The last couple of months have been great for anyone who enjoys a good dose of schadenfreude. First, in Malaysia we’ve had the implosion of the Genneva gold ponzi scheme. The LYN forums have had active threads on them for years. And for years we’ve seen dedicated Gennevarians pop up in the forum to defend the company and claim that it isn’t a ponzi scheme. But then after the raid on October 1st, all of them disappeared from LYN and instead regrouped to their Facebook page which actively censors dissenting opinions.
The amazing thing about the Genneva affair is how many of their so-called customers continue to insist that it is a legitimate business even after the raid. As the LYN crew is fond of pointing out, in Singapore Genneva customers sue the company to get back their money (and the company has repeatedly failed to mount a defense in court cases in Singapore). But in Malaysia, the customers seem likelier to sue the Malaysian Central Bank for killing their golden goose.
Continue reading U.S. elections and the Genneva case
I did not participate in the latest iteration of the Bersih protests. My wife and I are currently living in Seremban and in fact we are in the process of moving house this week. My wife wanted to check out the local chapter of the protests here but it turned out that we were too busy for that too. We had some furniture deliveries to handle on Saturday and our carpenter came in too to do our kitchen cabinets. We did pay attention to the central square where there the gathering was supposed to happen but there was only like a couple hundred or so people in yellow shirts and some police looking on disinterestedly.
I should note that my wife is much more enthusiastic about the movement than I am. I guess my own interest in local politics only go so far and no further. As I’ve explained to my wife, Malaysian politics is about opposing personalities rather than opposing policies. Neither the governing coalition nor the opposition has any real ideology beyond getting into power however possible. It makes things no fun at all for a policy wonk. Headline proposals such BR1M and the cancellation of student debts are attention-grabbing populist measures with no attempt at all to spin them around a coherent and differentiated political philosophy.
Be that as it may, and with acknowledgment that all this is coming from someone who is self-admittedly neither particularly interested nor particularly knowledgeable about local politics, here are some comments:
- Bersih 3.0 turned out to be more political than previous iterations, with opposition politicians playing a more active and visible role. This has upset many participants in the protests. I agree that this is sad. At the same time, I don’t see how this can be avoided. In fact, I think it is a necessary part of the political awakening of Malaysia. Elections are a zero-sum game. There is a clear winner and a clear loser. After the governing coalition tried its best to shut down the last round of protests in no uncertain terms, it was always a given that any future iteration would not be just for clean elections, it would also necessarily be against the government. Implicit in a show of popular strength of this type is the message, “This is what we want. Do it or we will put the other guys into power.” How can this be anything but political?
- Malaysians are reluctant participants in the political process. There are things that we want and there are things that we are against, but we find it difficult to translate this into support for a specific politician or opposition to a specific politician. We prefer to stick to statements of general principle. This is because we perceive all politicians are dirty and that politics is an inherently unsavory business. But I believe this is a naive view of the democratic process. The process is all about picking winners and losers so let’s not pretend that it isn’t.
- Winston Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others is probably the one quote I pull out the most often in this blog. But once again, it’s worth looking into what it really means. What it’s saying is that government is inherently bad because it involves coercion against citizens. It would be better for everyone if no coercion was necessary at all and people could just live and let live. But that’s not realistic and since no government is worse than a bad government, we might as well employ democracy to ensure that the coercion we must exercise is at least backed by a plurality of the country’s voters.
- By the same token, you could say that all politicians are bad. These are by definition people who have expressed a desire to possess power over other people’s lives. Surely there is something egotistical about that? So in line with Churchill’s dictum, I would say that democracy isn’t about choosing the best leader, because they’re all bad. Arguably, it isn’t even about choosing a good leader, because anyone who has come into a position of power in a democratic system must surely have made many, many questionable compromises along the way because you just can’t please everyone all of the time. Instead, democracy has the much more modest aim of choosing the least worst leader.
- So what I’m saying is that not supporting the opposition parties because they’re not perfect is a terrible way of looking at democracy. At the same time, if you’re a Malaysian who wants change, I can’t imagine how you can avoid baldly stating that you want the ruling National Front coalition to be toppled. Unless you sincerely believe that it is capable of internally reforming from within, which seems wildly implausible. So why pussyfoot about it? Any protest in favor of change is a protest against the government. And any protest against the government is a token of support for the opposition. Perhaps one day power can slip easily enough from party to party that we can have real civic bodies around specific policy issues and such bodies would be able to endorse whichever candidate, regardless of party affiliation, that best exemplifies their values. But that day is far in the future.
