Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Asia’s budding interest in corporate cannabis

First-mover regional nations are eyeing windfall profits as the marijuana industry sprouts and spreads worldwide


One after another, Asian nations are rethinking their stance on marijuana. Growing commercial acceptance and promised economic gains of legalization have spurred a wave of liberalization that has seen a rising number of industrialized countries allow the use of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes.

Pot has gone from illicit substance to up-and-coming commodity in the span of a few years as global investors, portfolio managers and high-ranking executives tread on what was once the turf of the neighborhood dealer. Multi-billion dollar growth projections have even started to give pause to lawmakers in staunchly anti-drug Southeast Asia.

Thailand is slated to become the region’s first country to allow the medical use of marijuana after a military-appointed legislative assembly vote on December 28 backed the measure. Though the Buddhist-majority country still plans to retain penalties for recreational use, analysts see the reversal on medical marijuana as a precursor to more liberalization.

Although Southeast Asian nations have until now had little tolerance for marijuana, seen in some the world’s strictest narcotics laws, scientific studies espousing the plant’s medicinal benefits and its fast-growing corporate commoditization have sparked a new debate.

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, 7 January 2019

King’s abdication stirs Malaysia’s royal affairs

Sultan Muhammad V's surprise abdication, reputedly to avoid scrutiny of his marriage to a Russian beauty queen, puts the rotational monarchy in uncharted waters


Malaysia’s constitutional monarchy is in the midst of a rare upheaval after the surprise abdication of Sultan Muhammad V, he country’s king, or the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, as he is officially known. On January 6, the 49-year-old sultan became the first royal ever to resign from the federation’s throne.

A statement issued by the palace offered no official reason for the monarch’s decision to quit after serving just two years of a five-year term that was slated to expire in 2021. Prior to the announcement, speculation had been mounting about the monarch’s status after he took a two-month leave of absence on medical grounds.

During that period, reports spread that the sultan had married Oksana Voevodina, a 25-year-old Russian beauty queen, in Moscow, although this was never officially confirmed or addressed by the palace. Reports suggest the country’s other hereditary rulers were uneasy over the union and the possible royal coronation of Voevodina.

Malaysia’s constitutional monarchs have a ceremonial role and are bestowed as the heads of Islam in their respective states. A total of nine Malay royal houses comprise the Conference of Rulers, which convenes to elect among themselves a Yang di-Pertuan Agong, a largely symbolic head of state who typically serves a five-year term.

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, 28 December 2018

Lee family feud rekindled in Singapore

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his estranged brother Lee Hsien Yang have taken opposite sides in a defamation lawsuit against a local activist


When Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued a government critic this month for defamation, it’s unlikely he expected the lawsuit to draw attention to the still lingering enmities of a bitter family feud that pits him against his siblings.

Leong Sze Hian, a financial adviser and rights activist, filed a defense and counterclaim against Lee on December 26, arguing that the premier’s libel suit over his Facebook post of a news article alleging Lee’s complicity in a financial scandal in neighboring Malaysia is an “abuse of the process of the court.”

Leong launched a crowdfunding campaign in late December aimed at raising S$10,000 (US$7,314) for his legal defense. The first person to donate: Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister’s estranged younger brother.

Lee was quoted in local media saying that he contributed a “meaningful sum” to Leong’s campaign without specifying the amount. When reporters asked him about the move, he merely replied without elaborating, “Surely it needs no explanation?”

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, 27 December 2018

Honeymoon wanes on Mahathir’s ‘New Malaysia’

Opinion polls show premier's popularity is falling fast as supporters begin to sense his newly elected government won't be able to keep all its campaign vows


From the political earthquake of May’s general election that toppled long-serving prime minister Najib Razak, to the wheels of justice turning on a globe-spanning corruption scandal, 2018 has been momentous a year for Malaysia. Few have been as directly affected by fast-moving events than veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim, who was only months ago languishing in a jail cell on a politicized sodomy conviction.

