Wednesday, 24 February 2021

The duo who stole Malaysia’s democracy

Muhyiddin Yassin and Azmin Ali's 'Sheraton Move’ coup has one year on resulted in nation’s worst political crisis in decades


Malaysia is in the grip of arguably its worst political crisis since independence, with critics and politicians accusing embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin of abusing his power to stifle any challenge to his unelected rule.

Parliament has been suspended under a state of emergency on public health grounds, the economy is in deep decline and the nation’s democracy is unmistakably under heavy strain. It all marks a dramatic turn from May 2018, when the nation basked in its first democratic transition of power since achieving independence.

One year since former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad’s shock resignation after that historic electoral upset, many have come to blame the two-time premier for the political coup orchestrated by his then-allies to topple his popularly elected government.

That coup brought Muhyiddin to power after a weeklong political impasse now known as the “Sheraton Move”, a backroom political maneuver that brought Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition’s 22-month reformist rule to an early and highly unexpected end.

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, 19 February 2021

Malaysia holds media freedom in contempt of court

Court ruling sets punitive precedent by holding top news site Malaysiakini liable for third party comments critical of the judiciary


Malaysiakini, widely considered the most popular independent media portal in Malaysia, was deemed liable for contempt of court in connection with reader remarks posted in the comments section of an article, a ruling that observers see as the latest blow to freedom of the press in the Southeast Asian nation.

In a Federal Court judgment on Friday (February 19), the online publication was found to be fully responsible for publishing third-party comments that “undermined the system of justice in the country” in a six to one decision. Malaysiakini was fined 500,000 ringgit (US$123,762), more than double the 200,000 ringgit fine prosecutors had sought.

Delivering the majority decision, judge Rohana Yusuf said the comments “involved allegations of corruption which were unproven and untrue,” and that the court could not accept Malaysiakini’s contention that it is not liable for public postings given that it owns, designs and controls its online platform in the way that it chooses.

“I am terribly disappointed,” said Steven Gan, Malaysiakini’s editor-in-chief, following the court ruling. “I think the decision made against us is perhaps an attempt to not only punish us but shut us down. It will have a tremendous chilling impact on discussions of issues of public interest and delivers a body blow on our campaign to fight corruption.”

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

Bellwether Singapore pivots from the pandemic

City-state is moving away from pandemic-induced big spending but forecasts point towards an uneven economic recovery


With an economic recovery underway and its worst-ever recession receding, Singapore is pivoting away from pandemic-induced big spending to renew its focus on key structural changes to stay competitive in the years to come. That is at least how the city-state’s latest budget, unveiled on February 16, is being pitched.

But as the small island-nation emerges from the crisis of a generation, forecasts point to an uneven recovery across various sectors of its bellwether economy. That unevenness, say economists, is bound to be reflected in regional growth performances, as neighboring countries continue to battle Covid-19 resurgences and move haltingly to vaccinate their populations.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat introduced the S$107 billion (US$80.5 billion) budget this week, acknowledging that while Singapore is heading towards a recovery fraught with uncertainties, the latest spending plan shifts the focus “from containment to restructuring” while retaining scaled-back support for the hardest-hit economic sectors.

“While last year’s budgets were tilted towards emergency support in a broad-based way, this year’s budget will focus on accelerating structural adaptations,” said the 59-year-old in reference to seismic socio-economic and political “mega-shifts” triggered by Covid-19, which he said were on a scale greater than the 1929 Great Depression.

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, 11 February 2021

Singapore’s Covid-19 app spreads contagion of distrust

Revelations that Singapore's TraceTogether contact tracing app used for criminal investigation has eroded trust in government


When Singapore rolled out TraceTogether, a smartphone app and physical token that uses Bluetooth technology for contact tracing, assurances were given at the highest official levels that personal data collected would be used solely to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Harish Pillay, a software engineer and transparent technology advocate, was an early supporter of the government-developed app who emailed the minister in charge of the initiative last March to volunteer his services and request that the program’s source code be shared “to ensure that [the app] does what it claims to do.”

Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister in charge of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative, accepted Pillay’s offer and released the source code, allowing developers from around the world to pick apart a technology that has become vital to the city-state’s successful coronavirus containment strategy.

“There was trust asked for at the start of the program,” said Pillay, who joined the TraceTogether campaign and publicly endorsed its use. “Many people, like me, felt that it was clear and transparent and [were] supportive. I was happily stating that I feel confident and comfortable with the safeguards.” Now, Pillay says he feels like he was let down.

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, 5 February 2021

Malaysia’s emergency fails to tame surging viral wave

Experts say government needs to take more localized tack as infection rates rise despite strict movement control orders


Health experts are calling on Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government to review its Covid-19 strategy as the nation battles a deadly third wave that has seen record daily infections rise since the controversial declaration of a state of emergency last month.

Warning that the country’s healthcare system risks being overwhelmed, the premier declared emergency rule on January 12 in a move that critics and opposition parties cast as an attempt to cling to power after his government’s razor-thin parliamentary majority was eroded by defections.

While the maneuver has given Muhyiddin a political lifeline, the Covid-19 resurgence has continued unabated with new cases climbing sharply since authorities tightened restrictions under a movement control order (MCO) covering all states in the country except Sarawak, which is under less severe curbs.

With intersecting health, political and economic crises in play, the government is under pressure to bring the worsening outbreak under control while simultaneously limiting adverse effects on the nation’s recession-hit economy. But its approach so far, observers say, has fallen short of protecting lives while preserving the livelihoods of Malaysians.

