Thursday, May 14, 2020

Travel in Muslim Countries: To Go or Not to Go

Most Westerners get inundated with negative images of Muslims, making excursions east of Switzerland seem foolhardy. Being a U.S. citizen at an American hotel in Muslim-majority Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I thought I'd offer my own perspective. 

First, tourism is a trillion dollar industry, and all significant economic sectors include aggressive competition. While almost everyone has learned governments use fake news and intelligence operations (aka propaganda) against each other, not many of us realize corporate espionage is just as active. For example, during a major sporting event in the United States, a Chinese company's website went down after one of its commercials aired, depriving it of both revenue and reputation. Was it a case of too much online traffic or something else? More recently, TD Ameritrade's website became inaccessible shortly after the United States assassinated an Iranian military leader on Iraqi soil. Coincidence? Or part of a proportionate response? 
And what of Huawei's acceptance woes internationally? 
From Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei's Lessons from Battle
Most Americans will never know the details behind such machinations; as a result, they tune out public affairs, leaving the corporate and governmental worlds to persons with more passion than common sense and no guarantee of extraordinary moral fiber. Over time, such disconnect leads to a casual acceptance of almost any kind of news relating to foreign affairs--even if the news has no basis in fact. 

Second, negative news is an effective economic weapon because it is cheaper to issue a press release that biases consumers against foreign products than it is to spend money on positive advertising (aka building a consistent brand). Whatever the proclaimed political platform, every government has the same goal: attracting investors and deposits in order to expand the economy and to lower unemployment. Malaysia in particular has received bad press because its leader, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, is unapologetically pro-Asian, pro-Malay, and nationalistic. 
From A Doctor in the House (MPH Publishing)
Some examples of negative news involve Malaysia's hotel policy prohibiting unmarried couples from staying together. Setting aside the fact that states like Sarawak and Sabah are known to be fiercely independent from authorities in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, people fail to read the fine print: such policies are applicable only to Muslims and no one else. Since no front desk hotel clerk has ever asked me to state my religion, one can see obvious enforcement problems. In fact, none other than Tun Mahathir has said, "Islam does not ask us to find fault in people to the extent that you breach into other people's homes. That is not Islam." Why, then, do such policies exist? 

Here's the short version: after 1945, Europe could not afford to occupy countries east of the Suez, which it had done since Portugal controlled the Straits of Malacca in 1511, signaling Islam's decline in SE Asia. Despite overreaching--even WWII's "winners" had crushing debt--European leaders believed they could successfully resist or co-opt anti-colonial movements threatening private property interests. In one particularly brazen example, the Dutch, intending to stymie independence efforts, seized the future Indonesian president. (See Operation Kraai/Crow.) Though most Westerners are taught WWII ended in 1945, in reality, battles continued worldwide over two additional decades to expel European colonists, especially the British. 
As European influence waned, newly independent countries--eager to counter vestiges of colonialism but with little experience building economies--had to discover new ways of governing diverse populations. In Malaysia and other majority-Muslim countries, politicians decided to restrict full benefits of citizenship to those presumed to be loyal to new governments, which in practice often meant Muslims (rather than Buddhist Chinese or Indians). 
By Tun Mahathir Mohamed
At the same time, Islam's reformation of slavery over a thousand years before similar movements in the West; lack of centralized structure (no Holy See); and absence of racial categories made Muslim-majority countries susceptible to hostile foreign infiltration and fraud, generating an ironic outcome: governments, some still under European military protection, used anti-colonialism to justify identifying residents with greater specificity, which mimicked British colonialists' "divide and conquer" strategies. 
Later, Tun Mahathir refers to British colonialists' racialized division of labor.
In the United States, few people are willing to accept identity cards disclosing their religion or race, but such cards are common in SE Asia in order to better administer governance, including minimum diversity levels in government-subsidized housing. Mindful of an Animal Farm outcome in which new rulers become as corrupt as old ones, Muslim-majority governments began drafting laws applicable only to Muslims in order to respect non-Muslim minority residents. One unintentional result of using separate systems and/or governmental hiring preferences--whether in Hindu India, Muslim Malaysia, or now politically-Catholic-dominated USA--is that governments ceded the more dynamic private sector to non-majorities (e.g., Punjabis and Sikhs in India; Chinese in Malaysia, etc.), making themselves less relevant. 
Today, when Christian Westerners discuss sharia law, they bypass historical context: namely, that some religious minorities seek independent legal systems to resolve marriage, divorce, child-rearing, and inheritance issues because of Western colonialism's abuses and a rational distrust of legal systems in which Christian governments made and interpreted rules against politically-powerless minorities without input from non-Christians

