Sunday, March 30, 2014

Back to the future in Egypt

The announcement that the head of the Egyptian Army, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will run for president comes just two days after a court passed the death sentence on 529 members of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The inference from both events is clear. The army, which has run Egypt for most of the past 60 years, is back and will brook no further experiments in civilian democracy.

The fact that Sisi will take off his uniform and run as a civilian is mere window-dressing. He heads the ‘Army Party’ and will most likely return Egypt to the style of rule that existed through the regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
Sadly, this is likely to mean arbitrary arrests, imprisonments, ‘disappearances’ and torture, all of which characterised the regimes of the previous dictatorships, and certainly the mass death penalties suggest those days have already returned.

The sentences were handed down at the end of a two-day mass trial – the time frame itself makes a mockery of the country’s justice system – during which defendants were not told what their offences were, with many not even represented by a lawyer.
Most had been arrested at demonstrations against the detention of Muslim Brotherhood officials and their leader, Mohamed Morsi, who until he was deposed last year in an army coup, was the country’s president. However, stories are emerging which suggests many were swept up simply because they were in the area at the time – including one man who was taking his daughter to hospital.

United Nations Human Rights Spokesman Rupert Colville described the arrests and subsequent trials as “rife with procedural irregularities” and “in breach of international human rights law”.
Concerns are growing for the estimated several thousand people, including Morsi himself, who are currently in detention. They include, of course, Australian journalist Peter Greste and his two colleagues from the Al Jazeera network who have been charged with spreading false news and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood – charges they vehemently deny.

It remains to be seen whether the death sentences will be carried out anytime soon. There is an appeals process and the county’s spiritual head, the Grand Mufti, has to give final approval. Even so, it is likely the defendants will, at the very least, be facing months, if not years, behind bars.
Many Egyptians care very little for these legal niceties. They see the short period of democratic rule by the Brotherhood as plunging the country into chaos and the military as restoring stability.

That fact that Egypt, the most populous and vibrant of Arab nations, a country that has produced outstanding philosophy, literature, science and art, should in the 21st century seem only to have the choice between Islamic fundamentalists and uniformed men in dark glasses as its leaders, is sad indeed.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

China-Taiwan relations back in the spotlight

The wild scenes in and around Taiwan’s parliament buildings over the weekend are symptoms of a growing unease in the island state over the government’s increasingly cosy relations with mainland China.

Protests came to a head over the proposed ratification of a trade deal with Beijing which the ruling Kuomintang Party says will boost the economy, create jobs and preserve Taiwan’s edge in the global marketplace.

Opponents claim the agreement will actually damage the country’s economy and leave it vulnerable to pressure from the mainland, concerns that were summed up by one of the protesters, Marc Ma, who said the negotiations for the deal should have been handled more carefully.“With China you never know about these things. You say this is a good deal, but good for whom?” Ma asked.

While still insisting the deal must go through, President Ma Ying-jeou has adopted a more conciliatory tone, promising the legislation putting it into effect will be examined line-by-line in Parliament and agreeing to meet representatives of the protesters.       

The concerns about closer links with China are rooted deep in history. When the communists took over and declared the People’s Republic of China in 1947, the defeated nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan. For years during the height of the Cold War the West continued to support Chiang’s Kuomintang administration as the legitimate government of all China, finally bowing to reality in the 1970s when most countries switched their recognition to Beijing.

With Chiang dead and the nation isolated, Taiwan changed tack, gradually moving from a one-party state under martial law to liberal democracy. Its first fully-democratic presidential election was held in 1996 and in 2000 the Kuomintang candidate was defeated by the new Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Eight years later, Ma led the Kuomintang back into office. Now well into his second term he has stirred up a hornets’ nest with his determination to ratify the controversial trade treaty.

At first sight it seems bizarre that the leader of a party that bitterly opposed the People’s Republic for many years should now be so bent on seeking closer ties. However, the Kuomintang has always believed in eventual reunification once the mainland throws off its communist shackles, while the more militant DPP has independence as its ultimate aim. 

An independent Taiwan is anathema to Beijing, which sees the island as a renegade province temporarily outside its control, and has never abandoned the military option to recover it. However, several polls have shown that at best most Taiwanese have little interest in reunification and regard themselves as Taiwanese first and Chinese second.

In recent times the DPP has toned down its rhetoric on independence, believing fears of a confrontation with China cost it the presidential election in 2012. However, the current protests have propelled relations with Beijing to the forefront of Taiwanese politics once again.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Property slowdown could be blessing in disguise

Hong Kong is facing a property crash as a combination of factors spells the end of a wild ride in the sector.

