Saturday, 21 November 2020

How China won and US lost the trade war

RCEP trade pact marks beginning of China's and end of America's centrality in Asia-Pacific trade


Signed and sealed in a video conference ceremony after nearly eight years of grueling negotiations, the world’s largest free trade bloc was forged on November 15 in a show of collective defiance against protectionism that sets the stage for China to supplant the United States as the Asia-Pacific’s main trade engine.

Proclaimed as a win for the multilateral trading system, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) harmonizes regulatory standards and allows member countries to offer themselves as an integrated market for investment, providing a confidence boost to aid a regionwide post-pandemic recovery.

Apart from the promised benefits of trade liberalization, the RCEP has been acknowledged more for its symbolic significance in relation to the world’s two largest economies, only one of which is a signatory to the deal. China’s inclusion in the pact will expand its economic reach and arguably help to solidify its position as a standard-bearer for globalization.

“What the RCEP clearly does is entrench China as the leading player within the free trade architecture of the Asia-Pacific, and it comes at a time when the United States is painted as a regressive force on free trade under Donald Trump,” said Harrison Cheng, an associate director with consulting firm Control Risks.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Friday, 13 November 2020

Muhyiddin faces make or break budget vote

Crucial vote in coming days will double as a no-confidence motion that could upend Malaysian leader's eight-month-old rule


Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin will face a political moment of truth when Malaysian lawmakers vote on proposals for the nation’s largest-ever annual budget in Parliament later this month. A defeat of the spending plan would be equivalent to a no-confidence vote and could plunge the country into a leadership crisis.

Muhyiddin’s eight-month-old government intends to spend a record 322.5 billion ringgit (US$78 billion) in 2021 as it seeks to offset the economic ill-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and bring Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy back from the brink after gross domestic product (GDP) plunged 17.1% year on year in the second quarter.

The expansionary budget, a 2.5% increase in spending from 2020, aims to hasten an already evident recovery from the worst effects of business activity restrictions enacted under an earlier nationwide lockdown. Third quarter data announced by Malaysia’s central bank on Friday (November 13) showed a smaller 2.7% contraction.

A resurgence of coronavirus infections since September has seen infections triple to nearly 44,000 cases. Authorities have in response imposed targeted movement curbs in parts of the country, threatening an economic turnaround that the budget, the first to be presented since Muhyiddin was appointed premier by the nation’s king in March, is designed to spur.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Southeast Asia eyes US democracy stress test

Region looks on as contested election underscores notion America's political system is broken and US leadership is in decline


A bitterly contested US presidential election that is still too close to call has the world on tenterhooks. In Southeast Asia, a strategic region at the center of an escalating rivalry between the United States and China, the contest is being closely watched for signals of what the next four years of American foreign policy will bring.

Mail-in ballots continue to be counted in crucial battleground states, which have given Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, 77, a clearer path to victory in a knife’s edge election that has failed to deliver the clear repudiation of US President Donald Trump that Democrats had hoped for and national polling had projected.

In a break with presidential norms, Trump, 74, pre-emptively declared victory at the White House in the early hours of November 4 with millions of votes yet to be counted, repeating assertions made throughout the campaign that widespread mail-in voting motivated by the Covid-19 pandemic would lead to rampant voter fraud without presenting evidence.

State-by-state litigation could bring days or possibly weeks of legal uncertainty in an attempt by the president to push the US Supreme Court to weigh in on the race if he is unable to eke out a path to victory as he did in 2016. An eruption of violent protests and civil unrest over disputed election results could occur amid the uncertainty.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Muhyiddin hanging on by a fraying thread in Malaysia

Embattled premier failed to impose an emergency and forestall snap polls that will be triggered if Parliament rejects his 2021 budget


Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is under rising pressure to resign after Malaysia’s king rejected his request to declare emergency rule on Sunday (October 25), a pivotal setback for the premier as he faces a leadership challenge from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and divisions within his fragile Perikatan Nasional (PN) ruling coalition.

Parties supporting PN, including the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which earlier this month threatened to withdraw support for Muhyiddin, have since thrown the premier a political lifeline by continuing to prop up his government. But with a key vote on the 2021 budget looming, doubts remain as to how long his administration will last with a narrow majority of 113 out of 222 seats in Parliament.

Under Malaysia’s parliamentary system, failure to pass the budget would be equivalent to a loss of confidence in Muhyiddin, who fears the prospect of rebel lawmakers within his government voting against the bills to collapse his administration and trigger a snap election. Debate on the forthcoming budget is set to commence on November 6.

Muhyiddin met with the nation’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, on October 23 to present his case for the proclamation of a state of emergency, purportedly to combat the worsening Covid-19 pandemic. Coronavirus infections are sharply on the rise across Malaysia, with the total number of cases more than doubling to 28,640 in the past month.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Friday, 23 October 2020

Goldman spends itself free of 1MDB guilty plea

US investment bank agrees to settlement to resolve Malaysian scandal, but sidesteps institutional culpability


Goldman Sachs, one of Wall Street’s most powerful investment banks, agreed to a US$2.9 billion settlement with US federal prosecutors and the Department of Justice (DoJ) on Thursday to resolve a sprawling money laundering and bribery probe involving state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.

The agreement brings closure to one of the biggest scandals ever faced by the bank, one which saw the looting of billions raised in bond offerings arranged by Goldman and stolen funds landing in the personal bank account of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who lost re-election in 2018 due in large part to public anger over corruption.

But whether the long-awaited settlement has delivered justice is another question. The bank has consistently denied institutional culpability in 1MDB’s fraudulent dealings. Though humbling, the multi-billion dollar settlement is less onerous than investors had previously feared and shields Goldman from the consequences of a parent-level guilty plea.