Now let's fast-forward to modern-day Malaysia. The country continues to struggle with corruption, even as its private sector appears healthy and citizens of all races and religions have experienced steady, sustainable improvements in quality of life. Meanwhile, politics in Malaysia--just like in several Western and Christian countries--has become an arena in which to signal moral purity rather than effective solutions. 22 years after opposition candidate Anwar Ibrahim was arrested on allegedly pretextual sodomy charges, former PM Najib Razak will go on trial for his alleged role in the 1MDB scandal

Such political jousting isn't novel. When Tun Mahathir became president of Malaysia's now-most powerful political party in 1978, Tun Harun Idris had been investigated for corruption and jailed. After Tun Mahathir rose to power, he helped pardon Tun Harun. Lest you believe Muslim-majority countries are unique in using legal maneuvers against political opponents, you may want to review impeachment proceedings (Bill Clinton, Dilma Rousseff, Donald Trump); corruption convictions (Brasil's Luis "Lulu" da Silva, Spain's José Antonio Griñán); politically-motivated detentions without trial (Singapore's Operation Coldstore); FBI investigations before and during USA President Donald Trump's term; and President Trump's military-related pardons, plus dismissed prosecutions, including one where a lieutenant general pled guilty to lying to the FBI. (The only logical reason for such a lie would have been because statements requesting a foreign country not to escalate were code for an eventual quid pro quo that didn't happen only because of the FBI's investigation.) 
From USA's Mueller Report
In 2020, many voters see democratic elections as a game in which the ruling party uses all available tools to crush political opposition so as to cement power over the common purse, a power it wields to reward friends and destroy enemies. Sadly, they're not wrong. The level of incest--figuratively as well as literally--within political families is so prevalent, one has to wonder why voters didn't catch on earlier. See, for example, Belgium's Anciaux and Spaak families, Bolivia's Siles family, Brasil's Bolsonaro family (and many others), Canada's Trudeau family (and many, many others), Colombia's López family... I could continue, but the list is extensive worldwide, and just the "U" countries (U.S., U.K., Uruguay) could fill a novella by themselves. (FYI: Americans lived under a Bush or Clinton presidency from 1989 to 2009.) All the available evidence indicates politicians are merely stand-ins for ruling families (Rockefellers, Gettys, Vanderbilts, Hearsts, Rothschilds, Morgans, etc.) which hearken back to a time when trading houses, along with their private militaries, ruled trade and therefore the world. We may know about the House of Bourbon, House of Bonaparte, and House of Saud, but though we're told "Hong" means "fragrant"--marketing so inapplicable to Hong Kong, one wonders if they're even trying anymore--in fact the "Hong" in Hong Kong refers to British trading houses. 

In the first half of the 19th century, the largest single industry in the United States, measured in terms of both market capital and employment, was the enslavement (and the breeding for enslavement) of human beings... Over the course of the period, the industry became concentrated to the point where fewer than 4,000 families (roughly 0.1% of the nation's households) owned about 1/4 of this 'human capital,' and another 390,000 (call it the 9.9%) owned all of the rest. -- Matthew Stewart (2018) 

Once one connects political power, military power, and trade (economic power), politicians are exposed as pretenders to a throne established centuries ago and protected by governmental inefficacy relating to offshore tax shelters that utilize complexity to provide anonymity. Within such a landscape, we can understand 1MDB as a misguided attempt to attract foreign direct investment, as well as its corollary: zealous enforcement against the rise of patrons, especially in the informal sector, that may inspire another 1MDB. Perhaps now we can see that some arrests are publicized to rally a political base; harass supporters of political opponents; or gain advantages within a trillion dollar industry. Admittedly, such a paradigm brooks no winners except would-be conformists and no prizes but internal rot, but if "all's fair in love and war," why not politics also?  

Native-born citizens and Hollywood aficionados forget America is an idea, not a specific place, and much of America's appeal comes from the eternal idea of refuge (including from political instability). In other centuries "America" was called the New World, and while I do not speak enough languages fluently to tell you more names, considering Justice Sotomayor's dissent in Trump vs. Hawaii (2018), Canada may now be more "American" than its downward neighbor. And so, to those Americans and Christians avoiding Muslim-majority countries because of inconsistent executive enforcement, discrimination on the basis of religion, and visions of criminals run amok, rest assured: the United States has become like every other country, but with superior marketing. Welcome! May your children someday experience sunset gates and glows worldwide. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020) 

Bonus I: "Tun" is a term of respect placed in front of a distinguished Malay's name. It is similar to "Mahatma." (Gandhi's first name is not Mahatma, but Mohandas.)  

Bonus II: Modern Western politics is in its current miserable state because everyone from Diego Rivera to the Workington Man has realized Western liberal values were mere covers for theft and supplanting of local institutions abroad rather than a sincere attempt to bring Enlightenment to all. -- Matthew Rafat (2019, after Britain's general election)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

An Ode to Brad W. Setser

Brad W. Setser has become my favorite USA economist. Richard Posner's prose is turgid; Mohamed El-Erian tends to be vague in order to be safe; Joseph Stiglitz is an academic's dream and a practical person's nightmare; Robert J. Shiller is excellent but not inspirational; Paul Krugman mistakes his intelligence in one specific area for intelligence in all areas; Richard Thaler's Nobel Prize speech was so boring, I couldn't finish it; Jeffrey D. Sach's scholarship is deficient; and Michael Lewis is more journalist than economistWhich leaves us with Dr. Setser. 

