What The Honourable Woman can teach us about Israel and Palestine



Subversive. Provocative. Uncompromising. The Honourable Woman is a miniseries that’s shaping up to be the most important event on television this season. A joint production between the BBC and SundanceTV, the show was conceived and developed well before the current Gaza crisis. But now, in a stroke of eerie prescience, it’s debuting on screens all around the world, inadvertently setting itself up as the perfect vehicle to explore the tragic state of affairs in the Middle East.


Nessa Stein (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a British Jew with a big chip on her shoulder. Her father, Eli, was a Zionist who became wealthy by supplying weapons to Israel. Much Palestinian blood was shed in the process, and eventually, Eli himself was assassinated by a PLO agent.


Twenty-nine years later, an orphaned Nessa has taken over the reins of the family business. Consumed with guilt over her father’s legacy, she seeks to atone by taking the company in a radically different direction. She now invests in education and infrastructure for the Palestinian territories. With such philanthropy, she hopes to break the cycle of violence and promote peace.


Nessa’s latest venture is a high-speed broadband network in Gaza. Much to the disgust of many Israelis, she decides to award the phase-three contract to a Palestinian businessman named Samir Meshal. This is her way of taking the moral high ground. Nessa’s good intentions, though, are soon derailed when Samir turns up dead, apparently the result of a suicide.


Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (played by Stephen Rea) is the MI6 spymaster brought in to investigate Samir’s demise. Cynical and on the verge of retirement, he isn’t convinced that this is a case of simple suicide. In fact, he has a damning theory – the Israeli Mossad are responsible for assassinating Samir. But why? To what end?


Caught in the middle of this puzzle is Atika Halibi (played by Lubna Azabal). A Palestinian refugee from Gaza, she now works for the Stein family. She presents a cool and calm image, but underneath it all, she’s hiding a heartbreaking secret; one that threatens to be exposed as the tension mounts.


Over eight episodes, The Honourable Woman lays a cunning trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who’s innocent? Who’s guilty? The geopolitics is nothing short of incendiary, and as a tangled web of deceit and betrayal unspools, it becomes obvious that this show isn’t afraid of confronting its subject matter head on. The storyline is bleak. Merciless. Never stopping to mollycoddle viewers.


Are you a right-wing conservative who thinks that the Israelis are good and the Palestinians are bad? Well, this may not be the show for you. In a notable scene, a Zionist protester confronts the Stein family at a fundraiser. He splatters them in animal blood and screams, ‘Israel belongs to the Jews! The Shomron belongs to the Jews!’ Yes, ultranationalism is portrayed for what it is here – extremism that borders on horror.


Perhaps you’re left-wing liberal who thinks that the Israelis are bad and the Palestinians are good? Again, this may not be the show for you. In another notable scene, a Palestinian operative shows a Muslim boy his pistol. He suggests that violence is not only acceptable but desirable. The boy, enthralled by his elder’s words, later plays with the weapon, only to shoot himself by mistake. Yes, militancy is portrayed for what it is here – extremism that borders on horror.


Over and over again, we are reminded that this is not Homeland. This is not 24. In fact, this is nothing at all like the glossy and sanitised thrillers that we’re used to seeing. The Honourable Woman, by comparison, is stark and gritty. It allows its suspense to unfold at a slow burn. Conversations are delivered in elusive doublespeak. Relationships are framed to be morally opaque. And the violence is shocking rather than glamorous.


Clearly, writer-director Hugo Blick has no interest in adopting a conservative or liberal tone here. He has no use for such artificial labels. In fact, the only posture he does adopt is one of moral outrage, and he uses his creative licence to slam all sides fairly and equally.


So far as the narrative goes, the Israelis are not interested in peace. Neither are the Palestinians. Nor the British. Certainly not the Americans. Everyone, it would seem, is complicit in murder, corruption and lies. Their only shared interest is to undercut each other. Perpetuate imaginary status quos.


In Episode One itself, Nessa Stein is asked: ‘When it comes to the history of the Middle East, it never ends well for idealists, does it?’


Indeed, that’s the bitter truth. For all the players in the political arena, entrenched as they are in the pseudo-religious myth of victimhood and revenge, there can be no happy ending. Only a never-ending cycle of blood and tears; poisoning the hearts and minds of generation after generation.


Ultimately, The Honourable Woman is a show that will challenge your ideology and leave you with a sour aftertaste in your mouth. It’s densely layered and emotionally draining, asking difficult questions but providing you with no easy answers. And for that reason alone, it may well be the most courageous drama of the year. Its unsentimental portrayal of Israel and Palestine is, in equal turns, ugly, messy and complicated. It’s not easy viewing, but then again, it’s not meant to be.

