Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)

Malaysia

Date of AiR edition

News summary

30 June 2020

At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute 

(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.

ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.

On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”. 

There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling. 

For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.  

The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.  

The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1]

The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]

 

 

30 June 2020

Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute

(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]

 

 

30 June 2020

Malaysia: Mahathir abandons PM candidacy and backs Sabah chief minister

(cm/ls) After weeks of uncertainty between Anwar Ibrahim and Mohamad Mahathir over each’s possible candidacy against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, Mahathir has apparently abandoned his plans to become prime minister for a third time. Not without surprise to observers, he stated on the weekend that he will back Shafie Apdal as PM candidate. Shafie is the Chief of Minister of the state of Sabah and the leader of the Parti Warisan. The decision was a collective agreement between three opposition parties. PKR, however, was not in agreement as they proposed Anwar as prime ministerial candidate and refused Mahathir’s initial proposal to elect him for six months as prime minister. [South China Morning Post] [Straits Times 1] [AiR No. 25, June/2020, 4]

Meanwhile, opposition parties are calling on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for snap polls. Malaysia’s upcoming elections are due before or in September 2023. However, the opposition questions whether Muhyiddin is holding an effective majority in parliament. [Straits Times 2] [Channel News Asia

 

 

30 June 2020

Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]

The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]

 

23 June 2020

Malaysia: Mahathir-Anwar divide sees Pakatan Harapan counter-coup falter

(cm/lm) In a statement issued on Friday, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leadership and lawmakers said they would only back president Anwar Ibrahim in his bid to be the prime ministerial candidate for Malaysia’s multiracial Pakatan Harapan alliance (PH). The decision is considered a key turning point for the counter-coup plan, because PKR´s 38 parliamentary seats are required to test Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s majority at a scheduled Parliament sitting in July.

For weeks, the co-called “Pakatan Plus” alliance of 107 or 108 MPs has been unable to come to a consensus in selecting their prime ministerial candidate as a self-imposed deadline for an agreement passed on last Tuesday, after a meeting between the opposition’s key leaders had not taken place.

The Chinese-centric Democratic Action Party (DAP)– which has 42 MPs – and Amanah, a progressive-leaning Islamic group with 11 lawmakers, had indicated earlier that they are willing to back Dr Mahathir in his bid to return as prime minister for the third time. At the moment, the People’s Justice Party holds 38 of the 222 seats. Anwar stated he is willing to discuss further on ways to ‘save Malaysia’ with Mahathir. [NY Times] [The Straits Times] [SCMP] [The Straits Times 2]

 

23 June 2020

Malaysia: Sabah Foundation sues its former chairman

(cm/lm) Last Tuesday, the Sabah Foundation (Yayasan Sabah), an organisation dedicated to the promotion of educational and economic opportunities for the people of the Sabah state, filed a RM872 million claim at the Kota Kinabalu High Court against its former chairman and former Chief Minister Tan Sri Musa Aman for alleged breach of fiduciary duty. Musa later last week denied all allegations and issued a Letter of Demand, asking for an unconditional apology, and demanding RM1 billion from Yayasan Sabah trustees, including Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal. [The Star] [New Straites Times]

The claim comes on the heels of the High Court earlier this month acquitting and discharging Musa Aman of 46 criminal charges of corruption and money-laundering linked to timber concessions contracts in the state. The prosecution had withdrawn the charges. [The Edge Markets] [AiR, No. 24, June/2020, 3]

 

23 June 2020

Malaysia: Bersatu’s Deputy Division Chief sacked for contesting Chini by-election

(cm) The deputy Pekan division chief of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), Tengku Datuk Zainul Hisham Tengku Hussin has been sacked by his party last week after going rogue and announcing to contest the Chini-by-election as an independent candidate. The Election Commission set 30 June for early voting, and 4 July for polling. During this period, the Election Commission placed security measures on three Election Campaign Enforcement Teams until the 3 July. [New Straits Times] [The Star]

In a video message Dr Mahathir on Tuesday endorsed Tengku Zainul, saying that he was the best candidate in the three-way contest between Tengku Zainul, Mohd Syukri Mohd Ramli, and Mohd Sharim Md Zain from Barisan Nasional. [Malay Mail]

23 June 2020

Malaysia: Plans for Rohingya detainees to be sent back to Sea

(cm) Last Friday, security sources divulged that Malaysian authorities plan to send 269 Rohingya Muslims back out to sea. Their hopes of sending the refugees to Bangladesh fell short as Bangladeshi officials rejected their request. Thus, authorities are now aiming to repair the boat, regardless of the report of one death and poor health conditions upon arrival. [Reuters]

In response, Amnesty International in a statement said that “not only would such a move breach the most basic principles of international law, if the boat subsequently managed to land in another country irregularly, it could potentially contravene Malaysia’s own law banning the smuggling of migrants.” [Amnesty International]

In early June, Malaysian authorities were unable to cease entry or return the Rohingya refugees due to their damaged boat. [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]

23 June 2020

Malaysia-Singapore relations: Ongoing discussions on cross-border travel

(cm) The foreign ministries in Singapore and Malaysia are closely discussing safety measures and precautions for official travellers, short term businesses, and citizens who regularly commute between these countries. Ismail Sabri, Malaysia’s Senior Minister, stated on Friday that Singapore and Brunei are seen as green zones by the Malaysian Health Ministry. Therefore provisionally, Malaysia may no longer require 14-day quarantine or mandatory Covid-19 screening for Singapore and also Brunei citizens who enter Malaysia. Additionally, this would be reciprocated to Malaysians who enter Singapore and/or Brunei. However, public health protocols and safety of citizens are still ongoing negotiations between the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. [Today Online]

16 June 2020

Malaysia: Ex-Attorney General’s accusations cause uproar in Najib Razak corruption trial

(cm/ls) Ex-Attorney General of Malaysia, Mohamed Apandi Ali, has caused an uproar by claiming that prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram, who led three cases in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad corruption trial, was “sent” by Mahathir Mohamed. He further claimed that Gopal Sri Ram attempted to influence Apandi to arrest then Prime Minister Najib Razak four months before the May 2018 elections. [South China Morning Post

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Muhyddin Yassin is eager to have snap polls. He stated that, “I support the idea of having a general election as soon as possible, once we are safe from the coronavirus situation, as it will end the propaganda over legitimacy and help create a more stable PN government”. [Straits Times]

At the same time, former Sabah chief minister and UMNO politician Musa Aman has been acquitted and discharged of 46 criminal charges of corruption and money-laundering linked to timber concessions contracts in the state. The prosecution had withdrawn the charges. Musa Aman is a rival of the current Sabah chief minister Mohd Shafie Apdal. [New Straits Times] Moreover, the state’s infrastructure development minister, Peter Anthony, a confidante of Shafie, was charged with money-laundering last week. [Straits Times]

9 June 2020

Malaysia: Reviewing a change in policy for foreign workers post Covid-19

(cm) The Senior Minister (Defense) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob states there will be significant changes by relying on local workers, instead of foreign workers, to combat the entry of illegal immigrants. Malaysia has an inflow of foreign workers in the tourism, construction, manufacturing and agricultural sectors. Though with Covid-19, the unemployment rate increased, limited sanitation systems and healthcare spread the virus to the Malaysian population. [The Diplomat] [New Straits Times]

9 June 2020

Malaysia: First 1MDB-linked corruption trial closes

(lm) On Friday, the first of Najib Razak’s five corruption trials wrapped up, with lawyers of Malaysia’s former prime minister in their final rebuttal painting the defendant as the victim of a scam and misrepresentation by the fugitive financier Low Taek Jho, and other “rogue bankers”. The trial judge, Justice Mohd Nazlan Ghazali, is now expected to analyse some 2,000 pages of submissions before coming to a verdict on July 28. The trial commenced in April last year. [SCMP] [The Straits Times]

