Donald Trump’s Executive Order Is Not a “Muslim Ban”

I was supposed to post this by end of January but procrastinated a little bit. Decided to write on this “Trump Muslim Ban” that has been overly politicised in my opinion.

It disturbs me a lot when I see my friends on Facebook sharing news articles with titles or captions containing the words “Trump ‘Muslim Ban'”. This is serious because the term used commonly on social media has materialised into something people say every day.

Friends and people around me know I study international politics and some of them will casually strike up conversations about world politics just to hear my views. However, whenever they open their mouths, it just gets me real mad.

“So… bro… what do you think of Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’?”

No no no no no no no no… This is not a freaking Muslim ban for Pete’s sake. The seven countries have a Muslim-majority population. Barring them from entering the United States based on this premise constitutes a super weak argument. It is weak because there are still many Muslim countries that are not banned.

I am not going to explain how it got to this stage. Long story short: mass media and activists. Oh, one more, the ignorant majority.

So back to the question, why is this not a doctrine against the Muslims?

Firstly, the underlying basis of reasoning to ban the seven countries was neither race nor religion. The seven countries were already on Obama’s list during his second term. You can read more here. Obama tightened visa policies to these seven countries during his term under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 after the Paris attack. Thus, it is fair to say that Obama had prejudices against Muslims as well if one wants to accuse Donald Trump of the same thing. As mentioned earlier, there may be some kind of link here, but the fact remains that the argument is not convincing. Hence, both Obama’s and Trump’s opposition against the seven countries were not because they are strictly against the Muslims.

This argument can be brought further to the refugee ban. Similarly, the United States of America’s opposition to accepting refugees was also not simply it is a Muslim issue. Geographically speaking, the US is not directly affected by the refugee crisis happening at the Southeast of Europe. Many of US’s refugees are political asylums seekers. Whatever it is, it is not a huge issue because these numbers, relative to the population of US, is meagre. The role of media plays a part in exaggerating the negative consequences. Every year, there are bound to be people who have their refugee or asylum-seeking applications rejected. Mass media were able to magnify the issues and associate all with the ‘Muslim Ban’. Thus, what I am trying to say is that these are actually regularities but treated like anomalies, thanks to “online social justice warriors” and the news outlets.

Another reason why this is not a ‘Muslim Ban’ is an obvious one. There are still many countries which have a Muslim majority but are not ‘ban’. Lebanon, Turkey, Kuwait, Malaysia, Indonesia… There are still a few more and I am not going to name them all – you get the idea. There are a few refutes to this claim of mine. Some mentioned it could be because of Trump Organisation’s business interests. However, this cannot explain not banning Indonesia and Malaysia. Another refutation suggests that probably Trump is ignorant and not aware of all the Muslim majority countries, especially Southeast Asia. Well, one thing I can be sure is that he can google it and look it up on Wikipedia. Assume that he cannot or he simply refused to, he has tens of thousands of people working for him and anyone could simply give him a hand. His chief of staff could also put it up a “list of Muslim Countries” and pin it up on all the notice boards in the White House.

Now that I have established that it is not a ban against Muslims, then what could possibly explain his rationale.

Explained in this video by John Green, there were just too many variations of interpretation of the executive order floating around. This is nothing more than just incoherent, inconsistent and mindless decision-making by Trump. Perhaps he could be confused or unclear. That is all there is to it. Recall the first few months at your first job, it takes time to get used to how things work. I believe that Trump’s current issue is coherence. His staff and himself tend to have different answers to the same questions. One example is the green card confusion. The administration required some down time to discuss and lay out the details before releasing the final statement to the public.

Overall, the ‘Muslim Ban’ was heavily politicised and overrated. It caught the attention of some social media influencers to start posting about their support for Muslims which was honestly just a way to increase their view counts and fan base. They disgust me. At this juncture, the federal judge has blocked President Trump’s executive orders. Instead of trying to be angry, hyped or excited over the ‘Muslim Ban’, or rant about how he behaves like a tyrant, now is the time we assess the checks and balances of this highly regarded democracy and their democratic institutions at work.

Best Book of 2016: Connectography

Best book of 2016: Connectography by Parag Khanna

I have decided to do an annual book review, featuring the best book I have read of the year. This is also the last book I have read this year.