Wealthy Chinese mainlanders purchasing homes in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) have pushed up prices beyond the reach of many Hong Kongers in recent years. In response, the government brought in measures to cool the market, including an increase in stamp duty for non-resident buyers.

But this has coincided with a tightening of credit conditions in China as the world’s second-largest economy goes off the boil, sparking a scramble by mainlanders to sell off their Hong Kong residences, in some cases for up to 20 per cent less than they paid for them.

The South China Morning Post reported that a Hong Kong housing development called Valais where luxury properties were being snapped up for more than $9 million a time four years ago, was now more like a ghost town.

Other reports indicate there are growing fears of similar crashes in mainland Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai where house prices have also risen to unsustainable levels.

While the Hong Kong housing bubble may be bursting, the government is pressing ahead with a series of projects which should keep the SAR’s construction industry busy for the next decade.

In his recent policy address, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced support for the development of a new central business district in East Kowloon, the redevelopment of the old Kai Tak Airport – “a huge and highly complex development project spanning a total area of over 320 hectares” - and an ambitious program to make Lantau Island the third major centre of Hong Kong’s population after Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

This is in addition to work already well under way on the 55-kilometre bridge across the Pearl River estuary that will link Hong Kong with Macao and the mainland city of Zhuhai.

In his address Leung noted that Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok, which opened in 1998, would soon reach full capacity.

“There is an urgent need to construct a third runway to maintain our position as an aviation hub as well as our competitiveness,” he said.

“Planning work is being taken forward at full speed with a view to commissioning the third runway by 2023.”

With this commitment to ambitious projects, Hong Kong seems well placed to weather a significant slowdown in the property sector. Indeed it may even be a blessing in disguise as there have been concerns that its construction workforce was not sufficient to cope with a continued housing boom and a major infrastructure program.



Wednesday, March 19, 2014

India’s election campaign under way

If anyone had doubts that India’s election campaign was under way, political manoeuvrings in the past week have put them to rest.

First the leader of the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi, was named to contest Varanasi. Currently Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi needs a way into the National Parliament, the Lok Sabha, and chose the eastern Uttar Pradesh city in preference to an easier contest in his home state.

No sooner had the announcement been made then the leader of the newly-formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Arvind Kejriwal, said that he would challenge Modi in the seat.

The AAP does not have a single member in the Lok Sabha, but made a startlingly successful debut in the state election for New Delhi where it defeated the sitting Congress Party and briefly formed a minority government.

At a rally in New Delhi, Kejriwal said his candidature was not a symbolic gesture and he planned to defeat Modi. However, most observers believe his real aim is to provide valuable publicity for his fledgling party and perhaps get more of its candidates over the line in other parts of India; Varanasi, the holy city of the nation’s majority Hindus, leans heavily towards the BJP.

Kejriwal went on the offensive, attacking Modi’s much-lauded ‘economic miracle’ in Gujarat, saying it was a myth built on crony capitalism which favoured high-profile multinational companies at the expense of small business.

However, the annual Economic Freedom of the States of India report placed Gujarat solidly at the head of its index as the best place in India in which to do business, with an average annual growth rate of 12 per cent between 2005 and 2011.

One result of the loud debate between the BJP and the AAP is to overshadow the campaign of the governing Congress Party, led by Raul Gandhi, as it struggles to convince voters to stick with it after a decade in power.

The forthcoming election will be the largest exercise in democracy on the planet with 814 million electors casting their votes at almost a million polling stations. Voting will be held on nine days between April 7 and May 12 in different parts of the country to allow sufficient resources to be deployed, with the count beginning on May 16.




Sunday, March 16, 2014

Worldwide need for better education

Fourteen years into the 21st century one in four children in poorer countries – mostly but not exclusively in sub-Saharan Africa – cannot read a single sentence. Just one in five children reach the end of primary school having learnt the basics in reading, writing and arithmetic.

Most of us will have seen these statistics, or something like them, before and in many cases have been mildly shocked and then passed it off as someone else’s problem. But poor literacy and numeracy skills are coming home to haunt even some of the richer countries.

Last year the Australian Council for Educational Research said Australia needs to lift its game if the country is to continue to enjoy a healthy society and a strong economy.

“It is, therefore, in the best interests of the individual, of society and the economy to enhance and support everyone’s literacy and numeracy skills,” the council said.

