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.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Keppel bribes belie Singapore’s clean image

State shipbuilder's US$55 million bribes-for-business scandal has raised questions about the city-state's supposed incorruptibility


One of the largest corruption scandals in the history of Singapore’s corporate sector has come to glaring light, tarnishing the image and credentials of prominent state-backed conglomerate Keppel Corp and raising questions about the city-state’s supposed incorruptibility.

Its subsidiary, Keppel Offshore & Marine Ltd (KOM), the world’s largest builder of oil rigs, has been implicated in a 13-year-long US$55 million bribery scheme involving Brazilian executives and politicians to win business deals.

KOM’s US subsidiary last month pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate anti-bribery laws and agreed to pay US$422 million in criminal fines as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the US Department of Justice (DoJ), as well as authorities in Brazil and Singapore.

KOM made the bribe payments between 2001 and 2014 through a chain of shell companies that used the US banking system to conceal and disperse kickbacks, according to court documents released by the DoJ. The documents claimed the company “knowingly and willfully conspired” to win business through bribery.

The illegal payments were made mainly to officials at Brazil’s state-owned oil giant, Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras), the largest listed company in Latin America.

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, 12 January 2018

Singapore atop Asean with a wary eye on China

City-state takes over regional bloc's rotating leadership amid fraying cohesion on how to manage China's rising power and assertiveness


Singapore recently began its tenure as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for 2018, inaugurating what observers believe will be a critical year for the 10-member regional grouping.

The city-state presides over the bloc’s rotating chairmanship against a backdrop of divisive regional geopolitics, complex security challenges and fraying group cohesion as members are increasingly viewed as either aligned with or opposed to China’s strategic ambitions in the South China Sea.

Singapore, one of Asean’s six original founders with a vision to contain the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, has historically been a linchpin of the grouping. But the rich island nation must now balance increasingly complex intra-bloc dynamics while steering sensitive regional discussions with a perceived as even-hand.

While Asean operates on a consensus basis, the annually rotating leadership has the prerogative to set agendas that shape multilateral engagements. Duties involve chairing and facilitating official meetings, tabling new initiatives and serving as group spokesperson. The chair may also veto and unilaterally issue statements should serious divisions occur among member states.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has identified Singapore’s chairmanship as promoting a “rules-based order” capable of effectively addressing regional security challenges as well as pushing ahead with regional economic integration and projects aimed at enhancing free-trade multilateralism and economic connectivity.

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, 5 January 2018

Najib probes state losses, just not his own

An inquiry into central bank losses during ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad's tenure aims to hobble and divide his opposition coalition ahead of new polls


As speculation mounts that Malaysia’s parliament could soon be dissolved to pave the way for elections, the findings of a government task force into foreign exchange losses at the national central bank could have seismic ramifications for a political opposition already in disarray.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) was formed in July to investigate multi-billion-dollar losses suffered by Bank Negara Malaysia between 1991 and 1993 during the premiership of Mahathir Mohamad, who now spearheads the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition alliance against the long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party and Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition he formerly led.

Following a nine-day hearing on foreign exchange losses now estimated to stand at 32.1 billion ringgit (US$10.2 billion), the commission recommended that Mahathir and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who served as finance minister from 1991 until 1998, be investigated for a criminal breach of trust.

The RCI’s findings have since been tabled at the country’s parliament but not yet been debated. Police have set up a special investigation team. The report recommends the pair be investigated under Sections 417 or 418 of the penal code, which carry maximum sentences of five and seven years respectively.

While the outcome of the RCI remains to be seen, charges brought against either figure would be widely viewed as a politically motivated attempt to exact revenge on opponents of Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose tenure has been dotted with controversies involving massive graft and money-laundering allegations.

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.