Monday, February 28, 2011

Will there be an 'Arab Facebook revolution' in Malaysia?

Just the other day someone asked me if there could be a people's power revolution in Malaysia a la the so-called Facebook revolutions sweeping the Middle-East now.

In fact, some opposition politicians have also urged Malaysians to do an Egypt. DAP's veteran leader Lim Kit Siang tweeted: "17 days changed Egypt Middle East n world. Egyptians stand tall. Let Sarawakians do an Egypt n send clear unmistakable message 2Swak Mubarak."

Later he told Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to heed the Egyptian crisis and withdraw the sedition charge against Sri Muda assemblyman Shuhaimi Shafie.

“If the Najib administration is to learn from the lesson of the Egyptian crisis, there are many things it would have to do — but let it start with the tiny step of withdrawing the sedition charge against Shuhaimi on Monday,” Lim said in a statement.

Yesterday, Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim told Southeast Asian leaders to learn from the Arab uprising by strengthening the institutions of democracy and freedom.

The former deputy prime minister said that with the exception of Indonesia, other regional countries have systematically removed democratic principles put in place during independence, The Malaysian Insider reported.

Soon after the turmoil began in Tunisia and then Egypt, Najib said the people should reject anyone who tries to instigate them by connecting the turbulent situations in other countries to the situation in Malaysia.

He said the instability in some countries currently should not be equated with the situation in Malaysia which had been stable due to the people's spirit as one big family.

"We don't need to do that (create chaos) as our family spirit has been implanted since a long time ago," Bernama reported.

He also warned against any attempt to usurp power in Malaysia, using demonstrations like those in Egypt.

“Don’t think that what is happening there must also happen in Malaysia. We will not allow it to happen here,” he said at the national-level Chinese New Year open house in Miri, The Star reported.

So will there be an 'Arab Facebook Revolution' in Malaysia?

Frankly I do not think so - unless the Barisan Nasional government plays into the hands of Pakatan Rakyat and falls foolishly into the traps set by the cunning opposition leaders.

The situation in the Middle-East is different - there the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the oil wealth (in the oil producing nations) has not been shared equitably.

The Arabian governments did not diversify their economies and depended too much on the oil industry, which actually hires lots of foreign workers.

Few jobs were created in sectors other than petroleum-related ones; thus young Arabs remained jobless and when food prices soared, their hunger fuelled their anger.

Most of the leaders were dictators who clung onto power for far too long and some like Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Gadaffi were planning to start dynasties by grooming their sons to take over. Other leaders were absolute monarchs like those in Saudi Arabia (where there has been no protests so far) and Bahrain (where there are protests but they have a religious sectarian flavour because the poorer Shiites are rising up against the fewer but richer Sunnis, who hold the reins of power).

In Libya, tribal rivalry is also a factor. In almost all the Mid-Eastern nations facing popular revolts, factors like corruption, abuse of power and brutal suppression of freedoms also fanned the people's anger.

In Malaysia, unemployment is not much of an issue. There is a huge middle-class of all races that provides a cushioning effect between the relatively few poor folks and the increasing number of rich folks, especially Malays (though critics have pointed out that they are mostly linked to the people in power).

The Sultans abide by the system of constitutional monarchy. The economy is well diversified and there are plenty of jobs. There is no shortage of food though rising prices are a reality and critics say official inflation rate figures are not reliable.

Suppression of freedoms has been a thorny issue though there have been efforts (half-hearted, say the critics) to review the hated Internal Security Act. But by and large, Malaysians are not starving, suffering or jobless though racial issues are still thorny (critics say politicians are responsible for fanning them) and keep getting in the way of true unity. 

If the Pakatan politicians post a message on Facebook asking Malaysians to gather at a certain place at a certain time, would tens of thousands of Malaysians be there to vent their fury and frustrations?

Would middle-class Malaysians turn up? Would mid-managers turn up? Would they leave the jobs that pay them RM4,000-6,000 a month to shout slogans and throw stones at policemen?

Bear in mind that the middle-class in Malaysia is relatively large and that strata of society actually prevented the nation from collapsing into chaos when hit by unforseen storms in the past like the financial crisis of 1997.

The danger is that Pakatan leaders - when confronted by the realisation that they will lose the next general election badly - may just organise an Arab-style people's power protest as a last stand.

And it may win the support of the people if Barisan leaders do foolish things like rigging the election, sending bus-loads or boat-loads of phantom voters to the strongholds of Pakatan leaders, opening their wallets and start buying votes, ensuring that some names are missing from the voters' lists especially in opposition strongholds, ensuring that some 'voters' are registered in multiple constituencies, slipping in bundles of fake ballot papers into ballot boxes, etc. 

If these 'tricks of the trade' are utilised, then Barisan would be playing into the hands of Pakatan and handing to them - on a silver platter - the 'petroleum' to power the protests of the people. And people would quickly forget that Anwar himself was alleged to have resorted to such 'tricks' during his party's election recently.

If the next few elections - the by-election, Sarawak state election and general election - are held in a transparent and truthful way, then Pakatan would be deprived of issues to play up and things should be smooth sailing for Barisan and I can safely state that there would be no Arab-style revolution in Malaysia.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Winds of change

The winds of change are sweeping across the Middle East leaving a vast swathe of destruction (or could it be construction?) in their wake.