Not mentioned specifically in the council’s report is the growing concern among educators at the poor standard of written communication and even basic grammar among students entering tertiary studies.

There is a danger in Australia and some other better-off countries, to rank education as just another service the Government provides that can be downgraded and de-funded if economic circumstances dictate. Only recently a budget submission from the ACT Chamber of Commerce criticised the territory’s government for excessive spending on education.

Yet it is only through the brain-power of a highly-educated, well-skilled population that we will find the answers to the difficulties we face today as our older manufacturing base crumbles and the resources industry faces an uncertain future.

Australia needs the philosophers, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, engineers, ICT professionals and many others who can lead us to the next stage of this country’s development. We should not be leaving our places of higher learning to scrabble about for funding, putting them at the mercy of private sponsors whose demands may not always coincide with the best interests of society at large.

Recently, former United States President Bill Clinton highlighted the benefits of education, especially in the Third World.

“Every dollar invested in education provides $53 in eventual benefits to employees,” he said.

Skilled, educated and employed citizens are a triple benefit to governments. Their abilities contribute to a better-functioning society; they pay more in income tax and have greater spending power so consumption taxes also benefit.

Finally, they are less of a burden on Government budgets. Educated people spend less time consuming unemployment benefits; they are under-represented in the justice system; they tend to have healthier lifestyles so have less need to access health care – and they are more supportive of their own children’s education, thus continuing a virtuous circle.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Mutilation and stoning in wealthy Brunei

Asked about the planned introduction of Sharia law into the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam later this year, my guide insisted it would be a more liberal version than that existing in nations such as Saudi Arabia

“For instance, a convicted thief will be allowed to choose which of his hands are cut off,” she said.

At first sight it seems incredible that this tiny nation of a little more than 400,000, with the fifth highest per capita income in the world, should be implementing a measure which owes more to the Middle Ages than the 21st century; a measure that also includes the stoning of adulterers and floggings for abortions and homosexual acts.

Even harder to believe is that the changes are being implemented without any public debate and with the slightest signs of dissent threatened with the full force of the Sharia law itself.

This is because the word of His Majesty the Sultan and Yang-di Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien, is absolute and total law.
The latest in a line that traces itself back to the 14th century, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is one of the world’s last absolute hereditary monarchs – and aims to keep it that way.
The fact that he can do this is partly due to one of the most strictly-controlled societies outside North Korea, but mainly because of the country’s fabulous oil and gas revenues. With so few subjects, the royal house has been able to spread the largess around – free health care and education, no income tax and quality infrastructure ensures a largely contented and passive population. Even so there is plenty left over for the Sultan and his family to live in a 1,800-room palace easily maintained by his personal wealth estimated at $20 billion.  

Even this display of ostentation is dwarfed by the past antics of the Sultan’s younger brother, Prince Jefri, who was reported to own 2000 luxury cars, a private Jumbo Jet, various properties around the world and a yacht called Tits, all of which fed his predilection for some decidedly un-Islamic activities.
Once the country’s Minister for Finance, Prince Jefri spent a period in exile, but in recent years has been allowed back into the country.

On the other hand, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, now in his late 60s, has reportedly developed a more spiritual outlook on life, although this spirituality does not extend to tolerating any criticism of his decisions.
While some of the country’s non-Muslim subjects, mainly Christians and Buddhists, have taken to the internet to express alarm over the moves towards Sharia law, the Sultan has stated they “can no longer be given the liberty to continue with their mockery and would be charged with slandering the monarch”.

He proclaimed that “all races will be united under Sharia law” and that integrating it into the penal code “will form part of the great history of our nation, providing special guidance from God”.
Foreign critics, mostly human rights groups “should respect us in the same way that we respect them”, the Sultan said.   

International online reporting on the subject almost always carries a defence in the comments section, probably by a Government stooge, and often making wild and unsubstantiated statements such as neighbouring Malaysians yearning for the introduction of a similar Sharia regime.
As for internal reporting, the Brunei Times, sticks to commenting on the Friday sermons of Imams and the latest developments in ICT. The only possible statement of defiance I saw in the country was a car driven by a hijab-clad female which whizzed past us outside the Royal Regalia Museum. Women are supposedly banned from driving in Brunei.

“Well she’s pushing the boundaries,” the guide said.
A colleague thought the country was being run on similar lines to a Victorian-era nursery. “The people are the children that are coddled, indulged and given toys and fairy stories to cut them off from the real world,” she said.