Malaysian ex-leader Najib Razak faces a total of 42 counts of corruption, money-laundering and abuse of power spanning five different cases tied to 1MBD. His most significant trial begins on August 28, centring on allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars linked to the state fund had been funnelled into his personal bank accounts during his tenure as prime minister from 2009 to 2018. [The Straits Times 2]

In an interview on Saturday, Malaysia’s Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz said that the government would not be willing to accept even compensation of US$3 billion from Goldman Sachs in an out-of-court settlement over its role in the scandal. [SCMP]

9 June 2020

Malaysian politics in turmoil

(lm) Observers of Malaysian politics last week witnessed a see-saw battle for parliamentary majority between Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his predecessor and ex-mentor Dr Mahathir Mohamad. On Friday, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) vice-president Jugah Muyang left the opposition to back up Prime Minister Muhyiddin, only one day after Malaysian Deputy Works Minister Shahruddin Salleh had issued his resignation and signalled his support for Mahathir on Thursday. [The Straits Times 1] [The Strait Times 2]

The unrelenting twist between the two politicians has left the country with a dysfunctional government, as both try to woo lawmakers from the opposing camp in a bid to garner a comfortable majority in Parliament. While Dr Mahathir must try to deprive hitherto-PM Muhyiddin of the bare minimum needed for a simple majority in Parliament (112 out of 222 MPs), the incumbent needs to increase the number of his lawmakers to stabilise his administration. However, it remains unclear how many seats Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration commands, after the Parliament had been limited to a one-day session in May, barring a confidence vote against Muhyiddin. [Asia in Review No. 20, May/2020,3]

Under the National Alliance (Perikatan Nasional, PN), parliamentary debates in March and May have so far been cancelled out of fears over COVID-19, leaving the Muhyiddin administration’s majority untested. Divisions had deepened when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad insisted, he and his key allies remained in control of the party despite their effective sacking a day earlier.] [Asia in Review, No. 22, June/2020, 1]

On his first day back in office after completing his 14-day quarantine period, Malaysia PM Muhyiddin Yassin sacked two allies of predecessor Mahathir Mohamad. The expulsion is the latest in a series of power moves by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to consolidate power and to clean up PPBM of those who support former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, commentators say. In a statement issued on Monday, PAS secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan confirmed that the political coalition within Malaysia’s ruling alliance Perikatan Nasional (PN) is prepared to face the 15th general election. [Channel News Asia] [The Strait Times 3] [The Strait Times 4]

Political observers say that the Barisan Nasional alliance and its linchpin, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – defeated in the 2018 polls – are likely to benefit. UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in a Facebook post on Wednesday dismissed any allegations of a plot to overthrow Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The announcement followed on a visit by former Prime Minister Najib Razak to Ahmad Zahid’s home on Tuesday night. UMNO in February had backed Tan Sri Muhyiddin (PPBM) in order to oust the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad [The Strait Times 5]

Currently a lawmaker and a member of UMNO, Malaysia’s former leader Najib Razak in a Facebook post on Wednesday warned of a “high chance” of snap elections if the country’s politics continue to be in turmoil, further suggesting that health ministry and Election Commission should start drafting SOPs for such an eventuality. That scenario, however, is only possible if Muhyiddin, following defeat in a no-confidence vote, advises the king to dissolve parliament. [Bloomberg]

 

 

9 June 2020

Malaysia: Rohingya migrants on Malaysian territorial waters

(cm) Off the northwest island of Langkawi, 269 Rohingya Migrants attempted to enter Malaysia on Monday morning. The border control authorities managed to detain the migrants, as the boat was too damaged to be sent back. Many migrants illegally travel to Malaysia to flee the conflicts of Myanmar, or poor refugee camp conditions in the Bangladesh, and head towards a nation that is predominantly Muslim. [The Jakarta Post] [Channel NewsAsia]

However, the COVID-19 virus highly impacted the overcrowded detention centres and unhygienic conditions. This posed a risk to the national security to Malaysian citizens, and vulnerability to detainees without international protection from the UNHCR. [Al Jazeera] [Amnesty International]

The government aimed at strengthening their security by coordinating with the Armed Forces, National Task Force and Malaysian border of Security Agency, to battle the influx of illegal migrants and undocumented workers. [New Straits Times]

 

 

2 June 2020

Malaysia: Face-off between Mahatir and Muhyiddin over Bersatu membership

(ls) Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has suffered another political defeat. Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the party he co-founded in 2016, ejected him and four other lawmakers from the party. They had refused to support the government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The official reason stated by the party was that Mahatir and the four others sat in the opposition bloc in the parliamentary session on 18 May. Bersatu’s party statute states that members who join other parties would be automatically ejected. [Straits Times]

Mahathir, however, insisted that he remained in control of the party, dismissing the legitimacy of the termination letters. Rather, he said, Muhyiddin should be ejected from the party for staging the coup against him back in March. The two factions also dispute who holds the position of secretary general. Observers say that the intraparty battle is likely to weaken both factions within Bersatu, with the Barisan Nasional alliance, which was defeated in the 2018 general election, likely to benefit. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Muhyiddin had to go into a two-week quarantine after an officer who attended a post-Cabinet meeting tested positive for Covid-19. [Voice of America]

 

 

2 June 2020

Singapore and Malaysia aim to improve living standards of migrant workers

(ls) Singapore is cautiously reopening its economy as Covid-19 is still spreading. Pupils have been allowed back to school, though not all every day, and about three quarters of the economy has resumed activities. Daily new cases are still in the hundreds. The overall number of infections stands at 35,000, with about 93 per cent of these among the country’s low-wage migrant worker population. [South China Morning Post]

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced on Monday that the government will build new foreign worker dormitories with “better standards” for up to 100,000 workers. Some of these will be temporary structures or former schools and vacant factories to provide quick relief from current overcrowded conditions. Wong said that some of the new dormitory sites would be quite near residential areas, “so all of us have to do our part to reject the ‘not in my backyard’ mindset.” [Today Online]

However, conditions under the new arrangements will remain tight. The living space per resident at new quick-build dormitories will be lifted to at least 6 square meters (not including shared facilities) from currently at least 4.5 square meters per resident (including shared facilities). The maximum number of beds per room would be ten. Currently, there are no limits on the maximum number of beds allowed per room. In practice, dormitories typically have about 12 to 16 beds in each room. [Channel News Asia]

Meanwhile, in Malaysia, the Human Resources Ministry has told employers to make arrangements and provide proper accommodation for foreign workers in all sectors within three months according to the Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities (Amendment) Act. Prior to the amendment, the Act only covered accommodation and housing for workers in plantations that were more than 8 hectares and in the mining sector. [Straits Times]

 

 

2 June 2020

Malaysia: Islamic law banning gay sex challenged in the Federal Court

(ls) The Federal Court of Malaysia has allowed a motion for the review of an Islamic law in the state of Selangor that bans sex “against the order of nature”. The man bringing the claim argues that Selangor does not have the power to enforce its law as gay sex is already a crime under general laws. Malaysia retains a British colonial-era ban on sodomy, which is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail, although it is rarely enforced. [Reuters]

 

 