In defence of political satire



I have received an avalanche of hate mail these past few days.

The insults were colourful and varied, but a running theme was this: ‘How dare you suggest that America shot down the plane? Where’s your evidence? You’re obviously sick in the head.’

Whoa, let’s hit the brakes for a moment, folks. I understand your pro-American sentiments. I understand where you’re coming from. However, have you actually read my article in full? Have you read it with care?

Well, let me be clear — the article is meant to act as political satire. It was written on the suggestion of Malaysiakini, and I took aim squarely at the far-right Malaysians who were blaming America for the tragic shoot-down.

In the article itself, I explain why it’s *impossible* and *unthinkable* for America to have shot down MH17. I use irony. I use sarcasm. I use derision.

Unfortunately, it seems that most of you have only skimmed through the article. If so, you may have drawn premature conclusions and missed the inherent message of the article itself.

Don’t believe me?

Go back and read it again.

Believe me, you’d be surprised what you missed the first time around.

Newsletter — What the MH17 tragedy can teach us about awareness

My latest newsletter:


Have you ever encountered a lemming? Chances are, you wouldn’t have, unless you live in the Arctic region.


A lemming is a type of rodent that reproduces very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that entire colonies often embark on mass migrations in order to find new territory.


In popular folklore, this is commonly portrayed as thousands of lemmings leaping off a cliff, committing group suicide because they obey herd instinct.


In light of the latest tragedy that’s hit Malaysia Airlines this past week, many people have questioned why Flight MH17 was allowed to fly into hostile airspace to begin with.


Why didn’t the management choose to deviate to a safer route? Why were no warnings issued? Did corporate profiteering eclipse passenger safety?


Malaysia Airlines has defended its decision. The management pointed to the fact that the International Civil Aviation Organisation had cleared Ukrainian airspace for use by commercial traffic. No red flags had been issued.


In addition, other notable carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Aeroloft were also using that exact same flight path. Some even did so with a higher level of frequency than Malaysia Airlines.


So does this absolve the powers-that-be of responsibility? In my opinion, only partially.


In the months leading up to the tragic shoot-down, several carriers such as Qantas Airways and Korean Air had, in fact, made the decision to deviate from that flight path. They did so as early as March.


This was in response to several notices issued by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the Federal Aviation Administration. For the most part, these were yellow flags urging caution, as opposed to red flags urging avoidance.


Still, it appeared that the management of these carriers exercised their own judgement. They chose to treat the yellow flags as red flags.


What prompted their vigilant decision? Well, for one thing, the tempo of the fighting in Eastern Ukraine had grown increasingly fierce in recent months.


This has led to several military aircraft being shot down over the conflict zone. Most notably, on 16th July, mere days before the MH17 tragedy, a Ukrainian fighter jet had been brought down by enemy fire.


At the time, it was widely believed that the most immediate threat came from shoulder-fired missiles, which posed a danger to aircraft flying below 30,000 feet.


Not many people, it seemed, stopped to consider the possibility that vehicle-fired missiles with a range beyond 30,000 feet might also pose an additional danger.


In Malaysian corporate culture, there is a mythic attitude known as ‘Tidak apa’. Loosely translated, it means ‘It doesn’t matter.’


Right now, it’s impossible to determine how much of a factor that mindset may have played in the decision-making process. Until a full and independent inquiry is carried out, we won’t know very much at all.


Nonetheless, in the grand scheme of things, the ‘tidak apa’ attitude isn’t confined to Malaysia Airlines alone. Singapore Airlines is just as guilty of the attitude. So is Aeroloft. So is Lufthansa. So is every carrier that made the negligent decision to fly over Eastern Ukraine.


Unfortunately, through a combination of bad luck and hubris, it was the innocent passengers aboard Flight MH17 that paid the ultimate price.


If you’re a frequent flyer, chances are, you will select a carrier based on price, convenience and quality of service.


But how often does security awareness factor into your choice? Do you actually know why your plane is taking a particular flight path? Do you even care? Take a moment to process all of that.


People often say lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. But, as any meteorologist will tell you, probability is not the same as possibility. We shouldn’t make false assumptions that will only put us in peril.


In short, don’t act like a lemming.


Do you have questions? Comments? Perhaps you have a real-life story of your own to share? I’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me by visiting my website.


Also, if you have missed previous editions of my newsletter, don’t worry. There are recaps available, and you can catch up on reading them by visiting my blog.


Until next time, stay aware and stay safe!

Best Wishes
John Ling

Open Letter — Did The Americans Shoot Down MH17?

There’s a sordid conspiracy theory going around that it was the Americans who shot down MH17.