With all that said, and again bearing in mind that this is coming from someone with no real knowledge of Malaysian politics, I think those who despair about the worth of our opposition politicians and have the energy and drive to do something about it, could do well to get in touch with their local representatives. I have a friend who regularly volunteers to do work on behalf of the DAP. He has no illusions about the worth of grandees like Lim Kit Siang, but he has plenty of nice things to say about his local representative. From what I understand, the low-level MPs in the opposition coalition are very approachable and you might be pleasantly surprised by how easily you can be involved in the thick of things if you’re so inclined.
I’ve been remiss in updating lately, mostly because I’ve been embroiled in yet another personal programming project. So here are a few of the more interesting articles I’ve read recently to tide you over:
- Probably due to the dysfunction exhibited by the U.S. government over the past year, libertarians have recently been abuzz about creating new countries of their own from scratch, Ayn Rand-style. The most impressive projects are the sea-steading ones of course that so eerily mimic the underwater city of Rapture from the BioShock games, but these are pipe dreams with not much chance of coming to fruition. Surprisingly, the most realistic of these initiatives is Honduras’ attempt to create a Hong Kong-style charter city which would be autonomous from the host country. Even Honduran police and the court system will not have authority in the designated zones as they will outsourced to the private sector and the courts of Mauritius respectively. The Economist has the details.
- So Kim Jong Il died last month and the North Korea population promptly exploded into an orgy of mass grieving. This short article from MSNBC offers a few tantalizing glimpses of how this works in the hermit kingdom, which includes people being punished for not participating in organized mourning sessions or even not being seen to cry in a genuine manner.
- By now everyone has heard of the cruise ship that sank off the coast of Italy and the idiot captain whose latest claim that he accidentally fell into the lifeboat and thus didn’t mean to intentionally abandon ship. But do you wonder what happens next to that ship? Do they let it sink? Do they try to refloat it? Well, this amazing feature from Wired covers an international team of experts who specialize in just this sort of thing, traveling all around to refloat capsized ships or just salvage what can be saved. They’re paid big bucks but their company earns money only if they succeed as their contracts are based on a percentage of the value recovered and as the article makes it painfully clear, theirs is a mortally dangerous job. The article is so good it could be made into a summer blockbuster, highly recommended.
- Finally, on a more light-hearted note, I’m sure what with the Wikipedia blackout and all, everyone knows about SOPA and how it’s supposed to help with copyright violation, i.e. IP piracy. In a move that combines the futility of fighting against file sharing and the ridiculousness of organized religion, Sweden has officially recognized the Church of Kopimism as a religious organization. This church was founded in 2010 and upholds the right to file-share as a sacred tenet. Its religious symbols are CTRL+C and CTRL+V, i.e. copy-paste. PCMag has the story.
Early this month, to little international outcry, the US Senate passed a bill that would make Malaysia’s controversial ISA look positively tame by comparison. The bill in question is the National Defense Authorization Act. Glenn Greenwald of Salon summarizes the most important provisions as follows:
(1) mandates that all accused Terrorists be indefinitely imprisoned by the military rather than in the civilian court system; it also unquestionably permits (but does not mandate) that even U.S. citizens on U.S. soil accused of Terrorism be held by the military rather than charged in the civilian court system (Sec. 1032);
(2) renews the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) with more expansive language: to allow force (and military detention) against not only those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and countries which harbored them, but also anyone who “substantially supports” Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “associated forces” (Sec. 1031); and,
(3) imposes new restrictions on the U.S. Government’s ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo (Secs. 1033-35).
Continue reading America’s ISA
I promised to write some of my thoughts on the Bersih rally earlier but never got around to it. The main thing is that others have already written what I’d wanted to say, and said it better to boot. The best one is probably this that was linked by Tan Kien Boon. This post on Marina Mahathir’s blog is good too. I’d hate to repeat what others have already said, so I’ll keep my own thoughts brief:
- The government could have handled things much better if they had moved into damage control mode instead of counter-attacking like that. It makes me wonder if this is a reaction born out of panic and fear of losing power, or whether they actually need to be appear to be tough before the more hardcore elements of their constituency in order to avoid being usurped in an internal power struggle. If it’s the latter, it’s at least good politics even if the results aren’t too great for Malaysia. If it actually is the former, then it’s just plain stupid of them to act like this.
- Like many other Chinese, I was struck by the high level of camaraderie in the crowd. Since I’ve spent many years living abroad and have little contact with the other races in Malaysia, it was hard for me to gauge how much support the rally had among the Malays. One commentator on QT3 asked me about this and I honestly didn’t know enough about Malaysia to answer. It was extremely heartening to learn that many Malays are far more enthusiastic in their opposition to the Barisan Nasional than the Chinese.