“But in the end father’s word is law and father always knows best.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Donor fatigue leaves a million homeless

Four months after Super Typhoon Yolanda devastated parts of the Philippines a million people still have no more than the temporary shelters provided them by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the first few days following the disaster.

In Tacloban City, one of the worst hit areas, the blue UNHCR tents and tarpaulins are everywhere. The UN believes that all is being done given the circumstances, but the situation is still critical.

Around $300 million has been raised for the reconstruction, but it is estimated that close to $800 million is needed if work this year is to proceed at maximum pace. As it stands, all that will be achieved are band-aid measures where the worst off are moved into more durable temporary shelters that will probably have to be demolished all over again when – and if – more money is found.

In addition to shelter there is an urgent need to get people back to work – 33 million coconut trees were either destroyed or severely damaged, once productive farm land is covered in layers of salty sludge and 30,000 fishing vessels were either swept away or wrecked. The UN believes that some of the available money must go towards remediation work in these areas if people are not to lose hope.

Here, as in many other cases, the problem is donor fatigue. There are other pressing demands on the funds of those countries in a position to give – Syria, The Democratic Republic of Congo, volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, strife in sub-Saharan Africa.

And now the richer countries have their own problems. North America faced its worst winter in decades, Northern Europe was beset by floods and Australia battled its bushfires. As extreme weather events mount alongside the miseries created by mankind, there just doesn’t seem enough money, enough compassion, to go round.

There are no easy answers to many of these problems, but in the case of the Philippines, aid is not a matter of pouring money into a bottomless pit. Despite the natural disasters, the brain drain caused by some of its best people being among the 10 million Filipinos choosing to work overseas, a continuing insurgency in the southern island of Mindanao that has cost 120,000 lives, and a quarter of its 98 million people still living below the poverty line, the country’s economy is healthy and growing.

The Philippines Central Bank recently announced that foreign direct investments rose by 20 per cent in 2013 and said the country was now considered among the top investment destinations in the South-East Asian region.

At the time of its independence in 1946, the Philippines was considered to be the Asian economy most likely to succeed. Two decades of the Marcos dictatorship put paid to that and bureaucratic corruption remains a running sore on the body politic, yet in the face of all these setbacks there is a solid determination to face down the problems and succeed.

As one young history student told me in Manila. “The Philippines lies between two worlds, east and west. We don’t properly belong to either, but both want a bit of us.

“The only way forward is for us to assert our own nationality and say to the world ‘we will be friends with all of you as long as it is in our interests to do so’; we have to refuse to be pawns in anyone’s game.”

Brave words, but it remains to be seen whether long-suffering Filipinos have the resolution to back them with actions and – perhaps most importantly – who will help them to do it.     


Monday, March 10, 2014

US reaffirms Philippines alliance

The recent visit of a senior American naval officer to Manila has added a new dimension to the tensions between the Philippines and China over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Chief of Naval Operations for the US Navy, Admiral Jonathan Greenert came with a message that, in effect, if push came to shove the US would support the Philippines in opposition to what the Government in Manila has repeatedly termed China’s aggressive behaviour.

Admiral Greenert promised the United States would work with the Philippines and other allies to find a solution that “maintained freedom of navigation” in the area.

This brought an anguished response from Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying saying the US should not be taking sides in a dispute in which it was not involved and which should be settled “through bilateral negotiations and consultation between countries directly concerned”.

“The US-Philippine alliance, which is a bilateral arrangement, should not harm the interests of a third party,” Hua said.

This would sound reasonable enough if it were not for the fact that China’s “negotiation and consultation” begins and ends with a refusal to recognise any claim by Manila to the islands and therefore the fishing zones and possible oil fields around them.

China bases its case on imperial times, when the Middle Kingdom dominated the region. Its claims in the South and East China seas is seen by its nervous neighbours as the first moves in an attempt to wind back the clock.

While a number of nations, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam among them, are involved in the disputes. Japan and the Philippines have taken the strongest stand, the latter because it feels it has a special relationship with the US that will give China pause.

This irritation was almost certainly the reason for China’s initial miniscule response to aid for the Philippines following last year’s the Cyclone Yolanda disaster, something which brought international criticism before Beijing increased its package.

It is no wonder that most countries in South-East Asia want the US to remain heavily involved in the region as a counterbalance against their increasingly powerful neighbour – and why Admiral Greenert was in the region to assure them the US is still on the case.