This is my take on why that’s highly unlikely:


Let me paint a provocative scenario for you – it was the Americans who shot down Flight MH17. This was a false-flag operation authorised by President Barack Obama. He did so through a clandestine order, and he kept all knowledge of it hidden from Congress. In Washington itself, fewer than 10 people knew about this plan, and all these individuals were firmly ensconced inside Obama’s inner circle. There would be no whistle-blowers; no leaks; no mistakes.

The timing for this false-flag op couldn’t be better. Obama had just visited Malaysia a couple of months back, and he had created a lot of positive buzz in the country. Who would ever suspect his true intentions? Certainly not the Malaysians who had lapped up his ‘hope and change’ rhetoric like eager beavers.

President Obama also had another good thing going – American legislation meant that the Central Intelligence Agency was answerable directly to him. This gave him the authority to bypass all the usual channels, and he could launch this op under the pretext of plausible deniability. Very good.

The paramilitary unit that Obama decided to turn to is known as the CIA’s Ground Branch. They are a subsection of Special Activities Division. This is the very same outfit that tracked Osama bin Laden down in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Highly trained and highly motivated, they would do their president’s bidding without question. A handpicked team was dispatched to Ukraine without preamble.

Obama suffered sleepless nights in the lead-up to the op. What if it was discovered? What would his legacy be? Might he be labelled a war criminal?

As it turned out, all that anxiety was premature. On that fateful Thursday, carrying out the actual op itself proved to be surprisingly easy. Ground Branch operators fluent in Russian commandeered a BUK missile launcher from the Ukrainians. They also dressed themselves in pro-Putin uniforms, complete with the requisite insignia. Then they casually drove their way into Russian-controlled territory, smoothly talking their way through checkpoint after checkpoint. False paperwork with false signatures were provided.

More than once, the Americans encountered GRU operatives. These were elite Russian spooks that had been sent by Moscow to support the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. They were trained in the black arts of counterintelligence. However, for some reason, the GRU operatives were off their game that day. Their operatives failed to see through the Americans’ conceit. Nor did they question why a BUK launcher was being driven into rebel-controlled territory from the loyalist side.

But no matter. The Americans praised God for this stroke of good luck and carried on with the operation. Soon enough, they took up position in an open field just as Flight MH17 was flying overhead. Through an encrypted wireless transmission, Obama got in touch with the leader of the Ground Branch team. After a moment’s hesitation, the president personally gave the order to execute. A single missile was launched. Flight MH17 was blown clear out of the sky, and as bodies and fragments rained down across the landscape, the Americans quickly disengaged and drove off.

Somehow, amidst the chaos and confusion, the separatists and their GRU handlers failed to detect that a BUK launcher was now threading its way back into loyalist territory. Despite the presence of numerous checkpoints, once again, the GRU – so famed for their iron discipline and superhuman powers of perception – missed the opportunity to intercept the American perpetrators. Yes, they were really, really off their game that day.

Later that day, with the BUK launcher firmly back on friendly territory, the Ground Branch began dismantling and destroying the hardware. They would be no proof. No blowback. All the world would know from this point on was that it was the Russians who had committed the atrocity. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, how likely is this scenario?

I asked a fellow author who had once served as a case officer with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. His response was to throw his head back and laugh. He had very few good things to say about his former employer. The Agency, he observed, was a bumbling and incompetent organisation that got lucky from time to time. The tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden was a prime example of this. For the most part, though, the Agency is hampered by human frailty and bureaucratic stupidity.

Like any office, Agency employees love to gossip about the most petty of things. Whisper that a colleague is a transsexual, and before long, the whole office knows about it. Give it a bit more time and even family and friends on the outside will come to hear about the rumour. For that reason, it’s next to impossible to maintain a secret. A leak will happen, sooner or later.

Operationally, my friend also gave me a very public example of how the CIA has failed to live up to its image. In 2010, despite all the rumblings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the eruption of the Arab Spring caught their case officers and analysts by total surprise. They were genuinely blindsided by the event, and when American-backed dictators were toppled one after the other, the Agency was left scrambling to salvage the situation. Certainly not a good look for intelligence organisation that enjoys billions of dollars in funding.

The myth of CIA omnipotence and supremacy, it would seem, is just that – a myth. For many in the developing world, the CIA has become the convenient bogeyman for everything they hate about America. The torture that was undertaken at CIA black sites under the Bush administration solidified this perception. And, now, the CIA drone-strike programme under the Obama administration has only served to perpetuate it.

America, just like any other superpower, is guilty of misusing its authority and shedding innocent blood. But, frankly, whether you believe MH17 was a false-flag operation or not depends largely on whether you also believe that 9/11 was an inside job. Common sense would dictate that some things just don’t add up.

