Saturday, 16 June 2018

Mahathir looks beyond China to Japan

Malaysia's new premier has hit the ground running, reaching out to Japan to ease reliance on China, and seeking new multilateral fora to boost the region's bargaining power


Malaysia’s newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is back on the world stage – and is not shy about stating his opinions. Following a historic election victory last month that returned the nonagenarian to the political apex as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister, Mahathir’s first overseas trip to Tokyo was both symbolic and indicative of a return to a non-aligned foreign policy.

Mahathir’s stunning comeback was a welcome surprise for Japan, which has seen its own influence in Southeast Asia diminish relative to an increasingly assertive and economically ambitious China. Prior to his ouster, scandal-tainted former premier Najib Razak had developed robust economic and security ties with Beijing.

By contrast, Mahathir pursued a “Look East” policy in the early 1980s that aimed to imbue Malaysians with the cultural strengths and work ethic of East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea. The policy sought to acquire the skills and knowledge that made Northeast Asia’s development models a success.

Mahathir’s new government, cash-strapped from the endemic corruption and mismanagement of the Najib era, now appears set to revive “Look East,” through which low-cost capital and investments from Japan could ease recent dependence on China, a strategic re-balancing rife with geopolitical implications.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Asia widely welcomes Kim-Trump detente

The first high-profile glimpse of a new Asian geopolitical landscape may be taking shape


US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s historic meeting in Singapore yesterday and the budding relationship between the two men represent the most significant shift in US policy toward the region in decades. Indeed, the first high-profile glimpse of a new Asian geopolitical landscape may be taking shape.

While media pundits in the West were skeptical and even cynical of the aspirational declaration signed between the two leaders – who were until recently adversaries exchanging barbs and threats of war – opinions in Asia, including those of world leaders in the region, generally welcomed and praised the unprecedented d├ętente.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, whose role as an interlocutor between Trump and Kim helped to bring the summit to fruition, praised both leaders for taking a “daring step towards change” and hailed the outcome as ending the world’s last remaining Cold War conflict.

Moon and South Korean premier Lee Nak-yeon reacted to a live stream of Trump and Kim’s first-ever handshake with beaming smiles, with the former saying during a Cabinet meeting that he “hardly slept last night” in anticipation of the momentous meeting. Still, questions remain about what a new friendship between Washington and Pyongyang will mean for the wider region.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Countdown to historic Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore

US President and North Korean leader both met with Singaporean PM, while working-level talks continued between both sides


The leaders of the United States and North Korea arrived have in Singapore ahead of a historic summit that could pave the way for wider negotiations to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, potentially laying aside historic bitterness and enmity between Washington and Pyongyang that has persisted for nearly seven decades since the 1950-53 Korean War.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are expected to meet on June 12 at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa. It will be the first time a sitting American president has met with a North Korean leader, a stunning turnaround from the saber-rattling and threats of destruction exchanged by the two sides only months ago.

The two leaders and their delegations are staying in luxury hotels in downtown Singapore, Trump at the Shangri-La Hotel and Kim at the St. Regis. Singapore, a wealthy Asian city-state, one of the few countries with ties to both the US and North Korea, is regarded as capable of ensuring the two leaders security while providing a neutral meeting ground.

Kim arrived at Singapore’s Changi Airport on Sunday, marking the start of the longest overseas trip taken by a recent North Korean leader. His aircraft, a Boeing 747 provided by Air China, appeared to maximize the amount of time it spent in Chinese airspace, taking an inland route over four Chinese provinces, according to flight trackers.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Kim-Trump summit a brand boost for Singapore

Wealthy island-state sees the historic summit as 'magnificent' opportunity to both promote world peace and sell itself as a world-class meeting venue


When US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un exchange their first-ever handshake at a resort hotel in Singapore, the city-state playing host to the historic meeting will be hoping for a breakthrough. Whatever the outcome of this week’s high-stakes summit, Singapore is pulling out all the stops to ensure its success.

Casting Singapore as a prestige venue for high-security events, its top diplomat at the center of recent shuttle diplomacy suggests the city-state is also playing an important role as a neutral arbitrator. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has led delegations both to Washington and Pyongyang in recent days in preparation for the June 12 summit.

Singapore, a wealthy Asian financial center, is one of the few countries in the world to maintain business links and relatively cordial ties with both the United States and North Korea. It was chosen as the venue for the first-ever meeting between the two adversarial countries’ leaders because it could ensure their security and provide a neutral meeting ground.

Balakrishnan told local media that North Korea regards the summit as a “magnificent opportunity” to deal with an “intractable problem” and that playing host was Singapore’s “contribution to world peace.” Other top ministers in the city-state have emphasized the high degree of trust and confidence placed in Singapore by all sides.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The changing face of Malaysian justice

Muslim resistance to ethnic Indian Tommy Thomas' appointment as attorney general points to future race and religion-based resistance to new government's reform agenda


An impasse between Malaysia’s newly elected Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition and the country’s influential ethnic Malay royals over the appointment of a new attorney general has underscored the potential for resistance to the new government’s reform agenda.

Tommy Thomas, a veteran lawyer and constitutional law expert, was the unanimous choice of Harapan’s leaders and component parties for the post. His nomination to be the nation’s top lawyer, however, was opposed by some because the candidate, an ethnic Indian Christian, is not from the Malay Muslim majority.

Thousands signed an online petition opposing his appointment on ethnic and religious grounds, a stance supported by the opposition Islamist party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which argued that a non-Muslim would not be capable of advising the government on matters pertaining to Islam.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sent a letter last month to Sultan Muhammad V, the country’s constitutional monarch, or Yang di-Pertuan Agong, advising the ruler to dismiss Mohamed Apandi Ali, the attorney general appointed by scandal-plagued former premier Najib Razak, and to appoint Thomas as his replacement.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Could Mahathir’s clean-up spark a financial crisis?

