In Defence of Nuclear Energy

By Arveent Srirangan Kathirtchelvan

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad recently made the announcement that Malaysia would not be exploring nuclear energy. He made it clear that nuclear energy, though cheap, is not safe and the disposal of nuclear waste still is an unsolved problem in science. Moreover, scoring obvious political points, Tun M also mentioned that the fifth and sixth Prime Ministers both did not see eye-to-eye with this policy whereas he doesn’t and since he is back, this will be the policy going forward. As a few policies Tun M holds onto are, this is archaic and short-sighted.

This is not me slating the government for cheap points, as some might assume, I have been quite happy with most developments so far. So, to give credit where credit is due, the government also announced the setting up of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) and the Ombudsman position, both steps which are crucial to ensuring the strengthening of public offices and preventing corruption. Moreover, the appointment of famous lawyer Art Harun as the chief of the Elections Commission shows a true commitment to reforming the administration of elections in Malaysia and I am sure gerrymandering would be the prime issue that will be tackled.

Now that the compliments are out of the way, in all seriousness, nuclear power is undoubtedly the cheapest, cleanest and safest form of energy known to man. When Tun M pointed to Chernobyl and Fukushima, he firstly did not take into consideration the time factor when it comes to assessing safety. While the potential human toxicity scale of nuclear energy is indeed large, the likelihood is so small that the actual impact becomes miniscule. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima are indeed catastrophic, but have a tendency to be overstated and when the thousands of hours of nuclear energy production is taken into consideration, the impact of this power is relatively small.

Take for instance Chernobyl itself. It is estimated that, in total, 4000 to 6000 lives will be claimed by the disaster, including everyone from direct victims to people born with genetic mutations well after the incident. In comparison, in the US, 7500 people will be killed by particulate matter from coal plants per year. Per. Year. Not including effects of climate change, mind you. So, when Tun M says Malaysia will continue to be sustainable in his returning speech to the United Nations General Assembly but insists on relying on coal for energy, going so far as to saying we have untapped coal potential, what he’s really saying is greater unseen human deaths are fine so long as grandstanding against a viable means of producing electricity remains popular.

Let us not be swayed by the notion that even renewables are enough. If we compare the amount of power produced by renewables to nuclear power plants, it’s embarrassing how much lower the former is. To generate the same amount of electricity as a nuclear power plant, the land usage itself would tens if not hundreds of times larger for wind and solar power. For a good comparison, let’s look at the Gansu Wind Farm, one of the largest wind farms in the world. Its capacity is nearly 7900 MW but to achieve this, it took 7000 wind turbines in the Gobi Desert. The Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas has 627 wind turbines and produces 781.5 MW of energy, stretching over 100, 000 acres (about 405 square kilometres). Sounds reasonable? Well, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant takes up a space of just 4.2 square kilometres and pumps out, wait for it, 8212 MW of electricity. The Bruce Power Generating Station Project in Canada generates 4700 MW of energy from just 9.3 square kilometres of space. Solar farms are a little better, with the Kurnool Ultra Mega Solar Park in India producing 1000 MW of energy over 23 square kilometres.

This is not taking into consideration the material usage or environmental impact. Each wind turbine would need the rare-earth element neodymium to make permanent magnets, tonnes of steel (and concrete especially for offshore wind energy generation) and certain changes to the connection to the grid (especially due to the variability of renewables). Solar photovoltaics need metals such as cadmium and indium, some even in toxic compounds. How much of these would be needed, one wonders, if they are to be scaled-up to match fossil fuels?

In fact, insofar as safety is concerned, nuclear energy is the safest amongst all. Per 1000 terawatt hour (TWh) nuclear energy kills 90 people. Seems like a lot until one considers, for the same amount of energy produced, coal kills 100000 people, solar kills 440 and wind kills 150. This is inclusive of Chernobyl and Fukushima, with long terms effects as well. This is disregarding the huge amount of knowledge and work being put into safety that would reduce this number even more. So, what are we really fighting when we fight against nuclear energy? Public perception. Truly it is political and social sentiments to nuclear energy that is holding it back way more than technological prowess. A huge sum of money is lost in regulatory costs and building plants is slowed by unresponsive governments fuelled by cool support from the public. We must reassess what our enemy is.

Right now, the biggest quandary facing the world is an overdependence on fossil fuels. However, renewable energy is just not ready to significantly reduce this dependence. While the cost of energy produced from renewable sources is indeed cheap, taking into consideration how much energy can be produced per land size or unit generator, there’s not as much energy that can be extracted right now. Coal, on the other hand, is cheap to buy and plentiful. The amount of electricity produced ensures price of electricity produced is low and the research and development costs are basically nil. Why wouldn’t an investor go into energy production from it? Economically it just makes sense.

Nuclear energy, on the other hand, does incur huge costs in the beginning of operation. However, the operating costs are low. With proper governmental support, investment into this technology can be recouped relatively easily. Moreover, fuel transportation costs are cut as well since each reactor would only need to be filled with fuel once a year whereas coal-fired power plants would need many loads of fuel per day. Solar and wind power has even lesser fuel transportation costs, however the availability of solar radiation and strong enough wind are intermittent. Large scale hydroelectricity solves this problem but is also subject to the availability of proper sites and causes great loss of habitat and indigenous residential sites.

According to Lazard, which produces reports on the outlook of electricity production by different energy sources and is widely considered to be industry standard, shows that while the cost of renewable energy has lowered to where it outperforms fossil fuels and nuclear energy, the cost of the storage of this electricity has the potential to cause the total electricity cost to increase by quite a bit. In fact, according to Hirth et al, the costs associated to integrating renewable power plants to the grid can be up to 50% of the production costs. Lazard even goes so far to say that renewable energy will not be able to provide the baseload generation needs, hence a mix of conventional and renewables have to be considered.

So, which of the conventionals are we thinking of keeping, between fossil fuels and nuclear energy? One kills thousands upon thousands of people per year, directly and indirectly (through pollution and global warming) while the other mostly just has a bad rep. The energy mix of the future should be dominated by renewables but the supporting player has to be nuclear power. In fact, we haven’t even touched upon the innovations that are currently becoming the face of tomorrow’s nuclear energy. Small modular reactors, fast breeder reactors, thorium reactors (for which Malaysia already has large fuel reserves of) and extracting uranium from the ocean are all technologies that will increase efficiency, cost competitiveness and sustainability of nuclear energy (the latter opening up the possibility of powering the Earth for hundreds of thousands of years).

