noteworthy that some 9/11 terrorists were in Petaling Jaya prior to the attacks and the original planning of 9/11 took place in Petaling Jaya before the attackers transferred their base to Germany.[5]

During the early years of the War on Terror Malaysian authorities with US assistance have achieved operational success in diminishing the threat posed by JI but efforts to clamp down on JI and its ideology have been hampered by a lack of political will. This deficiency appears to stem mainly from the politicians’ desire to accommodate the perceived religious sensibilities of the country’s majority Muslim population. The complacency of political powers within the country allowed the radical and extremist elements to survive as “sleeper cells” waiting for the right moment to emerge.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS have tapped into JI’s organisation structure to increase their influence in Southeast Asia. JI have put itself at the disposal of ISIS in return for funding, training and cooperation. The JI sleeper cells have now been reactivated. ISIS supporters in Malaysia are largely former JI members. ISIS’ recruitment in Malaysia targeting Muslim youths is similar to JI’s except with the additional and very potent element of social media.

ISIS Threat in Malaysia
In August 2014, Special Branch assistant director-general Datuk Ayub Khan Mydin Pitchay said that suspected militants arrested from April to June were formulating plans to bomb hotels, discotheques and a Malaysian brewery of Danish beer, Carlsberg.

In October 2014, Malaysian authorities have warned that ISIS constitutes a major threat to Malaysia and that non-Muslims in Malaysia are likely to be targeted by militants returning from Syria and home grown “lone wolf” attacks. ISIS have praised lone wolf attackers such as Man Haron Monis who held 18 people hostage in a Sydney café before being gunned down by the police in December 2014 and have claimed credit for the attack.

Since the terrorist attack in Jakarta on 14 January 2015, Southeast Asian authorities have come to realize that ISIS inspired attacks on home soil, however uncoordinated or by different factions vying to boost their legitimacy with the parent Middle Eastern organization or even “lone wolf” attacks pose a real threat.

In February 2015, Home Minister Zahid Hamidi warned of intelligence that militants planned to kidnap tycoons and rob banks in Malaysia to finance their activities.[6] In early September 2015 both Indonesia and Malaysia are listed as targets in the IS publication Dabiq. In January 2016, a 16 year-old school boy launched a “lone cub” attack in the name of ISIS when he tried to kidnap a sales assistant at a shopping complex in Sungai Petani, Kedah. He viewed non-Muslims as “kafir harbi” (those who are at war with Islam and can be justifiably killed)

On 21 June 2016, ISIS released a video, featuring Malaysian, Muhamad Wanddy Mohamed Jedi, urging ISIS supporters to kill non-Muslims in Malaysia. On the same night there was a grenade attack wounding seven persons in an entertainment outlet in Puchong which ISIS have claimed responsibility.[7]

The police announced on 1st February 2017 they have arrested three men suspected of having ISIS links and face charges of suspected involvement in terrorism. At least three Malaysian women are reported to have travelled to the Middle East to offer themselves as sexual comfort women to ISIS fighters. The so-called Jihad al-nikah, permitting extramarital sexual relations is considered by them as a legitimate form of holy war.

In 2015, an estimated 91 Malaysians were serving as foreign fighters in Syria, 7 had been killed and 2 conducted suicide bomb attacks killing 33 people in Raqqa and Baghdad. Malaysians formed a core component of the Islamic State’s Southeast Asian unit called “Katibah Nusantara” which has reportedly grown to 200 fighters by 2016.

Returning Katibah Nusantara fighters and home grown ISIS links established a Malaysian presence operating in Selangor and Perak sharing the vision and mission of JI and ISIS to establish a regional super caliphate, the “Daulah Islamiah Nusantara” that would include all the predominant Muslim states in Southeast Asia encompassing Malaysia, Indonesia, Southern Thailand, Southern Philippines and Singapore.

These incidents demonstrate ISIS poses real security concerns for Malaysians of minority races and religions, moderate Muslims who do not subscribe to their deadly ideology and threatens the country’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious identity.

The Scale of the Problem
Several prominent scholars have voiced concerns that a disproportionately large number of Malaysian Muslims have been radicalised and attracted to this virulent and brutal ISIS form of Jihadist-Salafism ideology which poses a clear and present danger to Malaysia. The growing appeal of Jihadist-Salafism is reflected in several surveys.  

