Fifteen years of puckering up

Posted: April 18, 2014 in Politics

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz


First published in The Malay Mail and The Borneo Post on 18th April 2014

PARTI Keadilan Rakyat’s elections and its present de facto and maybe future de jure leader’s Jelajah Reformasi 2.0 roadshows touring the country have overlapped commemorations of the party’s 15th anniversary on April 4. This is counting from the formation of Parti Keadilan Nasional in 1999 rather than its merger with Parti Rakyat Malaysia in 2003, which must disappoint those who would rather commemorate the latter’s establishment as Partai Ra’ayat on Nov 11, 1955.

PKR has beaten the electoral records of three parties established by former Umno leaders: Datuk Onn Ja’afar’s Independence of Malaya Party and Parti Negara, and Semangat 46, the final party of two former prime ministers. However, PAS too was also founded by former Umno members in 1951, and as a matter of historical interest one can argue that due to Umno’s de-registration and the formation of Umno Baru in 1988, the oldest political party represented in the Malaysian Parliament today is MIC, founded in August 1946.

The recent history being retold by supporters of PKR is personal, however: recalling emotions felt at the time of Reformasi and reminiscing the journey travelled, in language that suggests diehard loyalty like that of an old school or football club.

Even for those of my generation who hold no party affiliation, the story of PKR cannot be ignored. I had just started sixth form in England when I watched the opening ceremony of the 1998 Commonwealth Games. It was such a pride-instilling event, but as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Ja’afar officiated, the commentary mentioned a political protest occurring nearby. I was in my school’s chapter of Amnesty International at the time, and soon I was getting asked about what happened to my former deputy prime minister.

Later, at the London School of Economics and Political Science, I encountered the activist crowd within the Malaysian student community. I signed an Abolish ISA Movement petition (which piqued the interest of Special Branch), and attended every LSE event that featured Malaysian politicians, including then Sarawak Chief Minister Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, who I recall interacted with a student in the Melanau language. On another occasion I joined DAP national chairman Lim Kit Siang in the London Underground to go eat at Mawar restaurant in Edgware Road after he had addressed students. This was in addition to the events organised by the government: it was at one of the High Commissioner’s Hari Raya Open Houses that I first met our then Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad. (Eventually I did see Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim speak at my university after his release from prison.)

Almost every other student I met was either inspired or disgusted by political ongoings at home. Many of those eventually entered the corporate world — but if you look at the rising stars across political parties, particularly PKR, you can trace the genesis of their stardom to university days, where they were activists and organisers of student forums: early editions of what has become ingrained in overseas Malaysian student life whether in the UK, USA or Australia (though occasionally there are silly setbacks, like the dis-invitation of Tony Pua at the upcoming Malaysian Summit of Australia in Melbourne, even though I was on the same panel as him during Masca Victoria’s Malaysian Aspiration Programme in Melbourne in 2010!).

Since those formative days, many once ardent fans, members, supporters, bloggers and commentators have lost steam, have chosen academia or civil society, or switched sides altogether. Still they were all influenced by narratives that were sparked by Reformasi, and they can rightly take credit for helping to open up Malaysian politics and making our democracy much more competitive now than it was 15 years ago.

But there is still too much emphasis on personalities, too much shaped by personal vendettas, too much dependent on patronage from the top, and too much disregard for the principles that formed this nation in chasing the popular vote. Disconcertingly, when I ask PKR members to tell me what they really believe, there is a bigger deviation in their answers than when I sample the same size of Umno, PAS or DAP members.

So to those party loyalists who have not yet lost steam and are contesting in the party elections next week in an impressively democratic process at all levels except at the very top, I hope for their sake that a more ideologically rooted future is on the cards. Reformasi 2.0 doesn’t have remotely the same organic spontaneity or visibility as the original did, but if it really is about fixing the country’s institutions and can translate into legislation that can make it happen – rather than being about personal aggrandisement – then its contributions to Malaysian politics could, 15 years from now, potentially rival the original’s.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz


First published in The Borneo Post and The Malay Mail on 11th April 2014.

The Prime Minister’s comments supporting economic liberalisation in Asean at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ National Colloquium on Malaysia’s Chairmanship of Asean 2015 have been well-reported, but here’s a summary of my subsequent session:

It augurs well that this colloquium begins with a session on the role of civil society in realising the Asean community. In my experience, Wisma Putra seems much more willing to engage with civil society than most other ministries.