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, 29 January 2021

Singapore set for an inauspicious Chinese New Year

City-state is imposing new celebration-curbing restrictions to prevent a viral resurgence over the Lunar New Year holiday


Chinese New Year will be a distinctly muted affair for those ringing in the Year of the Ox in Singapore, where authorities have tightened restrictions on festivities amid fears of new Covid-19 super-spreader events

The new coronavirus clampdown comes as the city-state prepares to host the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in May, an in-person, non-virtual event being billed as a symbolic reopening of international bridges in preparation for a post-pandemic future.

Locally transmitted cases have inched up over the last month since Singapore eased restrictions in line with the third and final stage of its phased economic reopening. The city-state’s health authorities say the 36 community cases that have accrued since the beginning of January are indicative of additional undiagnosed community infections.

The emergence of new cases and clusters is a setback for an island nation that has made strides containing Covid-19, boasting one of the world’s lowest viral fatality rates and more often than not recording zero new daily cases. But with complacency setting in, the government has urged caution and restraint ahead of Chinese New Year gatherings.

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, 27 January 2021

Biden won’t quit Trump’s trade war on China

Biden administration will change the mechanisms and tactics but will maintain the same pressure Trump heaped on China


With US-China relations at a historic low, President Joe Biden’s new administration is expected to keep the pressure on Beijing as it sets a new multilateral course in a rivalry that erupted into debilitating tech and trade wars during Donald Trump’s tenure.

While many businesses and investors hope for a trade policy reset, including clearer messaging and greater predictability after four erratic years under Trump, it’s not immediately clear Biden will be able to muster easily the “collective leverage” with traditional allies he seeks to coax Beijing to comply with better trade terms.

Trump’s “America First” trade departure drew a hard line against China’s state-led economic model and sought to lure more manufacturing jobs back to the US. The previous administration accused Beijing of stealing intellectual property and imposed tariffs on more than US$370 billion in Chinese goods in a sharp break with free-trade convention.

A bitter trade war was partially defused when the US and China signed a “phase one” trade agreement last January, which committed Beijing to increase its purchases of American products and services by at least $200 billion over two years. But despite that deal, America’s trade imbalance with China has worsened.

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 January 2021

Muhyiddin’s emergency aims to save his political life

Malaysian leader's declaration of a Covid-19 state of emergency allows him to forestall snap polls and strengthen his grip on power


With daily Covid-19 cases hitting new record highs and political tensions at a breaking point, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s declaration of a nationwide state of emergency could give him the power and time he needs to stabilize the country and retain the premiership.

Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, consented to a state of emergency on January 12 under which Parliament and the holding of elections have been suspended. Under emergency rule, the premier has broader and more enhanced powers to enact new laws as emergency ordinances, which the military has been empowered to enforce.

“Let me assure you, the civilian government will continue to function. The emergency proclaimed by the king is not a military coup and curfew will not be enforced,” said Muhyiddin in a televised address as he sought to dispel alarm over the measures, which could last until August 1 or end earlier if transmissions are contained.

Malaysia hasn’t declared a national emergency since the bloody race riots and civil unrest of 1969. The announcement has strengthened the 73-year-old premier’s shaky grasp on power, ending speculation that a snap election could soon be called and forestalling any attempt by his political opponents to force early polls.

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, 7 January 2021

Axed railway raises Malaysia-Singapore trust deficit

Bilateral cancellation of once ballyhooed high-speed rail project runs deeper than disagreements over costs and Covid


Not long after ringing in the new year, disappointment set in for those on both sides of the Causeway separating Singapore and Malaysia. On January 1, the two countries announced the termination of a multi-billion-dollar high-speed rail (HSR) that would have directly linked the city-state to Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur.

News of the much-anticipated project’s cancellation came as a blow to frequent travelers who shuttle between the two neighboring Southeast Asian states, with leaders from both sides offering conflicting explanations for why the rail link, once touted by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as a “game-changer” for bilateral relations, was axed.

According to a joint statement, the two countries were unable to reach a consensus on continuing the project after Malaysia’s government proposed several changes to reduce costs in light of the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Slated for completion by 2031, the rail link would have cost an estimated US$14.9 billion to $19.8 billion.

The 350-kilometer, or 218-mile, HSR would have cut the travel time between the two cities down to about 90 minutes from the more than four hours it now takes by car. According to official estimates, the rail link would have contributed $5 billion in gross domestic product (GDP) to Malaysia and Singapore, as well as create 111,000 jobs by 2060.

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, 1 January 2021

Singapore shines the way to a post-pandemic 2021

City-state sees hope on the horizon with arrival of Covid-19 vaccines and virtually no new daily cases or deaths


Once a cautionary tale of the pandemic era, Singapore is beginning 2021 boasting a comeback story. Having once had the highest Covid-19 caseload in Southeast Asia when daily infections were at their peak in April, the city-state has nearly eradicated local transmission of the virus in a hard-fought narrative reversal.

While parts of the world experience new lockdowns and a resurgence of the coronavirus, daily cases are almost zero in Singapore, with only a small number of infected people arriving from abroad. Fatality rates are among the world’s lowest with just 29 deaths nearly one year on from when the island republic reported its first case.

“Covid-19 has been a relentless fight that has tested our resources and resolve to the fullest,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his New Year message on December 31. “The first batch of vaccines has arrived in Singapore, and vaccinations have already begun. We can now see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Singapore was the first country in Asia to receive doses of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German firm BioNTech. Healthcare workers and the elderly were among the first to be inoculated in late December. To show the vaccine is safe, Lee, 68, and his colleagues are slated to be early recipients of the shots.

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