19 May 2020

Malaysia: 1MDB charges dropped against Najib Razak’s stepson

(ls) Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz, a film producer and the stepson of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, was released from five counts of money-laundering over almost 250 million USD allegedly misappropriated from the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The charges were dropped after he agreed to return about 107 million USD in assets. Criminal prosecution is now excluded as long as he performs his obligations under the agreement. Former Attorney-General Tommy Thomas, who had taken the decision to prosecute Riza, said the agreement was a “sweetheart deal for Riza but terrible for Malaysia.” The trial against Najib has resumed this week. [New Straits Times] [Malay Mail]

 

 

19 May 2020

Malaysia: One-day parliament session sees only King’s speech

(ls) The controversial one-day session of the Malaysian parliament went forward on Monday, 18 May, as planned with the King delivering a speech in which he called for unity and political stability. The speech was the only item on the agenda. Thus, a vote of no-confidence, planned by the opposition to be launched against the government under new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, or a debate about the country’s response to Covid-19 did not take place. [South China Morning Post 1]

As reported earlier, the opposition had criticized the government’s decision to disallow debates during the one-day sitting, alleging Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance was not confident that it would be able to secure a majority parliament. Of the 222 seats, PN currently has 113 seats while the opposition has 108. There is one independent MP. [Straits Times 1]

Perikatan Nasional (PN), which has not yet announced to establish a formal coalition, consists of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), Barisan Nasional, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), United Sabah Party (PBS) and the Homeland Solidarity Party (STAR). Over the weekend, however, the parties concluded a Memorandum of Understanding, which is seen as a step toward the formation of a coalition. [Straits Times 2]

Meanwhile, Mukhriz Mahathir, the now former Chief Minister of the state of Kedah and son of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, has stepped down from his position as Chief Minister on Sunday after he had lost his tight majority in the State Assembly. [Asia in Review, No. 19, May/2020, 2] Though initially resisting, he eventually saw no opportunity to regain the assembly’s support. He has now been replaced by Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor from PAS. [South China Morning Post 2]

 

 

19 May 2020

South China Sea: Chinese-Malaysian stand-off ends as ships leave

(ls) Tensions have been easing in the South China Sea, as the Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 has left Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) after an oil exploration vessel of the Malaysian state oil firm Petronas had left the area before. The ships were involved in a month-long standoff in waters claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam as well as China. Chinese statements have maintained that the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was conducting normal activities. [Reuters]

 

 

12 May 2020

Malaysia: Rights groups urge government to act on hate speech against Rohingya  

(jk) Several human rights groups have urged the government under new PM Muhyiddin Yassin to address hate speech and threats against Rohingya refugees in the country after numerous posts spread on the internet calling for violence and even murder against the refugees. A letter addressed to the government stated that the surge in hate speech was “driven by claims the Rohingya were demanding citizenship or other legal rights in Malaysia”. [Al Jazeera]

 

 

12 May 2020

Malaysia: No confidence vote to go ahead – but when?

(jk) The speaker of Malaysia’s parliament announced to allow a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, tabled by former PM Mahathir Mohamad. The question now is, however, when the motion will be discussed. As reported previously, the upcoming parliamentary session will be a single one-day sitting on May 18 before the parliament is scheduled to reconvene properly in July. Observers believe the no confidence motion may be put behind other government business however and will therefore not be dealt with during the one-day sitting. Even if it were to go ahead, the result is very difficult to foresee as the current PM’s coalition has – if at all- a very narrow majority. [Straits Times 1]

In the meantime, Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim issued a joint statement this past weekend, saying that they have “set aside their differences for a renewed push to regain power for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.” [Straits Times 2

On state level, there was less encouraging news for PH as its administration has lost control of Kedah state, where Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz, was leading the government. His administration has lost control after two lawmakers defected from the coalition, putting their faith in the current prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the leadership of Perikatan Nasional (PN) which looks like now having a majority to form a new government in Kedah. [Channel News Asia]

 

5 May 2020

Analyses of recent South China Sea standoffs 

(ls) Several standoffs between Chinese, Malaysian, Vietnamese and American ships in the South China Sea over the last weeks [Asia in Review, No. 16, April/2020, 3] [No. 14, April/2020, 1] have shifted back the focus on this volatile region. Recent analyses evaluate the incidents and point to Southeast Asian countries’ situation of being caught up between major global powers with opposing interests while at the same time defending their own claims to territory and resources. [Foreign Policy] [The Diplomat]

 

5 May 2020

Malaysia: Federal government eases restrictions, not all states follow

(ls) The Malaysian federal government has allowed almost all economic sectors and businesses to reopen since 4 May 2020, subject to strict conditions. This came about a week earlier than previously announced. However, also under the new “conditional movement control order”, schools and daycare centers will remain closed, and mass social, cultural and religious gatherings are still prohibited. However, several state governments departed from the federal government’s exit strategy and kept stricter measures in place. About 500,000 Malaysians had signed an online petition demanding not to lift the prior “movement control order” yet. [Malay Mail] [Straits Times 1]

Despite the lifting of coronavirus-related measures, police and immigration officials arrested hundreds of migrant workers and refugees in so-called Covid-19 “red zones” in Kuala Lumpur. These are places or areas subject to “enhanced movement control orders”. The move has been criticized as it may further discourage these particular groups of the population to get tested. There are about 5.5 million migrant workers in Malaysia. [South China Morning Post 1]

Furthering current corona-related restrictions of free speech across Southeast Asia, the South China Morning Post journalist who reported on the arrests was told to report to the Malaysian police headquarters for violations of the Penal Code and the Communications Act. Communications and multimedia minister Saifuddin Abdullah, however, said that he would defend the journalist’s rights even though he disagreed with the article. [South China Morning Post 2]

Meanwhile, the government confirmed that the parliament’s initial sitting on 18 May will be a one-day session in order to help contain Covid-19. [Straits Times 2] The announcement of the one-day sitting had sparked serious criticism and raised concerns about its constitutionality. [Asia in Review, No. 16, April/2020, 3]

5 May 2020

Finalization of Malaysia-Singapore rapid train deal postponed 

(ls) The rail-link project that would link Malaysia’s Johor with Singapore has been delayed due to limited negotiations in recent weeks because of corona-related movement restrictions. The deal shall now be signed until the end of July. The project was suspended last year after Malaysia’s then-government under prime minister Mahatir said it wanted to review major deals. Since then, the project costs have been cut. [Reuters]

28 April 2020

INTERPOL crackdown on terrorist routes in Southeast Asia

(jk) An INTERPOL-led operation from mid-February to mid-March involving law enforcement from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysiaand the Philippines led to the arrest of over 180 individuals, allegedly involved in human trafficking and terrorism. The operation took place along known common routes used by terrorist and organized crime groups in the border area of the involved countries, for example the Sulu and Celebes Seas, which have repeatedly been the focus of terrorist for kidnappings and human trafficking. Law enforcement was able to rescue a number of human trafficking victims and seized illegal firearms and explosives. [INTERPOL]

28 April 2020

Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia extend lockdown measures 

(jk) Due to ongoing concern about the spread of the Covid 19, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) in Thailand decided in a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister to extend the Emergency Decree for another month after it expires at the end of this week. [Bangkok Post]

Malaysia and Singapore have also extended their lockdowns, until May 12 and June 1 respectively, while Vietnam eased restrictions slightly (see below). 

