A Nagging Question about Malaysia’s GE

There’s a question that’s been bugging me since the surprising victory of Pakatan Harapan over Barisan Nasional in Malaysia – how big a change is this?

It’s certainly monumental in that it’s the first change of government in 61 years. This means a change in policies, as well as new faces in parliament (not including the PM of course). From what I’ve seen on social media, there’s also a renewed faith in the democratic process after years of disillusionment.

But does it really signal the end of racial voting and the diminished relevance of identity politics in Malaysia? This is suggested in a commentary by Serina Rahman, a visiting fellow in the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Malaysia Programme.

The author claims that “voting has moved away from racial boundaries”, and that “daily difficulties may have pushed voters to override concerns over Malay rights”. The article also implies that rural Malay voters were not swayed this time by BN’s assertions that “a vote for Pakatan would mean the loss of Malay rights and Islam as the primary religion of the federation.”

But in this election, the opposition coalition included PPBM – a party with the word “Indigenous” in its name, regarded as a splinter group from UMNO, led by the longest-serving UMNO leader. According to its party constitution, only Bumiputeras are allowed to be full members with full voting rights. Its aims include maintaining the special position of Malays and upholding Islam as the religion of the Federation, and its manifesto reiterates its pledge to champion the special position of Malays and the Bumiputera in line with the controversial Article 153 of the Federal Constitution.

Could it be that PPBM has become a substitute for UMNO in the minds of many Malay voters? Perhaps it’s not the case that the nation’s economic problems pushed these voters to “override concerns over Malay rights”, but instead, these concerns were negligible since both coalitions had parties championing Malay rights.

Of course, it’s not logical to expect decades of race-based politics to be reversed in one election. But significant progress has been made towards the ideal of a colour-blind democracy. After all, the inclusive DAP and PKR parties are part of the ruling coalition, while the clearly segmented UMNO-MCA-MIC coalition is now out of power.

Time will tell how much of a sea change this election has been for Malaysia.


September Sixteenth

malaysia day

Source: National Archives of Singapore

On this day in 1923, a pioneer was born. Mr Lee Kuan Yew would grow to become a fervent advocate of racial equality, meritocracy, and the unifying power of civic nationalism.

Exactly forty years later, under the guidance of this pioneer, a new political creature would be formed (purportedly) on the basis of these values. Malaysia officially came into existence on 16 September 1963 – a federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.

From this day onward, Singapore was no longer under British colonial rule. The residents of Singapore were told that they were now Malaysians, that they shared a common identity and destiny with their fellow citizens from Perlis to Johor, and that they were co-builders and co-owners of this brand new nation. The PAP and their partners in the Malaysian Solidarity Convention issued the clarion call to build a “Malaysian Malaysia”, in opposition to special privileges and quotas for Malays.

Alas, the political experiment faced a road bump in 1965 when Singapore was ejected from the Federation. The residents of this island once again experienced an identity change – they were now told that they were Singaporeans, not Malaysians or Malayans. The spirit of “Malaysian Malaysia” lived on in the new Singaporean identity, exemplified in the words famously penned by Mr S Rajaratnam: “regardless of race, language, or religion”.

A half-century later, I believe that our leaders and the vast majority of our population are still strongly devoted to the ideal of racial equality. Undoubtedly, there are worrying aberrations. Off the top of my head, I am concerned about socioeconomic inequality along racial lines, discriminatory deployment of National Servicemen, extremist views, suggestions that Singaporeans vote along racial lines, the unrepresentative nature of the upper echelons of the civil service, and homogeneity in elite/SAP schools. The idea of a Reserved Presidential Election has also been roundly criticised as an unmeritocratic form of affirmative action (let alone the fact that there was no election at all).

But I also realise that these concerns pale in comparison to the problem of emboldened white supremacists in America and the massacre of Rohingyas in Myanmar. This fact should not encourage an attitude of complacency with regard to strengthening our social solidarity. Instead, it should remind us that our society could easily slip into chaos and disarray if we do not constantly watch our words, review the intentions and content of our social policies, and weave new threads in our social fabric through interacting with people who are different from us.

“True liberal? Come talk to me too!”

Two weeks ago, I spoke to an Israeli settler for the first time in my two years in Israel.

Why did it take me so long to do it? I guess after months of exposure to the anti-settler narrative that is so dominant in Tel Aviv, I had succumbed to the same negative stereotypes about settlers that are bandied about by the Left – settlers are violent, fundamentalist, expansionist zealots who hate Arabs, hate peace, and tarnish Israel’s reputation on the international stage. I’ve heard several liberal Israelis say, “I don’t want my children to be deployed in Hebron during their IDF service. Why should they put their lives on the line for lunatics and a plot of land that we should have returned to the Palestinians long ago?”

I believe strongly in the importance and virtue of talking to Palestinians in the West Bank to listen to their grievances and understand their perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I got the chance to do the same with several “Israeli settlers” (or “Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria”) on the Hebron Dual Narrative Tour offered by Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem.

On this tour, participants are first guided through the Israeli side of Hebron by an Israeli tour guide (a “settler”), and then taken through the Palestinian side by a Palestinian resident of Hebron. This tour is not for the faint of heart – it’s a day of mental gymnastics and heightened emotions in a hot spot of animosity and fear, where participants are presented with two persuasive but contradictory narratives of victimisation.

