Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Saudi Arabia is shooting itself in the foot by executing Shiite cleric

The House of Saud’s plans to execute a revered Shiite cleric and protest leader reveal the extent to which the regime is vulnerable and desperate to perpetuate itself. Going ahead with the execution would be strategic miscalculation.

Significant political developments have unfolded in Saudi Arabia in recent weeks following a court decision to execute Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a polarizing Shiite cleric and political activist who has campaigned for civil equality, an inclusive socio-political system, women’s rights, minority rights, and the release of political prisoners. Prosecutors condemned the cleric to death by beheading as punishment for charges of sedition, though the execution date has not yet been set.

Sheikh Nimr has been the fiercest critic of the Kingdom’s absolute Sunni monarchy for the last decade, but gained a considerable public following after leading a series of protests in 2011 in opposition to the Saudi military’s violent intervention and suppression of the pro-democracy movement in neighboring Bahrain, a satellite state with a Shiite majority ruled by a heavy-handed Sunni dynasty. His sermons and political activism continually emphasized non-violent resistance.

The Kingdom’s decision to sentence Nimr to death has complex implications that will push sectarian tensions to fever pitch inside Saudi Arabia and throughout the region, dangerously sharpening tension with Iran. Prominent clerics in Iran and Bahrain, as well as Shiite militant groups such as Hezbollah of Lebanon and the Houthi movement of Yemen, have all condemned the verdict and warned the Kingdom not to proceed with the execution.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

As Malaysia Airlines bleeds out, twin tragedies are still a question mark

Malaysia Airlines has had a profoundly difficult year. Between two harrowing air disasters and the company’s precarious financial woes, the national carrier faces daunting challenges as it attempts to restructure and recover its reputation as a leading regional airline. Despite poor commercial performance in recent years, it maintained a stellar record for decades as one of the Asia-Pacific's safest and most reliable airlines.

Malaysia Airlines has suffered the two worst disasters in modern aviation less than five months apart. Both incidents involved Boeing 777-200ERs, widely considered being one of the safest aircrafts. Over six months have past since flight MH370 disappeared on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. A multinational search team has scoured remote southern stretches of the Indian Ocean, unable to find even a trace of debris from the aircraft.

A preliminary report on the demise of flight MH17 released by Dutch investigators has failed to provide a wider understanding of the incident, leaving critical questions of culpability unanswered. The crippling impact of the two air disasters has forced Malaysia Airlines into accelerating a major restructuring effort to rescue the brand and return it to profitably by 2017, with plans to relist the company by 2019.

Nationalize or privatize?

As the flagship carrier, Malaysia Airlines is viewed as a symbol of national prestige and development. The state has played a vital role in using public funds to restructure the airline over the years. The key challenges confronting the carrier are competition from low-cost national and regional rivals, high operating costs, unprofitable long haul routes, and a bloated payroll.

The main question going forward is whether further nationalization or drastic privatization will more effectively resuscitate the airline. Khazanah Nasional, a state investment fund that owns about 70% of Malaysia Airlines, proposed a strategy to recover the national carrier, involving plans to take full ownership of the airline and the most stringent job cuts in the company's history.

Unlike the four previous attempts to restructure the airline, which reneged on plans to scale back the workforce under pressure from politically influential airline unions, the company intends to cut staffing by 6,000 jobs or 30% of the carrier's 20,000 employees. Malaysia Airlines has about 30 percent more staff than comparable airlines, and while the cuts will be painful, the status quo can clearly not be maintained under the prevailing circumstances.

Khazanah Nasional will channel around RM6bn ($2 billion) into reviving the carrier, buying out remaining stock from shareholders, layoffs and other restructuring costs, debt settlement and capital injections. Putrajaya claims these funds are an investment, rather than a bailout, expressing its intention to regain the funds when the airline returns to profitability. One can be forgiven for being skeptical of the carrier’s strategy, taking into account the shortcomings of previous restructuring attempts.

An accumulative sum of RM17.4bn ($5.3 billion) was injected into the airline between 2001 and 2014, and losses of RM8.4bn ($2.6 billion) were incurred nonetheless during that period. Malaysia Airlines reported a net loss of RM443mn ($140.8 million) for the first quarter of 2014. Second-quarter earnings following the unexplained disappearance of MH370 in March saw losses of RM307mn ($97.6 million). The second-half earnings are expected to be even grimmer in the wake of MH17, following reports from the airline that average weekly bookings had declined by 33 percent. The company has lost more than 40 percent of its market value this year and has not made an annual profit since 2010.

Shareholders will be meeting in early November to consider Khazanah’s selective capital reduction proposal plan before the recovery plan can go into effect. Although shareholders will be losing money by selling off their assets for lower prices than they purchased them for, the independent adviser AmInvestment Bank advised that they accept the offer, because without the proposed capital injection from Khazanah, the airline will go under and the share price will collapse. It’s better to lose a finger than to lose an arm.

As budget carriers like AirAsia, which was formally state-owned before being taken private, lead the Southeast Asian market, there are those who will view any further capital injection into Malaysia Airlines as an imprudent use of public funds. Khazanah itself has noted that the RM17.4bn used to restructure the national carrier could have helped improve education or provide water and power to remote villages. It also doesn’t make sense to refer to Khazanah’s move to take full ownership of the airline as a privatization since it is a government investment fund; it’s more like a de-facto nationalization.

At this stage, whether Malaysia Airlines is nationalized or privatized is a periphery concern: the real question is how can it be restructured to viably compete with discount airlines that make up some 58 percent of the air traffic in Southeast Asia? There are concerns going forward that Khazanah lacks the expertise needed to micromanage the airline and implement the kind of solutions needed to shift the balance back toward profitability. Additionally, there will be no minority shareholders to scrutinize the management and provide helpful input under Khazanah’s full ownership of the carrier.

Structural adjustments are needed to make the airline leaner and more efficient if it has any chance of surviving. Long unprofitable routes that require heavy subsidies should be cut with renewed focus on competitively priced medium-haul services within Asia. The fleet of Boeing 777s and Airbus A380s can be sold off and replaced with more fuel-efficient A330s and the A350s designed for shorter distances.

