Thursday, May 14, 2020

Travel in Muslim Countries: To Go or Not to Go

Most Westerners are inundated with negative images of Muslims, making excursions east of Switzerland seem foolhardy. As 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);

In Brazil, 20,000 families control 80% of the wealth. -- Clark Winter's The Either/Or Investor (2008), hardcover, pp. 123.

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 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, plus its corollary: zealous enforcement against the rise of patrons, especially in the informal sector, that might inspire other 1MDBs. Perhaps we can now see some arrests are publicized to rally a political base; harass supporters of political opponents; gain advantages within a trillion dollar industry; or signal moral superiority by casting opponents as insufficiently religious. 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 though 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)