James Chin points out that Malaysia with a population of about 31 million and 60 percent Sunni Muslims has about 200-250 ISIS fighters in the Middle-East while Indonesia with a Muslim population of 300 million has less than 400 ISIS fighters. It is estimated that the rates of ISIS recruitment equates to 1.4 people per million Muslim citizens for Indonesia while for Malaysia the figure is 8.5 per million. Malaysians seem to be joining ISIS at a higher rate than Indonesians. This imbalance alone gives a clear indication of the scale of the problem Malaysia faces.[8]

Joseph Chinyong Liow in his article “Malaysia’s ISIS conundrum” noted a 2013 Pew Global Attitudes Survey that in Malaysia 27 percent of the Muslims takes the view that attacks on civilians in defence of Islam are “sometimes justified” or “often justified” while a further 12 percent take the view that violence is “rarely justified” as opposed to “never justified.” Essentially 39 percent of Malaysian Muslims surveyed believed that violence can be justified against enemies of Islam. Significantly, Indonesians polled only 18 percent on the same question (1 percent “often”, 5 percent “sometimes” and 12 percent “rarely”)[9] More Malaysian Muslims (11 percent) express a favourable view of ISIS than do Indonesian Muslims (4 percent). Proportionately more Indonesian Muslims (53 percent) express worry about Muslim extremist groups than do Malaysian Muslims (8 percent) who are more worried at 31 percent about Christian extremism.  

The Causes of the Problem
The higher than usual susceptibility of Malaysian-Muslim youth to ISIS’s Jihadist-Salafism and Islamist radicalism are attributable to three main causes:

The first cause: According to Joseph Liow, Islam has unfortunately become heavily politicised in Malaysia. Malaysia’s dominant political party, UMNO is a Malay-Muslim party that was created with the main objective, at least in theory, of promoting and defending Malay-Muslim supremacy. According to the party’s narrative, this supremacy is coming under siege from various cultural (read: non-Malay vernacular education) and religious (read: non-Muslim) quarters and hence has to be staunchly defended. Given that Malaysia has a Malay-Muslim majority population it should come as no surprise that UMNO’s chief political opponents are also Malay-Muslim parties who equally brandish religious credentials as a source of legitimacy. To the extent that there is a political ideology at play in Malaysia today, it is Islam, and specifically Islamism that dominates.

Islam casts a pale shadow over Malaysia today not because it is Islam, or even Islamism, per se, but because its proponents and defenders are articulating a particularly exclusive brand of Islam that is divorced from the religion’s historically enlightened traditions, and which has no intention to encourage pluralism and compromise. The net effect of this is that non-Muslim Malaysians are marginalised as Islamist parties try to “out-Islam” each other. As UMNO struggles to cling to power by focusing on its religious credentials above all else, religion has become heavily politicised and is viewed as a zero sum game.

Rather than extol the virtues and conciliatory features of Islam’s rich traditions, many Malay-Muslim political leaders have instead chosen to use religion to amplify differences, to reinforce extreme interpretations of Malay-Muslim rights and to condemn the “other” (non-Muslims) as a threat to these rights. For fear of further erosion of legitimacy and political support, the Malay-Muslim leadership of the country have in their public statements circled the wagons, allowing vocal right-wing ethno-nationalist and religious groups to preach incendiary messages against Christians and Hindus with impunity. In extreme cases, they have even flippantly referred to fellow Malaysians who are adherents to other religious faiths as “enemies of Islam.” Even-state sanctioned Friday sermons have occasionally taken to referring to non-Muslim Malaysians as “enemies of Islam.” It is against this backdrop that the findings of the Pew surveys cited earlier take on greater, more disconcerting meaning.

The second cause: According to James Chin[10] the role of the Malaysian government in particular JAKIM (Malaysian Islamic Development Department) and Biro Tata Negara (National Civics Bureau or BTN) in its Islamization agenda set the stage for the acceptance of Islamist extremist elements into mainstream public discourse.

JAKIM a government department under the Prime minister’s office is tasked with defining to the minuscule detail what being a Sunni Muslim means in Malaysia, not only in theological terms but also practical terms, like how to dress and what type of behaviour are “halal (permissible) or “haram.”

BTN also under the PM’s office is supposed to nurture the spirit of patriotism but some of its program promotes racism towards non-Malays and filter their message to selected groups of Malay participants. BTN teaches these Malay participants that the Malaysian Chinese and non-Malays are like “Jews” and that Malays must be politically supreme at all times. An expose of BTN documents showed the BTN trainers were told to teach that “racism” is “good” if it promotes Malay unity.