Hands-down, Connectography beats all books I have read until today. This includes “On China” by Henry Kissinger and Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations”.

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Connectography = Connectivity + Geography
Some say geography is destiny, while Parag Khanna mentioned that the only way to escape unfortunate geography is through infrastructure and connectivity. The book explores geopolitics extensively with detailed maps portraying various trade routes and diagrammes. It is his way of saying that we have been looking at the map the wrong way all this time. It is only insightful if you look at how each city is connected to others.

Rather than looking at politics from a macro view or generalising them according to so-called “school of thoughts”, geopolitics reveals material accounts of actual development on the ground – gas pipelines, constructing new canals, changing nature and supply chain. It is a more credible way to understand or even predict foreign policies.

The book is 391 pages but is extremely comprehensive, detailing the economic alliances and interest of various countries trying to overcome their own geographical constraints. This has enhanced the lens we use to observe world politics. This is highly recommended especially those interested in International Political Economy.

The quote “amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics” couldn’t be more apt to sum up this book.

Conversation with Dr Maliki Osman @ Asia-Europe Meeting 11 Ulaanbaatar

Dr Maliki Osman
Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Defence
Mayor South-East District
Member of Parliament – East Coast GRC

Last Saturday (16/07/16), Dr Maliki Osman took time off his busy schedule to meet me towards the end of the ASEM summit. It was arranged with our Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) through the ASEF Education Team (ASEFedu). Really grateful towards Leonie and her team for organising the entire Model ASEM and coordinating with our respective MFAs for such meetings to happen. You guys would have to see it with your own eyes to believe the magic and miracles they had performed with a small team of 3 and an intern, Su Chen. To pull off an event on such scale, truly incredible.

He started off with very straightforward questions, in a casual and friendly tone. After living and constantly conversing with non-Singaporeans for the past 10 days, his familiar accent made me feel connected instantly without having much small talks, which spared us the awkwardness otherwise. He asked basic questions regarding where am I studying, when did I ORD and etc. I remember him apologising Leonie with a chuckle, explaining himself in Singlish that these are standard questions of a Singaporean Men. Indeed, I smiled in agreement because we always do that whenever we meet other Singaporean men, don’t we?

Shortly after Leonie and her co-worker, Lieke, introduced themselves and ASEFedu to Dr Maliki, the topic then shifted towards Singapore’s foreign policy and Asia-Europe relations. Below is the gist of our 30mins conversation.

First, he mentioned that he doesn’t hesitate to caution others when foreign officials speak of Singapore as the model of development. His exact words were “we can do what we can do because we are small.” Having a relatively small piece of land is one of the main reason why we become successful. It is relatively easier to control and manage as compared to countries with large land size. What works for us may not work for others. He mentioned that rather, we usually work with other governments to train their country officials. Furthermore, they bring businessmen and industrial leaders abroad to learn about the country and their constraints. This will also facilitate knowledge exchange and deeper understanding of various markets.

Since a large part of the income is from the private sector, it is hence important for the public sector, or government, to create ad ensure a business-friendly environment for businesses to grow. Singapore is known to be one of the most business-friendly countries in the world. This is why other than just increasing private investment abroad, Singapore also helps to improve the public administration of countries in our region. Private sector tends to be more stable and sustainable with a stronger government – probably also another main reason for our growth.

Regarding Singapore’s position to issues generally, he said I was right in pointing out the balanced approach where we don’t take hard stances. However, he added on that sometimes we would stand up to bigger countries when we need to, in order to defend what is good for Singapore and Singaporeans. We should not just be condemning acts of hostilities and aggression. Rather, it is often more important to think what else we can or should do – concrete actions. With that, I know that Singapore is in good hands for our international relations.

He then also spoke about being a mayor in South-East district and the importance of promoting community development. He was referring to all countries, including Singapore which more work can be done. Grassroots and civil society can take a more active role in community development. He raised the example of the recent Nice incident to explained the lack of community engagement. Wrongdoers of such incidents tend to live in isolation and have minimal social interaction or lack engagement with people around them. To reaffirm his statement earlier regarding concrete actions, he maintained that the way forward would be asking ourselves what can we do for these people. Thus, he concluded that we should be at a level where whenever a potential wrongdoer wants to bring harm to the civil society, he would really think twice.