Our Israeli tour guide, Gavriel, started the tour outside the Cave of the Patriarchs, where it is believed that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried. The building is shared by Muslims and Jews, and there are separate entrances for the two religious groups. The IDF soldiers stationed there are very adamant that Muslims stay away from the Jewish entrance, and that Jews do not approach the Muslim entrance. In fact, throughout the day, each time our tour group approached the Jewish entrance, the soldiers stopped us, singled out the same three dark-skinned bearded men (including me), and asked us if we were Muslim. (There was actually one Muslim man in our tour group, and he was barred from entering the Jewish side, but the soldiers also barred Gavriel from entering the Muslim entrance.)


Cave of the Patriarchs

“Hebron was divided in 1997 into H1 and H2 – the Palestinian and Israeli sections respectively,” Gavriel explained. “H1 makes up 80% of Hebron, and H2 makes up the other 20%. But of that 20%, Jews can only live in 3% of the area, while the other 17% is under Israeli control but with Palestinian residents.” I imagine most of the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians happen in the 17%. But that’s not the point Gavriel was trying to make. His real beef with the current situation is that in the world’s first Jewish city, where there has been a continuous Jewish presence for centuries, Jews are free to live in just 3% of the area.

Gavriel added one caveat to his claim about the centuries-old Jewish presence in Hebron: this continuous Jewish presence was interrupted in 1929 when the Arabs massacred 67 Jews. In those days, the Jewish residents of Hebron refused help from the Haganah – the Jewish self-defence force – because they believed that the social harmony between Jews and Arabs in Hebron could weather the communal tension throughout Mandatory Palestine. But they were proven wrong, and the British decided to expel the Jews from Hebron to keep the peace – at least according to Gavriel. From 1929 till the “Israeli liberation of Judea and Samaria” in 1967, the Jews of Hebron held on to their title deeds and house keys, demanding to return to the houses that was “stolen by Arabs”. Sounds familiar?


“I have to confess – I’ve never heard this story before,” I admitted to Gavriel. He nodded and replied, “That’s why more university students need to come on this tour and listen to our grievances as well.” At that exact moment, we walked past a large banner outside someone’s house exhorting liberal Israelis to be open-minded and listen to his side of the story. The banner exclaimed:

“!ליברל אמיתי? תדבר גם איתי” (True liberal? Come talk to me too!)


“!ליברל אמיתי? תדבר גם איתי” (True liberal? Come talk to me too!)

Gavriel continued, “The Jews in Hebron do not see themselves as colonialists or as religious zealots, but as natives of the land. When Palestinians and others adopt anti-colonialist narratives against the Jews in Hebron, they also adopt anti-colonialist tactics like BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and terrorism. But people who see themselves as natives will not budge in the face of such tactics – they will only dig in their heels.” In other words, this is a classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.


A 300-year-old Torah scroll stands in this synagogue as testament to the deep roots of the Jewish community in Hebron

But surely the violence that the IDF and settlers employ against Palestinians is unjust and delegitimises the settlers’ narrative? “The Jews in Judea are not the Americans in Afghanistan or the whites in South Africa, but we are acting like it,” Gavriel replied. “We use violent tactics to ensure our safety and security.”

The reality on the ground is obviously more complex than that. There are numerous reports by human rights NGOs of settlers who unnecessarily harass Palestinians, whether by throwing rocks through their windows or cutting down their olive trees. As I would hear from Muhammad, our Palestinian tour guide, later on, the checkpoints set up by the IDF are also mind-boggling in their complexity and inconvenience, restricting Palestinian movement in many areas, which adversely affects Palestinian agriculture and industry.


This street is called Al-Shuhada Street in Arabic and King David Street in Hebrew. It’s also called Apartheid Street by the Palestinians, because it is closed to Palestinian pedestrians, cars and businesses.

To be fair, Gavriel did acknowledge the extremity of settlers’ actions, and he claimed that he takes a strong public stand against such actions. But he also emphasised the acts of violence perpetrated by Palestinians against innocent Jewish settlers, some of which are shockingly barbaric. For instance, he brought the tour group to the spot where a one-year-old baby was shot by a Palestinian sniper.

“The Palestinians have their stories of victimhood, but so do we,” Gavriel said. “The unfortunate reality is that both sides employ the weapon of victimisation to convince the international community that the other side is evil.”

Gavriel took us to meet Miriam (not her real name), who works at a museum dedicated to the Jewish history of Hebron. She spoke about how her grandmother was almost killed by rioting Arabs in 1929 but was saved by an elderly Arab man. Unfortunately, her father was not spared during the violence that followed the signing of the Hebron Agreement in 1997 – he was killed in his sleep by a terrorist.

In a tremulous voice, Miriam said, “Bibi Netanyahu signed the Hebron Agreement. He is the reason my father is dead.”

There was a palpable sense of bewilderment in the room. In academic circles and the mainstream media, there is much nostalgia for the heady days of the Oslo process (which includes the Oslo Agreement of 1993, Oslo II signed in 1995, and the Hebron Agreement of 1997). But from the perspective of Israeli settlers, every agreement signed with the Palestinians has only brought more chaos and bloodshed. I asked Miriam, “Don’t you think that the Oslo process was necessary to bring an end to the violence of the First Intifada?”

“Oslo made things worse,” she replied. “It empowered incitement against Jews amongst Palestinians through their media and their education system.” Needless to say, she rejects not only the Oslo process but the two-state solution. Instead, she subscribes to a one-state solution under the leadership of Naftali Bennett and his party, the Jewish Home. She claimed that even if Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza, there will still be a Jewish majority in the foreseeable future because Jewish birthrates have overtaken Arab birthrates, so an expanded Israel can remain both Jewish and democratic. “Arabs can live alongside the Jews just like they did in Hebron before 1929 – as long as they don’t want to kill them,” she said.

