Ceritalah ASEAN – A Malaysian tragedy The death of cadet Zulfarhan Osman


AT 11:30PM on June 1, 2017, Zulkarnain Idros, a 53-year-old taxi driver, received a telephone call.

It was an officer from the National Defence University of Malaysia (UPNM) – the military college where his eldest son, Zulfarhan Osman, 21, was attending, hoping to obtain a Navy commission.

“Your son has died,” he told Zulkarnain.

There was a long pause.

“What happened?”

“He was burnt to death.”

Zulfarhan (middle) dreamed of captaining a navy ship one day. Handout photo

When Hawa Osman, Zulkarnain’s 54-year-old wife, heard the news, she broke into tears. “Allah… my son…”

Initially, the officer read Zulfarhan’s military identity number over the phone. Unable and unwilling to believe the terrible news, the father asked for his civilian identity number instead.

“My mind was racing,” the round-faced Zulkarnain explained. “I kept thinking that it was all a mistake. Maybe it was someone else’s child? I needed to see him for myself.”

At midnight, Zulkarnain, Hawa and their three younger children set off from their home in the southern Malaysian state of Johor for the 300km trip to the Serdang Hospital in Kajang, Selangor.

Hawa, a woman with an intense and somewhat sorrowful expression recalls how she had suspected something was amiss long before the call.

Hawa described Zulfarhan as a 'Mama’s boy' who was not shy about showing affection towards her. Handout photo

“My son usually called every night, but I hadn’t heard from him for more than a week because he’d lost his phone. Even so, after a few days, I felt something was wrong,”

Finally, and just after 3:00am, the family arrived at the Serdang Hospital. The UPNM officer was there to greet them.

However, they weren’t allowed to see the body until later that morning at 9:00am, leaving them to wait for six agonizing hours.

According to news reports, Zulfarhan was allegedly tortured by a group of his peers from May 21 to 22, 2017 for stealing a laptop.

Hawa has a portrait of her late son as the screensaver on her mobile phone. Karim Raslan Photo

He was burned with a steam iron that was pressed and dragged along his limbs and torso. A belt, rubber hose and a hanger were also used.

The offence was allegedly committed at the UPNM Jebat hostel between 2:30am and 5:30am on May 21 and 1:30am to 5:45am the following day.

The same news reports added that a week later on May 27, two of his batch mates drove Zulfarhan to a clinic in Bangi for treatment. They subsequently brought him to the clinic again on May 31.

On June 1, some 11 days after the initial attack, Zulfarhan was finally taken to the hospital. He died almost immediately on arrival despite two attempts to revive his shattered body.

Zulfarhan was athletic. He participated in marathons, duathlons and triathlons while in university. Handout photo

For the parents, the initial viewing was tense and unbelievably painful. As Hawa explains: “When they first brought us in to identify him, we were only shown his face.”

She says this with her hand to her chest, indicating the part of Zulfarhan’s body that was exposed. “We asked to see our son’s entire body,” at which point her voice falls silent as the pain of her grief momentarily overwhelms her.

According to an autopsy report, 80% of Zulfarhan’s body was covered in burns. Zulkarnain picks up the thread of the narrative: “I have no words to describe how it felt to see our son in that state. I had no more tears left. It’s particularly heart breaking for his mother. She gave birth to a perfect, healthy baby boy.”

The father continues haltingly: “I couldn’t stop asking myself: why do we have to bury him like this? What happened?”

Zulkarnain received a call from a UPNM officer informing him of Zulfarhan’s death on June 1, 2017. Karim Raslan Photo

Zulfarhan’s body was released to the family at 3:00pm on June 2, 2017. He was buried in Johor that evening.

I met the family at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex on October 27. Both parents were wearing T-shirts with “#justice4farhan” printed across the chest. It was the court mention for the nineteen young men charged in connection with Zulfarhan’s death.

Five were charged with murder and one with abetment. Both charges carry the mandatory death penalty and these boys – they looked so young – had been remanded in custody. They were chained alongside the drug offenders and petty thieves that appear all too regularly in big city courts.

Thirteen others were charged with voluntarily causing hurt and if found guilty, they face up to seven years in prison. They weren’t in remand.

Instead, they were more formally dressed in long-sleeved shirts (some were even in suits) – waiting at the side and the back of the public gallery. As the Registrar called out their names they walked – some seemed to march, I remember thinking they were military cadets after all – to the front where they crowded out the dock, creating a degree of confusion.