I believe that any community needs civil society in order to be fully realised. There has long been activism in our country – exemplified by the late Irene Fernandez for example, who articulated independent positions outside the boundaries of government long before there was enough democratic space for a culture of independent think-tanks to emerge. We at Ideas were lucky to be established just as this phenomenon took place.

Of course there are reactionary forces that despise the growth of civil society: represented by those who wish to restore the Internal Security Act, censor the Internet and revoke opponents’ citizenship. Some would argue that these reversals have already happened under different guises, but at the same time there are courageous people within the system who keep on pressing for the expansion of democratic space.

The relationship between civil society and the state in Malaysia today is multifaceted: some politicians avoid us like the plague, others enthusiastically support us. Behind the scenes we regularly meet special officers and bureaucrats to test new policy ideas, apart from open engagements with the wider public, especially students in our educational institutions. All this helps make civil society a normative part of our country’s public life.

The contribution to our democracy is beyond doubt: new policies are routinely debated, covered by traditional media and discussed on social media. Voters demand ever more justifications to anything that emerges from political parties, and civil society in partnership with the media provides the infrastructure to hold the political class to account.

I outline our domestic scenario because similar dynamics apply throughout Asean, where there are democratic deficits both in its central institutions and constituent countries. From its inception the Asean project – whether being concerned with security or trade – has been largely shaped by diplomatic and political elites, instead of being the result of an organic, bottom-up historical process. This situation is helped by the primacy of domestic agenda in the eyes of most voters – though not everyone in Asean even has a vote. This diversity in forms of government results in diversity in civil society: Ideas could

not exist in some Asean countries.

Rather than being an easily-defined collective, ‘Asean civil society’ is better described as ‘civil society in Asean’: a combination of government-approved bodies pretending to be civil society organisations and genuinely independent organisations that flourish because they operate in democratic societies. Even so, civil society has no singular point of reference in Asean: the secretariat is under-resourced, and the post of Secretary-General has even less democratic legitimacy than some member states’ heads of government. With the Asean Way still in operation, the primary of personal relationships over a rules-based approach greatly diminishes the influence of civil society. In fact, the title of this conference pays homage to this situation: it asks what we can do when it is our turn to shine.

So should we endow Asean’s institutions with direct democratic legitimacy to bypass corrupt governments? Some would delight at that: but the implications on sovereignty are too grave, and the European experience tells us it is fraught with danger. Instead, Malaysia should play a leadership role in substantially expanding opportunities for civil society involvement so that whoever is chair in the future will always have to deal with independent voices that can help hold officials to account.

We are doing our bit to strengthen regional civil society efforts: Ideas is leading an initiative to bring together think tanks in a Southeast Asia Network for Development in pursuit of human rights and freedoms and freer trade. But civil society will have much to say outside the community’s economic pillar too, like on human trafficking and trans-boundary haze. If Asean’s political elites really do care about the region’s people, they should not be scared of much deeper multi-track diplomacy.

When Malaysia was last chairman, the first Asean Civil Society Conference was organised: another credit to our then prime minister.  Unfortunately subsequent editions in other countries have included debacles ranging from arduous government-imposed accreditation requirements or lights being turned off at venues. Just as Malaysia began something to give civil society a voice in Asean in 2005, in 2015 let us go further and enable civil society to participate in the regional policy-making process permanently.

Tanahair Aotearoa

Posted: April 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz


First published in The Malay Mail and The Borneo Post on 4th April 2014

My recent trip to New Zealand was preceded by a Gala Night organised by the High Commission entitled ‘Lima Mata Ikan – Rima Mata Ika’: Five Fish Eyes in Malay and Maori respectively. It was effective cultural diplomacy augmented by a trade and investment angle: present was a delegation of 40 businesspeople who had just visited Kuching, headed
by the Minister of Maori Affairs.

I met the minister again later that week at the Second International Maori-Malay-Polynesian Conference in Waitangi (Maori ‘wai’ is Malay ‘air’ and ‘tangi’ is ‘nangis’ — ‘crying water’) in the Bay of Islands north of Auckland. Here in 1834 an international trade flag of the United Tribes was adopted, followed in 1835 by a Declaration of Independence that was recognised by Britain, France and the USA. In 1840, a treaty was signed between Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown that confirmed a new nation: very different to the Australian narrative.