Open Letter — The Complexities of the Russian Soul

 My article written from the Russian perspective:


There is a Russian proverb that goes like this: ‘With lies, you may go forward in the world, but you may never go back.’ This saying has always held a special appeal for me, mainly because it serves to illustrate the complexities of the Russian soul – it is defined, in equal terms, by melancholy, fatalism and a tragic sense of humour.


For the average Russian, being misunderstood by the outside world is all but inevitable. So they embrace it as their destiny, and with a nonchalant shrug, they march forward and pursue their goals anyway. They see little point in stopping to offer detailed explanations. They know no one will listen.


Nowhere was this development more clear than in 1946. This was when American diplomat George Kennan sent his famous Long Telegram from the US embassy in Moscow. He had observed, up close, what he believed to be a policy of aggressive Soviet expansionism. Russia had come to see itself at war with capitalism, and it was seeking to replace it with communism. This was why Russia had refused to support America in creating the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. A clash of cultures was underway.


In 1947, Keenan examined the issue more formally in what became known as X Article. In it, he defined Russia as impervious to the logic of reason but highly sensitive to the logic of force. His recommendation to Washington was a strategy of containment in order to roll back Russian influence around the globe. The Truman administration, alarmed by Kennan’s views, began to adopt a militaristic stance towards Russia. This was a posture that would come to define the entirety of the Cold War.


The Russians, for their part, did not see themselves as aggressive. Nor did they perceive their foreign policy as unreasonable. After all, in their opinion, it was not the American-led forces that had won the Second World War. Rather, it was Mother Russia. In the battle against the Nazi juggernaut, the Russians had suffered more casualties than any other nation – over 20 million dead. The Americans, by comparison, had only suffered 400,000 deaths, which the Russians viewed as miniscule by comparison.


The Russians also believed that it wasn’t the dropping of the atomic bomb that had forced the Empire of Japan to surrender to the Allies. Rather, it was the actions of their Red Army, which had already swept through Manchuria and was poised to invade the Japanese homeland itself.


Anecdotal evidence appears to support this view. In 1918, the Russians had no qualms about executing their own royal family. In 1945, was it possible that they might do the same to the Japanese royals? It was a frightening thought for the Imperial household, and it was for this reason that the Japanese chose to surrender to the Americans instead. American occupation, while humiliating, would at least ensure the survival of the Chrysanthemum Throne and a continuation of the royal lineage.


In Russia’s eyes, they believed they had more than earned the right to be given a leading role in the post-war world. That meant being treated as an equal to America and being accorded a certain degree of prestige and respect.


Unfortunately, that hope did not come to fruition. From the beginning, simplistic stereotypes and racial prejudice poisoned relations between the two superpowers. In the eyes of many Western observers, Russia was and always would be a semi-Oriental nation of barbarians. Devious in character. Antagonistic in posture. Not to be trusted at all.


Now, with the fall of Communism and the breakup of the old Soviet Empire, many things have changed on the surface. In 1989, there were no millionaires in Russia. Today, thanks to the liberalisation of oil and gas, there are not only millionaires but billionaires. Flush with cash and self-confidence, Russian oligarchs are on the ascendency. They are now buying luxury mansions in far-off places like New Zealand. In a stunning role reversal, they have now become masters of the Western art of capitalism.


However, for all the glitz and glamour of modern capitalistic Russia, one thing has not changed. The Russians have never forgiven the West for not giving them ‘face’ when they craved it the most. In their heart of hearts, they rage against the perception that they have been bullied, belittled and sabotaged at every turn. This is the resentment they bear to this day, and this is why they have turned to Putin. Ultranationalism, for all its faults, has given them a sense of renewed pride. What we perceive as ruthless, they perceive as decisive. What we perceive as thuggish, they perceive as masculine.


Often, you don’t need to look far to witness this perspective in action. Just yesterday, on an online forum, I had a conversation with self-proclaimed Russian nationalist. He was angry at my suggestion that Putin had placed geopolitical interest ahead of human life. He said, ‘Why are you Malaysians complaining about the loss of 298 lives? We lost 20 million in the Great Patriotic War. 20 million! Try wrapping your mind around that. And yet, after all that sacrifice, we barely shed a tear. The fact that you Malaysians are kicking up such a fuss over it just shows that you are weaklings and slaves to the West.’


Blunt? Crass? Perhaps. But that sums up the Russian perspective today – a nostalgia for the dignity and respect that the old Soviet Empire once gave them. Yes, being misunderstood is inevitable. But given the choice between being a bad guy and being a nobody, modern Russia will choose to be the bad guy. At the very least, it gives them ‘face’ and offers them a platform in today’s world. Russia has sworn that it will not be treated as a child ever again. And if that means sacrificing 298 civilians in the name of a more muscular and assertive nation, then so be it.