I couldn’t help but feel deeply disturbed by the scene in court. It was so bizarre.

All these fresh-faced and smart-looking boys. In any other context, I would be thinking “Here are a bunch of bright young things: my country’s future.” But instead, they were gathered in the centre of the courtroom and their futures very much in question all because of what happened to Zulfarhan some six months earlier.

One boy – one of their number – had died and hideously so.

Only they – this group of nineteen – knew why. Only they knew how.

Throughout the proceedings, Zulkarnain, Hawa and their 15-year-old daughter sat in the front row of the public gallery. Silent and dignified, they looked on as the alleged perpetrators of their son’s murder thronged in front of them.

Meanwhile, all around them were the parents of the nineteen, some looking shame-faced, others trying their best to cheer up their boys.

Zulfarhan was the eldest of four children. Handout photo

Having noticed the invisible divide between the two groups I asked if there had been any interaction.

The father explained: “Two of the suspects’ parents have approached me to apologise.”

“I said to them: if I forgive you, will my son come back?”

But at least with a trial date pending, the family will soon learn about their son’s last days and the reasons – if any – behind the extraordinary brutality of his death.

Zulkarnain is candid when he describes how they feel. “We have no idea what happened in that whole week from when he was tortured to when he was found. It’s like no one even noticed he was missing. That’s why we have to come to the trial.”

Despite mandatory, nightly roll calls, Zulfarhan’s absence remained a secret.

Zulfarhan was very close to his youngest sister who was six years his junior. Handout photo

Hawa adds: “There has been a lot of gossip since the incident. We’ve heard many rumours about what happened. But we need to find out the truth. Although this case will take a very long time, I will continue following it for my son. We can’t just let it go.”

You can understand why as you listen to Zulkarnain (who, despite his suffering, never loses his warm, special smile) and Hawa talk about their eldest child.

He was a loving and responsible third-year electrical engineering student. He dreamt of captaining ships one day.

Those hopes are now gone. But for the nineteen accused, the future has become almost as cloudy. An endless trial. Legal fees. Glittering careers destroyed.

Amidst it all, Hawa, the grieving mother is implacable. “I have to know. I can accept that my son has died, but I can’t accept the way he died.”

NOTE: Follow Karim Raslan on Twitter @fromKMR / Instagram @fromkmr



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Ceritalah ASEAN – Bosan itu baik ASEAN pada usia 50


ASEAN: bertemu Donald Trump.
Donald Trump: bertemu ASEAN.

Siapakah yang akan menang dalam pertembungan antara Pengganggu Besar dan kumpulan serantau paling membosankan dan patuh protokol?

Saya tidak bertaruh pada Trump.

Menghadiri suatu mesyuarat ASEAN adalah seperti berjalan dengan melangkah ke belakang melalui gula Melaka yang mendidih.

Beberapa ketika kemudian, anda putus harap dan mengikut saja arus….malah Rodrigo “Dirty Harry” Duterte perlu bertingkah laku yang baik ketika berada dalam mesyuarat-mesyuarat yang tidak berkesudahan dan membuat penyertanya tidur.

Hanya lebih setahun lalu, saya terfikir idea untuk melancarkan semula kolum saya — yang anda sedang baca sekarang — sebagai “Ceritalah ASEAN”.

Konsepnya — bertemu dan mewawancara orang biasa di seluruh rantau berpenduduk 650 juta orang ini — kelihatan suatu yang mengujakan.

Presiden Filipina Rodrigo Duterte kelihatan bosan ketika sesi plenari Sidang Kemuncak ASEAN di Vientiane, Laos, Sept 6, 2016. REUTERS

Bagaimanapun, ketika mana saya melakukannya di peringkat bawah, mendengar para petani, pekerja pendatang, pemandu pelancong, buruh harian dan guru sekolah, dari Bassein, ke Na Dinh, Manado dan Bacolod, saya mula sedar bahawa saya telah melakukan sedikit kesilapan.

Asia Tenggara adalah rancak, seksi dan hidup.

ASEAN — sebagai pertubuhan supranasional — adalah kaku, sombong dan paling baik pun adalah berada dalam koma.

Hakikatnya, ASEAN adalah berlawanan dngan apa saja yang membuatkan Asia Tenggara menarik.
Jalan-jalannya bising. Ia tidak dijangkakan.