The first conference occurred in Seremban in 2012 at the initiative of Malaysian university professors and enthusiasts of the Malay World: they asked me to give a speech, and subsequently invited me to become patron of a new organisation to promote the shared roots between the peoples of Nusantara and Polynesia. I was sceptical at first, but the evidence of genetic, cultural and linguistic kinship is extensive – apart from the five already mentioned other similar words are api/ahi, mati/mate, telinga/taringa, benua/fenua, daun/rau – and Samoan words are even closer to Malay, consistent with the idea that Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand meaning Land of the Long White Cloud) was the last island to be settled by Polynesians. This is the legacy of the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian language that long predated Sanskrit influence.

In my keynote address I mentioned the importance of meeting people ‘nose-to-nose’ (as per the hongi, the traditional Maori greeting), and my curiosity of local history and culture was satiated by my generous hosts, headed by Chief Matutaera Te Nana Clendon — one of several participants who had served in Commonwealth forces during the Malayan Emergency. Such are the quirks of history, and fittingly, New Zealand’s connections towards Asia and the Pacific are finally coming to the fore — just as is happening with Australia and the US pivot. (Departing KLIA, I was surprised that MH131 to Auckland is considered a regional flight, leaving from the main terminal rather than the satellite building.)

Over the next four days a huge variety of topics was discussed by academics and practitioners from many nations, covering everything from anthropology, sociology and linguistics to entrepreneurship, agriculture and medicine. There were certainly shades of opinion and ideology, especially in economic policy, ranging from keen interventionists to champions of trade. New Zealand is statistically a rich country, but income inequality and demographic change are issues, with Maori constituting just 15 per cent of the country’s four million people.

My visit to Turangawaewae House in Ngaruawahia significantly boosted my understanding of these many strands. There I was received by the son of King Tuheitia — a direct descendant of a chief elected Maori King in 1858 to better deal with the British Crown (though not all tribes participated in that event). After exchanging observations of the many linguistic and cultural similarities between our peoples, the conversation quickly moved to more contemporary issues: bilateral trade, investment opportunities and domestic policy also.

There was time for leisure too. On a boat cruise that featured entering a large hole in a rock formation I had seen more dolphins than I had in my entire life, and we stopped at an island – the re-established home of a tribe after an earlier land-grab – where another legacy of Europeans, sheep, were in abundance. The views from the top of the hill were postcard-perfect.

I returned to Malaysia with a multitude of gifts, but two are particularly special: a royal Manihiki robe made of tree bark complete with feathered headgear and shellfish neckwear, and a Talking [sic] Stick crafted by a renowned master carver from wood from across the Pacific Islands, topped by a piece of bone from a naturally beached whale.

Much more could be said about this most culturally immersive experience, but I must finish with a domestic thought. Here, the Malay identity is often invoked as a modern phenomenon with powerful political consequences. But in anthropological terms, the Malayo-Polynesian people have a much more ancient and potently inspiring legacy. As the Minister of Maori Affairs said, they were marine engineers and astro-navigators. We should get to know them and the distant relatives they produced. To quote a Maori proverb: “What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.”

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is patron of the World Melayu-Polynesian Organisation.

Sating Kajang

Posted: March 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz


First published in The Malay Mail and The Borneo Post on 28th March 2014.

“There are lies, damned lies and statistics,” wrote Mark Twain, attributing this phrase (apparently erroneously) to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

It is remarkable to see how the numbers of the Kajang by-election are being manipulated by both sides in its aftermath. The Barisan camp point to the lower majority and claim a return of Chinese support, while Pakatan supporters say that as a proportion of those who voted, their party’s new candidate outperformed the previous one: and besides, the turnout was respectable given the demographic of the constituency’s registered voters, many of whom work and live elsewhere. It’s particularly important for PKR to make this argument, since the Kajang Move originated in that party: correct presentation of the numbers helps to justify the exercise.

In one sense the advocates of the Kajang Move can feel quite smug. They can argue they were right that the government was terrified of the prospect of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as a state assemblyman and potential MB of Selangor – so terrified that they fiddled with the judicial process, consigning the hitherto state economic advisor to prison thereby preventing him from running for the seat. Of course, some may take the view that their coalition’s much coveted ‘road to Putrajaya’ would have been smoother travelled if Anwar remained outside prison – and thus it was not worth provoking the court decision in the first place. And I am told that internal opponents of Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim are busy rethinking how best to remove him.

Conversely, Barisan activists claim that the Court of Appeal’s decision had nothing whatsoever to do with Kajang. Rather, it was the Kajang Move that was deliberately timed in anticipation of the trial’s decision, for the purposes of gaining political mileage out of inevitable sympathy.

