Thursday, 20 September 2018

Najib stares at jail time as 1MDB charges mount

Malaysian ex-premier hit with 25 new criminal charges including receiving, using and transferring illegal proceeds in what may prove to be the world's biggest ever financial scam


New charges were leveled today against Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak in connection with an international corruption scandal at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state development fund, which accumulated billions of dollars in debts while the ex-premier served as its advisory board chairman.

Twenty-five charges were laid against Najib, 64, whose nine-year premiership was repudiated by voters at this year’s May 9 polls, related to a US$681 million transfer made into his personal bank account in 2013. Najib does not dispute the transfer but claims the funds were a “political donation” from a Saudi royal and not subject to regulation under Malaysian law.

Investigators, however, believe the funds were pilfered from 1MDB in one of the world’s biggest ever financial scandals. Charges unveiled today include nine counts of receiving illegal proceeds, five counts of using illegal proceeds, seven counts of transferring the proceeds to other entities and four counts of power abuse.

The former premier, who faces a maximum 20-year prison sentence if convicted, has pleaded not guilty to all charges so far and has denied any wrongdoing. Graft probes are underway in at least six countries and investigators at the US Department of Justice (DoJ) believe Najib’s associates embezzled and laundered US$4.5 billion from the fund from 2009 to 2014.

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.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Chinese buyer beware in Mahathir’s Malaysia

Malaysian leader aims to bar foreign, spelled Chinese, buyers from the US$100 billion Forest City real estate project he has lambasted as a Chinese 'enclave'


A vast real estate development under construction in Malaysia’s southern state of Johor is in the spotlight over a widening political row pitting the country’s wily nonagenarian premier against a large private Chinese property developer backed by the state’s influential ruler, Sultan Ibrahim Ismail.

The ambitious US$100 billion mega-project, known as Forest City, is administered in partnership with an investment entity whose largest shareholder is the sultan. It is designed to span four artificial islands built adjacent to neighboring Singapore and if fully built will alter the area’s map by creating a new private residential township expected to accommodate 700,000 residents by 2050.

Though Forest City is at an early stage of development and barely inhabited, Chinese nationals reportedly make up some 70%, or two-thirds, of apartment buyers so far, with Malaysians accounting for just 20% of sales. Foreign property buyers from 22 other countries, including Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea, have also invested in units.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced in late August that foreigners could no longer buy properties there, surprising many – including Johor’s state government – and contradicting Malaysian law, which allows for foreign citizens and companies to acquire land and property subject to the prior approval of state, rather than federal, authorities.

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, 5 September 2018

Mahathir driving for a new national dream car

Malaysian premier aims to revive his past ambition to build an indigenous auto despite the loss-making reality of his previous Proton pet project


When Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad proposed a new national car project shortly after his May 9 election win, Malaysians quickly took to social media to question the wisdom of reviving a state-led strategy that had delivered at best mixed results during his previous tenure as premier.

For some, Mahathir’s talk of producing a new national car appeared less about an automobile and more about course-correcting the legacy of his earlier 22-year premiership from 1981-2003, under which industrialization policies and ambitious prestige-boosting projects were deployed to modernize Malaysia’s then-largely agrarian economy.

Proton, Malaysia’s flagship national car, was arguably the main driver of the country’s industrialization push when it launched over three decades ago as a fully state-owned entity. When the first generation Proton Saga rolled off the production line in 1985, Mahathir – a noted car enthusiast – hailed it as “a symbol of Malaysians as a dignified people.”

The state-financed carmaker dominated the Malaysian market in the early 1990s, with a 74% market share at its peak. Protectionist tariffs that made imported cars comparatively expensive drove those local sales. Post-Mahathir governments, however, eased those import levies and precipitated a sharp decline in Proton’s sales. By 2017, only 13.8% of the new cars on Malaysia’s road were Protons.