Setser's tweets are by far the most educational of any account, not just economics. More importantly, his prose is crisp and clear, something one just doesn't see after the letters "P," "h" and "D" are added to an economist's résumé. In his May 12, 2020 newsletter, Setser manages to summarize 25 years of economics in a single paragraph. See below. 



Any other economist would have included double Irish with a Dutch sandwich; inflation; positive demand shock; services vs. goods; and inequality. In doing so, they would have destroyed any real understanding or become clichéd. Meanwhile, everyone understands "positive shock," "exports," and "low tax jurisdictions," but you don't see such clarity in economics unless a true genius is at work. As Charles Baudelaire once said, "Always be a poet, even in prose." Dr. Setser is the economics world's poet. May he enjoy a long, fulfilling career. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020) 

Bonus: I'm also a fan of N. Gregory Mankiw. 

Bonus: Like most economists who've worked for the federal government, Setser has blind spots relating to USA foreign policy. He's not perfect

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Book Review: The Tommy Koh Reader (2013)

I wanted to share my favorite excerpts from The Tommy Koh Reader (2013). Tommy Koh, a former Singaporean diplomat, is a lawyer who spent 20 years in the United States. In addition to supporting various Singaporean artists--some of whom were jailed over his protestations--he has expertise in international sea rights (unclo), diplomacy, and of course international law. 

On interracial marriage: I was disappointed with [LKY's] views on race. He revealed that if his daughter had wished to marry a black African, he would have had no qualms telling her, "You're mad." [A common British expression for "crazy" or "unrealistic."] He also expressed reservations about inter-racial marriages. We should not judge a person on the basis of colour, race or religion. (2011) 

In this excerpt, Koh criticizes some of Lee Kuan Yew's more controversial comments, including what he calls LKY's reservations about interracial marriages.

My own thoughts: I can see how Singaporean founder Lee Kuan Yew's über-practicality makes him suspicious of interracial marriages--including white and Chinese--especially when differences between two people's upbringings are vast. Practical-minded men see probabilities as more poignant than possibilities. LKY would argue the separation of Barack Obama's parents supports his views; Koh would point to Barack Obama's life as a counter-argument. 


In contrast to LKY, Koh does not transfer his professional adherence to practicality to personal relationships, despite politics being a form of relationship-building. In truth, Koh's success in resolving post-1991 issues between the former Soviet Union and the Baltic states required him to be equal measures idealistic and practical--a practical idealist, if you will--whereas LKY was practical in a most lopsided manner. No one disputes LKY's open-hearted, transparent style meant some of his comments could be taken out of context. For example, LKY once said Muslims were more difficult to integrate than other religions, a comment he later retracted. What he meant was that he believed the average Muslim holds onto his or her religious beliefs more firmly than the average Christian or Buddhist. As a result, anyone marrying a Muslim would most likely have to convert, and one can see greater obstacles to marriages between Muslims and other religions that would not exist in relationships between, say, Buddhists and Christians. In context, everything LKY said made sense, but one sometimes had to give him an extremely sympathetic ear to understand him. Ultimately, it seems clear Singapore benefitted from a well-balanced team of founding diplomats and politicians. 

On Singapore's foreign policy: "Singapore's leaders... use a vocabulary which suggests that Singapore adheres to the Realist school, which takes a cold-eyed, unsentimental view of the world. The Realist worships power and is usually dismissive of other considerations. How can a Realist State attach so much importance to international law? Singapore's ideology is actually not Realism, but Pragmatism. Our adherence to international law is based upon utility and not morality. Small States are better off in a world ruled by law than in a lawless world." (2013) 

On Singaporean values: "The Singaporean cultural DNA includes a gene that respects all faiths." 

A reminder Trump's Presidency is a feature, not a bug, of USA culture: "I observe that American politics has been afflicted by three unwholesome influences. These are Hollywood, Madison Avenue and television. Hollywood exerts a powerful and pervasive influence on every aspect of American life and culture... in judging the presidential debates, 'the public responds overwhelmingly to the sweat on the brow [a Nixon vs. Kennedy reference], style, manner and personality' rather than to the substance of the debate... speeches by American politicians are often characterized by bombast, hyperbole and exaggerations." (written in 1983) 

On USA's political structure: If you are interested in understanding USA politics, you must read Tommy Koh's "De Tocqueville Revisited" speech at JFK School of Government, Harvard University, September 5, 1986. It is the best summary I have ever read regarding USA's political structure. Sample sentence: "The US system of government, characterized by the separation of powers among the three branches of government and by many checks and balances, is designed to protect the liberty of the individual." 