We are now living in a post-truth era where sensationalism takes centre-stage on many issues. When it comes to energy generation however, we must look at the facts as soberly as possible. We are talking about lives and livelihoods here, simply riding on the wave of uninformed opinions is not enough. It is clear that to save our Earth along with thousands upon thousands of lives, we need to invest in nuclear energy alongside renewables. Coal is simply unacceptable.

The content of this article is comprised solely of the writer’s own opinions and does not reflect the stance of CEKU as a whole.

Lamenting Student Activism

By Arveent Srirangan Kathirtchelvan

This will be my final note on Malaysian student activism. I have ceased to be a student a couple of months ago and would now be moving forward onto bigger, more complex topics. Thank you for sticking by me for so long and, hopefully, adult Arveent can entertain you just as much as student Arveent.

Not too long ago I was heartened to see our Youth and Sports Minister, YB Syed Saddiq, commenting on the independence of Malaysian students overseas, particularly when it came to presenting their honest observations and political opinions. The YB emphasized on how important it was to respect the independence of thought for these students, highlighting how certain clauses in JPA and Mara scholarship contracts unfairly restrict the freedom of speech of scholars, directly disrupting open and honest discourse on multiple topics. Moreover, YB Saddiq also emphasized the need to have an international network of students to collaborate and stand in solidarity with one another when it came to highlighting issues to give real strength to activism. Truly these are wonderful times to live in and I am deeply thankful.

However, as there are always howevers in these times, what bothers me is the continuing dependence of students on those in power to initiate this type of thought. It is no secret that movements that pushed for more independent student activism, especially when they had elements of politics, have been around for quite a while now. Yet each time it comes up, a litany of brickbats and cleverly constructed arguments are put forth against it, with supposed student leaders shying away to appease their corporate donors. Worse are those who ignore this type of activism completely, relying on the argument that a majority of students do not care about it in the first place, as if discourse and fighting for basic rights have to be subject to the wishes of the majority.

I attended the UKEC Student Activism Lecture and Strategic Meeting not too long ago. With famous activist Fahmi Reza and founder of Can Law Jo Fan, the lecture was quite eye-opening, covering 60’s era student activism in Malaysia and that from the 60’s t the 80’s in the United Kingdom. As a former student, I really had no business going but, as student activism was still close to my heart, I thought I would attend in a small mentor-like role to share my experience and thoughts so that the new batch of student leaders would have the tools necessary to continue the work my generation had done. Yet when I got there, the turnout broke my heart. Not much more than a couple handfuls of attendees were present, and not all of them were Supreme Councillors (Presidents and Vice Presidents of Malaysian student societies in the UK who have the right to vote in UKEC elections and motions). When even these decision makers are lackadaisical on topics imperative to strengthening the voice of students, where exactly are we in terms of activism?

What I fear is that we revert to the same problem of depending on other people to solve our problems for us. Oh, we can’t speak freely due to pressure from the government? Let’s keep quiet then and, hopefully with the grace of god we will be liberated by someone. Oh, our corporate sponsors are threatening to pull out if we become politically critical? Guess we have to shut up now because contracts are obviously non-negotiable. Besides, they are doing us a favour by giving us money, why rock the boat?

It’s a tiring slog through treacle to talk to these supposed student leaders at times. The concept of students having an independent voice is relegated to a distant dream for idealists and supposed paragmatists take over to protect whatever else activities are done by student organisations. This is not to say these other activities are useless or unimportant, simply that if they were the only ones done or supported by student organisations, it is an absolute waste of the consolidation of disparate students created by the very existence of these organisations and, even more, the consolidation of these organisations themselves under an umbrella body.

19, 000 Malaysian students were supposedly studying in the United Kingdom. That’s a huge block of potential voters and a significant political pressure tool. So, when it was clear that the then administration were oppressive of free speech, going so far as to issue veiled threats and sending representatives from the Special Branch and the Malaysian External Intelligence Organisation (MEIO) to monitor student meetings, what did the student leaders do? Remain quiet.

When my friends and I pointed this out to student leaders, we suggested creating a network between different Malaysian student societies, each a signatory of a declaration that would strive to protect the freedom of speech, assembly and association of Malaysian students in the UK. With this network, Malaysian students would have been more likely to come out and express their honest views on the state of the nation. In fact, the bigger problem we tried to solve was the fear of students to engage in activities revolving around important social issues such as conversations on Bumiputera rights or LGBTQ issues. We even touched upon the problematic nature of JPA and MARA scholarship contracts as Saddiq had done, albeit a year and a half earlier. What response did we receive? Lukewarm at best.

Yet now, when a minister comes and says the same thing, everybody is on board. What a boring life student leaders live when they have to depend upon politicians to do their work for them. How long will this mentality last, I wonder? What would happen if the Executive decides to turn against the independent student voice? When student leaders are still deriving their agency from the government, what has changed?

These questions I do not ask due to malice, ignorance or frustration, rather I am deeply concerned that even after the change in government and the minister’s express support, organisations like UKEC continue to sing the same tune of not wanting to seem partisan or not wanting to express an unfavourable position even when it comes to defending human rights. This is silly. Just because one defends another’s rights to speech doesn’t mean one supports the views of another. Especially when we take into consideration the position of these organisations and what they can potentially be.

Jo Fan and Fahmi Reza shared how two organisations operated to solidly stand by the voice of students in the past, namely Federation of UK & Eire Malaysian and Singaporean Students Organizations (FUEMSSO) and the University of Malaya Student’s Union (UMSU) respectively. They were actively participating in the administration of the country and were vocal in standing up for the voice of students. UMSU went so far to even write a student’s manifesto for the 1969 Malaysian General Elections and drove around Malaysia in a van to hold rallies promoting their ideals. In fact a majority of the candidates they endorsed due to them declaring support for the students manifesto won seats in their respective constituencies, showing how much influence the University of Malaya students had over the masses.

Our history is filled with strong, independent students who demanded and obtained respect for their views. Even after the advent of the Universities and University Colleges Act of 1971, strong student activists remained with their protests and, as Fahmi Reza puts it, penghasutan (incitement). The unfortunate change was to the support for these activists. Truly, student activists have always been in the minority. But in the past they were able to rely upon the solidarity of students behind them. UMSU was able to call a protest and thousands of students within the University of Malaya would turn up. FUEMSSO could draw up a list of demands to the government knowing the contingent of Malaysian and Singaporean students would back them when push comes to shove.