Bila dibandingkan, ASEAN adalah elitis. Ia paling selesa berada di hotel mewah, tempat peranginan dan pusat konvensyen. Mesyuaratnya adalah pesta kata-kata yang diatur dengan baik.

Jadi ketika mana saya masih amat kagum, malah mencintai rantau kita ini, orangnya dan kisahnya, saya dapati adalah sukar untuk meraup semangat dalam dewan-dewan yang dipenuhi dengan birokrat.

Saya masih fikir ekonomi Asia Tenggara yang besar dan berkembang (yang pada tahun 2013 memiliki gabungan GDP sebanyak AS2.4 trilion) — akan menjadi ekonomi keempat terbesar dunia menjelang tahun 2050 menurut McKinsey — mempunyai potensi yang tidak ada hadnya.

Tetapi saya perlu jujur: ASEAN tidak mempunyai seni.

Kosong. Sifar.

Tidak terdapat hubungan emosi bersama — kecuali jika anda menganggap acara makan durian sebagai suatu bentuk kebersamaan.

Malah kebanyakan daripada apa yang disebut sebagai “ketidakbersetujuan” — kebanyakannya adalah mengenai Laut China Selatan — kini sudah boleh dijangkakan apabila pengaruh geopolitik dan ekonomi China ke atas rantau kita meningkat.

Malah, saya boleh mencadangkan sebarang buku (dan banyak lagi kolum) mengenai ASEAN yang boleh menjadi penawar bagi insomnia.

Lebih serius lagi: ASEAN tidak benar-benar membantu bagi menyediakan infrastruktur dan juga pekerjaan kepada banyak daripada 650 juta penduduknya yang amat memerlukannya. Tugas itu masih terletak di bahu setiap negara anggota.

Dan ia amat kurang melakukan usaha untuk melindungi orang yang paling terancam di kalangan 650 juta itu (antaranya saya temui ketika membuat kolum ini) dari penyelewengan, eksploitasi dan kesusahan — terutamanya pekerja pendatang rantau ini.

Sekali lagi, kosong.

Para hadirin mendengar ucapan pada mesyuarat menteri-menteri ekonomi ASEAN ke-47 di Malaysia, Ogos 2015. REUTERS

Inilah mengapa saya tidak boleh menimbulkan sebarang keterujaan terhadap perhimpunan yang akan berlangsung di Manila — walaupun ia merupakan ulang tahun ke-50 dan Trump kelihatannya akan hadir pada seluruh acara itu.

Mengantuk.

Memandangkan bahawa sidang-sidang ASEAN ini menidurkan — seseorang boleh merasakan bahawa beliau akan menyesal untuk menunjuk muka pun.

Terus terang — sebenarnya itu tidak menjadi hal, dalam pandangan yang luas, sama ada beliau berada di situ atau tidak.

Pengulas dasar luar akan berhujah bahawa kehadirannya itu adalah untuk meyakinkan rantau ini bahawa Amerika tidak “berundur dari Asia Pasifik/Dunia” — tetapi itukah apa yang berlaku?

Ukuran bagi kuasa dan pengaruh Amerika (dan dalam hal ini, juga China) ke atas rantau ini — tidak begitu bergantung sama ada pemimpinnya mendengar deretan ucapan yang membosankan dan mengambil “foto keluarga” dengan pakaian tradisi negara tuan rumah.

Orang akan kata  “tetapi ini adalah untuk persepsi.”

Percayalah pada saya: ini adalah satu kes di mana persepsi sebenar, sebenarnya tidak menjadi hal — sekurang-kurangnya pada jangka waktu panjang.

Mungkin sudah sampai masanya kita berhenti percaya bahawa keamanan, kemakmuran dan reputasi rantau kita ini adalah perkara genting pada setiap sidang kemuncak.

Tetapi mungkin saya terlalu keras terhadap ASEAN.

Lagipun, ia telah mencapai tujuannya untuk memelihara perdamaian dan keberkecualian Asia Tenggara dalam dekad-dekad sejak penubuhannya melalui Deklarasi Bangkok 1967.

Dan mungkin membosankan ADALAH baik — sekurang-kurangnya dalam hal agenda diplomatik ASEAN?

Ketika kumpulan itu mula ditubuhkan di kemuncak Perang Dingin, Asia Tenggara adalah kawah berisi ketidakpercayaan, kecurigaan dan kekerasan langsung di setiap sudutnya — dari Vietnam ke Kemboja, Malaysia dan Indonesia.

