Monday, 19 November 2018

America’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ lacks currency and resonance

US Vice President Mike Pence outlined at Asian summits a private sector-led counter to China's Belt and Road Initiative, but it's not clear yet the vision will have many takers


When regional leaders gathered in Singapore and Papua New Guinea for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summits, many expected the United States to elaborate upon its new “Indo-Pacific” development strategy for the region.

But what began as an opportunity for the US and China to advance their competing visions for the region’s future development and economic integration ended in acrimony, with officials of the 21-member Apec grouping unable to agree for the first time on a joint communiqué as Washington and Beijing clashed over the statement’s language.

While fissures over trade, investment and maritime security between the world’s two largest economies appear no closer to resolution after the summits, speeches by US Vice President Mike Pence provided more clarity into the US’ Indo-Pacific gambit, which was unveiled in August but has so far failed to gain traction with regional leaders.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initially announced the strategy to include a US$113 million investment package for technology, energy and infrastructure that he called a “down-payment on a new era of US economic commitment to the region.” That new commitment was unveiled alongside US$300 million in new funding for security cooperation.

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, 15 November 2018

Singapore’s ASEAN tenure marked by crises and disputes

Regional grouping made certain cooperative strides under the city-state's revolving leadership, but its trade-promoting tenure was hobbled by a US move away from multilateralism


When Singapore took the reins last year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) rotating leadership, the regional grouping’s credibility and relevance was at stake.

Amid rising geopolitical tensions, maritime disputes in the South China Sea and abuses in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority that the United Nations has said constitute crimes against humanity, consensus has been elusive on issues that are dividing the region.

One year on, despite progress in enhancing certain areas of cooperation, the question of how the 10-member grouping intends to foster greater unity, coherence and relevance is no less pertinent now than when the city-state formally took over the revolving chair from the Philippines last November.

The grouping’s member states – along with top officials from China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States – convened in Singapore this week for the 33rd Asean Summit, where Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave perhaps his most frank assessment to date of US policy and the fractured state of multilateral cooperation.

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, 8 November 2018

Mahathir leans to Japan and away from China

Malaysian leader has visited Tokyo thrice since winning power in May, a concentrated policy to reverse his predecessor government's perceived over-reliance on Beijing


“Malaysia is waiting to be your profit center,” declared Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during his November 7 address to corporate figures and captains of industry at the Malaysia-Japan Economic Association forum in Tokyo.

Investors can expect Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan government to uphold the rule of law in resolving disputes, said the 93-year-old premier, who also promised to remove obstacles to foreign investment in high technology and information technology-based industries in his country.

Economic ties aren’t the only area of cooperation tipped to expand as Malaysia-Japan relations blossom. Tokyo hopes Mahathir’s government will help persuade Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members to support its push for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a key transport artery for oil and freight bound to and from Japan.

For Malaysia – whose scandal-plagued former premier Najib Razak controversially sought robust economic and security ties with China – deeper relations with Japan under a revitalized “Look East” policy are seen as a strategic hedge against Najib-era over-reliance on Beijing and its ambitious global development financing.

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, 5 November 2018

Confidence test for Malaysia’s topsy-turvy finances

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng told investors to expect 'pain and sacrifice' in the 2019 budget but a lack of actual belt-tightening will put pressure on the ringgit


Saddled with debt and liabilities exceeding 1 trillion ringgit (US$240.3 billion) and the risk of a credit rating downgrade, Malaysian Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng had forewarned investors to expect “pain and sacrifice” upon the release of the new Pakatan Harapan government’s inaugural budget.

Amid expectations of new taxes and austerity spending cuts, Lim quipped that he could end up as the most unpopular finance minister in the nation’s history. But when Malaysia’s six-month-old government announced its 2019 budget on November 2, there were no substantial spending cuts to be found.

Observers of Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, who for months have waited for signs of fiscal clarity from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s freshly installed government, now have a clearer picture after the unveiling of an expansionary budget that prioritizes institutional reform and will raise the national deficit to its highest level in five years.

All eyes were on Lim, a trained accountant and former chief minister of the state of Penang, as he stood to table the high-stakes budget in a closely-watched parliamentary address, a make or break opportunity for the newly minted finance minister to prove his mettle as detractors and naysayers have already started to question his management.

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, 31 October 2018

Mahathir puts Saudi Arabia at a diplomatic arm’s length

Malaysian leader has reset ties with the Gulf kingdom, marking a shift away from the ultra-close ties cultivated by his predecessor Najib Razak


When news broke that US$681 million dollars had been transferred to the personal bank account of Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Najib Razak, investigators had already pieced together a trail linking the funds to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a sovereign fund now synonymous with one of the biggest heists in financial history.

Najib, however, had another explanation for where the millions came from: Saudi Arabia. For years, the now ex-premier denied any role in the massive embezzlement at 1MDB, claiming the funds found in his account were a “donation” from a Saudi prince offered in recognition for governing Malaysia according to “Islamic principles.”

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Ahmed Al-Jubeir vouched for Najib in 2016 when asked about the so-called donation, saying it was “genuine” and “given with nothing expected in return.” He pointed out that the then Attorney General of Malaysia had “found no wrongdoing” during investigations and that he considered the matter closed.

Adel now tells a different story. On a recent three-day visit to Malaysia, the first by Riyadh’s top diplomat since May elections returned Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to office, he admitted the millions received by Najib had “nothing to do with the Saudi government,” contradicting his earlier explanation which gave political cover to the ex-premier.

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, 27 October 2018

Surge of hangings in Singapore while Malaysia shuns death penalty

Despite appeals, a Malaysian citizen ensnared in neighboring Singapore’s capital punishment regime was not spared; he was one of four executed this week


Given the circumstances, conjuring a smile couldn’t have been easy. Still, Prabu N. Pathmanathan, a 31-year-old Malaysian convicted of drug trafficking, put on his best face when it came time for his final photographs to be taken. Despite a Malaysian government appeal for leniency, he would be hanged just hours later at Changi Prison in Singapore.