Open Letter — How ‘Force Drift’ Led to the Downing of Flight MH17

My article on the origins of the Ukrainian crisis:

In the shadowy world of intelligence, there is an innocuous term known as ‘force drift’. It begins when an individual decides to carry out a small act of violence. He believes he is doing it for the greater good. He justifies it as morally necessary. Therefore, over the passage of time, it becomes easier and easier to rely on violence. In steady increments, he escalates his use of it. After all, logic dictates, if some force is good, then more force is even better. Eventually, the amount of violence will drift to ever dizzying levels. This individual is intoxicated by it. He loses his perspective. He loses control. Finally, the escalating force has become so great and terrible that it reaches a tipping point. It ends up becoming a Greek tragedy.


‘Force drift’ can be used to explain a myriad of atrocities that have happened in recent memory. The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. The torture scandals out of Abu Ghraib. The Obama administration’s use of drone-strike programmes. In each and every case, innocent blood has been spilled, and it has happened simply because those who practise violence have been unable to control their spiralling addiction to it. They may claim that they are using force in the name of good. But, in the end, they only destroy whatever good it was that they originally claimed to defend.


Today, as Malaysians, the term ‘force drift’ will no doubt take on a more visceral and personal meaning. We can see it in relation to the crisis in Eastern Ukraine and the tragic shoot-down of Flight MH17. Prior to this incident, not many of us could have located this country on the map. Few of us spared their troubles much thought. But now, it seems, we are obsessed with Ukraine. Its geopolitical complexities have become inexorably linked with our own.


It’s important to understand how we got here. More importantly, it’s important to understand why.


The misfortune all started in November 2013. Back then, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych made a controversial decision. He announced to his people that he would ditch an agreement to foster closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union. In its place, he would push ahead with an alliance with Russia.


Most Ukrainians were stunned by this development. Ever since Yanukovych won the presidency in 2010, it was common knowledge that he had taken Russian money and had nursed Russian sympathies. But few, if any, expected him to so boldly go against the sentiments of Ukrainian citizens. For historical and practical reasons, most wanted closer ties with the West, not Russia, which they viewed as a threatening neighbour.


So Ukrainians rejected Yanukovych’s zero-sum game, and in a show of people power, they took the streets and expressed their fury. Alarmed, Yanukovych hastily passed security laws that made public assembly illegal. The protestors were ordered to cease and desist and return to their homes. This undemocratic law only inflamed the situation further, and the anti-Yanukovych movement gained momentum. Riots broke out. Government buildings were seized and occupied. Yanukovych had well and truly lost his grip on Ukraine.


Over in Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin had been paying close attention to the events unfolding rapidly in Kiev. In recent years, he had been growing steadily more disturbed by the encroachment of NATO and EU influence on Russian interests in the region. The wave of protests that threaten to unseat his ally in Kiev appeared to be yet another Western ploy to undermine Russia.


Convinced that he had to counter it, he made the decision to send Spetsnaz operatives into Ukraine. This would be a last-ditch attempt to prop up his ally, Yanukovych, and prevent Ukraine from sliding out of Russia’s grip and into the pro-Western sphere.


Putin’s operatives were steely and ruthless. These were battle-hardened men who had fought against the Muslims in Chechnya, committing genocide and rape with wild abandon. Their presence in Kiev would be a reflection of that. They had no qualms about using automatic weapons on civilians, gunning them down even as news cameras in Kiev captured the horrific footage.


A lesser people would have been cowed by such aggression. But the Ukrainians were staunch, and they would not stop braving Russian bullets until Viktor Yanukovych was toppled. By January 2014, their goal had been achieved. Yanukovych was finally forced to step down from power, and he fled into exile in Russia.


In the jubilant aftermath, when protestors stormed Yanukovych’s former official residence, they found half-destroyed documents. These were invoices and spreadsheets that indicated widespread corruption, as well as generous payoffs by shell corporations. Yanukovych, it would seem, had been Putin’s stooge for longer than anyone suspected.


At this juncture, the Ukrainian people deserved a happy ending. But, sadly, they would not get one. Even as a new transitional government took over in Kiev and promised reconciliation, Putin played hardball. His pride had been hurt, and worse still, his Western foes had just gained a new ally in Ukraine.


So Putin responded in the only way he knew how – he began massing troops on the Eastern Ukrainian border, where the Russian-speaking population had long expressed separatist sympathies. And then, in an odd reversal of what anti-Yanukovych protesters had done, it was the turn of pro-Putin mobs to seize government buildings in Crimea and declare the territory a part of Russia. A provocative referendum to officially break away from Ukraine was to follow, sparking international condemnation.