On cities: "[C]ities succeed in the global economy if they can achieve excellence in one or more of the following three areas: thinking, manufacturing and trading." 

On South China Sea: "First, it is the highway for trade, shipping and telecommunications. 80% of world trade is seaborne. 1/3 of world trade and 1/2 the world's traffic in oil and gas pass through the South China Sea. Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is, therefore, of critical importance to China, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN and other trading nations and maritime powers. 

Second, it is rich in fish and other living resources. Fish is a principal source of protein and fishing is a source of employment for millions of Asians who live in coastal communities. 

Third, it is presumed that there are significant deposits of oil and gas in the continental shelves underneath the South China Sea...

[A]rtificial islands are not entitled to any maritime zones except for a 500m safety zone... A rock is entitled to a 12-nautical mile (22 km) territorial sea... An island is entitled to a territorial sea, a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf. Under Article 121 of the convention [UN Convention on the Law of the Sea], the difference between a rock and an island is that an island is capable of sustaining human habitation or economic life."" ("Mapping Out Rival Claims to the South China Sea," The Straits Times, 13 September 2011) 


On environmental preservation: "47% of Singapore's total land area is covered by greenery." (2012) [My own note: don't let the shiny skyscrapers fool you--most of SE Asia is and was mostly tropical jungle.] 

On recycling waste: "We should also consider... by requiring industrial and commercial establishments, as well as hotels and food courts, to separate food waste from other kinds of waste at source. The food waste, when treated by anaerobic digestion, will produce biogas which can, in turn, be used to generate renewable electricity." 

On air conditioning: the joke among foreign diplomats is that Singapore, because of air conditioning over-use, actually has two seasons: "summer outdoors and winter indoors." 

On water: "Water is more precious than gold. Without water, there would be no life on earth. The irony is that we take water for granted. In some countries, water is treated as a public good and given away for free. This invariably leads to over-consumption and wastage... By 2050, as many as 3/4 of the world's population could be affected by water scarcity... [Today] The fact that 700 million Asians do not have access to safe drinking water... is unacceptable." (2012) 

© Matthew Rafat (2020)

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

SE Asian History: a Chronological Primer

If "Europe in the first half of the 20th century was the killing fields of the world," Asia suffered the same ignominious status from 1949 to 1979. WWII may have ended in 1945, but the last two powers left standing jockeyed for influence while Europe's occupation forces lingered to maintain access to natural resources and strategic ports.

Below is a chronological overview of SE Asian history and related events in the second half of the 21st century. In just 30 minutes of reading, you can learn the basics of 30 years of Asian history, though astute readers will notice my limited knowledge of Thailand and the Philippines. Note that North American time is approximately 14 hours behind SE Asia, so some dates may differ by one day from USA-issued textbooks. 


1945: Terauchi Hisaichi, commander of the Japanese expeditionary forces in Southeast Asia, summons Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta to notify them of Japan's imminent surrender/departure and to tell them to prepare for Indonesia's immediate independence. 

1945: President Sukarno, previously imprisoned by Dutch colonial forces, delivers "The Birth of Pancasila," declaring five founding principles of a Free Indonesia: 1. Indonesian nationalism [the principle of one National state, i.e.,  the will to unite throughout the islands]; 2. Internationalism -- or humanism; 3. Consent, or democracy; 4. Social prosperity [eradication of poverty]; 5. Belief in God [and freedom to worship each Indonesian's particular God]. 

When Sukarno [more popularly written as Soekarno] was faced with the question whether Indonesia should be an Islamic country or a secular one, he denied both. As a compromise, he set forth the principle of belief in the "One and Only God" (Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa). -- Shigeo Nishimura, "The Development of Pancasilia Moral Education in Indonesia." (1995) 

1946: Sarawak state within present-day Malaysia resists being ceded to Britain. Oil-rich Sarawak has functioned independently for almost a century under a deal made between a Bruneian sultan and the British Brooke family.

1947: USA President Truman declares the "Truman Doctrine," in which he pledges USA financial and economic aid to countries that resist Communist influence. 

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one... I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way. I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes. The world is not static, and the status quo is not sacred. But we cannot allow changes in the status quo in violation of the Charter of the United Nations by such methods as coercion, or by such subterfuges as political infiltration. In helping free and independent nations to maintain their freedom, the United States will be giving effect to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations... The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world -- and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation. -- President Harry Truman, March 12, 1947

1947: a two-state solution is borne. After almost two decades of nonviolent protests and negotiations (e.g., the Lahore Resolution) led by Mohandas Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a British Parliamentary act partitions British India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. 

1948: a Hindu extremist assassinates Mohandas Gandhi on January 30, 1948. 


