Sunday, 15 July 2018

Moon looks to SE Asia for peace and prosperity

South Korean leader's visit to Singapore aimed to leverage Asean's fast growth and willingness to integrate North Korea into the global community


One month after the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, matchmaker South Korean President Moon Jae-in dispatched on a peace in tour to Southeast Asia.

The man whose personal diplomacy played an indispensable role in bringing together the two longtime adversaries spent three days in Singapore, the wealthy Asian city-state that played host to the landmark summit, for a high-profile state visit.

“One cannot talk of peace without speaking of Singapore,” he said in the highlight lecture of his visit, where he conveyed a message of gratitude and praise while underscoring the important role that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can play in integrating North Korea into the international community.

Moon’s visit showcased his administration’s “New Southern Policy,” a key strategy that seeks to diversify and enhance Seoul’s political and economic relations with ASEAN’s 10 member states, as well as India, where the South Korean leader embarked from prior to arriving in Singapore.

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, 11 July 2018

Mahathir picks a water fight with Singapore

Malaysian premier says a decades-old, fixed rate supply contract is 'too costly' and 'ridiculous' while the rich city-state maintains that a deal is a deal


In resource-scarce Singapore, water is sacrosanct. Water security has long been a perennial concern for the otherwise rich city-state, which for decades has relied on water imports from neighboring Malaysia to meet demand.

Now, a contentious dispute over those contractual water sales that previously stoked bilateral tensions has resurfaced under newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who recently described the decades-old deal as “too costly” and “manifestly ridiculous.”

Under the 1962 agreement, Singapore can import up to 250 million gallons of raw water per day from the Johor River at the low cost of 0.03 Malaysian ringgit per 1,000 gallons.

The legally binding agreement was guaranteed by both governments and registered with the United Nations when Singapore separated from Malaysia to become an independent state in 1965. The deal is not due to expire until 2061.

Malaysia sought a price revision during Mahathir’s previous term as premier, a dispute that severely strained ties in the early 2000’s, but talks stalled and were ultimately abandoned.

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, 7 July 2018

70 years later, Malayan Emergency’s legacy lives on

Political compact that emerged from the conflict and defined post-colonial Malaysia's governance and race relations is now under review


This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Malayan Emergency, an undeclared war fought between the Communist Party of Malaya’s (CPM) guerrilla army and the former British colonial government of Malaya. Modern-day independent Malaysia would emerge from the tumult.

Over the course of the 1948-60 conflict, ethnic minorities were granted citizenship for the first time and Malaya’s first municipal and district elections were held, developments that fostered the political alliance that would define Malaysia’s post-colonial landscape.

While the period saw an ideological division widen in relation to Malaya’s place among the rival blocs of the Cold War, another struggle with links to the present also manifested: the tussle for a viable political compact capable of effectively governing Malaya’s complex multiracial society. Seven decades on, after historic elections on May 9 this year, that long-held compact is now under review.

Leading the armed communist revolt for Malayan independence was Ong Boon Hua, an ethnic Chinese political activist better known by his alias Chin Peng. Years before becoming the British Empire’s most wanted man, he was one of Britain’s most dependable wartime allies, helping to drive invading Japanese forces out of Malaya during World War II.

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, 3 July 2018

Najib arrested and charged in stunning fall from grace

Former Malaysian premier is held for his alleged role in pilfering billions from 1MDB fund. But is this the dawn of a 'New Malaysia' or old-fashioned political vengeance?


Anti-corruption officers arrested Malaysia’s former premier Najib Razak at his residence on Tuesday, a stunning reversal of fortunes and the latest in a string of dramatic political developments that have unfolded since May 9 polls toppled the long-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition for the first time in the nation’s history.

Since returning to office, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reopened investigations into an international corruption scandal at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state development fund, which accumulated billions in debts following its 2009 launch with Najib as its advisory board chairman.

Money laundering probes into 1MDB dealings are ongoing in at least six countries. Graft investigators at the US Department of Justice (DoJ) believe Najib’s associates embezzled and laundered US$4.5 billion from the fund from 2009 to 2014, some of which landed in the ex-premier’s bank account. Najib staunchly denies any wrongdoing.

Najib’s arrest yesterday was in relation to dealings at SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB which pursued overseas investments in energy resources. Investigators questioned the former premier in May over US$10.6 million from SRC International that was discovered to have been channeled into Najib’s personal bank account.

