Thursday, November 27, 2008

Move to Safeguard Penang's World Heritage Status

A meeting will be held next week between the state Heritage Steering Committee and developers of four proposed high-rise hotels in the heritage enclave. The meeting will look into measures to prevent the city from losing its listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

This is a correct move. The state government and the four developers should work out a compromise to ensure the interest of more than 2 million people in Penang is protected.

The Plot:

Two of the hotel projects, AGB's Rice Miller boutique hotel in Weld Quay and the Boustead Royale Bintang Hotel, behind the General Post Office in Lebuh Downing, are in the heritage core zone.

The other two are E&O Hotel's 16-storey block and Low Yat Group's 23-storey development in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah. Both of them are in the buffer zone.

Political Blame Game:

The Former chairman of the preparatory committee for the listing, Teng Chang Yeow, had said that the Rice Miller boutique hotel, Bousted Royal Bintang Hotel and E&O Hotel's extension were approved with Unesco's knowledge.

On Monday, state Gerakan chairman Teng Hock Nan took a swipe at the state government for approving Low Yat Group's project. He had said the approval, which was given shortly before the Unesco listing, could jeopardise the heritage listing.

Teng Hock Nan should take a hint from his own ineptness for allowing MPSP's financial situation to deteriorate since 2001 before appointing an auditor to conduct a check on late 2007.

Teng Hock Nan should note that this is not the time for political blame game and finger pointing. His party was involved in 3 of the 4 projects. Gerakan should drop partisanship and assist in the negotiation with the four developers.

I propose the inclusion of Teng Chang Yeow in the discussion to help build a consensus on how to prevent Penang's WHS from being jeopardized.

It makes more commercial sense for these developers to ensure Penang keeps its WHS. The state government must act swiftly to stop unscrupulous forces from turning this issue into a political one.

Read my views here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Out of Touch Politicians

At lunch today, I spoke to a good friend and a journalist about Malaysian politicians. He opined they are a complacent lot. I would like to add that many of these politicians are incompetent too.

We elected politicians to help us govern the country. Politicians should work hand-in-hand with the public, NGOs and businesses to drive and coordinate policies. These policies are needed to regulate social life, public safety, economy, education and others. We do not need politicians to play moral cops.

At a time when the economy is facing a risk of downturn amidst the looming global economic crisis, we do not need politicians who are fixated with a ban on yoga, alcohol and other menial and insignificant issues.

The manufacturing sector is facing a slowdown. Many factories in the country are already cutting down production, freezing headcount and implement cost cutting measures. We need to create new jobs to cater for the workers retrenched especially those working in the financial industry in Singapore and abroad.

Starting from the first quarter of 2009, consumer demand is expected to face a downturn as more households will hold back spending after the Chinese New Year festive.

Car sales, a general barometer used to measure consumption, has fallen by 26% in October. Overall, the car industry can expect a double digit contraction in 2009.

Yet, the government is still struggling to come out with the right stimulus to help sustain and support job creation and consumer demand.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is more prompt in his response to a ban on yoga than the economic crisis.

Individual income tax rates are still high. The government should reduce income tax rates by 3% for all Malaysians. More money should be put in the hands of Malaysians and allow them to make their own consumption decision. The government does not have a good track record in using public funds.

Government's decision to pump prime the economy through infrastructure development is a good move. But this sector does not hire that many local workers. The government should also consider spending on infrastructure and building maintenance and refurbishment. Several parts of Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown and other major cities are worn out. Urban renewal is necessary. It will create more jobs for local expertise.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak should not talk about winning two-thirds majority before even taking over the hot seat. He should plan how to heal the economy, social rifts and racial bigotry in the country. Not to mention his own huge political baggage.

For goodness sake, we need sensible and smart politicians. Not those who are out-of-touch, complacent and simply incompetent.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Penang Cultural Nite - "Celebrating Diversity"

The Alleycats

James Boyle & Ragged TNBT
James Rozells & Kathleen Rodrigues

Jeon Youngse Trio

Dasha Logan

Penang is well-known for its performers. Stage actors, musicians and comedians have all found inspiration in the state. Its musical greats include the late P.Ramlee, the late Jimmy Boyle, Ooi Eow Jin and a breed of new and evergreen stars such as The Alleycats.

This evening, we take you down the musical lane. We would like to start this inaugural cultural celebration by commemorating some of the greats.

Leading the pack is The Alleycats. This evergreen band, led by David Arumugam, whose hits span more than 30 years will be there to join in the celebration.

His brother, the late Loganathan will be represented by his up-and-coming daughter, Dasha Logan.

James Boyle will play his famous father's favourite tunes. The Rozells are back with their country music. James Rozells and his partner Kathleen Rodrigues have been entertaining Penangites for decades.

We have an international jazz act, Jeon Youngse Trio, from Korea to help us make this a memorable night.
This event is sponsored by LG Electronics and Pacific Hypermarket and Departmental Store. The guest of honour is Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.

Join us at Fort Cornwallis, 6 December at 7.30pm. Admission is free.
To all bloggers, especially Penangites, please help to promote this event and the Penang Cultural Fest.
I was asked why I organise this festival. My answer is simple: My Love For Penang.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Call for a Good Decision in Penang

The options are clear: four high-rise hotels or Georgetown's World Heritage status. Not both but one or the other.

