Thursday, 29 November 2018

Singapore shakes as Lee looks to retire

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


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

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

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

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

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Monday, 26 November 2018

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

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


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

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

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

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

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Little Brunei welcomes China’s big helping hand

Chinese leader Xi Jinping's visit to the oil-rich sultanate highlighted Beijing's assistance to the nation's economic diversification plan to reduce reliance on hydrocarbons


Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first official visit to Brunei this week, a diplomatic tour that underscored blossoming bilateral ties as the oil-rich sultanate pursues economic diversification plans to reduce its oil dependency. The tiny Muslim majority nation has been a key recipient of multi-billion dollar investments for China-backed projects in recent years. 

Xi’s visit represented the first by a Chinese leader to the country in 13 years. China’s big-ticket investments have recently become a source of controversy elsewhere in Southeast Asia, with rising complaints Beijing’s checkbook diplomacy ultimately aims to ensnare strategically important regional countries into sovereignty-eroding “debt traps” through lop-sided and often opaque financing deals.

With a heavy reliance on the energy sector and a population of just 420,000 situated on two territorial enclaves in Malaysian Borneo, some view Brunei as especially susceptible to a so-called Chinese debt trap. Yet there are few outward signs of unease or compelling indications to suggest the sultanate is being strong-armed into unfavorable deals.

Even as Brunei moves to strategically orientate itself as an important link in China’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has simultaneously deepened its robust and long-standing defense ties with the United States, seen in recent joint naval drills in the South China Sea – where Brunei and China have competing claims to islets and atolls.

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, 19 November 2018

America’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ lacks currency and resonance

US Vice President Mike Pence outlined at Asian summits a private sector-led counter to China's Belt and Road Initiative, but it's not clear yet the vision will have many takers


When regional leaders gathered in Singapore and Papua New Guinea for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summits, many expected the United States to elaborate upon its new “Indo-Pacific” development strategy for the region.

But what began as an opportunity for the US and China to advance their competing visions for the region’s future development and economic integration ended in acrimony, with officials of the 21-member Apec grouping unable to agree for the first time on a joint communiqué as Washington and Beijing clashed over the statement’s language.

While fissures over trade, investment and maritime security between the world’s two largest economies appear no closer to resolution after the summits, speeches by US Vice President Mike Pence provided more clarity into the US’ Indo-Pacific gambit, which was unveiled in August but has so far failed to gain traction with regional leaders.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initially announced the strategy to include a US$113 million investment package for technology, energy and infrastructure that he called a “down-payment on a new era of US economic commitment to the region.” That new commitment was unveiled alongside US$300 million in new funding for security cooperation.

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, 15 November 2018

Singapore’s ASEAN tenure marked by crises and disputes

Regional grouping made certain cooperative strides under the city-state's revolving leadership, but its trade-promoting tenure was hobbled by a US move away from multilateralism


When Singapore took the reins last year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) rotating leadership, the regional grouping’s credibility and relevance was at stake.

Amid rising geopolitical tensions, maritime disputes in the South China Sea and abuses in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority that the United Nations has said constitute crimes against humanity, consensus has been elusive on issues that are dividing the region.

One year on, despite progress in enhancing certain areas of cooperation, the question of how the 10-member grouping intends to foster greater unity, coherence and relevance is no less pertinent now than when the city-state formally took over the revolving chair from the Philippines last November.

The grouping’s member states – along with top officials from China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States – convened in Singapore this week for the 33rd Asean Summit, where Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave perhaps his most frank assessment to date of US policy and the fractured state of multilateral cooperation.

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, 8 November 2018

Mahathir leans to Japan and away from China

Malaysian leader has visited Tokyo thrice since winning power in May, a concentrated policy to reverse his predecessor government's perceived over-reliance on Beijing


“Malaysia is waiting to be your profit center,” declared Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during his November 7 address to corporate figures and captains of industry at the Malaysia-Japan Economic Association forum in Tokyo.

Investors can expect Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan government to uphold the rule of law in resolving disputes, said the 93-year-old premier, who also promised to remove obstacles to foreign investment in high technology and information technology-based industries in his country.

Economic ties aren’t the only area of cooperation tipped to expand as Malaysia-Japan relations blossom. Tokyo hopes Mahathir’s government will help persuade Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members to support its push for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a key transport artery for oil and freight bound to and from Japan.

For Malaysia – whose scandal-plagued former premier Najib Razak controversially sought robust economic and security ties with China – deeper relations with Japan under a revitalized “Look East” policy are seen as a strategic hedge against Najib-era over-reliance on Beijing and its ambitious global development financing.

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, 5 November 2018

Confidence test for Malaysia’s topsy-turvy finances

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng told investors to expect 'pain and sacrifice' in the 2019 budget but a lack of actual belt-tightening will put pressure on the ringgit


Saddled with debt and liabilities exceeding 1 trillion ringgit (US$240.3 billion) and the risk of a credit rating downgrade, Malaysian Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng had forewarned investors to expect “pain and sacrifice” upon the release of the new Pakatan Harapan government’s inaugural budget.

Amid expectations of new taxes and austerity spending cuts, Lim quipped that he could end up as the most unpopular finance minister in the nation’s history. But when Malaysia’s six-month-old government announced its 2019 budget on November 2, there were no substantial spending cuts to be found.

Observers of Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, who for months have waited for signs of fiscal clarity from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s freshly installed government, now have a clearer picture after the unveiling of an expansionary budget that prioritizes institutional reform and will raise the national deficit to its highest level in five years.

All eyes were on Lim, a trained accountant and former chief minister of the state of Penang, as he stood to table the high-stakes budget in a closely-watched parliamentary address, a make or break opportunity for the newly minted finance minister to prove his mettle as detractors and naysayers have already started to question his management.

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.