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, 20 June 2018

While skeptical of China, Mahathir embraces Jack Ma

Malaysian PM regularly blasts Chinese projects for neglecting his people, but he approves of Alibaba's initiatives in his country


Since his surprise electoral win on May 9, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has taken hard aim at several China-backed investment projects initiated by his predecessor, ex-premier Najib Razak.

With reviews of infrastructure deals and multilateral trade and security pacts now underway, many have wondered whether recent initiatives by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, one of the world’s largest e-commerce companies, could face similar tough scrutiny.

But Mahathir’s meeting this week with Chinese business magnate Jack Ma, Alibaba’s co-founder and executive chairman, signaled the Chinese e-commerce giant’s grand plans for Malaysia will likely continue unperturbed.

Alibaba is in the midst of a massive investment push into Southeast Asia, including the establishment of a so-called “Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ)” based in Malaysia. Launched last November and heavily promoted by former premier Najib, the DFTZ aims to position Malaysia as a regional e-commerce and logistics hub designed to promote small and medium-sized enterprises’ (SMEs) exports.

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, 16 June 2018

Mahathir looks beyond China to Japan

Malaysia's new premier has hit the ground running, reaching out to Japan to ease reliance on China, and seeking new multilateral fora to boost the region's bargaining power


Malaysia’s newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is back on the world stage – and is not shy about stating his opinions. Following a historic election victory last month that returned the nonagenarian to the political apex as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister, Mahathir’s first overseas trip to Tokyo was both symbolic and indicative of a return to a non-aligned foreign policy.

Mahathir’s stunning comeback was a welcome surprise for Japan, which has seen its own influence in Southeast Asia diminish relative to an increasingly assertive and economically ambitious China. Prior to his ouster, scandal-tainted former premier Najib Razak had developed robust economic and security ties with Beijing.

By contrast, Mahathir pursued a “Look East” policy in the early 1980s that aimed to imbue Malaysians with the cultural strengths and work ethic of East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea. The policy sought to acquire the skills and knowledge that made Northeast Asia’s development models a success.

Mahathir’s new government, cash-strapped from the endemic corruption and mismanagement of the Najib era, now appears set to revive “Look East,” through which low-cost capital and investments from Japan could ease recent dependence on China, a strategic re-balancing rife with geopolitical implications.

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, 13 June 2018

Asia widely welcomes Kim-Trump detente

The first high-profile glimpse of a new Asian geopolitical landscape may be taking shape


US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s historic meeting in Singapore yesterday and the budding relationship between the two men represent the most significant shift in US policy toward the region in decades. Indeed, the first high-profile glimpse of a new Asian geopolitical landscape may be taking shape.

While media pundits in the West were skeptical and even cynical of the aspirational declaration signed between the two leaders – who were until recently adversaries exchanging barbs and threats of war – opinions in Asia, including those of world leaders in the region, generally welcomed and praised the unprecedented d├ętente.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, whose role as an interlocutor between Trump and Kim helped to bring the summit to fruition, praised both leaders for taking a “daring step towards change” and hailed the outcome as ending the world’s last remaining Cold War conflict.

Moon and South Korean premier Lee Nak-yeon reacted to a live stream of Trump and Kim’s first-ever handshake with beaming smiles, with the former saying during a Cabinet meeting that he “hardly slept last night” in anticipation of the momentous meeting. Still, questions remain about what a new friendship between Washington and Pyongyang will mean for the wider region.

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, 11 June 2018

Countdown to historic Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore

US President and North Korean leader both met with Singaporean PM, while working-level talks continued between both sides


The leaders of the United States and North Korea arrived have in Singapore ahead of a historic summit that could pave the way for wider negotiations to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, potentially laying aside historic bitterness and enmity between Washington and Pyongyang that has persisted for nearly seven decades since the 1950-53 Korean War.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are expected to meet on June 12 at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa. It will be the first time a sitting American president has met with a North Korean leader, a stunning turnaround from the saber-rattling and threats of destruction exchanged by the two sides only months ago.

The two leaders and their delegations are staying in luxury hotels in downtown Singapore, Trump at the Shangri-La Hotel and Kim at the St. Regis. Singapore, a wealthy Asian city-state, one of the few countries with ties to both the US and North Korea, is regarded as capable of ensuring the two leaders security while providing a neutral meeting ground.

Kim arrived at Singapore’s Changi Airport on Sunday, marking the start of the longest overseas trip taken by a recent North Korean leader. His aircraft, a Boeing 747 provided by Air China, appeared to maximize the amount of time it spent in Chinese airspace, taking an inland route over four Chinese provinces, according to flight trackers.

