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A classic PR battle

You may not have noticed, but a classic PR battle is being waged between the agrichemical industry and anti-paraquat campaigners.

Round One went to the anti-paraquat campaigners, when they succeeded in getting the Malaysian government to ban the dangerous pesticide.

The industry lobby fought back in Round Two and, using the  immense resources at their disposal, succeeded in getting the ban “temporarily lifted” for “further study”.

But the ‘umpire’ was far from neutral. Why did the government cave in to the industry lobby over the interests of pesticide sprayers, many of them women who are exposed to these hazadous substance? Well, that’s the million dollar question. Actually, lots of millions at stake.

The use of pesticides ties in with the Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s emphasis on agrobusiness-driven agriculture, which focuses on lucrative cash crops. Such cash crops not only benefit large corporations but they invariably involve the extensive use of pesticides. It is the estate workers and plantation workers – rather than the fat-cat plantation bosses and their agrichemical counterparts – who are the most vulnerable to pesticide use.

This is an article I wrote for IPS last October:

PENANG, Oct 18 (IPS) – The Malaysian government has stunned activists by ‘‘temporarily lifting” a ban on the toxic weed-killer paraquat so that ‘‘an extensive study” can be carried out.

The move, this month, follows an intensive lobbying campaign by the Swiss agrochemical giant, Syngenta, which markets the herbicide under the brand name Gramoxone, and other industry groups. Full article: Return of paraquat – Activists aghast.

Local democracy or local comedy?

Few of us are aware that our country had a thriving system of elections to local councils in the 1950s and 1960s.

Back then, we had 373 local authorities – 40 town councils, 37 town boards, 289 local councils and 7 district councils. Out of some 4,200 local councillors (not including those in the Kuala Lumpur municipality), more than 3,000 were elected. George Town, Ipoh and Malacca were the most prominent of these councils and Penang itself had fully elective councils throughout the state, including the mainland. In fact, the first elections in Malaya were held in George Town in 1951 to elect nine councillors.

The government later abolished local government elections. The deathblow came with the enactment of the Local Government Act of 1976, which effectively killed off local council elections and replaced them with a system of appointments that rewards ruling coalition politicians and supporters with positions in local councils.

This is an extract from a piece I wrote for the Malaysian Herald:

I once watched a hilarious comedy performance by Comedy Court’s Indi Nadarajah and Allan Perera, in which one of them played the part of an elected representative chastising a colleague for not coming up with more ‘creative’ ways of justifying junkets abroad. With these creative justifications, there would be no need to worry about being caught for wasting taxpayers’ money on tours that include, say, belly dancing performances along the Nile. Our two comedians concluded that such foreign junkets could easily be explained away by euphemisms such as “understanding cultural practices” (belly dancing!), “studying the landscape” (a golfing holiday), and “examining consumer spending patterns” (a shopping/sightseeing tour)!

Now you might wonder what local council elections have to do with Christianity. Actually, a lot. Grassroots, bottom-up democracy at the local level is very much in line with Catholic Social Teaching (CST). One of the most constant and characteristic directives of CST is the principle of ‘subsidiarity’, which has been present since the first great social encyclical Rerum Novarum. This principle, which implies participation, means that responsibility for decisions should be as close as possible to the grassroots. This would allow people or communities who are most directly affected by decisions or policies to participate in the decision-making process.

“Participation in community life is not only one of the greatest aspirations of the citizen, called to exercise freely and responsibly his civic role with and for others, but is also one of the pillars of all democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the permanence of the democratic system” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 190 ‘Participation and democracy’).

Do we have such participation in community life as part of our democratic system? The only time we have a say is once every five years during the general election, during which there is an intense media and PR campaign to get people to vote in a certain way. But these elections do not cover town councils.

Surely, democracy is more than that. Authentic democracy means public and popular participation in the decision-making process at all levels. Reviving elections to local councils would go a long way in restoring genuine democracy at the local level….

People in the dark over Asean Charter

Few people are even aware that a major development is taking place in South-East Asia. As usual, we are in the dark.

Before long, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will come up with a Charter. In other words, work is in progress towards coming up with a ‘constitution’ for the regional grouping of 10 nations.

Strange, they are talking about forming an Asean Community by 2015 and yet most people don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Here’s an extract from a piece I wrote for the Malaysian Herald last October:

You would think that on a subject of this importance, the people of Southeast Asia would be consulted and a broad range of views solicited. You would think that our newspapers and television and radio programmes would be discussing this week in and week out to discern what exactly should be included in such a Charter. You would think that our political leaders would be asking us for our views and suggestions.

That’s not happening, is it?