 

21 April 2020

Malaysia: Announcement of one-day parliamentary session on 18 May provokes criticism

(ls) Following the postponement of the Malaysian parliament’s initial sitting after new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had been sworn in on 9 March [Asia in Review, No. 10, March/2020, 2], the Dewan Rakyat’s secretary issued a circular on Friday to all MPs informing them that there will be a one-day sitting on 18 May. In that sitting, the King will deliver his customary opening address. Apart from that, only government bills and matters would be discussed, with no oral and written questions or motions allowed. The justification for this unprecedented move appears to be the movement restrictions that have been issued due to the Covid-19 crisis. Actual debates will not take place before July. [Free Malaysia Today]

Most observers interpret this as a move of the government to buy time in order to gather more support from MPs to be able to resist a vote of no confidence to be tabled by the opposition. Indeed, other legislatures across the world, including the state legislature of the Malaysian state of Penang, have been able to introduce social distancing in seating arrangements, wearing of masks, and convening by tele-conferencing.

Thus, former PM Mahatir Mohammad criticized the one-day session, saying that the government is not yet “certified”.  At the same, the opposition, including the remains of Pakatan Harapan and a faction of Bersatu – would still have to decide on the opposition leader. [The Star]

Former PM-hopeful Anwar Ibrahim warned that the decision to limit the parliamentary sitting to just one day might set a dangerous precedent for the future, pointing also to the multitude of pressing topics that ought to be debated, with the measures to handle the Covid-19 crisis in particular. [Malay Mail]

The case is remindful of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move last year to advise the Queen to prorogue a parliament session and to reconvene a bit more than two weeks before the UK’s scheduled departure from the European Union. The UK Supreme Court ruled this unconstitutional. Based on a comparative view, some commentators consider the Malaysian postponement to be in violation of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution, as well. [Malaysian Public Law]

 

7 April 2020

Malaysia: New government entrenches its power. Repercussions on 1MDB investigations?

(ls) Malaysia’s new Perikatan Nasional (PN) government has begun to implement several changes at various state agencies in recent weeks. According to observers, the changes were meant to appease supporters whose factions were not rewarded with ministerial posts. Many who served in state agencies and government-linked companies during the Najib Razak administration from 2009 to 2018 are now expected to make a comeback. Prime Minister Muhyiddin, who is the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president, is still competing with former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who has remained the chairman of the party. [Straits Times]

These changes may also have repercussions on efforts to investigate the 1MDB corruption scandal. One of the key whistle-blowers who had uncovered several illegal practices in the scandal has left the country to Switzerland as he and his family apparently now feared for their security. [South China Morning Post]

 

7 April 2020

Malaysia intercepts boat carrying Rohingya refugees

(ls) Malaysian authorities have intercepted a boat carrying more than 200 Rohingya people off the holiday island of Langkawi. In February, at least 15 Rohingya refugees died when a vessel carrying about 130 people capsized in the Bay of Bengal while trying to reach Malaysia, which is a favored destination of Rohingya refugees. [Reuters]

 

31 March 2020

Malaysia’s new cabinet

(jk) After Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announce his new cabinet earlier this month, political observers looked closely at what had come of the “horse-trading” that led to this the new administration.

According to an ISEAS analysis, the cabinet reflects a number of considerations: “blocking potential challengers for the top job; satisfying the various coalition members; avoiding controversial party leaders; and maintaining a semblance of racial and regional diversity”.

The piece also argues that against some expectations, while cabinet is clearly Malay-dominated and UMNO in particular is crucial to its stability, UMNO and PAS did not “secure control over the largest or most influential portfolios”.

As a result of the many uncertainties and interests that reside within the new Perikatan Nasional coalition, it won’t be easy for Yassin to keep his cabinet in place, create parliamentary support and avoid a vote of no-confidence when parliament next meets. [ISEAS]

 

24 March 2020

Malaysia: Army enforces country-wide corona travel ban

(ls) The Malaysian government has deployed the army to enforce two-week travel restrictions in the country. Troops joined police guarding roadblocks and carrying out patrols. The number of Covid-19 cases has risen sharply across Southeast Asia this month. [Reuters]

17 March 2020

Malaysia: Former PM Mahathir vows comeback if government goes wrong 

(jk/ew) Former PM Mahathir Mohamad has said he would not retire and continue his political work with the new Prime Minister in power. He has also said however that currently, the opposition coalition does not “have the majority in parliament,” and that “I don’t think a vote of no confidence will resolve the problem.” [South China Morning Post]

Mahathir expressed in an interview with Nikkei Asian Review the desire to “fulfill his duty” and to serve the Malaysian people in the best way he can. Mahathir stated he would be willing to run for office again in 2023 – when the next general election is due under normal circumstances – if the people of Malaysia support him doing so, although he cautioned that he would be 98 by then. 

Mahathir also mentions that he was extremely disappointed with the development of events in the previous weeks and that Anwar Ibriham shares the blame for the developments by being too impatient. Mahathir further made clear that no cooperation with the newly appointed PM would take place if it is not guaranteed that all charges against former prime minister Najib Razak were carried out without obstruction. He fears Najib may use his “influence” in UMNO – again part of the ruling coalition – to minimize charges against him.  [Nikkei Asian Review

In a related development, Mahathir remained uncontested as Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia chairman. His son Mukhriz Mahathir is at the same time challenging new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for the presidency of the party. [The Straits Times]

For an account on the power struggle among the political parties leading the government change and the prospects for reforms under  the new “more overtly Malay Muslim government” of Muhyiddin Yassin see [East Asia Forum].

10 March 2020

South China Sea: Continued tensions between Southeast Asian countries

(ls/ps) Indonesia has detained dozens of crew members from Vietnamese boats it claims have been fishing illegally near the Natuna Islands. The Indonesian government claims the area in the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea as its exclusive economic zone. In January, Indonesia deployed fighter jets and warships in a conflict with Beijing over Chinese vessels entering the area. [Channel News Asia]

In addition, Malaysia, Vietnam and China have for weeks been entangled in a quiet naval standoff. As reported earlier [Asia in Review No. 8, February/2020], Malaysia triggered the showdown by exploring for energy resources beyond its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Vietnam then deployed militia vessels to the area, and China responded by launching the China Coast Guard’s (CCG). The developments, which pitted fellow ASEAN countries against each other, leave question marks over ASEAN’s joint approach toward China’s vast territorial claims. [Asia Times]

Meanwhile, Vietnam and the US are looking to further strengthen relations as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill arrive in Da Nang, Vietnam. It is the second visit of a US warship to Vietnam since American troops left almost 50 years ago. China has repeatedly trespassed the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Vietnam with oil survey ships and fishing boats escorted by its coast guard. Analysts say Vietnam is unable to protect its resources and is therefore seeking international support. [South China Morning Post][US Navy]

10 March 2020

Malaysia: New PM forms Cabinet

(ls/ew) Newly appointed Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has unveiled his Cabinet, which contains several politicians from his former party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno). His foreign minister will be Hishammuddin Hussein, the cousin of former prime minister Najib Razak and former defence and transport minister. Muhyiddin did not appoint any Deputy Prime Minister, but rather chose four senior ministers to support the PM in coordinating the affairs of the Cabinet related to economy, security, infrastructure development, education and social issues. For instance, Azmin Ali, one of the key players in the political turmoil that saw Muhyiddin come to power, was made senior minister of international trade and industry. According to observers, the appointments signal a return to more Malay-centric policymaking. [Malaysiakini] [South China Morning Post]

Muhyiddin postponed the next parliamentary sitting from early March to May 18, delaying a plan of the former governing coalition, Pakatan Harapan, to table a motion of no confidence from the lower house’s floor.