Under stringent heritage guidelines sent to the committee in August 2007, a maximum height of 18m or roughly five storeys was set for new buildings in the two zones.

The four hotels are the Rice Miller boutique hotel in Weld Quay and the Boustead Royale Bintang Hotel project behind the General Post Office in Lebuh Downing, both lying in the heritage core zone, and the E&O Hotel extension and 23-storey hotel in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah by the Low Yat Group in the buffer zone, both of which will be 84.4m high.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said three of the four hotels were approved by the previous state administration while the Boustead building was approved on June 26, less than two weeks before the Unesco status was granted.

What did the expert say:

Unesco regional adviser for the Asia-Pasific Dr Richard Engelhardt, who was present at the dialogue, said George Town had no choice but to follow the guidelines approved by the WHC.

“When the status is approved, the guidelines trump all previous existing regulations. Why would you apply for the status if there was no intention of following the guidelines?

“If the state decides to go along with the high-rises, I’m sure it will be called up by the WHC to explain why it allowed such a thing and whether it is compatible with the preservation of heritage,” he said.

“The worst-case scenario is that George Town is delisted, but that is not the usual situation as when a site applies for World Heritage status, it is interested in preserving the heritage,” he added.

CM Lim's reaction:

“Now, we’re caught in a conundrum. If we allow the buildings to go ahead, we may risk the status, but if we stop the buildings, we could be sued for hundreds of millions which will definitely bankrupt the local council.

“We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.”

Possible options:

The World Heritage status has uplifted the general mood of Penangites. Its positive impact is undeniable. Tourist arrival is expected to register a steady 20% growth over the next 2-3 years. A number of individual investors are now getting more interested to help restore some of the pre-war houses.

The government should open up dialogue with these four hotel operators and developers. Losing the status means losing potential tourist arrivals and hotel business. If possible, these developers can help to enhance Penang's WHS and not contribute to destroy it.

Second, the state government should look at possible political and public backlash. Politically, they will become an easy target of the old administration. Never mind if 3 projects were approved by the previous government. That government was trounced.

But they could turn around and accused the DAP led government for losing the status they 'helped' to gain. Political and public backlash will be great. The same backlash will also be felt by the 4 hotel operators. E&O Hotel, a majestic hotel founded by the Sarkies brothers, is positioning itself as a heritage symbol. It should do the right thing.

Finally, if the four developers insist on suing the government please make it our fight too. We will not allow the state government to walk alone.

But I believe good sense will prevail in the end.

Culture of Meritocracy - Act on Pempena's Tyrants

Tourism Minister Azalina Othman is pissed with the nonchalant attitude of those being questioned over the Pempena Group of Companies controversy. She is mulling over whether to shut down the subsidiary.

“I have been told the immediate standard response we have been getting is that it is the Government’s money and ‘why should we care’ statements as if it is the Govern­ment’s obligation to invest with them,” she said.

"It is so disgusting when nobody cares. How can you not care when it comes to the people’s money?”

This is precisely the kind of attitude conditioned and condoned by the present BN government. Zakaria Mat Deros infamous mansion is an example. Who cares if it was built on state owned land? He was a good Malay leader.

Who cares if Pempena is losing big money? The money went into Bumiputera companies, never mind if some are dubious. This is the part of "Ketuanan Melayu" that we Malaysians abhor and despise.

The act to promote Malay rights does not mean the government can allow the misuse of public funds. It does not mean that its agents can act unscrupulously.

Azalina should take note it is not enough to be mad and angry. Heads must roll and those found guilty of corruption must be brought to justice.

Like you have said, it is the people's money not yours, not UMNO's.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Peril of Governing

Yes, I have criticised a PR government in Penang. It might have ruffled some feathers. But, who said criticism is mainly reserved for the BN? This is the peril of being in government. Any political party wishes to govern must be willing to subject itself to public scrutiny.

Not all criticisms are destructive if taken in a positive light. Yes, the DAP did not have 51 years. Some said it should be given at least 10 years to prove its worth to restore the damage done by BN. Can anyone point out which damage needs another 10 years to fix?

The fact is any political party would welcome a longer period to stay in power. Our concern is not to ensure how long a party should stay in power but how well it is able to govern. Without a serious re-look at Penang's economic model, transportation system, public security, flood mitigation system and others, can we possibly last another 10 years and still boast of being a truly international city?

Any administration if does not get its bearing right during the first 12 months will lose its focus. That is why Obama was grilled barely two days after his unofficial victory for his decision on some appointments. If we want this government to last and to become an enduring model of good governance, it is our duty to ensure it stays on track.

Many of you claim that this government lacks experience and it is too early to judge its performance. My earlier article was not meant to measure its performance but to act as a sounding board to help the government reconsider some of its decisions. The fact that his team lacks experience makes it even more pertinent for us to keep them on their toes.

I criticize because I want the DAP to do well. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has set the ground work for his CAT government. By promoting competency, accountability and transparency, it is time for him to look at other socio-economic issues. I know and appreciate his sincerity. He told me he wanted to ensure Penang succeed at the very beginning of his administration.

It is this commitment of his that I told him I will act as both his critic and friend to ensure he delivers what he has promised.