1948: the Malayan Communist Party, through the Malayan National Liberation Army, supports an armed insurgency against British occupiers. The British colonial government declares a state of emergency in Malaya, keeping large swaths of the population under lockdown. A state of emergency lasts from 1948 to 1960. 
Our brothers and sisters in Asia, who were colonized by the Europeans, our brothers and sisters in Africa, who were colonized by the Europeans, and in Latin America, the peasants, who were colonized by the Europeans, have been involved in a struggle since 1945 to get the colonialists, or the colonizing powers, the Europeans, off their land, out of their country. This is a real revolution. Revolution is always based on land. -- Malcolm X, "The Black Revolution," April 8, 1964

1949: after four years of civil war, in which millions die, the Communist Revolution in China succeeds. The People's Republic of China (PRC) is established after MAO Zedong of the Communist Party of China defeats Jiang Jieshi aka Chiang Kai-shek, who exiles himself to present-day Taiwan aka Chinese Taipei and receives protection from USA's Navy. MAO prevails in China by supporting peasants and farmers against landowners. 

The Chinese Revolution: they wanted land. They threw the British out, along with the Uncle Tom Chinese... I read an article in Life magazine showing a little Chinese girl, nine years old; her father was on his hands and knees and she was pulling the trigger because he was an Uncle Tom Chinaman. When they had the revolution over there, they took a whole generation of Uncle Toms and just wiped them out. And within ten years that little girl became a full-grown woman. No more Toms in China. And today it's one of the toughest, roughest, most feared countries on this earth by the white man. Because there are no Uncle Toms over there. -- Malcolm X, "Message to the Grassroots," November 10, 1963

1949: despite the Japanese surrender in 1945, the British and Dutch refuse to recognize Indonesian independence. On December 27, 1949, the Dutch finally leave Indonesia and recognize Indonesia's right to self-determination, but continue to control much of Indonesia's private sector, including its banking and oil industries. Indonesia does not gain control of a single Dutch-controlled bank (Javasche Bank) until 1953. 

At the time [1930s], there were two kinds of teacher's colleges: the so-called Native Teachers College to train native Indonesians to become teachers for native children; and the European Teacher's College to train teachers for Dutch children. I was enrolled after a very selective exam, but they barred me because a brown man standing as a teacher before a class of white Dutch children could create respect in the minds of Dutch children for the brown man. That was the reality of colonial society: it was full of discrimination and humiliation for us. -- Dr. H. Roeslan Abdulgani, one-time Indonesian ambassador to the United Nations 

1950: on February 9, 1950, USA Senator Joseph McCarthy gives a speech in which he claims the State Department, USA's agency of international relations and foreign policy, is harboring traitors and Communists. McCarthy, a devout Catholic, frames the conflict as between a "western Christian world and the atheistic Communist world." 

This is a time of "the cold war." This is a time when all the world is split into two vast, increasingly hostile armed camps--a time of a great armament race. -- Joseph McCarthy (1950) 

1950: beginning of Korean War from 1950 to 1953. 

1953: beginning of Cuban Revolution. 

1953: Operation Ajax aka TPAJAX. The United States overthrows democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran. Mossadegh, a nationalist, had planned to transfer ownership of foreign oil companies operating in Iran to the Iranian people or at least negotiate more equitable terms. 

The struggle against capitalism had to be nationalist, too, because capital in Indonesia [and other SE Asian countries] was predominantly foreign. The goal was unity between nationalism, Islam and socialism but it was the nationalist content of Islam and socialism that made unity possible. -- from Indonesia, the first 50 years, 1945-1995 (Archipelago Press)

1953: in October 1953, USA agrees to send France 385 million USD in military aid to continue disrupting Communist influence in Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). 

Now let us assume that we lose Indochina. If Indochina goes, several things happen right away. The Malayan peninsula, the last little bit of the end hanging on down there, would be scarcely defensible--and tin and tungsten that we so greatly value from that area would cease coming... So, when the United States votes $400 million to help that war, we are not voting for a giveaway program. We are voting for the cheapest way that we can to prevent the occurrence of something that would be of the most terrible significance for the United States of America--our security, our power and ability to get certain things we need from the riches of the Indonesian territory, and from southeast Asia. -- USA President Eisenhower, August 4, 1953 

1954: led by the United States, the Manila Pact is signed, creating SEATO, a NATO for SE Asia. SEATO is unsuccessful and is eventually dissolved in 1977. 

1954: the United States, with the active support and lobbying of the Catholic Church, installs Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. Diem and his Roman Catholic Archbishop brother, Ngô Đình Thục, call upon Catholics in the north to move south and openly discriminate against local majority Buddhists. 



1954: from April to June 1954, USA Senator Joseph McCarthy holds anti-Communist hearings in Congress, where he accuses the U.S. Army of Communist infiltration. 

