It is prudent and understandable why Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has decided to skip the signing today of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), after being billed as a special guest of honor.
Najib has too many things on his plate right now that have attracted international attention and criticism.
The addition of the Bangsamoro project would have exposed him to questioning by Filipino and international media about the stakes and interest of Malaysia in the peace deal, what his country imposed as conditions for hosting the peace negotiations and what happens now to the Philippine claim to Sabah. These are questions better left to a later time.
Missing Malaysian plane full-blown crisis now
The biggest headache of Najib and his government today is the lingering and worsening crisis over the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines 777 jetliner, the rising outrage of grieving families and questioning by affected governments and the media.
The focus has shifted from the search for the airplane to doubts about the competence and forthrigthness of the Malaysian government, which has been accused of lack of transparency and sympathy toward passenger families.
China, which stands to lose the most lives in the apparent tragedy, has become very critical in both official and media comment.
When Prime Minister Najib came out last Monday to declare that the Malaysia Airlines flight had gone down in the southern Indian Ocean, he answered nothing and calmed no one. He didn’t say anything about why or how the plane had crashed. And he offered no proof that the plane ended up where he said it did.
The lack of evidence has become the focus of passenger families who have demanded proof.
In a hard-hitting editorial, the Washington Post crystallized the challenge facing Malaysia and the Najib government. It wrote:
“From the moment the plane went missing, the Malaysian government has been ham-handed in its dealings with grieving families and the global glare of attention. The Malaysian government has shown signs of a deeper malaise that comes from a half century of rule without challenge or transparency. When the prime minister was about to make a statement recently, his spokesperson told reporters there would be no questions. According to Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in Bloomberg Businessweek, when reporters pressed for more access, the reply came back: ‘Go watch a movie.’ When China, no champion of transparency, complains—as it did recently … —you know the depth of the problem.”
Najib’s repression of Anwar Ibrahim
Najib’s second major headache is the political opposition in his country, which has grown in intensity and numbers as his government has tried to suppress and cheat it. In last year’s election, Najib’s coalition won a majority of seats in Parliament largely through gerrymandered districts, while the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim won a popular majority and disputed the outcome.
This month, the Najib government renewed its politically motivated persecution of Anwar on dubious charges of sodomy in order to sideline him from politics. On March 7, Anwar was sentenced to five years in prison by a court, overturning a 2012 acquittal. The move will effectively remove Anwar from politics for 10 years. Many countries criticized Malaysia for this brazen manipulation.
In an article in Foreign Policy journal, Graeme Reid and AFP compared Malaysia’s employment of sodomy laws against political opponents to the practices of monarchs during the middle Ages. They wrote:
“In 1307, King Philip IV of France, deeply indebted to the Order of the Knights Templar, accused the Knights of sodomy and used this as a pretext to dissolve the order. In 1533, King Henry VIII of England promulgated the Buggery Act, accused monks of sodomy, and used that as an excuse to confiscate their monastic lands. King Henry also disposed of his opponent Lord Hungerford by executing him for sodomy in 1540.
“Sodomy laws, an antiquated relic of British colonialism, have been used to hound Anwar since 1998.
“The charge itself—sodomy —pejorative even in name, has the effect of discrediting and weakening the political opposition in Malaysia.
“Prime Minister Najib has now joined ranks with King Philip and King Henry in resorting to accusations of sodomy to settle political scores. The trial and conviction of Anwar should be seen for what it is: an underhanded move by the ruling party to tarnish and weaken the political opposition without regard to the harm caused to the nation’s judiciary and democratic process.”
With these problems to deal with, Najib should have no regrets for missing the chance to visit Manila.
‘Oligarch’ is derogatory enough
Some seriously rich people are shaking their heads (and are secretly pleased) that some of their colleagues are now being referred to derisively as “telegarchs” and “utiligarchs.”
The Economist started the verbal ribbing in its issue of March1-7, when in a report on Mexico, it detailed how the new government of President Enrique Peña Nieto is developing a reputation as a cartel-killer, and how in his latest project, Nieto has set his sights on Mexico’s near monopolies in TV and telecoms.
In referring to Nieto’ top targets: Carlos Sim, a telecoms magnate, and Emilio Azcarraga a television mogul, the magazine called them “telegarchs.”
Filipino journalist Tony Lopez, publisher-editor of Biznews Asia, saw the Economist issue and quickly found a muckraking opportunity for himself and his publication.
He forthwith devoted a cover and cover story to the subject of Philippine “Utiligarchs.”
Plastered on the cover of the Biznews March 17-24 issue are the full-color photos of Manuel V. Pangilinan (of PLDT, Smart, and TV5) and Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala (of Manila Water and Globe telecoms).
He kicked off his piece with this haymaker:
“Only two people, MVP and JAZA, control your electricity, water and telephone services.
“Manila has among the world’s highest electricity rates, among the world’s highest water rates, and among the world’s highest telephone rates.”
In their heart of hearts, I think MVP and JAZA would much rather prefer to be called by the time-hardened word “oligarch”, which by its sheer age seems now less derogatory. This way, the word would include all other Filipino billionaires, and many more. Company will spread the sticky peanut butter all around.
Being a paper that has campaigned vigorously against the odious power rate hike unilaterally imposed by Meralco, The Manila Times would be supportive of a wide-ranging campaign to bring down the prices of utilities throughout the country. And it would lend its pages, prudently and in fairness, to whatever defenses the utiligarchs and telegarchs can mount.
My own view of the issue is like this. I believe it is a good thing that privatization and regulation brought into the utility sector big players like the Ayalas and First Pacific. There wouldn’t have been sufficient capital investment to expand and develop the sector otherwise.
Where the government has faltered and failed is in its essential function to regulate and oversee the provision of utility services.
Utility investors were no doubt encouraged to invest in utilities because of the promise of big and steady profits, stretching far into the future. And they counted on the legendary incompetence and corruptibility of public officials to ensure profitability.
The public remedy for the gouging of consumers is clearly public vigilance and more aggressive regulatory oversight. I discussed best practice along this line in a column last December (“A relevant president will not allow power producers and distributors to dictate power rates” 17 December 2013), and sought early on decisive government intervention to stop the Meralco rate hike.
Thankfully, vigilance and media tenacity are already producing welcome results in the electricity sector. Meralco has been forced to retreat. The same should happen in the case of water rates, where the regulator (MWSS) has been alarmingly agreeable to favors and gifts from Maynilad Water.
Utiligarchs, telegarchs, oligarchs, or whatever we call them, should not have the last word.