ASEAN menyediakan platform berkecuali yang membawa bersama negara-negara itu, untuk membina keyakinan dan kemesraan.

Ia merupakan proses panjang dan sukar, ternyata normalisasi Indonesia dan negara-negara Indochina adalah teras agendanya.

Obama menguap ketika sesi plenary Sidang Kemuncak ASEAN dan Asia Timur ke-21 di Phnom Penh, Nov 2012. - REUTERS

Proses ASEAN yang jelas menjenuhkan dan kaku — pernyataan dan ucapan yang berbentuk serupa — meletihkan pemimpin-pemimpin kita hingga menjadikan mereka selalunya tidak mempunyai tenaga atau minat untuk merancang atau berkomplot menentang satu sama lain.

Sebaliknya, mereka semua mahu melepaskan diri.

Dan mungkin, mungkin saja: itu sudah cukup bagi kita di rantau ini?

Kita boleh dan tentunya patut fokus pada membangun hubungan antara bisnes dengan bisnes, media dengan media dan rakyat dengan rakyat tanpa menghiraukan apa yang berlaku dalam ASEAN.

Integrasi serantau — terutamanya dalam Asia Tenggara mesti digerakkan dari bawah ke atas.

Jadi Donald, jangan cuba sekali-kali hendak jadi pandai.

ASEAN distrukturkan dan dibentuk untuk mengalahkan dan menelan penonjolan kehebatan dan peraihan markah.

Ambillah sebiji durian dan pergi ke kerusi sudut….



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Ceritalah ASEAN – Boring is good ASEAN at 50


ASEAN; meet Donald Trump.

Donald Trump; meet ASEAN.

Who will prevail in an encounter between the Great Disruptor and the world’s most boring and protocol-conscious regional grouping?

I’m not betting on Trump.

Attending an ASEAN meeting is like trying to walk backwards through molten palm sugar.

After a while, you just give up and go with the flow… even Rodrigo “Dirty Harry” Duterte has had to behave in the face of ASEAN’s endless, sleep-inducing meetings.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte looking bored at the plenary session of ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos, Sept 6, 2016. REUTERS

Just over a year ago, I came up with the idea of relaunching my column – the one you’re reading now – as “Ceritalah ASEAN” (or “Tell Me a Story, ASEAN”).

The concept – meeting and interviewing ordinary people from across this region of 650 million – seemed really exciting.

However, as I got to work hitting the ground, listening to farmers, migrant workers, tourist guides, day-labourers and school teachers from Bassein, to Nam Dinh, Manado and Bacolod, I began to realize that I’d made a little mistake.

Southeast Asia is vibrant, sexy and alive.

ASEAN – as a supranational organisation – is turgid, pompous and comatose at best.

Essentially, ASEAN is the antithesis to everything that makes Southeast Asia interesting.

Its streets are raucous. Its unpredictable.

By comparison, ASEAN is elitist. It’s most comfortable in luxury hotels, resorts and convention centres. Its meetings are well-choregraphed talk-fests.

So while I’m still deeply fascinated, indeed in love with our region, its people and their stories, I find it extremely difficult to muster much enthusiasm for rooms full of bureaucrats.

I still think Southeast Asia’s huge, growing economy (which in 2013 had a combined GDP of USD2.4 trillion) – destined to be the fourth-largest in the world by 2050 according to McKinsey – has boundless potential.

But I gotta be honest: ASEAN has no poetry.

Zero. Zilch.

 The audience attending the 47th ASEAN economic ministers’ meeting in Malaysia, August 2015. REUTERS

There’s no shared emotional connection – unless you can count durian-eating as a form of bonding.

Even our so-called “disagreements” – mostly over the South China Sea – have become predictable as China’s geopolitical and economic influence in our region grows.

Indeed, I would recommend any book (and a great many columns) on ASEAN as a sure-fire cure for insomnia.

More seriously: ASEAN has not really helped to provide the infrastructure as well as jobs that many of its 650 million people desperately need. That task is still very much on the shoulders of individual nation states.

And it has done even less to protect the most vulnerable of that 650 million (several of whom I encountered via this column) from abuse, exploitation and impunity – particularly the region’s migrant workers.

Again, zero.

This is why I can’t conjure up any excitement for the upcoming gathering in Manila – even though it’s the 50th anniversary and Trump is apparently staying for the whole event.