Which is why I am concerned with this new breed of suit-and-tie, behind-closed-doors, cosying-up-to-the-powers-that-be type of activism. They call it pragmatic but end up being dependent upon the wishes of corporate donors or government officials. Now Syed Saddiq is supportive of an independent student voice, so we can move forward with establishing the necessary networks to do so. Kelab Bunga Raya, the supposed intellectual youth of Parti Peribumi Bersatu Malaysia, is moving forward with injecting intellectualism within student activism particularly in the UK. Yet we can see how much political patronage is still important in these movements. If these support systems are gone one day or they push for changes that oppress students instead, would other organisations be ready to take up the fight against them? With what I saw on the Strategic Meeting, sitting in a circle with about 5 Supreme Councillors, with UKEC still hiding behind the flawed understanding of neutrality, sadly I am not encouraged.

The content of this article is comprised solely of the writer’s own opinions and does not reflect the stance of CEKU as a whole.

ASEAN Economic Community and National Sovereignty

This article is written following the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit XII and focuses on Session 2A entitled Think Asean.

by Goh Jun Long

If I were to sum up the Session 2A of the most recent Malaysian Student Leaders Summit (MSLS) on the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) title “Think ASEAN” in one word, it would be the following—apolitical.

Is this a good thing? Granted, this could mean two things. One, that it is an extremely uncontroversial subject where there is a general consensus on what to do, where debate is not necessary, like the right of humans to live. Or instead, it could mean that there is a lack of awareness about the political context of what was being discussed. The first one would be a good thing, the second one not a good thing.

The Session Itself

Three business leaders, Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak, from CIMB; Aireen Omar, from AirAsia; and Dato’ Izzaddin Idris, from UEM Group, as well as a moderator, Dato’ Mohammad Faiz Azmi, from PwC Malaysia were part of the panel. Despite the lofty title of “Think ASEAN”, the panel was more of “Business in ASEAN”, which should be understandable given that all of the speakers were business leaders, though a bit of a let-down given that I was expecting a discussion concerning ASEAN as a whole in all its socioeconomic and political issues, or at least the wider economic context of ASEAN beyond, well, companies.

Throughout the session, the discussion ranged from the strategy of the companies in ASEAN, some half-serious half-joking job recruitment drive, to some interesting anecdotes of business in ASEAN, which was mildly fascinating but ultimately not ground breaking. Most boring was probably the discussion about talents which were mere platitudes—who doesn’t want employees that are intelligent, critical thinkers, adaptable, flexible? Meanwhile, some of the more interesting discussion included the operational, culture and legal differences in different ASEAN countries, which could have blossom more into an in-depth discussion of the political aspect of the ASEAN Economic Community, but which did not.

Nationalistic Sentiments and Regional Economic Organisations

One of the delegates posed an interesting question about the rising nationalistic sentiments and what this might mean for the implementation the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). For those who are well versed in world affairs, it should be quite clear that this question makes a passing reference to the European Union (EU), possibly the most well-known regional country organisations, and it recent problems where its member countries national politics have seen the rise of politicians that champions anti-European sentiments in favour of more own-country centric policies.

There are many reasons for the rise of nationalistic sentiments, but one of the more concrete reasons would be the accusation (and the fact) that many powers of the respective sovereign nations has been passed to bureaucrats in Brussels, the administrative capital of the European Union.

Similarly, one might be concerned that ASEAN might face a similar problem. In response this question, Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak, replied that we need to look at the implementation and not make some of the European Union mistakes, such as the single currency, which he stresses is not on the table for ASEAN. Instead, he suggests that we should stick to things such as greater trade and travel, which would not undermine national sovereignty.

National Sovereignty as a list of scope of powers

But, what is indeed national sovereignty? Like the many nebulous concepts in abstract and political language, national sovereignty is something that we ‘know’ it when we see it, but at the same time find it hard to describe it.

But I will attempt to suggest a possible definition in this context. I suggest that national sovereignty can be defined as a list of matters where a nation has the final authority. Originally, one might envision that a nation state has supreme powers over all matters in its territory. However, for many reasons, one might choose to give up one’s claim to supreme powers in some matters in exchange for cooperation with another country.

For example, in the EU case, some member states gave up their authority to issue their own currency in exchange to share a single currency (which has its own benefits).

Obviously, the list of matters does not necessarily only include the usual suspects of national defense and national currency only, but also include trade policy. ‘Greater trade and travel’ would involve giving up powers to set tariffs against each other, giving up powers to set qualifications[1] and health and safety standards, and if a customs union is in the cards, involve giving up powers to set external tariffs.

Certainly, one might suggest that some of the scope of matters are not supremely important for a nation to always have the final say and might even be beneficial to exchange them for cooperation with other countries to better lead to economic prosperity. But, I wish to emphasize that one is exchanging scopes of supreme powers, albeit unimportant ones, for national prosperity. There is no mistaking that.

Being not aware of the political context of trade policies is what leads to Brexit, where the public finally realised that they exchanged a little more national sovereignty than they wished. (Or were duped into thinking that, depending on your political views on Brexit)

The detractors may wish to dispute my definition of national sovereignty. One might say that trade policies do not concern national sovereignty as one can easily withdraw from trade agreements. That is obviously true. In that way of saying, the nation still has the supreme powers. That can also be said of withdrawing from the European Union, as the United Kingdom is currently doing. Does that mean that the politicians claiming that the UK national sovereignty was being undermined by the European Union are wrong? To claim that is to misunderstand their point. They clearly believe that their national sovereignty is being undermined.

I will attempt to venture an explanation. Perhaps, while one might still have the ultimate supreme power in terms of the final withdrawal, there is a sense of finality in the spirit of the agreements, which looks at the future as greater and greater cooperation (and even more giving up of national sovereignty). That can be said of ASEAN trade agreements too.

A Final Word

Even if you do not agree with my analysis, I hope that I managed to convince you of the importance of remembering the politics, when discussing the economics of trade.

[1] Even if one does not delegate power to set standards to a central body (assumed supranational), equivalence of qualifications gives up one’s power to restrict other nations (in the agreement) from changing their qualifications, which you still must recognise.

The content of this article is comprised solely of the writer’s own opinions and does not reflect the stance of CEKU as a whole.

Malay vs Malaysian, What’s The Question?

This article is written following the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit XII and focuses on Session 1 entitled The Malaysian Dilemma: The Future of Race-based Politics.

by Arveent Kathirtchelvan

Going to the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit XII induced mixed emotions. From last year, the experience was expected to be about average but I guess that’s par for the course for conferences such as this. This year, though, the environment was different, a new Malaysia with a greater hope for honesty and transparency. I hoped it would translate to the content of summit itself, especially to Session 1 whose title, ‘The Malaysian Dilemma: The Future of Race-based Politics’ that saw a panel of speakers seemingly well-suited for the discussion.

