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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

Oil wars and nuclear nightmares

What happens when one day you go to the petrol station and find that there is no more petrol? One of the main worries in many countries these days is that the oil is running out.

All the while, political leaders and corporate tycoons will avoid addressing the principal issue that can slow down global warming and save fast-depleting oil and gas reserves. That is, they will avoid questioning our model of economic growth. For that would mean looking at corporations and the powerful influence they have in brain-washing entire populations that their activities are sustainable.

We are going down a road that is not sustainable and can only lead to darkness and chaos in the future. Let us do something about our wasteful lifestyles. Let us question the power and influence of corporations and the assumption of unending economic growth before the oil dries up and we are forced into a nuclear energy nightmare.

In this piece for the Herald in February, I argued that our economic growth model is seriously flawed:

Rather than turning to conservation and looking at other alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind-power, we are hell bent down the path of producing and consuming even more. That is not surprising given that our whole political-economic-corporate edifice rests on that basic assumption, which is never questioned, of annual economic growth ad infinitum.

Energy Minister Lim Keng Yaik says there is a need to diversify our energy sources, but that does not address the energy requirements of the next generation of Malaysians.

The scary thing is that more and more countries will be tempted to resort to nuclear energy when the oil, gas, coal and hydropower is not enough to meet people’s unquenchable demand.

Even in Malaysia, already we can hear talk of nuclear energy as a possible future source, although Lim dismissed the possibility of that in the immediate future especially in view of the surplus electricity from Bakun Dam in Sarawak. Plans are underway for surplus electricity from Bakun to be channelled via undersea cables to the peninsula while the rest will be taken up by energy-guzzling and polluting aluminium smelter plants in Sarawak. (That is another debacle, too long to go into in this piece.)

Meanwhile, we see the United States already involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they are sending 20,000 more troops to Iraq while the thump of war drums for a possible strike against Iran grows louder. Some analysts say that the US military will pretty soon be turned into a force to protect its energy security needs, including oil wells and pipelines around the world.

Alliances will be formed between countries to address their energy needs and countries will be forced to take sides. We saw how upset a top United States lawmaker was when he found out that a Malaysian firm was involved in a huge energy deal with Iran to develop offshore gas fields in south-eastern Iran and establish liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants. So upset was he that he called on the US administration to suspend discussions for a Free Trade Agreement between Malaysia and the United States. This just goes to show that by signing an FTA, Malaysia would be expected to fall in line with the United States not only in trade matters but also with larger US “strategic goals” anywhere in the world. Meaning, their enemies will become our enemies.

Size does matter: Small is beautiful

We are told Bigger is Better. Big Airports, Big Bridges, Big Corporations, Big Shopping Malls, Big Dams, Bigger Banks, Bigger Plantation Firms, Bigger Highways (oh, what a nuisance, the oil is running out though) and even Big Agriculture. And we measure our well-being by how much we earn (and consume) – as in Per Capita Income levels – and how much more we can produce (the Gross Domestic Product or economic growth rates). We rarely factor into the equation the damage done to the environment or the loss of scarce natural resources.

And everywhere people are working to feed the unquenchable System, which it turn feeds our materialistic and consumerist desires. As a result, many Multinational Corporations today are richer and more powerful than some of the developing countries.

We have talked a lot about this Big Neo-Liberal Economic System. It is a system aided and abetted by politicians and their cronies, who are driven by greed and corruption to further deplete the world of its resources.

The System is decaying, though. The Pax Americana world we live in is tottering, the US dollar highly vulnerable, due to the massive financial deficits in the United States. The dollar is only propped up by demand for US dollars from developing countries and their external reserves maintained in dollars, but that could change as more nations switch to the euro currency.

The housing bubble in the United States is bursting and this could lead to a sharp slowdown in the US economy, precipitating a crisis of sorts. In the Middle East, America is stuck in a quagmire and could worsen matters by taking some sort of military action against Iran, which could overstretch its armies. Faced with the twin threat of global warming and imperial overstretch, the US-influenced global Empire is about to come unstuck.

But what is the alternative to this Empire, you might well ask? In this excerpt from an article I wrote for the Herald, I tried to show that the only way out of the crisis facing humanity today is to adopt simplicity and renunciation as guiding principles in all areas of life and to use small local solutions wherever possible.

