El Nino and UMNO’S Najib Prime Ministership

It happens every three to seven years and roughly lasts about five years. The weather often has implications on the “whether”. The El Nino phenomenon is as simple and at times as complicated as Malaaisian politics. It may explain nothing, or can be extrapolated to the growth and elimination of cultures. As a “theory” you can’t have anything more consummate and convenient as this one. If you don’t understand a bean about a system and are understood to be an expert of a particularly recurring phenomenon in that system, then this is the ideal one. With a fifty percent chance that you are correct, your total understanding of El Nino did it. If you go wrong, blame it on El Nino. Much like political spokespersons. Much like politics – Malaysian politics

Since “politics” in its metaphysical, martial, or spiritual form has been the raw framework of a lot of ancient and recent writings of the world’s oldest culture, every Indian is somewhat politically literate. His voting instincts are as predetermined as his genes, as are environmental influences on their modulation. So let’s begin with the El Nino.


The global economy will be in a place it has likely never been before – certainly not in the last eight decades. The crisis won’t only hit the stronger European economies hard, but will spread to the United States where the current recovery is anemic and the banks are still in the process of repairing the damage to their balance sheets caused by the Great Recession.

Southeast Asian economies are particularly vulnerable to a global slowdown given their direct and indirect trade links with Europe and the United States. Not only will direct exports to Europe take a hit, but component and commodity exports immediately headed to China will also suffer if Chinese exports to the advanced economies are affected, as they almost certainly will be. And a slowing global economy will mean lower commodity prices, leading to still lower export revenues for Southeast Asia.

Indeed, most Southeast Asian economies are already showing signs of slowing export and GDP growth in the first quarter of 2012. Export earnings aren’t increasing at the same pace and the stimulus packages introduced in 2009 and 2010 have now run their course. Thailand and the Philippines are the notable exceptions to this as Thailand is still recovering from the devastating floods of late 2011 and the Philippines continues to be buoyed by strong remittance inflows.

Greece’s exit from the eurozone won’t only lead to a further deterioration in export and GDP growth for Southeast Asia – it will also have repercussions for financial flows.

COMMENT: These days Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s woes, imposed or self-inflicted, have combined to call unflattering attention to his competence for the post the public assumes he is ambitious for and likely to gain after the 13th general election’s results confirm Prime Minister Najib Razak as a one-term UMNO President.

The smart money says Najib will not be able to improve on predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s performance at the last general election which would make the incumbent UMNO President a lame duck going into the party’s triennial poll to be held after GE13.

The fact that Najib has offered each BN MP a RM1.5 million sweetener that would have to be budgeted into the national accounts for 2013, thus rendering more forbidding the country’s 15th straight annual deficit, is indicative of desperation in the PM’s survey of his coalition’s electoral prospects.

His boosters, citing opinion surveys of doubtful methodology, have told him that the Malaysian public is apt to think more highly of the PM than of the party and coalition he leads.

This is probably why he is plumping for their acceptance of his coalition through the hoariest of methods – profligate servings from the gravy train which the country’s finances, in the reckoning at least of one of his ministers (PEMANDU chief Idris Jala), can no longer afford.

Apart from the RM1.5 million spending allocation to each BN MP, it is said there is likely to be another round of a RM500 handout to 2.5 million hard-strapped households in the country.

The fiscal implications of these pork barrel measures bolster the view that when the Najib administration bandies about the term ‘Economic Transformation Programme’, it does so with Humpty Dumpty in mind (“A word is anything I say it means”).

Embarrassing volte-face

Fiscal irresponsibility aside, the reality of a lack of contending and constructive visions in the top-tier of the UMNO leadership is reflected in Muhyiddin’s gyrations.

Unless of course you accept that a reflexive occupation of positions to the right of Najib, on issues of race and the economy particularly, constitute a viable stance for a contender for UMNO’s top post, the current DPM is on a hiding to nothing.

This was amply demonstrated by Muhyiddin’s alacrity in defending thedecision to suspend loans to Selangor recipients of PTPTN (Higher Education Loan Fund), a position that blew up in his face when the move was rescinded within days of its announced implementation. The slap dealt Muhyiddin by the government’s embarrassed volte-face on the issue ought to have given him pause. But an ingrained reflex is hard to trump.