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.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Mahathir resets the terms for dealing with China

Malaysian premier's bid to maintain close ties despite canceling US$22 billion worth of BRI projects is a litmus test of Beijing's flexibility


Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad welcomed Chinese trade, technology and investment while cautioning against a “new version of colonialism” during his recently concluded first state visit to China since winning the premiership in May.

During a joint news conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who reportedly directly asked Mahathir whether there was consensus on upholding free trade between both sides, the 93-year-old premier replied in the affirmative, while also adding that “free trade should also be fair trade.”

The world’s most senior statesman has made the recalibration of ties with China a key foreign policy priority following months of stinging criticism of his scandal-plagued predecessor Najib Razak, who stands accused of unscrupulous borrowing to fund China-backed mega-projects worth billions of dollars.

Mahathir has claimed that Najib’s willingness to assume huge foreign debts and agree to lopsided contracts risked eroding Malaysia’s sovereignty. Malaysian officials also have suspicions that Chinese companies were involved in the multi-billion dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) graft scandal, of which Najib stands personally accused of foul play. The ex-premier has denied the accusations.

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, 16 August 2018

Kim Jong-nam murder suspects one step closer to death

Malaysian court moves ahead with death penalty case against two foreign female suspects widely viewed as scapegoats for a North Korean state sponsored crime


Two Southeast Asian women on trial for the February 2017 murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader, were ordered today by a High Court in Malaysia to mount a defense against prosecution claims, dashing certain hopes that the accused would be acquitted and released on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Trial judge Azmi Ariffin ruled that the prosecution had proven a prima facie case against Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 26, and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, 29, both of whom had pleaded “not guilty” when their trial opened last October. The pair, who are the only suspects in custody in connection with the killing by poison, face a mandatory death sentence if convicted.

The Malaysian judge could not rule out the possibility of a “well-planned conspiracy” between the two women and several North Korean operatives still at large, suggesting the accused had a common intention to carry out the killing. The order will extend the closely watched trial, which is set to resume in November with Siti as its first witness.

“We are deeply disappointed with the ruling,” said Gooi Soon Seng, Siti’s lawyer, in remarks to reporters. “It doesn’t mean the court has found them guilty. The court wants to hear their version,” he said. Doan also intends to testify in court, though it is unclear when she will do so.

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, 9 August 2018

Looking to Malaysia, Singapore’s opposition comes together

Ex-MP Tan Cheng Bock's new alliance aims to replicate Malaysia's opposition election win to depose Singapore's long-ruling People's Action Party


The May 9 election triumph of Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition, marking the country’s first-ever transition of power since achieving independence in 1957, was perhaps most closely watched in neighboring Singapore, where the People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled uninterrupted since 1959.

With the fall of Malaysia’s long-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, the PAP is now the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia. But the BN’s unexpected loss has caused many in Singapore to ponder the possibility of the PAP one day losing power, a prospect local opposition parties hope to realize at the next polls.

“The people of Singapore, like the people in Malaysia, must be tired of having the same government, the same party since independence,” newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad remarked in an interview after returning to office. He is remembered in Singapore for acerbic remarks that frequently needled the rich city-state during his previous 22-year tenure.

Though political conditions in the two neighbors differ in important ways, the parallels are apparently close enough for the leaders of Singapore’s disparate opposition parties to look to Pakatan Harapan’s strategy and tactics as a roadmap, in spite of the PAP’s asymmetric dominance in parliament and ironclad control over the state bureaucracy.

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.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

‘Indo-Pacific’ pitch gets lukewarm reception in SE Asia

US envoy Mike Pompeo failed to make a meaningful economic counter to China's rich initiatives during a highly anticipated five-day tour of the strategic region


Days after announcing a big new investment pitch for Southeast Asia, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began a five-day trip with visits to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to ramp up regional support for America’s new “Indo-Pacific” strategy aimed at counterbalancing China.

The trip came amid mounting trade tensions between the US and China as both powers compete for regional influence. Most of Southeast Asia’s trade-reliant economies are skeptical of the Donald Trump administration’s trade policies, fearing a sustained trade war between the world’s two biggest economies will negatively impact on regional growth.