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, 10 June 2018

Kim-Trump summit a brand boost for Singapore

Wealthy island-state sees the historic summit as 'magnificent' opportunity to both promote world peace and sell itself as a world-class meeting venue


When US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un exchange their first-ever handshake at a resort hotel in Singapore, the city-state playing host to the historic meeting will be hoping for a breakthrough. Whatever the outcome of this week’s high-stakes summit, Singapore is pulling out all the stops to ensure its success.

Casting Singapore as a prestige venue for high-security events, its top diplomat at the center of recent shuttle diplomacy suggests the city-state is also playing an important role as a neutral arbitrator. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has led delegations both to Washington and Pyongyang in recent days in preparation for the June 12 summit.

Singapore, a wealthy Asian financial center, is one of the few countries in the world to maintain business links and relatively cordial ties with both the United States and North Korea. It was chosen as the venue for the first-ever meeting between the two adversarial countries’ leaders because it could ensure their security and provide a neutral meeting ground.

Balakrishnan told local media that North Korea regards the summit as a “magnificent opportunity” to deal with an “intractable problem” and that playing host was Singapore’s “contribution to world peace.” Other top ministers in the city-state have emphasized the high degree of trust and confidence placed in Singapore by all sides.

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, 6 June 2018

The changing face of Malaysian justice

Muslim resistance to ethnic Indian Tommy Thomas' appointment as attorney general points to future race and religion-based resistance to new government's reform agenda


An impasse between Malaysia’s newly elected Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition and the country’s influential ethnic Malay royals over the appointment of a new attorney general has underscored the potential for resistance to the new government’s reform agenda.

Tommy Thomas, a veteran lawyer and constitutional law expert, was the unanimous choice of Harapan’s leaders and component parties for the post. His nomination to be the nation’s top lawyer, however, was opposed by some because the candidate, an ethnic Indian Christian, is not from the Malay Muslim majority.

Thousands signed an online petition opposing his appointment on ethnic and religious grounds, a stance supported by the opposition Islamist party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which argued that a non-Muslim would not be capable of advising the government on matters pertaining to Islam.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sent a letter last month to Sultan Muhammad V, the country’s constitutional monarch, or Yang di-Pertuan Agong, advising the ruler to dismiss Mohamed Apandi Ali, the attorney general appointed by scandal-plagued former premier Najib Razak, and to appoint Thomas as his replacement.

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, 31 May 2018

Could Mahathir’s clean-up spark a financial crisis?

Revelations that Malaysia's public debt is closer to 80% of GDP than previously disclosed 50% is pushing down shares and driving capital outflows


Though few expected the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition to win Malaysia’s May 9 polls, markets were mainly calm following Mahathir Mohamad’s spectacular return to the premiership.

His appointment of well-respected ministers to economic and finance related portfolios, as well as creation of a council of experienced advisors including a former central bank chief, meanwhile, aimed to reassure investors that his government would remain business-friendly.

But three weeks into Mahathir’s course-shifting term, market skepticism is already starting to creep in. The coalition campaigned on promises to scrap an unpopular goods and services tax (GST), reintroduce petrol subsidies and review toll road concessions. Mahathir has also called for the review of large-scale investment projects awarded during the predecessor Najib Razak’s administration.

Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings have weighed in with a shared view that GST abolishment could raise government deficits if not offset by other revenue-raising measures. Fitch has forecasted short-term “headwinds” while noting that current economic growth momentum is still strong.

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, 28 May 2018

What Singapore could learn from Malaysia

Cross-straits relations will be tested as newly elected Malaysian government aims to review bilateral deals and projects in the name of reform


When then Malaysian premier Najib Razak met his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong at their annual leaders’ retreat in January, it wasn’t readily apparent at the time that it would be their last bilateral meeting.

Najib, grinning ear-to-ear, told a press conference that he didn’t expect upcoming elections in his country would “change the nature” of bilateral ties between the two neighbors. “Because you have confidence in the results,” quipped Lee, giving way to chummy laughter.

Both men share a personal chemistry, rapport and common vision that had eluded often prickly cross-straits ties in previous decades. The off-the-cuff exchange between the two leaders’ went viral on social media at the time.