I will tell you about the situation in Saigon. When you did not appease certain groups, they called you a Communist. Who was it in the United States that practiced that tactic? Joe McCarthy? We had the same people in Vietnam. Anyone you disagree with, just call him a Communist. -- General Nguyen Khanh, interview, June 2009 

1954: in November 1954, the USA government gives Diem over 28 million USD in foreign aid and begins taking over security responsibilities from France. 

1955: Jawaharlal Nehru-led Bandung Conference takes place in Indonesia, focusing on anti-colonialism. Internal Chinese communications indicate Taiwanese plot to assassinate Chinese delegate to conference. Indonesian President Sukarno delivers historic speech capturing optimism and pessimism of the times and correctly predicting war. 

Great chasms yawn between nations and groups of nations. Our unhappy world is torn and tortured, and the peoples of all countries walk in fear lest, through no fault of theirs, the dogs of war are unchained once again... The political skill of man has been far outstripped by technical skill, and what he has made he cannot be sure of controlling. The result of this is fear. And man gasps for safety and morality. -- first Indonesian President Sukarno, Bandung opening address at the Bandung Conference, April 18, 1955
  

1956 to 1962: over ten countries on the African continent declare independence from colonial Europe. [See Ebere Nwaubani's The United States and Decolonization in West Africa, 1950-1960 (2001); and "The United States and the Liquidation of European Colonial Rule in Tropical Africa, 1941-1963" (2003)] 

1957: on August 31, 1957, Tunku Abdul Rahman issues the Malayan Declaration of Independence proclaiming independence from Britain. 
However, the proclamation is mostly ceremonial due to two factors: 1) British troops are still enforcing a state of emergency against Communist insurgents within Malaysia; and 2) Britain appears to be using Rahman to deflect accusations of colonialism by the Communists, who are now technically fighting against an independent country led by a Malay leader. 
The 14 stripes on Malaysia's flag represent its 13 different states, plus one Federal Territory, Kuala Lumpur.
1957: in December, Indonesia's President Sukarno begins nationalizing Dutch-owned businesses and expels between 40,000 and 50,000 Dutch nationals

In many countries, anti-colonial fighters and heroes would win independence and assume power, but then fail at nation-building, because the challenges of bringing a society together, growing an economy, [and] patiently improving people's lives are very different from fighting for independence. -- Singaporean PM LEE Hsien Loong (2015)

1959: beginning of the Laotian Civil War from 1959 to 1975.

1959: in May 1959, USA-backed President Diem of the Republic of Vietnam passes Law 10/59, authorizing courts to issue death sentences on the spot against any political opponents "endangering national security." 

1959: Britain grants Singapore autonomy except in matters of defense and foreign policy, pushing Singapore towards self-determination. By 1964, Britain's budget was straining under obligations of empire and post-WWII debts, leading the Labour government to announce a phased withdrawal of British troops in Singapore by 1971

1962: on November 1, 1962, a referendum is held in Singapore to determine whether Singaporeans desire a merger with the Federated States of Malaya (present-day Malaysia). An overwhelming majority of Singaporeans vote to join Malaysia, but Barisan Sosialis, Singapore's anti-colonial party formed by left-wing members of the PAP, questions the referendum's legitimacy because blank votes are counted as pro-merger when in fact they represent opposition. 

1963: in April 1963, Indonesia's President Sukarno attacks still-British Borneo in present-day Malaysia, refusing to allow a de facto British-formed state on Indonesia's doorstep ("Konfrontasi"). By pressuring British influence in Malaysia, Indonesia paves the way for eventual Singaporean as well as Malaysian independence. Britain in the 1960s has no stomach for war. It is mired in domestic economic problems due to record unemployment as well as civil unrest in Hong Kong, Aden (Yemen), and Southern Rhodesia. Even so, despite an 800 million pounds deficit in 1964, Britain believes it has a stabilizing role to play "East of Suez." 

1963: on May 8, 1963, South Vietnamese security forces fire into a crowd of Buddhist religious marchers celebrating the Buddha's 2,527th birthday. From NSA Archive: "The rationale for the breakup of this march was no more serious than that the Buddhists had ignored a government edict against flying flags other than the South Vietnamese state flag. Another of Diem's brothers, the Roman Catholic archbishop for this same area of South Vietnam[,] had flown flags with impunity just weeks before when celebrating his own promotion within the Church." 
USA troops kneeling before Catholic priest
(Photo taken in War Remnants Museum in Vietnam)
1963: on June 11, 1963, a bonze--an ordained Buddhist monk--publicly sets himself on fire to protest Diem's discriminatory actions. 

1963: on July 9, 1963, Britain negotiates terms creating a common financial market between Singapore and Malaysia that allows substantial British banking and insurance influence in SE Asia (as well as Hong Kong). The agreement is signed in London. 
1963: on August 28, 1963, North Borneo (aka Sabah), Sarawak, and Singapore sign an agreement to create a new, British-backed Malaysia effective August 31, 1963 (Merdeka Day aka Freedom Day). 