Jonathan Head has summed up Pakatan Harapan’s collapse over the last two years. For instance, he argues that, although Umno’s reputation was damaged by the revelations about huge sums of money that went missing in the 1MDB financial scandal, the party has been quick to exploit public disappointment over the state of the economy. One consequence was that Pakatan Harapan has lost five out of the last six by-elections. [BBC]

10 March 2020

Malaysia: New Attorney-General and MACC chief – 1MDB lead prosecutor stays on

(ls) After the resignation of Attorney-General Tommy Thomas last week, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has appointed Federal Court judge Idrus Harun as his successor. He is the elder brother of Election Commission chief Azhar Harun. [Straits Times 1]

Idrus Harun announced that he will not replace Gopal Sri Ram, the lead prosecutor for the government in cases linked to former premier Najib Razak and state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). In another appointment, Azam Baki, deputy chief commissioner at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), was made chief commissioner of the agency after the resignation of Latheefa Koya, who had investigated the 1MDB fraud and led efforts to recover assets linked to the scandal. [Straits Times 2]

Prime Minister Muhyiddin was once sacked as deputy prime minister and also from Umno for questioning then Prime Minister Najib over 1MDB. However, Najib stated last week that the fall of the government and the ascent of Muhyiddin meant he now expected an atmosphere “more conducive towards a fair trial”. He said he had not spoken to Muhyiddin since he took office, but he hoped to rebuild their relationship: “I hope it’s water under the bridge.” [Reuters]

3 March 2020

Malaysia: Attorney General Tommy Thomas resigns

(jk) In the midst of all the commotion last week, Malaysia’s Attorney General (AG) Tommy Thomas resigned from his position and new PM Muhyiddin has yet to appoint a predecessor. Thomas was under pressure as pointed out last week over dropping terrorism charges against several suspects, including two state lawmakers of former ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan [Air No.8 Feb,2020,4], but official reasons for his resignation have not yet been given. [The Star]

Thomas also oversaw, several high profile cases over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal including former PM Najib Razak and many other UMNO party members. The return of UMNO to power could knock confidence that a new AG – who can review or even drop current charges- would go after some high profile politicians with as much conviction.

3 March 2020

Malaysia swears in new PM amid ongoing political uproar

(jk) Following on from the political turmoil that has started to unfold last week in Malaysia  [Air No.8 Feb,2020,4], on Sunday afternoon, Muhyiddin Yassin of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party BERSATU was sworn in by Malaysia’s King as the country’s eights Prime Minister. The ceremony took place despite claims by his predecessor Mahathir – of the same party – that he in fact still has the confidence of a majority in parliament and should therefore be re-appointed.  [Nikkei Asian Review]

Muhyiddin’s premiership comes as a surprise not only to Mahathir. Muhyiddin, a conservative Malay nationalist, was at no point considered a potential successor of the prime minister after Mahathir’s resignation last Monday amidst an ongoing political feud over the designation of his successor and old time rival Anwar Ibrahim. However, MPs from BERSATU – a party Mahathir allegedly no longer chairs [The Star], nominated Muhyiddin Yassin to become PM and the King acted swiftly by appointing him without giving Mahathir the opportunity to prove his own majority support.

Crucially, the decision returns the reigns of government to the tarnished UMNO (United Malays National Organization) and the Malaysian Islamic Party PAS, who had already agreed to cooperate back in September last year, ending over 40 years of enmity. [Asia in Review No. 38, September/2019, 3] The parties have now said they back the new PM’s coalition, less than two years after Barisan Nasional’s historic defeat by Pakatan Harapan.

Their return to power of course comes without any participation by the Malaysian voter, an issue many perceive as a clear break of the democratic processes in Malaysia. The return by UMNO together with PAS and with a figure such as Muhyiddin at the helm, causes worry in particular for many who belong to ethnic and religious minority groups and fear an increasingly strong Malay hold on the government and a return of over-boarding ethno-nationalist policies.

Former PM Mahathir is now gearing up for a way to prove Muhyiddin does not command the majority of parliament, for example by tabling a no-confidence vote which could lead to a different PM or snap elections after which he could return to power. The earliest opportunity for such a vote would be March 9 at the next scheduled sitting of parliament. There are rumors already that this session might be postponed. More details on all the twists and turns of the past week can be found in an excellent two-part write up at [New Naratif]. 

In a related incident, reminding observers of strict sedition and communication laws in Malaysia, two men are being investigated and one man has been arrested over allegations of insulting the king on social media after he had sworn in the new PM.  [The Straits Times]

25 February 2020

Malaysia: Pakatan Harapan collapses – Mahatir resigns and becomes interim PM – Government formation ongoing

(ls) In Malaysia, the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition has collapsed with the departure of dozens of lawmakers. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pri-bumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), which has 26 MPs, left the PH coalition. The exit of these lawmakers and 11 more from the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) left PH short of a simple majority in Parliament. Mahatir then resigned as prime minister, which was accepted by the Malaysian King, who, however, immediately re-appointed him interim prime minister.

The developments display, in particular, the disagreement of a faction within the PKR with the prospect of its own party leader, Anwar Ibrahim, becoming Mahatir’s successor. This faction is led by deputy party head Azmin Ali. The PPBM seemed to share these concerns. It first appeared as if the defectors could form a majority together with UMNO and other opposition parties. However, the developments are still ongoing. At the time of writing, the King was speaking to lawmakers in order to ascertain who could command a majority in the House. [Straits Times]

Pakatan Harapan’s popularity has been shrinking for several months as large parts of the public considered that multiple election promises have not been realized.

25 February 2020

South China Sea: New standoff between Malaysia and Vietnam questions solidarity versus China

(ls) The U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has published evidence of vessel movements in the South China Sea that indicate an ongoing standoff between Malaysian, Vietnamese and Chinese ships. In its report that outlines confrontations between Malaysian and Vietnamese ships, the center’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) questions why the Malaysian government chose to ignore a 2009 joint submission with Vietnam about continental shelf claims and, in so doing, “undermined whatever solidarity Southeast Asian parties might hope to build in their oil and gas disputes with Beijing.” [AMTI] [South China Morning Post]

25 February 2020

Malaysia: Attorney-General drops terrorism charges against state lawmakers

(ls) Malaysia’s Attorney-General Tommy Thomas on Friday dropped terrorism charges against 12 men, including two state lawmakers from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a component party of ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), for alleged links to the defunct Sri Lankan terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The 12 ethnic-Indian individuals had been arraigned last year under the controversial Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012. The opposition criticized the decision and demanded Thomas’ removal from office. [Straits Times]

18 February 2020

Malaysia seeks agreement with Vietnam to stop illegal fishing 

(fs) Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah announced that the country plans to fight encroachment of deep-sea fishermen from Vietnam in Malaysian waters by working out an agreement between the countries. A similar agreement does already exist between Malaysia and Indonesia and Vietnam positioned itself open to this idea last year. 141 Vietnamese fishermen were detained for encroachment into the Malaysian Exclusive Economic Zone in 2019.  [The Malaysian Reserve]

18 February 2020

Malaysia appoints first female counterterrorism chief

(jk) Malaysia has appointed its first female counterterrorism chief with Normah Ishak taking over last week as the principal assistant director of the Special Branch’s Counter Terrorism Division. [South China Morning Post]

18 February 2020

Malaysia: Campaign for moratorium on attempted suicide charge

(fs) Malaysian Human rights groups and the Malaysian Bar demand the repeal of a law that criminalizes attempted suicide and the pardoning of those who have been prosecuted and convicted under this provision. Malaysia is one of 25 countries worldwide where attempted suicide is considered a crime, leading sentences up to a year in prison or fine.