These were Datuk Dr. Asyraf Wajdi, Youth Chief of UMNO, Wan Fayhsal, the Deputy Chairman of the Bureau of International Affairs for Armada PPBM, Syahir Sulaiman, the Head of Strategy for PAS Youth and YB Steven Sim Chee Keong, the Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports. Even the moderator was Dina Zaman of Iman Research whose work includes ethno-religious relations, socio-political risk, perception and public opinion. No one else could be more suited for this session.

Unfortunately, the points and arguments raised were too on-the-surface at best and insipid at worst. Particularly jarring was an issue with the demarcation between the relatability of individuals with a particular race and the same with Malaysian society. This is an old question and was worded as it always was before; ‘Are you a Malay first or a Malaysian first?’. It was hoped that the speakers would see through the historic meaning behind the question, as the terms Malay and Malaysian as used in it are loaded. As Datuk Dr. Asyraf and Wan Fayhsal started to make their points, however, it became clear that this question was misunderstood.

What had happened was, the term Malay was focused on and taken to mean a personal identity that had to do with the civilisational definition of what a Malay was. It was as though by putting forward the question at hand, it was somehow asked of the speakers which one is more important to them, their personal identity as a race or their identity with respect to other Malaysians. This was not the case as the question focuses solely on the latter; that is the identity of Malays with respect to other Malaysians, whether they see themselves as alongside other races or separate from them.

It is a given that personal identity is in integral part of an individual and every Malaysian deserves to know and have theirs. Even the Indians and Chinese have strong cultural links that do not translate to national ones. In other words, Indians and Chinese identify with their racial elements, including superficial elements, such as clothing and food, and deeper elements of character, like how to treat guests, but have no desire to extend that identity to India or China as they feel Malaysia is their home.

This shows there is no interconnection between personal identity and the feeling of belonging together as Malaysians. To be fair to the speakers, this is exactly what they had pointed out but I feel it was disingenuous to simplify the question to one that is trivial. A better approach would be to recognise the usage of racial and religious overtones to undermine certain Malaysians’ claim to their own nation. As can be seen amongst Malaysians on the internet before and directly after GE 14, until now, an unease at greater non-Malay participation within Malaysia’s administrative offices. Where does this come from? Why is it felt that only Malays could take care of Malays in a political sense? More importantly, why does the governance from these officials felt to be not in line with how Malaysia should be? In fact, the speakers could have then extended this question to include how non-Malays tend to live in closed off communities as well, further demonstrating how much work there is to be done in bringing Malaysians together.

Simply put, the question does not imply a cultural homogenisation akin to Indonesia, nor does it necessitate the loss of a race’s or civilisation’s roots. It is a simple question of perceived position within the social strata of Malaysia. But this type of squirreling has been seen before to justify an organisation’s claim to power in the past. For example, UMNO has said time and again said that if Pakatan Harapan was to form the government, Malay rights and protection would not be upheld, further legitimising their claim to power. This is a fear-mongering tactic that even intellectual Malays rely on as justification for race-based protectionism. The reality is much less terrifying. Identity politics is unnecessary for the safeguarding of one’s identity. Malays can remain Malays, Chinese can remain Chinese and Indians can remain Indians. But for unity they must see each other as equals and work on the issues pertaining to the country as a cohesive unit rather than squabble about their own circle of influence.

This is not to say there are no racial problems, however. Malays continue to make up most of the B40 and there is a high involvement of Indians with crimes. But these are socio-economic issues and trying to solve them by empowering a whole race makes little sense. It would be much more straightforward to solve the underlying causes of a race’s misfortunes rather than placating them with empty platitudes. For example, a brilliant observation made by a participant during this session was that the housing discount benefits received by Bumiputeras help those who can actually afford them rather than those who would need them. This further exacerbates the separation of classes and economic inequality within the Bumis themselves. If, instead, these kinds of benefits were based on socio-economic considerations, more Bumiputeras who actually need it would be helped. Simply pointing to past tribalism and scriptures to justify the need for race-based politics shouldn’t fly when it is inefficient and ineffective. Moreover, this also ignores the glaring race supremacy rhetoric often used to justify these policies.

Moving on, Wan Fayhsal also mentioned that UMNO and PPBM should not be seen as race-based political parties, but parties who are ideological, focusing on Malay nationalism and Malay conservatism. Unfortunately, Wan did not elaborate on what is meant by these two terms, so it is difficult to understand from what perspective he is seeing these two parties bringing value to Malaysian society. Hence, what could have been a worthwhile thread of thought to listen to is reduced to another example of using complex jargon to sound meaningful. Leaving this aside, where does Malay nationalism fit into Malaysian society? It is a strange thought to focus on, where nationalism focuses on the identity and culture of a nation, yet the notion of Malayness is thrust into it. Does this mean Malaysia as a nation should be defined through the lens of Malays alone? How relevant is this in a multicultural society where different races are not immigrants but are born and bred here?

In the past, Malay nationalism was essential to band Malays together to fight off colonisers and build a free, sovereign nation. In this sense, UMNO was definitely a positive force once before. However, the notion of a Malay nation now needs to be treated carefully to include equal ownership for non-Malays and, essentially, this is not a Malay nation anymore, it is one of equal ownership. Without this, the notion of Malay superiority will always arise. Wan Fayhsal’s PPBM should be careful not to be blind to the failures of consociationalism, especially when they have such a recent example in BN and UMNO. Where they can fit in is in bringing the Malay community that now sees politics in a racial lens closer to one where values and ideology matter more than the colour of one’s skin. A cosmopolitan Malay does not need a political party based on his race to thrive.

In closing, there’s a lot of work left to be done and our intellectuals should tackle that workload with honesty and sensitivity to the underlying issues so the questions asked are not answered for the sake of answering but are used to explore deeper underlying assumptions present within society. Major props to the surprisingly good Syahir who was very clear in stating the desire to move forward from race-based politics and also the importance for parties like PAS to focus on showing their work in governance rather than only hukum. It was a refreshing macro outlook that is different from the usual, insular arguments we are used to from PAS. Best of luck to them in governing Kelantan and Terengganu. YB Steven Sim was good as well in representing the non-Malay, non-Muslim view but it was clear the focus of the arguments were on the representatives from UMNO and PPBM, both of whom, sadly, disappointed.

The content of this article is comprised solely of the writer’s own opinions and does not reflect the stance of CEKU as a whole.

