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“Hell, the whole Bakun Dam catchment is under logging”

I was shocked when I saw aerial images of logging access roads criss-crossing the Bakun catchment area and photographs of forests being cleared for conversion to plantations. Mind you, the aerial images are a few years old, so things could only have got worse. How could logging and conversion to plantations be allowed in and near the Bakun catchment area especially when billions of ringgit have already been pumped into the construction of the dam – not to mention the impact of deforestation on climate change.

The degradation of the catchment area for the Bakun Dam in Sarawak will only worsen sedimentation in rivers flowing into the dam, cutting into its useful life span. That, in turn, brings into question the viability of a multibillion-dollar submarine cable to bring Bakun power to the peninsula – for which Malaysia is reportedly set to borrow RM9 billion from Japan. Do the investors and lenders know what they are getting into?

These concerns are highlighted in a piece I wrote for Asia Times Online:

Recent reports of environmental degradation have cast a shadow over the viability of Malaysia’s US$2 billion Bakun Dam project and a related multibillion-dollar submarine cable system, which, if completed as proposed, would be the longest such electrical connection in the world. Full article: New doubts over Malaysia’s Bakun Dam

“Misfits” not invited to globalisation party

We can see them everywhere, if only we care to look more closely: the cleaners, the security guards, the check-out counter staff, the domestic maids, the exploited migrant workers – all trying to earn enough to make ends meet.

Increasingly, the lower-middle class too is being squeezed as wages barely keep up with the rising cost of living.

As neo-liberal economics and “free markets” take hold, the public is being converted from taxpayers entitled to decent public services to “customers” and “consumers”. The doctrine that is brainwashed into the minds of the public is “if you want quality service, you have to pay for it”. The concept of a progressive tax system (higher taxes from the rich to cross-subsidise the poor who pay minimal or no taxes) to finance essential services such as health care, water and education is tossed out of the window.

Instead, the government cuts taxes for the rich as well as corporation taxes for profitable firms. This is one of the ways the rich get richer and the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider.

That’s not all: the government often argues it has no money to fund essential services for the poor: no unemployment benefits, no money to build more shelters for the homeless, no money for critical care hospices in all major towns, no money to upgrade our under-funded and understaffed general hospitals.

In this excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Herald, I pointed out that corporate media propaganda bombards us with images of a utopian society in which people drink RM9 cups of latte while clicking away on their laptops using wireless broadband.

Fast cars, a borderless world, the sky’s the limit.

Except if you happened to be a “misfit”. Then, no matter how hard you try, such a world is simply beyond your grasp. You are dumped on the streets.

You see, corporate-led globalisation creates this image of a utopian world where our every desire is fulfilled (although other new desires are constantly being stirred – for that is how the huge corporations create demand for their ever-newer range of products).

But the problem is, although everyone can see these utopian images over the corporate media, not everyone can gain access into this utopian world or fulfil the desires that have been stirred.

That’s when we see people trying to take short-cuts – corruption, greed, the cutting of corners – while resentment at being left out simmers. The crime rate soars as some of those who are left out try to gatecrash into the utopian party. Sorry, not invited. Many of them land up in jail. Some turn to drugs and alcohol.

Soon the prisons and detention centres fill up with petty criminals, drug abusers, robbers, undocumented workers. On the other hand, the white-collar criminals in business suits – who may be involved in larger sums of corruption, theft and environmental destruction – rarely land up in jail. Perhaps they are more efficient in covering up their tracks and putting on a business-friendly face.

And so the rich and the middle-classes complain that the crime rate is worrying. They hire their own security guards, retreat into gated communities with high walls, and look over their shoulders while at ATM machines.

It’s a lot easier to blame the rising crime rate on “foreign workers”, isn’t it? But try connecting the neo-liberal globalisation dots and we might see a different picture.

 

Rommel, the NEP and the EU’s hidden agenda

When writing the piece below for IPS, I spoke to economist Charles Santiago, who told me that non-Malays are so tired of the discrimination under the NEP that many of them would support FTAs with the US and the EU. “But they have to keep in mind the larger implications of an FTA, which means that whether you are a Chinese, Malay or Kadazan businessman or woman, you will face stiff competition from TNCs who are technologically superior,” he warned. ”It will be a takeover of our businesses in the long run.”

”There is a hidden agenda here,’‘ he added. ”They (EU officials) are in effect saying, ‘You guys open up your economy so that our European investors can take over your market’.”

Rommel’s salvo on the NEP is an opening shot across the bow as EU-Asean FTA negotiations get under way in Vietnam in July and perhaps reflects underlying frustration that Malaysia is holding out on signing a pre-agreement.

But in many ways, the NEP vs FTA choice is a false option. We all know that the NEP is deeply flawed and divisive, based as it is on race-based considerations that only serve to entrench Umno in power through a politics of patronage.

That does that mean we do not need a wide-ranging policy – call it what you will – to uplift the economic position of the many Malaysians – including ethnic minority and marginalised groups – who continue to be left out of “development”. A genuine and just affirmative action policy would be one based on need and socio-economic position – not race.

It is naive to believe that an FTA would prove beneficial to Malaysia in the long-run. One need only look at Mexico’s experience with Nafta and the Mexico-EU FTA to discover that the promises of liberalisation and so-called “free trade” are illusory.

In truth, (as we have seen with US/Nafta-led free-trade strategies in Central America), an FTA will deliver nothing favourable for Asean, the wider society or, most notably, the poorest within that society, the Glasgow-based political scientist and author John Hilley told me.

Instead, those most immediately affected, in our case the Malays and non-Malays, have to recognise the false options of domestic protectionism versus open-door trading trade being promoted here – which he says is a contrived agenda which, in turn, has led to divisive positions on the NEP.