 James Chin points out that Malaysia’s ethnocentric Islamic discourse, obsessed with the idea of “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay supremacy) has now been given to a new brand of legitimacy, “Ketuanan Islam” (Islamic supremacy) aimed at creating a Malay-Islamic state fusing Islamic supremacy with intolerant Malay nationalism. James Chin says this discourse is one of the prime sources rendering Malaysian Muslims, particularly the youth, susceptible to radicalisation by Jihadist-Salafism.  
The third cause: According to Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, assistant professor and Coordinator of the Malaysian programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, the growth of Salafism in Malaysia is another important factor that has an impact on the strong support ISIS has received from some Malaysian Muslims. Salafism is a religious orientation denoted by puritan and legalistic interpretation of the Quran. Salafist reject interpretations of classical Muslim scholars and seek to rid Islam of any cultural practices that are deemed innovations. The Salafis are particularly notorious for their fervent rejection of Sufi and Shite Muslims whom they deem as deviant. While most Salafis belong to the non-violent strand of Salafism, ISIS subscribe to the Jihadist-Salafism strand which legitimise the use of violence in the name of Islam. Jihadist-Salafism doctrine argues that given the fact that most of the regimes in the Muslim world are in a state of “Jahiliyyah” (ignorance or idolatrous condition), it is the duty of all Muslims to rebel using violence to uphold “Hakimiyyah” (God’s sovereignty). It must be added that the boundaries between the two Salafi ideologies are porous and Salafis can easily slide from one group to another.

In more recent times, UMNO itself has promoted the Salafi doctrine through the recruitment of a number of prominent Salafi scholars including Ustaz Fathul Bari, as part of its young ulama wing. These scholars have formed an organisation, “Pertubuhan Ilmuwan Malaysia” (ILMU). Sources report that several senior UMNO politicians proposed the inclusion of the Salafi ulama in an attempt to buttress UMNO’s Islamic image. It was argued that many PAS ulama are traditionalist subscribing to the Shafie mazhab or Sufi orientations, hence having a group of Salafis to counter their religious views can be beneficial to UMNO as it enhances the party’s Islamic credentials and improves its credibility with Malaysian Muslim voters.[11]
Among the issues ILMU have focused on were:-

(a)            ILMU discouraged Muslims from participating in the Bersih 2.0 rallies on the ground that such demonstrations were not in line with Islamic teachings and that the leader of Bersih is a non-Muslim woman and Islam has stipulated clearly that leadership must be in the hands of Muslim men;
(b)            ILMU was also instrumental in the rejection of the use of the word “Allah” in the Malay translations of the Bible. The ILMU ulama while acknowledging that the word has been used in the Arabic bible for many years in the Middle East, argued that the word has never been used in the Malay bible. This they argued is an act of disrespect against Muslims in Malaysia for the word Allah to describe God within the context of the Christian belief of the trinity;
(c)        These Salafi ulama are resolute in their defence of a Muslim-led government to remain in power. Ustaz Fathu Bari argued that Muslims in Malaysia cannot oppose the government since the current Prime Minister Najib Razak is a Muslim. Any act of opposition must thus be viewed as un-Islamic. Echoing Fathu Bari’s position, Rasul Dahri espoused that any attempt to challenge a Muslim ruler is treason;
(d)        Salafi scholars such as Al-Albani and Bin Baz have explicitly rejected democracy because it challenges the Oneness of God. Al-Albani had even prohibited his followers from voting or participating in elections. The view of Rasul Dahri, one of the Salafi scholars that joined UMNO, is that democracy is un-Islamic because it does not emanate from Islam. For him, ultimate sovereignty lies in God’s hands and not the hands of the people, a core concept of democracy. However, in the Malaysia context, Rasul Dahri argues that the democratic system ensures that the government remains in the hands of Muslims. He argues that to strengthen the position of the Muslim community, Muslims in Malaysia must vote UMNO. This is to ensure that political power is not divided within the Muslim community resulting in non-Muslims usurping power.