Mahathir Mohamad’s return to the premiership has thus stirred certain anxieties in Singapore in light of his past antagonism towards the city-state. Some commentators felt that Lee had “bet on the wrong horse” at the May 9 polls Najib lost and Mahathir won, and that Lee had failed to nurture meaningful ties with the pre-election opposition.

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, 22 May 2018

Malaysians agog as tables turn on Najib

Expedited probes into ex-premier's alleged corruption could reach beyond 1MDB scandal to a dodgy submarine deal to the murder of a Mongolian model


Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is under heavy fire as new premier Mahathir Mohamad’s government quickly launches and widens investigations into alleged corruption at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state development fund that may have cost the nation billions of dollars in pilfered losses.

Najib, whose once-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost resoundingly at May 9 polls, is implicated in an embezzlement racket after suspicious transfers allegedly linked to 1MDB were discovered in his personal bank. He has denied all wrongdoing at the fund he created and oversaw, claiming the US$681 million found in his account was a gift from a Saudi royal.

In recent days, Malaysians have watched agog as Najib’s properties were raided by armed police. Authorities have seized and carted off luxury items, confiscating 284 designer handbags presumably belonging to his wife Rosmah Mansor, and 72 suitcases containing cash in various currencies, watches and jewelry.

Mahathir’s office has quickly established a special taskforce, comprised of members of Malaysia’s anti-graft agency, police and the central bank, to investigate 1MDB. A similar investigative body was established in 2015, but was halted by Najib, who was widely seen as interfering with the domestic probe by removing the attorney general and other probing officials.

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, 16 May 2018

Malaysia’s Anwar is free at last

But will the erstwhile opposition leader really be able to co-exist with new premier and former nemesis Mahathir Mohamad?


Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s twice-jailed former opposition leader, walked free on Wednesday afternoon, bringing an end to a tumultuous legal saga that saw the iconic politician incarcerated on sodomy charges that critics and observers have long regarded as politically motivated.

Emerging from a hospital in Kuala Lumpur where he had been receiving treatment following shoulder surgery last November, Anwar smiled and waved to supporters before being whisked away for an audience with Sultan Muhammad V, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, or Yang di-Pertuang Agong. The sultan gave Anwar a full royal pardon.

Anwar’s expedited release is yet another stunning development in Malaysia’s politics following the shock election victory of the Pakatan Harapan coalition earlier this month, ending the uninterrupted six decade rule of the once-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and returning former leader Mahathir Mohamad to the premiership.

Mahathir, who previously governed Malaysia for 22 years as prime minister, was the first to greet Anwar upon his arrival at the national palace. The scene signaled a new chapter in the volatile and dramatic relationship between the two politicians, who have been both political allies and bitter rivals at different intervals of Malaysia’s recent history.

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, 12 May 2018

The shape of things to come under Mahathir 2.0

Malaysia's 92-year-old new premier has moved swiftly against his scandal-plagued predecessor Najib Razak, setting the tone for a new political era


A new era has dawned for Malaysian politics with the once opposition, now ruling Pakatan Harapan at the helm of government after a shock May 9 election result few experts foresaw. And it’s first hours in power have already produced a string of dramatic events.

In a stunning reversal of fortunes, the once-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition garnered just over one-third of the national vote, bringing an end to its uninterrupted 61-year rule. Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad – an iconic former prime minister who led the BN coalition for 22-years – was again sworn in as premier, this time as Harapan’s chairman.

Malaysians greeted the extraordinary events with jubilance, celebrating in the streets and waiting with baited breath for Mahathir, 92, to take his oath. Electoral gains by Harapan, an unlikely coalition of former rivals and adversaries who set differences aside to end BN’s scandal-plagued rule, have since turned the country’s political landscape on its head.

As nonagenarian Mahathir began his first non-consecutive term as premier, ousted leader Najib Razak retreated into quiet as the first Malaysian premier to ever lose a general election, a stunning fall from grace that forced his resignation as head of the once-ruling BN and its lynchpin party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

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, 9 May 2018

Mahathir wins in shock election result in Malaysia

Ex-premier's Harapan alliance decisively ends Prime Minister Najib Razak's Barisan Nasional coalition's 61-year run in power


Voters in Malaysia have elected a new federal government for the first time in history. Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance, led by ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, has claimed a stunning victory, bringing an end to the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s uninterrupted 61-year rule.

Contrary to widely cited expert projections predicting a slim victory for BN, the four-party opposition Harapan pact has handed the long-ruling coalition a devastating defeat, moving Malaysian politics into unchartered territory and raising questions about the fate of repudiated scandal-plagued premier Najib Razak.