If employees and unions were better informed about the dire ill health of the airline, perhaps they would agree to voluntary pay cuts for a limited period if it meant retaining job security. Under the current circumstances, bonuses should be suspended and the balance sheet should be carefully scrutinized. In addition to rolling out a public relations blitz to repair the image of the company, Malaysia Airlines should emulate some qualities of their rivals’ business models, but differentiate themselves by offering greater value for money to the extent that a full-service airline can provide.

No answers, no closure

As the enquiry continues into the demise of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the skies of eastern Ukraine in July, the preliminary findings of the international investigation have done little to develop a clearer understanding of the incident. The parties responsible for bringing down the aircraft, and exactly what means were utilized to do so, have yet to be firmly established.

The Dutch Safety Board (DSB), which is leading the investigation into the MH17 crash, released a preliminary report in September, which sought to analyze air traffic control and radio communication data, assess the inflight break-up sequences, and conduct a forensic examination of the wreckage. Assigning culpability to any party was not in the report’s mandate; the authors of the text use highly guarded and ambiguous language to explain their findings.

Due to the continued obstruction and contamination of the crash site as a result of military hostilities, it is highly questionable whether further forensic examinations can be carried out under such protracted circumstances. Another barrier is a lack of political will to consider certain findings, due to the politically charged nature of the Ukrainian conflict, which has resuscitated Cold War-era hostilities, bringing US-Russia relations to new lows.

Though Ukraine, the United States, and other countries have accused Russia of supplying the rebels with surface-to-air missiles and orchestrating the shoot-down of MH17, those governments have yet to declassify their intelligence on MH17, refusing even to discuss the sources and methodology behind their findings. Comments by Russian officials at the UN and elsewhere indicate that Moscow feels its side of the story has been neglected and overlooked.

The satellite images and military data made public by Moscow, which suggest a completely different series of events, have been entirely absent from the media’s narrative. The Dutch findings conclude that the aircraft abruptly ended its flight after a large number of “high energy objects” penetrated the aircraft from the outside, but does not identify the nature of those objects.

Dutch investigators have wholly omitted findings from radar data submitted by Moscow that purportedly showed a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet flying in close proximity to MH17 prior to it disappearing from radar.  BBC’s Russian language service broadcasted a report shortly after the disaster where several local eyewitnesses claimed to see a military aircraft in the sky flying in the vicinity of MH17 as it exploded and broke apart. The investigation has a responsibility to address the question of the Ukrainian fighter jet and its possible role in the incident.

The case of MH370 has proven to be the most baffling incident in commercial aviation history and one of the world's greatest aviation mysteries. Despite the largest multinational search and rescue effort ever conducted, not a trace of debris from the aircraft has been found, nor has the cause of the aircraft’s erratic change of trajectory and disappearance been established.

After a fruitless search in the southern Indian Ocean where the plane is believed to have crashed after running out of fuel, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau leading the investigation has admitted that investigators are not entirely sure if the current underwater search is being conducted in the right spot, although Malaysian officials have been more optimistic.

Tim Clark, the CEO and president of Emirates, questioned the methodology used by investigation team to pinpoint the crash site, claiming it was downright “suspicious” that a Boeing 777 could disappear without a trace with its communications being disabled. Clark also raised concerns that the public was not being told the whole truth about the cargo manifest.

The families of the passengers and crewmembers onboard the missing aircraft recently renewed calls for Putrajaya to release the full cargo manifest, which they say was only partially released some two months after the incident, claiming that there were missing gaps in the document. The manifesto claimed that the cargo contained 2.4 tons of lithium ion batteries and radio accessories and chargers consigned for Motorola, and 4.5 tons of mangosteen.

IGP Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar promised the media that authorities would investigate the mangosteen supplier after the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority claimed that the fruit was not in season, nor were there any orchards in Johor where the mangosteen supplier, Poh Seng Kian, is based. The way in which certain information has allegedly been withheld from the public domain has worked to stoke skepticism that investigators must address. 

Inmarsat, the British satellite telecommunications company responsible for analyzing MH370 satellite data, has also come under scrutiny from independent satellite experts and engineers that found glaring inconsistencies in their analysis. The Atlantic magazine published a report in May based on the analysis of Michael Exner, founder of the American Mobile Satellite Corporation, Duncan Steel, a physicist and visiting scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and satellite technology consultant Tim Farrar.

The team of analysts used flight and navigation software to deconstruct Inmarsat’s analysis, and determined that Inmarsat’s data contained irregular frequency shifts, and even when the values were corrected, Inmarsat’s example flight paths failed to match and proved to be erroneous. In other words, these analysts believe there may be grounds to believe that the search is being conducted on the basis of a false mathematical conclusion.

The authors of the report attempted to reach Inmarsat and other relevant bodies, but they claim that the company did not reply to requests for comments on basic technical questions about their analysis, leading them to determine that “Inmarsat officials and search authorities seem to want it both ways: They release charts, graphics, and statements that give the appearance of being backed by math and science, while refusing to fully explain their methodologies.”

While the investigation teams are doing their level best to establish accounts of the two Malaysia Airlines disasters, there is undoubtedly a dimension of political pressure involved that can create various barriers to understanding. The astonishing nature of these two incidents demand that uncomfortable scenarios and questions be addressed and examined. The media still has an important role to play.

This article was appeared in the October 28 and 29, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper.

Nile Bowie is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His articles have appeared in numerous international publications, including regular columns with Russia Today (RT) and newspapers such as the Global Times, the Malaysian Reserve and the New Straits Times. He is a research assistant with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian NGO promoting social justice and anti-hegemony politics. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

Occupy Central is undermining stability

Hong Kong has been brought to a standstill over the past several weeks as the territory’s pro-democracy movement clogged major roads and transport arteries, blocking traffic in a sustained campaign of civil disobedience. Clashes between demonstrators and local business owners, taxi drivers, and other residents have become commonplace due to the strain placed on the economy by the protest movement.

