Felda at risk with Indian move against palm oil

Gerard Lourdesamy


LETTER | I refer to the article India's M'sian palm oil boycott may trigger a firestorm.

Rais Hussin your arguments are totally flawed. The current cold spell in diplomatic relations between India and Malaysia was entirely due to the rash acts and poor judgment of your party leader and the current Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

India used proper legal channels to seek the extradition of the wanted fugitive Zakir Naik who was given permanent residence status by our previous government despite grave suspicions about Zakir's involvement in promoting terrorism and money-laundering in India and other countries. Instead, Mahathir rebuffed India's requests simply in order to appease his Malay/Muslim voter base here that strongly supports Zakir and his brand of Islam that denigrates non-Muslims and their beliefs.

Mahathir made it worse by implying that Zakir would be killed if he returns to India and that he would never get a fair trial there presumably because of the demands of Hindu nationalists and the alleged mistreatment of the Muslim minority in India. To their credit, India kept quiet despite these offensive remarks made by Mahathir because it was confined to the bilateral relationship between the two countries. It was left to their senior officials to discuss the issue further.

In all fairness to India, their judicial system has been far more independent, accessible and activist since 1947 compared to our judiciary that is still recovering from Mahathir’s decimation of the institution in 1988 with the sacking of the then Lord President Salleh Abbas and virtually all of the Supreme Court bench. While acts of oppression and discrimination may exist in India towards minorities, the system provides for redress and the authorities by far and large are responsive towards such incidents even if there are shortcomings.

The Indian constitution and the legal system in that country do not permit discrimination of any sort and the minorities including scheduled castes and tribes are given added protection and safeguards. Unlike in Malaysia, there is no special position given to the Hindu majority in that country and there are no affirmative action policies in favour of this majority on account of they being “sons of the soil” or other discriminatory fictions.

Instead of engaging with India on the Zakir Naik issue, Mahathir upped the ante by going to the UN General Assembly which is the preeminent multilateral forum in the world to denounce the supposed "invasion and occupation" of Kashmir. The only reason this was done, whether with or without the advice of the Foreign Ministry, was because of Mahathir's personal dislike of India and his favouritism toward Pakistan.

Of course, by parroting the Pakistan position on the Kashmir issue Mahathir chose to appease Malay/Muslim sentiments in this country and more personally his own sense of insecurity because Mahathir himself is half-Indian, his father and paternal grandfather being Kerala Muslims. As our late first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman used to say, Mahathir suffered from a huge inferiority complex when in Umno because he was not regarded as a pure Malay and he was not from an aristocratic Malay background unlike most of the top Umno leadership at that time.

Mahathir's UN speech was also riddled with historical inaccuracies about Kashmir. Kashmir has always belonged to India ever since the Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession in favour of India in 1947 which was the constitutional mechanism devised by the British in relation to the princely states when India was divided to create Pakistan.

It was Pakistan that invaded Kashmir in 1947 and remained in occupation of one-third of Kashmir even after the ceasefire in 1948. Despite three wars between the neighbours in 1967, 1971 and 1999, the status quo remains in Kashmir.

With the promulgation of the constitution of India in 1950 when the country changed its status from a dominion under the British Crown to a democratic parliamentary republic within the Commonwealth, Jammu and Kashmir were given a special status since 1954 under Article 370 of the Indian constitution with more autonomy in political, economic and social matters compared to the other states and territories in the union.

What the Narendra Modi government did after its general election victory that gave the BJP and its allies a super-majority in the Indian parliament, was to revoke the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir and to reorganise them as union territories including Ladakh, with the same powers as other constituent states and territories in India.

We may disagree with this or with the manner in which the new constitutional arrangement was implemented in Jammu and Kashmir by the central government using draconian security measures that have severely restricted the rights of the local people in the region but these concerns could and should have been raised directly with the Indian government on a bilateral basis instead of a public denouncement at the UN General Assembly. More so when we are not a party to the dispute and do not have any national interests in Kashmir.

Our foreign policy objective since 1957 has been not to take sides in the Indo-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir but rather to encourage both countries to resolve their differences based on the existing UN Security Council Resolutions Nos. 39, 47 and 91 passed in 1948 and 1951, and the Simla Agreement of 1972. This is also consonant with our status as a non-aligned and neutral country.

Over the years we had abstained in votes brought to the UN by either country that were critical of each other. Even in the OIC, Malaysia together with Saudi Arabia and Indonesia would often use their good offices to influence Pakistan to withdraw resolutions critical of India over the Kashmir dispute.

But all of a sudden, Mahathir decided to ditch our decades-old well-modulated policy of equilibrium between the belligerent parties to the Kashmir conflict by tilting the balance in favour of Pakistan despite India’s status as a regional power and economic giant who has been heavily engaged in Asean and other regional groupings as a counter-balance to the influence of the US and China.

Since Mahathir created this firestorm on his own, whether on advice or not, India is perfectly entitled to respond to these provocations from a politically, economically and militarily insignificant country in South East Asia that is trying to punch way above its weight in global and regional affairs.

Even within Asean, Malaysia is not going to get any support from Indonesia, Thailand Singapore or Vietnam in what will be regarded as a bilateral dispute with India. Asean has a well-established policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. India is a far more important partner to most Asean countries than Malaysia with its inconsistent foreign policy objectives and tendency to antagonise major powers like the US, China and India under the current Mahathir government. Asean, unlike the EU or Nato, is not a political and economic union or a military alliance. Therefore, there is no reason for the other Asean countries to get involved in this dispute in order to defend Malaysia’s own foolish actions.

Based on the current state of affairs, New Delhi will be well within its rights to consider broader trade and economic sanctions against Malaysia not just limited to palm oil exports. Malaysian companies have a huge presence in major Indian construction projects. Tourism and educational ties between both countries are vast. The same with defence cooperation and procurement.

Of course, Malaysia can complain to the WTO if India imposes unreasonable tariffs on Malaysian exports but given that the Indian government has some of the best brains in their ministry of external affairs and ministry of commerce and industry to advise the union's cabinet on the proposed retaliatory measures, the manner in which these measures are to be implemented would be subtle, non-retaliatory or discriminatory but effective in conveying India’s displeasure to us.

There is nothing wrong if Mahathir wants to become the mouse that roars in global affairs but be prepared to face the consequences when you cross the line in terms of geopolitical realities, diplomatic limitations, niceties and courtesies. Mahathir is somewhat circumspect when it comes to China but with India, he thinks that they can be pushed around because of his innate sense of insecurity about his own origins and his general disdain for the local Indian population here who are not politically or economically significant to him.

Rais Hussin can slice and dice it, or even spin it whichever way he wants to in order to defend his leader’s injudicious remarks but the end result is going to be the destruction of Felda with the collapse of its biggest export market and the impoverishment of the poor Malay settlers and cultivators due to the undiluted arrogance of an old man in his twilight years.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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