Will the Trump administration spell the doom of Singapore and Malaysia?

May 15, 2017

Q: Many people have labelled Trump as a mad president. (Interruption)

A: Kompf. I have asked you on numerous occasions in the past not to refer to Mr Trump as a mad man. I would appreciate it if you desist using such disparaging terms.

Q: It is common knowledge in both the private and public sphere of consciousness that Trump may not be suitable to occupy the office of president of the U.S. How accurate is this assertion and what do you think is the cause of this lack of confidence in his temperament, political acumen and leadership?

A: If you go back to my previous interviews even as far back as a year ago during the GOP – you will find that I have repeatedly warned against labelling Trump as a mad man – now the reason why I don’t believe it is constructive to use such terms to describe anyone let alone someone who currently occupies the most powerful office in the world is simply because once you label someone as mad – then all efforts at trying to understand his psychology along with mental profile along with inclination ceases completely.

Understand this! A mad man cannot aspire to be the president – that is an impossibility under every definition of what the term implies…besides Mr Trump has a proven record of being able to manage himself and others very effectively when it comes to comes to his business interest and promoting his personal brand as a TV personality.

All these are not easy to do!

And he has a long record of doing all this on a consistent basis – you can say he was born with a silver spoon, but what many of his critics continue to elide much to the tragedy of misinformation is he has multiplied his largesse by a couple of hundred times as a very successful businessman – and very often many of his projects involve a high degree of complexity, business acumen and mental dexterity that suggest he is someone at the very top of the game.

So let us be constructive in our analysis – let us not use the prejogative mad or crazy to describe Trump.

Now as for your description of what you choose to describe as ‘public and private sphere of consciousness’ I assume you mean those in and out of government – but then again let us not forget. These were the same people who incorrectly predicted that he would emerge the winner of the GOP let alone successfully aspire to the highest office in the land.

I think there is a very instructive lesson here – never underestimate Mr Trump as he has proven not once but many times to be able to pull rabbits out of hats to emerge as a clear winner.

Q: How do you think Trump has faired in his first 100 days in office – do you see a man who getting more and more frustrated with not being able to gainfully translate many of his election promises into something concrete?

A: I think it is quite normal for someone like Trump to experience some measure of frustration and emotional trauma – but that is only because we are dealing with someone who doesn’t have either the political pedigree or lineage of power like Bush or Kennedy. Trump knows nothing about the complexity of power and politics in Washington – he may have been able to get his way in the business world without resistance and friction, but it’s fair and accurate to say he’s definitely coming to terms with very sobering political realities in Washington.

But that is not something that is not within the realm of foreseeability and again if you go back to previous interviews I did mention in considerable length and detail how many of his wild election promises will be tempered by partisan politics, doctrine of separation of powers and what I can only continue to describe as political necessities.

Having said that Trump has certainly sorrounded himself with very thoughtful Advisors and I am sure after the going thru a period of settling or reincarnation to these new realities – we are likely to see a president who is likely to get things done instead of running into the wall all the time.

Q: How would you describe Trump’s attitude to Asia?

A: I have always maintained from day one – he has very little latitude to manuever. As many of the set pieces in the Asia theatre both economic and military are really hard points that would require him to keep to the status quo ante.

Q: What do you think about the North Korean crisis and how it might color Trump’s response to Asia?

A: I think North Korea is not a new story – the script goes something like this and it has been going on for the last 40 years since the Reagan administration…they rattle their sabres…everyone gets high blood pressure…the west agrees to enter into negotiations…eventually they give the North Koreans some concessions in the form of aid…and in this way detente is perpetuate till the next president comes in and it all starts again. That story is unlikely to change. Infact it has become so ritualised in geo political brinkmanship that in all probability it is likely to be played out exactly again like Chinese opera.

Only my feel this time round. North Korean must be a very big distraction from the other more cogent issue of how the US is haemorrhaging credibility in APEC at an alarming rate as it continues to vaccilate on how China seems to be increasing its sphere of influence in the region much to the detriment of the latter.

Q: In what way do you see China as a new threat?