In social media, for every congratulatory tweet or Instagram picture there was a condemnation. One favourite line of attack was highlighting that three members of one family are YBs, with the sarcastic caption “all in the family”. But similar phenomena are not new: there are well-known political dynasties and cases of in-laws and siblings sitting simultaneously as elected representatives (though not always in the same party). Still, a husband-wife-daughter combination is unprecedented. Even though each individual went through the electoral process to win in their respective constituencies, critics point to flaws in the party that give nepotistic, cronyistic leaders too much power to choose candidates. I would agree entirely, but it happens in all parties.

One other interesting feat of the Kajang Move was that it created a bizarre news situation: while foreign media were still leading on latest developments on the Malaysia Airlines search and rescue operation (and only then followed by the annexation of Crimea), many Malaysian media outlets led with the by-election.

I was against the Kajang Move on the basis that victorious candidates have made an implicit commitment to serve the full term of the legislature, and not resign midway. However, there will soon be another by-election in Balingian caused by the resignation of the former Chief Minister of Sarawak. It seems to have become an acceptable convention, even in the home of Westminster democracy, that resigning heads of government simultaneously abandon their legislative seat. However that was not always the case, including in Malaysia. When then Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi resigned as Prime Minister in 2009, he stayed on as MP for Kepala Batas.

Perhaps a more relevant example is provided by Datuk Donald Stephens, who served as Sabah’s Chief Minister from 1963 to 1964 before becoming a federal minister and then Malaysian High Commissioner to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. In 1973, Tan Sri Fuad Stephens was appointed Yang di-Pertua Negara of Sabah (as the office was still then named), serving for two years. In 1976, Tun Fuad became Chief Minister again, making him the only individual in Malaysian history to go from head of state to head of government.

On the peninsula there is a case of a head of government becoming head of state: the Menteri Besar of Pahang from 1986 to 1999 was appointed Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Melaka in 2004, now Tun Mohd Khalil Yaakob. Perhaps another case for comparison is when the Bendahara of Johor became Sultan Abdul Jalil IV after the regicide of Sultan Mahmud II of the Malaccan line in 1699.

There is also one instance of the head of judiciary becoming a head of state, when the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Raja Azlan Shah, became Sultan of Perak in 1984.

These fascinating constitutional records might not be as well-known as the political chronicles of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim – and history will judge whether the Kajang Move helped create another.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz


First published in The Malay Mail and The Borneo Post on 21st March 2014.

Though I’ve been a trustee of the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation for just nearly a year, I’ve been privileged to have witnessed some of its significant milestones in that time. A few months ago, a donation of over US$6 million from JCF to create two Jeffrey Cheah Professorships at Harvard University was signed, and this week saw the launch of the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia (JCI) and its inaugural conference.

The launch was officiated at by the Deputy Prime Minister in the presence of the Menteris Besar of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, and I was very glad that in his speech Tan Sri Muhyiddin praised the work of think tanks in contributing analysis and public policy proposals. I had not heard such strong government approval of the existence of independent think tanks before.

The President of JCI is Professor Datuk Woo Wing Thye, who is normally based at the University of California, Davis. He had asked me to give a presentation during the session on managing domestic and international fault lines in the region, using Malaysia as a case study. Here’s a summary of what I said.

The Malaysian demographic has fault lines in terms of politics, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, socioeconomic status and educational background. Divisions can arise from different expectations of the role of the state and different world views on any matter of public policy, or even what it means to be a good citizen. There’s also the generation gap.

But the political fault lines are the most serious, criss-crossed by other fault lines. Every area of public policy is politicised not just because of usual party politics, but also because the presence of fault lines triggers stakeholders to act in certain ways.

Looking at education for example, it’s clear that government policy is heavily influenced by the legacy of ethnically-defined party politics on the one hand, but also by calls for reform using the vocabulary of school-based assessments, Pisa rankings and decentralisation on the other. Pushing and pulling against this are the choices of parents, in turn determined by socioeconomic position and cultural background. When we in Ideas call for more parental choice, one criticism is that it might deepen fault lines even more.

But for us, diversity does not necessarily need to result in fault lines, especially if a society possesses a strong shared sense of history, of opportunity and of destiny. This is the biggest challenge of Malaysia today: people in power are fully aware of the existence of fault lines but don’t respond to them cohesively. You get formulations like 1Malaysia that call on citizens to rise above fault lines, but they co-exist alongside policies that depend and expand fault lines. Inevitably, there is derision.