Official results trickled in slowly throughout Wednesday evening showing Harapan making stronger-than-expected inroads in battleground state Johor, long regarded as a fortress of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the now-defeated party Mahathir previously led during his 22-year tenure as Malaysia’s fourth prime minister.

Hours later, in a stunning 3:00 am press conference declaring Harapan’s victory with a simple parliamentary majority, reality set in that Mahathir would soon be sworn in as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister.

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, 8 May 2018

Malaysia’s election teeters on a knife edge

While Prime Minister Najib Razak's coalition is favored to prevail, Mahathir Mohamad's opposition alliance appears to have momentum on its side


On the eve of Malaysia’s most hotly ever contested election, conventional wisdom suggests that Prime Minister Najib Razak will emerge the victor, extending the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s six-decade hold on power.

Momentum on the ground, however, appears to be with the Pakatan Harapan opposition pact led by ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad.

Massive crowds have greeted urban-based Harapan rallies since campaigning commenced on April 28. Several veteran ex-members of Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) have come out in support of Mahathir, who previously led the country for 22 years under UMNO’s banner.

The opposition pact – an unlikely alliance of secular Chinese politicians, pro-democracy reformers, moderate Islamists and ex-UMNO supporters – appears closer than many imagined possible to capturing Putrajaya in what is shaping into a knife-edge contest.

Malaysia’s electoral machinery, critics and observers say, favors the ruling coalition through gerrymandered electoral boundaries. The Election Commission, though statutorily independent, has imposed various restrictions that have hobbled Harapan’s campaigning, raising questions about the legitimacy of the May 9 polls.

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, 3 May 2018

Prelude to unfree, unfair elections in Malaysia

State-controlled Election Commission is pulling all stops to hobble the Mahathir Mohamad-led opposition's chances at May 9 polls


Campaigning is off to a controversial start in Malaysia ahead of May 9 elections pitting premier Najib Razak’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition against ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad’s upstart Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance.

Expectations of a tight race abound as opposition parties ramp up their bid to win over voters in key constituencies across the country in an attempt to oust Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has governed the country continuously for over six decades.

Preliminary forecasts predict a victory for the ruling BN, though observers expect a tightly fought race. While recent electoral boundary changes will benefit UMNO and BN, opposition candidates now face a raft of legal hurdles that are significantly hobbling their campaigns.

Arbitrary restrictions on opposition campaigning are already raising questions about the legitimacy of the upcoming polls and stoking concerns of possible instability if opposition supporters become convinced that Harapan is denied a deserved victory.

Candidates submitted nomination papers at their home constituencies on April 28, marking the start of an 11-day campaign period. Several opposition candidates, however, were disqualified from contesting by the Election Commission (EC) on what many see as spurious and potentially unlawful grounds.

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, 28 April 2018

Israel drops gauntlet on Malaysia’s help to Hamas

Targeted assassination of researcher in Kuala Lumpur likely part of Israeli campaign to kill overseas Palestinian scientists and engineers


Thousands of mourners gathered in Gaza on Friday for the funeral of Fadi al-Batsh, a respected Palestinian researcher and engineering lecturer who was assassinated by gun-wielding assailants in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur on April 21 while heading to a mosque for dawn prayers.

Al-Batsh studied electrical engineering in Gaza and earned a PhD on the subject from the University of Malaya. The slain academic was a member of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, led the funeral prayers and alleged that Israel was involved in the killing.

Malaysian police have issued facial composite sketches of two men suspected of firing at least 14 shots at al-Batsh from a high-powered motorcycle. Authorities have said that the suspects, who remain at large and are still believed to be in Malaysia, were light-skinned and of European or Middle Eastern descent.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, claimed the perpetrators were Europeans with links to a foreign intelligence agency. He added that al-Batsh was a “liability for a country that is an enemy of Palestine”, a thinly veiled reference to Israel.

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, 26 April 2018

Malaysia’s election a de facto vote on China

Premier Najib Razak has built robust relations with Beijing, ties opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad vows to scrutinize and unwind if elected


When Malaysians head to the polls on May 9, their choice will also determine the nation’s future relations with China.

Mahathir Mohamad, the four-party opposition alliance’s nonagenarian prime ministerial candidate and a previous premier, is campaigning in part on resetting Malaysia’s ties to China, a relationship he says has become too one-sided under incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak.