We bid adieu to Miriam and the museum, and headed towards an observation point, where we enjoyed a panoramic view of Hebron. Gavriel pointed out the tombs of Ruth and Jesse, the great-grandmother and father of King David. “King David used his power to make sure that there was justice and righteousness and goodness throughout the land – not just peace and quiet,” Gavriel declared. “I often tell my own community that we need to stop talking about our Jewish rights and start talking about our responsibilities and obligations to make sure that there is justice and righteousness for all the inhabitants of the land. We fail to do this because we let military leaders decide what is going to happen tomorrow instead of thinking of a long-term vision of how we will live together.”

After his impassioned speech, Gavriel tried to paint a picture of “normal life” in Palestinian Hebron. “Hebron is called the Palestinian engine of economic growth. There are 17,000 factories and businesses, three universities, four hospitals and a shopping mall in the Palestinian part of Hebron,” Gavriel claimed. Of course, he’s probably never seen them up close since he’s not allowed to enter the Palestinian side, but if Hebron is truly an economic engine, I was hoping to get a look under the hood.


Unfortunately, Muhammad, our Palestinian tour guide, didn’t show us the “economic engine” of Hebron, and focused solely on the grievances of the Palestinians. Of course, I don’t mean to belittle the hardships that Palestinian Hebronites face everyday. I just wanted a holistic understanding of Palestinian life in Hebron, including “ordinary life” at school and work. Surely there must be some semblance of normalcy in Hebron – and allowing me to see it should not detract from the injustice of the Israeli occupation.

But this was a Dual Narrative tour after all, and it was now time for the tour group to listen to the Palestinian story of oppression at the hands of heavily-armed Israelis. We sat at a coffee shop and listened to Muhammad condemn the injustice of Israeli military law, under which Palestinians are guilty until proven innocent. He railed against the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes, the harassment of Palestinian farmers, the humiliation of checkpoints, and the violence of IDF soldiers.

While talking about the Palestinian identity, Muhammad claimed that Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Canaanites, who were present in the land even before the Jews. “I see myself not as a Palestinian Arab, but as a Palestinian who speaks Arabic,” he said.

At some point, someone in the group asked Muhammad for his proposed solution to the conflict. In ironic agreement with Miriam, he declared, “I want a one-state solution.” But he envisions a secular democratic state, which he admitted requires education on both sides of the conflict. “Palestinians need to educate themselves and to renounce violence,” he said.

Muhammad’s subsequent elaboration on the phrase “secular state” was illuminating. “Why should Judaism be the religion of the land? There should be no special treatment for the Jewish religion,” he asserted. Herein lies the fundamental difference between Muhammad’s and Gavriel’s narratives. According to Gavriel, the Jewish identity is a national identity. Jews around the world have common ancestry, a common language, and a plethora of customs and traditions that were developed over centuries in the land of Israel. In the same way that Poles are from Poland and Greeks are from Greece, Jews are from Israel.

But in Muhammad’s eyes, the Jewish identity is a religious identity, predicated on a set of religious beliefs and practices. Most Israelis today are descendants of foreigners who came from Europe, America, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and had their own separate national identities. As for those Jews who had been in the land for generations, they identified themselves as Palestinians before the State of Israel was created.

Someone else asked, “Why did Hebron elect a convicted terrorist as mayor last week?” The newly-elected mayor of Hebron was given a life sentence in the 1980s for killing six Israeli settlers in cold blood, but was released after three years in a prisoner exchange. “The other candidates were funded by Hamas, and we don’t want Hamas in Hebron,” Muhammad explained. “Besides, the mayor only takes care of municipal issues like water and electricity.” Of course, that’s not the way Israelis interpret the election of a murderer as mayor, but we didn’t have time to continue the conversation – coffee break was over, and it was time to start walking.


Muhammad took us through the main marketplace, where businesses have been adversely affected by the conflict and infrastructure is in disrepair because the IDF doesn’t allow the Palestinians to fix it, according to Muhammad. A few minutes into our walk, Muhammad showed us the infamous “ceiling net” which hangs above a section of the marketplace. Israeli settlers throw trash at Palestinians from the apartments above, and the net sags under the weight of the trash that didn’t get through.



We walked further along, and our tour came to an abrupt halt as we witnessed four IDF soldiers trying to arrest two Palestinian teenagers – presumably for stone-throwing. One teenager broke free and ran away, with one soldier in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, the three remaining soldiers tried their best to restrain the other teenager who was violently thrashing about. A small crowd started to gather.

Spectators started shouting at the soldiers. “Stop choking him! He can’t breathe!” shouted one European girl. Agitated but still mostly composed, one of the soldiers responded, “We know this boy. We are trying to arrest him without hurting him. Of course he can breathe – he’s still shouting.”

Finally, the soldiers dragged the teenager behind a gate. After several minutes, in perfect synchrony, a dozen Palestinian children picked up stones, threw them over the gate, and fled in all directions. The IDF responded with a loud (non-lethal) flash bang behind the gate.


What on earth had we just witnessed? The entire tour group was horrified. I didn’t know what to feel. I still don’t know what to feel about the whole situation. I don’t know what the Palestinian teenagers did, and I don’t know what else the soldiers could have done. But I feel utterly despondent that 20-year-old conscripts and 16-year-old kids fight on a daily basis; that little children throw rocks to solve their problems and soldiers respond with weapons; and that political leaders are comfortably dragging their feet on this issue.