Meanwhile, paramilitary action grew in intensity, and soon enough, everything from helicopters to cargo planes were being blown out of the sky by the separatists. Having secured Crimea, Putin’s next move was to punish the Ukrainians for their insolence. He did so over and over again, increasing the tempo of the hostility.


As Malaysians, we paid scant attention to all this because the vast majority of the dead and wounded were Ukrainians. As far as the world was concerned, this was just an internal matter in another distant part of the world. It was certainly not a hot-button issue like, say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore we treated the crisis as easily dismissed. Easily ignored.


But then MH17 happened, and it hit us all like a traumatic shockwave. Why now? Why us? Who did we ever offend in that part of the world?


There are no easy answers.


Ultimately, the tragedy of all this is that Vladimir Putin probably didn’t intend to shoot down Flight MH17. Chances are, he didn’t even issue the executive order to do so. Nonetheless, by giving his operatives free rein to disregard international law and wage a dirty war, he bears the burden of responsibility. He created the madness that almost certainly doomed the passengers aboard MH17.


Yes, this is ‘force drift’ at its most warped and cruel. So let there be no doubt: the missile that downed MH17 would never have been fired if Putin had respected his neighbour’s sovereignty to begin with.


Husbands. Wives. Fathers. Mothers. Sons. Daughters. I have no doubt that all of the people we have lost would still be alive today if there was no crisis in Eastern Ukraine.





Open Letter — MH17 and The Failure of Soft Diplomacy

My open letter on the recent tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has been making the rounds on sites such as Malaysia Kini.

I have reproduced it here in full:

When Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States, he had done so on the back of a campaign that promised hope and change. Among other things, he called for a ‘reset’ in relations with Russia. This would be the cornerstone of his new administration – a radical approach in ‘soft diplomacy’. One designed to defuse tensions with America’s former adversary and pave the way for warmer ties. This was a monumental undertaking, but with a young and vibrant president now in the White House, it looked like it might actually have a chance of succeeding.


In Geneva in March 2009, we witnessed what appeared to be an initial thawing in relations between America and Russia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and with the cameras of the world looking on, she presented him with a big red button made out of plastic. The word ‘reset’ was prominently stencilled on it, accompanied by a Russian translation. However, in an unfortunate gaffe – perhaps an omen of things to come – Clinton’s aides had messed up the Cyrillic words on the button. Instead of ‘perezagruzka’, which would have been the correct translation, the one that was used instead was ‘peregruzka’, which meant ‘overcharged’. It was an embarrassing mistake, but Lavrov appeared to be a good sport, laughing off the error.


Around the same time, President Obama noted that Vladimir Putin had recently stepped down as president of Russia, and in his place, Dmitri Medvedev had ascended to the highest office in the land. Like Obama, Medvedev was a former academic and of a similar age. Naturally enough, Obama perceived the new Russian president to be a transformational figure, and it was in that spirit that he wrote a secret letter and instructed a trusted aide to hand-deliver it to Moscow. In the letter, Obama expressed a willingness to make American concessions in return for Russian goodwill. In an age of wireless communication, this unorthodox approach was a throwback to simpler times. Nothing short of remarkable. In Malaysian culture, we might call this ‘giving face’.


In July 2009, Obama, encouraged by Medvedev’s optimistic reply, flew into Moscow for his first official visit to the nation. The two leaders met in congenial fashion. They seemed like a natural fit for each other. And a grinning Obama took the opportunity to solidify America’s commitment to a reset in relations with Russia. All in all, it looked like an unqualified triumph for hope and change. Not bad for a president who had been in office for barely six months.


Five years on, however, Obama’s Russian reset is in tatters, and the world we find ourselves in now is a far cry from that buoyant period. Since 2012, Vladimir Putin has regained presidential power, and he is currently pursuing an agenda of ultranationalist expansion. A former KGB officer in his youth, he has spent a lifetime perfecting the black arts of murder and intimidation.


As a result, Russia today has become a nightmarish country. It’s a place where free speech is crushed, political dissidents are assassinated, and government-sanctioned thugs roam the streets, attacking everyone from homosexuals to foreign students.


Putin has placed the whole of Russia under his iron will, and he is now driven to expand its influence abroad. Soft diplomacy is not what runs in this man’s veins. Rather, he craves the aggressive projection of power, Soviet-style. The invasion by proxy of Eastern Ukraine and the senseless shoot-down of Flight MH17 serves as a testament to his vision.


While the world mourns this horrific tragedy, President Obama, for his part, is looking increasingly haggard. Right-wing critics have savaged his attempt at soft diplomacy with Russia, calling it naïve and idealistic. They claim it never should have been attempted in the first place. The Russians, it would seem, have perceived Obama’s overtures as a sign of weakness, and they have since exploited it to the fullest.