In a recent media interview, Mahathir vowed if elected to put Chinese investments under greater scrutiny, saying that Chinese companies would be welcome to set up operations in Malaysia provided they hire locals while bringing in capital and technology.

The former premier said in the interview that Malaysians currently “gain nothing” from China’s investments in the country. Though Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan alliance pledged in its election manifesto to encourage continued investment from China and other Asian countries, it has also vowed to review all foreign-funded mega-projects.

That includes the China-backed US$13 billion East Coast Rail Line, the US$7.3 billion Melaka Gateway port project, as well as other billions pledged by Beijing toward urban infrastructure, land reclamation and industrial parks.

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, 23 April 2018

How Islamic does Brunei want to be?

Sultan's announced move towards full sharia law has been delayed, with some speculating nation fears the strict code could deter Chinese investors


When Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah first indicated in 2014 his oil-rich sultanate planned to implement sharia law, the announcement stirred waves of controversy, with Hollywood stars and rights activists calling for a boycott of the luxury Beverly Hills hotel owned by his sovereign wealth fund.

Four years on, however, the Muslim majority Southeast Asian state has yet to fully implement the harshest elements of the Islamic criminal code, including amputation or even execution for theft, apostasy, adultery and the deemed offense of sodomy.

While Hassanal, who rules as absolute monarch, prime minister and head of state religion, continues to call for the full implementation of sharia law, there has been little public explanation for the delay.

That’s led to certain speculation the sultanate is sensitive to outside perceptions, particularly as the nation courts more foreign investment – including from China – to help diversify its long dependence on energy revenues amid fast depleting supplies.

While nearby Malaysia and Indonesia also enforce laws that exclusively govern the conduct of Muslims, Brunei would be the first East Asian country to adopt strict sharia law at the national level.

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, 16 April 2018

Trump’s trade war pushes Singapore to China

Premier Lee Hsien Loong, a staunch American ally, sides with Beijing as US-led trade tensions threaten the city-state's fortunes



Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent five-day trip to China signaled strongly rebounding ties with Beijing and the trade-reliant city-state’s unease with America’s moves to instigate a potentially destabilizing trade war.

In an address to the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), a talk shop held last week in China’s southern island province of Hainan, Lee spoke candidly on the prospect of souring Sino-US ties, in terms of both trade and global security.

While Lee said that a US-China trade war was “still far from inevitable”, the premier underscored the need “to be prepared psychologically” for such a turn. Strained ties between the rival powers, he noted, “would make it very difficult for all the countries in Asia who are trying very hard to become friends with both, or stay friends with both.”

Lee, a key US strategic ally and staunch advocate of free trade multilateralism, praised China’s leadership’s cautious response to the threat and attempts to defuse the standoff prompted by the Trump administration’s threats to impose tariffs on as much as US$150 billion in Chinese goods.

Beijing has responded with its own proposed retaliatory duties on US goods, targeting mostly agricultural shipments. After meeting with top Chinese officials, Lee told Singapore media that China’s leaders were “trying their best to think through how this can be resolved, trying to protect their position because it’s not possible for any country to be in this situation and not have any response whatsoever.”

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, 27 March 2018

Europe-Asia trade war looms over palm oil

Draft EU law seeks to ban all palm oil biofuel imports by 2021, a move Malaysia has likened to 'crop apartheid' and Indonesia has vowed to retaliate


Mah Siew Keong, Malaysia’s minister for plantation industries and commodities, is on the front line of a looming trade war against what he sees as unfair European Union (EU) trade practices.

Last April, the European Parliament voted in favor of a draft law that aims to ban on palm oil biofuel imports to the EU beginning in 2021 due to environmental concerns the crop is contributing to deforestation.

The European Commission, the EU’s principal executive body, has yet to formulate a final draft law. Each of the EU’s 27 national governments will have to ratify the ban before it is uniformly enforced.

Still, the proposed move has spurred a diplomatic row with Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil exporters, and now threatens to spiral into tit-for-tat punitive trade measures.

Mah, known as Malaysia’s global palm oil ambassador, has likened the EU proposal to “crop apartheid.” The draft law, he notes, does not prohibit other similar oils such as rapeseed, olive and soybean that are mostly grown in EU member states.

Indonesia and Malaysia employ around 3.5 million people in the palm oil industry, generating a combined export value of over US$40 billion annually.

