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From Hope to Despair and the Path Forward in Malaysia

The 2013 general election in Malaysia has come to an end. The poll was much-anticipated, with the promise that it appeared to offer the opposition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Pundits in Malaysia and around the world were of the belief that the 2013 election would be the closest in the country’s history and that the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, might have even been able to prevail on Sunday the 5th of May. But it was not be for Anwar Ibrahim and the coalition of parties behind his bid to be the first of Malaysia’s Prime Ministers not to come from UMNO which has ruled the country since its independence in 1957.

The 56-year rule of the governing coalition is set to continue after Barisan Nasional (BN) took 133 of the parliament’s 222 seats, a simple majority, with PR snaring 89 seats in the assembly.

Not much has changed since the 2008 poll. Prime Minister Najib Razak was hoping to recapture the supermajority lost by Barisan Nasional in the election five years ago and Anwar was widely expected to do much better than the results indicate.

Where there is hope for Pakatan Rakyat is in the popular vote tally. PR won that contest, but of course, successful gerrymandering of electorates helped to offset the good showing in the popular vote which needed to be more uniform across the country for the opposition coalition of parties to be delivered government.

Prior to and throughout polling day and into the night, as the votes were counted and the election called, claims were aired about vote rigging and other unsavoury, undemocratic practices. There was indelible ink too, which turned out to be quite easily removed. And there were claims of foreign workers brought in to vote using Malaysian ID cards.

There appears to have been a significant amount of contestable incidents during the general election on Sunday and the Opposition Leader will not accept the result. Anwar Ibrahim has called for a peaceful rally and the wearing of black on Wednesday as the country and the world continues to digest the result.

There is almost no doubt that there were significant irregularities, but even the most hopeful of analysts readily admit that there was probably not enough examples of undemocratic behaviour by political actors on the day to overturn the result. It is arguable however, that gerrymandering alone could have prevented or at least aided in blocking a win for the opposition.

Then there is the simple matter of the electoral commission being under the purview of the Prime Minister. There is little chance that there will be even a shred of a meaningful examination of the claims and more than likely none at all. In fact Prime Minister Razak has already urged the opposition coalition to accept the result.

It appears then that there will be a period of, at best a calm unease and at worst, small-scale riots perpetrated by fringe elements of opposition supporters. The rally on Wednesday will provide a test to see if cool heads prevail. But it should be used, for the most part, as a rallying cry for the next election in five years’ time.

The situation going forward, beyond this election result, is a complex mix of factors, not least of which is Anwar’s future in politics and the future of the opposition movement and how they organise. Then there is what needs to change in terms of government, governance and democracy in the country more broadly.

Before the election, the Opposition Leader had announced that this would be his last campaign. The former Deputy Prime Minister had signalled a desire to quit politics should he fail in his dream to be PM. This will without a doubt leave a large hole in the opposition which will prove almost impossible to fill, at least in the short-term.

Should Anwar Ibrahim hold to his pledge to quit politics, the real, the popular face of the movement for change will disappear. Politics in countries around the world is growing increasingly presidential in nature and that means that the hopes of political parties will increasingly rest on the popularity of party leaders. And Anwar Ibrahim was an immensely popular opposition figure.

The only other PR figure with such a high-profile is Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar. The opposition would have to seriously consider turning to her to continue the momentum brought by her father.

Another significant figure that Pakatan Rakyat should seriously consider trying to lure into a parliamentary career is the face of  the Bersih protest movement, Ambiga Sreenevasan. This will prove difficult however, and is, at best, an option in the medium-term future rather than in the short-term.

We know what must happen in terms of democratic change in Malaysia. Elections need to be more free and fair and that will only come to pass with a strong and vocal opposition movement, up against a powerful state with the traditional media all in its corner. The gerrymandering has to stop and the electoral commission must be made an independent body, certainly not located anywhere near the reach of the Prime Minister.

Sadly, this part of the recipe will prove to be the hardest ingredient to combine in the mix for a move to a more open and democratic Malaysian society. Seemingly. the only way this will change will be if the ruling party of 56 years is thrown out of office in five years from now. A more vibrant and creative civil society will play a significant hand in this, even though they will be pursued all the way by the cautious, paranoid and power-hungry regime.

What happens next is crucially important.

Attention UNHCR: Not Just Australia That Needs to Do More on Refugees

This morning the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) put out a statement calling on Australia particularly, as well as the international community to assist more in providing humanitarian assistance options to help stop asylum seekers taking “dangerous and exploitative boat journeys”.

The UNHCR, tasked with overseeing the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Refugees made these comments in response to the terrible tragedy overnight where an asylum seeker vessel capsized en route to Australia, with 3 confirmed dead, 110 rescued and approximately 9o people still missing.

This most recent tragedy again emphasises the need, like the refugee agency points out, for countries like Australia to do more and in some cases, at least something to cut down on the need for these desperate people to make the seriously dangerous journey in craft often not much more seaworthy than a large esky.

It is important to recognise that the refugee situation begins long before people reach Australia and while we can and should do more, we cannot be expected to take all of the burden, particularly after refugees who seek asylum by boat have made their journey often through and past other nations before arriving in Australia.

But this is only part of the story and but a part of the solution needed in an attempt to stop asylum seekers from risking their lives trying to find a better, safer life in places like Australia.

The High Commission for Refugees is itself part of the problem with processing though admittedly difficult, in many cases actually being very slow and leading to many refugees being stuck in limbo, whether that be in refugee camps dotted around the world in conflict zones or stuck in limbo in other ways.

The UNHCR do need more resources and time deployed in major conflict zones and countries facing humanitarian crises, but this is only the first step, however it is an undeniable aspect of the refugee situation that cannot be ignored.