Walking through the sparsely-populated Palestinian marketplace

Muhammad, on the other hand, was visibly pleased that we had witnessed the scuffle. I was slightly perturbed that he had nothing to say about the children throwing rocks. Didn’t he just say a while ago that he advocates non-violent solutions? Stone-throwing may be less violent than shooting bullets, but it’s certainly not non-violent. I asked him about this: “What do you think about the children who threw rocks at the soldiers just now?”

“I’ll tell you what I think: if those children were above the age of 16 (which is the legal adult age under Israeli military law, not 18), they would be put in jail for 15 years,” Muhammad replied. “Last year, I was arrested by the Israelis halfway through my tour because they thought I had thrown stones. But they had no evidence because I didn’t do it. So they showed me pictures of others who had thrown stones and asked me to rat them out, and I refused to be their informant.”

He completely dodged my question. But his account was harrowing, and what he said about disproportionately long jail sentences is true (you can read more here).

With that unanswered question, the tour came to an end. In fact, I think everyone in the tour group had more questions than answers – which was the main objective of the tour after all. But to end off on a more optimistic note, Gavriel recounted the story of Abraham’s burial. “In the book of Genesis, it says that both Isaac and Ishmael buried their father Abraham together,” said Gavriel. “In the same way, it is our hope that the two nations that descended from these sons can live in peace.”

Can this happen in a situation of violence and clear power disparity and economic inequality?

A Discriminated Majority?


My research paper on Indonesian Islamist news websites has been published by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at IDC Herzliya! Check out the Introduction published here on the ICT website, where you can also download the full publication.

The central puzzle explored in the paper is this: Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, and yet there are Indonesian Islamists who argue that the Muslim community in Indonesia faces discrimination. I decided to study the way this argument is presented in online articles found on Indonesian Islamist news websites.

Power Sketches

At the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa, one of the exhibits in the reception area shows a rudimentary sketch of the Sinai with several arrows stretching across the desert. This map was sketched by Moshe Dayan and signed by David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres at the Sevres Conference in 1956, where Israel met secretly with Britain and France to plan the Sinai Campaign. After much contemplation, Ben-Gurion decided on the last day of the conference to proceed with the planned offensive. In the spur of the moment, Peres tore open a cigarette box on which Dayan sketched out the planned advance of Israeli forces towards the Suez Canal.


Mr Shimon Peres at TEDxWhiteCity 2015

I was quite intrigued by this “power sketch”, as I like to call it. Just imagine: territorial borders, political mergers, and even wars have been planned in the same way that students draft their exam answers! Pressed for time, negotiators and decision-makers sometimes grab the nearest piece of scrap paper to draft basic contracts, jot down innovative ideas, and brainstorm solutions to conflicts.

Some of these sketches shook the world. These scraps of paper are later memorialised as the humble beginnings of momentous political events – as symbols of spontaneous political entrepreneurship.

Here’s a list of five other times leaders used scrap paper as a very unlikely medium for political discussions.

1. LKY pushing the envelope

In July 1963, in the heat of discussions between Singapore and Malaya on the topic of Merger, Lee Kuan Yew managed to obtain certain concessions from Tunku Abdul Rahman just two days before the agreement was to be signed. These concessions included minor parliamentary election rules and labour policy. With the deadline quickly approaching, PM Lee grabbed a used envelope, scribbled several points of agreement about interior and labour policy, and got the Tunku to sign it.

2. Abbas’ “napkin map”

According to the Palestinian Authority, in mid-2008, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert proposed a land swap arrangement in which Israel would annex more than 10% of the West Bank, including major settlements, in exchange for farmland along the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When Olmert showed President Mahmoud Abbas a map with his proposed land swaps, Abbas was not allowed to keep the map, presumably to ensure that the PA would not leak the proposal to the public. Abbas had to sketch a copy of the map on a napkin to discuss it with his team.

3. Another “mapkin” for Syrian peace

During peace negotiations between Israel and Syria in 2000, the Israeli final offer was sketched out on a napkin from the Knesset cafeteria. PM Ehud Barak was willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights down to the Sea of Galilee in exchange for peace. In his plan, Israel was to keep a “symbolic presence” on a small plot of land on the east of the Galilee, but would compensate Syria in a land swap. This plan was also sketched on a napkin and conveyed to the Syrian side.

4. More “napkin diplomacy” at Dayton

In Nov 1995, peace talks were held in Dayton between the leaders of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in a bid to bring the Bosnian War to an end. During lunch one day at an officers’ club, US negotiator Richard Holbrooke conducted a brief round of shuttle diplomacy between Serbian President Milosevic and Bosnian PM Silajdzic, who were seated at opposite ends of the same dining room. When Holbrooke started discussing several ideas with Silajdzic regarding the status of Sarajevo, Silajdzic sketched several options on (surprise surprise) several napkins, which Holbrooke presented to Milosevic. After walking back and forth between the two tables, Holbrooke brought the two leaders together for a discussion. These informal talks didn’t result in any concrete agreements, but they lay the groundwork for productive discussions later on in the conference.

5. Kazakh power nap-kin

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the issues that had to be resolved between Kazakhstan and Russia was the division of the Caspian Sea between the two countries. In pursuit of a solution, the President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan sat down with Russian President Boris Yeltsin for several hours, during which he sketched out his proposed delineation of the Caspian Sea on (you guessed it) a napkin. This was eventually turned into an official document which the two presidents agreed upon.

Rody Duterte: Filipino Batman?