The Youth as Agents of Change

The Malaysian Students’ Leaders Summit XII will be held on the 11th of August. Session 2 of MSLS XII is entitled Student Activism – Revisiting the Society’s Catalyst of Change. This article focuses on the overarching role of young people to initiate and sustain social progress.

by Shen-Li Teh

Throughout history, young people—in particular students—have mobilised themselves to form a powerful driving force behind social or political change all over the world. Because of the different social, political and cultural circumstances in which vocal civic participation by young people takes place, student activism is a broad term that encompasses any subject matter, size or success.

To provide historical context about student activism and its effects, many movements that resulted in concrete social or political effects such as amendments to national policies or ousted leaders were led by students. In the United States, the 1960 Greensboro sit-in where young African-Americans sat at a segregated lunch counter despite being denied service and its form of non-violent protest brought attention to the civil rights movement, which ultimately led to the desegregation and integration of African Americans. More recently, in South Korea, students made up a large section of hundreds of thousands of protestors that forced their president out of office after months of protest against allegations of abuse of power and bribery were brought to light in a political scandal. These non-violent demonstrations and their permanent effects were propelled by student mobilization that demanded changes to the broken or corrupt system.

Unfortunately, such idealistic movements spearheaded by students do not always fare well. The most famous example would be the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, where students protesting in demand for a democratic government were fired at by Chinese troops in Beijing. To this day, the Chinese state does not openly acknowledge the atrocities committed—discussion of the event and online searches are censored, and the National Museum standing in Tiananmen Square contains no mention of this tragic event, though a 2017 article by BBC put the estimated toll of deaths at “at least 10 000”.

However, the Tiananmen Square protest also resulted in one of the most iconic and politically charged images of the 20th century: that of a single, unarmed man staring down a line of military tanks. That image won captured the world’s attention and all of the Chinese student protestors’ youthful idealism, passion and confidence that an individual standing up to the state can make a difference.

What of the youth in today’s Malaysia? Do we also have that deep belief in principles of democracy that allows us to stare down the state even when it threatens us to fall in line with its ideas? Indeed, the general stereotype seems to be that young Malaysians are apathetic or rather, thoroughly cynical when it came to politics, as seen in the #UndiRosak movement on Twitter that propagated by a number of frustrated social media users who saw the recent general elections as a matter of choosing between two evils.

Even as we acknowledge the younger generation’s general dissatisfaction and disillusionment with social justice or the idea of democracy as it stands in Malaysia, it must be kept in mind it is the Malaysian state that has consistently depoliticized the youth. Only last year, JPA’s director-general stated in an interview that students could lose their JPA scholarships for “spread(ing) lies without supporting statistics to taint the Government’s image”. Though it would be reasonable for a scholarship to be withdrawn if a student had been involved in criminal activity or the like, the director-general’s statement sounded like a vaguely worded threat to students dependent on JPA’s funding to refrain from any criticism of the government. Furthermore, JPA scholarship contracts also contain a clause, namely Clause 5.6 (a): “The student shall not take part directly or indirectly in any political or any-governmental activity.” This is vaguely worded enough that even being involved in a peaceful protest against the government would be likely to constitute a breach of that particular clause and lose the student the scholarship.

JPA scholarships are given to SPM top scorers, or rather, the créme de la créme of our local students. In short, JPA scholars constitute many of our nation’s best students grown in the national education system, which also begs the question why the Malaysian governments before seem to dislike and actively discourage the free thought and expression of Malaysia’s brightest youth, even to the extent of making any form of criticism by scholarship students into a matter of loyalty to the state. When the state and the leaders of its public service wield education as a means of oppression and control over some of the nation’s most intelligent students’ free thought and expression, intending to create an echo chamber where no dissenting opinion would be allowed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that young Malaysians have been browbeaten into their current state of indifference.

This strong control of youthful expression was even systematically implemented at a legislative level through the Universities and University College Act 1971 (UUCA) which curbs and controls student engagement with political activities in the campus, or any society, organization, or group deemed unsuitable by the Board. Tun Dr Mahathir, who was Education Minister in 1974, previously defended UUCA as it was supposed to allow undergraduates to focus on their studies. Perhaps, in an ironic realization of the Act’s counter-productive nature, the Education Minister Dr Mazslee Malik serving in Tun Mahathir’s newly minted Pakatan Harapan government has recently pledged to abolish the UUCA. This is an encouraging indicator of possible progress, but is still a baby step in the long road ahead for student activists in Malaysia.

But for every internet user who called for #UndiRosak, there is another who was involved with the political process of the general election and its possible implications for Malaysia’s future generations. Despite many students being unable to vote in this year’s general election, they were not dissuaded from participating in discussion according to the amount of information disseminated and dissected by the youth concerning politics on social media. This is no surprise. 22 million out of Malaysia’s 38 million people are on social media and 88% of the 25-34 year olds access the internet daily. Access to information is mastered by the younger generation, and the digital natives of this age are more likely to be be politically active online where sharing an article or tweeting a stance is easier than the traditional forms of protest, such as taking to the streets.

Student activism as a concept evolves according to young people who mold it to further their purpose of change, and for this generation, student activism has been facilitated greatly by technology. In Bangladesh, protestors demanding safer streets were met with tear gas and a government shutdown on media, young Bangladeshis have turned to social media to share accounts or images that expose brutality and instances of sexual assault on female protestors, utilising this generation’s access to technology to push back against the state’s authority. New tools such as the internet have galvanised, educated and united young people in common causes. Awareness of issues that plague society is at its peak with the near-instantaneous exchange of information through technology and its following conversation, which encourages and coordinates movements to achieve goals of visibility and change. That has been no clearer than the student movement for gun control reform in the United States after multiple school shootings that left 31 students dead as of May 2018, where outraged high school students all over the country coordinate speeches and organised walkouts under the movement March for Our Lives through the usage of social media platforms.

With new alternatives to the mainstream media outlets that traditionally controlled by a certain demographic—older, male, with similar political ideals, or in Malaysia’s case, owned directly by the previous government’s component parties—access to information can no longer be controlled or contained by the state, and students are using that to their advantage to spread their message and calls for action. And perhaps, with the new government’s promise for freedom of speech, the youth can finally have their voices be heard.

The content of this article is comprised solely of the writer’s own opinions and does not reflect the stance of CEKU as a whole.

Do Malays Lack Empathy?

The Malaysian Students’ Leaders Summit XII will be held on the 11th of August. Session 1 of MSLS XII is entitled The Malaysian Dilemma: The Future of Race-Based Politics in Malaysia. This article focuses on a possible effect of the over-focus on Malay-Muslim sensitivities.

by Arveent Kathirtchelvan

We are in an era of a New Malaysia, or so it is said. Sadly, there are still a few problems left that threaten to derail the optimism held by Malaysians for a better, fairer and more inclusive. Chief amongst these is a shaky voter base for Pakatan Harapan, the current ruling coalition, within the Malay demographic. Each day passes with what seems to be a new issue centred on some Malay organisation unhappy with the new state of affairs regarding Malay rights or the position of Islam. Worryingly, a lot of the arguments put forth revolve around a sense of entitlement that appears to indicate Malays putting themselves forward as not only separate but better than everyone else especially when it comes to defining the identity of the country and the type of policies to be implemented by the government.

