Friday, 24 June 2022

Najib guns for judge who convicted him

Graft probe into judge who convicted former Malaysian premier called intimidation campaign against judiciary

Malaysia’s highest court will soon reach its final and incontestable conclusion on whether to uphold former prime minister Najib Razak’s landmark corruption conviction, a ruling that will leave the influential ex-leader either firmly emboldened as he mounts a political comeback or forced to adjust to life in a jail cell.

Lawyers for the 68-year-old politician recently filed a last-ditch bid to nullify his conviction and 12-year prison sentence handed down in July 2020 over the misappropriation of 42 million ringgit (US$9.5 million) from SRC International, a now-defunct investment vehicle of the infamous 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund.

Najib’s legal team contends that the judge who handed down the historic ruling, Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali, should be disqualified for a purported conflict of interest due to his previous stint as the general counsel of Maybank Group, a commercial lender to 1MDB that had played an advisory role in the establishment of SRC International.

A probe into the same sitting judge by the government’s anti-graft agency in response to unsubstantiated claims leveled by a fugitive blogger that Nazlan had pocketed stolen 1MDB funds has, meanwhile, shaken Malaysia’s legal fraternity and prompted the country’s chief justice to push back against “scurrilous attacks” leveled against the judiciary.

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, 3 June 2022

Inflation politics a game of chicken in Malaysia

PM Ismail defying UMNO elder calls for snap polls due to the impact of runaway poultry and other food prices on voters


Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has few vote-winning achievements to claim after less than a year in office, which suggests he has little to gain and plenty to lose by calling an early election of which graft-tainted party leaders of his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) are aggressively lobbying.

Pointing to thumping wins in recent state elections and an opposition coalition in disarray, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi says the electoral time is right for the party to reclaim its traditional political dominance. But Ismail has countered that fast-rising food inflation and basic living costs mean snap polls should be delayed until prices stabilize.

Malaysia’s next general election must be called by the third quarter of 2023, but UMNO-led governments have in the past held early elections to capitalize on political popularity or favorable economic conditions. UMNO suffered a historic defeat in 2018 but returned to power through parliamentary maneuvers and is now eyeing a redemptive victory.

Ismail, however, is adamant that the next election should not be held until the country can curb inflation, telling Nikkei Asia in a recent interview that his government would “have to wait for the right time” to dissolve parliament and call new polls. “We are now facing a period of increasing inflation with high prices… do you think this is the right time?”

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, 30 May 2022

Why ASEAN is giving Biden’s IPEF a chance

Indo-Pacific Economic Framework lacks clear market-opening measures but SE Asian nations are nonetheless keen to join


US President Joe Biden formally announced his administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) last week, with a dozen nations – including seven from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – stepping forward to join negotiations to formalize the new and loosely defined economic pact.

Appraisals of the initiative have thus far been mixed, with critics saying the proposed framework doesn’t offer participating countries enough value to serve as an effective economic counterweight to China. Asia Times’ correspondent and Southeast Asia Insider editor Nile Bowie has followed the story closely and shared his assessment of the IPEF in this week’s Q&A.

Read the full interview 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, 20 May 2022

Biden shrugs off ASEAN’s free trade mantra

Washington’s diplomacy with Southeast Asia sidestepped free trade agenda despite lobbying from regional leaders


US President Joe Biden hailed a “new era” in relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) when its leaders visited Washington last week for a two-day summit aimed at strengthening strategic ties with a regional organization that in recent years has pursued deeper economic integration with China through trade and infrastructure projects.

While the two sides pledged to elevate their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and the White House’s show of diplomatic initiative was warmly received, observers say the absence of a multilateral economic program that offers expanded market access has left Southeast Asian nations increasingly disappointed with the US over a lack of progress on trade issues.

Biden told the gathering of regional leaders that strengthening US ties with ASEAN is “at the very heart” of his foreign policy strategy. But absent an economic alternative to Beijing’s various big-ticket initiatives, the administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy risks being viewed through the prism of security and what some regard as an effort to geopolitically contain China.

