Friday, 26 November 2021

Make or break for ASEAN to matter in Myanmar

Cambodia's chairmanship of regional bloc is not expected to bring a breakthrough in Myanmar's intensifying morass


After being excluded from last month’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in an unprecedented rebuke of Myanmar’s recalcitrant military regime, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing was similarly conspicuously absent from two virtual ASEAN meetings with the European Union (EU) and China this week.

In what analysts viewed as the most severe sanction against any ASEAN member has ever been dealt by the regional bloc, ASEAN leaders barred the commander-in-chief, increasingly regarded as an international pariah, from attending an October 26-28 summit and called for a “non-political” Myanmar figure to participate instead. The junta refused.

Frustrated by Naypyidaw’s failure to honor pledges to allow an ASEAN special envoy access to deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected lawmakers overthrown in February’s coup, the decision to bar the junta chief was seen as a last-ditch effort to salvage credibility lost to the months-long impasse.

Now, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen taking the reins of ASEAN’s annually rotating chairmanship in 2022, debate is swirling over whether Phnom Penh has the mettle to display leadership by dealing sternly with Myanmar or instead defer to China, its closest political ally and economic benefactor, in its handling of the crisis.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Monday, 22 November 2021

Najib on the comeback trail with Melaka poll sweep

Corruption-tainted ex-prime minister leads UMNO to thumping state election win that could bolster his bid to retake the premiership


To those who celebrated the downfall of Malaysia’s graft-tainted and since criminally-convicted former premier Najib Razak at 2018’s watershed election, heralded at the time as a democratic new beginning, the results of the bellwether state election in Melaka on November 20 are sobering.

The ex-prime minister, despite being virtually synonymous with the globe-spanning multi-billion dollar the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, was the political face of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s resounding victory over the weekend, clinching a supermajority in the state legislature by capturing 21 of 28 seats.

Analysts see the decisive win for Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the lynchpin of the BN coalition, as a sign that the historic ruling party could go on to once again dominate national politics after the upcoming general election, which is not due until 2023 but is widely expected to be held in the latter half of next year or even earlier.

The results are also being seen as proof that Najib, who governed Malaysia from 2009 to 2018, has shaken off the taint of graft he has always adamantly denied and retained his popularity with voters even after being sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption and other charges last year, a verdict he has appealed while mounting a political comeback.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Spotlight on Singapore’s propensity to kill

Mentally disabled Malaysian on Singapore's death row for drug trafficking sparks a global outcry


Activists, lawyers and rights groups are calling on authorities in Singapore to halt plans to impose the death penalty on 33-year-old Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a mentally impaired Malaysian man convicted of drug trafficking, after a court stayed his imminent execution until further notice after he tested positive for Covid-19.

The announcement on Tuesday (November 9) came less than 24 hours before Nagaenthran was due to be executed by hanging at Singapore’s Changi Prison and gave relatives and advocates a glimmer of hope that his life will be spared. The Court of Appeal has yet to grant a prohibitory order against Nagaenthran’s execution sought by his lawyers.

Prominent rights lawyer M Ravi mounted an eleventh-hour judicial appeal before the High Court on Monday, arguing that executing a “mentally disabled person” would violate Singapore’s constitution and its international obligations as a signatory to a United Nations-sanctioned treaty protecting the rights of disabled persons.

The court dismissed the plaintiff’s argument but granted a temporary stay of execution to allow for an appeal of that decision. “We have got to use logic, common sense and humanity,” said judge Andrew Phang as he stayed the execution prior to the court’s adjournment. It is still unclear whether his death sentence will ultimately be commuted.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Monday, 1 November 2021

Ismail on a spending spree to revive Malaysia

New prime minister advances nation's richest ever budget with an eye on post-Covid recovery and possible early elections


After nearly two years under Covid-19 movement restrictions that have stifled the economy and shuttered thousands of small businesses, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s government is betting that the largest budget in the country’s history will ease unemployment and spur a robust post-pandemic recovery.