In a dramatic show of people's power, the governments of nations in the Muslim crescent have been brought to their knees by the very people they are supposed to serve.

First it was Tunisia, then it was Egypt and the demonstration of people's power has spread to other nations like Algeria, Bahrain, Libya, Iran and Yemen.

The question is - what fuelled these revolts? Each nation has its own unique issues, but generally the Middle- East nations have been controlled either by despotic leaders who have overstayed or by absolute monarchs who have favoured their circle of cronies or tribal leaders.

Though there is much oil wealth in this region, the wealth has not been equitably distributed - the handful of rich live ostentatiously and shop in London, dine in Paris and party in the Caribbean.

Most of the nations with oil have depended for far too long on the diminishing natural resource and did not diversify their economies enough. Thus while the elite were skiing in the Alps, the poor could not find work even as prices of food rose.

And when there was dissent, the vociferous rabble-rousers were silenced by questionable and brutal methods.

But the leaders found it hard to control certain things - like the Internet and the handphone.

Through social networking sites like FaceBook and Twitter, the disgruntled and mostly young jobless Arabs vented their frustrations and later organised their protests.

This is the new face of revolution - the FaceBook revolution. Anyone can post a message to meet at a certain place and certain time for a demonstration and tens of thousands of protestors will be there.

The protestors turned up in symbolic spots of cities; so did the army. Governments normally resort to heavy-handed tactics when confronted this way and so the thugs, mercenaries and soldiers were let loose to massacre the masses. Look at what's happening in Libya.

But once blood is spilt, a matyr is created. Just to correct Gaddafi, the eccentric and perhaps lunatic leader of Libya, matyrs are those who die fighting for freedom or some idealistic cause, not ageing despots who want to die hanging on to power.

While the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were secular, the demonstrations in Bahrain has a religious factor - it is a fight between the minority Sunni Muslim elite and the impoverished Shiites, who though being in the majority have suffered from discrimination for ages.

Nobody is certain what the Middle East will look like when the flames are doused and the rubble cleared.

Some commentators have said that the Arab nations should look at the political models in fellow Muslim nations like Malaysia and Indonesia where there is some semblance of democracy.

Also, Malaysia's constitutional monarchy - which is styled after the English model - could also be a system that the Sultans and Emirs of Arabia could implement.

The revolutions in the Middle East have taught vital lessons - the anger and frustration of the people cannot be suppressed forever, and freedom and democracy are very powerful motivators.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Math and science

Looks like even the President of the (still) most powerful and most advanced nation in the world recognises the need to have better education in math and science to ensure that the United States are ahead of the pack in this competitive world (read story below).

Note that there is no debate in the US over whether to teach math and science in English or some other language. One can argue that the situation in America is different since all Americans speak only English whereas in Malaysia Bahasa Malaysia or the Malay language is the national language and English is the former colonial power's tongue and thus the policy to revert back to using Malay as the medium of instruction for science and math is justified, at least from the perspective of nationalism.

However, the point is that advances in science and math do not emerge from countries like Malaysia. Paradigm shifts in knowledge and invention take place in the West and English is the lingua franca of these vital developments.

Students from non-English speaking nations like China, South Korea and Japan work hard to learn English so that they can catch up with the West in science and technology, but in Malaysia issues of language and culture are more important and politicians are guided by expediency rather than pragmatism. It matters not if Malaysia lags far behind other Asian nations in science, math and technology as long as the Malays are happy that their language is used for teaching these subjects, and as long as Umno, the political party that draws its support from the Malays, remains in power.

And who are the losers? Malaysia and Malaysians.

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama says better education in math and science is critical to pushing the U.S. forward in the global competition for innovation and jobs, and he wants the private sector to get involved in making it happen.

Obama recorded his weekly radio and Internet address during a visit this week to Intel Corp. outside of Portland, Oregon. He praised the company Saturday for making a 10-year, $200 million commitment to promote math and science education - and held it up as an example of how corporate America can make money at the same time it builds the country.

"Companies like Intel are proving that we can compete - that instead of just being a nation that buys what's made overseas, we can make things in America and sell them around the globe," Obama said. "Winning this competition depends on the ingenuity and creativity of our private sector. But it's also going to depend on what we do as a nation to make America the best place on earth to do business."

Obama's West Coast swing, which also included a dinner with big names in California's Silicon Valley including Apple's Steve Jobs and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, was part of his push to promote a budget proposal that increases spending in targeted areas like education, research and development and high-speed Internet, while cutting in other areas. Republicans newly in control of the House are pushing much deeper cuts and resisting new spending.

The Republican is also taking Obama to task for avoiding significant changes to the biggest budget busters: the federal entitlement programs Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In the Republicans' weekly radio address, Rep. Tom Price trumpeted the Republican push to cut $60 billion from the current fiscal year budget and promised a 2012 budget proposal that, unlike Obama's, offers "real entitlement reform."

"Our reforms will focus both on saving these programs for current and future generations of Americans and on getting our debt under control and our economy growing," Price said. "By taking critical steps forward now, we can fulfill the mission of health and retirement security for all Americans without making changes for those in or near retirement."