The role of civil society is thus crucial: it is here that communication across fault lines can occur; the first step to building bridges across them. If there is no communication, fault lines could eventually lead to earthquakes. For example, calls for greater autonomy, if ignored, may one day grow into calls for secession.

Sometimes, domestic fault lines spill over into the international arena, which we sometimes see from aggressive nationalists. When two neighbouring countries claim ownership of islands or art forms, vocal minorities on both sides will call for sanctions or even war against the other country: thus the fault lines of domestic politics can become a major determinant of foreign policy.

That is why it is in the interests of regionalism that national leaders take greater steps to manage domestic fault lines. If they don’t, Asean’s projects are unlikely to reach beyond elites. It will be difficult to engender affinity towards Asean while there continue to be so many sources of division and tension within countries.

So for our and the region’s sake, the fault lines that are cracking our country apart must be addressed. There are those in government who realise this, as the recent formation of the National Unity Consultative Council suggests. Still, too many people have too much to gain by ensuring that fault lines persist. The emergence of civil society has helped to moderate the debate; but whether or not they succeed can only truly be tested in the political arena at general elections. Indeed, if politics provides the biggest fault line in this country, it will be through the political process that fault lines can begin to close.

It is vital that we recapture that optimistic, purposeful Merdeka spirit while recasting our differences as opportunities to know each other, mutually benefit and strengthen each other. This would not only enable us to manage our fault lines, but provide immunity from future ones as well.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz


First published in The Malay Mail and The Borneo Post on 14th March 2014

A JOB in the sky has long been regarded as an exciting prospect. After Merdeka, many daughters of Malaya’s aristocratic elites sought jobs as glamorous stewardesses on Malayan Airways / Malaysia-Singapore Airways / Malaysian Airline System (whose abbreviation we lovingly continue to use despite its etymology lost to history), and as I was growing up in the 80s even my friends and I always list becoming a pilot as a possible future career (before I realised I had an aversion to turbulence).

Over the years I have done my fair share of flying, having studied and worked abroad – though these days I travel far less than some of my contemporaries. Over 90 per cent of flights in my lifetime have been on Malaysia Airlines, and on those journeys the overwhelming majority of my interactions
with crew members have been pleasant, efficient and most importantly, instant reminders of home when I had been away for so long.

The first routine I had on MAS flights was to negotiate an extra pillow at the start of the long-haul economy class flight to London (in the early years still broken up with a stop in Dubai). I don’t think this was strictly allowed but I found that if I quietly asked (or ‘flirted with’, as my teenage self would fancy) a stewardess in the crew area, my wish would usually be granted, to the envy of other passengers who would ask and be told that there were none left. The extra blue rectangle of artificial fluff was the key ingredient to getting any sleep.

Another time, the turbulence was so bad through a storm in the Indian Ocean (I even believed the justification for “we regret that hot drinks cannot be served”) that a woman on my row started screaming, and that got other passengers rather worried too. The crew did a remarkable job of calming her down and then persuading everyone that it was a harmless gust of wind, and that the plane could easily handle a much greater battering, even though by this stage we weren’t allowed any beverage at all.

Eventually, the crew members’ faces became familiar to me, and I even tracked the career path of one stewardess – apparently a distant relative. I first met her on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to our native Kuala Terengganu, then later on a regional flight, and finally a flight to London. But beyond the individuals, the other great consistency was the palpable camaraderie that coursed through the crew members. Seeing a multi-ethnic Malaysian crew serving passengers from every country gave a similar rush as cheering on one of our athletes: a solid encapsulation of our national diversity and spirit criss-crossing the globe.

The pleasant surprises still have not stopped in recent times: last year, a steward on a KL-Melbourne flight asked if I would sign a copy of my book for him. Before that, on an Enrich-redeemed Frankfurt-KL flight, the in-flight supervisor asked if I wanted my aide-de-camp to be upgraded, to which I could only chuckle since I have never had an ADC or personal assistant in my life!

Before being accused of exaggerated gushing, I will admit of course there were times when things were not always perfect, and behind the scenes the airline has experienced its own massive turbulences and shenanigans polluted by politics. Still, despite all that, I never felt any letting up in the efforts from the crew on the planes themselves.