Taking the cue from the rabid Utusan Malaysia, Muhyiddin sailed into another controversy, this one about opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s alleged maintenance of bank accounts reputedly totaling RM3 billion.

Muhyiddin challenged Anwar to clarify the matter. The opposition leader was swift on the uptake: he said he was willing to open all his bank accounts provided Muhyiddin does the same.

For credibility, a challenge such as the one Muhyiddin issued Anwar, if met with a counter, requires that the challenge-poser and the challenged engage in a duel of self exposes. But all that is forthcoming is a deafening silence at the DPM’s quarter. Moral of the episode: glass house residents should not throw stones.

Muhyiddin’s man also took hit

It was not only Muhyiddin who took a hit on the PTPTN issue. Higher Education Minister Khaled Nordin was similarly bloodied by the government’s about-turn.

Khaled approved the suspension of study loans to Selangor recipients on the grounds that it would test the Pakatan Rakyat government’s ability to deliver on the coalition’s pledge of free university education for qualified students.

In succumbing to the temptations of one-upmanship, both Muhyiddin and Khaled (right) made an unconscionable error: the interests of affected students must not be held hostage to partisan political maneuvering.

Khaled, backed by Muhyiddin, is on course to beMenteri Besar of Johor but Najib has obtained the Sultan of Johor’s understanding for a two-year extension of tenure for incumbent MB Ghani Othman after the coming general election.

This was secured on the grounds that veteran Ghani has got to be around to see the big projects in the pipeline for Johor are on to a more even keel. This is unfavourable to Muhyiddin as Ghani, hardly an admirer of the DPM’s, will be in charge of a state that will send the largest number of delegates to UMNO’s triennial party polls that must be held after the general election.

All of which goes to show that a reflex-driven and opposition-for-opposition-sake attitude is not a viable platform on which to sustain a claim to the top position in party or country.

It hasn’t been pretty. In fact, the past eight months have been as ugly as politics get without descending into all-out conflict: elections alternating with massacres, punctuated by judicial rulings that inevitably weakened pro-democracy forces while strengthening the military’s hand. And now, finally, Mohammed Morsi has been declared the official winner of the presidential election.With a dissolved parliament, an office with little executive power, and a once-lauded Supreme Constitutional Court acting as the legal henchman for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, it’s no wonder commentators around the globe, along with millions of Egyptians, have concluded the entire electoral process was a “crushing blow” to the revolution. What’s more, the semi-open negotiations between the senior leaders of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood in the past two weeks give a strong impression of an electoral outcome that was negotiated between the country’s two most powerful forces, rather than won outright at the ballot box.