“The recent summit was a tick-box exercise for the US to show that it can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist and professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The US is evidently trying to raise its game in view of ASEAN-China ties, but Washington will need to do more if it is to be convincing to countries around the Indo-Pacific.”

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 May 2022

Malaysia squandering a palm oil price windfall

Malaysia should be a major beneficiary of sky-high global prices but acute labor shortages are limiting its upside


Indonesia’s controversial ban on palm oil exports has sent global edible oil prices soaring, creating a supply gap that Malaysia is in a pole position to fill. But ongoing labor shortages due to more than two years of Covid-19 border curbs have left the country ill-equipped to fully capitalize on a golden opportunity to expand its market share.

Zuraida Kamaruddin, Malaysia’s Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister, has nonetheless reassured markets that global demand would be met by raising production, promising new foreign worker arrivals in May and June after plans to add more labor have stalled for months. Malaysia and Indonesia jointly account for 85% of global palm oil output.

Apart from Indonesia’s haphazard export ban, enacted to tamp down soaring domestic prices, vegetable oil prices climbed to all-time highs in March after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted sunflower oil shipments and drought in South America led to reduced soybean production in Brazil, the world’s biggest exporter of the oilseed.

Supply uncertainties have so far benefited Malaysian palm oil, with exports to the European Union, where the commodity had been increasingly shunned due to environmental and forced labor concerns, surging 48.3% in March compared with February, while exports to India, the world’s largest importer of edible oils, rose 20.8% in March.

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, 29 April 2022

Up and up for Singapore’s decade-high inflation

Monetary Authority of Singapore is on the regional vanguard of central banks reining in loose monetary policies


Consumer prices in Singapore are at a decade-high and projected to “pick up sharply” in the coming months according to the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), as the trade-reliant city-state grapples with global supply constraints, soaring commodity prices and a tight domestic labor market.

For Singaporeans, this has meant higher household power bills and transportation costs, increased fees for services, as well as pricier chicken rice at hawker centers. With the island nation having eased nearly all Covid-19 curbs, the post-pandemic era is rapidly being defined by cost pressures on consumer-facing sectors.

Singapore’s central bank said global developments, in particular the Russia-Ukraine conflict, have worsened the external inflation outlook, leading it to forecast in its half-yearly macroeconomic review published on April 28 that core inflation will peak in the third quarter as energy price increases filter through to local electricity and gas tariffs.

The core inflation rate – MAS’ favored price measure – outpaced economist forecasts with a rise of 2.9% year-on-year in March, the sharpest increase since March 2012. Headline or overall inflation, which includes private transport and accommodation, rose to 5.4%, the fastest since April 2012, prompting MAS to revise its projections earlier this 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.

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

What premier-in-waiting Wong means for Singapore

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong leveraged his previous role in managing the pandemic to pip rival People’s Action Party candidates


Until a few years ago, Singapore’s Finance Minister Lawrence Wong was a relatively little-known civil servant turned politician. But on April 14, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) endorsed him as leader of its fourth-generation (4G) team, putting him in line to become the city-state’s next prime minister.

The announcement of a confirmed successor to long-serving Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose eventual exit after roughly two decades will mark a major turning point in the nation’s politics, has appeared to put minds at ease, with 49-year-old Wong now well-positioned to cast himself as a symbol of Singapore’s meritocracy.

Few previously considered Wong a potential national leader, but analysts say his competent performance as co-chairman of a multi-ministry task force leading Singapore’s Covid-19 response has proven pivotal to his rise, allowing him to cultivate an affable public image and ultimately win the confidence of his governing party peers.

What is less clear is how Wong, who would only be Singapore’s fourth leader since achieving independence, intends to step out of Lee’s shadow to fashion his own brand of leadership as the new face of the historically-dominant PAP at a time when the city-state’s politics are becoming more hotly contested amid rising calls for greater diversity in parliament.

