Side Views

Trading in populism instead of common sense — Farish A. Noor

March 26, 2012

MARCH 26 — Malaysians can guess that elections are around the corner when the “stupid-o-meter” goes off the scales and our national political discourse slips into irrationality faster than normal.

Though our public representatives seem inclined to present themselves as being more stupid than nature intended, their capacity to make a hash of things is an embarrassment not only to themselves, but for other Malaysians as well; in the process, Malaysia makes the funny pages in newspaper reports abroad to boot.

We have already witnessed several decades of the political parties of the land trying to out-Islamise each other, claiming the holier-than-thou mantle for themselves. We have also witnessed parties claiming that they were “more Malay”, “more Chinese” and “more Indian” than the other; at the cost of maintaining and reproducing the ethnic-cultural cleavages that continue to divide Malaysians.

Now it seems that parties are competing to show how “anti-Israeli” they can be, and we await the expected results as more froth rather than substance will be added to the already overheated political environment.

I was, therefore, somewhat disappointed (though not much) to read that some opposition MPs intend to table a motion for a Bill to end all ties with Israel, whether direct or indirect. According to the report I read, the MPs stated that the law “should include the banning of use of (Malaysian) ports by any company that has a trade interest with the Zionist regime”.

I had to read that sentence several times as my eyeballs have vacated their respective sockets at first glance. (re: http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2012/03/26/have-laws-to-ban-all-ties-with-israel/)

To ban the use of Malaysian ports by any company that has a trade interest with Israel?

Pray tell, how many companies or countries do not have trade relations with Israel?

Or trade relations with any country for that matter?

In the context of today’s interconnected global economy, are there any countries that do not have direct or indirect trade links with any other countries? Can any country isolate itself from longitudinal linkages that may go in all directions, leading to the unlikeliest of destinations or origins?

Note that my qualm here has nothing to do with Israel per se, and everyone has the right to their opinions of what and how to characterise the Israeli state and its actions towards the Palestinians. I have made my own opinions clear in many forums and discussions in Malaysia and elsewhere. But what concerns me here is the view that Malaysia must, and can only say no, to any kind of dealing no matter how indirect and far-off with other economies.

Practically every major economy that Malaysia trades with — the United States, Japan, China, India, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, United Kingdom, Germany, France, etc — has trade relations with Israel, and some of them don’t even bother to hide it.

If country X were to buy palm oil from Malaysia and then sell it to Israel (while grabbing a commission as go-between) does that count as a direct or indirect relation? And what if Israeli products are sold to Malaysia through another intermediary country (that likewise bags a commission), would that be direct or indirect trade? Do these people understand how economies work, for heaven’s sake?

My concern — which extends to all Malaysian parties, of both coalitions — is that they seem to have become captives of their own rhetoric and pyrotechnics. Furthermore they seem, in their race to out-do each other, to have painted themselves into a corner.

Politics is not about saying “No” all the time, but rather the art of rendering the seemingly impossible possible. Smart and pragmatic politics is about creating opportunity structures and opportunity windows where the country’s interests will be forever served and protected, and not burning bridges when one day one might need them.

 So imagine this hypothetical situation, related to the uttermost evil country in the world: Bongonia. In Bongonia, they eat babies alive. They flay kittens, exploit children, traffic old people, listen to Celine Dion. No country in human history is as evil as these dastardly Bongonians.

But by some quirk of history or geography, Bongonia also produces the rare substance called Nasibrianium. Nasibrianium is such a rare resource that it — and only it — can be used in the latest hi-tech gadgets like thinking massage chairs and self-parking cars.

Every country on the planet needs and wants Nasibrianium, and will do anything to get it, including overlooking the human rights abuses that take place in Bongonia. The US has even sent Madonna as its special emissary to wash the feet of the President of Bongonia, to secure contracts for Nasibrianium. China is thinking of selling all their pandas to Bongonia because that is the favourite dish of the Bongonians, just to get their hands on some Nasibrianium. 

In such a situation, what will Malaysia do? Stand on its high horse and proclaim “Never!”, while losing whatever tactical-strategic-technological-economic leverage it might get, no matter how small?

Or just say “No”, but buy the Nasibrianium anyway through third parties who have sold the stuff with commission, and after stamping the “safe for Malaysian sensibilities” on it?

My mind boggles at times, and it is boggling now as we speak. Sigh.

* Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.