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Ijok: Is there more than Najib vs Anwar at stake?

So I gather some see this by-election as a proxy battle between Najib and Anwar. Others see it as a mini-referendum on the Barisan Nasional’s performance. Then again, there are many who are totally put off by the way the BN announces millions of ringgit in development allocations in the run-up to polling day. They call it a “buy election”. Where is the morality; does anybody care about ethics?

In the heat of the by-election campaign, there has been much discussion about the ethnicity of the candidates and whether Keadilan did the right thing in appointing Khalid to counter the BN’s candidate from the MIC.

To me, the candidates’ ethnicity is completely irrelevant. What I want to know – and this is what voters should ask – is their stand on the issues that really matter. Of course, it is also important to have a significant opposition presence in Parliament to act as a check and balance.

One of the most critical issues that voters should be concerned about is the ongoing FTA negotiations with the United States. We may have missed the United States’ “fast-track” deadline, but that has not stopped both sides from pressing ahead with the negotiations. That shows us how badly the United States wants an FTA with Malaysia after putting Korea in its pocket. Let’s hear what the two candidates have to say about this.

I am against an FTA with the United States because I believe it will hurt a developing nation like Malaysia in the long run. I want to know why the Malaysian government is pressing on with the FTA when it hasn’t made public a cost-benefit analysis. Has it even prepared a comprehensive analysis? Shouldn’t the public know about these things? Most of us are not aware that the US trade unions themselves have joined forces with the MTUC to oppose the proposed pact.

Why would trade unions in both countries oppose an FTA pact? This is what I wrote for IPS:

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 22 (IPS) – Trade unions from the United States have joined forces with their Malaysian counterparts to strongly oppose ongoing negotiations for bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) until workers’ concerns are first addressed.

The American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) and the Malaysian Trades Unions Congress (MTUC) are poised to ink a joint declaration agreed upon in Kuala Lumpur last week.

The declaration resembles those that U.S. labour federations had previously signed with their counterparts in South Korea in June, Central America (2002) and Australia (2001),

The Kuala Lumpur declaration on the proposed US-Malaysia FTA asserts that economic integration between the two countries must result in broadly shared benefits for working people and communities, not simply extend and enforce corporate power and privilege. It also warns that violations to workers’ rights had reached crisis levels. Full article: US unions oppose free trade with Malaysia

The not-so-golden golden years

Whenever we talk of marginalised groups, many of us tend to think of migrant workers, Orang Asli, refugees, plantation workers and squatters, people with HIV/AIDS.

Often, we tend to overlook the fact that many of the senior citizens among us are no less marginalised, whether at home or in public life, while the young take centre stage.

It is a sad fact that the contribution of senior citizens to society and their wisdom are rarely recognised. Many of them receive only a few hundred ringgit a month in pension or have long since used up their meagre EPF savings and have to rely on their children for financial support. For most of them, it is a daily struggle to balance their budget.

I had a long chat with William, a sprightly senior citizen, several months ago. He told me about the deep loneliness and insecurity that accompany old age and the alienation that senior citizens often feel. It prompted me to write a piece for the Malaysian Herald, an excerpt of which is reproduced below:

When you consider that the cost of living has soared, it is hard to imagine how retirees make ends meet. This is especially true in the case of health care. On the one hand, private hospital treatment is so expensive, while on the other the queues at government hospitals are so long. If Jesus were around, he would surely have pity on the crowds, many of them senior citizens, waiting to see doctors, waiting at the pharmacy to get their medicines, waiting for buses to take them to hospital. If they need to see a specialist or need specialised tests such as an MRI, they may have to wait for weeks if not months. God help those who need urgent specialist attention and who don’t have the money. Even if the serious ill are admitted to hospital, how are the bed-ridden treated there and what is the quality of nursing care like?

But getting to the hospital itself is another challenge. They either have to rely on family members and friends for transport. Taxis are of course expensive, especially for those struggling to make ends meet. Our public transport, on the other hand, is hardly friendly to senior citizens and the disabled nor does it take you up to the hospital doorstep. For senior citizens to use public transport, it has to be safe, accessible, efficient, caring and inexpensive. Can that be said for the public transport we have in Malaysia?

Moreover, to use public transport, you have to first walk along the road and cross at junctions. Crossing a busy road can be a nightmare for the ailing senior citizen or disabled person as unfortunately, here in Malaysia, motor vehicles rule the road.

The pavements are no easier as many of them are designed without the senior citizens and disabled in mind. They have all kinds of obstacles in their path, with steep steps up and down ever so often. The pedestrian will be confronted with motorcycles (parked illegally), lampposts, telephone booths, signboard stands, tables and chairs. How are senior citizens and the disabled supposed to navigate their way through this obstacle course? This is in stark contrast to more developed countries, where senior citizens often use public transport at discounted rates and walk along or even use wheelchairs along wide empty pavements that are much friendlier to their needs.

Will Asean follow the EU model?

Few people are aware that Asean’s ‘Vision 2020’ of economic integration and competitiveness is to be further developed into the concept of an ‘‘Asean Economic Community (AEC)’’. The AEC is seen as the end-goal of economic integration in Asean and it could become a reality by 2015.

So will Asean follow the European Union route? Not quite.

The EU provides for the free movement of goods, services, capital (including investment) and people across the borders of member nations. Aseans seeks to do the same for goods, services, investment, capital and skilled labour. There is no freedom of movement for the poor, including the migrant workers, who have hardly any rights in Asean member countries. There will be no freedom of movement for refugees, either.