Irrespective of whether one supports the movement or not, it is self-evident that the sustained protest strategy has long ceased to be constructive. The number of participants has dwindled to the low hundreds in most cases. As evidenced by reports and video footage of chaotic altercations, the persistence of the movement is undermining the city’s social fabric and stability. Support for the Occupy camp is also eroding as business and transport disruptions persist.

Occupy Central is the latest manifestation of an increasingly common kind of movement, whereby a consolidated group of frustrated young demonstrators occupy public areas and refuse to disperse until their demands are met. Elder protest leaders and opportunistic opposition politicians set the agenda, while hordes of students enforce their demands on the street. In the push to achieve the goal of the campaign, the negative impact on local businesses and people’s lives are of little concern.

While movements like these tend to crop up in highly polarized societies, protestors will shrewdly accept nothing less than their demands, even if they represent a contentious minority position. That these groups sing the praises of ‘democracy’ makes for good satire. However, to dismiss these movements altogether as an annoyance or threat to public disorder obfuscates important political signals which need to be listened to.

As it pertains to Hong Kong, an extremely complex set of social and economic factors motivates and fuels the protest movement. The rising eminence of mainland cities as shipping and financial hubs casts a shadow over Hong Kong, which has long ceased to serve as an exclusive gateway into China for foreign investors and banks.

Beijing has taken a hands-off approach to Hong Kong, allowing the territory to operate with a high degree of political autonomy. While there is little evidence of the central government trying to assert its authority and systems onto the territory, the large volume of mainlanders who come to Hong Kong as tourists and property-buyers have instilled in many the notion that Hong Kong risks being absorbed into the mainland’s social and cultural milieu.

The idea of protecting the territory’s unique identity from absorption into the larger polity propounds demonstrators with an ardent sense of urgency and justice. It is undeniable that Hong Kong is rife with chauvinist attitudes toward mainlanders. The demonstrations, in turn, have become an avenue for protestors to assert their status and identity, veiled under a homogenizing pro-democracy banner. Mainland reactions to the protests have been lukewarm because these sentiments can be widely inferred.

Another more obvious factor is economic in nature, pertaining to the territory’s soaring income inequality and the increasing difficulty to make ends meet. The ‘Hong Kong dream’ is fast evaporating, as young people increasingly view barriers to home-ownership and greater material affluence as becoming ever more pronounced. Most poignantly, there is a major trust deficit toward the current administration that could continue to widen and polarize society. 

International media coverage, which has echoed the sympathetic statements made in favor of the protestors by Western governments, has oversimplified the Occupy Central movement by overlooking questions of identity and dislocation. The movement has been framed through a familiar cookie-cutter narrative that is averse to criticizing the student movement whilst often exaggerating the extent of police misconduct.

Teargas was used to disperse the protestors, which had the unintended effect of galvanizing support for the movement, only when students attempted to storm government buildings. In contrast to the heavy-handed conduct and police brutality that has been repeatedly demonstrated in Europe and the United States, the actions of the Hong Kong police were highly restrained throughout. These demonstrations have proved beyond doubt that the Hong Kong authorities have respected their citizens’ rights to assemble.

Western media has also mischaracterized the historical treaty between Britain and China that set conditions for the handover, while obfuscating a critical point: that implementing the universal suffrage system was Beijing’s idea. Nowhere in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration is universal suffrage mentioned. As it pertains to the territory’s Basic Law, the chief executive will be elected by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee.

There is no substance to the allegation that China ‘reneged on its commitment’ to offer universal suffrage, because the law always stipulated that a nominating committee would approve candidates for chief executive. By selectively reporting from pro-Occupy perspectives, the Western media has created an impression that Beijing is suppressing democracy, when in fact the population will be directly electing the chief executive through one-person-one-vote for the first time in history in 2017.

The one-person-one-vote system was never a feature of life under British colonial rule. By 2020, both the chief executive and legislative council be will elected through universal suffrage, representing a move toward popular ballot-box politics. A 1,200-member electoral college currently elects the chief executive; therefore, the accommodation of direct elections will be undeniably more representative than the current arrangement.

It is hardly surprising that the figures associated with the Occupy Central movement, be they student leaders or opposition politicians, have a relationship with the US government, through its foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The organization channeled hundreds of thousands into programs to mobilize university students to demand universal suffrage, while the media has campaigned on their behalf, romanticizing the so-called ‘Umbrella Revolution’ on 24-hour news cycles in the West.

In keeping with other campaigns that have been bolstered by NED’s largesse, the protest movement brands itself with a symbol or color – the umbrella in this case – which is peddled as a fashion statement. The fact that these movements speak with emotions rather than facts make ‘revolution’ a very easy product to sell. Washington’s statements in support of Occupy Central are staggeringly hypocritical given the heavy-handed suppression of the US Occupy movement over the years, in addition to the regular accounts of police brutality that have enflamed race-relations in places such as Ferguson.

US support for the demonstrations in Hong Kong should be seen as part and parcel of a wider strategy by Washington to encourage agitation in China’s periphery regions and territorial disputes. It is only a matter of time before the protest movement loses steam, but the complex attitudes driving the discontent will not be easy to placate. Dialogue between the government and opposing forces will need to take place eventually, but the movement needs to know when to compromise.

A version of this commentary appeared in the Global Times.

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Hong Kong’s ‘Semi-Autonomous Democracy’ is still a leap forward

As the Occupy Central movement cries foul over electoral regulations imposed by Beijing, few acknowledge that the proposed reforms are far more representative than any previous electoral mechanism in Hong Kong’s history.

Tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets of Hong Kong in recent days, defying calls to disperse demanding the Chinese government agrees to allow residents to freely elect the city’s next leader. The student-led demonstrations have sparked the worst unrest seen in the Asian financial hub since the 1997 handover which saw China regain sovereignty over the former British colony.

Demonstrations have expanded throughout the city calling for the resignation of chief executive Leung Chun-ying, bringing shopping and business districts to a standstill. Members of the protest movement, known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace, attempted to invade the city's main government compound, prompting riot police to disperse crowds with tear gas and pepper spray.