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, 18 March 2018

China throws sinking Brunei a lifeline

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah looks to Beijing for succor as his nation's oil and gas reserves run dry


Brunei's ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, is in a race against time as his nation’s once deep stores of oil and gas rapidly run dry. While other foreign investors up stakes, China is giving the Southeast Asian sultanate a new lease on economic life.

International banks such as HSBC and Citibank have recently ceased operations in Brunei in sight of its contracting oil and gas business, driven down by years of depressed global energy prices. But one major financial institution has filled the vacuum: Bank of China (BOC).

BOC established a branch in Brunei in 2016 to facilitate Beijing’s foreign direct investments. Yang Jian, China’s ambassador to Brunei, last year described the sultanate as an important node in the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping’s signature continental and maritime infrastructure development initiative.

Some observers believe China intends to leverage its major investments and close political ties with Brunei’s ruler to sway the country’s stance on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where the sultanate is also a rival claimant. That, they say, would deter other Southeast Asian claimants from reaching consensus on the issue.

“China is placing huge pressure on Brunei to concede ‘joint development’ in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These are rights that clearly belong to Brunei by any reading of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” says Bill Hayton, associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House.

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, 9 March 2018

‘Kleptocracy at its worst’ in Malaysia

So says US Attorney General Jeff Sessions as global investigators seize assets and tighten dragnet on premier Najib Razak's 1MDB scandal


“Kleptocracy at its worst” is how US Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently characterized dealings at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a heavily indebted state development fund currently under investigation for fraud by the US Department of Justice (DoJ).

The fund, created and until recently oversaw by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, has been at the center of ongoing embezzlement probes in multiple countries since 2015. But while the embattled premier plays down the evolving scandal in an election campaign season, new overseas asset seizures are keeping it in the headlines.

Investigators believe US$4.5 billion was misappropriated from the fund by high-ranking Malaysian officials and their associates since 2009, making it one of the world’s largest ever financial fraud cases and the biggest action ever brought under the DoJ’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative.

Najib, believed to be the unnamed “Official 1” in the DoJ’s ongoing case, has avoided scrutiny and charges at home by sacking critics, including his former deputy, appointing an attorney general who has exonerated him of all wrongdoing, and clamping down on probing media.

The premier has consistently denied involvement in any corruption and claimed the US$681 million discovered in his personal bank accounts was a “gift” from a Saudi royal family member rather than pilfered 1MDB funds.

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, 28 February 2018

Uighur detainees test Malaysia’s diplomacy

China wants 11 ethnic Uighurs deported as terror suspects; the US and rights groups say they should be protected as potential refugees


As China ramps up anti-terrorism security measures in its restive northwestern Xinjiang region, Malaysia is suddenly at the center of an extradition controversy where Beijing is bidding to leverage its economic clout for strategic favors.

China is now requesting Malaysia to repatriate 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims, a Turkic people indigenous to the Xinjiang region, currently being held in an immigration detention without charge or legal representation. The group of 11 were among 20 Uighur migrants who dramatically escaped a jail in southern Thailand last November.

The escapees, who have identified themselves as Turkish citizens and asked to be sent to Turkey, were part of a group of more than 200 Uighur migrants detained in Thailand since 2014.

Beijing has pursued a muscular security strategy in Xinjiang following a spate of violent attacks in recent years that authorities attribute to armed Uighur separatists who seek to establish an independent state. It has deployed military and paramilitary organizations in a bid to thwart Uighur nationalist militancy.

The heavy state security presence has come alongside a raft of measures curbing religious practices and freedom of movement. Surveillance and monitoring technologies have been deployed by authorities to impose political and social control, spurring frustration and fears of cultural loss among Xinjiang’s Uighur minority.

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, 22 February 2018

Demographic time bomb ticks down on Singapore

A fast aging population threatens to stall the economy, test social cohesion and strain national finances


It is being called a “demographic time bomb.” The impact of a shrinking workforce coupled with a greying population will be among the toughest economic and social challenges Singapore faces in the decades ahead.

Already the oldest society in Southeast Asia measured by median age, the wealthy city-state is now seeking coping strategies for the economic and social impacts to come of a rapidly aging population.

While aging populations affect much of the Asia-Pacific, the expected decline in Singapore’s working-age population will be among the region’s most acute.

Indeed, this year marks the first time in modern Singapore’s history when the share of the population that is 65 years old and over will match that of those under 15 years old, according to a UOB report published last year.

UOB economist Francis Tan predicted in the research that demographic change will stall the city-state’s economic growth and raise substantially future healthcare costs.

