Thursday, 21 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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

‘World will see a major change:’ Kim, Trump sign declaration

First-ever North Korea-US summit was an optical success but a substantive failure with a vague, non-tangible outcome

The hugely anticipated, first-ever summit between North Korea and the United States – two states which remain technically at war, and which last year appeared on the brink of renewed combat ­– has been declared a success by the two parties.

In a joint declaration, both sides agreed to upgrade relations. North Korea committed to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, while the United States committed to guarantee North Korea’s security. However, experts criticized the declaration for its lack of details, timelines or tangible commitments.

“It worked out better than anyone expected, better than anyone predicted,” said US President Donald Trump, who called the document he and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed “pretty comprehensive”. He said he and Kim had forged “a very special bond.”

Speaking at the joint signing ceremony of the summit’s outcome document, he said a “lot of goodwill” had gone into the document, and that denuclearization would start “very quickly.”

“We are going to leave the past behind and sign a historic document,” Kim, who spoke considerably less than Trump did at the signing ceremony, said. “The world will see a major change.”

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

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

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

Friday, 8 June 2018

How a Singapore NGO shapes North Korean entrepreneurs

Chosun Exchange has been quietly training thousands of business-minded North Koreans for over a decade

Singapore has been the focus of global media attention since being confirmed as the host of the upcoming US-North Korea Summit scheduled for June 12. The wealthy Southeast Asian city-state is one of the few countries which host a North Korean embassy. Those diplomatic ties seem to have helped enable the work of Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based NGO.

Founded in 2007 by Geoffrey See, a Singaporean entrepreneur, the organization has partnered with hundreds of foreign professionals to train thousands of business-minded individuals in North Korea through workshops on business, finance, law, and economic policy, impacting the way existing companies in the country are run.

Apart from conducting in-country workshops, Choson Exchange has brought hundreds of North Koreans to Singapore for training programs on economic policy, developments that many have regarded as a signal that North Korean authorities take a positive view of Singapore’s economic development and political stability.

Asia Times recently spoke with founder Geoffrey See and Ian Bennett, an associate program manager at Choson Exchange, about the meaningful impacts of ongoing in-country training workshops and the mood inside North Korea ahead of the historic planned summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump.

Excerpts follow:

Asia Times: How did Choson Exchange originate and when did you begin operations?

See: I first visited North Korea in 2007. I met university students there who were very interested in learning about starting their own business, in particular, a female university student who told me her dream was to show that women can be great business leaders. I then spent the next two years trying to find a way in to create exchanges and also to understand how North Koreans viewed the world outside.

Bennett: We began running in-country workshops in 2010. They were small to start with and we currently to try run, frankly, as many as our budget permits, per year.

Asia Times:
Who are your main funders and funding bodies?

See: Currently, we rely mainly on volunteers who travel with us to North Korea to fund our programs. They contribute to part of the costs of organizing a workshop.

Asia Times: How did Choson Exchange go about establishing ties with North Korea?

Bennett: As with many places, ties are established through personal contacts and trust-building. We work with an organization known as the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, one of its subdivisions, in particular, the Korea-Singapore Friendship Society. We liaise directly with them. They are our main counterparts in the country. We also run workshops with the State Academy of Sciences, which is based in Pyongsong, some thirty kilometers north of Pyongyang.

Asia Times:
How much interest is there in business education among North Koreans and what specific skill sets are sought?

Bennett: There is a tremendous interest in business education there. You can see this reflected not only in the number of people who attend our workshops but also in the feedback we get.

At our workshops, participants consistently ask for more real-world examples of successful business management. When foreign workshop leaders come and share their stories, perhaps of a firm or a company they built up, that tends to provoke enormous numbers of questions.

We conduct a Women in Business (WIB) program course specifically targeting female entrepreneurs in North Korea. We had a British workshop leader who had set up her own company for international study programs. She was extremely inspirational as someone in their mid-30s who had founded and built up her own company, which had taken on several hundred employees.

Stories like these aren’t available in their textbooks. If you consider where these people are, it’s not as if they are completely starved of information from the rest of the world, but it all comes through a prism. And without the internet, you can only learn so much about business from a textbook. Dos and don’ts, things that have worked well in the real world, things that have gone badly: real-world examples are tremendously useful to them.

Asia Times: Were you able to glean how North Korean participants in your workshop might regard recent diplomatic developments and high-profile meetings between Kim Jong-un and world leaders during your recent visit to the country?

Our most recent workshop took place in May 2018, which I led. We were fortunate to have a record-breaking attendance with some 130 North Koreans taking part. Based on my own inferences and assumptions, my general impression is that there now appears to be a mood of cautious optimism among North Koreans I encountered.

We were in the country during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit and regular people seemed to understand the significance of the visit. Pyongyang has not been visited by a US Secretary of State since Madeline Albright in 2000.

Kim’s meeting with South Korea President Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom in April was also reported and seen domestically. People seem to understand that things are changing. They are hopeful but cautious, like everyone else, because there is unpredictability on all sides.

Asia Times: What potential is there for economic policy training workshops to make a meaningful impact given existing economic sanctions and the country’s well-known isolation?

Bennett: North Koreans are acutely aware of their isolation. Under some of the tightest sanctions in the world, sometimes it can feel like we’re going there to encourage them to start businesses and develop their own products, but what chance could they possibly have?

We did a session last November in Pyongsong and we brought along a gentleman who had attended our workshop the year before. He applied some of the lean startup techniques we taught him: starting small, building your product up bit-by-bit. When he came back a year later, he had developed a device – an electricity surge protector – which he had begun selling locally.

This gentleman, despite being in an extraordinarily sanctioned country, created a product for domestic markets which, in fact, works very well in a sanctioned domestic market. If you’re in a country where the electricity supply is pretty flakey and you’ve got ageing heavy machinery, if the electricity supply surges, repairing that machinery can be very difficult.

Similarly, if you have free and open trade, you will struggle to produce a surge protector that can compete internationally. He’s found that niche in the middle of it and his value proposition is extremely strong. He’s now selling his device domestically and doing well.

It is examples of ingenuity like these that – once the shackles are gone – can develop even further. The potential for meaningful change is, in my opinion, very high because of the relatively underdeveloped level the country is starting from. Furthermore, outside actors have incentives to invest in the country and build it up, particularly China with its Belt and Road Initiative.

Asia Times: Was Singapore chosen to host the upcoming US-North Korea Summit for logistical convenience or is there something more significant about the country’s neutral posture that made it an ideal venue for this historic meeting?

Bennett: North Korea established diplomatic ties with Singapore in 1975 and has had an embassy in the city-state since. Singapore is a non-threatening business hub and whose model of development has been a long linear progression with a fair degree of state control. It is something the North Koreans can see as a future trajectory for themselves.

See: Singapore is a trusted, connected and neutral venue that is needed given the different stakeholders and their agenda. I hope after the summit, there are more multilateral initiatives based in Singapore or other third-party neutral countries that provide a framework for North Korea's competing economic suitors to collaborate.

A version of this interview appeared 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

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