First of all, we have to be convinced that…a system based on materialism and greed goes against the basic principles of the Gospel (and for that matter, Buddhist teachings). Think of the call to renunciation (“Sell all your possessions and come, follow me”), simplicity (“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”), and sharing of possessions (The Feeding of the Multitude).

We cannot rely on nation states or national politicians alone to significantly reform such a system – because for the most part, many of them are deeply mired in and compromised by the System. Maybe that is why many people in the developed world, sensing this, have withdrawn from politics, thus contributing to low voter turnouts at elections.

Concerned people and communities must act to bring about the change we want. But what sort of change do we want?

“Small is Beautiful”. That happens to be the title of a series a path-breaking books by Schumacher. No, not the Formula One driver, but E F Schumacher, an economist.

“Ever bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom,” he observed. “Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.”

“Man is small and therefore, small is beautiful,” he famously declared.

Heavily influenced by Buddhist economics from his travels to Burma, Schumacher believed that people needed good work to achieve holistic human development. “Production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life,” he said.

He was also greatly influenced by Catholicism. Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and the thoughts on distributivism by Catholic thinkers such as G K Chesterton resonated with Schumacher’s own thoughts on socio-economic justice. In 1971, Schumacher converted to Catholicism.

Today, people at the local level are beginning to stir. We can also see the signs of this “glocal” approach during the gathering of grassroots groups at the annual World Social Forums, also attended by Christian (including Catholic) groups involved in justice and peace work. At home, we saw it during the local protests against the Broga incinerator and PMPCIII’s call for a revival of basic local communities.

But for change at the local level to blossom, we also need local democracy, which requires elections to town and village councils, something we don’t have in Malaysia. Real local democracy would allow people to participate in the issues that concern them – very much in line with the CST principle of Subsidiarity.

Fudging the real causes of global warming

Although there is now belated recognition of global warming as a critical issue for humanity to grapple with, world leaders and the mainstream media are still fudging the real causes of global warming.

One likely reason for this smokescreen is that global warming has a lot to do with the system of corporate capitalism, which encourages consumption and infinite GDP growth. Many of us are so enamoured with “The System” because it gives us a false illusion of “progress” and comfort (though many others suffer or are exploited by this same system).

In this piece for the Herald, I observed that we are so locked into this system and its illusion that it prevents us from seeing that corporations and consumers are feeding off each other while seriously harming the environment.

The neo-liberal economic system also prevents our leaders from taking decisive action to protect the environment and its people. Instead, they spend a lot of their time protecting the interests of corporations and their corporate cronies.

“…the fundamental point is that, to reach their powerful positions in society, Blair, Brown and other western leaders have had to subordinate the planet’s future to the prerogative of global economic ‘growth’; or, to put it more honestly – to the bottom-line corporate expediency of endless profit benefiting privileged sectors of society,” observed the UK-based Media Lens group, which has produced some outstanding critical analyses of the corporate media. “Any would-be political leader determined to change the current patterns of production and consumption would barely get out of the starting blocks, never mind reach the finishing tape of real political power,” it observed.

This corporate-led system puts capital above labour, profits above people, and GDP economic growth above the environment. Under this system, corporations burn fossil fuels to obtain the energy needed to meet our rising levels of consumption. The corporations are also responsible for fuelling this rise in consumption through their aggressive marketing and promotion strategies and pervasive advertisements. And all the while, they clear the land and cut hills for “development”, pollute rivers with their chemical discharges, emit toxic fumes into the air, and burn more and more fossil fuels.

Even activists feel resigned, thinking that there is no way we can stop this kind of globalisation in its tracks. Sometimes they sigh, “Globalisation is here to stay; we cannot stop it, so what can we do?”

Yes, globalisation is here to stay. But let’s be specific. What kind of globalisation do we really want? Is it corporate-led globalisation that benefits a small fabulously wealthy elite group, widens the gap between the rich and the poor, fuels global warming and exploits workers? Do we really want to live in a world ruled by corporations?

Or would we rather have people-centred globalisation that promotes solidarity with the poor, harmony with Nature, holistic and spiritual growth, and respect for the rights of all?

As long as we do not tackle the real causes of global warming, so long will we have to deal with it apocalyptic results – death, illness, homelessness, famine, and misery.

Changing the model of globalisation will not be easy. But change it we must so that it does not exploit people and the environment. We have to work and struggle for it in our own way. Every little bit will count.