So what is the alternative? “The real task, local, regional and global, is to reject the diversionary language of neo-liberal solutions and, as in Latin America, build alternative trading arrangements and coalitions that are about advancing the interests of people rather than big business and their political advocates,” Hilley stressed. In short, we need an economic framework that puts the interests of ordinary people over big business.

PENANG, Malaysia, Jun 27 (IPS) – Unexpected criticism of Malaysia’s race-based affirmative action policy by the European Union’s top envoy reveals underlying concerns that this could be a stumbling block to unrestricted market access for European multinational firms in the region, say analysts.

Envoy Thierry Rommel’s remarks are being seen as the opening salvo ahead of talks for a free trade agreement (FTA) between the EU and the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) that begin in July. Full article: Trade fears fuel EU criticism of race-based policy

Locking ourselves in and throwing the key away

The comments by the head of the European Commission delegation to Malaysia, Thierry Rommel, have triggered a storm a controversy with a lot of attention focused on the New Economic Policy. He said the rationale for expressing his concerns over the pro-bumiputera affirmative action policies was in relation to FTA negotiations between the EU and Asean.

It is the first time that the negotiations for the EU-Asean FTA have been highlighted in the media. And they signal disagreements behind closed doors over how to resolve NEP-related issues so that the FTA can be signed.

Non-Malays and opposition leaders who have welcomed Rommel’s remarks are missing the point. To be sure, the NEP has many serious flaws, but it has also been a major stumbling block in the negotiations for FTAs, not only with the EU but also with the United States. FTA negotiations with the United States, for instance, have been bogged down over key issues such as NEP policies on government procurement and whether it should be open to foreign firms.

This impasse could be a blessing in disguise and buy us a little time. In this piece for the Herald in February, I argued that an FTA deal with major developed nations/blocs such as the United States, Japan and the EU would lock Malaysia into a system that promotes neo-liberal economics – liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation. And once we sign those agreements, we would be effectively throwing the key away.

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.

…by signing an FTA, we would be locking ourselves into the global neo-liberal capitalist system and piggy-backing on the United States (and the EU). We would be saying “yes” to a future society ruled by multinational corporations, to a society where the income gap between the rich and the poor will grow even wider.

Crucially, we will deny ourselves the chance to pursue alternative, more independent economic paths or visions. We will deny ourselves the opportunity to move towards “Small is Beautiful” – to decentralise the economy, to create self-sufficiency among local communities, to move towards traditional organic farming instead of large-scale pesticide-driven agro-business ventures.

Instead, we will be locked into a system that promotes economic growth ad infinitum. We will become more and more dependent on rapidly depleting fossil fuels. And when that runs out, we will start playing Russian roulette with nuclear energy. All the while, we will neglect research into cleaner alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power.

Of course, if we sign an FTA and go down the “free market” Malaysia Inc road, we will never question the wisdom of a system of perpetual economic growth that fails to reach the most marginalised communities.

Sadly, our economic planners think economic growth is the solution to all our woes. Even among many opposition politicians, there is this suffocating mindset. There is this glaring inability to think of alternatives to the corporate-led globalisation model that empowers huge firms while dehumanising workers.

At most, the politicians and economists might tinker with this model by trying to add a so-called ethical, humane dimension but they would never think of questioning it.

When we are faced with a water shortage, they ask individual Malaysians to conserve water. But they would never dream of asking corporations and businesses to save water – simply because “it does not compute”. The whole premise of our economic system is based on the assumption that market forces alone will be able to balance a mismatch between supply of and demand for resources through pricing. But what happens when the resources themselves run out or become degraded?

At the end of the day, no matter how much you try to soften a deeply flawed, unjust economic model, the poor will continue to suffer and the earth will continue to be degraded and polluted. That is because the system is oppressive and designed to profit the corporations at the expense of ordinary workers and the environment. The system undermines the dignity of the human being while promoting the interests of capital. It is a system – propped up by corporate propaganda over the media – that is almost totalitarian in its lack of tolerance for dissenting views.

Death of a migrant worker

Malaysians are so riveted by the Altantuya murder case that they didn’t notice that another foreign national has died in Malaysia in mysterious circumstances. Well, I wouldn’t blame them as the news went unreported in the local media.

Vipin V Nair was found hanged in a budget hotel room in George Town, Penang earlier this month. What drove a young man from India to take his life in a foreign land?

Sadly, even if we had heard about it, I doubt if the news would have raised any eyebrows. After all, he was “just a migrant worker”. No big-time political intrigue, no political powerplay.

But if we care to look deeper, we will see that many migrant workers are victims of exploitation, cheating and deception. Many parties stand to make a lot of money from the recruitment of foreign workers into Malaysia. Think about it: you have recruitment agents’ fees and other costs in their home countries, Fomema charges for medical tests, higher general hospital charges for medical treatment, annual foreign workers’ levies and of course low wages once they arrive here. That doesn’t include the bribes and extortion rackets that some foreign workers encounter along the way.

Most of us look the other way and turn a blind eye to such exploitation and a deaf ear to their cries of anguish. After all, the attitude is as long as we can live in prosperity, why bother? Never mind if there are others who suffer in the process.

Here is the story I wrote of Vipin and his friends and their experience in Malaysia:

PENANG, Jun 19 (IPS) – He died a lonely death in a budget hotel room in downtown George Town earlier this month, far away from home. The death went unreported in the local media and unnoticed by most Malaysians.

But what drove this worker from India in his mid-20s to take his life, assuming there was no foul play? Undertakers told IPS that the death certificate indicated the cause of death as hanging. His body was sent home to India on June 10. Full article: Death of a migrant worker