We shall begin with the unfortunate incident involving Numan Afifi. To the uninitiated, Numan is a strong proponent for LGBTQ rights in Malaysia and was a temporary press secretary to the newly appointed Youth and Sports Minister, Syed Saddiq. Once this information reached the masses, pandemonium broke loose. Many Malay-Muslim organisations strongly protested Numan’s appointment, stressing the opinion that should an activist of the LGBTQ community be working so closely to government ministers, it might normalise the LGBTQ way of life. The misunderstandings within this reaction are numerous but they seem derived from a perception of superiority of their own personal opinions. The inability to accept that different people can hold different personal opinions when certain aspects are construed to be threatened comes through.

Note, it is not the individual faith that is challenged here (Muslims are entitled to their religious disapproval of Numan’s activism) but its extension to impose upon the personal life and rights of an individual which should be discontinued (backlash in the form of threats that affect another’s worklife and quality of life). The parallels between this and France’s hijab ban are palpable. Would the people against Numan accept the French who say that the ban is in line with French sensitivities and secular philosophy? In fact Islamophobia is such a sore point with Malay-Muslims that it is surprising the feeling of being discriminated did not temper their feelings towards some who think and live differently to them. Things were even more bothersome with the drama involving Tommy Thomas’s and Tan Sri Richard Malanujam appointments as Attorney General and Chief Justice respectively. Once again, racial and religious sentiments were played up to make it seem like the influence and rights of the Malay-Muslims were being eroded. The over-reliance on these sentiments rather than merit is counter-productive in terms of national growth as well which, as a developing nation, may lead to economic detriment.

So where does this all come from? The answer to that question is probably politics. Over 60 years of race-based politics has caused a lot of issues regarding the integration of races. We now have strong tribalism in Malaysia which is not limited to the Malay-Muslims. According to a research paper done by Dr. Ananthi Al Ramiah, Prof. Miles Hewstone and Ibrahim Suffian, more non-Malays identify with their ethnicities more than being Malaysian. However, amongst those who feel more Malaysian, non-Malays felt more favourably towards all other Malaysians whereas Malays did not feel more favourably towards non-Malays. This shows Malay-Muslims do not associate inter-racial connections with being Malaysian which might lend itself to justifying isolation from other Malaysian races. Interestingly, the aforementioned unwillingness to accept ideas opposing their preconceived opinions and sensitivities might be due to the differing vision of Malaysian-ness, which is attributed more to being Malay and around other Malays in the same paper.

With UMNO and PAS pulling out the tried and tested card of racial politics as Opposition to Pakatan Harapan’s government, the outlook for this getting better is not too positive. Even in the coalition that is Pakatan Harapan, the kingmaker party is PPBM, whose assurance of the Malay-Muslim community definitely helped the coalition to victory. Why else would the smallest party in the coalition hold both the Prime Minister and Home Minister roles? The future of policy-making depends a lot upon this party and how it responds to UMNO and PAS. What may worsen the condition is if there is an arms race between PPBM and the Opposition to shore up more Malay votes to strengthen their claim as the true representatives of Malay-Muslims. That can only lead to more racial separation and a deeply broken society.

Then again, are we being disingenuous by ignoring non-Malays who want to live in their own enclaves? For they do exist. How many companies looking for new recruits or landlords looking for rental tenants emphasize on Chinese-speakers as a requirement? When another research paper found it is so much more difficult for Malay job applicants to receive interview offers compared to Chinese ones in the private sector, how can we absolve the non-Malays of all wrongdoings? We aren’t, they are at fault too. Suspicion and distrust is rife amongst the non-Malays, going so far as viewing their Malay counterparts as entitled and undeserving at times.

The adherence to their own social circles and areas where their own race is concentrated or language is spoken shows an unwillingness to intermix. In fact the only difference between the social separatist mentality between Malays and non-Malays is that Malays have more political clout due to special privileges and sheer numbers. Even the supremacist logic I have lamented before is present in certain groups of non-Malays but is not as openly stated. These feelings manifest themselves as a reaction to an asymmetric governmental support which is greater, more direct and concrete for Malays. The fear of losing out and innate survival instincts kick in due to this which then foster a culture of ‘support your own’ amongst these races. This very culture is then pointed out as proof of non-Malays rejecting and disrespecting Malays, further increasing friction. It is a vicious cycle.

So, it isn’t just the Malays who lack empathy, for all races in Malaysia exhibit that weakness which threatens to derail our much aspired dreams of living together in peace. This is a social problem and will not be solved overnight through political intervention. But in the beginning, some political hand-holding is necessary. The opportunity in Pakatan Harapan for Malays and non-Malays to come together and truly learn about one another is rich. Unlike in Barisan Nasional where separate groups seem to work together yet represent each racial group separately, focusing on their own communities, with less emphasis on a combined approach where problems affecting separate groups can be seen to be indicative of a larger, structural issue. In Harapan, there is more intermingling, especially through PKR and DAP which are strong multiracial parties that involve different races working together to solve universal issues. Even Amanah, with a focus on a progressive Islam more in tune with the multiracial construct of Malaysian society, has its role. As the figurehead of the largest racial group in Malaysia within Harapan, PPBM would necessarily have to lead the charge.

They should not treat Malays as commodities or crops to fertilise with supremacist rhetoric for a higher yield of votes. Rather, engagement between Malays and non-Malays should be actively encouraged. This is not to be just nominal as well, we need deep discussions of difficult topics to really get to the root of issues affecting our society. Will Kelab Bunga Raya, which Wan Fayhsal says he envisions being akin to the Fabian Society, be up to the task? Only time will tell. The rest of us non-Malays should also take it upon ourselves to help in this cause, pushing forward open speech and practising true empathy.

Empathy is when we put ourselves in others’ shoes to understand where they are coming from. Their hopes, dreams, toils and sacrifices all shaping them to be the people they are, all impacting on the way they act and interact with others. Sometimes they might be belligerent or crude, rude or strange but they are essentially people too. When we can identify with the prevailing need to belong within each other, only then alone can we be living in peace and happiness. So before we turn on each other and ask why another person is being the way they are, maybe we should take a step back and reflect if we are being understanding enough of their situation. Malay or not, we all could use some empathy.