Yawn.

Given what snore-fests these ASEAN meetings are – one has a feeling he will regret even showing up at all.

Obama yawns during plenary session of 21st ASEAN and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh, Nov 2012. - REUTERS

Quite frankly – it really doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things, whether he’s there or not.

Foreign policy pundits will argue that his attendance is to reassure the region that America isn’t “retreating from the Asia-Pacific/the World” – but is this really the case?

The barometer of American (and for that matter, Chinese) power and influence in the region – is hardly dependent on whether its leaders attend a boring round of speeches as well as an awkward “family photo” in the host nation’s traditional garb.

People cry “but it’s the optics.”

Trust me: this is one case where optics really, really does not matter – at least in the long run.

Perhaps it’s time we stop believing that our region’s peace, prosperity and reputation is at stake at every Summit.

But maybe I am being too hard on ASEAN.

It did, after all, achieve its purpose of keeping Southeast Asia relatively peaceful and neutral in the decades since its formation via the 1967 Bangkok Declaration.

And maybe boring IS good – at least with regards to ASEAN’s diplomatic agenda?

When the grouping was first conceived in the height of the Cold War, Southeast Asia was a cauldron with distrust, suspicion and outright violence at every corner – from Vietnam to Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

ASEAN provided a neutral platform to bring states together, to build trust and familiarity.

It’s been a long, arduous process with, arguably, the normalization of Indonesia and the Indochinese states at the core of its agenda.

The sheer, grinding tedium and rigidity of the ASEAN process – the communiques and set-piece speeches—exhausts all our leaders to such an extent that they often don’t have the energy or interest to scheme and plot against one another.

Instead, all they want to do is escape.

And maybe, just maybe: that should be enough for us in the region?

We can and certainly should focus on building business-to-business, media-to-media and people-to-people ties regardless of what happens in ASEAN.

Regional integration – especially in Southeast Asia – must be driven from the ground-up.

So Donald, don’t even try to be too clever.

ASEAN is structured and crafted to defeat and subsume grand-standing and point-scoring.

Grab a durian and head for the corner seat.



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Ceritalah ASEAN – Nguyen Ba Thanh Bawa perubahan kepada Danang


PADA 11 November ini, pemimpin-pemimpin dari 21 negara – termasuk Presiden Amerika Syarikat Donald Trump (yang gemar menampilkan diri sebagai seorang jurubina), Perdana Menteri Jepun Shinzo Abe dan Presiden China Xi Jinping – akan turun ke bandar raya Danang, Vietnam Tengah, untuk menghadiri Persidangan Pemimpin Ekonomi Kerjasama Ekonomi Asia-Pasifik (APEC).

Dua puluh satu orang pemimpin itu akan mendarat di Lapangan Terbang Antarabangsa Danang, menyeberangi Jambatan Sungai Han yang ikonik (mercu tanda bandar raya pantai itu), melewati Pusat Pentadbiran Danang yang setinggi 37 tingkat (bangunan tertinggi di wilayah itu) dan akan sampai di Intercontinental Resort, di mana sidang kemuncak itu diadakan.

Kemajuan Danang yang mengagumkan adalah hasil kerja seorang lelaki yang luar biasa: mendiang Nguyen Ba Tanh – yang berkhidmat sebagai pemimpin Danang dari 1997 hingga 2013 (beliau juga merupakan ketua parti Komunis kota itu). 

Dan angka-angka menjadi petunjuk kejayaan Nguyen. Dari tahun 1997 ke 2008, ekonomi bandar raya itu meningkat 11.26 peratus, lebih tinggi daripada purata nasional iaitu 7.06 peratus. Pada tahun 1997, pendapatan per kapitanya ialah VND4.69 juta tetapi pada 2008, ia mencapai lebih empat kali ganda iaitu VND23.62 juta.

Dalam tempoh yang sama, isi rumah di bawah garisan kemiskinan telah jatuh dari 8.79 peratus kepada kurang daripada satu peratus hinggakan Danang kini dipromosikan sebagai bandar raya contoh dan merupakan suatu kejayaan besar bagi kepintaran dan kecergasan Vietnam.

Nguyen Ba Thanh, pemimpin kota Danang dari tahun 1997-2013. Foto TuoiTre News

Menawan, bersungguh-sungguh dan berorientasikan hasil, Nguyen memimpin perubahan besar ekonomi itu.

