In a parting shot, Thierry Rommel, the European ambassador who left his post on Tuesday, castigated the Malaysian government for its deplorable human rights record and the “discriminatory” New Economic Policy (NEP).
News reports quoted Rommel as saying the executive in Malaysia is “all-powerful and not accountable” while the judiciary remains beholden to the executive because the prime minister directly makes the appointments. He said Umno runs the country like its own backyard and that the Malaysia was “a one-party state”.
“The parliament (is) useless. No fair elections, no freedoms. Police is unaccountable. Internal checks and balances? Forget it. So where do you find characteristics that (represent) democracy?”
Malaysians struggling for greater democracy, who marched in the tens of thousands on 10 November, might be forgiven for thinking that they had found an influential ally in Rommel and the European Union.
Big mistake. Although most of Rommel’s remarks ring true, they must be seen in the context of the forthcoming negotiations for the EU-Asean FTA which begins next year. With this FTA, the EU hopes to prise open the Asean market for unfettered access by European multinational corporations. This will no doubt also accelerate the neo-liberal agenda across the region.
You know, I was there in the crowd on 10 November, revelling in the sense of exhilaration and determination among 50,000 ordinary Malaysians – many of them from the lower-income group, excluded from the process of development – in their quest for greater freedom, socio-economic justice and democracy. I was proud to be Malaysian that day.
But watch out! Keep a wide berth of individuals or groups acting on behalf of the European Union who represent the interest of Global Capital while putting on the cloak of human rights. Be wary of benign-sounding American “pro-democracy NGOs” which, while saying the right things about democracy and human rights, are just as interested in prising open our domestic markets for MNCs to plunder. (Remember, the negotiations for the US-Malaysia FTA are still going on in secret behind the scenes – hidden from public scrutiny.) This is the new form of economic colonisation that we must be wary of.
Many of them are masters of the art of hijacking perfectly legitimate people power movements and using them to serve the interests of big MNCs. They deviously try to equate the people’s struggle for political freedom/economic justice with the so-called “free trade”/”market reforms” (read, neo-liberal) agenda (i.e. freedom and reforms that serve the MNCs’ interests). If we are not sophisticated enough, the people power movement in Malaysia could fall into their trap before we can shout “Bersih!”
If the European Union is really interested in human rights, it should take stern action against all European firms doing business with the despicable military junta in Burma.
Of course, the Malaysian government’s human rights record is deplorable. Of course, we must do something about it. But we have to pursue the struggle independently and, in the process, we should be watchful and mindful over surrendering economic sovereignty (the space for Malaysian economic policy-makers, in consultation with the public, to decide what is in the best interests of ordinary people as opposed to the interests of Big Business, multinational corporations and foreign investors).
We do not need high-powered diplomats, representing the interests of Global Capital, to join us in the struggle for freedom and democracy.
Let us not forget that top on the list of Rommel’s priorities was carrying out the groundwork for the negotiations for the EU-Asean FTA.
In a previous entry, I had observed:
Make no mistake, the US and EU are not interested in whether the NEP is discriminatory to non-Malays or beneficial for the Malaysian economy. Rather US and EU trade negotiators are more interested in making it easier for giant multinational corporations to enter the country and take control of the local economy, to flood the country with their goods. They want to entrench the rights of American and European investors ahead of the interests of the local economy including the SMEs. Instead of Malaysia becoming self-sufficient and promoting energy and food security, for instance, we will find ourselves increasingly locked into the vagaries of the unsustainable global economic system even as the very planet is threatened by global warming and rising sea levels.
It is no coincidence that Rommel was once again critical of the New Economic Policy, which he said is a policy “that is discriminatory, that is protectionist and which hinders fair competition and a level playing field”. See also: Rommel, the NEP and the EU’s hidden agenda.
Sure, the NEP (while it has achieved a measure of success in creating an ethnic Malay middle-class) has been abused to enrich and concentrate wealth in a small elite segment of the population through rent-seeking and patronage.
The NEP has been abused so much that it has given legitimate affirmative action a bad name. Blanket race-based affirmative action, which also benefits the wealthy, must be abolished but it must not be replaced with the so-called “free trade” agenda” that would allow the Asean region to become a playground for the big European and US MNCs in direct competition with local businesses.
That would be falling from the frying pan into the fire. It would be as silly as imagining that the Malaysian football team, playing on home ground, could compete with the likes of Manchester United and Bayern Munich just because the Bukit Jalil Stadium has a “level playing field”.
Let us not forget that European countries and the United States in their early stages of industrial development were highly protectionist.
For all its warts, the NEP has been a stumbling block towards the interests of global capital. But already we can see the signs that the floodgates are opening and MNCs are rushing in. Those representing the interests of Global Capital perhaps now see a window of opportunity in the People Power movement, which they hope would ultimately result in the end of the NEP, thus allowing MNCs unfettered access in this part of the world.
That kind of unrestricted access must remain blocked in the interests of the local economy and its people. We need to get rid of race-based affirmative action policies, cronyism and patronage, yes, but they should be replaced with affirmative action policies to genuinely help the really poor – based on need (not ethnicity). We need greater social spending on essential services and a minimum wage to narrow the vast gulf between the rich and the poor in Malaysian society – which has arisen partly, I suspect, because of the process of neo-liberalisation that has already taken place. We need a strong labour/trade union movement to protect the interests of workers.
EU and Asean FTAs, make no mistake, would only accelerate the neo-liberal trend with devastating consequences for the poor in Malaysia who are already finding that their wages are unable to keep pace with the rising cost of living.
So let’s not be naïve. Malaysians in the pro-democracy struggle must be sophisticated enough to differentiate between those who are sincerely behind them in the struggle for socio-economic justice and human rights and the wolves who are out to hijack the people power movement in the interests of Global Capital and Big Business.