The young Malaysian, sentenced to death for couriering 7.97 ounces of heroin into the city-state in 2014, was among at least six individuals executed in Singapore this month for drug offenses. His fate was sealed after the President’s Office of Singapore rejected two petitions lodged by family members and civil society groups requesting clemency.

Though the Singapore Prison Service does not routinely release information about imminent executions apart from figures released in its annual report, anti-death penalty activists claim that seven executions have taken place since the beginning of October, including four this week.

Asia Times could not independently verify the figure. The wealthy Southeast Asian city-state is known to have conducted a total of eight executions in 2017 and four in 2016. An uptick in the use of capital punishment in Singapore comes as neighboring Malaysia announced earlier this month that it would abolish the death penalty for all crimes.

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.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Anwar extends a hand of friendship to China

Malaysia’s heir apparent pushes cordial ties with Beijing amid differences over mega-projects and Uighur asylum-seekers


Fresh from a landslide by-election victory earlier this month that cemented his position as a ruling coalition lawmaker, veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim has stepped back into frontline politics and onto the world stage. The 71-year-old reform icon recently wrapped up a closely-watched three-day visit to China.

His trip comes amid speculation from certain quarters that Beijing has grown displeased over bilateral differences with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s administration, which has undertaken a strategic recalibration of ties with the world’s second-largest economy since clinching a surprise victory in May’s general election.

US$23 billion worth of Chinese-backed projects, including a coast-to-coast rail link and two gas pipelines, have since been cancelled or deferred by the Malaysian government, which accuses former premier Najib Razak’s scandal-and-corruption-besieged administration of unscrupulous borrowing to fund those projects.

Malaysia allowed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslim detainees, natives of China’s western Xinjiang province, to travel to Turkey in a bid to seek asylum earlier this month, defying a months-old request from Beijing for their repatriation on security grounds. China’s Foreign Ministry reacted in strong terms, saying it “resolutely” opposed the move.

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, 23 October 2018

Singapore and the EU fly the flag of free trade

At odds with US trade policy, Singapore and the European Union champion multilateralism with an eye toward a broader deal with Southeast Asian economies


Amid rising trade tensions between the two largest economies, the Asia-Europe Meeting Summit (ASEM) in Brussels last week saw leaders from both regions fly the so-called flag of free trade. Though there was no explicit mention of American trade policies in the meeting’s joint declaration, the spectre of unilateralism seemed to loom large over the proceedings.

It was here that Singapore and the European Union (EU) signed a landmark trade deal reputed to serve as the building blocks for a wider future trade pact with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While sought for years, a trade deal linking the two regional organisations is still in the early stages of negotiations.

Negotiated for the better part of a decade, the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA) is a bid to improve business ties with the wealthy city-state, the EU’s top trading partner in Southeast Asia. The agreement, expected to come into force next year, has been touted as a boost for Singapore’s companies and their exports.

The deal also held symbolic importance, with Singapore’s Prime Minister Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong framing the effort as a bid to shore up a multilateral system that has come under severe stress, owing to certain countries resorting to protectionist unilateral actions and even explicitly repudiating multilateral approaches and institutions.

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, 20 October 2018

Unsolved murders coming back to haunt Najib

Ex-Malaysian premier says he welcomes fresh probes into suspicious killings during his tenure, but new evidence in the cold cases looks to link him to the crimes


Buffeted by charges of massive corruption, embezzlement and money-laundering related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal, Malaysia’s ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak could soon face charges of an altogether different sort: murder

Persistent rumors of his alleged links to several high-profile murder cases during his tenure have prompted renewed calls for authorities to open fresh probes into a string of grisly killings of which Najib has always steadfastly denied any knowledge or association.

In a recent tit-for-tat exchange with veteran parliamentarian Lim Kit Siang, Najib appeared to welcome calls for the murder cases to be reopened and for special inquiries to be formed, declaring that it was time for “justice to be served” after bearing the brunt of what he says are slanderous accusations linking him with the killings.

“It is now time for justice to be served to me, the victims’ families, and to give room to all the Malaysian people who have accused and defamed me to regret what they have hurled,” the former premier said in a Facebook post earlier this month while accusing the Pakatan Harapan government and their “propaganda experts” of disparaging him.

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, 16 October 2018

Mahathir puts Uighur rights above China ties

Malaysian leader's move to send ethnic Uighur Muslim detainees to Turkey defied a Chinese extradition request and threatens to roil already strained bilateral relations


China and Malaysia’s relations are set for a new test after the Muslim-majority country freed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslim detainees it held on humanitarian grounds, ignoring a months-old request from Beijing for their repatriation on security grounds. The detainees had been charged with illegally entering Malaysia after escaping a jail in Thailand last November.

Malaysian prosecutors dropped charges against the Uighurs, a Turkic language-speaking Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to China’s western Xinjiang province. Last week they were allowed to travel to Turkey, where thousands have fled to seek asylum from Chinese persecution and are welcomed by Turkish nationalists who regard them as kin.

The Uighur detainees had been imprisoned in Thailand since 2014 and were ordered to remain in custody until their nationalities could be proven, a situation complicated by the fact that both China and Turkey claim them as their citizens. Twenty prisoners staged a jailbreak last year using blankets to scale barbed-wire fences, with some crossing into neighboring Malaysia.

“They have done nothing wrong in this country, so they are released,” Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters in his first public comments on the issue since charges against the Uighur detainees were withdrawn. A statement by China’s Foreign Ministry, however, took a hard diplomatic line against the decision.

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.