Malaysia’s highest religious authority, the National Fatwa Council Malaysia, did not gazette the Wahhabis as a deviant sect, but it has issued five different statements- in 1985, 1986, 1996, 1997 and 2003- declaring Wahhabism as a sect that must be curtailed due to its divisive nature. However, such statements did not deter UMNO from co-opting these Salafis scholars to form the young ulama wing within the party in 2010. The above show that the ILMU ulama dealt with contentious issues in favour of the UMNO/BN government from an Islamic standpoint thereby enhancing the Islamic credentials of Najib Tun Razak and UMNO. The Salafis ulama in return are able to gain a national platform to promote their ideology and to push the government for a stricter implementation of their puritan form of Islamic laws.

The vast majority of Salafis in Malaysia do not subscribe to the ISIS ideology. Nonetheless, the mind set created by Salafism is susceptible for recruitment by groups like ISIS.[12]

Trump is able to easily tap into a groundswell of anti-Muslim fears and bigotry to issue a profanely religiously discriminating presidential executive order because they have been cultivated for 16 years as the central fuel driving the war on terror. Factions from both the Republican and Democratic administrations have devoted themselves primarily to demonizing Muslims and Islam. A government can get away with bombing, invading and droning the same group only by constantly demonizing and dehumanising that group. Similarly in Malaysia, UMNO and Najib have in the course of the politicization of Islam and the co-option of Salafist influenced Islam in order to hold on to power have sought to demonize and dehumanised non-Malays and non-Muslims.

The end result is that although neither Trump nor Najib/UMNO may have intended it, they have rendered Malaysian Muslims susceptible to Jihadist-Salafism. As long as Islam is politicised and puritan understanding of the religion is promoted, Malaysia will see the radicalisation of more Muslims in the country.

We must not lose sight that ISIS and the Jihadist terrorists do not represent the values of Islam, their actions are anti-Islamic and must be condemned unreservedly. However, fear is a natural response to the threat of terrorism, but fear-based policies that target groups of people according to their religion, race or region of origin are counter-productive. When political entrepreneurs fan fear and prejudice it gives rise to racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. In the end there is no substitute for political will and enlightened leadership, the kind that, instead of pandering to people’s worst instincts, appeals to their better angels.
The danger now is that this Muslim refugee immigration ban is merely the first step in this heinous path and not the last. That is why it is urgent that everything be done to denounce it, battle it and defeat it. This is why Malaysians must be concerned about Trump’s Muslim refugee ban.

William Leong Jee Keen
Member of Parliament Selayang
February 9, 2017

[1] “Official: 50,000 Islamic Fighters Killed in Syria, Iraq- VOA News December 8, 2016
[2] Countering Islamist Extremist Narratives: A Strategic Briefing” Quilliam Foundation January 11, 2015
[3] “Trump’s Muslim Ban is Culmination of War on Terror Mentality but Still Unique Shameful” Glen Greenwald January 28, 2017
[4] “Trump is making ISIS great again” Boston Globe Robert A Pape January 30, 2017
[5] “Militant Islam in Malaysia: Synergy between Regional and Global Jihadi Groups” Middle East Institute Andrin Raj SEA Regional Director-International Association for Counterterrorism and Security. January 16, 2015
[6] “Indonesian and Malaysian Support for the Islamic State” United States Agency for International Development by Greg Fealy and John Funston. January 6, 2016.
[7] “The evolution of jihadist-Salafism in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines and its impact on the security in Southeast Asia” Superintendent Craig Riviere. November 2016. Vice Chief of Defence Force. Australian defence College
[8] “Malaysia: Clear and present danger from the Islamic State” Brookings Institute James Chin December 16 2015
[9] “Malaysia’s ISIS conundrum” Joseph Chinyong Liow. April 21, 2015 
[10] “Malaysia: Clear and present danger from the Islamic State” James Chin December 16, 2015
[11] “Salafi Ulama in UMNO: Political Convergence or Expediency” Contemporary Southeast Asia Vol 36, No. 2 (2014) pp 206-31. Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman.
[12] “Islam, politics and violence in Malaysia” Mohd Nawab Osman 9 January 2015

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Malaysia must not proceed with TPPA following US withdrawal

I call on the Prime Minister and Minister of International Trade and Industry not to proceed with the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (“TPPA”) with the remaining 10 other members following US President Donald Trump’s executive order withdrawing USA from the trade pact.

It is irrational and irresponsible to continue with the TPPA when the principal benefit of improved access to the US market to compensate for the burden and restrictions of the TPPA is gone.