Revelations that Malaysia's public debt is closer to 80% of GDP than previously disclosed 50% is pushing down shares and driving capital outflows


Though few expected the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition to win Malaysia’s May 9 polls, markets were mainly calm following Mahathir Mohamad’s spectacular return to the premiership.

His appointment of well-respected ministers to economic and finance related portfolios, as well as creation of a council of experienced advisors including a former central bank chief, meanwhile, aimed to reassure investors that his government would remain business-friendly.

But three weeks into Mahathir’s course-shifting term, market skepticism is already starting to creep in. The coalition campaigned on promises to scrap an unpopular goods and services tax (GST), reintroduce petrol subsidies and review toll road concessions. Mahathir has also called for the review of large-scale investment projects awarded during the predecessor Najib Razak’s administration.

Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings have weighed in with a shared view that GST abolishment could raise government deficits if not offset by other revenue-raising measures. Fitch has forecasted short-term “headwinds” while noting that current economic growth momentum is still strong.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Monday, 28 May 2018

What Singapore could learn from Malaysia

Cross-straits relations will be tested as newly elected Malaysian government aims to review bilateral deals and projects in the name of reform


When then Malaysian premier Najib Razak met his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong at their annual leaders’ retreat in January, it wasn’t readily apparent at the time that it would be their last bilateral meeting.

Najib, grinning ear-to-ear, told a press conference that he didn’t expect upcoming elections in his country would “change the nature” of bilateral ties between the two neighbors. “Because you have confidence in the results,” quipped Lee, giving way to chummy laughter.

Both men share a personal chemistry, rapport and common vision that had eluded often prickly cross-straits ties in previous decades. The off-the-cuff exchange between the two leaders’ went viral on social media at the time.

Mahathir Mohamad’s return to the premiership has thus stirred certain anxieties in Singapore in light of his past antagonism towards the city-state. Some commentators felt that Lee had “bet on the wrong horse” at the May 9 polls Najib lost and Mahathir won, and that Lee had failed to nurture meaningful ties with the pre-election opposition.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Malaysians agog as tables turn on Najib

Expedited probes into ex-premier's alleged corruption could reach beyond 1MDB scandal to a dodgy submarine deal to the murder of a Mongolian model


Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is under heavy fire as new premier Mahathir Mohamad’s government quickly launches and widens investigations into alleged corruption at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state development fund that may have cost the nation billions of dollars in pilfered losses.

Najib, whose once-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost resoundingly at May 9 polls, is implicated in an embezzlement racket after suspicious transfers allegedly linked to 1MDB were discovered in his personal bank. He has denied all wrongdoing at the fund he created and oversaw, claiming the US$681 million found in his account was a gift from a Saudi royal.

In recent days, Malaysians have watched agog as Najib’s properties were raided by armed police. Authorities have seized and carted off luxury items, confiscating 284 designer handbags presumably belonging to his wife Rosmah Mansor, and 72 suitcases containing cash in various currencies, watches and jewelry.

Mahathir’s office has quickly established a special taskforce, comprised of members of Malaysia’s anti-graft agency, police and the central bank, to investigate 1MDB. A similar investigative body was established in 2015, but was halted by Najib, who was widely seen as interfering with the domestic probe by removing the attorney general and other probing officials.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Malaysia’s Anwar is free at last

But will the erstwhile opposition leader really be able to co-exist with new premier and former nemesis Mahathir Mohamad?


Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s twice-jailed former opposition leader, walked free on Wednesday afternoon, bringing an end to a tumultuous legal saga that saw the iconic politician incarcerated on sodomy charges that critics and observers have long regarded as politically motivated.

Emerging from a hospital in Kuala Lumpur where he had been receiving treatment following shoulder surgery last November, Anwar smiled and waved to supporters before being whisked away for an audience with Sultan Muhammad V, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, or Yang di-Pertuang Agong. The sultan gave Anwar a full royal pardon.

Anwar’s expedited release is yet another stunning development in Malaysia’s politics following the shock election victory of the Pakatan Harapan coalition earlier this month, ending the uninterrupted six decade rule of the once-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and returning former leader Mahathir Mohamad to the premiership.

Mahathir, who previously governed Malaysia for 22 years as prime minister, was the first to greet Anwar upon his arrival at the national palace. The scene signaled a new chapter in the volatile and dramatic relationship between the two politicians, who have been both political allies and bitter rivals at different intervals of Malaysia’s recent history.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

The shape of things to come under Mahathir 2.0

Malaysia's 92-year-old new premier has moved swiftly against his scandal-plagued predecessor Najib Razak, setting the tone for a new political era


A new era has dawned for Malaysian politics with the once opposition, now ruling Pakatan Harapan at the helm of government after a shock May 9 election result few experts foresaw. And it’s first hours in power have already produced a string of dramatic events.

In a stunning reversal of fortunes, the once-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition garnered just over one-third of the national vote, bringing an end to its uninterrupted 61-year rule. Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad – an iconic former prime minister who led the BN coalition for 22-years – was again sworn in as premier, this time as Harapan’s chairman.

Malaysians greeted the extraordinary events with jubilance, celebrating in the streets and waiting with baited breath for Mahathir, 92, to take his oath. Electoral gains by Harapan, an unlikely coalition of former rivals and adversaries who set differences aside to end BN’s scandal-plagued rule, have since turned the country’s political landscape on its head.

As nonagenarian Mahathir began his first non-consecutive term as premier, ousted leader Najib Razak retreated into quiet as the first Malaysian premier to ever lose a general election, a stunning fall from grace that forced his resignation as head of the once-ruling BN and its lynchpin party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.