The content of this article is comprised solely of the writer’s own opinions and does not reflect the stance of CEKU as a whole.


Illustration by The Seattle Times.

On the 7th of April 2018, the Malaysian Parliament was officially dissolved. Soon, we Malaysian will hold our 14th General Election.

How do we elect our Members of Parliament (MPs)? And how do other countries elect theirs? Different democracies [1] use different electoral rules, which can significantly affect the outcome. There is often a presumption that there is only one way of electing our MPs, or one way that democracy can work. Differences between democracies are often thought of as minor and insignificant. But peer closely, and one would find a rift of difference in how democracies operate.

Why is it important to know the existence of these varieties? Comparing and contrasting between democracies allows us as citizens to know what electoral system exists and to make judgements on what will work best. Thus, in this article, I will be introducing you to three major varieties of electoral system, which were hopefully improve your horizons greatly.

Three different electoral systems

Political scientists usually divide electoral system into 3 major categories: the majoritarian electoral system, the proportional representation electoral system and the mixed electoral system—a combination of the first two. Even then, these categories hide many details. However, as a first approximation, they will suffice.

Before I continue, some important definitions:

“Electoral District”: A place (usually geographical) where all the votes of the voters are grouped and counted together.

“Legislature” = “Parliament”. I will be using the term legislature because the term “Parliament” has a  slightly different connotation in political science, but in essence, they mean more or less the same thing.

Malaysia – First-past-the-post majoritarian electoral system

The Malaysian electoral system is a standard example of the majoritarian electoral system. Other countries that uses this system includes the United Kingdom and the United States. The lower house of the Malaysian Parliament, the Dewan Rakyat [2] consists of 222 members of parliament. It is a single member district electoral system whereby each member of parliament represents one electoral district, and there is a separate contest for each electoral district. The candidate who obtains the most votes in the electoral district wins the parliament seat.

When there are only two candidates, the candidate who wins the seat must have obtain more than 50% of the votes . This is the origin of the name for the electoral system—the majority wins. However, this name is a misnomer—if there are more than two candidates, the candidate may not need to win 50% of the vote to obtain the vote. (For instance: Candidate 1 obtains 40% of the votes, Candidate 2 and Candidate 3 each 30% of the votes, Candidate 1 wins). Therefore, some political scientists prefer to call this a plurality electoral system.

What are the effects of the first-past-the-post single member district majoritarian electoral system? One effect  is disproportionality—when the vote share of the party does not correspond to seat share of the party in the legislative house. (For example: Last Malaysian General Elections: Barisan Nasional [VS: 47.38%, SS: 60%]; Pakatan Rakyat [VS: 50.87%, SS: 40%]). Another effect is the risk of gerrymandering—whereby politicians draw electoral district lines in such a way that it favours their own political party.

Netherlands and South Africa – Proportional representation (PR) electoral system

The Netherlands and the South Africa electoral systems represent two slightly different PR electoral system. The Netherlands uses an open list PR electoral system whereas South Africa uses a closed list PR system.

Unlike the majoritarian electoral system, which awards the seat to the one with the most votes in a particular electoral district, the PR electoral system awards the seats based on the vote share of the parties. Of course, in a one-seat electoral district, we cannot possible divide the seats, no matter electoral system. Thus, for the PR electoral system, it usually consists of one single electoral district across the whole country which allocates all the legislature seats by percentage of votes. (For example: A 100 seat legislature. Party A wins 50% of the votes, Party B wins 30% of the votes, Party C wins 20% of the votes. They obtain 50, 30 and 20 seats respectively.) In such a system, voters vote for party lists—a ranked list of the party’s candidates instead of single candidates. The votes for the parties are summed up and seats are allocated based on the percentage of votes. (Note: The lists are ranked). Continuing the earlier example, the first 50 candidates, the first 30 candidates and the first 20 candidates of the party list of Party A, Party B and Party C respectively are elected into the legislature.

South Africa differs slightly from this in that it separates its 400-seat lower house (called the National Assembly) into 200 regional seats and 200 national seats. The 200 regional seats are separated into 9 multi-member electoral districts based on the 9 provinces (with seats ranging from 5 to 48 seats for each region) Each party has a regional list for each province and a national list. When voting, the voter votes for one party in the provincial list and one party in the national list. The 200 regional seats are allocated first based on the party vote percentage in each provincial list. Then, the regional and national votes for each party is summed up, and the next 200 seats are allocated in such a way that the percentage of total votes for the party and the seats in the legislature are as similar as possible. The PR electoral system is closed list, which means that voters are not allowed to alter the ranking of the party lists. (However, they can see the lists).

In contrast, the Netherlands electoral system is open list, which means voter can alter the ranking of the candidates. In the 150-seat lower house, it is separated into 19 different electoral districts, but this separation is partly administrative. In essence, the whole country is a single electoral district. But why the administrative separation? The Netherlands has an open list, and voters can cast preference votes for a particular candidate in a party list. If the candidate obtains more than 25% of the national electoral quotient (the total number of votes cast divide by the total number of seats in the legislature), then they are immediately bumped up to the top of the list. If it was single electoral district, the open list would need to have a 150 candidates long list for each party. (And there are many parties in the Netherlands, including a Party for the Animals!). The ballot paper will be extremely complicated. The electoral laws limit the number of candidates for each party that can be placed on a ballot paper.

By its nature, (and its name), the PR electoral system leads to low electoral disproportionality. It also avoids the risk of gerrymandering. However, the party list system gives large power to the party leaders in ranking the candidates. Usually, the top of the list is elected while the bottom of the list chances of election is basically zero. In the closed list, voters cannot change the ranking, even if they do not like a certain candidate in a party that they support. Even with open list, the candidate needs to obtain a high number of preference votes to be bump up the list. Usually, those who are popular enough are ranked high in the list anyways. In addition, by having large electoral district (or even one whole national one), it breaks the link between the geographical link between a member of parliament and the voter. Party lists could be filled with candidates from urban areas, and the rural area is underrepresented.

Germany – Mixed-system — Arguably the best?

In Germany, the lower house of the Federal Parliament, the Bundestag, is elected with 299 single member district, 299 party list seats at the state level, and also additional compensatory seats. Each voter cast two votes, one for the single member district which he is in (the first vote), and one for the party list of the state he is in (the second vote)

The counting of votes into seats are done in the following way:

  1. All candidates who wins the single member districts (SMD) are elected.
  2. All parties that failed to pass the 5% threshold or win at least 3 single member districts are eliminated from the allocation of the party list seat allocation.
  3. Based on the second vote summed up at the national level, the party is allocated a certain number of seats.
  4. The number of SMD seats the party won is subtracted from the total number of allocated seats. The rests are allocated from the party list seats.
  5. If a party has more SMD seats than the number of seats it is allocated too, additional seats are added to the legislature and allocated to the other parties so that proportionality is maintained.