The conduct of security forces galvanized sympathy for the movement, causing its ranks to swell over the weekend as the value of the Hong Kong dollar tumbled to a six-month low. Student leaders have vowed not to attend classes indefinitely until the city’s top leader steps down, while activists set up barricades and vow to continue their civil disobedience campaign.

Hong Kong operates with a high degree of autonomy under the framework of the “one country, two systems” model, which grants residents of the semi-autonomous island a higher degree of civil liberties, press freedom and political expression than citizens in mainland China. Activists believe the government in Beijing is intent on tightening control over the area to undermine existing freedoms.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

A Glider's Dilemma

Petaurus breviceps refers to a small omnivorous gliding marsupial with a penchant for nectarous foods, known to reside in areas of northeastern Australia and eastern Indonesia. If one discards zoological nomenclature, this canopy acrobat is known by its common name: the sugar glider. These creatures have a fleecy brownish-grey coat, large black eyes, long monkey-like tails, and are small enough to fit in the palm of a human hand.

Gliders are said to be fairly social animals. They enjoy being in pairs and appreciate the company of human beings. Sometimes, these animals can even bark like a small dog to call attention to themselves. Among animal owners, gliders are widely considered to be wonderful pets, although they do take some time to warm up to their human companions. It said that people who attempt to bond with gliders require a high degree of patience.

There was one such glider that required copious amounts of patience and resolve to bond with, due to his very particular disposition. From as early as he could remember, this glider found himself in the unfortunate position of being completely and utterly terrified by the world around him. For him, the experience of his presence in the world meant being subject to a constant, unyielding anxiety. The feeling of terror, it seemed, was interweaved into the very fiber of this glider’s being.

‘Oh dear, oh dear! Is this is it? Have they come for me? Yes, it must be! It must! What else could those prodding fingers be doing? Oh dear, yes, I feel it now, the end is imminent, surely it must be!’ thought the little creature, as a small crowd of troublesome, fairly moronic human beings tapped the glass window of the pet shop that housed the unfortunate glider. He peered out from the top of his sleeping pouch with extreme caution.

The sight of these bothersome gawkers – who were, taken from the glider’s perspective, absolutely massive in size – filled the little beast with a panic poignant enough to coax a heart attack. He uttered a horrified ‘Eeep!’ before thrusting himself headfirst to the very bottom of his small sleeping sack, so as to brace for imminent death at the hands of these ruthless and mentally deficient glass-pokers. This unfortunate glider was miserably subjected to sustained periods of glass-poking multiple times each day.

The stinging horror brought about by the notion of impending doom seemed to periodically escalate in intensity for the glider, irrespective of the fact that each party of glass-pokers usually only registered two to three pokes at the time, soon wandering off in disinterest, likely due to their depressed attention spans. For him, each tap represented another lurch toward a painful demise, undoubtedly by being devoured.

‘It looks that I’ve been fortunate enough to evade that wretched horde so horrible, but I must maintain vigilance, my utmost vigilance, in the face of these ceaseless provocations!’ The glider told himself this as he lay tightly in a curl smaller than a billiard ball at the very bottom of his sleeping pouch. ‘My word, they’re back! This time they’ll definitely finish me off, I have maximum confidence that this time around, they’ll finally get me. Curse this life, truly, truly!’ he thought, as a seven year old nudged his forehead against the glass prior to walking off in pursuit of far cuter hamsters, which jovially ran on their wheel, seemingly oblivious to immeasurable totality of possibilities – both beautiful and horrible – that beings in the world can be subjected to.

The glider’s familial origins are uncertain. His earliest memories were in the very pet shop that he finds himself now. As previously noted, gliders are social beasts and find comfort amongst themselves. This unfortunate glider however, has only known a reality of cold isolation and aloneness, deprived of any parental embrace or that of any fellow gliders, who could have offered him some sense of comradeship. It is believed that this glider was bred by an unscrupulous capitalist, who at the first instant of the beast coming on the scene, shipped him off to highest bidder for a cold profit.

This unfortunate glider, the being at the center of our story, owes his existence to his own commodification. When the time came for him to be sold on the market, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this luckless creature found himself in the throes of slavery.

* * *

Given the highly unenviable circumstances of the glider’s current living conditions in the pet shop – subjecting him to ceaseless throngs of ill-intentioned gawkers, cramped betwixt other imprudent animals with vapid faculties – one would assume that the beast would view the day he became the possession by an owner as something of an upgrade. After all, the prospect of having one’s own private habitat, perhaps better quality food at higher volumes and other perks, could potentially take the edge off that biting sense of anxiety that comes with existing as a living object in the world.

If one assumed that the glider would view it that way, one would be mistaken. A man walked into the pet shop, and examined the creatures on offer. There were an array of snakes, a tortoise, some birds, and a rather stupid looking fish. His eyes wandered, until they met the cage where our unfortunate creature lay curled, sleeping, dreaming perturbed dreams. Obedient to his sudden impulse, the man walked up to the counter and placed a crumbled pocketful of bank notes onto it. He was to become the proud owner of a sugar glider.

After the transaction, the pet shop employees needed to fetch the animal out of his cage for transport to his new quarters. A young woman gently reached inside the sleeping pouch to wrest hold of the little sleeping beast. It took a moment for the glider to awaken and register what was taking place. ‘Oh! Oh! I said it would happen and my word, it is happening right now! The horror! I’m just a small thing! I don’t want to be devoured! Please… please! What wrong have I done to this world? I have no mind to do harm to anything! I beg, beg! I can’t stand the horror of what is about to happen to me. Why must I be bitten into pieces and chewed up? Please don’t kill me!’

The light was absolutely blinding, as the glider was pulled from his sleeping pouch, in the firm grip of a human hand. Our creature’s face smacked with a look of hobgoblinesque trepidation spurred on by immense pangs of dread. His heart raced with fury while his breathing intensified feverishly, all while his eyes struggled to focus on the curious crowd of humans surrounding him. ‘I’m going to be broken apart and divided up amongst them… I will be devoured!’ he deduced in horror.

