Global Trends by Martin Khor

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Roller coaster ride ahead in Year of Rat

The Chinese New Year holidays are over, and the Year of the Rat is about to begin in earnest.   It will see us through many important and exciting events – the elections at home and in the United States, a global economic slowdown, and lots of changes whether superficial or basic.


Now that the Chinese New Year holidays are over, the Year of the Rat begins in earnest.   It will certainly be an interesting year, which will bring about many important events whose eventual outcomes are still uncertain.

For Malaysians, most important of all are the general elections.  The naming of the date is expected any day now.  And voting will most likely be in March.

The campaign will be short but extremely intense and interesting as the Opposition has many issues this time around, and is expected by many to do better, so the Barisan Nasional will have a good fight on their hands. 

The Barisan will win again, but the interesting question is how much headway would the opposition parties have made, when the votes are counted.

In China, the New Year season saw chaotic scenes of many millions clogging the railway stations trying to get a train ride home, as the transport system was hit by snow storms.

It reminded us not only of the universal rush home in festive seasons but of the crucial role that the climate plays in lives of ordinary people. 

In this case, the Chinese were suffering from an overdose of cold weather, but for the rest of this year, you can expect that the threat of global warming and how this crisis can be dealt with will continue to grab headlines.

In Asia, the past few weeks also brought a new surge of avian flu in several countries.  The deadly H5N1 strain of the flu has been found in poultry in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia.

In West Bengal, almost 3 million chickens have been culled as a response, and in  Bangladesh, the virus was found in 26 out of 64 districts, with 350,000 chickens killed.

The threat is not only to poultry and the farmers’ incomes but also to human health. In Indonesia, which is worst hit, avian flu has recently claimed is 100th human victim.

Though this figure may not seem significant, the World Health Organisation has warned that a global flu pandemic may soon develop, with possibly the loss of hundreds of millions of lives, if the virus mutates to become human-to-human transmissible.

This year the WHO will continue to discuss the problem facing developing countries which are the main donors of virus samples to WHO-accredited research centers, but who  have little access to expensive vaccines that are also in short supply.

The Year of the Rat will usher in a new United States President.  The election campaign will continue to transfix the public worldwide because the US President wields so much global power.

Since the preset President has had such a negative effect, there are countless people around the world hoping that the next one will be different, thus reducing the aggression on specific countries and being more cooperative in the United Nations, and on the world environment and economy.

Astonishingly, a black man, Barack Obama, has a fighting chance to capture the Democratic candidacy.  He not only survived the Super Tuesday primaries last week but proved he has a broad and growing support base.

The Obama rhetoric of the winds of change and a new America was awakened hopes in people in the USA and across the world who yearn for an American leader to give up the country’s bullying and unilateral ways.

Hillary Clinton is still slightly ahead in the race, but Obama is on the way up. Can he keep his momentum?  And can he beat John McCain who is almost certain to be the Republican candidate, or will the Democrats mess up their show again and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

The Democrats are predicted to win the Presidency and increase their control of Congress, in which case there should be a change in US foreign policy.  But most analysts are cynical about whether the US political establishment (with its belief in its right to rule over the world) can make anything but minor changes.

Nevertheless, President George W. Bush has made such a mess of his term, in relation to the rest of the world, that whoever replaces him would have the chance to make a difference. And that is the hope, however naïve it may be, that many around the world have in this year of the Rat.

On the economic front, big events are also in store.  The financial crisis that started in the US has spread into the “real economy” of production and jobs, and the big question is how and how greatly the US-based recession will affect other regions.

Many Asian countries including Malaysia are better prepared to weather the economic storm this time around, but will nevertheless be affected.  What policies should be taken to minimize the effects?

The World Trade Organisation’s Doha Round will either quickly reach a deal in the next month on the “modalities” of key issues, or else go into a slumber until after the change in US Presidency.

The year of the Rat will give an answer to these and many other questions in what will surely be an interesting series of events.  Be prepared for a roller coaster ride ahead.