Perhaps that’s because the real intention of such a Charter is to come up with a regional framework to facilitate business and trade. Maybe the ordinary people come a distant second. It reminds me of the high-level secrecy surrounding the negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement between Malaysia and the United States… Not good…

Human rights groups and other civil society organisations are now pushing for the inclusion of certain crucial ideas into the Charter.

They want the Charter to be people-centered as opposed to business- or trade-centred. In other words, the interests of people (labour) should take precedence over the interests of corporations (capital).

Bearing in mind there are quite a few authoritarian and undemocratic governments in the region, they also want the Charter to uphold universally accepted democratic and human rights norms.

In particular, these human rights groups are asking the drafters to ensure that human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related Conventions are explicitly upheld in the ASEAN Charter. The recognition of these rights should form the overarching framework of the Charter, which should also be gender-sensitive and oriented towards sustainable development.

But all the fine words in the world will be useless if they remain mere words on paper. Activists want the drafters to ensure that effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms and institutions are provided in the Charter. These mechanisms could include semi-judicial bodies such as a regional human rights commission and judicial bodies such as a regional human rights court.

Watch what’s happening to your EPF money

So now the EPF is set to take over RHB.

The first question that comes to mind is, isn’t the EPF biting off more than it can chew? What does it know about managing a bank – or even supervising the management of a bank?

It already has plenty on its plate just managing its own funds – or rather, the public funds of EPF contributors – and ensuring that Malaysians get a decent rate of return on their pension savings.

If the EPF is so confident about managing a bank, perhaps it can tell us how and why it ended up holding a stake in a banking group which is now saddled with RM3.6 billion in debt.

That’s not all. I say, watch your EPF money closely. The EPF could also end up financing infrastructure projects under the so-called Private Finance Initiatives, which will finance RM20 billion worth of projects under the Ninth Malaysia Plan. I say “so-called” because the money is reportedly expected to come from the EPF, which manages public funds, your money – not private money.

This is the piece I wrote for Asia Times Online last October:

PENANG – Malaysia is poised to experiment with the next phase of its privatization process through the initiation of so-called private finance initiatives (PFIs). But the Malaysian version of the internationally recognized investment vehicles will be unique in that it will be the public rather than the private sector that takes the risks. Full article: Malaysia’s new-fangled privatisation fudge

Heroic martyrs spur Latin America in new direction

I find Latin America a fascinating continent, though I have never been there. But I am inspired by the stories of the suffering of countless numbers of ordinary people who resisted the authoritarian rule of US-backed right-wing regimes. Many of these regimes served to protect the economic interests of the local (largely white) wealthy elite as well as the economic agenda of US corporations.

Thousands were killed or tortured – brutally – at the hands of death squads during the Reagan years. Others simply disappeared.

Heroic peace- and justice-loving women and men rose to resist such tyranny and oppression through sheer moral force. And their blood soaked the soil of the continent. People like Oscar Romero (El Salvador), Chico Mendes (Brazil), Ita Ford (El Salvador)… It’s a long list. Today, their sacrifices have inspired a new generation to take a more independent political, economic and social path, rooted in their local indigenous cultures, towards justice and peace.

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Malaysian Herald last October…

When people wonder about the legacy of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while celebrating Mass in El Salvador in 1980, they need look no further than what is happening in Latin America today.

Romero fought for the rights of the peasants in El Salvador and was at the forefront of the Church’s struggle on behalf of the poor. This move of his angered the vested business and economic interests in the region.

Political analyst Noam Chomsky has said the United States virtually declared war on the Catholic Church in South America for taking the side of the poor. The United States would have been so much more comfortable if the Church had remained on the side of the rich and the powerful.

So many priests, activists and community leaders were tortured, murdered or simply ‘disappeared’ during the bloody 1970s and 1980s. In November 1989, six leading Jesuit intellectuals and two of their employees were murdered by a US-trained elite battalion.

Shortly before he was murdered in 1980, Romero wrote a letter to President Carter, pleading with him to end US support for state terror. Chomsky recounts how Romero informed the rector of the Jesuit University, Father Ellacuria, that he was prompted by his concern over a “new concept of special warfare, which consists in murderously eliminating every endeavour of the popular organisations under the allegation of Communism or terrorism…”

Carter never responded and instead sent more financial aid.

This tactic of smearing and targeting those who champion the interests of the people, especially the poor, continues to this day around the world.

Minutes before he was murdered, Romero had read from the Gospel of John: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit ”(Jn. 12:23-26).

Romero’s funeral was the largest demonstration in the history of El Salvador if not Latin America. The government was so nervous that it lobbed bombs into the crowd attending the funeral, killing some 30 people and injuring hundreds.

Today, Romero’s grain is bearing much fruit in Latin America. An entire continent is rising to resist the might of US-sponsored corporate-led globalisation, which promotes neo-liberal economics that widens the gap between the rich and the poor while fabulously enriching a tiny minority.