In other words, economic integration is to benefit the corporations and its managers and knowledge workers under a regime of neo-liberal policies. Not the lower-income group and the dispossessed.

This is an article I wrote for Inter Press Service last November.

Critics suspect the lack of public consultation over the Charter could be due to the real intention behind the blueprint. They see the Charter as giving a legal personality to Asean, paving the way for a regional economic framework that would facilitate investment and trade in the region, while the interests of ordinary people — workers, the poor and the marginalised — could come a distant second.

They point to the Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA), which will eliminate tariffs on all products in the region, and the Asean Framework Agreement on Services, which aims to achieve a free flow of services, both by 2015. Meanwhile, the Asean Investment Area agreement aims to facilitate a free flow of investment. Full article: Charter for Asean bloc by-passes civil society.

The great tragedy of our time

The Beirut-based journalist Robert Fisk once said, “War is the total failure of the human spirit”.

I know what he is trying to say. War brings out the worst in human nature. Bloodbaths. Torture. Senseless killing. Indiscriminate bombing. Rape.

Then again, I am not sure if it is fair to blame the human spirit as a whole. After all, the decision to proceed with war is often made by a small group of political leaders, often after whipping up patriotic fervour and manipulating their populations into throwing their support for war with the help of a compliant or servile media. Often war is fought to seize control of territory for strategic or economic interests. These wars are planned by the rich, while the victims are largely young soldiers who, for the most part, do not know the real reasons they are waging war. Moreover, in recent times, millions of people have protested against war.

Unfortunately, despite the impressive numbers on the streets, notably in 2003, they have not been able to prevent war.

Iraq is the great tragedy of our time. It is crystal clear that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was to further the economic interests of the United States and its allies. In particular, to seize strategic control of the stupendous reserves of oil in West Asia.

Since World War Two, the world has witnessed several great tragedies. Think of the occupation of Palestine and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians after the formation of Israel. The misery from this displacement and occupation continues to this day.

From October 1965 to January 1966, the Suharto-regime massacred close to half a million “suspected communists” in Indonesia. The ‘helpful’ Americans supplied up to 5,000 names from a hit list to Indonesian army generals. And from 1975, the year Indonesia invaded East Timor with a nod and a wink from the US and Australian governments, some 200,000 Timorese – a third of the population – were killed.

In the 1960s and 70s, the killing fields of Vietnam and Cambodia claimed millions more lives. For a decade in the 1960s and 70s, the American military’s operations in Vietnam – through a massive land army, tonnes of bombs and chemical agents – resulted in more than 3 million dead Vietnamese. Then, in the early 1970s, the American bombing of Cambodia killed 600,000 people, raising the curtain for the genocidal Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot to emerge.

Thousands more were tortured and killed in Latin America at the hands of US-trained death squads during the Reagan years in particular. All this to pave the way for neo-liberal economic policies in the continent.

Then, in 1994, as the United Nations dithered and debated, between 800,000 to a million people were killed in a bloody genocide in Rwanda.

More recently, the brutal violence between the Sudanese-backed Janjaweed (“devils on horseback”) militia and the land-tilling tribes in Darfur has led to the loss of 400,000 lives.

But perhaps no other nation has suffered more in recent times from war than the people of Iraq. If you take the deaths from the US-driven sanctions imposed in the 1990s and those following the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the figure easily surpasses one million and could well be reaching two million by now. That’s not counting the couple of million others who have been displaced by the war. And that’s also not counting the dead and wounded Iraqis and Iranians – close to a million in all –  during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s, when Iraq was backed by the United States.

Indeed, Iraq is the tragedy of our time. A war based on lies and deception whose perpetrators – Bush and Blair and Howard – are nothing less than war criminals.

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for the Malaysian Herald last October:

If Saddam was the Butcher of Baghdad, what do you call American and British leaders who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis since the 1990s? Think of the first Gulf War, when ‘coalition forces’ took part in a turkey shoot of retreating Iraqi soldiers, even burying some of them alive.

And think of the genocidal sanctions imposed on Iraq under a UN blockade, devised and controlled by the United States and Britain, during the 1990s, which were responsible for more than half of million ‘excess deaths’ involving children. Humanitarian relief that should have gone to Iraq was held back.

When the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright was questioned in 1996 about the loss of so many lives, she callously and infamously replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price– we think the price is worth it.”

Think of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which according to the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, has resulted in 650,000 excess deaths since 2003. Every day, dozens of people in Iraq continue to be killed. Think of Fallujah (and the assault and capture of the hospital there) and the torture at Abu Ghraib… and the use of horrific weapons such as depleted uranium (DU) only adds to the crimes against humanity. The use of DU has led to a massive increase in birth defects and cancer among Iraqis.

And don’t forget the 20,000 people killed in Afghanistan, in retaliation for the 3,000 killed on Sept 11. So all in, more than one million dead in recent times.

While all this is going on, people are forgetting the daily Palestinian suffering and the rising death toll in the vast prison camp of Gaza at the hands of Israel, a US ally.

The United States never faced a threat of attack from Iraq. Thus, the US-UK invasion of Iraq was outright aggression. Such a crime was referred to during the Nuremberg trials after World War II as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”. And 650,000 dead Iraqis is the result of the accumulated evil unleashed in Iraq by the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of the country.

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.