The ambitious 332.1 billion ringgit (US$80.2 billion) spending plan is Ismail’s first since taking the reins as the nation’s ninth prime minister in August. The 2022 budget includes increased developmental spending, support for businesses, subsidies and cash aid, and a dedicated fund for combating Covid-19 and boosting public health care capacity.

Having signed an unprecedented political ceasefire with the opposition shortly after taking power, Ismail’s budget will likely win approval when Parliament votes on the plan in mid-November, analysts say. Ismail’s predecessor, Muhyiddin Yassin, only narrowly passed the 2021 budget amid speculation at the time that his government would fall.

The expansionary spending plan and its various support measures for low-income earners set the stage for an early general election that analysts suggest could be called as early as the middle of next year. Malaysia’s next polls must be held by 2023.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Thursday, 28 October 2021

Power price surge could zap Singapore’s recovery

Spiking LNG prices have knocked four power providers out of business and forced regulators to intervene in the market


A dramatic spike in global liquified natural gas (LNG) spot prices and other supply issues have sent shockwaves across Singapore’s electricity market, causing at least four power providers to exit the retail market and the city-state’s power regulator to announce pre-emptive measures to safeguard energy security.

So far there has been no disruption to local electricity supplies. But experts and analysts say the question is less about keeping the lights on and more about whether businesses and consumers will have to pay substantially more for power amid an ongoing global fuel crunch. Higher power costs would, in turn, diminish prospects for a robust post-pandemic economic recovery in the global business hub.

China, the United Kingdom and other bellwether global economies are likewise grappling with power shortages and supply disruptions linked to price volatility, which Singapore is highly exposed to as it generates 95% of its power from natural gas imported by pipeline or tankers. The city-state is also one of the few countries in Asia to fully liberalize its retail electricity market.

Gas prices have surged since the beginning of the year due to a confluence of factors ranging from rising consumption driven by recovering economic activity, increased heating needs from harsher-than-usual winter conditions and a series of unplanned global production outages. Industry watchers say it’s anyone’s guess how long current price volatility levels may last.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Friday, 22 October 2021

Highly vaccinated Singapore sets a worrying example

City-state has one of the world's highest vaccination rates at 84% but new Covid cases nonetheless recently hit a new record high


With 84% of Singaporeans fully vaccinated against Covid-19, one of the highest percentages worldwide, many had expected authorities would by now be easing, not maintaining, social distancing and other contagion-curbing restrictions. But that’s exactly what officials are doing as the island nation seeks to cope with its largest outbreaks since the start of the pandemic.

Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MoH) announced on Wednesday (October 20) that stricter curbs introduced in late September as part of a so-called “stabilization phase” implemented to minimize health care system strains would be extended for another month as daily cases have soared to all-time highs.

As other nations begin pursuing reopening strategies and treating the coronavirus as endemic, Singapore’s experience is now being looked upon as a sobering case study, particularly for countries that have until now kept cases low by relying on strict measures but are under mounting pressure to manage, rather than eradicate, Covid-19.

Singapore’s daily cases hit a record 3,994 on October 19, with the seven-day average number of new infections more than tripling in the last month. The overall death toll has more than quadrupled over the same period, rising to 280 on October 21 from just 65. Authorities, meanwhile, have attested to rising pressure on hospitals and healthcare workers.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Monday, 18 October 2021

Criminally convicted Najib free to leave Malaysia

Convicted ex-PM and his graft-accused wife allowed to enter Singapore after facing travel bans under previous governments


Criminally convicted former Malaysian premier Najib Razak, 68, and his graft-accused wife Rosmah Mansor, 69, are set to travel abroad for the first time in more than three years after courts in Kuala Lumpur allowed the pair to temporarily reclaim their impounded passports to visit their pregnant daughter in Singapore.

Lenience shown to the ex-premier and his wife have arguably validated misgivings that with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – the long-ruling party Najib once led – now back in power, the corruption-accused pair have a better chance of wriggling out of their legal troubles either through appeal, acquittal or even an eventual royal pardon.