Other data suggests that Singapore’s percentage of seniors will reach 27% by 2030, while the percentage of juniors under 15 will decrease to 10.8%, leading in a worst-case scenario to a nearly 1:1 dependency ratio, with one working-age adult supporting a child or elderly person.

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, 11 February 2018

Singapore swings and misses at the arts

State-led bid to promote the arts and a creative society has failed to capture the national imagination


Singapore, known for its robust education system, meticulous city planning and draconian laws, is more often associated with efficiency than creativity.

Derided by some as a “cultural desert” for its past lack of emphasis on the arts, the city-state of 5.6 million people has doubled down on national cultural policies over the last two decades in a push to become a center for Southeast Asian art.

The wealthy island nation, a hub for financial and wealth management services, has made massive investments in cultural infrastructure in recent years: showcase museums, a world-class national gallery and performance centers dedicated to the arts.

But despite the state-led push, with generous backing from government agencies like the National Arts Council (NAC), Economic Development Board and the Singapore Tourism Board, it’s still not clear an organically vibrant arts scene has taken root.

Top-down ambitions to nurture creativity and innovation date back to the roll-out of the government ‘Renaissance City Plan’ in 2000. The initiative envisioned the arts as “cultural ballast” to nation-building and strengthening Singaporeans’ sense of national identity. Moreover, the plan identified the importance of creative, artistic endeavors in a future-oriented economy.

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 January 2018

Low hanging fruit for China-Malaysia ties

Kuala Lumpur advances "durian diplomacy" to supply a bigger share of spiking Chinese demand for the pungent fruit


Musang King, a premium variety of durian, is all the rage in China. Durians and durian-based products such as pastries, desserts and confectionery are among the most searched for items on Taobao, China’s biggest e-commerce platform, and surging Chinese demand for the spiked fruit could drive a major transformation of Malaysian agriculture in the years ahead.

Malaysian officials have recently advanced so-called “durian diplomacy” in hopes of winning a bigger share of China’s market. Currently, China does not permit the import of fresh durians from Malaysia, allowing only for frozen fruit pulp. But if negotiations with Chinese authorities to allow whole fruit exports succeed, Malaysia could soon enjoy a new type of commodity boom.

Neighboring Thailand currently has a near monopoly on China’s durian market. That’s in large part because the country is permitted to export whole fruit durian harvested from trees before ripening. Malaysia’s durian farmers, by contrast, traditionally harvest only when the fruit drops to the ground; China believes the fallen-fruit harvesting method risks exposure to dirt and pests.

Malaysian Agriculture Minister Ahmad Shabery Chee believes the prohibition could be lifted some time year, according to media reports quoting him in November. Known in Malaysia as the “King of Fruits”, officials have put high priority on courting their Chinese counterparts to expand Malaysia’s market access.

China’s new ambassador to Malaysia, Bai Tian, was treated to a durian feast earlier this month at an orchard in Bentong, a budding eco-tourism destination in Pahang, the country’s top durian-growing state. The town, roughly an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, hosted an annual international durian tourism festival last year that drew huge crowds.

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, 18 January 2018

Golden era for Malaysia-Singapore ties

Past confrontation has yielded to rich cooperation under leaders Najib Razak and Lee Hsien Loong


The prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore convened this week for the eighth annual Leaders’ Retreat, where a range of cross-border projects, joint developments and bilateral initiatives underscored the high level of co-operation currently enjoyed between the two sides.

Convening at the Istana, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak touted the progress made in bilateral relations during his tenure at a joint press briefing with his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong, remarks that emphasize the premier’s foreign policy gains ahead of an impending general election.

“We certainly do not want to return to the era of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric between our two countries. It was an era that we want to forget,” said the Malaysian leader, alluding to the cooperative but at times fractious relations experienced under the watch of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 92, who now leads the opposition.

Earlier this month, Pakatan Harapan (PH), Malaysia’s opposition coalition, named the nonagenarian as its prime ministerial candidate should it secure victory at polls expected to be called within the first quarter of this year. The coalition’s embrace of the ex-premier is widely regarded as a strategy to secure electoral support across rural Malay constituencies.

Najib assured premier Lee that agreements pertaining to bilateral ventures and cross-border infrastructure projects were legally binding and would not be affected by any political changes in Malaysia, ending his speech with remarks on receiving his Singaporean counterpart for a year-end visit, “provided we get the right [electoral] result.”

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.