The German system combines the best of both worlds.

It avoids disproportionality, but retains the direct geographical link between member of Parliament and voters. There are still some weaknesses though. For example, in smaller parties who don’t get any SMD, the party list remains in the control of party delegates.

I hope that this short introduction to electoral systems around the world have helped all who have read this article to expand their horizons, and to think deeply about our Malaysian electoral system.

*For more information, fascinating (and weird) facts about electoral system around the world, the book The Politics of Electoral System is great guide. (But it can be a little technical)


  • Andeweg, R. B. 2005. The Netherlands: The Sanctity of Proportionality. In: M. Gallagher, and P Mitchell, eds. The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch. 24.
  • Gouws, A. 2005. South Africa: One Party Dominance Despite Perfect Proportionality. . In: M. Gallagher, and P Mitchell, eds. The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch. 17.
  • Saadfald, T. 2005. Germany: Stability and Strategy in a Mixed‐Member Proportional System. In: M. Gallagher, and P Mitchell, eds. The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch. 10.
  • Louw, V. 2014. The South African Electoral System. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 April 2018].

[1] Speaking of democracies — Is Malaysia a democracy? Even though this may seem like it has an obvious answer, it is much more difficult then it seems. Some measures of democracy suggest that we are, some say we are not (Malaysia is a borderline case). For the purpose of this essay, I will be assuming that Malaysia is a democracy, in the sense it is commonly accepted by most Malaysians as one.

[2] I exclude the upper house, the Dewan Negara from the analysis as its members are appointed. (which means electoral systems have nothing to do with it.)


Illustration by The Economist.

The Trump administration announced a 25% tariff on approximately 1300 Chinese goods worth $46 Billion (9% of total imports from China). Trump’s latest move was reciprocated by his Chinese counterpart just one day after with their own 25% tariffs on US goods which included Soybeans, aircraft and cars. The worsening relations between the U.S and China is believed to be caused by allegations of intellectual property abuse which is not wholly dubious. China has practiced a ‘voluntary’ technology transfer scheme which forces American firms to share their cutting-edge technology in exchange for access into the Chinese market. Worse yet, American firms argue that access into the market is often delayed by bureaucratic hurdles which implicitly allow domestic firms to gain a head start and earn market share. China is also accused of heavily subsidizing its exports allowing for a huge excess in capacity.

Many have criticized the Trump administration for its unprecedented legal justification of the Steel and Aluminium Tariff. Unlike previous tariffs on solar panels and washers which were done by self-initiating an Anti-Dumping (AD) and Countervailing Duties(CVD) case against imports which is recognized by the World Trade Organization (WTO) as part of its legal dispute mechanism. The tariffs on steel and aluminium were justified on grounds of national security based on section 232 of The Trade Expansion act 1962 in response to the report published by the Department of Commerce which allows protectionist measures on industries critical to the armed forces. Article XXI of the WTO treaty allows member states to raise any tariffs it deems fit for the protection of its essential security interests but it is rarely invoked. It allows for tariffs even if there is no evidence of surging imports or dumping practices hence, putting the global trade system at stake.

Trump’s policy direction for trade has been confusing at best. He bangs on the rhetoric of striking fairer and better trade deals but fails to realize that world trade is not a zero-sum game. The notable departure of Gary Cohn, president’s top economic advisor was a massive blow to the liberal centrist faction within the administration.  However, it is hard to predict how far President Trump is willing to go in his war against China. China’s latest response is an excellent example of micro-targeting of Trump’s key constituencies. Proposed tariffs on Soybeans and Aircraft parts will indefinitely harm Trump’s key lobbyists such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Soy farmers, crucial lobbyists for the upcoming midterm elections.

The global economy is underpinned by faith in a rule-based system collectively known as the Bretton Woods institutions. These institutions were formed after the second world war to enforce neo-liberal economic agenda and ensure stability. The WTO (previously known as GATT) has its own shortcomings. It used to be the case that rules were updated and issues were resolved every now and then through rounds of negotiation. The collapse of the Doha Development round was a result of a longstanding dispute between rich and poor countries over the issue of special treatments given to poor countries in the name of development. There is a serious need for the WTO to remain relevant, as its inability to curb unfair trade practices has left many member states feeling disappointed towards the system. If left unchecked, it will gradually lead to member states losing faith in the WTO and allow for the rise in economic nationalism.

Trump’s decision on steel tariffs has been interpreted as a signal of a weakened rule-based system that America stood for.

If the US can justify tariffs on grounds of national security, who’s to say other nations will not follow suit. The U.S has displayed arrogant contempt in its pursuit to strike a better deal with its trading partners. It has disregarded conventional rules in favour for drastic and radical measures. Trump is using the threat of tariff as a bargaining chip to reinstate the terms of trade in his favour. The exemption of Mexico and Canada from steel and aluminium tariffs are used as a leverage to renegotiate NAFTA.

Malaysians should not be delighted by this trend especially in light of a recent rumor that the US is interested in rejoining the TPPA. President Trump has proven to be a bully and will continue to do so if left unabated. There is a huge possibility that if the US rejoins TPPA, Trump will renegotiate key issues such as membership of founding member states and state subsidies of local firms. Malaysia should also tread carefully in its alignment to either the US or China. China has been proactive in its ‘One belt one road’ initiative aimed at recreating the silk road. The perception of alignment with China puts Malaysia at odds with the Trump administration which is an unnecessary added risk.

The responses from both countries so far have been tactical and reasonably measured which suggest that neither side wants an all-out trade war. It is hard to predict the outcome of the trade spat but it will be interesting to see how both sides will play it out. The Trump factor has convinced a lot of people that we are returning to an era of mercantilism and “beggar thy neighbour” policies which if true, will leave huge damage on the rule-based global order. Conversely, the Trump factor could may as well merely be a period of adjustment; an outlier which soon will be replaced with the norm. It could be argued that President Trump is alone in his call for greater protectionism. The west and even China have begun to realize the benefits of free trade.

The rule-based system is surely far from ideal, but that does not mean it is not worth defending.

Institutional weaknesses found in the WTO must be corrected because the alternate reality is a “dog-eat-dog” world which promises to be (in the words of Hobbes himself) “nasty, brutish and short”

Across the world, we are in desperate need of strong leadership which should lead to better policy framework and an adherence to the established rule-based system.