By continuing the TPPA, Malaysia and the remaining countries are required to proceed with the concessions of not only lowering trade barriers but also changing domestic laws and regulations such as intellectual property rights, human rights and legal rights including extra-judicial Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) affecting sovereign rights in favour of multinational corporations over local producers and consumers without the corresponding gains in US market access.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that the TPPA has no meaning without the US. Without the US and Japan which two countries account for 80 percent of the TPPA countries’ trade it makes no sense for Malaysia to continue with the TPPA.

It would be far better for Malaysia to negotiate bilateral free trade agreements with the remaining countries that serves the economic interests of Malaysians without having to surrender to the multinational corporations’ demands than to salvage the TPPA.

William Leong Jee Keen

24th January 2017           

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

2017 Budget: Lack of Legitimacy and Misplaced Priorities

Two Reasons for Rejecting Budget

This article seeks to respond to a few statements circulating in the social media that the opposition voted against the 2017 Budget to prevent the people, especially the poor, from enjoying the benefits bestowed to them by the Finance Minister. There are many reasons the opposition voted against the Budget. I wish to highlight only two. The Finance Minister lacks the legitimacy to be entrusted with the continued management of the people’s money and the 2017 Budget reveals his misplaced priorities. 
Lack of Legitimacy

The core of public finances is that some people spend other people’s money. In democracies, voters delegate the power over public spending and taxes to elected politicians.[1] The delegation of power to elected politicians implies that except for those of the highest integrity there are risks the politicians will extract rents from being in office and spend public money on projects other than those voters desire.

One of the tools for ensuring the people’s money is spent in accordance with the people’s desire is the budget. The budget is a contract between the voters and the Government showing how resources are raised and allocated for delivery of public services. The budget is the primary instrument for implementing fiscal policy thereby influencing the economy as a whole and how the Government plans to turn aspirations into reality.[2] The budget is the reflection of the policy and priorities of those who control and manage government machinery and apparatus at the given time. As a consequence budget transparency and accountability are very important means to truly democratize government and processes of governance.

Accountability denotes the rights, responsibilities and duties that exist between the people and the government institutions. Accountability and legitimacy are two sides of the same coin. Lack of accountability will result in lack of political legitimacy. Lack of legitimacy will result in democratic deficit and the consequent abuse of power by decisions makers and power-holders.[3]

When Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak refused to resign as Finance Minister following the 1MDB revelations, he plunged his Government into a legitimacy crisis.

The 1MDB fiasco spawned ludicrous and fallacious arguments to deny the largest embezzlement by kleptomaniacs in the history of the world occurred in Malaysia. Steps to keep a lid over disclosure proved inept, so brutal repression is used to silence those courageous enough to carry out their duties.  

Our Attorney-General is the only 1 out of 6 who holds the opinion there is no case. It appears the Attorney-General in the other jurisdictions, unlike ours are unable to discern “donation” from “corruption.” Our Attorney-General twice rebuffed Swiss requests for mutual legal assistance to investigate the 1MDB corruption allegations. The refusals add to questions on the adequacy of Malaysian authorities’ response to an affair that is the subject matter of multiple international queries.  

Three former ministers who spoke about 1MDB during the Budget debate in Parliament are now under police investigation. Parliamentary privileges and immunities to enable members of parliament to perform their duties to speak without fear or favour, not to be unduly influenced, harassed or intimidated by government or private individuals in Malaysia have been amended. The Federal Court in Mark Koding v PP [1982] 2 MLJ 120 ruled that a member of parliament’s privileges and immunities have been validly limited by the amendments to Article 63(4) of the Federal Constitution. A member of parliament’s privileges and immunities do not cover offences under the Sedition Act 1948. A member of parliament speaking about 1MDB in Parliament now runs the danger of being found guilty of uttering words having a seditious tendency.

Article 107 of the Constitution requires the Auditor-General’s reports to be submitted to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and laid before the House of Representatives. The AG’s reports are open to the public. However, The AG’s Report on 1MDB remains classified as an official secret under the Official Secrets Act. Pandan MP, Rafizi Ramli has been convicted for referring to a page in the AG’s Report. He is sentenced to 36 months imprisonment (18 months imprisonment for each of two charges to run concurrently). Rafizi will join Anwar Ibrahim in Sungai Buloh. Unless pardoned, both will be disqualified from being an elected representative for 5 years. Tian Chua has been sentenced to 3 months imprisonment as are a host of opposition members, activists, lecturers, students and others who are being investigated, charged, awaiting trial or convicted for various charges.