Hoang (semua nama telah diubah), seorang pedagang berusia 68 tahun, tinggal di daerah Khue My di Danang, pernah berjumpa dengan pemimpin itu. Dalam tahun 2001, ladangnya telah dirancang untuk pembangunan semula dan keluarganya dipindahkan. Nguyen sendiri datang ke rumahnya untuk memujuk penduduk di situ supaya berpindah.

“Beliau menjelaskan mengapa kami perlu pindah, mengapa tanah kami, yang terletak bersebelahan sungai adalah penting bagi pembangunan bandar raya ini. Beliau mesra, baik hati dan pastikan dapat bercakap dengan kesemua 100 penduduk itu, walaupun hanya untuk seketika.”

“Beliau petah bercakap, mengambil berat dan melucukan! Selepas bercakap dengannya, saya gembira untuk berpindah.”

“Pada masa itu, jalan-jalan bertambah besar, jalan raya menjadi lebih bersih dan Danang menjadi bandar raya yang saya banggakan.”

Jalanraya di kota Danang luas dan lebar. Kota ini disokong pembangunan infrastruktur besar-besaran di bawah kepemimpinan Nguyen Ba Thanh. Foto Karim Raslan

Hoang adalah sebahagian daripada satu kumpulan besar petani yang dipindahkan bagi memberi laluan kepada pembangunan tebing sungai.

Ketika mana banyak daripada mereka kehilangan tanah, mereka juga mendapat ganti rugi dan pihak kerajaan membantu mereka mencari kediaman mampu milik.

Seorang lagi bekas petani ialah Ngoc, kini merupakan penjual banh mi (sandwic baguette Vietnam yang terkenal). Menurut beliau, Nquyen telah melawat kawasan perumahannya dan berbincang dengan komuniti itu. “Beliau dekat dengan rakyat… beliau bercakap seperti salah seorang daripada kami, seperti orang sini.”

Nguyen ialah orang Danang, lahir di daerah Hoa Vang dalam bandar raya itu. Melalui semua cerita-cerita itu, beliau adalah seorang tokoh berkarisma yang selesa berada di balai kampung, seperti mana di dewan persidangan hotel.

Beliau yang dikenali sebagai “Raja Danang,” popular di kalangan orang kaya, mahupun yang miskin.

Nguyen adalah pemimpin yang popular, selalu dikerumuni dan diekori orang ramai ke mana sahaja beliau pergi. Foto PetroVietnam

Pham, ahli perniagaan berusia 49 tahun, adalah salah seorang daripada mereka. Keluarganya berasal dari kawasan orang miskin di bahagian dalaman kota Danang, dan merupakan mereka yang memperoleh manfaat daripada rancangan perumahan mampu milik Nguyen.

“Semasa Tet (Tahun Baharu Vietnam), beliau akan mengagih beras dan keperluan-keperluan lain kepada orang miskin. Beliau membina rumah-rumah mampu milik. Beliau juga mewujudkan tempat perlindungan golongan tidak berumah di Danang. Lihatlah sekeliling. Bandingkanlah dengan Ho Chi Minh City. Adakah kamu nampak pengemis?”

“Nguyen Ba Thanh adalah istimewa, saya tidak fikir ada pemimpin yang amat disayangi sepertinya selain Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh).”

Pembangunan pesat Danang berjaya dilakukan dengan adanya kuasa. Nguyen (atau “Raja”) dikenali mempunyai kuasa penuh ke atas Jawatankuasa Rakyat Danang, memerintah dengan tegas dan bersifat kebapaan.

Perahu menangkap ikan di sungai Danang. Foto Karim Raslan

Seperti mana Dinh yang bekerja di Danang sejak 20 tahun lalu menyatakan: “Beliau amat tegas terhadap penjawat awamnya – amat terlibat dalam hal ehwal seharian, malah beliau memilih lagu tema bagi Danang.

“Dulu apabila anda memerlukan lesen bagi membina bangunan, anda perlu pergi ke tiga atau empat jabatan berbeza untuk mendapatkan permit. Nguyen Ba Thanh menyelaraskan proses itu dan sekarang anda perlu hanya pergi ke satu jabatan, malah mereka beri tarikh akhir bagi penyerahannya. Dan mereka menyerahkannya tepat pada masanya!”