Asking him on what Singapore hopes to achieve from this summit, he brought up the talk between Singapore and Mongolia to allow Singapore visitors to stay up to 30 days without a visa. He explained that 2 weeks is too short for people to understand a country and increasing it to 30 days also provides more flexibility in their itinerary. This could potentially attract more Singaporeans to visit Mongolia which boosts tourism and enables us to have an even better understanding of Mongolian culture, history and heritage. Industrial leaders and business partners also have much to gain from this.

To end off, I expressed that I wish to invite him as a speaker for Model ASEM Singapore 2016 in December this year. He gave a warm smile and I guess he looks forward to it as much as we all do.

Once again, thank you ASEFedu for the opportunity. Looking forward to future opportunities.

World War II, the end of colonisation, the start of modern imperialism

Imperialism has always been around since the birth of mankind. Empires and colonies were common tools of imperialism back then, mostly through conquest or by introducing settlers to dominate the civil society. The end of two world wars seems to mark the end of empires when decolonisation began. Free and independent sovereign states were established and self-determination was promoted by former colonial masters. It also marked the start of the Cold war between United States (US) and the Soviet Union (USSR). As both superpowers seek to gain hegemony in the bipolar world, their influences and ideological war seem to exhibit traits of imperialism. Some of the signs include economic dominance and cultural imperialism.

Traditionally, imperialism refers to the idea of occupying land and stripping countries of their political and economic autonomy, usually by conquest or introducing settlers/migrants into their civil society. The very act of imperialism is by establishing empires through colonisation. This is evident in the history of Europe where there were two waves of imperialism. The first wave began from the 1500s onwards with powerful colonial masters, such as Great Britain and France, pursuing mercantilist economic policies. The second wave began from the 1850s onwards until 1945 when the idea of empires was considered dead. Hence, in the modern day, it might seem that imperialism is dead because the world now has recognised that every state is sovereign and no states can claim sovereignty over another state. However, imperialism is an idea which is still very much alive. In the modern context, imperialism no longer requires conquest through military power but can be engaged through institutions, interventions and capitalism.

Vladimir Lenin argues that imperialism is mainly driven by economic forces. Drawing his works from Hobson and Helferding, he agrees that underconsumption and overproduction caused capitalists to seek foreign market and expand beyond their territories and oligopolies and monopolies were the main players of the economy. When the market expands and the domestic market could no longer provide for the capitalist, they would look elsewhere for more resources. This is where ideas of imperialism come in. The capitalist will think of ways to penetrate foreign markets to secure the resources they need. Lenin thinks that the ambition to capture more resources was what started the Great War.

Immanuel Wallerstein has an improved version of Lenin’s Marxism approach which is known as the World System Theory. It is a social and historical based theory that seeks to explain why some countries benefit from capitalism while some countries do not. It is a system-level of analysis which he sees a division of labour in the international economic system. The world is divided into a hierarchy of three distinctions: The core, the periphery and the semi-periphery. The core refers to countries which have strong institutions and government which engage in economically advanced activities such as banking and manufacturing. The periphery refers to countries that provide raw material to the core countries which have relatively weaker government and institutions; they are denied access to technology because in order to not compete with the core. The semi-periphery refers to countries with are midway of the core and periphery. They usually get exploited by the core but also take advantages of the periphery. These countries aspire to be part of the core while struggle to prevent themselves from becoming part of the periphery.

From both Marxist theorists, it is not difficult to draw links to the modern context. The core can be seen as the developing countries in the west, both Europe and the US. Meanwhile, the semi-periphery refers to middle-income countries and the periphery refers to developing countries such as Africa and Asia. With the US leading the core bloc of European countries, it has established an international economic regime promoting liberal values which the whole world is part of. The US sets the rules which the rest have to abide by. The three Bretton Woods Institutions, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organisation (WTO), are tools which the US use to engage in imperialism. For example, loans from IMF and World Bank require the lender state to fulfil certain obligations. Such obligation usually includes accepting neo-liberal economic policies like opening up of the financial market, liberal macroeconomic policies and reducing public spending. These peripheral states usually tend to have no choice but to conform, which is also a type of consent to the institutional norm. States usually feel that they would be better off playing by the rules of the game rather than bankrupting the country by not being able to borrow from the institutions to finance their economy.