Those of you who tried to link me to my ex-Sedar days and resort to personal attacks have missed the point. You have missed by a great length. A society which cannot tolerate and debate issues are bound to be bankrupt of ideas.

What is so different between you and several UMNO lackeys who occasionally post disgusting personal and racist comments on my blog?

If Guan Eng tells me personally that he does not appreciate my comments, I will stop discussing his government. The loss is not mine.

The fact he and his supporters like you will have to live with is the DAP does not have 10 years.

I want to see him be given more time. Not by going out of the way to justify his inadequacies but by giving him a hard time to perform his optimal best. Moreover, giving him my full support and help when needed like helping to promote Penang's heritage and cultural diversity.

If you abhor BN rule, then say and do something constructive.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

DAP's Personality Disorder

From being UMNO lackeys and yes-men to condoning abuses of power and corruption, we are already know the inability of Gerakan leaders to move Penang forward. That is why, these lackeys were booted out in the last general election.

DAP and its top leader Lim Guan Eng achieved landslide victories despite not coming to Penang seeking to overthrow the BN state government. The party only offered to become an effective and substantial opposition.

Voters in Penang took the leap of faith but not without great expectations. It is fair to argue that they voted out BN but not really voted in the DAP/PR. At 4pm on election day, a few top DAP leaders were still not sure of doing well at the state level.

However, since DAP leades have accepted the responsibility and burden to govern this state they should try to turn this negative win into a positive win. A positive win is required for the party to seek a decisive reelection at the next general election. Granted, a term is too short for the new government to do transformational change. But we do expect the party to take a lead to transform Penang. We expect transformational leadership from Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.

Hence, it is not too much for us to expect some vision and direction from his leadership. We are ready to support and even go along with some bold decisions and steps to help Penang become a leading example of good governance. Three immediate things come to mind which need immediate attention: cleanliness, public safety and economy.

Lim needs to make his vision to transform Penang clear. Clarity is important if he expects the people to support his vision and plans. To do so, he must be not be afraid of the old forces which will try to muzzle his efforts and make him follow the old framework. Already, there are some instances when decision makers in his team have to refer back to the old precedents fearing criticism from his foes.

We do not hire new people to do the same old things. No doubt, we could sense that the new administration is trying to be business friendly and at the same time demonstrate its financial prudence. The gleeful announcements of free wifi service, a possible new aerobus system and others which come at no cost to the government are some examples. However, soon the government will learn the hard fact that there is no free lunch in business.

The Kings of Tennis fiasco is what the government does not need. It should learn that over eagerness to do something for Penang can expose some management inexperience and weaknesses. Critics are right to point out that the local authority should not simply bend the rule to accommodate any event organiser. Preliminary background check is necessary. Business sense should also prevail when comes to financial viability of the project. Still, rules are rules. They are meant to be followed not break. What stops other organisers from asking for similar exemptions?

Since there is a heritage advisory panel in place, the state should get their views on events to be held within the heritage zone especially when it involves altering the landscape of the protected area. Tourism and heritage promotion is beyond an individual. It makes more sense for the state to build up collaborations among key stakeholders.

At the start of his administration, Lim has been quite generous with new appointments. Many of his partymen were elected to important sounding positions such as chief of staff, policy adviser, economic adviser, investment coordinator and others. The coming first anniversary of his government would be a good chance for him to evaluate the effectiveness of those occupying these positions. Positions are created to play specific roles and satisfy specific purposes.

Lim can choose between two possible routes. First, stay somewhat conservative and stick with his non-performing loyalists or second, enact changes which will help to strengthen his team and its ability to execute his vision and plans. He will need a real chief of staff who can help to keep him right on the track.

Too many event appearances, meetings and parliamentary responsibilities are going to keep him away from doing real thinking and strategizing for Penang. Lim is already having his plate full with duties and tasks to lead committees not from his portfolios. Without adequate attention and time, some of these committees cannot operate effectively. As a result, many volunteers may lose interest after a while.

Lim would need a real media adviser who can help to keep his message clear and consistent. Too much rantings about past abuses are going to wear off his public support and excitement. Surely, the mismanagement which caused the Seberang Prai Municipal Council (MPSP) to lose RM225 million within five years is serious.

But Teng Hock Nan is right to point out that Lim could check with the relevant departments for the budget and expenditure details of MPSP and the Penang Island Municipal Council if he wanted to find out about the funds. Lim did not heckle Teng for answers but to run him down politically. A good media adviser will be able to point out to Lim how little mileage left from doing so.

There is still time for Lim to act and sound more chief ministerial. Lim did not run to become a chief minister. But more than 65% of voters in Penang thought that he and his team can be entrusted to do the job. What Lim and his team need to do is to start acting and sounding like a real government.

Alas, going back to become an effective opposition, a role they know best, is no longer an option.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Calm Before Storm

Deputy Minister of Finance Kong Cho Ha tried to hide the signs of an imminent economic storm. He told the parliament that the Malaysian economy is not facing a recession, but expanding more slowly.

Kong said the economy is predicted to expand by 3.5 percent in 2009 following additional measures tabled as a "policy response" towards the global economic crisis by the government on Nov 4. This is a bit too presumptuous. The impact of the global economic crisis on our local economy is difficult to predict. Even US and Europe are still trying to gauge the bottom pit of the crisis through their gut feel.