“Sebagai contoh, Pusat Pentadbiran Danang. Dulu-dulu, jabatan berbeza terletak di pelbagai tempat di bandar, menyebabkan koordinasi dalaman menjadi sukar, dan memohon lesen sesuatu yang menyusahkan. Kini, semuanya berada dalam menara yang sama.”

Pada 2000, Nguyen disiasat atas kesalahan rasuah dalam pembinaan Jambatan Sungai Han. Pada waktu sama, beliau dituduh melanggar prosedur undang-undang ketika melaksanakan operasi penempatan semula.

Jambatan Naga adalah ikon kota Danang. Pada petang hari di hujung minggu, kepala naga itu akan mengeluarkan api. Foto Karim Raslan

Bagaimanapun bagi Dinh: “Kedua-dua kes itu tidak bermakna apa-apa. Orang Danang tahu beliau tegas…. Tetapi usaha beliau mendatangkan hasil. Bagi kebanyakan kami, itu saja yang penting.”

“Di seluruh Vietnam, rakyat mengenali beliau. Orang akan berkata pada saya: Saya harap di tempat kami ada seseorang seperti Nguyen Ba Thanh.”

Dalam banyak hal, Nguyen – seorang pemimpin transformasi dari akar umbi – ada persamaan dengan Presiden Indonesia Joko Widodo dan Presiden Filipina Rodrigo Duterte. Ketiga-tiga mereka membangunkan bandar raya mereka dan akhirnya bergerak ke pusat.

Bagaimanapun, dalam hal Nguyen, kisahnya tidak berakhir dengan beliau memperoleh kuasa di peringkat nasional.

Jambatan Tran Thi Ly direkabentuk seperti kapal layar. Danang dikenali kerana jambatannya yang cantik. Foto Karim Raslan

Sebaliknya, setelah meninggalkan Danang pada 2013 dan menjadi ketua anti-korupsi Parti Komunis, bintangnya pudar, begitu juga kesihatannya, dan akhirnya beliau tewas kepada kanser pada awal 2015.

Jutaan orang berkabung atas kematiannya yang disifatkan mengejut dan tragis pada usia 62 tahun itu. Mereka mengharapkan beliau dapat melakukan transformasi dalam aspek lain di negara itu, seperti mana yang diusahakannya untuk Danang. Tetapi kita – dan Vietnam – tidak akan tahu sama ada beliau ada rancangan untuk melaksanakannya.

“Apabila beliau meninggal dunia, saya menangis,” keluh Hoang. “Kali akhir saya menangis kerana seorang pemimpin ialah apabila Jeneral Vo Nguyen Giap (wira perang Vietnam) meninggal dunia.”

Minggu ini, ketika ratusan kereta Audi hitam berkilat dipandu membawa pemimpin-pemimpin dunia menghadiri APEC, mereka akan bergerak di atas jalan-jalan dan jambatan yang dibina oleh Nguyen, dalam kota yang pernah menjadi takhtanya. Bayang-bayang ‘Raja Danang’ masih teguh. 

Ikuti Karim Raslan di Twitter @fromKMR / Instagram @fromkmr



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Ceritalah ASEAN – Nguyen Ba Thanh The man who transformed Danang


ON November 11, leaders from 21 nations – including US President Donald Trump (who fancies himself as a builder), Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping – will descend upon the city of Danang, Central Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders Meeting.

The 21 leaders will land at Danang International Airport, cross the iconic Han River Bridge (the symbol of the coastal city), pass by the 37-storey Danang Administration Centre (the tallest building in the province) and reach the Intercontinental Resort where the summit will be held.

Danang’s astounding progress is the work of one remarkable man: the late Nguyen Ba Thanh – who served as Danang’s leader from 1997 to 2013 (he was also the city’s Communist party head).

And the numbers underline Nguyen’s successes. From 1997 to 2008, the city’s economy grew at an average of 11.26%, well above the national average of 7.06%. In 1997, its per capita income was VND4.69 million but by 2008 had more than quadrupled to VND23.62 million.

In the same period, households below the poverty line also dropped from 8.79% to less than 1%, so much so that Danang is now being promoted as a model city and a great triumph of Vietnamese ingenuity and dynamism.

Nguyen Ba Thanh, leader of Danang from 1997-2013. Pix courtesy of TuoiTre News.

Charming, determined and results-orientated, Nguyen, presided over much of this economic metamorphosis.