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has frequently been compared to Donald Trump. They are both anti-establishment, deliberately offensive, outrageously cavalier and completely undiplomatic politicians who excel in demagoguery. The main difference between them is that Duterte has allegedly ordered and carried out the killing of numerous criminals, while the only things that Trump has killed are his failed businesses and his dignity.

But perhaps an even better comparison is between Duterte and the Dark Knight.

The Duterte narrative reads like a Batman comic. In a crime-infested society, where the police force is toothless and politicians and judges are in the pockets of drug lords and crime cartels, one man has taken matters into his own hands. He seeks to restore peace and justice by circumventing the corrupt legal system and feckless bureaucracy… without any superpowers.

(Other Filipinos drew this analogy as well. This video was uploaded by YouTuber “Henry Oatmeal”.)

But how accurate is this narrative? As an outsider, I’ve inferred from the massive scale of the current War on Drugs that that the Philippines has been so paralysed by narcotics that the only feasible solution is Duterte’s shock therapy. The impression I’ve gotten is that the judicial system is completely ineffective and has disappointed so many Filipinos for so long that they look to Duterte’s extra-judicial tactics for justice. But I have put the cart before the horse by judging the magnitude of the problem from the response, rather than assessing the scale of the problem first.

According to statistics reported in this TIME article, the situation in the Philippines does not seem that severe. Although there are about 100 million people in the Philippines, the country had fewer cases of crimes involving physical injury in 2014 than the UK with a population of 64 million. That same year, the number of reported robbery cases in the Philippines was less than in Belgium, with a population that is 10% of the Philippines’. Between 2010 and 2015, police statistics show that the total number of murders in the country’s 15 largest cities was an average of 1202 per year, which is far less than the 3500 people who have been killed since the start of the War on Drugs on 1 July.

More importantly, statistics on drug use in the Philippines suggest that Duterte has exaggerated the scale of the problem. According to this article written by students from the University of the Philippines, President Duterte stated in his first State of the Nation Address that there are probably 3.7 million drug addicts now. But research by the Dangerous Drugs Board suggests that there were 1.7 million drug users in 2008 and 1.3 million in 2012, which is a huge improvement from the 6.7 million drug users reported in 2004. The data cited by the students also shows that drug raids and arrests increased from 2004 to 2014, which suggests that law enforcement agencies have been effective under previous presidential administrations.

Hence, in the eyes of Duterte’s critics, while drug use and drug-related crimes are certainly a challenge to social security and national development, a full-scale war is disproportionate and unwarranted.

But of course, valid questions can be raised about these statistics – for example, how many crimes are unreported in the Philippines? Also, for many Filipinos, statistics are irrelevant. What matters is how they feel about security – what their threshold of tolerance is, and how desperate they are to resolve these problems – and the judicial system, which is widely perceived as broken and corrupt according to Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch. Judging from Duterte’s landslide victory, the near-universal trust that Filipinos place in Duterte, and the low trust in the courts, it seems that the Batman narrative has captured the imagination of the Filipino population.

In any case, there is no doubt that President Duterte sees himself as the hero of the hour. He obviously doesn’t believe that the country’s police and judicial system can restore law and order as they are now. That’s why he has ordered the police to shoot suspected drug pushers whether they resist arrest or not and encouraged citizens to kill drug addicts themselves. Forget about the presumption of innocence or the right to a fair trial – the President has promised to reward citizens who kill drug traffickers and pardon any officer accused of human rights abuses. To be fair, the media rarely highlights Project “TokHang” – the strategy of the police to visit individual homes and convince drug pushers and addicts to surrender and enter rehab. But this is little consolation for the families of drug suspects who have been killed by the police or vigilante groups without a fair trial.

Furthermore, he has bypassed official channels by announcing the names of 158 public officials who are allegedly involved in the drug trade and ordering them to surrender or face the consequences. His contempt for the judicial system and rule of law is clear in his mockery of it. In response to criticism of his support for extra-judicial killings, he said that he would “just bring a drug lord to a judge and kill him there”, and “that will no longer be extra-judicial”. He also boasted during his presidential campaign that he would pardon himself for mass murder.

Duterte’s iron-fisted approach was formed in the crucible of the smaller war on drugs and crime in Davao. According to this account, the city was like Gotham before Duterte was elected as Mayor. Through tough legislation, ruthless law enforcement, and the use of extra-judicial killings primarily carried out by the Davao Death Squad, Duterte managed to transform the city from a cesspool of crime to one of the safest urban areas in the Philippines. His crime-fighting tactics ranged from bloodthirsty (the death squad killed over 1400 people between 1998 and 2015) to absurd (he once forced a tourist to swallow his cigarette butt for contravening a smoking ban). But supporters say that Duterte’s style of governance was necessary in a city located in a rough neighbourhood plagued by secessionists, communist rebels and Islamist terror groups.

While President Duterte is not a billionaire playboy with a Kevlar suit, he has always governed using Batman’s weapon of choice: fear. He strikes fear in the hearts of drug addicts and mules – more than 700,000 people have surrendered to the police for drug rehab and amnesty. But his ruthlessness has also inspired hope in millions of Filipinos that they can live in safety and security.

This analogy to the Caped Crusader helps explain Duterte’s widespread appeal. His selfless refusal of cabinet positions and an award nomination has endeared him to his supporters. In stark contrast to the stereotypical power-hungry politician, he reluctantly agreed to run for office after his supporters begged him for months to do so. He is like Batman hiding in the shadows, selflessly shunning the spotlight. To his supporters, he is the hero that the Philippines both needs and deserves.

