Friday, August 28, 2009

Rocking the South China Sea Boat

An American surveillance ship, a new Philippines
law and a rash of responses from China. These
were all it took to put the South China Sea back in the lime light as one of the world’s maritime flash points. The recent events have also awoken the claimants from their lull that came with the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South between ASEAN and China in 2002. The DOC as it is known was an interim instrument to manage conflicts between claimants in the South China Sea while the countries work towards “a peaceful and durable solution” to the problem.

While the declaration has contributed to a reduction in the intensity of the conflict, it has not all been smooth sailing between 2002 and now. The period has been punctuated by minor but sometimes deadly skirmishes such as China’s shooting of Vietnamese fishermen in 2005 and 2007.

Despite the DOC’s call for claimants to exercise restraint in the South China Sea, the countries concerned have hardly been dormant in carrying out activities which would strengthen their claims. China, the Philippines and Vietnam for example completed a trilateral seismic survey in 2007. Interestingly, the survey also included areas not claimed but China and Vietnam but within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

There have been speculations as to why the Philippines agreed to the survey with some analysts suggesting that it is akin to a diplomatic “sellout’ on Manila’s part in favour of economic gains. The survey could also be evidence of China’s divide-and-rule policy among the ASEAN claimants and was followed by a series of activities by the other claimants such as the visit of Taiwan’s President to the Dongsha island in February 2008 following the completion of an airstrip on the island in late 2007. Taken in isolation, these incidents may be considered as minor events in a wider scheme of South China Sea security. But taken together, they do constitute a threat to hard-earned stability in the area undermine at least the spirit if not the letter of the DoC.

The latest actions by the US, the Philippines and China could further undermine this already fragile stability. China’s responses though aggressive are understandable but are somewhat perplexing. No country would like having a sophisticated ocean survey vessel 75 miles off its main submarine base but the use of non-military vessels to confront the USNS Impeccable and to send a fisheries enforcement vessel into the Paracels in response the Philippines’ baseline law begs explanation. Was it because the USNS Impeccable a civilian manned vessel? Was it a show of restraint on China’s part? Has china learnt from the EP-3 incident in 2001 when its fighter aircraft “collided” with a US electronic surveillance plane resulting which crash landed on Hainan island resulting in a diplomatic incident? If push comes to shove would the People’s Liberation Army Navy make an appearance instead of the ‘civilian’ vessels?

The presence of the USNS Impeccable and reportedly six other US vessels including another surveillance vessel the USNS Victorious, and the oceanographic survey vessel USNS Bowditch in the South China Sea at the time has prompted speculations that the US was hunting for Chinese submarines in the South China Sea. Indeed US defence officials speaking on conditions of anonymity to the Associated Press have indicated that the Impeccable “was part of a calculated U.S. surveillance operation in the disputed South China Sea”.

What now? If the claimants of the SCS are serious about peace and stability in the region, they would have to find ways and mean to move the DoC forward. The DoC has not effectively moved beyond the 2002 signing ceremony. None of its agenda in marine scientific research, pollution prevention, environmental protection and safety of navigation has progressed. In other words there has been a lot of talking and not enough walking. Unless of course the status quo with its intermittent conflicts are acceptable to all concerned. This should not be the case given the heightened level of tension now and possible outbreak of conflict even at the slightest provocation and the presence of non-claimant countries in the region.

Indeed if some countries are keen on “tempting the dragon” as one prominent analyst suggested they should be careful not to rock the South China Sea boat too hard. Otherwise we would truly be on the slow boat to China as far as lasting peace and stability in the South China Sea are concerned.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Rock

The ICJ decision on Pulau Batu Putih was a real eye-opener as to how a country could lose its territory by virtue of its own action and in this case inaction. Going by the written and verbal judgment made, we effectively 'surrendered' our sovereignty of BPB after 1980, the 1953 correspondence between the acting SS of Johor and the Colonial Secretary of Singapore notwithstanding. But the most damning points against us are the six maps published by the mapping and survey department which stated unequiviocally that BPB belongs to Singapore and the fact that we did not investigate or at the very least protested against Singapore investigating the shipping accidents in the vicinity of PBP until 2003, that too after much prompting. This according to the judges amounted to giving up our sovereignty. Perhaps they are right ... the ICJ like God works in mysterious ways. But twelve learned judges couldn't all be 'wrong'.