Hoang (all names have been changed), a 68-year-old trader living in the Khue My district of Danang had a personal brush with the leader. In 2001, his farm was marked for redevelopment and his family resettled. Nguyen personally came to his house to persuade the residents to move.

“He explained why we had to move, why our land, which was next to the river, was important for the development of the city. He was friendly, kind, and he made sure to speak to all of the 100 residents, even if it was for a short while.

“He was eloquent, caring, and funny! After speaking to him, I was happy to move.

“During his time, the roads became bigger, the streets became cleaner and Danang became a city I am proud of.”

The roads of Danang are wide and spacious. The city benefited from a massive infrastructure push under Nguyen Ba Thanh. Karim Raslan Photo

Hoang was part of a large group of farmers who were displaced to make way for riverside developments. While many of them lost their land, they were compensated and the state helped them find affordable housing.

Ngoc, now a banh mi (Vietnam’s distinctive baguette sandwich) hawker, is another one of these former farmers. According to her, Nguyen also visited her housing area to engage the community: “He was close to the people… He spoke like one of us, like a local.”

Nguyen was a Danang man, born in the city’s Hoa Vang district. By all accounts, he was a charismatic figure who was as comfortable in a village hall as he was in a hotel conference room.

“The King of Danang” as some called him, was popular with rich and poor alike.

Nguyen was a popular leader, regularly thronged by crowds wherever he went. Pix courtesy of PetroVietnam.

Pham, a 49-year-old businessman, is one of them. His parents came from Danang’s poverty-stricken inner city and were beneficiaries of Nguyen’s affordable housing plans.

“During Tet (the Vietnamese New Year), he would give out rice and provisions to the poor. He built affordable homes. He also established a homeless shelter in Danang. Look around! Compare this to Ho Chi Minh City. Do you see any beggars?”

“Nguyen Ba Thanh was special. I don’t think there has been a leader as well-loved as him since Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh).”

Danang’s rapid development was made possible by power. Nguyen (aka “The King”) was known to have an iron grip on Danang’s People’s Committee, ruling with a paternalistic, firm hand.

Fishing boats dot the Danang riverway. Karim Raslan Photo

As Dinh, who has worked in Danang for the past 20 years noted: “He was strict with his civil servants – very involved with day-to-day affairs, he even chose the theme song for Danang.”

“It used to be that when you needed a building license for a house, you had to go to three or four different departments for permits. Nguyen Ba Thanh streamlined the process and now you not only just need to go to one department, they even give you a deadline for delivery. And they actually deliver on time!”

“Take for example the Danang Administration Centre. In the past, the different departments were located all over the city. It made internal coordination very difficult and applying for licenses a hassle. Now, all of them are in that tower.”

In 2000, Nguyen was investigated for graft over the construction of the Han River Bridge. Around the same time, he was also accused of violating legal procedures while conducting a relocation operation.

The Dragon Bridge, an icon of the city. On the weekend evenings, the dragon’s head breathes fire. Karim Raslan Photo

To Dinh however: “Both of those cases came to nothing. The people of Danang know that he was tough…But he delivered results. For most of us, that’s all that matters.”

“All over Vietnam, people knew him. People would say to me: ‘I wish my city had someone like Nguyen Ba Thanh’.”

In many ways Nguyen – a ground-up, transformational leader – has more in common with the Presidents of Indonesia and the Philippines, Joko Widodo and Rodrigo Duterte respectively. All three revived their home cities and eventually moved to the centre.

However, in the case of Nguyen the story wasn’t to end with him securing power at the national level.

The Tran Thi Ly Bridge, designed to appear like a sail. Danang is known for its beautiful bridges. Karim Raslan Photo

Instead after leaving Danang in 2013 and becoming the Communist Party’s anti-corruption tsar, his star faded as did his health, succumbing to cancer in early 2015.

His untimely and tragic death at the age of 62 was mourned by millions, who had hoped that he would have been able to transform the rest of the country as he did Danang. But we – and Vietnam – shall never know if he had it in him.

“When he died, I cried,” lamented Hoang. “The last time I cried over a leader was when General Vo Nguyen Giap (a Vietnam War hero) passed.”

This week, as hundreds of sleek black Audis chauffeur world leaders to APEC, they will be traveling on the roads and bridges built by Nguyen, in the city that was his throne. The shadow of the “King of Danang” still looms large.

NOTE: Follow Karim Raslan on Twitter @fromKMR / Instagram @fromkmr



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