In an instant, he lodged his two hands – each with five little fingers, topped by five little nails – onto the index finger of the shopkeeper with a firm grip. The glider rolled his head back, opened his mouth, exposing two long fangs on his lower jaw. He reluctantly bit down hard on the woman’s finger, not because he intended to her harm, but because the perpetuation of his very existence depended on escaping the much more daunting teeth of the humans, who wouldn’t fret at subjecting him to a miserable end.

He based based this assumption on what he could infer from a television set, which he could see through the glass window of the pet shop. Human beings indeed had an energetic proclivity for taking the lives of others, especially their own. The young female shopkeeper yelped in pain as our glider wiggled his way outside her grip, flailing violently as he fell toward the shop floor. This glider couldn’t believe what he had done. He couldn’t believe he had the gall to defy such a mighty creature, a creature so highly adept at meting out brutality!

The notion that his defiance would be swiftly followed up with heavy consequences struck him immediately. ‘Now I’ve gone and done it! Oh my, oh dear. What’s in store for me now? What was I thinking to bite one of them? How dare I have the audacity to refuse to be eaten! Where did I get the idea? I’m sorry, I’m sorry! End me, please! Not only will I consent to being devoured, but I’ll also praise you as you devour me! Eeep!’ the embattled glider thought.

He feared that if the humans standing about didn’t catch him then and there, they would send some of their mechanical animals after him, the kind usually reserved for the destruction of other humans. His worries were compounded further when he realized the brownish shade of his coat was a similar color to the humans usually killed by those wicked flying things.

To his surprise, the humans didn’t pounce on him with their weapons. For some reason, the escape of the glider from the shopkeeper’s hands triggered unusual behavior from the customers in the pet shop: they ran about and stood on chairs and tabletops as if the glider posed an existential threat to them! The glider thought that this had to be some sort of sophisticated diversionary tactic, a product of the human race’s intentionally dubious and ever deceitful bloodlust. (Our glider frequently watches television.)

He realized the strange reaction from the humans widened his window of opportunity to escape their absolute wretchedness. Our glider – panicked as much as one could be – made a dash for it. In a fitful scurry, he weaved between the shop’s aisles, speedily going under and over obstacles, leaving behind a trail of turds that looked like odorous little raisins. The humans had now swung into action, grabbing hand towels that they intended to use to smother the little beast to secure his capture.

The glider skillfully evaded the human’s advances, letting off adorable little utterances and yelps as he did so, until he soon realized that he was corned. ‘I came into this world knowing only wretchedness and I’m prepared to come out of it knowing only the same! End me! Devour me… if you really think you can stomach me!’ he screamed inside his mind, looking his captors straight in the eyes. The shopkeeper, rather anti-climatically, covered the beast with a hand towel and forced him into sleeping pouch made specifically for transport. She zippered the pouch closed as the glider let out a squeaking ‘Eeep!’ and handed it over to the man who now owned him.

* * *

Once inside the travel pouch, the glider was in such alarm that he fainted for some time. He awoke eventually to the zipper being slowly opened. A torrent of light seeped through the top of his sack. He saw the face of a man gazing down at him. ‘He wants me all to himself, is it?’ thought the little creature, while his heart thumped feverishly, as it does when one’s end is imminent. The glider squealed when the man’s fingers creeped into the pouch’s opening.

To the creature’s bewilderment, three bright colored pellets fell out of the man’s hand and into his sleeping sack. Our glider reacted with utmost hostility. ‘What’s this, some kind of perfidious ruse? Have done with it already! Separate my head from my body and have done with it!’ The smell of the pellets caught the attention of the glider soon after. He was drawn to the sweet smell of the pellets, which were made from dried yogurt.

The little beast put the pellet in his mouth with extreme caution and began to consume it. ‘Trying to fatten me up are you? Yes, you can only be doing that. Fattening me up, you can only have that in mind. I’ve accepted my fate, don’t bother with your attempts to assuage me with these things!’ He soon found himself in a white cage, only marginally bigger than his dwelling at the pet shop, placed in the corner of a small white room.

In the weeks and months ahead, the glider lived in state of constant suspicion of the world around him. It is said that human beings can earn the trust of a glider by keeping its sleeping pouch close to one’s body, allowing the animal to acclimatize to man’s various odors. Our glider’s captor attempted to do just that, but rather than earning the trust of the animal, the beast’s intense paranoia was emboldened with a sense of being constantly under siege.

The creature would spend nearly all of its time awake, inside its pouch, like an embattled solider alone in the trenches as a barbarous enemy contingent advanced only paces away. To make matters worse, the little beast had to contend with another of the man’s captives: a cat that seemed to accept its own subservience with zeal. The feline attentively monitored the movements of the glider within its cage with the utmost observance, presumably on behalf of the man.

The little beast observed the world from his pouch-bunker, while his paranoia and uninterrupted sense of panic became increasingly inflamed as the man became bolder in attempting to handle the glider. The man developed a way of clasping the glider in his hand that the latter felt to be particularly belittling, fixing the beast’s head betwixt his thumb and index finger, so as to prevent the animal from exerting any force with its two little fangs. To appease his curiosity, the man brought the immobilized glider, then enclosed in his grasp, in close proximity to his face, intently examining the little beast’s features.

Our creature’s two large ears, sharp little snout, beady and protruding black eyes, and jutting set of thin whiskers were observed by the man, as the glider remained locked in his grip. The man felt the little beast’s heart throbbing violently in his palm, noting the petrified sense of terror on the animal’s face, which he thought was a rather unusual display of behavior in comparison to other the small animals he had handled throughout his life, who didn’t seem to be afflicted with any entrenched sense of horror at every waking moment.

‘If I am to be subjected to a lonely eternity in my stinking pouch, forever under the eyes of your henchman cat, I would rather a quick entry into the pits of your stomach. Grind me up into little bits, make my world go black, have done with it, I say! You won’t make an acquiescent abettor out of me!’ thought the glider, powerlessly stationary in the man’s hand. On more than one occasion, the man would open the lid of the cage, so as to invite the glider to explore his surroundings. The man, rather carelessly, would forget that the cage remained open at times, though the glider didn’t dare make for an exit.