Like Bruce Wayne, Duterte believes that the only way to get rid of the scourge of lawlessness and corruption is for one brave soul to get his hands dirty. But there is no doubt that he has taken the Batman narrative to a dangerous extreme.

Of the 3500 Filipinos who have been killed in the War on Drugs, about 1300 were killed in police operations, while over 2200 were killed by vigilante groups. This means that more suspects have been killed by private citizens than by law enforcement officers. Moreover, since the police have been given carte blanche by the President, numerous stories of police abuse have emerged. There have been cases of mistaken identity in which innocent people were killed. There have been allegations of fabricated reports and the planting of guns, money and drugs in innocent people’s houses.

While Mr Duterte understands the political potency of naming villains and delivering swift “justice-on-demand”, he doesn’t seem to realise how easily this could spiral out of control. If vigilantism is allowed to increase unchecked, it may be used to target any suspected criminal for any felony without any need for evidence. In fact, it may even be used to settle personal grudges without any fear of real consequences. Mr Duterte is familiar with this – he shot a fellow student in law school and was merely expelled, although he was still allowed to graduate. The uptick in violence could fuel demand for more violence in response. Thus, violence begets more violence, and life inches closer and closer to a Hobbesian reality.

Duterte’s supporters would probably point out that the situation did not spin out of control in Davao. But Duterte is now the leader of a country fifty times the size of Davao, where the same dynamics do not apply. Yet, he continues to respond to criticism of his policies with invective-laced tirades, whether it is from fellow political leaders, human rights groups, state leaders and representatives, or international organisations. He has insulted President Obama and the US ambassador, threatened to pull out from the UN, and sworn at the EU. He has said that journalists are “not exempted from assassination”. In one of the most prominent displays of his cavalier attitude, he said he was unconcerned about the international community’s opinion of him because he is not president of the international community.

It can even be argued that Duterte’s siege mentality has contributed to his shift in foreign policy. Sensing greater support for his domestic policy from China than the US, he has decided to cosy up to the Chinese and alienate the Americans. Of course, there are other factors involved in this policy shift, which he has been advocating for many months. But the shift is probably facilitated by his disdain for the Americans who have criticised his domestic policy. In deciding to negotiate issues related to the South China Sea dispute directly with the Chinese, and unilaterally declaring the end of war games with the US, President Duterte is playing a risky diplomatic game.

All in all, Duterte’s powerful and colourful personality is a game-changer for the Philippines. His supporters hail him as a hero like Batman. His critics probably liken him to the Joker, with his loose-cannon mouth and his penchant for crude humour. In the long run, however, President Duterte must depart from his heroic style of governance and focus more on restoring the rule of law, strengthening the nation’s judicial system, and spurring economic growth. If he does not, he will only be targeting the symptoms and not the root of the country’s problems. Furthermore, unfettered vigilantism may lead to increased lawlessness despite his tough stance on crime. Even if crime rates do fall and rapid economic development takes place over the next six years, these gains may be reversed after he leaves office if he does not build strong institutions.

In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne realises that he is vulnerable as a man but immortal as a symbol. If President Duterte wants to achieve the same immortal legacy, he must focus on building trustworthy, functional and responsive state institutions that can outlast his presidency.

Overcoming the Politics of Hate: Comparing Rwanda and Singapore

Few countries have been torn apart by the same ruinous hatred that devastated Rwanda during the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994. In just 3 months, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally massacred. But since the end of the genocide, Rwanda has made tremendous progress under the iron-fisted leadership of President Paul Kagame. While the traumatic scars of the catastrophe have not faded away completely, hatred between Hutus and Tutsis has been replaced by peaceful tolerance and a unified resolve to never let ethnic differences fuel such bloodletting again.

This miraculous recovery is underpinned by rapid socio-economic development. Faced with a wrecked economy and debilitating poverty after the genocide, Kagame looked to Singapore to emulate its turbo-charged development from Third World to First. [i] [ii] Having learnt from Singapore’s experience, Kagame’s government cracked down on corruption; invested heavily in housing, education and healthcare; attracted foreign investors with developed infrastructure and minimal red tape; and cleaned up the capital city. As a result, Rwanda has achieved an average real GDP growth of 8% per annum since 2001 and is one of the safest and least corrupt countries in Africa.[iii]

While much has been written about Rwanda’s emulation of Singapore’s development trajectory, not much attention has been given to the similar social policies that both countries have adopted to manage relations between their diverse ethnic groups. Like Rwanda, Singapore is a multi-ethnic country. The Chinese constitute the majority while Malays and Indians are significant minority populations. The city-state is also home to people of different religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others. While Singapore has never experienced genocide, it has suffered the turbulence of racial riots between Chinese and Malays.[iv] But today, “racial harmony” is the bedrock of Singapore’s stability and progress. This article examines the similarities and differences in the laws, policies and initiatives that Rwanda and Singapore have adopted to overcome the politics of hate.

Building a Unifying National Identity

Both Rwanda and Singapore have focused on building national identities that unify their diverse ethnic groups. However, each country has taken a separate route – Rwanda has adopted the assimilationist model, while Singapore has adopted the multiculturalist model.