- A. Samad Said commented that this was the finest display of 1 Malaysia he had ever witnessed. While this sounds cheesy and I have plenty of things to disagree about with Malaysia’s poet laureate, such as his insistent championing of the Malay language, in this instance I am inclined to agree. It was a truly novel experience for me to speak and cooperate with Malays without having to be conscious of our different races.
- The lameness of the mainstream media is an old subject by now but I think this episode makes it more apparent than ever. Many, many middle-class Malaysians had to read accounts of the event that they personally knew were untrue from eyewitness accounts. It’s hard to believe all these thousands of Malaysians can go back to trusting what these media organizations say.
- On the negative side, I’m still nonplussed that apart from Ambiga Sreenevasan herself and A. Samad Said, most of the leaders prominent in the movement are attached to opposition parties. Where are the heads of the trade unions, religious groups and other NGOs that are part of the coalition? Obviously the opposition politicians have more incentives to trumpet their prominence, but I’d hoped that the other NGOs could be more visible so as to credibly turn the movement into a more neutral affair.
Despite the lower than expected turnout, I think it’s hard to call the rally anything other than a success, especially after how the government repeatedly shot itself in the foot in its response. People are certainly far more alive now to how much in-grained opposition there is to Barisan Nasional and more cognizant of just how far the government is willing to go to hold on to the power. Most people who turned out at the rally are extremely happy and proud that they did so while those who didn’t go have expressed disappointment in themselves that they missed the chance to be part of something big and important. It’s still a long slow grind towards true democracy but the Bersih rally will likely be remembered as a critical stepping stone along that path.
To be honest, I was somewhat reluctant to join in the rally. While I consider myself interested in politics, I’m more of a policy wonk. I like to think about how social engineering is achieved through legislation and education. By contrast, politics in Malaysia is about personalities. This makes the local scene very uninteresting to me. Similarly, while I laud the movement’s aim of clean and fair elections and I do agree that political gatherings are a fundamental right and not a privilege that we need to apply permission for, I also think that there is substance in the government’s complaints that the movement is simply a political rally organized by the opposition parties. I think it is a mistake that the opposition parties tried to grab so much of the focus. Bersih is supposedly a coalition of many NGOs. Why not have them take center-stage instead of the opposition parties?
At the same, I was scared. The risk of being arrested and having to face the consequent legal hassles were slight but non-negligible. One of our friends, who seems to join in all these protests, had also warned us that the authorities would be sure to deploy tear gas. We would also need to run at a moment’s notice, a dangerous activity while being in the middle of a crowd. Then there’s always the chance that things could get really ugly if the Perkasa and Umno Youth counter-rallies actually manage to clash with the Bersih group. Still, my wife was quite insistent, we had plenty of friends who would be going and it was for a good cause, so we went.
Continue reading Bersih 2.0 Rally
Due to a combination of various factors including illness, an unexpected holiday and an abnormally slow Internet connection, I have been remiss in writing new posts this week. Here are a few links to some interesting items to tide you over:
- China’s State Administration of Radio, Film & Television has effectively banned all plots involving time travel from films. The stated reasons are that such stories treat history frivolously and disrespectfully and time-travel itself is unrealistic bad science. The suspected real reason is that China does not want people to compare the society that they have now with living conditions in the past. I’d also hazard that China feels uncomfortable about exploring “what if” historical scenarios. Additional fun fact: the Hearts of Iron games are also banned in China because it depicts places like Tibet, Shaanxi, Yunan etc. as independent states.
- Iphone and ipad users should be careful. Apparently Apple has been secretly tracking the movement of users of the devices. The devices seem to automatically log its geographic position together with a timestamp at irregular intervals and save the data to an internal file without asking permission from owners or telling them that it is doing so. As many Internet pundits have noted, if you’ve been having an affair or lying to your employer about where you have been, a look at the file will reveal all your secrets.
- In the latest of many pages on the sins of the Catholic church, an investigative reporter has written a new book alleging that thousands of Vatican-based priests have illicit sexual relationships. The book tells stories of priests having families complete with children in secret, of paid sex with escorts and of gay priests partying in nightclubs in Rome. It also cites research alleging that up to a quarter of Catholic priests in the US are involved in heterosexual relationships with women. My take: it’s not the sex that is offensive, it is the hypocrisy that rankles.
- Finally, I recently learned that Ted Chiang has a short story available for reading online. Exhalation was apparently made available for free when it was nominated for the Hugo Award for 2009. It won incidentally. It’s a fantastic story that successfully paints a picture of strange society of alien within just a few succinct paragraphs. Ted Chiang is probably my favorite writer of short science-fiction right now ever since Greg Egan’s quality dropped in the 2000s. My favorite story of his however is still Story of Your Life which examines free will from the perspective that language determines thought.