The beast only gambled to come out of his pouch when his room was swallowed by the darkness of the night, and only then to relieve his bowels and nibble on a few grapes and slices of green apple that the man laid out for him. On one occasion, following a period where the glider found himself in a particularly depressed mood, he noticed that the lid of his cage was open. It was night outside. The man seemed not to be at home in his flat. He was presumably off busying himself with some form of savagery, as men do.

Our creature, who scantly ever acted on impulse or done anything with his existence, was suddenly and inexplicably smacked with an adventurous tickle. He peered out of his pouch-bunker, and with extreme caution, proceeded to crawl toward the lid of the cage. He dangled himself down and was soon on the floor. No sooner than that did the glider’s movements attract the curiosity of the cat. In no time, a feeling began to set on our little beast that an inevitable brawl would occur.

Sugar gliders are sometimes referred to as sugar bears, precisely because of their instinctual defense tactic. Much like other creatures in the animal kingdom that lack adequate means of fending off predators, such as the blowfish for example, these beasts engage in a bit of theatrical muscle-flexing to make themselves appear to be a far more formidable foe than they actually are in practice. As the cat approached with peaking curiosity, our little glider stood upright on his hind legs, raising his tiny hands up, ready to lunge at the feline, oblivious to the fact that he was among the least intimidating creatures that nature could conjure.

‘Hear me, you wretched double-crosser! So eager to abandon fellow whisker-wielders to obediently lick the boots of man, I’ll wallop you senseless! I’ll now strike you with a merciless offensive, a rapid onslaught of concentrated aggression, brace for your imminent destruction, feline, at my hand! You will feel it as –’ the glider’s mental declaration of war was just then cut short when the cat, who sat before our beast with increasingly passive disinterest, swatted the glider, effortlessly sending him tumbling backwards as he squeaked with a shrill ‘Eeep!’ Now showing utter indifference in the glider, the cat wandered off to nudge around a catnip-laced toy.

Our beast lay stunned, shell-shocked, weighed down by a crushing loss of confidence and feelings of inadequacy. ‘Am I such a pathetic little being that even the cat refuses me entry into its stomach? Have I not a single redeemable quality? Oh, how my own consciousness stings, stings it does! What kind of games this life likes to play with me, making me shoulder the heavy burden of living as it dangles the relief of being extinguished before my face, only to whisk it away in laughter,’ lamented our distressed marsupial. These events represented the first tumble into a measureless downward spiral that would all but consume this unfortunate sugar glider.

* * *

As the days and weeks past, it was as if our doomed marsupial had burrowed into the very heart of bitterness itself. The man, who noticed our glider’s marked reticence from the very onset, began to observe how the little beast had grown incalculably stubborn, to the point of his conduct verging on satire. Increasingly concerned, the man would try to ease tensions with the glider by talking to it in a motherly, non-threatening voice, asking it all sorts of questions. Our glider, who refused to come out of its pouch – even to defecate – could only mentally screech ‘No! No! Absolutely No!’ to any of the man’s advances, letting out frustrated little peeps and barks when anyone attempted to interact with him.

One day, upon becoming seriously concerned by the glider’s entrenched antisocial tendencies, the man attempted to subject the beast to a new regime where he would be frequently handled, in an attempt to diffuse the glider’s anxieties and coax it into being social. It is said by professionals who study the species that an aggressive hands-on approach is the only way to jolt reticent gliders into being comfortable with humans. The man opened the cage, and rather than handling the beast directly, he unclipped the sleeping pouch that hung on the inside wall of the cage entirely and held the sack in his hands.

He sat down and peered into the pouch, looking down at the little beast, who stared back at him. The man continued his routine of sweet-talking the glider in the friendliest manner possible, only to be met with the creature’s blaringly hateful gaze. Even in his mind, the glider couldn’t find the words to express his disapproval of the situation. He simply emitted a piercing, hateful gaze directed squarely at the man. As they sat together, the man felt some pity for our creature. In his research earlier that morning, the man read how gliders prefer to be in pairs.

In a well-meaning attempt to stimulate the glider with some new sort of experience, the man fetched a small mirror and brought it over to the pouch, setting it up parallel to the opening in the belief that the sight of another glider – himself – could help alleviate his apparent loneliness. Our glider, who at that moment was curled into himself to avoid looking at the wretched man, turned his head to examine what was going on at the opening of his sack. At that moment, a sense of terror sharper than anything the beast had ever felt before struck him as he saw his own reflection.

‘This wretched man, so unbelievable, so duplicitous! He’s teased me with this life for so long, that when he finally decides to pull me out this world, he’s corrupted one of my own kind and sent it finish the job! This is his final insult! And what sort of creature is this before me? That rotten man must have tortured this beast to prepare it for its cruel task, as evidenced by its soiled coat, matted fur, and generally unruly appearance!’ As the glider braced with the expectation of being attacked, he saw the other glider in the mirror making the same preparation, which he assumed was yet another diversionary tactic, surely taught to him by the man.

Our glider was in such a panic that he evacuated his pouch, leaping out of it with a sharp squeaking ‘Eeep!’ just as the other glider in the mirror did so! As the unfortunate marsupial tumbled into mid-air and flew toward the ground, it was as if time slowed down. During his descent, he noticed that the flaps of loose furry skin that normally tucked into his belly had now opened up, catching the air inside them and allowing him to maneuver as he fell. It was at that moment when the glider, for the first time in his life, was struck by the source of his anxiety: the misfortune of his own freedom.

Our glider hit the ground with a clap, and in a panicked dash, scurried behind a monolithic and immobile piece of furniture. The man chased after him, but failed in his attempt to throw a hand towel over the glider to capture it. Our little beast was too quick, as it hurled itself into a tiny wedge. ‘To hell with this!’ the man said, utterly irritated with the creature he purchased. He marched off in frustration, leaving the glider to its own devices behind the piece of furniture.