Major economies in East Asia have sounded the alarm bell. Recently, China announced a stimulus package worth USD586 billion. According to Reuters, Japan has slipped into recession when its economy contracted by 0.1%. France is closing behind. South Korea has announced pay freeze for all government staff and a 5% budget cut for all public and non-profit agencies it help fund.

While, US is expecting an escalation of foreclosures another potentially huge problem is brewing - mounting credit card debts. This is also one of our teething concerns. Financial institutions are getting too promiscuous trying to lure more people to sign up for credit cards. Over the last two years, the number of credit cards issued has grown exponentially. More than 2.8 million cards are issued annually.

Malaysia's credit debt stands at nearly RM30 billion. Almost half of credit card users pay the minimum amount of 5 percent of outstanding balance. The number of bankruptcy cases due to credit card debts is increasing since 2005.

This global financial crisis coupled with our own internal problems are expected to hurt the local economy. Already a number of companies, both local and multinationals, are not creating new positions. Retired employees are not being replaced and employment contracts are not being renewed. As many as 100,000 young graduates are expected to join the workforce next year. Unemployment will soar.

Most of us are not aware of the "policy response" announced by the government. If we do, the policy obviously has very little impact in changing general perception about the economy. Many are expected to focus on essentials and save for rainy days. There will be many such days ahead.
This government must do the right thing. Next, I will focus on some steps which can be taken by Finance Minister and incoming Prime Minister Najib Razak to help steer us to the right path.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

We Need Leadership

Anybody can claim to be a leader. A racial bigot. An adulterer. A corrupter. A sexist. A flip-flop. The list goes on. However, what we need are not mere self-proclaimed leaders.


Our race relations are broken. Our politics is distasteful and flawed. Our economy and those who help to run it are lost and misguided. Many things are not right about the country. Alas, many of us who hold the same pathetic view of our country take very different approaches to address the problems. Majority choose to bolt and many more choose to whine.

Malaysians cannot hide from the fact that we are governed by the ethno-religious conservatives who hold very rigid, selfish and perverted view on race relations. Many of these divisive politicians are very powerful individuals holding extremely important positions in the country.

These politicians will continue to practice their beliefs although we know they are part of the destructive force in the country. At the state UMNO annual general assembly, its members readily passed a resolution calling for the return of a racial bigot who was suspended by his party. The fact that the party does not hide from its hard, extreme right and conservative position worries me.

It worries me because they could be right about the society - that many of us are racial and religious conservatives who are still keen on supporting and rejoicing the most provocative statements and actions taken by them.

If not, why are these racially based political parties still in business? If not, why are morally bankrupt leaders are still being embraced by their party members to provide leadership?

Here, we need leadership not leaders. We need real and committed leadership which can help pull this society out from its racial mould. We need a leadership which can help to unite not polarize.

Our political system which insists on a two-tier society does not work especially if the intention is to seek racial superiority. A political system which helps to promote a false sense of superiority over others through the colour of skin is flawed and immoral. It is unimaginable for someone to be bought by the premise - no matter how convincing - that an airhead with the right ethnicity is the only requirement for success. Racial politics hurts more than it heals. Its over emphasis is self-destructive and demeaning to the very ethnicity it wants to glorify.

Here, we need a real leadership which can help us to see the humanistic values beneath our different skin colours. We need a sincere leadership which understands that diversity strengthens and not destroys a society. We need a leadership which understands the power of unity and not the sheer destruction of division.

Misguided and self-centred politicians should not be allowed to preach wrong economic policy to us. It is nonsensical to suggest that we need to prop up the stock market to enhance consumer confident to spend. When an economy is in trouble, a caring government should help to protect jobs, help to put people in their homes not losing them, create more economic opportunities and help to ease socio-economic pains.

Not putting more money in the stock market to assist less than 2 percent of the people who are engaged in it. People of all walks of life are feeling the same anguish of rising cost of living, job insecurity and mounting personal and family debt. From the anguish, perhaps we are able to feel how similar we are from each other. Through the anxiety, we should realise that our need is the same. We need a good and effective government. Not a patronising one. Not one which bullies its people with the power entrusted to them by the same people.

Here, we need a leadership which understands the mechanics of running a people friendly economic policy. We do not need leaders who are fixated with equity share of each community and not what they can put on their dining table for the children.

It is obvious that we need leadership, not leaders to fix a broken Malaysia.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Dream the American Dreams

What did I learn from my recent US trip? That there were more surprises than the predictable. It has helped to break some myths about Americans. It is not such a perfect melting pot after all. On the outside, the society looks like a flawless piece of mosaic. A closer look at the surface exposes its cracks and rough edges.

US faces difficult racial and religious polarisation due to the complexity and diversity of its people. To a certain extent, the US presidential election results mirrors this polarisation. Only about 34 percent of white Protestants and 26 percent of Evangelicals voted for Barack Hussein Obama. On the other hand, almost 78 percent of Jewish, 73 percent of other faiths and 75 percent unaffiliated (including non-religious) voted for him.

Those who originally argued for the Bradley effect were accurate to the extent that the effect was negative – more African Americans and lower middle class voters came out to vote in unprecedented numbers for Obama. The first African American president elect obtains 43 percent support from all white voters primarily from those below 40 years old. Many still voted according to their racial and religious belief.