The issue arose in the public discourse after a 38-year-old with a physical disability tried to take his live and was sentenced to six months in prison. “The charging and sentencing (…) sends out a completely inappropriate message to the world at large, that Malaysian society is uncaring and lacks empathy towards its troubled citizens,” said the Malaysian Bar’s president. Opposing views suggest the government should rather consider rehabilitative solutions and strengthen support mechanisms to help the affected. [The Guardian] [Malay Mail]

11 February 2020

Malaysia: Trial against former MP’s wife begins 

(fs) On Wednesday, the corruption trial against Rosmah Mansor, the wife of former prime minister Najib Razak, started in Kuala Lumpur. The court charges Rosmah on the account of soliciting and receiving bribes involving a sum of US$45.93 million to support a company in a solar power project. She faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty. At the same time, Rosmah is separately charged on the account of money laundering and failure to declare income to the country’s tax authorities. 

“Although she did occupy no official position, she placed herself in a where she was able to influence decisions in the public sector by reason of her overbearing nature”, the prosecutor stressed. During her husband’s tenure in power, a special division was created to handle programs involving Rosmah, called First Lady of Malaysia, constituting a controversial novelty in Malaysian history. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]

4 February 2020

Fake News: A different Corona Virus Battle 

(jk/fs) With the news heavily dominated by the Corona Virus outbreak this past week, a number of Southeast Asian governments have tried to reign in on rumours and fake news related to the virus by using their respective “fake news legislations”.

In Malaysia, the health minister went as far as saying that the spread of fake news had become more critical than the issue of the virus within the country. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) on Wednesday conducted four separate raids that resulted the arrest of four suspected for posting and distributing false reports about the outbreak. They and two more suspects arrested earlier in the week, were subsequently detained under Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act for sharing offensive and menacing content. If found guilty, they could face imprisonment of up to one year. [Channel News Asia] [South China Morning Post]

Singapore has issued several correction directions in the past week over false claims concerning the situation in Singapore, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Office said. One addressee was AB-TC City News, wrongly claiming the infection of five Singaporeans who had not been to China. Another one was the Facebook page of The States Times newspaper, objected to for reporting that the city-state had run out of masks. Another correction notice was issued over personal Facebook posts of citizens claiming the virus had been discovered at an MRT station and that it was closed for disinfection.  

The authorities also announced a lifting of POFMA temporary exemptions of general correction directions for major search engines and social media platforms due to the evolving situation of the Wuhan virus. These “can be issued to prescribed Internet intermediaries, telecoms and broadcast licensees, or newspapers, to get them to communicate a correction notice to all users in Singapore – not just the ones who access the falsehood – when a false statement has been conveyed and it is in the public interest to correct it.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong supported the extensive use of the law and told reporters “Some of it, we know, is malicious and deliberate – people who are making up stories, people who are deliberately fomenting fear, uncertainty and doubt”. [The Straits Times]

In Thailand, the digital economy minister said that two were charged with violating the computer crimes act – which carries up to five years in prison – for false separate social media posts about the virus thus far. He said the ministry’s Anti-Fake News Center collaborated with the police in the arrest. [Khaosod English]

28 January 2020

Malaysia sends back trash, refusing to be “garbage dump of the world”

(fs) Once again, Malaysia sends containers of illegally exported plastic waste back to the countries of origin. The environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said that nothing would be paid for the returns.

According to Yin, 150 containers with a total of 3,737 tons of waste are on the way to France, Great Britain, the USA and Canada, among others. 110 more would follow soon, 60 of them to the USA. Malaysia had already returned containers with plastic waste several times last year.

China, which had imported a large part of the plastic waste for recycling for a long time, decided in 2018 to stop processing used plastic from other countries in order to improve its own environmental balance. Since then, large quantities of plastic have been illegally brought to Southeast Asia. Many Chinese recycling companies moved to Malaysia, and plastic waste imports into the country tripled from 2016 to 2019. [CNN] [Business Insider]

28 January 2020

Singapore: Latest POFMA enforcement sparks resistance from Malaysian NGO

(ls/fs) Singapore’s enforcement of its new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) continues to meet resistance. Last week, the government ordered local access to a website to be blocked for failing to comply with a correction directive issued under the online falsehoods law. The operator of the site is the Malaysia-based human rights organization Lawyers for Liberty. The article that triggered the Singaporean government to issue a correction directive under POFMA dealt with judicial executions in Singapore and claimed that officers used unlawful and brutal methods. As Lawyers for Liberty did not comply with the correction directive, Singapore’s Minister of Communications and Information on Thursday ordered industry regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to issue the access blocking orders. [ZDNet]

In response, Lawyers for Liberty has filed a lawsuit against Singaporean Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Malaysia’s High Court. The group argues that the law is a violation of fundamental human rights and cannot be enforced in Malaysia as it goes against domestic public policy. Moreover, the organization has maintained that its allegations stem from credible sources, including prison guards that have worked for or are currently working for the prison system in Singapore. [South China Morning Post]

Lawyers for Liberty announced on their website that, since the Singaporean government’s intervention, the organization’s website has experienced a “great increase” in traffic coming mainly from Singapore: “This shows that banning websites or information is always counter-productive. The Singapore government should instead have responded with facts and rational arguments.” [Lawyers for Liberty]

In a post on its government website “Factually”, Singapore’s government presents its side of the story. [Singapore Government]

14 January 2020

India urges boycott of Malaysian palm oil after diplomatic tensions

(ls/tk) The Indian government as informally pressured Indian palm oil importers to effectively stop all purchases from top supplier Malaysia, following Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir’s criticism of India’s actions in Kashmir and its new citizenship law. India is the world’s largest importer of palm oil, buying more than 9 million tons annually, mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia. The block of imports could push up the country’s palm oil inventories and put pressure on its prices, which set the global benchmark for the oil. [Reuters]

Mahathir said at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in October that India “invaded and occupied” Kashmir. And regarding the new Citizenship Amendment Act, which critics say undermines the country’s secular foundations, he said India was stoking unrest. [Economic Times]

Under Prime Minister Mahatir, Malaysia has been increasingly engaged with Pakistan, while criticizing India’s treatment of Muslims. According to observers, the case is a vivid demonstration that Mahathir’s moralistic rhetoric can have actual costs for Malaysia’s economy. India, however, is reminded that its approach to Kashmir poses complications not only for its domestic politics or alignments with Western countries, but also for select Muslim-majority countries in Asia. [The Diplomat]

7 January 2020

Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal: fugitive financier Jho Low accuses government

(fs) Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho, who is currently facing charges because of his alleged central role in the US $ 4.5 billion 1MDB scandal, conceals his current location and does not plan to return to Malaysia, for fear of not getting a fair trial. In his first interview in four years, Low blamed the Malaysian government for victimising him and his family during the process and ignoring basic human rights by branding him as the “mastermind” and orchestrator of the scandal, whereas he just represents an “easy target”. [South China Morning Post 1]

At the same time, former prime minister Najib Razak faces three different trials for his involvement in the 1MDB case. According to his lawyer, bringing Najib’s alleged accomplice Jho Low to court could turn the process to a more positive outcome for the him, since among others, Low could be used as an important witness and his examination could exonerate the defendant. In response to Low’s interview, the lawyer stated that Low is indeed the scandal’s central figure and his depiction of himself as the scapegoat is not true. [Malay Mail]

7 January 2020

Malaysia Receives First of Four Large Patrol Ships Built in China

(jk) Malaysia’s Navy has received one of four large patrol ships it had ordered from China. The deal, first approved by former Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2017 and then slightly renegotiated under current PM Mahathir, is the first of its kind between the two nations. Malaysia has ordered the ships amidst a naval modernization effort reflecting new realities in its neighbourhood. [Radio Free Asia]

31 December 2019

Malaysia/Indonesia: Muslim protests against China’s treatment against Uighurs

(jk/fs) Hundreds of Muslims gathered in Kuala Lumpur to demonstrate against China’s mistreatment of its Muslim Uighur minority. Protesters mainly consisted of members of two Muslim groups, the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (ABIM) and the hardline pro-caliphate group Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia (HTM). Two representatives, one of each group, went to the People’s Republic of China’s embassy, but were declined entry.