The glider sat huddled in darkness, like a frail lamb hiding under the floorboards as a starving wolf walks over, expecting the other glider he saw in the mirror to follow his tracks and mount an attack. When the other glider came, our creature vowed that wouldn’t fight back. He intended to raise his head before his executioner so as to assist it in driving its fangs through his throat. Our glider waited and waited, and waited some more. He waited in vain, for the other glider never came.

Our distressed marsupial sat for hours in contemplation. ‘After careful thought, I have come to the conclusion that the beast I encountered earlier was none other than myself. Even if I knew that at the moment when my gaze met its own reflection, I would have still run away in disconcerted fright. That is because I am a pathetic creature. I look down at myself, and I see my testes hanging so liberally, but I know in my heart that I am effectively castrated.’ The burden of this realization weighed so very heavily on this dejected marsupial, as he sat and sat, reflecting on the circumstances in which he found himself.

He wasn’t sure whether he came into this world or came out of it, but he knew without a shadow of doubt that his entire life had been lived in exile, far away from that place where he truly belonged, wherever that was. He thought and thought and thought, and during this episode of contemplation, the anxiety he felt ever since he was a joey seemed to melt away. A new mood came over him. He began to realize that the source of his inner discord lay in his reluctance to act upon his free will, instead letting the ever-fluxing ebbs and flows of chance carry him from place to place like a dandelion seed dancing on the wind.

What afflicted our glider most profoundly, what weighed him down most heavily, was the terror that lay within the totality of possibilities. Until now, our glider couldn’t see how the terms and conditions of his own existence in this world paralyzed him so. As he sat in terror in his pouch-bunker, day after day, week after week, month after month, it was the bumbling monotony of the everyday that began to strangle him. Our little marsupial knew that if he wanted to go on living, he would need to accept that, from the moment he came into this world, he was condemned to be free.

As the sun descended and the moon rose up, night fell over the land. Our little marsupial knew that the man must surely be asleep. The cat was likely by his side. He came out from behind the towering piece of furniture and scurried over to the balcony. Before him, he heard the call of the trees as the wind swept through them. He looked out toward the night and breathed calm breaths. ‘The time has come to live dangerously,’ he thought to himself. For him, he knew this was the time to glide. Our marsupial knew that the path before him was treacherous. He knew that as a result of the actions he intended to take next, the possibility of his demise as he ventured off into the unknown world was the most likely outcome. He didn’t care. He accepted it. Just like that, our marsupial made his choice. He took a leap of negative faith.

* * *

Days passed with many a rolling golden sunset. Our glider’s cage had been swept up and placed in a cupboard. No one, not even this narrator, knew for certain the fate of the sugar glider at the heart of our story. What was important was that the glider acted on his choice and the consequences of his actions were for him to bear, and for him to bear alone. Neither the man nor the cat ever saw the glider ever again. The two continued their lives together, merrily basking in the crisp daylight.


Author’s Note
The above is the first in a series of short stories written for the sole purpose of satisfying my own creative impulses. I felt the call to write something that caters to the spirit as well as the intellect. Many of my ideas about the nature of freedom and other various existential themes are present in the text.

Nile Bowie is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His articles have appeared in numerous international publications, including regular columns with Russia Today (RT) and newspapers such as the Global Times, the Malaysian Reserve and the New Straits Times. He is a research assistant with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian NGO promoting social justice and anti-hegemony politics. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Can Malaysia withstand the next financial crisis?

As developed economies of the world still continue their struggle to recover from the global financial crisis in 2008, the lack of confidence in global economic stability has placed greater demand on emerging markets to cushion themselves for the next crash. While woefully unsustainable debt levels deepen and weak regulatory oversight persist, the lack of tangible reforms creates an imperative for countries like Malaysia to stay ahead of the curve.

This was the theme of the Perdana Leadership Foundation’s sixth CEO Forum held in Kuala Lumpur last week, where more than thirty panelists analyzed the shaky state of the global economy and offered insights into Malaysia’s strengths and vulnerabilities, as well as the country’s susceptibility to external economic turbulence. In addition to market-related vulnerabilities, panelists also identified inter-religious anxieties between communities as factors that could put national unity and political stability at risk. 

Tan Sri Dato’ Dr. Lin See Yan, a trustee of the Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, identified how high fences built to withstand economic shocks and de-risk the financial system are seldom designed for all possibilities. He branded the European Union as the weakest link in the global financial system, noting that the bloc’s debt problems kept growing, austerity has proven to be counter productive, the euro currency remains overvalued, and the European Central Bank (ECB) has stagnated in the midst of its bond-buying strategy.

Lin also noted the possibility of another crisis originating from within the United States due to vulnerabilities posed by the country’s ballooning $17 trillion debt levels, the growing housing bubble, and the persistence of trading high-risk financial products backed by complex securitizations. He also raised concerns over recent data on the Chinese economy, which has shown a decline in fixed asset investments, raising speculation about whether or not the Chinese authorities would introduce a stimulus package. 

Tan Sri Azman Yahya, executive chairman of Symphony Life, believes that growth in China will continue to be on the upswing despite concerns of deceleration, even without significant investment, by virtue of Beijing’s prudent economic reforms. China has already announced at the recent G20 meeting of finance ministers that it will not make major policy adjustments in the form of stimulus despite slightly lower growth indicators. Reforms will be prioritized to stabilize employment and contain systemic risks such as widespread default. 

High government deficits, unprecedented government and private sector debt levels, and low household savings are deeply worrying trends in mature economies, according to Yahya, who claims that eventual tapering by the US Federal Reserve to cease quantitative easing (QE) measures could trigger a loss of confidence in the US dollar, causing an offloading and crash of US securities capable of tanking global markets. 

Yahya identified the risks posed by the lack of tangible financial sector reforms, the unsustainable US debt bubble, the growing loss of confidence in the US dollar, and surmised that the next crisis may strike within five years. He identified the high growth levels of Asia-Pacific countries as a buffer to crises emanating from stagnate western economies, noting how China’s middle class is set to expand to one billion by 2025, while growth will be increasingly be powered by consumption. 