But unlike other similar societies including ours, there is a healthy check-and-balance in the American society. Tired of the being pushed to the far right by the fundamentalists and religious conservatives during the 8 years of Bush administration, the moderates fought back to take control of their lives.

Some may argue that it took failed wars, a crumbling economy and race to bring out the best in Americans. Yes, the candidacy of an articulate and intelligent African American did inspire many young Americans to transcend race. However, it is inaccurate to say that Obama won because of a growing economic crisis and the colour of his skin alone.

Obama’s positive campaign has inspired many Americans to stand up and fight for the change they wanted. He provided hope and leadership when the country is craving for both at such critical times. Obama is charismatic but not to the point of being eccentric.

At the time I left the country, more job cuts are going to be announced. So far, 1.2 million jobs were lost since the beginning of 2008. Retail shops around Boston, Washington DC and other major cities are half empty despite the end of spring sales season. My host, a lecturer, at Colorado Springs told me that going for a burger outside will make her think twice. She is a middle income earner. Soon, such attitude will spread to the rest of Americans especially those who are trying to keep up with their mortgage payment.

What does the economic meltdown means to the normal Americans? Many are now beginning to question the surging cost of war. US government is spending close to USD 10 billion a month to fund its war in Iraq. At home, the financial sector does not look steadier despite the recent USD250 billion direct capital injections into several large financial institutions to ease off credit.

Now, the automotive sector is running out of cash especially General Motors and Chrysler. Thousands of employees have been laid off. Pink slips are pilling. The government is expected to announce another USD50 billion to rescue the automotive industry. With pressure surging to create more jobs, the new president elect has promised to invest USD15 billion into initiatives to develop renewable and green technology. He has promised tax cuts and rebates for 95 percent of the population.

However, with its national debt hovering at the highest percentage to GDP since 1800 the government will be constrained in many ways. Obama and his economy team may have to find innovative ways to improve the economy because there is little room left to fund big projects without enlarging the already huge debt of almost USD10 trillion.

Over the last 8 years, the US suffered the “old China syndrome” thinking that it is the centre of the universe. It had taken several unpopular and divisive measures back home and abroad. Bush’s unilateral approach has left the US with very few admirers. In turn, President George HW Bush is the most unpopular president in the modern history of his country.

Finally, the Americans have awakened from their slumber only to expose how nervous the society has been since the financial crisis started last year. Almost 81 percent think that things aren’t going well for them. More than 63% of them said economy is the most important issue. Predictably, Americans are worried about deteriorating quality of life, jobs moving abroad, rising inflation and public safety. Through these uncertainties breed a steely consensus – send the Republicans out of Washington DC.

According to a US Repubican party media strategist, Alex Castellanos, the era of big power projection and frantic federal spending is going to be replaced by an ‘era of meaningful life’. This era appeals to Americans who want to do something meaningful like saving the country. Obama was able to mobilise millions to support his cause to save US from the ‘broken politics’. Under Obama, the 44th President of United States of America, enters the communication age of government.

Perhaps the 4th November is only the end of the beginning of a reform movement but most importantly many Americans who dared to dream had lived their dream to see the election of the first African American as the President of US of America.

We too can dream the American dreams of a better future, more equitable society, end of institutionalised racism and bigotry and a more dynamic Malaysia. Yes, we can.

Khoo Kay Peng

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Landslide for Obama

(Dilan, Ellen, Gabriella and Me)
( Warren and Me)

(Philip and Me)

( Joy and relief at Obama party)

Tonight is a historic night for Barack Hussein Obama II, the son of a Kenyan Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. and a white American Ann Dunham. Obama picked up nearly 338 electoral college compared to McCain's 156. This is a landslide win.
Earlier at Colorado Springs, I visited several election posts and had a chance to speak to a significant black activist from the county, senior pastor Rev. James McMearn. Rev. McMearn believes other African American leaders such as Rev. Jesse Jackson have made it possible for Obama to come this far. He acknowledges the transformational effect of Obama's election as the 44th President of USA.

His observation cannot be more accurate. At the Obama party, an African American woman rushed up to hug me after it was obvious that Obama has clinched the presidency. People of all ethnicities shed their tears of joy together and exchanged hugs and kisses. This is a true transformation and it has started tonight.

It is undeniable that this election is ground breaking for the United States of America. It has mobilises and motivates more Americans than any other elections in the history of American politics. He is the first African American president and the first African American presidential candidate who is able to garner massive support from across ethnicity, creed and gender.

What are the contributory factors to Obama's win? There are several; his personality, strategy, consistency and the current political environment.

Obama's cool headed approach and demeanour was exclusively identified as an important contributor to him being seen as more presidential than his hot headed opponent.

McCain's attack on Obama lack of experience backfired when he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. Like I have said in my previous post, the nomination of Palin will become a case study of poor political decision for many more months to come.

There is a valuable lesson for McCain to bring home from this historic contest. Do not ignore the influence and support of a growing middle ground. Many staunch republican supporters (Reagan Republicans) have deserted his campaign for moving to the extreme right of his party.

