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.

Friday, 18 March 2022

Malaysia’s game of thrones conspiring against Ismail

UMNO heavyweights are agitating for snap polls that could bring an early end to the accidental premier’s tenure


Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is facing renewed pressure to call an early general election from his rivals within the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and its grassroots supporters after the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition it leads clinched an emphatic victory at the recent Johor state election.

Winning 40 out of 56 seats in the Johor state assembly, the results surpassed the BN’s own target of a two-thirds majority and follow an earlier landslide victory in Melaka’s bellwether state polls in November. But in an ironic twist, some analysts argue that the biggest winner of the March 12 Johor election wasn’t even a candidate.

Criminally convicted former prime minister Najib Razak has emerged as the BN’s star campaigner, attracting crowds on the election trail and winning plaudits from party leadership for his success as a vote-getter. The ex-premier emerged as the political face of the coalition’s resounding win in Johor, just as he did in Melaka five months ago.

Time is of the essence for Najib and his key ally, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. Both politicians face prison time on graft and money laundering charges and are agitating for snap polls to capitalize on the BN’s political momentum. Their ultimate aim, say analysts, is to get ahead of the courts by foisting a sympathetic member of their faction into the premiership.

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, 11 March 2022

Goldman’s top execs off scot-free at 1MDB trial

Lawyers insist ex-Goldman banker Roger Ng is a ‘fall guy’ for higher level complicity in the multi-billion dollar scandal


Often described as one of the largest financial heists in history, the now-infamous money laundering and bribery scandal involving state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, saw billions looted from public coffers. The only Malaysian to be tried overseas over the scandal, meanwhile, adamantly insists he is a “fall guy.”

Since the February 14 opening of his trial at the US Eastern District Court of New York, lawyers for 49-year-old Roger Ng, the former head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs Malaysia, have described their client as a scapegoat for companywide failures at the Wall Street bank that enabled massive fraud.

Ng, or his birth name Ng Chong Hwa, has pleaded not guilty and denies accusations of bribing foreign officials, circumventing Goldman’s internal compliance rules, laundering portions of the US$6.5 billion raised by the bank for 1MDB through three bond issuances in 2012 and 2013, and allegedly pocketing about $35 million in the process.

Legal experts and close observers of 1MDB proceedings say Ng faces an uphill battle in proving his innocence since prosecutors will likely show the jury incriminating emails, online chats and financial records showing he benefited from the scheme. But much still hinges on the question of Goldman’s institutional culpability in 1MDB’s fraudulent dealings.

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 February 2022

Lee’s successor coming into new view in Singapore

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong is among the frontrunners to take over when PM Lee Hsien Loong finally steps aside


In a nation reputed for its staid politics, the delivery of the annual budget statement is one of Singapore’s keynote political events. Amid the unveiling of the latest spending plan has been a back-of-mind concern that Singaporeans have not previously been accustomed to: a stalled prime ministerial leadership transition.

When Finance Minister Lawrence Wong announced the budget earlier this month, it was his first time doing so since a cabinet reshuffle last April put him in charge of the influential ministry, a portfolio held previously by deputy premier Heng Swee Keat, who had earlier that month stepped aside as prime minister-designate in a surprise announcement.

The appointment put 49-year-old Wong, already one of the most visible government leaders in his role as co-chairman of a multi-ministry task force in charge of Singapore’s Covid-19 response, among the frontrunners in a contest for which there is still no clear successor a decade since aging Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first broached his plans to retire.

Apart from Wong, who on February 18 unveiled a spending plan designed to drum up revenue with a slew of tax hikes on higher income groups after two years of pandemic-era big-spending, local media and commentators see Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, 52, and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, 52, as the top contenders to succeed Lee.

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 February 2022

Muted ASEAN response to Russia’s brazen invasion

SE Asian states have been mostly reticent on Russia’s assault on Ukraine but no doubt quietly worry about the precedent being set


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “shock and awe” invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the biggest attack on a European state since World War II, has been met with condemnation from global democracies for the dangerous new precedent being set by Moscow.

Yet in Southeast Asia, a region where non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations is sacrosanct among democrats and autocrats alike, governments have been reticent to issue strong statements on the fast-moving developments in Eastern Europe as invading Russian forces attempt to encircle the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.

Singapore, both the region’s smallest state and its most outspoken thus far, sees the unfolding security crisis as a stark reminder that sovereignty, independence and adherence to international law are not to be taken for granted, with its foreign affairs ministry condemning “any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext.”

The city-state reiterated its stance that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected,” a position that it alone took in the region after the Kremlin recognized Donetsk and Luhansk, breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists, as “independent” states on February 21.

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, 17 February 2022

Malaysian economy grows, but pandemic risks remain

With record infection numbers, authorities are not ready to end quarantines for travelers or reopen borders


Malaysia’s economy is firmly in recovery territory with full-year growth for 2021 having expanded within the official forecast range at 3.1% after a rebound in the final quarter of last year. But Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy isn’t out of the woods as inflationary headwinds threaten to stymie growth-spurring private consumption.

Authorities are also now battling a surge in Covid-19 cases fueled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which has driven up daily infections fivefold. The country reported a record high of 27,831 cases on February 16, adding to a cumulative total of more than three million since the pandemic started.

With a 78.8% full vaccination rate and approximately 99.6% of new cases suffering only asymptomatic or mild symptoms, health experts say Omicron’s milder impact should make the current wave more manageable than the deadly Delta variant that killed tens of thousands last year, resulting in one of Asia’s highest fatality and infection rates.

Weary of a viral resurgence, authorities are still not ready to end quarantine restrictions for vaccinated travelers or reopen borders, which have been closed since March 2020. But as Malaysia’s neighbors step up their easing of restrictions on inbound international travel, analysts say the government’s guarded stance risks hindering foreign investment.

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.