 Either development augurs well for the future of democracy in Egypt. But a very different interpretation is also plausible. The issues surrounding the election might be temporarily resolved, but both SCAF and the Brotherhood have lost much (in the army’s case, most) of their legitimacy, disappointing an Egyptian people desperate for meaningful progress toward democracy and economic development. If conditions don’t get better quickly, blame will rest squarely with the military and the Brotherhood, the two groups most associated with the post-Mubarak (dis)order. This is the best outcome Egypt’s revolutionary forces could have hoped for from an electoral process that was never going to produce a real transition to democracy or, as important, a real transformation in Egypt’s broader political economy. An unexpected fall from grace? For the military, it’s quite a fall from grace. It’s hard to describe Egyptian protesters’ feelings of solidarity and unity with the army during the 18 days that forced Hosni Mubarak from power. Soldiers literally slept with protesters in Tahrir Square, while military leaders issued adamant messages of support for the people and pledged to give them “everything they wanted”. n the 18 months since February 11, 2011, the military has squandered almost all of the goodwill that remained with the Egyptian people. True, some still support the military, either because they’re part of the economic elite, the bloated security system, or are tied to both through patronage networks. The plight of Coptic Christians, who fear Islamist power even more than a government that has massacred them with impunity, is even more tragic. But for most Egyptians, the constitutional coup d’etat that dissolved parliament and curtailed the incoming president’s power was a coup de grace that ended any pretence of military support for the people. No Egyptian with a political pulse today believes the army is interested in anything more than preserving its economic and political dominance in the new era. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood played a minimal role in the revolutionary protests that brought down Mubarak. But it dominated the transitional period, winning the largest share of seats in the now disbanded parliament – and today the presidency. Despite the electoral victories, the Brotherhood has manoeuvred itself into a position as untenable long term as the military’s. Months of barely clandestine negotiations between the Brotherhood and SCAF over how to divide post-revolutionary power (which continued even as SCAF eviscerated the constitution), coupled with the leadership’s lack of serious criticism for mass arrests, military trials and violence against protesters, cast a long shadow over its integrity and commitment to democracy. Now a wide swathe of the Egyptian public – not just revolutionary activists, but also the Brotherhood’s conservative base – believes it sold out a revolution in which it was never vested for a greater share of power. This helps account for the surprisingly strong showing of Salafi candidates in the elections, as well the sometimes dramatic exit of younger Brotherhood activists from the movement since February 2011. Mohammed Morsi now will assume a Presidency with limited powers while being viewed with great suspicion by much of the Egyptian populace. ew ways to reestablish credibility The only way for SCAF or the Brotherhood to reestablish credibility is to markedly improve the lives of the tens of millions of Egyptians who live in grinding poverty, scraping by on $2 a day or less. Yet there is almost no possibility of effecting such a radical economic transformation. The military’s enormous economic power is directly tied to the existing system, while the Brotherhood leadership is ideologically committed to neoliberal policies that perpetuate inequality. Even if its leadership wanted to challenge the gross imbalances that define Egyptian society, the military and economic elite more broadly will fight tooth and nail to preserve their dominance. Ultimately, there is little chance that whoever governs Egypt in the coming years will significantly improve Egyptians’ lives. The existing power structure is too entrenched, the global economy too weak, and Egypt’s relative economic and strategic position too unfavourable to enable anything close to a “Turkish miracle” that everyone hopes for, and which is the only chance either political force has to regain its squandered legitimacy. More likely is continued stagnation, government mismanagement of reforms, and ongoing state oppression and brutality that will serve as a constant reminder to Egyptians that both SCAF and the Brotherhood are unwilling and incapable of working for the interests for society as a whole. An path forward for revolutionary forces In the meantime, experienced activists at the centre of the revolution’s first phase have not invested all their chips in the current political process. Taking a page from the Brotherhood’s playbook, they’ve gone out to poor and conservative working-class communities across Egypt and begun the arduous but all-important task of building relations and trust. Had the transition process been seemingly cleaner, and revolutionary forces achieved a share of power, it would have been very difficult to avoid becoming a fig leaf for the consolidation of a system that would remain rigged against them on every major political, social and (especially) economic issue facing Egypt. Excluding them from the emerging political system (which was helped by several freshman mistakes by the revolutionaries, such as trusting the military during the crucial first post-Mubarak months or fielding multiple presidential candidates who drained votes from each other), was the greatest gift SCAF and the Brotherhood could have given the revolution. Now the country’s progressive forces can spend their time building an opposition that is rooted in society and can effectively challenge the political lies and illusionary narratives that will be liberally dispensed by the old/new system to pacify the masses. Equally important, they can develop a narrative for the future that the majority of Egyptians can believe has a chance of being realised, rather than leading to the chaos and instability that the military has constantly warned them would come with any attempt to radically change the structures and relations of power governing Egyptian society. Of course, this grassroots strategy will take years to take hold, and will come up against the interests of the patronage and power networks of the Brotherhood and the military. And before anything can happen, the thousands of progressive activists who’ve fallen into a funk in the past few months need to “get off the couch, stop complaining” and get back to work, as one young activist leader wrote on his Facebook page yesterday. But if the incompetent performance of SCAF, the Brotherhood and the rest of Egypt’s power elite is any indication, there will be plenty of opportunities for Egypt’s revolutionary forces to lay the foundation for a powerful opposition movement that will have a fighting chance to win real power the next time Egyptians head to the polls. This is the best any revolutionary movement can hope for less than two years into a struggle which, if history is any guide, will take decades to decide.


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