Obama's campaign is set to become a model for all election campaigns in the future. Many aspects of his campaigns will be carefully studied and copied in the future - from fund raising, organisation to his consistent political messages. The most unique part of his campaign is the spirit itself. The way Obama was able to move and motivate his supporters to be part of his Change movement is something not easily replicated. It comes from the heart.

McCain's generosity in his speech conceding defeat to Obama has earned him respect from his opponents. McCain has redeemed his credibility tonight.

This is clearly an election Americans are looking for leadership, hope, solution to their growing economic woes and to end their anxiety of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which they want to end. This is also an election where being ordinary or 'just like the folks' is not enough. Americans are looking for something extraordinary.

This is an election which has breached all ethnic lines. It has changed the way the world look at America. This is no longer a white supremacist country. America is PLURAL. Societies around the world must not miss to draw some valuable lessons from this historical election. Most important is what the Malaysian society can learn from the US presidential election.
If we cannot free ourselves from the strong grip of racial politics and racism, there is little for us to look forward to. This society will continue to be fractious. We will continue to allow silly racial rhetoric, mutual distrust and fear to stop us from making a real change which can help to bring us together as a nation. We should seriously scrutinize those who have been so generous with their racial slurs and statements and find out what they have done for us.

In this election too, I am fortunate enough to meet many good people. Apart from the extraordinary experience I am bringing back with me I am fortunate to have my friendship accepted in the most sincere manner. These friendships are something valuable I will bring back with me too to Malaysia.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

First Dude and Babe from Alaska

(Palin introduces her husband as the first dude from Alaska)

Sarah Palin, the first dude from Alaska and running mate of John McCain, was in top form today at Colorado Springs, Colorado. By now, the largely ten thousands white Republican crowd were already familiar with Palin's slogan and chanted "Drill, baby drill"...
Colorado Springs is one of the biggest US military bases in the country. It has about 50,000 serving personnel and thousands more ex-servicemen living in the county. It is a conservative republican area.
Palin said McCain and her are pro-business and pro-growth. She praised McCain as an experienced, strong and and a hero on his last mission to help America.

Like Obama, the Wall Street is also Palin's favourite punching bag. Are we going to see more government regulation and intervention of the financial sector regardless who prevails at the election tomorrow?

Under McCain-Palin, there will be belt tightening for US. There will be a curb of big spending. Palin promised to balance the national budget by end of their first term. A tall order for a country with an internal debt of more than USD10 trillion.
She then went on with the usual attacks on Obama's liberal voting in the senate especially on tax increases and bigger government. She stuck to her republican roots of keeping a smaller government.

Palin showed her sensitive and caring side when someone in the audience was finding it difficult to continue standing. She praised an officer who brought a chair over.

However, her last of speech gave me enough reasons to be concerned. She criticised the government for giving money to foreign regimes who do not like US through billions of investment put into oil exploration. She wanted to save the earth through the creation of "green coal technology". This is totally misleading. Can coal really become 'green'?

Palin vowed not to retreat from Iraq, a war the US is winning. This sounded chilly especially when it comes from a leader who has not met any real top leader or visited the Middle East. This is the most distinct position taken by McCain-Palin compared to Obama-Biden who are anti-war.

But Sandra Russell and Chris Ryan - both from Colorado Springs - think otherwise. Sandra is confident the fate of her children serving with the US military will be better protected under a Republican leadership in Whitehouse. One of her children is serving in Iraq

Chris thought Palin has the mark of Ronald Reagan especially her aura, strength and charisma. It is undeniable that Palin has a huge star attraction.

On 4th November, her critics will either eat their words on Palin and make her their case study for poor political decision.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Obama's Movement versus McCain's Campaign

(Waiting in line with Danny Mullies and family in the background)

(Barack Obama pressing for change)

(Huge crowd cheering for Obama at Republican stronghold Springfield, Missouri)
Until yesterday, until I actually attended a Obama rally I could not see what is the difference between Obama and McCain. Both candidates have been quite impressive so far. McCain has gained a number of crucial endorsements from superstars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Donald Trump and others.

But what is so different about Obama? Not that he has obtained similar endorsements from as many superstars but what he is able to do is to mobilise and motivate fellow Americans to embrace the change they wanted.

He motivates Americans. He inspires them to do this - waiting in line to enter the JFK stadium to watch him speak. The line was almost 7km long! That night, Obama inspired many who went to hear him with messages of unity, commitment, plurality and hope.

Obama did not run a campaign. He creates a movement. He did not focus the message of change on him. He mobilises his supporters to be part of the change they wanted.

I noted that there is probably very little policy difference when comes to actual implementation because of a powerful Congress. Any new president must be able to win endorsement of the powerful Congress.

While waiting in line like others, I managed to talk to Danny Mullies of Tulsa, Oklahoma, about his support for Obama. Almost 90% of the 40,000 crowd are whites. I asked him what he sees in Obama. His answer is simple - Change. More than 3 million Americans like Danny are paying for his campaign. This campaign is theirs as much as Obama's.

What are the main dissatisfactions? First, the Iraq war which is bleeding the US piggy bank. Danny wants an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He told me his country should promote influence through peace not war. I gleefully showed him my t-shirt which shouts "Make Art, Not War".

Danny is proud of Obama who is smart and happens to be black. He was McCain's supporter in 2000 when he ran his campaign similar like Obama. But he thought McCain has gone back to the Republican right wing.

