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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.

The Oakeshott Bill is a Stealth Policy Dud

The Independent MP for the electorate of Lyne, Robert Oakeshott has a plan, a plan that he thinks in his infinite wisdom will end the deadlock over the over-hyped asylum seeker issue which plagues our political debate all too much for the scale of the problem that it actually presents in political reality.

Since the Government announced it had reached an agreement with Malaysia over an asylum seeker/refugee swap agreement, parties have been united in opposition against the policy, even the Australian Greens and the Coalition saw eye-to-eye on this since the first time in, well a long time frankly.

Not only this, but the High Court saw fit to decry Malaysia and offshore processing as inconsistent with Australian law and our international obligations, throwing all offshore processing policy into legal doubt.

The Member for Lyne has now decided to enter the asylum seeker debate with this bill which amounts to nothing more than the “Malaysian Solution” in both theory and practice.

The bill put forward by Mr Oakeshott would allow for the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen to form an agreement with any nation that is a member of the Bali Process, any one or more of 50 nations in the region. Surprise, surprise guess which country is a member of the Bali Process? It starts with “M” and it ends in “a”. Any further hints needed.

As if any further clarification was needed that this bill would lead to the implementation of the Malaysia deal then they only need to refer to the words of the Immigration Minister who confirmed that he would ask the Labor caucus to support the bill when it comes to a vote.

Did Mr Oakeshott really think that it wouldn’t take all of a first glimpse to work out that he was doing the bidding of the Gillard Government’s Malaysian asylum seeker swap policy? That simply surrounding it with other options would lead to the Government not picking Malaysia?

Coming from a man who wasted 17 minutes of our valuable time just to tell us what we already knew, we have another waste of time in a policy which has already been roundly defeated without even the need for a vote to confirm just how disliked the policy was. This time though there is far more time than 17 minutes to be wasted on a stealth policy dud from someone who would like to think he is a canny political operator.

Peace-loving New Zealand Gets First Carr Trip

New Senator for New South Wales and Foreign Minister designate has used his first trip overseas to visit our long term ally in the far reaches of Earth, New Zealand. The incoming Minister for Foreign Affairs headed there this week to meet with parliamentary colleagues while he finds his feet in the crucial role.

But is it smart for our new Foreign Minister to visit New Zealand ahead of all other nations in the region, some of whom we share a strong or growing relationship with and others with whom we have struggled in recent years, think Fiji and Papua New Guinea, the latter with their own political strife in recent times.

Nobody doubts the importance of New Zealand to our defence interests in particular with our southern partners across the Tasman being a long-time ally, particularly since the ANZUS Treaty was signed, but harking as far back as when the ANZAC legend was born on the shores of Gallipoli.

New Zealand are our strongest friends but also the most stable of nations in our immediate international region and a growing trade partner with whom we share a great history in realms other than defence relations. This is precisely why the wisdom of New Zealand being the first port of call for Bob Carr above all other neighbours in our dynamic Asia-Pacific region.

There are multiple countries in our immediate vicinity where our diplomacy is required for reasons including political stability, security and action on people smugglers and asylum seekers.

Think most recently of Papua New Guinea, a country where in recent months and years there has been some very serious political instability at the very top tier of government, with former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare at loggerheads with the parliament and his own party, aspects of the police and the military and even senior officials of the judiciary.

Thankfully there has not been a successful coup in the country over the power struggle, although a temporary “mini coup”  of sorts by a small part of the security forces in one part of the country shows that the country is far from stable, even if tensions have been suppressed since that moment.

Fiji is another country requiring some serious attention from the Australian Government, even though this has been made all the more difficult by the expulsion of the acting Australian High Commissioner to Fiji.

The coup where Fijian Commodore Frank Bainimarama was just one in a serious of military overthrows of democratic government in the country over the last twenty plus years and has led to freedom of speech being completely overrun with foreign-owned media expelled, making it harder for reporting of human rights violations.

There are positive signs with consultations on a new Fijian Constitution initiated, to be completed in 2013, but it remains to be seen whether the deeds will meet the words of another Fijian dictator.

Further, the Commodore has stated that 2014 will be the year when democratic elections will return to the small multi-island nation in our region so our work in the region, through multilateral bodies and non-government organisations will be to help ensure, albeit from a distance, that this timeline will come to fruition and be met at the earliest possible opportunity, with 2014 still being too far away.

Indonesia is another nation in the Asia-Pacific that deserves our ongoing attention at an intense level with security concerns post the Bali bombings continuing to be an issue not just for Australians travelling to the country for holidays and business, but also for a regional response to people smuggling which runs rife in the country and the broader asylum seeker issue.

A large number of Australians travel to Indonesia, particularly the capital Jakarta and Bali for both business and leisure activities each year so this requires intense diplomatic efforts in mutual security support in an attempt to make sure that our two nations do all they can to stamp out terrorism activities in the south-east Asian nation.

Australian attention is also needed with our partner Indonesia, to ensure that people smuggling is combatted at the source in Indonesia in efforts to stem the flow of boats which can lead to the drowning of asylum seekers. This can be done on a bilateral basis, but also as part of the so-called Bali Process of nations in the region. This must mean that all nations in the region sign up to the UN Refugee Convention and agree to take on their share of asylum seekers.

In the broader Asian region there are other countries which need to become more open, democratic and free, such as Malaysia and Singapore, so focusing an initial trip on peace-loving New Zealand, whilst important must not neglect those nations in our region where there is much work to be done to ensure they enjoy the freedoms that both our nations have enjoyed.

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