All is not lost though, like the Sipadan and Ligitan case, the judges were silent on who has jurisdiction of the water column and before anyone started claiming the 12 mile territorial sea or EEZ as PM Lee Hsien Loong did after the judgement, it should be recalled that Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulated that 'rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life on its own shall have no EEZ or continental shelf' and Batu Putih despite being called a 'pulau' does not qualify as one. Malaysia's position should be that Singapore won the rock on which sits a lighthouse and possible a 500 metre safety and security zone around it. No more. Hopefully our reps to the joint technical committee would not commit any more mortal sins of the sort that our forefathers in the Johore State secretariat and Mapping Department committed.
In the movie Gladiator, Maximus said "what we do in life...echoes in eternity" and in the Pulau Batu Putih case, we are now hearing the ecohoes of what some of us did in our country's past. It's time to wake up and smell the roses and not to wallow in self-pity. Our southern neighbour probably has contingencies up their sleeves and coming out of their ears as to what to do next. What about us?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Tun, The Tun

In the 70's TV series Fantasy Island, Tattoo the diminutive sidekick of Mr. Rourke would cry "De Plane, De Plane" every time a new planeload of fantasists arrive. In the make-believe world of Malaysian politics a similar cry was also heard in the days before, during and after the elections only it wasn't for the De Plane but it was for "the Tun". Nary a single day would pass without his name being mentioned including his very public and personal slugfest in the Sun with Param Cumaraswamy. No other ex-PM has generated so much vitriol than the Tun. Some of which coming from former senior members of his 'establishment' which point to disillusionment or newly found intestinal fortitude. That many of them chose to remain quiet throughout his tenure calls into question their own integrity but that is another story.

How would you describe the man? Machiavellian, cynical, acid, strategist, sarcastic, witty, visionary, vindictive, intelligent, suave, debonair, diabolical? You can't really, at least not in a single word. In 1999 the BBC described him a 'strong man' ( And indeed in his heydays he was one of the many strongmen in the region. The others include among others Suharto, Lee Kwan Yew, Marcos, Pol Pot etc. There were also strong men in Africa but unlike Idi Amin for example, the Tun didn't eat his opponents. Instead, he had them arrested and sent to Kamunting. As to which is worst - being cannibalised or Kamunting? I don't know. Haven't experienced either one. maybe we should try reading the few books written by former ISA detainees. I read Kassim Ahmad's University Kedua in school. Yes those days school libraries did carry such books and personally I would prefer cannibalism, at least you're dead before you're eaten! I digress.

Syed Hamid Albar said in the Star recently that the Tun "is no ordinary person and many Malaysians take whatever he says as gospel truth" and that the Tun is an icon for those below fourty ( on the first account but not on the other two. He is not an ordinary person. True. But taking whatever he says as gospel truth. NOT!!!! As for the icon bit - "To each his own" as the Bard would say. True, for many of us who are in the 40s and 30s, the Tun is about the only PM we can relate to in a manner of speaking. Tunku Abdul Rahman is a 'historical' figure, Tun Razak well he's Bapa Pembangunan and Bapa Najib. I remember Tun Hussein Onn for the way he speaks more than anything else. Not that these guys were bad but they are not as relevant to my generation as Tun Mahathir. After all he dragged us kicking and screaming into the 21st century and away from our tin mines, rubber plantations and rice fields into the world of information technology and industrialisation. Without his interventionist policies we may still be an agriculture, commodity-based country contented with our place in the world like all third world countries should be.