Individual Ministerial Responsibility   
The Finance Minister’s loss of legitimacy and credibility is due to his failure to abide by the constitutional convention known as individual ministerial responsibility. A fundamental constitutional convention under the Westminster parliamentary system is that ministers are responsible for the conduct of their ministry.

The principle of individual ministerial responsibility is central to the parliamentary system because it ensures the accountability of the government to Parliament and thus, ultimately to the citizens as a whole. The accountable minister in charge is expected to take the blame and ultimately resign. This means that if waste, corruption or any other misbehaviour is found to have occurred within a ministry, the minister is responsible even if he had no knowledge of the actions. The principle is essential to guarantee that an elected official is answerable for every single government action.

Thus the principle of individual ministerial responsibility requires the Finance Minister to take responsibility for the 1MDB debacle because it is under his ministry. Whether he was aware of the wrongdoings or involved personally is irrelevant. In failing to accept responsibility the Finance Minister lost the legitimacy and credibility to govern. He can no longer claim he commands the trust to manage the people’s money.

There are no merits to the contentions that evidence beyond reasonable doubt he committed an offence involving 1MDB must be produced before the Finance Minister is to resign. The office of Finance Minister and Prime Minister is not the dock in a criminal court. The holder of the office is entrusted to manage the people’s money, if there is the slightest doubt of his integrity, he must resign. If not he must be removed. This is to preserve the legitimacy, authority and dignity of the office.  
Failure to be accountable to Parliament  

The Finance Minister failed to honour a second aspect of the Westminster principle of individual ministerial responsibility. This is the principle that a minister is accountable to Parliament. Ministers are the link between Parliament and Government. Public servants carry out the activities of Government through their work in department and agencies and the Government directs them through ministers responsible for their activities which include activities by government-owned companies such as 1MDB. The minister is responsible to Parliament for decisions made and actions performed by those under his delegation. This means the minister must make announcements and answer questions in Parliament on the decisions and performance of their departments.

It is thus indisputable members of parliament are entitled to question the Finance Minister on 1MDB. There is not one word that mentions “1MDB” in the 2017 Budget speech. The only reasonable inference that can be drawn from the Finance Minister’s deafening silence is that he is unrepentant and has no remorse for the staggering losses, wrongdoing and irregularities committed by those responsible for 1MDB under his watch. The lack of accountability is blatantly obvious for all to see.

Thus the audacity to ask who is play-acting in the Budget speech: “Sebenarnya disini, siapa yang bermain sandiwara? Siapa yang tiada substance sebenarnya? Siapa yang menjadi pembelot dan perkhianat negara sebenarnya? Di mana pula timbulnya rebut ni?” deserves nothing less than a walk-out in response.
Death of Democratic Governance and Accountability

It is no longer possible for the BN MPs to turn a blind to the wrongdoing in 1MDB. Any denial of wrongdoing is totally not credible in the light of recent revelations by the international media on the US DOJ suit, actions by the Swiss and Singapore authorities to withdraw the licences and to file criminal charges against the banks and officers engaged in the money-laundering of the proceeds from 1MDB. The first conviction and sentence of imprisonment was delivered last week.
Continued survival has been bought by co-optation, propaganda, censorship, repression, prosecution and imprisonment of opposition leaders, activists, lecturers and students. The costs for maintaining power includes sackings, transfers, acts of humiliation and calls to ostracise dissenters and those troubled by their conscience in the UMNO leadership, past and present, the rank and file and Government agencies and institutions.

The 117 BN MPs in voting for the 2017 Budget and 11 PAS abstentions in the face of such legitimacy crisis hammered the final nail into democracy’s coffin in Malaysia. The government transformation programme from democracy to authoritarian regime is now completed. When the 2017 Budget was approved democratic governance, transparency, integrity and accountability in Malaysia died and were buried.

Off-Budget Debt

The lack of legitimacy continues as the Government enters into one after another mega contract, privatisation and concession. One of the biggest concern in the 2017 Budget is not what is in the Budget but what is not there. It is off-budget funding. Off-budget funding kept outside of government financial regulations, reporting and audit requirements can give rise to illegal and irregular transactions. In addition the use of such funds means the reported level of government expenditure and debt may be understated.