In a bid to turn Rwandan society into an integrated “melting pot”, Kagame’s government has embarked on the ambitious task of ridding the country of ethnic classification altogether. Citizens are encouraged to think of themselves only as Rwandans, and not as Hutus and Tutsis. Kagame’s goal is to erase the same ethnic categories that fuelled the catastrophic genocide of 1994. In line with this policy, the ethnic identity of Rwandan citizens was excluded from national IDs in 1996. As NYT journalist Jeffry Gettleman discovered, many Rwandans refuse to reveal their ethnic identity, choosing to identify solely as Rwandans.[v]

On the contrary, there are many Rwandans for whom ethnic identity is important because the events of 1994 have made them irreversibly distrustful of members of the outgroup.[vi] Also, some Rwandans suspect that Kagame’s decision to play down ethnicity is a ruse to mask the fact that Tutsis wield a significant amount of political and economic power despite making up only 15% of the population. If they are not allowed to talk about ethnicity, it is hard to discuss the disproportionate power that Tutsis hold.[vii]

Singapore, on the other hand, has kept and even institutionalised the ethnic identities of its citizens. According to Singapore’s multiculturalist vision, Singaporeans do not discard their ethnic identity but render it secondary to their national identity. Rather than trying to achieve the impossible task of erasing citizens’ attachment to primordial identities, the government has chosen the path of open and honest discussion about ethnic identities and differences (within certain limits) while emphasising the overarching national identity that unites all Singaporeans “regardless of race, language or religion”, as quoted from Singapore’s National Pledge.

Hence, Singapore’s society is perceived through the lens of the “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others” (CMIO) system, which has become a ubiquitous element of the Singaporean experience.[viii] The four national languages of Singapore are Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English, and the festivals of each major ethnic and religious group are national holidays. Singapore’s parliamentary electoral system ensures that the minority Malay and Indian groups are always represented in Parliament. The Government is contemplating the idea of an “electoral safeguard” to ensure that Singapore has minority Elected Presidents from time to time. Most visibly, “race” remains a category on the Singaporean national ID, which a UN Special Rapporteur has criticised for contributing to racially based policies and discrimination.[ix] In response to such criticism, a Singaporean cabinet minister claimed that ethnic identities “are not going to go away soon”, so Singaporeans should recognise them and “work on them to achieve a higher ideal”.[x] That higher ideal is a fair and meritocratic society where individual progress depends on ability and industriousness, not on ethnic background.

Inculcating a Duty to Serve the Nation

As part of their efforts to develop strong national identities that transcend narrower ethnic identities, both Rwanda and Singapore have emphasised the importance of every citizen’s duty to serve the nation. Through community service, individuals learn to place the needs of the nation before the needs of their immediate community. Community service also provides a platform for cross-ethnic interaction as citizens unite to achieve a common goal.

In Rwanda, the primary form of community service is a nation-wide initiative called umuganda, which means “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”.[xi] This draws on the Rwandan tradition of calling upon family, friends and neighbours to help complete a difficult task. During Umuganda Saturday, which is the last Saturday of every month, Rwandans between the age of 18 and 65 are expected to engage in some form of community service.[xii] This includes infrastructure development like the building of schools and medical centres, and environmental protection like the rehabilitation of wetlands.[xiii] This mandatory community work is used as a tool to inculcate a sense of shared responsibility, and has provided opportunities for productive collaboration between Hutus and Tutsis.

Similarly, Singaporean students are expected to engage in a variety of Community Involvement Projects and Service Learning Projects throughout their schooling years. These programmes aim to teach students to care for the needs of every Singaporean regardless of ethnic background. After school, all male citizens are drafted into the military, police force or civil defence force for two years of National Service (NS). NS plays a significant role in uniting Singaporeans of different ethnicities as strong cross-cultural camaraderie is forged in the crucible of physically demanding exercises. Through NS, Singaporeans unite to defend the nation from external threats and internal discord.

Legislation Against Hate Speech

The governments of Rwanda and Singapore recognise the danger of irresponsible speech in their multi-ethnic societies. Derogatory language could upset the hard-fought social harmony that both countries have achieved. As such, both countries have enacted laws that set the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

The Rwandan government is understandably wary of speech that could rekindle ethnic tension. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda highlighted the role of the media in stoking the flames of ethnic violence in 1994. For example, the popular radio station Radio télévision libre des mille collines (RTLM) broadcast statements calling for the extermination of Tutsis, and the newspaper Kangura ran multiple articles that aimed to incite violence against Tutsis.[xiv] In recognition of the catastrophic effects of irresponsible public statements, the government has taken a strong stance against any speech or publication that could potentially spark ethnic conflict and plunge the country into internecine violence again.

In 2002, the Rwandan parliament passed a law criminalising “sectarianism”, which is “any speech, written statement or action that divides people, that is likely to spark conflicts among people, or that causes an uprising which might degenerate into strife among people”.[xv] In 2008, a law was enacted against all speech containing elements of “genocide ideology”, which involves propounding the act of genocide and denying or minimising the Rwandan genocide. These laws aim to restrict speech that could normalise ethnic hatred, dehumanise entire segments of society or promote “division (which) makes domination possible”.[xvi]

Similarly, Singapore has enacted laws against hate speech that could sow discord in society. Both the Sedition Act and Section 298 of the Penal Code criminalise speech that promotes hatred and ill-will between religious and racial groups. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act allows the Minister of Home Affairs to issue a restraining order against a religious leader who promotes enmity between religious groups. In extreme cases, the Internal Security Act (ISA) allows for preventive detention and the prohibition of publications in response to acts or speech that promote hatred and hostility between ethnic and religious groups.