Though Southeast Asian nations are cool to Trump’s lurch towards protectionism, the alternative of China’s economic dominance also stirs unease. US officials say they do not intend to compete directly with Beijing’s initiatives, including the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, but Pompeo’s remarks clearly framed the strategy as a counter to China.

“Like so many of our Asian allies and friends, our country fought for its own independence from an empire that expected deference,” Pompeo told the US Chamber of Commerce during a policy speech last week in an apparent reference to China. “We thus have never and will never seek domination in the Indo-Pacific, and we will oppose any country that does.”

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, 1 August 2018

Can Mahathir solve Malaysia Airlines’ riddle?

New investigation into Flight MH370's tragic disappearance offers few new answers, but hopes are rising the new premier can lift the sunken carrier's fortunes


An investigative report by the Malaysian government into the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines’ (MAS) Flight MH370 – which went missing shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014 – offered few new conclusions on the Beijing-bound flight.

But certain hopes are rising that new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad can manufacture a turnaround of the beleaguered national flag carrier. The new report, released earlier this week, said that the Boeing 777-200ER plane was deliberately manipulated off course, but stopped short of apportioning specific blame.

The aircraft’s transponders were shut off without a mayday call less than an hour into the ill-fated flight carrying 239 people. As the plane left Malaysian airspace, it was soon thereafter manually turned away from its flight path, veering thousands of miles off course where it is believed to have plunged into the Indian Ocean.

“We are not of the opinion it could have been an event committed by the pilots,” said Kok Soo Chon, head of the MH370 safety investigation team. Psychiatrists assisted investigators in conducting background checks into Zaharie and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, who concluded they were “quite satisfied” with the pilots’ training and mental health.

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, 25 July 2018

How far will Mahathir push China?

Malaysian leader's government has frozen China-invested projects and raided Chinese companies in a complex and high-risk negotiation to reset relations


When Malaysia’s opposition alliance notched a historic upset election win on May 9, attention quickly turned to the prospects for various multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects outgoing premier Najib Razak entered into with China.

As the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate, Mahathir Mohamad vowed greater scrutiny of China-linked projects, which on the hustings he frequently criticized for their overreliance on Chinese manpower and materials. This month, Mahathir’s new government issued a stop-work order on major China-linked projects, stalling over US$20 billion worth of contracts in a bid to renegotiate in the name of fairness and viability.

Mahathir, who maintains he wants “good relations” with China, will travel to Beijing next month in a visit that will be closely watched as Malaysia shifts away from the Najib-era transactional model of foreign policy in favor of a more non-aligned stance reflective of the nation’s emerging stature as a regional middle power.

Daim Zainuddin, the premier’s trusted trouble-shooter and head of the country’s Council of Eminent Persons advisory body, was recently dispatched to Beijing to lay the groundwork for Mahathir’s follow-up visit in August and establish a scope for the renegotiation of suspended projects.

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, 20 July 2018

Malaysia’s Najib sought CIA support before election defeat

Exposed secret letter sent by then premier's office to US spy agency painted soon-to-be election winner Mahathir Mohamad as a threat to US interests


Malaysia’s previous Najib Razak-led government appealed to the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seeking American support to form his country’s next government ahead of a closely fought election on May 9, according to a recent expose published by local news portal Malaysiakini.

Five days before the historic general election, an intelligence unit in the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Department penned an official letter to then-CIA director-designate Gina Haspel acknowledging the competitiveness of the contest, while noting that Najib was expected to “win the election adequately to form the next government.”

The letter, signed by the division’s director general Hasanah Ab Hamid, underscored “the need to have US support for the present government even if we are to win the election by a simple majority or just one seat,” and requested that the CIA relay “the complexity of managing this election” to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Najib’s long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition was roundly defeated at the May 9 polls after garnering just over one-third of the national vote. Pakatan Harapan, Malaysia’s former opposition coalition, now leads the federal government under the premiership of Mahathir Mohamad, who was previously prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

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.