Off-budget funding may not be contrary to the letter of the law but it violates the spirit of the law. Omitting off-budget funding in the Budget documents offends the principle of providing the public a comprehensive, accurate and reliable account of the public finances. The Budget is a contract of trust between the Government and the citizens. It is expected that the Budget document should account comprehensively and correctly for all expenditures and revenues of the Government and that no figures should be omitted or hidden.

1MDB is not the only government-owned corporations which outstanding debt can have significant fiscal implications. This is because these debts are implicitly or explicitly government-guaranteed, an example is the PKFZ bonds. According to the 2015 Federal Government Financial Statements the total amount of GLCs’ debt guaranteed by the Federal Government is RM 920,336,791,310.19 which increased from RM 850,035,142,802.32 in 2014. This does not include GLCs’ debts or borrowings for which the Government issued letters of comfort. The 2015 Financial Statement records only the RM 5 billion debt of 1MDB guaranteed by the Government there is no mention of 1MDB’s liabilities which are more than RM 46 billion.

We are now in the process of having the most expensive railway in the world. The 688 km East Coast Rail Link (ERCL) project at RM55 billion is another off-budget transaction. There is indeed cause for concern.   
Misplaced Priorities

Why does the Opposition bother to debate the Budget? BN with its majority will push through and rubberstamp the 2017 Budget no matter what we say. We soldier on to discharge our constitutionally-mandated duty. Although in the minority, we like the BN MPs, are the guardians of public money. The Government cannot spend a single cent from the Consolidated Fund without Parliament’s approval. By making a stand, it is a reminder that the national coffers are not someone’s personal account. The Government is accountable for wastage, corruption and embezzlement. The Government is required to put on record its justification or the absence thereof in spending the people’s hard earned money and the nation’s scarce resources. In doing so, we put public concerns to bear on the Government’s fiscal and economic policies. It is hoped that by a detailed, focused and considered debate it would improve public understanding of both the process and thinking behind the fiscal measures, their impact on the economy and lives of the people.  

Values and Policies

People think the budget is about rows and rows of numbers on a page, the boring dispassionate and clinical allocation of funds to the various Ministries and government programmes. It is more than that. The Budget is in fact a statement of the values and priorities of the Government represented in the person of the Finance Minister. The Budget reveals the Finance Minister’s values. It tells us what he considers are his priorities. The Budget should really be a reflection not of the Finance Minister’s but the values and priorities of our nation and its people. The 2017 Budget reveals the Finance Minister is out of sync with the people. The Budget reveals the Prime Minister’s misplaced values and priorities.

Ratings more important than People’s suffering

The Finance Minister has given priority to maintain the ratings by the three international rating agencies; Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poor than the people’s sufferings arising from the increased cost of living and difficult economic times.    

In the wake of the 2008 global economic slowdown the Government under Tun Abdullah Badawi launched the First Economic Stimulus Package of RM 7 Billion. Najib Tun Razak launched the Second Economic Stimulus Package of RM 60 billion when he took over as Prime Minister in March 2009.  

The economic situation today is more critical than 2008-2009 with falling commodity prices, oil prices and currency values of the Ringgit in the midst of a global economic slowdown.  According to the 2017 Economic Report 38,499 were retrenched in 2015 and 20,798 in first eight months of 2016. The highest retrenchment was in the manufacturing sector (36.9%) followed by the financial and insurance/takaful (21%) as well as wholesale and retail trade, repair of motor vehicle and motorcycles. Jobstreet reported there were 506,000 unemployed persons in February 2016.

There are critical reasons for providing a fiscal stimulus to boost the economy but the Finance Minister has instead given priority to reducing the Budget deficit in order to maintain the credit rating. The Finance Minister in a show of his statesman-like qualities said he made the difficult decision to reduce the Budget deficit to 3% and called on the people to brave the increased cost of living.

The Finance Minister called on the people to spend moderately by choosing less expensive nasi kandar restaurants. He has lost sight we are a nation where the overwhelming majority of our work force has low wages and low income. According to the Statistics Department 2014 Household Income Survey (HIS) the median monthly salaries and wages per month for individuals is RM 1,700.00. This means half of all workers in Malaysia get this much or less. Rising food prices affect the lower income households the most. The question many Malaysians face each day is not which nasi kandar restaurant to eat in but whether they get to eat at all.