He is now prime-minister-in-waiting and expected to take the reins of power when incumbent leader Mahathir Mohamad steps down within the next two years. In a recent article, Anwar was quoted referring to Malaysia’s expectation-defying election and political transition as an example of “democratic disruption” and a “hopeful outlier to a global trend towards populist nationalism.”

Supporters have heralded the downfall of the once-dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition it led as the beginning of a “New Malaysia.” But while the ending of an decades-long era initially brought euphoria, disillusionment is already on the rise as cracks begin to show within the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Public approval of Mahathir’s performance has plunged nearly 20% since June, according to Invoke Malaysia, a non-profit pollster founded by Rafizi Ramli, vice president of Anwar’s party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). Support from respondents across all ethnic groups has fallen, leaving the premier with a 53% approval rating, down from a 72% high.

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, 19 December 2018

Malaysia puts Goldman Sachs in the dock

Wall Street investment bank says it will 'vigorously contest' criminal charges brought by Malaysia over bond offerings for scandal-plagued 1MDB fund


Malaysian authorities filed criminal charges against three subsidiaries of Goldman Sachs this week in connection with the US investment bank’s involvement in a sprawling scandal that saw billions embezzled from state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The move has shaken confidence in the Wall Street firm.

While past controversies have seen the bank pay hefty legal settlements when its employees became subject to criminal charges and investigation, the charges filed by Malaysia’s Attorney General Tommy Thomas on December 17 are believed to represent the first time the New York bank has been directly blamed for wrongdoing.

Tim Leissner, an ex-managing director at Goldman who was once the bank’s Southeast Asia chairman, and Ng Chong Hwa, a former bank employee, were also charged alongside 1MDB’s former general counsel Jasmine Loo Ai Swan and fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, who authorities regard as a central player in the scandal.

In a media statement, Thomas accused bank employees of conspiring with Low to bribe Malaysian state officials and claimed Goldman made false and misleading statements in order to dishonestly misappropriate US$2.7 billion from the proceeds of three bond issuances in 2012 and 2013 that raised $6.5 billion for 1MDB.

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, 14 December 2018

1MDB dragnet closes in on Najib, Goldman Sachs

Legal wheels are turning fast in Malaysia and US to jail the ex-premier and hold the American investment bank responsible for money laundering and fraud worth billions of dollars


Prosecutors in Malaysia filed yet another round of new graft charges against disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak this week after investigators questioned him and Arul Kanda Kandasamy, a former chief executive at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), over allegations of tampering with a 2016 government audit of the graft-linked state fund.

Malaysian officials say Najib ordered amendments to the audit report that removed a mention of fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho’s presence at a 1MDB board meeting, a figure both Malaysian and US authorities regard as a central player in the alleged theft of an estimated US$4.5 billion dollars from 1MDB between 2009 and 2014.

By amending the audit report before it was finalized, Najib had “secured protection from disciplinary, civil or criminal action related to 1MDB,” according to the charge-sheet read in court on December 12. He pled not guilty to an abuse of power charge, while Arul pled not guilty to abetting and engaging in a criminal conspiracy with the former premier.

Najib, 66, who was ousted in May after a coalition led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad clinched a shock election victory, faces charges of graft, abuse of power and criminal breach of trust related to 1MDB. He has consistently denied wrongdoing and could spend the rest of his life behind bars if found guilty in a trial due to begin next year.

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, 12 December 2018

Malaysia opens old and new wounds with Singapore

Air and sea disputes have stoked new tensions between the causeway neighbors, revisiting an earlier era of testy bilateral relations


Air and sea disputes have stoked new tensions between Malaysia and Singapore, driving ties between the neighbors to their lowest point since Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad notched a shock election victory in May this year.

Earlier this month, Singapore lodged a “strong protest” over Malaysia’s plans to extend the limits of a port in its southernmost state, Johor, claiming its territorial waters would be encroached upon. The wealthy city-state also accused Malaysian vessels of repeated intrusions, claims that Malaysia’s Transport Minister Anthony Loke Siew Fook has contested.