In Malaysia, most of us have remained blissfully ignorant of the storm that’s been brewing for the past couple of years. Even as Putin’s brand of ultranationalist fervour has taken hold, we have chosen to invest in the Russian aerospace, oil and gas industries. We have sent our children to study the Russian health sciences. And even after the crisis in Ukraine erupted, our political leaders did not respond with a note of protest. No one had the gumption to call a spade a spade.


But now, like it or not, we have been drawn into Putin’s dysfunctional world order. It’s not what we asked for. It’s certainly not what we wanted. But innocent blood has been spilled; hundreds of civilians have been murdered with no warning. And to make the atrocity worse, Putin loyalists have interfered with the site of the crash, making a fair and transparent investigation all but impossible.


In this time of grief, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. With the failure of soft diplomacy, who will now bring Putin’s Russia into account? Who will choose to look at the crime instead of averting their eyes?





Newsletter — How Using A Colour Code Could Save Your Life

My latest newsletter:

Kia ora!

Most people have never heard of Jeff Cooper. However, in self-defence circles, he is known as one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.


A former United States Marine, he spent decades studying the psychology of danger. This inspired him to develop techniques that regular people could use to protect themselves.


Their effectiveness comes from their inherent simplicity. A good example of this is the Cooper Colour Code. It promotes a ‘combat mindset’ that helps you to establish your readiness at all times.


Here’s a rundown:


Condition White — you are unaware of your surroundings, and you are not prepared to react if danger strikes.


Condition Yellow — you are alert but relaxed, using your senses to scan your environment periodically.


Condition Orange — you have tensed up in response to a possible threat, and you are gearing up to take action.


Condition Red — you have decided that you are in mortal danger, and it’s time to go into fight-or-flight mode.


More often than not, most of us remain stuck in Condition White. We hear nothing. We see nothing. We slip into a complacent mindset and think, ‘It’ll never happen to me.’


However, ignorance is not bliss. Whether we like it or not, we live in an increasingly violent and turbulent world. 


A good idea is to keep your default mode on Condition Yellow at all times. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Don’t become yet another crime statistic.


Do you have questions? Comments? Perhaps you have a real-life story of your own to share? I’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me by visiting my website.


Also, if you have missed previous editions of my newsletter, don’t worry. There are recaps available, and you can catch up on reading them by visiting my blog.


Until next time, stay aware and stay safe!

Best Wishes
John Ling


It had all the makings of a perfect storm — a Malaysian diplomat with military credentials allegedly assaulted and robbed a young woman in her Wellington home.

This should have been an open-and-shut case. However, under the Vienna Convention, the accused had the privilege of diplomatic immunity. This made it impossible for New Zealand authorities to try him under the local legal system unless Malaysia agreed to waive his immunity.

Under the Official Information Act, correspondence between both governments was subsequently released. It marked the beginning of an international faux pas.

This is the letter from New Zealand’s MFAT: http://static.stuff.co.nz/files/NZletter.docx

This is the response from Malaysia’s Wisma Putra: http://static.stuff.co.nz/files/Malaysialetter.pdf

Sure enough, the accused was flown back to Malaysia. That’s when a maelstrom of shock and anger erupted.

Like many others, I felt compelled to sound off on the incident. I wrote an open letter, which has been making the rounds on publications like The Malay Mail Online and The Malaysian Insider.

Here it is in full:

When the news first broke that a Malaysian diplomat had been accused of sexual assault in New Zealand, I was struck by that sharpest of emotions — shame. And soon enough, that shame deepened into disgust when official government correspondence was released. They appeared to show that diplomatic immunity had been used to sidestep a criminal conviction, and this was done at the expense of a young female victim.


This international incident has sent shockwaves through New Zealand society. Kiwis are famously known for their cheerful and unassuming nature. But, in this instance, they have grown increasingly vocal at what they perceive to be a miscarriage of justice. Anger has been directed primarily at the present National government for not pushing hard enough to prosecute the offender within New Zealand’s jurisdiction. Anger has also been directed at the Malaysian government for exploiting a loophole in the Vienna Convention that allowed them to fly the offender back to Malaysia.


To understand why this alleged crime has struck such a raw nerve with New Zealanders, you first have to understand this country’s history.


In 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world offer women the right to vote. Then, in 2001, it became the only country in the world where the top positions of power were all held by women — Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Attorney General and Chief Justice.