A: American power is definitely on the wane in Asia. This is quite historical. As when you consider since the treaty of Spain one hundred and forty years ago, it along with the British empire has really been the two major superpowers to set the instructional and directional pace of change in the region. Now China is usurping that role thru the one belt and one road initiative – most people I imagine see this as a benign initiative and they may even surmise that it is a natural progression given that China has come of age economically, militarily, technologically and perhaps even culturally as well in the near future.

But I don’t see all this as just a natural progression – it cannot be as when one talks about OBOR, it is simply another way of saying, ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ And when a nation begins to use the language of Caesar it is really nothing short of projecting it’s power in a very deliberate and calculated manner to achieve a very defined set of economic and geo political goals.

To deny that there are economic and geopolitical forces driving OBOR is quite dumb, first many of the OBOR projects are driven exclusively by China’s vast industrial, construction and rolling stock overcapacity – mainly in steel manufacturing, heavy machinery and construction – for which the new trade route would serve as an outlet.

As China’s domestic market slows down, many of these port, rail, road and infrastructural projects abroad will likely supply the much needed tension to take up the domestic slack caused by slower economic growth.

Q: Malaysia seems to be very close to China. How do you see this alliance impacting the geo political balance of power in APEC – will this in any way affect the TPP? Is the TPP dead?

A: Not only Malaysia. I would say most countries that have a georgraphical strategic value or produce something that is vital in the global conversion chain, with the possible exception of Singapore and to a lesser degree Indonesia has benefited directly from massive Chinese investments in one form or another in the grand scheme of OBOR.

What I think needs to be understood about OBOR is its sheer scale, reach along with its capacity to rewrite the rules of global trade – its many many times bigger than the Marshall plan. And that by itself is bound to generate a lot of enthusiasm for countries that may see it as an opportunity to supercharge their economies – Malaysia it’s fair to say see it very much in that light. Other countries such as India perceive OBOR as a geo political threat as it runs thru the disputed Kashmir region – so they tend to be more circumspect of China.

That I feel is quite natural.

I know there is a lot of talk about how Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and there is considerable suspicion of Chinese FDI’s to threaten a spanner in the works – but I do not believe either Malaysia or any other country will not deal with China if they can materialise a nett gain or surplus in trade. That is the beauty of money – it does not smell!

And Malaysia isn’t exactly in the pink of economic health to be choosy or play hard to get either. The economic outlook is really quite precarious – in the last 30 years it’s economy has been exclusively dependent on oil revenues to shore up what I can only describe as layer upon layer of subsidise and now that oil is trading at a historical low and all indications suggest this downward trend will continue to persist, there is a desperately need to find another goose that lays golden eggs – that will certainly force the Malaysians to find new apertures of opportunities to colloborate with whoever can offer them the best deal. To exacerbate matters Malaysian oil palm which has been a very reliable revenue generator seems to be increasingly stressed by foreign market inaccessibility. Recently the EU scrapped a plan to use oil palm in their fuel for automobiles citing environment damage of oil palm cultivation. At the same time the Trump administration seems to be resurrecting their first preference for seed and cereal grain oil to placate the powerful US farmer’s lobby – so the only people who are really buying significant quantities of oil palm are the Chinese and Indians.

Bear in mind all this is occurring at a very sensitive time – elections are going to be held in Malaysia as early as some say the first quarter of 2018.

Najib and his planners are mindful of this reality and how precarious things really are – the last thing he wants now is for the entire kampung economy to collapse – productivity for agriculture and livestock has been ravaged for the last two years by El Niño. This is the time for healing. And never before has BN (Barisan Nasional) been so desperate to garner all the kampung votes. Without this in their pocket they are sunk!

So this hopefully gives you an insight into the complexity of the issues at play when we ask the question why do so many countries choose to align with China instead of the US.

It would seem this phenomenon is just confined to APEC, but it isn’t. Both the Canadians and South Americans have even publically supported China’s equivalent of the World Bank or IMF by working with AIIB. The balance of trade is slowly shifting to be more China centric. Even the Saudi’s who you can say are reliable allies of the US are beginning to align their entire global petroleum supply chain to take a significant stake of OBOR. That was why they bought into Petronas.

So this is really a global phenomenon where no country wants to be left out of OBOR….it should not be just seen as something confined strictly to Asia. Like I said the sheer scale of OBOR is really something that is quite mind boggling and you can even say never before has the world witnessed such a mammoth infrastructural project covering so many continents. So that by itself is bound to generate a lot of enthusiasm and interest.