1963: on November 1 and 2, 1963, USA-sponsored Diem and one of his brothers are captured and killed. French-trained General Duong Van Minh takes over leadership in South Vietnam. 

1963: on November 22, 1963, USA President JFK is assassinated. 

1964: on January 30, 1964, General Minh is unable to form a viable government in South Vietnam and is overthrown in a bloodless coup led by French-trained General Nguyen Khanh. Subsequent coups and counter-coups occur in Saigon. 

1964: Singapore experiences racial riots between majority-Chinese and minority-Malay residents. A teenage Kishore Mahbubani, whose father arrived in Singapore orphaned and alone at the age of 13, sees his neighbors beaten and killed. (Mahbubani later becomes Singapore’s Ambassador to the United Nations.) The following year, Malaysia's PM Rahman will cite these riots and the 1,000+ residents arrested as one reason Malaysia separated from Singapore. 

1964: USA President Johnson signs Gulf of Tonkin resolution on August 10, 1964, escalating USA aggression in SE Asia on the basis of two reported attacks: the first one involving zero USA casualties, and the second one falsified.

1965: after Indonesia's attack against British Borneo (now Sabah) and related pressure, the British focus on developing Singapore, especially its port, and forgo a united Federation of Malaya-Sarawak-Brunei-North Borneo-Singapore under British influence. Consequently, on August 7, 1965, Singapore and Malaysia agree to separate, giving Singapore its independence, though some say the predominantly Chinese Singaporeans were "kicked out of Malaysia" as part of a two-state solution giving Muslim Malays political power in Malaysia and non-Muslim Chinese the same statistical dominance in Singapore. In a televised interview, Singaporean founder Lee Kuan Yew (of Peranakan descent) begins crying when discussing separation, saying, "The whole of my adult life, I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories." 

We are going to have a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set the example. This is not a Malay nation. This is not a Chinese nation. This is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place. Equal. Language, culture, religion. -- Lee Kuan Yew, 1965
1965: Indonesia withdraws from the United Nations in protest of Malaysia's admittance. As a result of Indonesia's withdrawal from the U.N., it loses access to foreign aid/loans from the World Bank and IMF. 

1965: USA President Johnson opens major ground war in Vietnam, escalating conflict. 

1965: on October 1, 1965, several high-ranking members of the Indonesian military are murdered in an alleged coup d'état but President Sukarno is safe, and the coup fails. By evening, General Soeharto--who now has fewer opponents within the military hierarchy--takes control of Jakarta and places all media under strict military control. The Indonesian military publicly blames the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) for the alleged coup and does nothing to stop indiscriminate anti-Communist violence. Hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of Indonesians are murdered. The PKI, which at one point had been the second largest Communist political party in the world, is no more.

The rate of increase of consumer prices [inflation] rose from 27% in 1961 to over 1000% in 1966 [in Indonesia]. -- Mary Sutton, Indonesia 1966-70: Economic Management and the Role of the IMF, Overseas Development Institute (April 1982)

1966: on March 12, Sukarno transfers power to Soeharto, Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX (the Sultan of Yogyakarta), and Adam Malik. Western powers tell Soeharto that abandoning Konfrontasi would stabilize Indonesia's economy, meaning the IMF and the United States Agency for International Development would provide substantial foreign aid/loans for Indonesian development and also re-schedule existing debt. Soeharto, eager to make Indonesia the example to emulate in the East, accepts foreign aid and investment that assume, among other projections, annual electrical load growth of 15 to 20%. Over the next two decades, armed with tens of billions of dollars of loans and oil, Soeharto begins modernizing Indonesia's infrastructure, leading a building spree that creates state-of-the-art international airports, railway stations, mosques, art centers, hotels, shopping malls, and other projects, mostly in Jakarta/Djakarta.

I also realized that my college professors had not understood the true nature of macroeconomics: that in many cases helping an economy grow only makes those few people who sit atop the pyramid even richer, while it does nothing for those at the bottom except to push them even lower. -- John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hitman (2004)

1966: facing increasing living costs and an uncertain economic future, Hong Kong residents riot in 1966 and 1967 against British policies. Britain devalues the pound sterling in 1967. 

1966: on June 1, 1966, Indonesia and Malaysia begin negotiations in Bangkok. Konfrontasi officially ends August 12, 1966

1967: beginning of Cambodian Civil War and genocide from 1967 to 1975. 

1967: ASEAN is created. 

1967: on September 7, 1967, Indonesia and Singapore establish formal diplomatic relations. 

1968: My Lai massacre in Vietnam

1968: the Soviet Union publishes the "Brezhnev Doctrine," in which the Soviet Union, in order to protect workers' rights worldwide, reserves the right to interfere in countries considering capitalism or non-approved foreign influence.