Panelists at the forum generally agreed that the Asia-Pacific region is in a far healthier state today in comparison to the 1997 crisis, as China’s growth strategy moves away from the investment-driven template to more sustainable consumption-led expansion. Countries in the ASEAN region are also cooperating at higher levels. Analysts agree that Malaysia has proven to be fairly resilient and adept at crisis management, as it managed to navigate through treacherous economic periods while retaining consistently healthy growth levels over the past two decades. 

The country defied the IMF’s economic orthodoxy and introduced capital control measures during the 1997 Asian financial crisis to counter the short selling of the Malaysian ringgit by currency speculators, which triggered dramatic depreciation and rapid falls in stock market capitalization. Malaysia recovered faster than its neighbors and consolidated its banking system, putting buffers in place by introducing broader market regulations and strengthening banks to withstand shocks. 

During the global financial crisis in 2008, triggered by the bursting of the US housing bubble and the subsequent collapse of large financial institutions trading toxic mortgage-related financial products, the country found itself better prepared. The way the crisis struck in 1997 took Malaysian policymakers totally off guard. The country’s economy was highly stable and experiencing growth at 8 percent; loans were being repeatedly prepaid and Malaysia was stepping in rescue Thailand after attacks on the baht.

The current scenario also demands that countries expect the unexpected. The general consensus among panelists the Perdana forum was that a new financial crisis could present itself at some point within the next eighteen months to five years, with the potential for several mini-crises to bubble up and trigger recessionary depression. It is nearly impossible to accurately pinpoint when the next crisis will hit, but there are numerous flashpoints to consider.

In addition to vulnerabilities stemming from uncontrolled derivative trading and speculative hot money flows, debt and bubbles loom. During the 2008 crisis, insolvent private banks and lending institutions were deemed too-big-to-fail, but today, central banks are on the road to inheriting that status. Debt levels have ballooned to unprecedented levels driven by QE and low interest rates. Stagnate wages and easy credit has goaded consumers to keep borrowing to maintain consumption.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are experiencing high unemployment levels and dramatic income inequality, giving rise to greater levels of social unrest while the stock markets of both countries have performed above par – surpassing the highs of pre-crisis levels. The sharp ascent of share prices, which has been heralded as proof of an economic recovery, does not correlate with rising activity in the productive economy or with per capita income.

The distinguished economist Ha-Joon Chang has referred to these developments as ‘the biggest stock market bubble in modern history.’ It is clear that share prices do not reflect real economic activity. The core of the problem is that successive rounds of QE have increased liquidity rates and fuelled asset bubbles rather than being channeled into productive assets.

Panelists addressed how many of the new jobs being created in mature economies are low-wage positions that offer little career mobility. The broad appeal of protest campaigns organized by fast-food workers to demand a living wage is a testament to the strains on ordinary people who are unable to meet the cost of living. Americans are pessimistic about their nation’s economic recovery policies because many find themselves facing more trying domestic circumstances.

Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad attended the Perdana forum to give the closing keynote address, where he likened the implementation of solutions to avert economic crises to a medical doctor treating a patient, stressing the need to understand the systemic contradictions of the global financial system. Dr. Mahathir denounced fractional reserve banking practices, which result in banks lending far greater amounts of money than they actually possess in cash reserves, and the leveraging practices taken advantage of by currency speculators and hedge funds.

The former Malaysian prime minister accused Europe and the US of being in a state of denial as to how markets are manipulated, primarily because the political classes themselves benefit from speculation. Dr. Mahathir believes that the role of the financial sector is overemphasized in national economies and advised greater market regulation. Governments must be ready to step in to limit the abuses of the banking system, according to Mahathir, who characterized the inherent inequality of the modern age as one where 99 percent of people are beholden to the ultra-wealthy 1 percent, citing the slogan popularized by the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.

Mass protest movements demanding accountability from Wall Street have remained potent because the underlying conditions that generated the crisis have not been addressed in any meaningful way. Instead of steering monetary policies in a sensible direction and broadening regulatory oversight to identify risky financial products and prevent predatory speculation, the banking lobby has strong-armed western politicians into accepting a growth model where short-term profits for the few take precedence over long-term investments in productive assets for the many.

Elsewhere in the world, the economic power and political autonomy of BRICS countries and their plans to establish a development bank to finance infrastructure growth throughout the developing world offers a far more sustainable investment model. To offset the risks of future crises, it is imperative to find the political courage to reduce the importance of the non-productive financial sector in national economies in favor of investments into productive assets that create infrastructure and job opportunities.

Panelists at the Perdana forum argued that even if measures are taken to bolster productive assets, financial and economic crises may strike in unexpected ways: resulting from cyber threat vulnerabilities, sudden geopolitical instability, conflicts over resources and the pricing of resources, and complications that can result from the use of non-traditional currencies.

Malaysia is considered a safe investment destination due to its political stability and imperviousness to natural disasters; the country’s competent young workforce is eager to enter innovative service sector positions, a major asset in contrast to other Asian countries struggling to maintain population growth. To meet the present development aspirations, it is necessary for the country to protect against both external and internal crises.

The Malaysian leadership faces a difficult balancing act on all fronts. It must do more to improve inter-communal harmony without rolling back civil liberties. Despite the country’s strong performance legitimacy, trust and confidence in the government and the integrity of institutions remains low due to endemic corruption. There is a need for a comprehensive social safety net system to address rising income inequality on a needs-basis.

Simultaneously, economic circumstances demand that developing countries remove energy and social subsidies in order to increase efficiency and become a more attractive destination for capital. Navigating through the crises ahead will require bold leadership. Malaysia will be in a better position to withstand turbulence if it takes meaningful steps to reduce income disparities and pursues inclusive social policies that will restore grassroots trust in the leadership.

This article appeared in the September 29, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper.

Nile Bowie is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His articles have appeared in numerous international publications, including regular columns with Russia Today (RT) and newspapers such as the Global Times, the Malaysian Reserve and the New Straits Times. He is a research assistant with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian NGO promoting social justice and anti-hegemony politics. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.