It is also true the asylum seeker/refugee conundrum of refugees in camps within and near countries in turmoil is not just down to the slow action of the UNHCR in processing refugee claims.

Countries around the world that have signed the Refugee Convention are obviously too dragging the chain with absorbing the number of refugees currently awaiting relocation and asylum seekers that wish to seek protection in another country. This could be down to many reasons and the cost burdens particularly after the effects of the Global Financial Crisis and the continuing Euro crisis are factors that cannot be denied in the current debate over refugee relocation as far as some nations go.

This does not excuse the chain dragging prior to the financial events that have negatively impacted on economies around the world. There are obviously issues that have meant that prior to the financial events that have devastated countries around the world that as a result countries have not taken up the massive amounts of refugees around the world.

The scale of the refugee problem is massive and borders on the unsolvable at the very least at a political level with, as of 2010 a total of 43.3 million people worldwide who were either identified as refugees, internally displaced people (IDP’s), asylum seekers, returnees or stateless people.

No one government, no series of governments, no agencies, organisations, no one person or people will be able to guarantee that in the future nobody will get onto boats in desperation and head to various countries in the world. That is the sad reality. The potentially deadly situation can only be minimised.

The first part of any reduction to the refugee  problem is that the remaining 50 odd nation states not signatory to the convention should be persuaded to sign on the dotted line, though some of these nations are where the asylum seeker situation begins and others are middle destinations where asylum seekers and genuine refugees can languish for years before making the journey to places like Australia.

Obviously another response to the issue is for nations around the world that are signatories to the convention, but not to the protocol to sign that and enshrine it in their respective domestic law and then make appropriate arrangements in accordance with those provisions too.

Obviously too, many nations could and should increase their intake of refugees and seek to undertake with the UNHCR to help with the massive processing task which stymies the refugee process from the outset and leaves many in desperation within their own countries or in other nations in their region.

These last two points need to include, in particular Malaysia and Indonesia signing and adopting the Refugee Convention provisions and the protocol into their own law because these two nations are often the final stopping point and often the destinations from which asylum seeker vessels embark on the perilous journey towards Australia.

Other countries in our region that are signatories to the Refugee Convention and its protocol must also increase their share of the processing of asylum seekers and refugees and we must continue to work harder under the Bali Process as a region to deal with the movement of people who have found themselves in dire circumstances.

Another ingredient in the global recipe to cut down on the deaths of asylum seekers is for nations to truly tackle people smuggling. But this alas is made all the more complicated by the immense coastlines of the nations from where refugees come to Australia. It is also made difficult because of levels of police corruption  and complicity in the criminal act which have been found to exist in the region when it comes to the asylum seeker trade plied by these individuals and groups.

The final part of the puzzle is that Australia must increase our intake of refugees, at least by a similar extent to the increase we would have taken in under the so-called ‘Malaysian Solution’. This simply has to be seen as a reality if we really view people drowning at sea as a problem and we should.

The problem is not just an Australian one and becomes a bigger situation for Australia to deal with once refugees and asylum seekers reach our region and that needs to be recognised by other nations and the UNHCR before implying Australia above others particularly in our region needs to bear responsibility for stopping people getting on boats and coming here. Other nations in our region simply go close to ignoring the asylum seeker plight and the people smuggling that comes with it altogether.

Sadly, the scale of the task that is dealing with refugees in a fast, efficient and orderly way is astronomical and the process time consuming with the sheer numbers already seemingly well beyond reach of being able to deal with. However, we have to as a nation, a region and as an international community all try to minimise the risks of asylum seekers dying at sea.

Uranium to India? Let’s Wait For Them to Sign the Treaty or Send it Elsewhere

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard announced yesterday that she would seek from her party at the ALP National Conference a reversal of their parties ban on uranium sales to nations that have not signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). The Prime Minister sought this shift in policy to allow uranium sales to India.Since this decision was made there has been widespread debate and opinion as to whether or not this change in policy was a good idea, what the motives may be behind the move and what possible outcomes this could herald for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons or otherwise.

The Gillard Government in announcing the policy has indicated that it will be asking India to comply with what they say are strict safeguards of similar nature to those required by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Labor leader has also said there will be strict bilateral transparency arrangements relating to the trade and subsequent usage of Australian uranium.

This begs the question: If there is only a slight difference between the oversight provided for under the proposal and that which the Indian Government would be subject to under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, then why should India not just sign up first?

The answer that both the cynic in me and the realist comes up with, is that then, it would be a lot harder for India to pursue nuclear weapons and related defence materiel if subject to the full auspices of the IAEA.

At the same time that raises concerns that the oversight allowed under the agreement that is sought might be limited in its width and depth. In other words, does not take into account, that with the extra uranium from Australia, it is possible for India to undertake a wider weapons program with uranium sourced elsewhere.

Sadly, with or without the nuclear weapons treaty, the Indian Government experiences high levels of corruption so the prospect also of some form of clandestine weapons buildup is an easily fostered proposition in such an environment. Consequently, it is possible then that less sophisticated nuclear weaponry could be constructed in or brought to India.

Therefore, it is probably best we increased uranium exports to nations that have signed the NNPT, that still may have existing nuclear weapons or in the very best scenario export more uranium to nations with nuclear power needs and no known or documented warheads.

Those are not the only issues out there, there is also the issue of another back-flip from Labor on their traditional ideals, this coming from the party which doesn’t agree with having nuclear power domestically, but is now happy to provide for an acceleration of it elsewhere.

In any case, while we may be able to at least reasonably guarantee that our uranium will not go toward weapon development, we cannot say absolutely that the extra uranium from Australia would not give India the means and capacity to pursue weapons development. It is this uncertainty that should create enough doubt on the propriety and sense of pursuing such an agreement.

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