HTM spokesman Abdul Hakim Othman demanded from the Malaysian government “to provide help to the Muslims of China as much as possible, including providing them space here if they should wish to seek protection”. Furthermore, he urged the government to suspend all political and economic ties with China and, in case of increasing hardships for fellow Muslim, even to issue a military warning of “jihad”. [MalayMail]

In Indonesia, in similar protests, over a thousand Muslims marched towards the Chinese embassy as well

While the Indonesian Security Minister told the government had summoned the Chinese Ambassador to explain the situation Xinjiang. [The Straits Times]

In mid-November this year, New York Times reported that more than 400 internal documents of the People’s Republic of China were leaked, revealing details of the brutal and organized crackdown of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, including the detention of more than one million people in internment camps. [Asia in Review No. 47, November/2019, 3]

24 December 2019

Malaysia hosts summit of Muslim nations despite Saudi Arabia’s criticism

(ls) Malaysia hosted a summit of Muslim nations in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia, Iran, Qatar and Turkey as the main participants. The summit was a forum for discussions on closer cooperation in economy, science and technology as well as the defence industry. Cooperation agreements were concluded regarding advanced hi-technology, media collaboration, centers of excellence, food security and youth leadership and exchange programmes.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad said, “the most important aspect of all the focus is the need to be able to produce and create new indigenous technologies.” He also emphasized that the conference was not aimed at replacing other Muslim platforms such the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). However, prior to the summit, Mahathir had expressed frustration with the OIC’s inability to forge a united front and act decisively. [New Straits Times]

Saudi Arabia said the summit was the wrong forum for matters of importance to the world’s 1.75 billion Muslims, favoring the OIC, as the appropriate platform. The OIC’s main executive organ, the Permanent Secretariat, is located in Saudi Arabia. It was previously reported that said Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was slated to participate as well, pulled out under pressure from Saudi Arabia, which is having tense relations with Iran and Qatar. [Reuters]

At the end of the summit, Mahathir praised Iran and Qatar for withstanding economic embargoes (i.e. from Saudi Arabia and the United States) and said it was important for the Muslim world to be self-reliant to face future threats. He also suggested that Iran, Malaysia, Turkey and Qatar should consider the idea of using the gold dinar and barter, the Islamic medieval gold coin, for trade among them. [Straits Times]

24 December 2019

Malaysia challenges Chinese claims in South China Sea

(fs/ls) Malaysia consolidates its position in terms of the disputed South China Sea’s geographical marking. The country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Saifuddin Abdullah, said “Kuala Lumpur has the sovereign right to claim whatever there is within our waters” and “for China to claim that the whole South China Sea belongs to China” is “ridiculous”. [AlJazeera]

Earlier this month, Malaysia filed a formal submission seeking clarification on the 322 kilometers economic zone to the UN’s Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. To this China responded that the submission had “seriously infringed on China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea” and requested the responsible body not to consider the request. [UN] [South China Morning Post]

In the South China Sea region, Indonesia was the first country to submit information on the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nm in the northwest area of Sumatra Island in 2008. In 2009, Vietnam and Malaysia jointly submitted claims relating to an area in the south of the SCS. At the same time, Vietnam also lodged a partial submission on the northeast area of the South China Sea to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). Both submissions dismissed the possibility of continental shelves generated by the insular features in the Spratly and Paracels. [The Diplomat]

17 December 2019

Malaysia: 1MDB scandal case moved to High Court

(fs) The charges against two of the three units of the U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for their alleged role in raising $ 6.5 billion for the scandal-plagued state investment fund 1MDB [Asia in Review No. 12, March/2019, 3] have been transferred from the Magistrate’s Court to the High Court. The review of the still pending petition for the third unit will take place on Dec 26. Specific reasons for the transfer were not stated by the Attorney-General’s Chambers, but generally this indicates the gravity of the case. The commanding prosecutor refused the dropping of charges. [South China Morning Post]

Prior negotiations between the investment bank and Malaysia about an out-of-court settlement are still ongoing with both sides intending to avoid a decision by court after an offered compensation in the range of one billion dollars was considered too low by Prime Minister Mahathir. [The Straits Times]

10 December 2019

Malaysia: Infighting in PKR as Umno and PAS announce alliance

(ls/fs) As reported in previous weeks, the growing uncertainty over who succeeds Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad once he steps down has sparked rampant infighting in the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the largest party in the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. There are two rival factions: supporters of Anwar Ibrahim, who has been announced by Mahatir as his successor, and those backing Azmin Ali, the PKR’s deputy president and current Economic Affairs Minister. At the PKR’s annual meeting on the weekend Anwar alluded to “traitors” within the party, which sparked Azmin to leave the meeting under protest. [South China Morning Post]

Anwar apparently referred to a recent event where Azmin invited dozens of opposition members to his home for a clandestine discussion. At the same time, both Anwar and Azmin have been the target of sexual harassment claims. As for Anwar, this marks the third time the 72-year-old politician has been accused of indecent exposure by a former male employee. He has been imprisoned twice over the past two decades for sodomy, charges which he had denied and denounced as politically motivated. [Business Insider] [Straits Times 1]

Meanwhile on the opposition side, a new Malaysian alliance called Muafakat Nasional (national consensus), combining the two largest Malay-Muslim-based opposition parties, Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), will be concluded in about six months, according to Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) will also be part of the alliance. Thus, Barisan Nasional will soon be replaced by Muafakat Nasional, which is expected to become a strong competitor of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. [Straits Times 2]

As AiR reported before [No. 43, October/2019, 4, No. 38, September/2019, 3], the former arch-rivals have agreed on the alliance, following informal cooperation earlier this year, which lead to Umno winning four by-elections. The alliance arose fear of increased racial polarization against non-Malays and non-Muslims. Zahid, however, claimed Muafakat Nasional will be a ‘non-extremist movement beyond Malay and Islam’. [The Star Online]

3 December 2019

Malaysia’s first Defence White Paper tabled in Parliament

(jk) Malaysia’s Defence Minister stated that the country’s defence policy was reviewed so that its defence capacity and capabilities were appropriate regarding new and changing global security issues. The paper outlines the strategic directions for the national defence in the coming decade.  The 90 page document which will be made available to the public highlights several threats in its eight chapters, including ripple effects of great power rivalry, returning jihadist fighters, the South China Sea dispute, and cyberterrorism. [South China Morning Post]

3 December 2019

South Korea, Malaysia set to become strategic partners

(dql) At a summit last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad reached an agreement to elevate their countries relations to become strategic partners in 2020.