Q: How would you compare Najib to Lee Shien loong when it comes to navigating around the geo political complexity between the US and China?

A: There is very little room for improvisation when it comes to LSL. You could even say his position is well and truly locked like a man with two feet stuck in a bucket of concrete. That is because Singapore is so invested in the US position that they have all their chips on that number and there is no choice but to bite the bullet and just see it to it’s logical or illogical end.

I don’t blame LSL. He has to work within a set of iron clad constraints and I understand.

With Najib there is a lot of room for improvisation. The Chinese want or shall I say need him in their inner circle to supply added verve to OBOR – as Malaysia is very strategic. Unlike Indonesia which is a fractured land mass. The Malaysian coast line in the western side is the only monolithic landmass that runs along the straits of malacca.

The Chinese have historically always been ultra paranoid about this piece of real estate. If you read Deng’s biography he mentions this at least seven times. On one occasion he even moots the idea of building a canal thru the Khral ismuth.

The executive summary is the straits will always be a jugular trade route to China – and by just that geographical blessing you can say Najib automatically becomes a very prestigious partner to the Chinese.

Having said that Najib is also very smart. He knows how to divide and rule. He is not so different from a modern day version of Metternich when it comes to managing both the US and Chinese. And it’s surprising very little credit is actually given to him as to how he has been able to successfully navigate thru the geo political barb wire to even get the Chinese to invest in Malaysia. Part of that I can only imagine may have something to do with how the 1MDB fiasco over shadows everything.

But if you look at what he has been able to accomplish with so very little in the form of bargaining power or balance of power it is really quite remarkable.

As for LSL all I can say he’s still got two feet stuck in a bucket of set concrete.

Q: How do you see all these development colouring the final outcome of the TPP?

A: I see the TPP as the only logical and sound response to what’s currently happening not only in the economic and geo political sphere of APEC. But it’s really part of a larger economic architecture that encapsulates a new inexorable reality as well – in the future, six of the seven largest economies in the world are projected to be emerging economies by China, India and Indonesia. The US will be relegated to fourth place in the global GDP rankings while the EU27’s share of world GDP could fall below 10% by 2050 – they will overtaken by more vigorous emerging economies like Mexico, Turkey and Vietnam respectively.

This futurescape is a Mathematical reality calculated on the basis of Malthusian science with elements of raw material conversion cost i.e how many units of electricity against man power does it take to convert bauxite into aluminium ingots – it’s a manpower against raw material calculus.

So the TPP cannot be seen in isolation – it has to viewed in the correct context of TIFA and TISS and even superimposed on not only this new Malthusian lens that I have just described along the changing new geo political realities of the future where it’s conceivable both Japan and Korea may have to weaponize their atomics if it is to meet its security needs and if the US is to play a role in blunting not only China but Asia’s rise in this new theatre – it needs to go beyond just relying on the seventh fleets carrier military doctrine to embrace a larger social economic paradigm that encapsulates trade – without strategic importance of trade to cement the military doctrine it is impossible for the US to hold on to either its primacy or sphere of influence in Asia.

Q: Why can’t the US maintain its primacy in Asia by just leveraging on its military might?

A: It can. Only it is like throwing out cannon balls to move a boat forward – that’s to say it’s a highly inefficient method to sustain its power base. The romans did it for many years with their well trained war machine. But by the third century A. D. Even they had to concede by pulling back from the Rhine-Danube frontier because the sheer cost of maintaining their empire required them to cannibalize their public services. So did the ancient Chinese, they too embarked on a massive building project of the Great Wall to blunt Mongolian aggression and for a while they succeeded but ultimately it bankrupted them.

My point is thru out history starting from the Romans right to the Ottomans and perhaps the Austro Hungarian alliance and to the Soviet Union – its proven to be quite robust…it’s impossible to hold on to power by just relying on the skill of arms of military might. As at some point it will become a liability.

It’s conceivable this tipping point has already been breached. As many Americans are now beginning to question why should America Bear the burden of being a global policeman? In an age of budgetary constraints – I really don’t see the US being able to build ten more Nimitz class carriers to what they already have in their blue water inventory…because if you talk about just using military might as a means of carving primacy. That is precisely the calculation that is required.