Loke has maintained that the altered port’s limits are in Malaysia’s territorial sea and do not encroach on any part of Singapore. The maritime boundary tiff comes as the two countries wrangle over another dispute involving control of a flight path that passes over Malaysian airspace to a small secondary airport in Singapore.

Malaysia informed its southern neighbor that it intends to take back control of the airspace, which Singapore has managed since 1974. Malaysia made the announcement after the city-state issued a new instrument landing system at its Seletar Airport without Malaysia’s consent, which Loke said would lead to height limits on building developments and affect shipping operations in Johor.

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, 9 December 2018

Race, religion still rallying cries in ‘New Malaysia’

Ethno-nationalist opposition forces have pressed PM Mahathir Mohamad to backtrack on a commitment to end all forms of racial discrimination as the nation's ethnic politics intensify


Tens of thousands of Malay Muslims took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on December 8 to oppose Malaysia’s adoption of a United Nations (UN) convention against racial discrimination amid fears that privileges enjoyed by the Malay majority and Islam’s status as the country’s official religion would be threatened.

When Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad addressed the UN General Assembly in September, he pledged that Malaysia would ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

Although the nonagenarian premier admitted that ratification “would not be easy” owing to acute sensitives around race and religion in Muslim-majority Malaysia, the pledge was hailed both at home and abroad as an indication of the new Pakatan Harapan government’s commitment to human rights, reform and democratization.

Conservative ethno-nationalist and Islamist opposition parties, however, furiously took aim at the treaty and alleged, contrary to the facts, that it would threaten the special position of Malay Muslims, who account for around 60% of the population and are granted special status as bumiputera, or “sons of the soil”, in Article 153 of the country’s constitution.

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, 29 November 2018

Singapore shakes as Lee looks to retire

The long-ruling People's Action Party's planned transition to a fourth generation of leaders has revealed top-level misgivings and shaky confidence in the pending succession


When Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that he intended to retire to make way for a younger generation executive from his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), speculation ran rampant over who would be tapped to succeed the long-time leader.

That question was answered with last week’s appointment of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general, putting him on course to become the island republic’s fourth prime minister. The long-dominant PAP currently holds 82 of 89 elected seats in Singapore’s Parliament.

The 66-year-old Lee announced after the 2015 election that he will step down before he turns 70, though some think it could happen sooner with rising anticipation of a snap poll in 2019. Lee is expected to assume an overarching senior role as either “mentor minister” or “senior minister” when he eventually steps down from the premiership.

Underscoring the sensitivity of the transition and certain misgivings over the drawn-out selection process, Goh Chok Tong – Lee’s still influential predecessor – described the transition as an “urgent challenge” in a Facebook post last December and called on the party’s “fourth generation” or “4G” leadership to select a successor within six to nine months.

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, 26 November 2018

As US-China tussle and joust, Russia moves on SEAsia

From trade deals to arms sales to nuclear cooperation, Moscow is making its case as a third force competitor in the strategic region


When Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first-ever state visit to Singapore this month for the East Asia Summit (EAS) – a regional gathering never before attended by the Russian leader – observers saw the move as a signal of Moscow’s bid to play a larger role in regional affairs.

Despite a stronger emphasis on developing political and commercial ties with Asia-Pacific nations in recent years, Russia has largely focused on alignment with China and deepening relations with Japan, South Korea and India. The Kremlin has paid comparatively less attention on Southeast Asia, but there are signs that is now changing.

From new trade opportunities to arms purchases and diplomatic protection, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) appear to broadly welcome greater political, economic and defense cooperation with Russia and its moves to step up participation in the region’s multilateral institutions.

Moscow, for its part, aims to win new markets for its defense industries and vast energy sector amid tightening sanctions leveled by the United States against individuals, entities and third parties for their dealings with the Russian military and targeted defense companies. US attempts to limit Russia’s arms exports could, however, meet resistance from regional buyers.

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.