The struggle for an egalitarian society occupies an almost mythic status in the New Zealand consciousness. People here are largely non-religious. Instead they follow common secular philosophy. They call it giving someone a ‘fair go’. It’s what every Kiwi child is expected to learn from a young age — no gender, no ethnicity, no dogma is allowed to supercede another. And the fight to advance women’s rights is placed on the same sacred pedestal as racial and marriage equality.


Little wonder, then, that New Zealanders should take this diplomatic incident as an affront to their values. It mocks over 120 years of liberal tradition. And this hurts all the more because Kiwis have traditionally held Malaysia in high regard. Malaysian restaurants are hugely popular here, and Malaysia Airlines has been a favoured carrier for Kiwis looking to travel to Asia.


Sadly, with the recent uptick in religious extremism, the catastrophic loss of MH370, and now this diplomatic faux pas, Malaysia’s reputation has now been called into question. There are now those whispering that this country is little more than a gangster state. A place where there’s no honesty; no integrity; no respect for women’s rights.


For the Malaysian community in New Zealand, this has placed us in the difficult position of having to act as apologists for the misdeeds of our bureaucrats. Rightly or wrongly, it now feels as if whatever age of innocence we once enjoyed is now long gone. ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ has become an ironic slogan for everything that’s wrong with the country of our birth.


For decades now, through times of war and peace, the New Zealand government has extended its hand of bilateral friendship. It has proven itself willing to give Malaysian citizens a fair go. We have come here as visitors, students and migrants, and throughout, Kiwis have been shown us nothing but warmth and generosity.


The onus now is on the Malaysian regime is prove that it is capable of reciprocating such friendship and goodwill. Only time will tell whether justice will be served fairly and impartially. The Malaysian community in New Zealand are hoping against hope that this will be the case.

As the controversy escalated, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim gave a phone interview to the New Zealand media. He suggested that Wisma Putra’s actions reeked of a cover-up. Red-faced, the Malaysian government had no choice but reverse their previous position. They waived diplomatic immunity and made arrangements to return the accused to New Zealand to stand trial.

Following this development, the New Zealand foreign minister and prime minister have both made public apologies. They have agreed that they should have fought harder to retain the accused within their jurisdiction.

For a country that prides itself as a beacon for women’s rights, this systemic failure comes across as a bad look for the National government. Worse still, it has hurt the young female victim and her family. For a moment there, it appeared as if the accused and his cohorts were actually going to get away with it.



Newsletter — Are You a Victim or a Survivor?

A recap of my latest newsletter:


I had an interesting discussion with a friend just the other day. We were talking about the pervasiveness of violent crime and how the headlines seem to be getting uglier.


Are we living in an increasingly sick society? Are our public policies failing us? Are we on a downward slide to oblivion?


Surprisingly, my friend had a unique take on the situation. She doesn’t believe that criminals are mushrooming in number, nor does she believe that these criminals are becoming more violent than they were in previous decades.


Naturally, I expressed my scepticism at this. If criminals aren’t becoming more brazen, then why are we experiencing so much anxiety about crime? Why do we keep hearing about it? It can’t just be collective moral panic.


My friend rolled her eyes and put the blame squarely on the kind of society we live in today. We have become increasingly urbanised. Grown dependent on modern conveniences. And survival skills that were common only two or three generations ago have been lost. As a result, we have become less self-reliant and more naïve.


My friend recited a statistic to drive home her point. At the beginning of the 20th century, 90% of people were self-employed. They were farmers, artisans, craftsmen. Today that number has shrunk to 2%. We are now almost entirely a society of corporate rats and cubicle dwellers. Self-sufficiency, it seems, is no longer fashionable.


To make matters worse, our senses are no longer as sharp as they were in previous generations. My friend offered an example of this. In 1950, if a young man ventured outdoors for a walk, he would probably have the habit of pivoting his head from side to side, and his eyes would constantly be scanning his environment. Fast-forward to 2014, and that same man would probably be texting on his smartphone or listening to his iPod. He won’t see danger coming. He won’t even hear it.


My friend summed it up like this – it’s the number of victims that have soared rather than the number of criminals. Through a combination of ignorance, apathy and distraction, people are setting themselves up to be targets of opportunity. And unless that mindset changes, we won’t be seeing a drastic reduction in violent crime anytime soon.


While I have trouble wrapping my mind around some of the more controversial aspects of her theory, the gist of my friend’s argument is still sound. What separates a victim from a survivor is the mindset. And if you’re constantly studying your environment instead of squinting down at your smartphone, you’ll become a harder target for a criminal to strike at.


Prevention, as they say, is better than the cure. And making sure you don’t become a crime statistic is even better.


Do you have questions? Comments? Perhaps you have a real-life story of your own to share? I’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me by visiting my website.


Until next time, stay aware and stay safe!

Best Wishes
John Ling


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