Unfortunately the Tun also intervened where he shouldn't have and allegedly eroded and corrupted the august institutions which would have given us the check-and-balance against abuse of power, corruption and so on. That the civil service and judiciary surrendered meekly while the rest of us followed like lemmings is as much a reflection of us as it is of him. Perhaps the Tun saw that we were ripe for the taking and took his chances. Perhaps we were corrupted anyway. Lo and Behold he was right and over the last ten years of his premiership he lorded over us while we watched with envy the horse-riding holidays to Argentina and the Mediterranean cruises. Fortunately some semblance of civil society survived unbowed and laid the foundation for what happened during PRU 12. I'm sure wherever they are now, the likes of M.G.G. Pillai are smiling down on us while those who are still alive are savouring these precious moments.

Love him or loathe him, Malaysians will always have strong feelings about the Tun. Whenever we drive down the North South highway, stare at the twin towers or land at the KLIA he's there with his cynical smile. I certainly hope someone starts writing his biography soon lest he forgets. Maybe his foundation or the aptly named Institut Pemikiran Tun Dr. Mahathir ( could do the honour. Honestly the name itself is a throwback to the days of Stalin, Mao or Kim Ill Sung. There are Malaysian historians or authors who could do it as long as it doesn't end up like the Sejarah Askar Melayu Diraja by Tan Sri Abdul Samad Idris which was in need of some serious editing. A well written, impartial biography is always a good read and would tell a lot about the subject, the time he/she/it lived in, the people around them, events, affairs and so on. Who would have guessed for example that Charles Lindbergh had an extra marital affair and in return his wife had a 'fling' with the French author Antoine de-Saint Exuperry or that despite his public support for the civil rights movement, privately Bobby Kennedy was not entirely comfortable with Martin Luther King Jr. and made disparaging remarks about the civil rigths leader.

As an aside, my late grandfather was a warder at the Kem Tahanan Morib, the precursor to Kamunting where he 'guarded' the likes of Ishak Hj. Mohamad (Pak Sako). They in turn 'converted' him and others to their cause. Pak Sako remembered my grandfather fondly in his Utusan Malaysia column as his friend who caught tenggiri in Segenting, Port Dickson.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Do Pigs Fly?

Somehow Malaysians will always get worked up when it comes to pigs. Yes, pigs...those ugly creatures which some Malaysians consumed and others abhorred. Over the years pigs have been at the centre of some major controversies and tragedies in Malaysia. Remember the Nipah ( virus outbreak which wiped out the pig rearing industry in Bukit Pelanduk? or the 'standoff' in Paya Rumput, Malacca? Well our piggy friends have done it again. This time in Selangor where a centralised pig farming project is to be built. Eversince the state government announced the resumption of the centralised pig farming project on 9 April 2008 , the Malaysian media has not stopped publishing news about it. And true enough all the age-old issues about pigs have cropped-up again. Filthy, polluting, smelly, disease vector and so on. All of which make piggeries even modern, environmentally friendly ones NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyard) for many communities.

Truth be told, in the case of the nipah virus outbreak, the pigs weren't entirely to
blame. There were also the bats and mosquitoes who contributed to the outbreak which caused 105 deaths and the culling of more than a million pigs. The Discovery Channel is currently showing repeats of its documentary titled 'Killer Pigs' which traces the origin of the nipah virus and analyses the steps taken to control its outbreak. TV3 also reported on the recognition given to the Malaysian researchers involved, one of whom is an ameteur virologist. I'm no pig-apologist but maybe it's time we get rid of our pig hang-ups and accept these guys as part and parcel of the Malaysian life and give these poor guys a break. Don't we all love Miss Piggy from the Muppet Show? or the Bearded Pig of Borneo (Sus barbatus)? Afterall the only thing they are guilty of is being pigs. Really, I jest. If indeed we are going to move forward and resolve the issues related to the 870 piggeries and their 1.8 million pigs in the country as reported by Berita Minggu some bold measures need to be considered. There are many technologies available to clean-up piggery operations (see for more information). Only the political will is lacking.

So back to the question. Do pigs fly? Yes. But only in Malaysian politics.Why not give the centralised pig farm project a chance to succeed. Just don't do it in my backyard......