There is no doubt that the peoples of the socialist countries and the Communist parties have and must have freedom to determine their country’s path of development. However, any decision of theirs must damage neither socialism in their own country, nor the fundamental interests of the other socialist countries, nor the worldwide workers’ movement, which is waging a struggle for socialism. This means that every Communist party is responsible not only to its own people but also to all the socialist countries and to the entire Communist movement. -- Sergei Kovalev, "The International Obligations of Socialist Countries," September 25, 1968 

1969: on May 13, 1969, tensions surrounding Malaysia's general election result in racial riots in Kuala Lumpur, which later spill over into Singapore. Between 100 to 900 people, mostly ethnic Chinese Malays, are killed. Chinese Malays, dissatisfied with the government's plans to promote opportunities for ethnic Malays ("Bumiputera"), shift votes to extremist political parties to send a message to the Malay political establishment. Around this time, eleven Chinese men are found guilty of treason against the Malaysian government. 
From A Doctor in the House, The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad
1969: USA President Nixon expounds the "Nixon Doctrine," whereby the United States pledges financial aid and weapons rather than ground troops for allies facing military threats, thus reversing President Johnson's ground war in Vietnam

American expansion was primarily the outgrowth of financial and economic imperialism. In principle, the United States did not annex, it made an economic conquest. -- from Indonesia, the first 50 years, 1945-1995 (Archipelago Press) 

1973: OPEC initiates an oil embargo against Western nations in protest of Western interference in the Middle East. 

1974: oil and gas fields are discovered in East Timor.

1974: "If the decade must be summarized, it could be said that the youth of America, who had so recently studied it in civics classes, tested the system--and it flunked." -- USA journalist Warren Hinckle, author of If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (1974) 

1975: on April 30, 1975, Communist-backed northern Vietnamese forces re-capture occupied south Vietnam, ending Vietnam War.

1975: in December 1975, after meeting with USA President Ford and Henry Kissinger, General Soeharto invades East Timor (aka Timor-Leste), driving out Portuguese colonizers. Soeharto is covertly backed by the United States, which is keen to prevent Chinese political influence in East Timor. The U.N., seeing East Timor torn between competing interests of several stronger powers, demands Soeharto leave East Timor. Defying world opinion, Indonesia--convinced of its stature as a superpower in the making--maintains troops in East Timor during Soeharto's entire tenure, and East Timor does not gain right to self-determination until 1999-2002. 

The UN estimates nearly half the population [of East Timor] lives below the extreme poverty line of US$1.90 a day and half of the children under 5 suffer moderate to severe physical and mental stunting as a result of malnutrition. -- from 2018 article

1978: the Communist Vietnamese military invades Cambodia to remove genocidal Khmer Rouge. The world is split between condemning the unilateral violation of another nation's sovereignty and applauding the removal of the destructive Khmer Rouge.


1978: the Saur Revolution. Soviet-backed forces murder sitting Afghan President Khan. Taraki, a member of the revolution/coup, is named president in 1978. Taraki is murdered in 1979 by Hafizullah Amin, who in turn is allegedly murdered on orders from the Soviet Union because of his role in Taraki's death. 

1979: the Iranian Islamic Revolution. After a year of protests and martial law, the Shah is exiled from Iran and student protestors overrun the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American hostages. 

1979: beginning of Soviet-Afghan War from 1979 to 1989, in which 500,000 to 2,000,000 civilians are murdered, causing millions of Afghans to flee to Pakistan and Iran, where they become refugees. The United States actively supports Afghan rebels aka mujahideen, the precursor to the Taliban, against the Soviet Union. 

1990-1991: the Soviet Union collapses. 

1997: in 1997 and 1998, East Asia suffered a serious financial crisis that wiped out decades of progress. Unemployment and poverty increased substantially in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. The political leaders of Indonesia [including Soeharto], South Korea, and Thailand lost their mandates and were replaced. (From The Tommy Koh Reader, reproduced from February 23, 2009)  

A rapid outflow of foreign capital contributed to the sharp contraction in investment during the Asian crisis. Between 1997 and 1999, net foreign direct investment in Indonesia shifted from an inflow of 2.2% of GDP to an outflow of 1.3%, while the volume of investment fell by 45%. -- Stephen Elias and Clare Noone, The Growth and Development of the Indonesian Economy (December 2011)

In December 1997, ASEAN--originally intended to help smaller and developing Asian countries negotiate better terms with more developed countries--becomes ASEAN Plus Three (APT: ASEAN + China, Japan, South Korea), deepening Asian economic, political, and social cooperation. 

2001: on December 11, 2001, China joins the World Trade Organization. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (April 2020) 

Dedicated to Ms. Dunham, my blue-eyed, straight-haired Social Studies teacher at Castro Middle School (San Jose, CA), who told me "You're not that important." Now that I'm older, I am pleased to say I never let my schooling interfere with my education.