These laws have been enacted in Rwanda and Singapore in order to restrict speech that could promote hatred. However, such legislation has also been criticised for violating their citizens’ freedom of expression. International advocacy groups like Amnesty International have accused Kagame’s government of abusing the laws against “sectarianism” and “genocide ideology” to suppress dissenting political views and legitimate debate.[xvii] These groups often highlight the arrest of Victoire Ingabire, the former head of the opposition United Democratic Force Party, who had suggested that Tutsis should be prosecuted for war crimes and Hutu victims should also be commemorated. Critics also point out that the laws are arbitrary – for example, the law against “sectarianism” proscribes even the act of “laughing at one’s misfortune”.[xviii]

Similarly, Singapore has also been accused of excessive restrictions on freedom of expression. Besides the controversy surrounding the government’s power to detain individuals without trial under the ISA, there have been several cases in which the punishment seemed disproportionate to the crime. In 2015, Singaporean blogger Amos Yee was tried and convicted as an adult under Section 298 of the Penal Code for comments that were deemed to be insulting to Christians, even though he was only 16 at the time.[xix] In the same year, a Filipino nurse was convicted of sedition for a Facebook post that was deemed to promote hostility between Singaporeans and Filipinos.[xx] He was jailed for 4 months, which some believed was a disproportionate response to a harmless and even comical post.


More parallels can be drawn between Singapore and Rwanda, but this presents a snapshot of the policies that have been adopted by both countries to promote tolerance and social harmony. However, while Rwanda has managed to preserve its social stability, the politics of hate has not disappeared – it has merely undergone a transformation. Under Kagame’s illiberal rule, the cleavage of hatred is no longer between Hutus and Tutsis, but between government loyalists and opponents.

Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) is perceived as Rwanda’s saviour because it ended the genocide. Kagame has utilised the heroic reputation of the party to accuse political opponents of siding with the genocidaires, since they refuse to side with the party that rebuilt Rwanda from the ashes of the genocide.[xxi] Hence, Kagame’s authoritarian rule extends beyond the banning of opposition parties, the clamping down on dissident media, and the dubious 93% electoral win that he achieved in 2010. His Manichean viewpoint has fuelled the persecution and even execution of political dissidents. As a result, dozens of political dissidents have fled for their lives. In 2010, an assassination attempt was made on veteran opposition leader Kayumba Nyamwasa. In 2011, UK intelligence suggested that there was a plot to murder a Rwandan dissident in London, Rene Claudel Mugenzi.[xxii]

Rwanda has come a long way since the turmoil of the 1990s. By learning from Singapore’s experience, it has achieved rapid economic development. The government has also successfully rebuilt Rwanda’s social capital. However, questions linger about the sustainability of Kagame’s autocratic rule. While some argue that Kagame’s rule is still necessary for Rwanda[xxiii], the time may come when Rwandans are more certain about the strength of their social fabric and demand greater political liberalisation. When that time comes, let’s hope that Rwandans of opposing political affiliations do not engage in the politics of hate once again.

[i] “Africa’s Singapore Dream”, Foreign Policy, 2 Apr 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/02/africas-singapore-dream-rwanda-kagame-lee-kuan-yew/

[ii] “Africa’s Singapore?”, The Economist, 25 Feb 2012, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.economist.com/node/21548263

[iii] “Rwanda: Overview”, The World Bank, last updated on 11 Apr 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/rwanda/overview

[iv] “Communal riots of 1964”, Singapore Infopedia, last updated on 18 Sep 2014, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_45_2005-01-06.html

[v] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?_r=0

[vi] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[vii] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?_r=0

[viii] Chua, B.H. (2003). Multiculturalism in Singapore: An instrument of social control. Race & Class, 44(3): 58-77.

[ix] Gomez, J. (2010). Politics and ethnicity: Framing racial discrimination in Singapore. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies, 28(2): 103-117.

[x] “Battle against extremism: Singapore takes a ‘different approach’ on race, religion”, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-takes-a-different-approach-on-race-religion

[xi] “Umuganda”, Rwandapedia, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.rwandapedia.rw/explore/umuganda

[xii] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[xiii] “Umuganda”, Rwandapedia, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.rwandapedia.rw/explore/umuganda

[xiv] Allen, J.M., & Norris, G.H. (2011). Is genocide different? Dealing with hate speech in a post-genocide society. Journal of International Law and International Relations, 7: 146-174.

[xv] Law No. 47/2001 on 18/12/2001 on Prevention, Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Discrimination and Sectarianism

[xvi] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[xvii] Amnesty International (2010). Safer to Stay Silent: The Chilling Effect of Rwanda’s Laws on ‘Genocide Ideology’ and ‘Sectarianism’. London: Amnesty International. Retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/AFR47/005/2010/en/

[xviii] Allen, J.M., & Norris, G.H. (2011). Is genocide different? Dealing with hate speech in a post-genocide society. Journal of International Law and International Relations, 7: 146-174.

[xix] “Singapore: Amos Yee sentence a dark day for freedom of expression”, Amnesty International, 6 July 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/07/singapore-amos-yee-sentence-a-dark-day-for-freedom-of-expression/

[xx] “Singapore jails Filipino nurse for ‘seditious’ posts”, AFP News, 21 Sep 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: https://sg.news.yahoo.com/singapore-jails-filipino-nurse-seditious-posts-095932941.html

[xxi] Bekken, N. (March, 2011). Rwanda’s hidden divisions: From the ethnicity of Habyarimana to the politics of Kagame. The Beyond Intractability Project, The Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado. Retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.beyondintractability.org/casestudy/bekken-rwandas-hidden-divisions

[xxii] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?_r=0

[xxiii] Stubbs, T. “Why Kagame’s bid to serve a third term makes sense for Rwanda”, The Conversation, 27 Jan 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://theconversation.com/why-kagames-bid-to-serve-a-third-term-makes-sense-for-rwanda-53354