Several others I met were very enthusiastic about a possible Obama win. But this is a tight race. McCain is a no pushover. He is an American hero with proven leadership. But Dawit Ayalew, an Ethiopian American, does not think so. He said McCain is proven as a soldier not a political leader. However, Dawit is concerned about abortion. He is a conservative catholic who is pro-life. Hence, he will sleep over on his choice.

Meanwhile, the heat is on and if Obama (the hot favourite) does not win many of his supporters will surely be devastated. They are sure of Obama's landslide victory and will surely accuse the Republicans of cheats and frauds if the reverse is true and Obama loses.

The stake is too high for Obama, his supporters and America. American democracy will be tested on its ability to deliver a fair and trusted election. If McCain wins, the system must ensure that his win will be guaranteed with the highest respect for democracy.

In this election, emotion is high. When everything else fails, naturally people are looking for hope, inspiration and a new possibility. Even if this is so, Americans must be careful not to lose their own good sense.

Obama may be phenomenal but McCain is unfortunate. He is working against all odds - the economy, George Bush, Iraq war and his own doing for choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate.
A win for Obama may change the social landscape in US. Already Americans are talking about the end of affirmative action for the minorities in education and public services. If an African American can become a president, over night it may change the way African Americans looking at themselves. In Colorado, there is already a referendum to end affirmative action on 4th November.
This election is historic for US and the world. Yet in Malaysia, there are loud protests against an ethnic Chinese being appointed as a general manager of a state economic development agency. Perhaps it is time for the society to take a closer scrutiny at its own dynamics and mindset.

US Foreign Policy Under A New President

(Dr Richard Bush)

(David Ignatius and me)

On the US foreign policy, I had an opportunity to speak to two experts; Mr David Ignatius of Washington Post and Dr Richard Bush III of The Brookings Institution.

According to David, candidates using divisive and negative rhetoric are likely to lose in the elections (president, senate, house of representatives etc). He said both McCain and Obama are promoting unity in their different ways. He said Americans are sick of partisanship.

He observes that the Bush administration has been very different since a year ago. It had promoted pre-emptive action in 2001 but is seen as more willing to use multilateral approach through the UN lately.

Since last year, the Bush administration has reestablished a direct access/communication to Tehran. This will assist the new administration this coming 20th January 2009 to continue working with Tehran.

The Middle East peace process is ongoing and President Bush is still keen to break the deadlock between Israel and Palestine. The current administration has started to negotiate with the Taliban on Afghanistan.

David is convinced that Obama's foreign policy will be significantly different from the incumbent. He will be more responsive to the international community. McCain's war decorative may actually work against his image as an internationalist. Sometimes talking endlessly about protecting America and national security can be counter productive.

Meanwhile, Dr Bush opines there will be policy continuity. The focus on North Korea by the Bush administration has neglected Japan's sensitivity. Japanese leadership is not comfortable with the development in North Korea.

It is likely that both candidates will continue with the 6-party talk on Korea Peninsula and denuclearisation of North Korea. McCain would be more suspicious of North Korea.

On China, both candidates share the same policy. Both see the value of broad engagement and collaboration with China. Due to lack of understanding of the Asian giant's direction, there is great uncertainty and anxiety in Washington DC regardless whoever takes over.

McCain may be more suspicious of China and may opt for a balance of power approach. Obama is better at anticipating China's reaction. The tricky part is both candidates have pledged their support for Taiwan status quo.

On South East Asia, Bush's policy which focused overly on counter terrorism has neglected the region. Since the Vietnam war, the successive US administrations did not pay too much attention on this region. Under McCain, there is a chance of the administration to shift some focus here.

What are some concerns and problems? The level of attention and intensity is low on East Asia which is an important region for US. US is too distracted by the Middle East. Some other concerns including ongoing tension in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iran is also posing a serious challenge to the US and the international community.

The next US president would have to work on US image and brand abroad. The current uneasiness between the West and Islamic world needs a more holistic and broader approach. Not the current mutual suspicion.

However, the foreign policy direction may take a back seat in the next 6 months because the main dissatisfaction in the US started with an economic crisis. McCain or Obama will have their hand full with providing a solution to their electorates.


David Ignatius is a twice-weekly columnist for The Post, writing on global politics, economics and international affairs. His column appears on Thursdays and Sundays. He is also creator and co-moderator of Post-Global, an online conversation about international affairs at Ignatius has written six novels: "Body of Lies" (April 2007), “The Sun King” (1999), “A Firing Offense” (1997), “The Bank of Fear” (1994), “SIRO” (1991), and “Agents of Innocence” (1987). Ignatius’ column won the 2000 Gerald Loeb Award for Commentary," a 2005 Edward Weintal Special Citation, and the 1984 Edward Weintal Prize for Diplomatic Reporting.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Malaysia's Economic Priority

In the US, both presidential candidates have vowed not to bail out Wall Street players which went belly up through decades of non-regulated market activities. However, the US government has so far announced USD700 billion rescue package to bail out some of the industry players.

The main priority is to safeguard jobs, protect home owners from foreclosures and help small-medium businesses to stay resilient.

In Malaysia, the first step taken to protect the stockmarket is highly controversial and debatable. Value Cap which is to receive a total of RM10 billion (RM5 billion each from Federal government and EPF) to buy undervalue stocks may not the right move for the government.