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, 15 April 2022

Hopes for 1MDB justice fast fading away

US court conviction of ex-Goldman banker Roger Ng stands in stark contrast to slow-moving proceedings in Malaysia


Justice came swiftly for Roger Ng, the 49-year-old former head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs Malaysia. After an eight-week US federal court trial, Ng was found guilty by a jury in Brooklyn, New York of violating anti-corruption laws and conspiring to launder billions from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, state development fund.

But in Malaysia itself, delays in prosecuting alleged crimes linked to the globe-spanning financial scandal is for many a rising source of frustration, one that is emboldening criminally convicted former premier Najib Razak, who is seeking to overturn his own 1MDB-related guilty verdict and 12-year jail sentence.

Portraying himself as the victim of a political conspiracy, Najib has mounted a strong political comeback while free on bail despite his conviction for money laundering, criminal breach of trust and abuse of power in July 2020 in the first of five corruption trials he faces. He denies all wrongdoing and is waiting for a date to be set for his final appeal hearing on his conviction.

The speedy US conviction of Ng, also known by his birth name Ng Chong Hwa, is spurring calls for 1MDB-related trials in Malaysia to be expedited. US trial testimony directly implicated the ex-premier and his wife Rosmah Mansor, while also raising questions about the involvement of others – a fact Najib’s legal team is now attempting to leverage to the ex-premier’s advantage.

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, 7 April 2022

Lee shines light on a US-China middle path

But Singapore leader’s balancing act is under stress amid perceptions he has sided with the West against Beijing’s ally Russia


In Washington, some label him a “Beijing whisperer.” It’s a characterization Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laughed off during his recent eight-day trip to the United States, where the two nations affirmed their strong defense ties and the long-serving premier emphasized America’s enduring presence as crucial to the Asia-Pacific’s continued “peace, stability and prosperity.”

But it was other aspects of Lee’s messaging that Chinese state media highlighted and spun, namely his call for America’s leaders to engage and accommodate China – Singapore’s largest trading partner – “on a win-win basis,” and to think harder about avoiding paths to a great power conflict between the world’s two largest economies.

Should the US fail to heed Singapore’s advice, “reality will teach it a profound lesson,” blared a recent editorial in the Chinese state-run Global Times newspaper that cited Lee’s past remarks that Washington should not force Asian nations to take sides, charging that such “voices of reason” are often ignored in a bid to counter China’s rise.

The publication acknowledged the wealthy city-state as having “achieved a relatively good balance between China and the US.” But a deepening global divide between so-called democratic and autocratic camps following Russia’s shock invasion of Ukraine may put Singapore in greater danger of wobbling as it straddles a diplomatic tightrope.

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, 25 March 2022

Singapore drops the mask in new post-pandemic push

City-state lifting various Covid controls and travel restrictions in ‘decisive’ move to live with the virus


With a high majority of its population fully vaccinated and nearly all eligible given a booster, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Thursday (March 24) a major easing of strict virus control measures in a “decisive step forward towards living with Covid-19.”

Gatherings of up to 10 people, up from a limit of five currently, will be permitted and the wearing of masks outdoors will be optional from March 29 in the most significant relaxation of rules in place for nearly two years. The city-state will also allow vaccinated travelers to enter the city-state without quarantine from April under a new travel framework.

In a televised speech, Lee said the country’s healthcare system remained resilient through a now-subsiding wave of transmission driven by the Omicron variant. While stopping short of a complete opening up, the premier said Singapore had to weigh the continued costs of stringent safety measures on businesses, the economy and society.

For many in the island nation, the announcement couldn’t have come soon enough. Although public compliance with protracted virus curbs has never ebbed, months of back-and-forth adjustments to restrictions have brought a palpable sense of fatigue as well as confusion over what “living with Covid-19” actually means.

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.