Whatever happened on MH370, I am certain that they would have done their utmost to calm, protect and ultimately save those under their watch. I pay tribute to their professionalism and courage, and I join in the prayers of millions of Malaysians of every background in the hope of finding the plane, its passengers and crew. In particular I feel for the friends and colleagues of the lost crew who will have had to continue working as normal throughout the fleet.

So much has already been said about the search operation: frustration and despair over the many false leads, and a catalogue of criticism and praise – from domestic and international sources – but much of it self-selecting for political purposes. As such, for now, I am loath to criticise any agency or individual. During such an unprecedented event as this in our aviation history, the priority must be to locate 9M-MRO rather than promote risible conspiracy theories or take potshots. There might be institutional weaknesses and communication errors; and yet there may be much more going on behind the scenes. Considered judgement is passed years after other major aircraft incidents, and we should afford ourselves the same privilege.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz


First published in The Malay Mail and The Borneo Post on 7th March 2014

Compared to the recent acts of belligerence in East Asia or incursions in the South China Sea, or even the Arab Spring, the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia may seem rather distant for us. We do not have profound historical links to that part of the world, nor do our populations share a language and culture — though there is a legacy of Islam, especially in Crimea where the predominantly Muslim Crimean Tatars make up 12 per cent of the peninsula’s two million people (out of the total Ukrainian population of 46 million).

Some ingredients of the crisis might be familiar, like spectacular corruption and public distrust in institutions, but others are not. Indeed the situation between Ukraine and Russia provides an opportunity to consider how different the geopolitics of our region are. Sure, in almost any given Asean country there may be sizeable resident populations of citizens from neighbouring countries, but it would be difficult to imagine a neighbouring country sending in their army purportedly to defend “their people” — which does not just mean citizens but also those who possess ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to the neighbouring country — even if those people themselves asked for “protection”.

In post-Cold War Southeast Asia, the principle of non-interference, epitomised by the Asean Way, remains fundamental in relations between states: territorial disputes such as between Malaysia and Singapore or Thailand and Cambodia have been resolved at the International Court of Justice.

Perhaps more importantly, it is also inconceivable that significant populations residing in one country would actually seek military intervention from another country. A defence analyst might point out that there is no equivalent disproportionality of military might here as there is between Russia and
Ukraine, but there is also a generally equal and strong loyalty to national identities in our region.

True, there are communities and sub-national units all across Asean that seek more autonomy or independence (and neighbouring countries may well be involved in negotiations between central and regional entities, as Malaysia was in the case between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front), but these movements do not generally consider themselves to be sponsored by or requiring the protection of the government of another country.

Newcomers to Southeast Asian geopolitics sometimes wonder if Malaysia actively promotes a political kinship with the Malay Muslim inhabitants of southern Thailand, or if the
pre-Second World War idea of Indonesia/Malaya Raya still resonates. As we have seen in recent times, nationalists on both sides will fight about ownership of culture, but even the most conciliatory moderates will advocate dialogue and cooperation, rather than entertain any incursions of national sovereignty.

Once in a while one does encounter the odd proponent of Asean becoming a fully-fledged superstate with sovereignty transferred to centralised institutions, but this is usually from citizens in authoritarian countries who want greater market access, connectivity and democracy, rather than those who support the dominance of a big country. It is perhaps a boon that the lack of a shared romanticised notion of a period of unity or dominance (a la Russia within the USSR) makes political centralisation difficult to imagine.

And in a way, this is comforting for us. Because what it means is that although we worry about our own ethnic cleavages and issues over national unity, we know that it is up to us to address them, without interference from outsiders. Recently cabinet minister Tan Sri Joseph Kurup was in Singapore to glean lessons from their methods of forging national unity. It does not matter that there are some Malays in Malaysia who see Malays in Singapore as a trampled-upon minority, and advocate some kind of intervention to “help” these brethren: the state of bilateral ties prevents any such action. And so our cabinet ministers are free to explore models around the world, and our Prime Minister is free to ask us to ignore the extremists: for ultimately it will be us who will judge them for the success of government policy on national unity.

For now at least. During the siege of Lahad Datu I was made aware that some Malaysian officials were genuinely worried about the extent to which the large numbers of Filipinos in Sabah would support the claims of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu. On that occasion, the Filipino government was clear that they did not support the incursion, and our ties have remained strong as seen by Malaysia’s response in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

But it is theoretically possible that if enough things change: demographically, militarily, politically, diplomatically — perhaps one day unilateral intervention in the affairs of another country in Southeast Asia might once again become less inconceivable.