Malaysia will soon face severe unemployment and stagnation. Job creation will become scarce as businesses are mindful of growing their headcounts during trying times. However, the market will continue to receive influx of new graduates and young people looking for opportunities in the bearish job market.

Our government record on helping the SMEs is very poor. The government did not do much to help the 99.2% of all registered businesses in Malaysia which are SMEs but mainly focus on a handful of listed companies and GLCs. These businesses provide 56% of jobs to Malaysians.

We are on the brink of a technical recession next year and yet the government has not come out with a solid and comprehensive strategy to address this issue. What is the government's plan to insulate the economy from diving into recession. As most of these companies (85%) serve only the local market, a depressed consumer consumption will cause many companies to close down creating a ripple effect on the economy.

Already the US economy is contracting by 0.3%. Companies have started to cut employment. Its consumer demand will suffer. Yet, US is our important market. Can we depend on China or other Asian countries which are equally dependent on the US?

Minister of Education Hishamuddin Hussein should seriously look in the education system to find out how we can help to create more competitive students and graduates.

For decades now, the education system lacks a solid policy direction. This is the most politicised component of our socio-economic system. Unfortunately, politicians are very good at ensuring the education system serves their political design but not so much concern about how education can help to make Malaysia more competitive.

This translate to the reason why while education is under federal control we still do not have an education policy which can see beyond the narrow debate over language and identity.

If, as suggested, a subject of social contract is introduced as a compulsory learning it will not make Malaysia any different from a communist country. It is dangerous to frame a topic on nation building in a rigid manner. A society should focus on its important dynamics of unity, mutual respect and responsibilities. A social contract subject trying to push through the doctrine of race supremacy will bastardise this country and will ensure the future of this country amongst the broken societies in the world.

We are at a crossroads. Once again, I would like to urge fellow Malaysians to participate, commit and embrace the change they wanted. This movement cannot be left to the politicians alone.

Show-Me State

(Blantons' house for Halloween Party)

(Pic: At a Missouri polling station)

Been traveling the last few days and this made it difficult for me to update my blog. I am at St. Louis, Missouri. This is a toss up battle ground state. Both McCain and Obama are tied at 47%. 6% are still unsure.

Other toss up states include Nevada, Ohio, Florida and Colorado.

Over the last two days, analysts at CNN are speculating who these unsure voters are going to vote for. Some said that this number could represent voters who wanted to hide their preference for candidate of a certain race. If this is the case, there could be a 3-5% deduction of Obama's 7% lead over McCain nationally.

On the flip side, there is a record number of turnout among African Americans, Hispanic and young voters nationwide. The turnout for 2004 was 190 million voters or 61%. Voters turnout for this year could be up between 65-70% which is a record in the history of US presidential election.

Looking at the campaign strategy of both camps, Obama appears to be more positive on his tone. He is calling for unity among communities, mending rift among partisan supporters and leaders and focus on one America.

However, Obama's lack of administrative and political experience is greatly exploited by his opponent. McCain is portrayed as a war hero and someone dependable when comes to national security. Both men have argued on who has the best strategy to defeat Osama Bin Laden.

However, the Americans growing very tired about the ongoing war in Iraq and Afghanistan which has cost them US1 trillion so far. They rallied around Bush immediately after 911 but the president support has dropped to a record low of 25% (almost equivalent to Nixon's Watergate and Truman's Korean war popular ratings).

Two other events floored Bush and the Republicans, first the crisis management of Katrina and the US subprime mortgage issue which has transformed into a huge economic problem for the world. US economy has contracted by 0.3% this quarter. Effectively, we are staring at a recession.

Finding the right economy solution and tax issues are very critical for both candidates.

However, both race and religion are rearing their ugly heads in this election. Some Americans may be too polite to admit it but polls show that 23% of Texans believe Obama is a Muslim. As high as 91% of African Americans are likely to vote for Obama. 47% of conservative white voters are more likely to vote for a white candidate.

Prof. David Robertson of University of Missouri - St. Louis and a political analyst for KSDK Television (NBC), opines that plurality and likeability are two very important elements in this election.

Americans are looking for a leader who can best represent the plurality of the American society. They want someone who will be able to unite them and provide a fresh hope to relive the American renaissance.

This is true for Colleen and David Blanton, a middle class American family, who hosted us at the Halloween party. They are aware of the battered American image abroad and are concern about the economy like the rest of 53% Americans polled nationwide.

The Blantons are huge supporters of Obama and found his Internationalist image appealing. They are hopeful that Obama's presidency will give the world a new face and a new chapter of US foreign policy and approach.

A number of foreign observers including a chief whip of Kenyan parliament, a minister from Sri Lanka, a women leader from Nigeria and others are positively welcoming the possibility of Obama's successful election. I told the Blantons if only Americans know how positive the world feel about the possibility of Obama becoming the next president, it will be an easy choice for Americans. The changing demographic is giving a huge challenge to conservative parties.

War is no longer fashionable.

Soon, racism will not be as well. What can Malaysians learn from the US presidential election? It is obvious that Obama did not run this campaign as a black American but an American who happens to be black.

We are heading to Springfield today to catch Obama live. Keep you posted on the rally.