The TPP I feel is a much better instrument to accomplish US goals and aspirations in that direction at virtually no cost. It’s highly efficient because what you are relying on is just a supranational legal framework that masquerades as a free trade agreement when all it really is, is to get every nation that signs on to buy into a common rule book of how to trade and who they can trade with and under a set of agreed terms where the primary beneficiary just happen to the US corporatist.

Q: So your feel is most countries in APEC are ambivalent to the TPP?

A: Not all. Japan is very gung ho. Because Abe sees it as the only means to reform the archaic agricultural sector that desperately and urgently needs reforming but since it has acquired the appellation of sacred. No Japanese politician will broach it unless he wants to commit career hara kiri.

Singapore wants needs it very badly because it wants to write in stone it’s status as a free port that will certainly allow her to continue rent seeking from volume trade regionally instead of having to compete with other ports who may decide to steal her core industrial sectors in petroleum refinery, port and sea related services and also to support the rest of its service orientated economy.

In both cases I understand the urgency of the need. Especially in the case of Singapore because she is too invested in the global economy, so when the volume of trade begins to shrink, it is immideately registered in a shortfall in the number of container ships dropping anchor in Singapore.

But the rest of the countries don’t seem to have that sort of urgency to be TPP members simply because they might not necessarily be better off. The Philippines for example will certainly not be better off – as since they are an archipelago, their cost for food production will always be comparatively higher and less efficient than let’s say Vietnam that is a monolithic land mass complete with the Mekong running thru it’s length and breadth – so rice production will always be more efficient and productive in Vietnam when compared to the Philippines.

My point is there will be winners and of course losers – but the big winners will be the US corporatist. As for the rest they have to make do with higher priced medication and having to live under the aegis of pheltora of intellectual property supranational laws that in my opinion do absolutely nothing whatsoever to alleviate chronic proverty or for that matter contribute towards higher levels of personal or organizational emancipation.

Q: So I take it you are not an ardent fan of the TPP?

A: Go read my previous entries I have never been a fan of the TPP. From day one I have called it for what it actually is in my humble opinion. A cheap man’s apparatus to blunt China’s sphere of influence in APEC by trying to put her in some straight jacket where she will be marooned and isolated. And I think it’s stupid, because China cannot be contained.

But just because a plan or strategy happens to be stupid doesn’t mean that very sane and reasonable people will still not pick it up and see fit to implement it.

The way I see it – this is really the only way for the US to nourish its primacy in APEC. There is no other way.

Q: Trump has publicly stated in his election campaign he will torpedo the TPP. Do you think in light of what you shared with us the TPP will be come back to life from the dead?

A: I don’t think it will necessarily come back from the dead as the TPP. As what you mentioned is very true. Mr Trump has invested too much of his prestige and reputation in seeing the TPP out of the door – you’re very perceptive, it’s very difficult if not impossible to effect a U turn.

But I believe the TPP will be reincarnated again in another shape and form simply because so much has already been invested in getting member state buy in. And some of these concessions are really quite painful for these countries to bear. For example I was frankly quite shocked by how much Japan was willing to give up just to be part of the TPP. So a lot of table talk time has already been invested. But the one thing that will guarantee the return of the TPP is the US stands to get the most out of this agreement contrary to what many of its detractors continue to insist. These people have simply not read the specifics of the TPP. I have.

The primary beneficiary will be US firms. As what is often elided in the marketing manifesto of the TPP is while it is true that it will cover 40% of global trade. What it doesn’t specifically mention is the US accounts for 22% of that advertised percentile. So the US stands to benefit the most.

The irony is most Americans don’t even know how to do simple arimethic, so they think their jobs will melt away and go to China. But how can that be when the TPP specifically excludes China!

Hence it’s only a matter of time when the TPP will be passed. In my opinion it is not a question of IF but when and how.

This is the only way for Trump to outflank China. There is no other way. The biscuit tin is empty. And what I just mentioned are the realities. Other people can live in a cloud of illusion if they so desire. But as for me I am ultra clear where and how the chips will fall when it comes to Mr Trump and the TPP.

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