The Khazanah Research Institute reports many Malaysians cannot even afford the minimum requirements of a nutritious meal. A nutritionally adequate diet is beyond the reach of many Malaysians. For those living close to the poverty line it would costs almost their entire income, for those in Sabah and Sarawak it is more than their entire income.

Between 2011 and 2015, food price inflation was 3.6% on average, whereas overall inflation was 2.4% over the same period. The increase in the cost of food has a large effect on the cost of living on households especially those who earn less than RM 2,000.00 a month. The HIS was carried out pre- GST. Post-GST, no one except perhaps our Finance Minister, would be surprised to find more shops shuttered, shopping malls deserted, drastically reduced number of customers in the morning markets, pasar malam and pasar tani.

The Finance Minister highlighted the plight of the young nasi lemak seller summoned for not having a hawker’s licence. He encouraged the young university graduate selling nasi lemak to continue doing so as part of entrepreneurship. The Finance Minister failed to realise the young university graduate is compelled to sell nasi lemak because the Government failed to solve the graduate unemployment problem. In 2013 graduates constituted 30.6% of the unemployed, 35.2% in 2014 and 33.8% in 2015. The Ministry of Higher Education reported one out of four in the 254,561 graduates is unemployed 6 months after graduation. Despite not having solved the problems of mismatch of skills, soft skills, lack of numeracy, language, critical and innovative thinking the Finance Minister cut the allocations to 20 out of the 25 local universities.

The Finance Minister said BR1M is not animal feed, the Government always prioritise the rakyat’s needs. The amount of BR1M will be increased with an allocation of RM 6.8 billion to be given to 7 million recipients. The fact such a substantial portion of our population is dependent on BR1M is not something the Government should be proud of.

The Finance Minister called on BR1M recipients to become UBER drivers to supplement their income. He did not realise the many Malaysians have already become part-time UBER drivers, otherwise 20,000 taxi drivers need not surrender their taxis to look for alternative livelihood. Many Malaysians have taken a second and some third job to make ends meet. By saying Malaysians are now enjoying a better quality of life it reveals how far removed he is from the ground and reality. 
Austerity Programmes

Amongst the criteria considered by the rating agencies is whether the government has a balanced budget. As a consequence governments proceed to implement programmes to balance the budget by implementing austerity programmes in depressed economic times. Austerity programmes in a depressed economy is described by economist, Joseph Stiglitz as a medicine that sought to cure the disease by killing the patient.

The rating agencies do not consider whether the sovereign debt is in a foreign currency or in the country’s own currency. There is minimal chance of default by a government of a debt in its own currency. This is because governments are the only entities able to print their own money.

Paul Krugman has pointed out the argument that governments running significant budget deficits should implement austerity programmes during difficult economic times otherwise they would end up as another Greece is a myth that has been debunked. It is standard macroeconomics for the Government to provide fiscal stimulus in a depressed economy. As John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1936: “The boom not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury”.

Paul Krugman produced a chart that showed countries such as UK, US and Japan that have substantial government debt much higher than Greece that borrowed in their own currencies performed better than Greece. They did not fall like Greece. Paul Krugman also showed that the countries that implemented austerity programmes enjoyed low economic growth while those that did not experienced better growth. The more severe the austerity programmes the slower the growth.

There are concerns that providing fiscal stimulus will raise government debt. The 55% GDP debt ceiling can be raised. Raising debt limits does not directly alter the amount of debt. It allows the Government to pay for spending programmes that has been approved. The US Congress has raised the US debt ceiling 90 times this has not affected its credit rating by the rating agencies.

Budget surpluses or at least balanced budget have been touted as fiscally responsible, whereas deficits are painted as unsustainable. In reality there is nothing inherently responsible in balancing the budget. On the contrary such a move at a time of high joblessness and underemployment, efforts to reduce rather than increase the deficit are the height of irresponsibility.


It is certain the 2017 Budget will be approved. What is not certain is whether Malaysians can overcome the repression, intimidation, gerrymandering, malapportionment and electoral fraud that sustain a Government lacking legitimacy and credibility. See you at Bersih 5.

William Leong Jee Keen
MP Selayang
16 November 2016  

[1] Jurgen Von Hagen Budgetting Institutions for better Fiscal Performance; Budgeting and Budgetary Institutions World Bank
[2] The Principles of Budgetary Governance OECD
[3] John Samuel Economic Governance and Budget Accountability