Under the terms, the bank will pay a $2.3 billion fine for violating anti-bribery laws and will disgorge $600 million of ill-gotten gains as part of a deferred prosecution agreement for its violation of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans companies in the United States from paying foreign government officials for help in gaining or retaining business.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Anwar’s political coup faces moment of royal truth

Opposition leader's claim he has numbers to form new government is still a matter of heated speculation after meeting with king


Amid frenzied speculation and unsubstantiated claims of game-changing political defections, Malaysia may or may not be on the cusp of a change of government. That is where things stand following opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s closely observed Tuesday (October 13) morning audience with Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the country’s constitutional monarch and ceremonial head of state.

After claiming to command support from a “solid and convincing majority” of lawmakers in Parliament at a September 23 press briefing without furnishing evidence or naming those allegedly supporting his power grab, the monarchal meeting was Anwar’s opportunity to substantiate his leadership challenge and seek royal assent to form a new government.

Though there were more questions raised than answers supplied as the day’s events unfolded, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president declined to furnish new details about his bid to take over Putrajaya, as he had pledged he would after meeting the king. He also appeared to contradict earlier claims of having “close to” a two-thirds majority in the legislature.

Addressing reporters at the Le Meridien Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, where Anwar had three weeks earlier sensationally declared that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government had fallen, he claimed to have the backing of more than 120 lawmakers in the 222-member Parliament, sufficient numbers – if substantiated – to form a government.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Muhyiddin losing his luster amid Covid-19 third wave

Malaysian leader suffers reversal of political fortunes amid perceptions his government is largely responsible for new viral outbreak


A record rise in Covid-19 infections in Malaysia is piling pressure on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and members of his Cabinet, with public anger mounting over a soaring caseload that began to multiply after politicians and voters returned from the state of Sabah where polls were held last month.

The uptick of coronavirus cases and deaths is a blight on what until now had been regarded as an effective overall pandemic response, one that had bolstered Muhyiddin’s popularity. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, meanwhile, has signaled that he is not letting up on a bid to unseat the premier’s eight-month-old government. 

Grappling with the highest number of infected patients under treatment since the start of the pandemic in January, health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah declared on October 8 that the country had entered a “third wave” and called on Malaysians to do their part to flatten the curve by staying indoors and adhering to existing health protocols.

Spiraling infection rates in urban centers across Malaysia have been traced to individuals with recent travel history to Sabah, which has become the epicenter of the new outbreak with hundreds of daily cases reported. Multiple clusters have since emerged at schools, universities, shopping malls and government offices nationwide.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Singapore Airlines lives to fly another day

City-state's flag carrier has cashed up and downsized to hit post-pandemic new heights in a consolidated global aviation industry


Singapore’s aviation industry icons, Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Changi Airport Group (CAG), are weathering an unprecedented crisis caused by Covid-19. And it’s unclear if and when the companies, both synonymous with the city-state’s role as a transit hub, will regain their past heights.

The national carrier secured one of the biggest state rescue packages in the global airline industry in March and has thus far raised S$11 billion (US$8 billion) in funds since the start of the 2020-21 financial year through secured financing, loans, and a rights issue backed by state investment company Temasek Holdings, its majority shareholder.

“Without the recent major capitalization exercise, there would not be an SIA today,” said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung in an address to Parliament on October 6. While analysts see the airline as being better-positioned to ride out the turbulence given the amount of finance it now has at hand, further losses and downsizing appear inevitable.

In September, SIA announced the largest retrenchment in its history with 4,300 positions, or around 20% of its staff, affected. A subsequent agreement between the flag carrier and its pilot union saw some 400 jobs saved in exchange for pilots taking salary cuts of between 10% to 60%. Foreigners have so far been among the first to be let go.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Friday, 2 October 2020

Malaysia teeters towards another political convulsion

PM Muhyiddin's coalition is near a breaking point but it's not clear yet opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will emerge on top


With a leadership challenge from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and threats from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to withdraw from his ruling alliance, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s hold on power has never been so precarious.

Though a narrow win for Muhyiddin’s informal Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) alliance at bellwether state elections in Sabah on September 26 somewhat boosted his political clout, a subsequent internal tiff over the grouping’s chief ministerial candidate now threatens to collapse his Perikatan Nasional (PN) governing coalition.

UMNO and Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) were in a deadlock over who should be appointed as Sabah’s next leader, with UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi insisting that candidate come from his party. The position was unexpectedly conceded to Muhyiddin’s preferred choice, Hajiji Mohd Noor, earlier this week.

While the 73-year-old premier described the outcome as reflecting consensus within GRS, Zahid claimed that UMNO’s candidate had been pressured from within into accepting a compromise that was “too costly” a concession.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Monday, 28 September 2020

Muhyiddin’s Sabah win sets stage for snap polls

Malaysian leader's alliance wins pivotal state election seen as referendum on his popularity amid opposition challenge to unseat him


Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s political alliance emerged victorious in closely contested elections in the state of Sabah on Saturday (September 26), an outcome that is likely to strengthen the premier’s position as he faces down an attempt by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to unseat his government.

Widely seen as a litmus test of Muhyiddin’s ability to keep parties aligned with his loose Perikatan Nasional (PN) governing coalition unified as an electorally cohesive bloc, the state elections were seen as a gauge of his personal popularity that will guide decisions as to when snap polls could be called.

Official results from the Election Commission of Malaysia showed that Muhyiddin’s informal Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) opposition alliance clinched a simple majority in the 73-seat state assembly with victories in 38 seats. Winning parties within the grouping, however, failed to reach a consensus on their chief ministerial candidate, leading to an impasse.

Muhyiddin, 73, who is president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, had proposed Hajiji Mohd Noor, the party’s chief in Sabah, as GRS’ candidate for chief minister, while Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), insisted that the state’s next leader come from his party.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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