By opening up trade to developed countries, it gives the core and semi-periphery the opportunity to exploit them. As Lenin mentioned, this is how the core gets their resources when the domestic market runs dry. Another example one can look at is how the US much authority it has over these institutions. Before the 1970s, the entire world’s currency was pegged to the US dollar, which gives the US a lot of influence over the world’s monetary policies. As a form of challenge to the current international economic order, China has also introduced the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Some scholars argued that the AIIB’s intention of looking into African states is a challenge to American’s economic dominance and even this idea is fundamentally imperialist.

On the other hand, some scholars think that too much emphasis is placed on economic aspects when substantiating imperialism. Imperialism can also be looked at in two cultural aspects: Cultural hegemony and cultural imperialism. The main proponent of cultural hegemony is Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist Intellectual. Cultural hegemony refers to the idea that the ruling class impose their culture over the working class and making them accept it as the rightful cultural norm. This can be seen as to prevent any kind of revolution against the bourgeoisies and hence, a defence mechanism promoted and advocated by them to continue exploitations. As mentioned earlier, international economic institutions set the rules of trades and finances. In fact, it also introduces the culture of shared norms and beliefs to states which subscribe to them; the norm that liberal values make sustainable government and prosperity which will eventually lead to development. As Gramsci has put across, the oppressed will continue believing and do as what the bourgeoisie ask of them without rising up against the US or the institutions. This imposed culture of the bourgeoisie will thus prevent them from ‘rising up’ or in the Marxist sense, stage a revolution to overthrow the West.

Arguably, some states manage to ‘break free’ from this culture and rise up the ranks to join the periphery. One particular country is the South Korean. The South Korea was able to make use of the 1997 financial crisis to propel itself from the semi-periphery to the core. It took advantages of the weak currency and the loan from IMF to expand its market. It is important to note that such case is not a testament of IMF or liberal success that institutions help bring prosperity and the same logic can be applied to the Third World. Economics is the study of the distribution of finite resources and hence, the concept of opportunity cost and economies of scale to help policymakers in making wise decisions. Acknowledging that we live in a world of finite resources, the growth and development of a state would be at the expense of another. South Korea mainly exports electronic and equipments parts. Given their economic capacity and capability, it is not surprising that they have enjoyed the economies of scale, allowing them to produce such exports at a much lower costs relative to other semi-periperal states. Hence, each unit they sell to an export partner actually denies another state of that profit. Additionally, the sunk cost incurred by the latter will never be recovered and this is bad for the economy in the long run – possibility of become a periphery state. Economics is pretty much a zero-sum game where someone’s gain is inevitably someone elses’ loss.

Cultural imperialism is evident and arguably the most obvious form of imperialism. It is the spread of cultural influences through various channels available when other societies voluntarily embrace these foreign cultures. One example is language. The fact English, as a language, is used as a ‘medium’ for individuals with language barriers to communicate. Even though Chinese is the most widely-spoken language in the world, English is most often used internationally. Perhaps people view English as a symbol of modernity because it is the language that the imperialist or the hegemon subtly encourages everyone to use. Looking back into history, most colonies were required to learn the language of their colonial masters. The Japanese colonies, such as Korean and South East Asian countries, were forced to learn Japanese. In modern day context, such language imperialism can take place without coercion. The same can be said for political systems and democracies. The increasing trend of democratisation has shown that the world is beginning to embrace this culture of ‘liberal democracy’, which is strongly advocated by the US and the western powers. Before world war two, political systems in colonies are heavily influenced by their colonial masters. One such example is the Great Britain, where most of its former colonies adopted the Westminster parliamentary system. Hence, it seems that the same outcome of colonisation can still be achieved through unconventional means.

To conclude, imperialism is not dead because ideas never die. Imperialism has been a permanent form of world history and there will always be new forms of imperialism. States always prove to be capable of thinking up new ways to realise their national interest and such means will evolve along with the international system and context. The only question remains is who will be the next imperialist and what are the consequences of such shift of cultural and economic influence? Perhaps, China will be the challenging this status quo as one can see its hegemonic intention through South China Sea aggression, the establishment of AIIB and their language has been more commonly learned and use in this century.