Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 16 August 2004

Olympics, war and succession, in the week that was

An interesting week has just gone by, with the dazzling start of the Olympics Games, the standoff in Najaf between the United States-led forces and their biggest challenger, and the neat and orderly political succession in Singapore.


What an interesting week it has been, laying the ground for another significant week ahead.

Catching public excitement at the end of last week was the spectacular opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Athens, its original birth place. 

The next three weeks will have much of the world’s public glued to the TV, watching the clash of titans in athletics and a dizzying number of other sports, including of course badminton in which Malaysia has great hopes of a few medals, even gold.

If only conflicts around the world can be settled in the way of Olympic sports, with an absence of physical violence and goodwill at the end, whoever the winners or losers are, because of the perception that the game is played according to the agreed rules, and the refereeing is fair.

Of course next three weeks’ Olympic events will have its rough and tumble, perhaps including some doping scandals and heated disputes.

Nevertheless, the battles in Athens will be mainly friendly, and will generate not only excitement over the feats of the sports stars, but also a groundswell of public feeling about the common unity that binds humanity, despite the great diversity that characterizes nations and cultures.  

Even as the Olympics got under way, the violent battles in the world’s conflict zones continued last week.

In the spotlight was the brutal conflict in Najaf, the holy city of the majority Shiite Muslims in Iraq.  After many days of fighting, the United States forces captured the city’s centre, including the unoccupied house of the leader of the Mahdi Army, Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been leading a campaign of resistance against the US occupation.

Al-Sadr, who was injured in the bombing raids, addressed thousands of his followers on Friday inside Imam Ali mosque, considered the Shiite Muslims’ holiest shrine.  He demanded that the US troops leave Iraq, and vowed to fight to the end.

The US forces and the Iraqi government are in a quandary.  If they attack the mosque, it will provoke great outrage, and not only in Iraq.  If they allow Al-Sadr and his followers to continue in Najaf and elsewhere, could inspire and enlarge the Iraqi resistance movements, and the legitimacy of both the US and the Iraqi interim government will plummet further.  

“Once again, US armed forces appear on the verge of winning a decisive military victory in Iraq, this time in Najaf, and once again they appear closer to losing the larger wars for a stable and friendly Iraq and for an Islamic world that will cease producing anti-US terrorism,” wrote Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service last week.

Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, a Shiite leader based in California, told the Los Angeles Times that Shiite Muslims “worldwide are shocked and outraged over what is going on in Najaf.  Any attack on that city will destroy America’s future in Iraq completely.”   He had supported the US invasion of Iraq but has since become disillusioned with the occupation.

There are reports of thousands of Iraqis not only protesting in their cities against the Najaf events but also marching to Najaf to join the Mahdi army’s resistance.

Last week’s events have also affected the credibility of the Iraqi government led by interim President, Iyad Allawi, since its soldiers are involved together with the US forces in the battle for that city.  

A split has developed within the government.  The Vice President, Ibrahim Jaafari, denounced the presence of US troops in Najaf.  And on Friday, 16 of Najaf’s 30-member provincial council resigned in protest, stating:  “We have decided to resign due to what has befallen Najaf and all of Iraq from the hasty US invasion and bombardment of Najaf.”

Earlier, the Najaf Deputy Governor had resigned, denouncing “all the US terrorist operations that they are doing against this holy city.” 

How the events in Najaf and several other cities in Iraq (which are also in turmoil) will play out this coming week will be more important than what happens at the Olympics Games.

Another noteworthy event last week was the transfer of power in Singapore to the new Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and his appointment of a cabinet made up of a mixture of  “old guard” and “new guard” Ministers.

Lee Hsien Loong represents Singapore’s “third generation” of leaders, who have to appeal to a young generation much more attracted to and rooted in the modern free-wheeling lifestyle and values than the strict, no-nonsense, work-obsessed values represented by the his father Lee Kuan Yew.

The new PM promised a more inclusive and open Singapore, which is presumably aimed at satisfying Singapore’s younger people who want a greater say in the running of their society. His administration will be closely watched whether the political and social atmosphere will indeed become more relaxed and free.

The most interesting feature of the new cabinet is that it includes two former Prime Ministers, who will informally be known by the acronyms SM (Senior Minister, Goh Chok Tong) and MM (Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew).

Singapore must be the only country in the world where not one but two former PMs occupy operationally (and not just ceremonially) the most senior positions in the cabinet, next to the current PM.   And one of them, the mentor, is not only the father of modern Singapore but also the father of the PM.

If the first, second and third PMs (in fact all the PMs that Singapore has ever known) can get along with one another, then it will be a cabinet power-packed with experience, with the leaders of all the three generations represented. 

Perhaps it could only happen in Singapore, known as the place where everything is so neat and orderly, even (or especially) politcal successions.