A ruling by the Court of Appeal on Monday (October 18) permitted Najib to travel abroad from October 20 to November 22, just days after the country’s High Court approved a similar application for Rosmah, both of whom were barred from leaving Malaysia after the defeat of Najib’s scandal-plagued coalition at a historic 2018 general election.

In his application to the court, the ex-premier said he needed to provide mental and emotional support to his daughter Nooryana Najwa Najib, who experienced serious complications when giving birth to her first child and is due to deliver her second child soon at a private hospital in Singapore, where she lives.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Singapore curbs meddling but not everyone’s happy

Observers see sweeping new legislation against foreign ‘hostile information campaigns’ as a counter to Chinese cyber-espionage


The passage of a controversial bill aimed at preventing “foreign interference” in Singapore’s domestic politics has sparked debate in the city-state, with some airing concerns that the broadly worded Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or FICA, could negatively impact perceptions of Singapore as a global hub.

Others see the new legislation, approved by the country’s parliament on October 4 after a nearly 11-hour debate, as being at least in part a reaction to signs of increasing Chinese cyber-espionage across Asia and the risk it could pose to the multiracial city-state, which has a large Mandarin-speaking ethnic-Chinese majority.

Rights groups and activists, meanwhile, have argued that the law overreaches by giving broad powers to the government and limiting judicial review. Critics have described FICA as being crafted to stifle dissent and target political activists, community organizers and independent media outlets under the guise of defending national sovereignty.

Singapore’s powerful Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in his parliamentary speech that FICA is part of a “comprehensive strategy to deal with foreign interference,” calling it a “calibrated piece of legislation to allow us to act surgically against threats” while describing the internet as a “powerful new medium for subversion.”

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Malaysia’s Ismail reverts to a race-based past

New PM's five-year plan will ramp up pro-Malay affirmative action policies that have long hindered growth and competitiveness


A historic bipartisan agreement between Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s government and the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition will be put to the test on Thursday (October 7) when lawmakers vote on the newly installed administration’s first major policy initiative.

Ismail tabled his government’s five-year road map, known as the 12th Malaysia Plan, in parliament on September 27. The plan calls for 400 billion ringgit (US$95.53 billion) in spending on development projects including new highways and rail networks, affordable housing, as well as improvements in health, education and broadband connectivity.

The ambitious blueprint aims to reverse a pandemic-induced downturn while targeting high-income nation status by 2025, breaking free of the so-called middle-income trap that economists have long-regarded Malaysia as being stuck in, with its once high per-capita growth rate stagnating for at least a decade.

But a key plank of Ismail’s plan calls for dialing up of race-based affirmative action policies that critics have long argued are overdue for reform, a move that has been panned by economists, industry groups and opposition lawmakers who say such measures will only benefit “cronies” instead of poor and working-class ethnic Malays.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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

Monday, 27 September 2021

Singapore finding it hard to ‘live with Covid’

City-state set to tighten social distancing rules amid a record surge in cases despite a world-beating 82% vaccination rate


Singapore’s “living with Covid” strategy is being tested by a record rise in new daily cases, laying bare the challenges of moving from pandemic to endemic. But health officials in the city-state, which at 82% boasts one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, have said the surge is a “rite of passage” on a path back to normality.

The government has so far refrained from reimposing sweeping lockdown restrictions but has hit the brakes on further reopening measures while signaling concern over ballooning infection rates. To ensure that the healthcare system can cope with the climbing caseload, authorities recently took the step of tightening social distancing rules.

Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s finance minister and co-chair of a multi-ministry Covid-19 task force, conceded on September 24 that Singaporeans would be disappointed by the new curbs but said the city-state remains committed to its endemic strategy. Daily cases will eventually stabilize but remain “much higher” than previously, said the minister.

“We are not going back to a scenario of low daily cases anymore. It’s not going to be possible, because we are moving forward to learn to live with the virus,” said Wong. “That’s part of the adjustment we all have to make to prepare ourselves for the time when Covid becomes an endemic disease and learn to live with more daily cases.”

Read the full story at Asia Times.

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