Further, a number of MoUs were signed pertaining to cooperation in various fields, including information and communications technology, public health services, water management and in establishing e-government systems. [Yonhap]

3 December 2019

Malaysia: Two communications service provider announce cooperation to roll out 5G – with Huawei

(jk) Celcom and Maxis, two Malaysian telecommunication service providers have announced that they will explore a possible cooperation on the roll-out of 5G in Malaysia next year. The two providers already share some communication infrastructure and stated that joined resources will allow for a faster and smoother roll-out. [The Edge Markets]

While the announcements make no mention of other companies, it is crucial to remember that back in October, both companies have agreed to cooperate with Chinese telecommunications provider Huawei who will undoubtedly be involved in Malaysia’s 5G infrastructure. Malaysia has repeatedly said it is not concerned about the spying allegations against Huawei brought forward by the US government and is making its decision based on affordability of Huawei products. [Reuters]

26 November 2019

Malaysia: Mahatir-Anwar transfer of power remains uncertain

(ls) After suffering a by-election defeat in Johor ten days ago, Malaysia’ ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition is under increasing pressure to deliver on its campaign promises. But maybe the bigger question is when exactly Prime Minister Mahatir will hand over power to his named successor and one-time sworn enemy, Anwar Ibrahim. Both met to discuss several issues, including the leadership transition last week, and insisted it needs to be done “peacefully and orderly in a reasonable period and with mutual agreement.” [The Star]

The South China Morning Post as gathered the twists and turns surrounding these questions since the government took office 18 months ago. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Anwar appears to be face considerable opposition within his own party, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). Last week, 22 Umno MPs met PKR deputy president Azmin Ali in what observers considered discussions related to the transfer of power. Though the four-party PH coalition and its allies in Sabah have a total of 139 seats in Parliament, while the combined opposition has only 83, this configuration could change in a no-confidence vote against Anwar due to a number of PH MPs not supporting him. [Straits Times]

19 November 2019

Malaysia: Defeat for Pakatan Harapan in by-elections

(jk) Following the death of a Member of Parliament, Malaysia recently held its ninth by-election since the general elections in 2018. As opposed to the general election in which the now governing coalition – Pakatan Harapan (PH) – won a major surprise victory against the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has ruled the country for six decades, the by-election was a defeat for PH with the BN’s candidate re-claiming the seat.

PM Mahathir admitted that the defeat is a serious sign of his coalition’s drifting popularity and the it will have to serve as a wake-up call to regain the support of the population. The UMNO BN chairman went a step further and called the result a manifestation of their “rejection” towards the current government. [Malay Mail]

12 November 2019

Malaysia: Five men sentenced to caning for attempted gay sex

(ls) Five Malaysian men have been sentenced to jail and canings by an Islamic court for attempting to have gay sex. The men were caught in a private apartment. Sodomy is a crime under Malaysia’s regular criminal code as well as under Islamic law, but it is rare for people to be found guilty of the crime. The country operates a dual-track legal system, with Islamic courts handling some matters for Muslim citizens. Critics say there is growing pressure on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Malaysia. [Malay Mail]

12 November 2019

Cambodia: Opposition politicians stuck in Malaysia

(ls) The Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy landed in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, where he continues to reside for the time being. He had vowed to return to Cambodia on 9 November to rally opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Previously, the Thai government, citing the ASEAN principle of non-interference, refused him to return to Cambodia via Bangkok. Meanwhile, police lined up at Cambodia’s Poipet border crossing with Thailand, where Rainsy had said he planned to cross into the country. [Channel News Asia] [Bangkok Post 1]

The co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) faces imprisonment in Cambodia for convictions on charges that he maintains are politically motivated, with charges on other offences pending. Hun Sen, whose government has arrested about 50 opposition activists in recent weeks, earlier characterized the plan by Rainsy and several colleagues to return and hold rallies as an attempted coup. [Bangkok Post 2]

Previously, also Mu Sochua, who was CNRP vice-president, arrived in Malaysia along with two other Cambodian activists. Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said his government had received a request from Cambodia to deport them but had yet to make a decision on this. [The Star]

At the same time, the Cambodian government lifted house arrest restrictions on opposition leader Kem Sokha, more than two years after he was charged with treason. He was arrested in 2017. In 2013, Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy had brought together rival opposition factions and posed an electoral threat to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). [Reuters]

Pressure has been growing on the Hun Sen government to ease a crackdown on his opponents as the European Union considers whether to cut preferential trade terms under the Everything But Arms scheme.

5 November 2019

Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues

(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.

Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]

The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to

Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]

5 November 2019

RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020

(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.

All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]

Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.

This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]

22 October 2019

Maritime terrorism in Asia: An assessment 

(ls) A paper published by the Observer Research Foundation evaluates the possibility of an increase in maritime terrorist violence in Asia. Based on an analysis of recent incidents, it argues that the vulnerability of high seas shipping to criminal acts of violence and the weak and inconsistent nature of maritime governance raises the possibility of a terrorist strike in the Asian littorals. [ORF]

22 October 2019

Malaysia: Anwar and the Prime Minister: continued rumours of transition difficulties

(jk) Amidst regular meetings between Anwar Ibrahim and the PM in Malaysia, rumours are not going away that the planned leadership transition from current PM Mahathir to Anwar Ibrahim is far from certain. Anwar is supposed to take over before the next general election, to be held by 2023, but rumours that this agreement will not be abided by have been strong since the deal was made.

The latest suspicions arose after it was claimed that recent calls to unite Malay parties from government and opposition are part of a greater plan to keep Anwar out of office. While a lot of the rumours are just that and many “moves” are possibly overstated in the heat of Malay politics, the recent agreement to cooperate between two former arch-rivals UMNO and PAS has certainly sparked fear of increased racial polarisation. [No. 38, September/2019, 3] [The Straits Times] [Malaysia Chronicle] The agreement builds on the allegation that the Pakatan Harapan government is allegedly dominated by the Chinese, secular DAP (Democratic Action Party).

15 October 2019

Lord Reid and the framing of the Malayan federal constitution

(ls) The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies has published a piece by Joseph Fernando on the Scottish Lord Reid’s influence on the framing of the Malayan (later: Malaysian) federal constitution. The article argues that Reid was the main playmaker and moderator during the constitution-framing process and played a critical role in ensuring a balance was achieved between the competing demands of the federal government and the states, safeguarding the fundamental rights of the citizens against the state, and in moderating the various communal demands. [Journal of Southeast Asian Studies]

15 October 2019

Malaysia: Parliamentarians arrested for support of Tamil Tigers

(ls) Two Melakan state parliamentarians from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is one of four parties in Malaysia’s governing coalition, were arrested on police claims that they support the banned Sri Lankan of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militant group. The arrest raised tensions within the Malaysian government. Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad, however, said the move was not meant to weaken any coalition party. [Straits Times]

15 October 2019

Malaysia: Bill on controlling police misconduct not passed

(ls) Malaysia’s parliament has not passed the long-awaited Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) bill. Rather, it was decided that the proposed legislation be referred to Parliament’s Special Select Committee for Consideration of Bills. The bill aims to make the police more accountable for its actions, including for the deaths of criminal suspects while in police custody. The call for the law gained support this year following a public inquiry into the disappearances of Malaysian activists in 2016 and 2017. Overall, more than 1,650 custodial deaths were reported in Malaysia between 2010 and 2017. [Straits Times]

The bill’s latest edition has been subject to severe criticism from civil rights groups. It accords the prime minister broad discretionary powers to appoint or dismiss IPCMC commissioners. It also diminishes investigatory powers, does not allow for public hearings and does not clarify procedural ambiguity. Modelled on the Independent Police Complaints Council of Hong Kong and Independent Police Complaints Commission in Britain, Malaysia’s IPCMC was to be established by 2006, but the idea was met with political resistance as well as pushback from the police. [South China Morning Post]

15 October 2019

Malaysia revokes “Anti-Fake News Act” but government remains committed to fight “wrong views”

(ls) As anticipated in last week’s AiR edition, Malaysia’s parliament on Wednesday revoked the “Anti Fake News Act” of 2018, which made the malicious communication of “fake news” a crime. The lower house of parliament had already voted to abolish the law in August 2018, but the repeal was rejected by the Senate. [Reuters]

Nonetheless, the government expressed the view that fake news needed to be tackled with other laws, such as the Penal Code, Printing Presses and Publications Act, as well as Communications and Multimedia Act. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad said, “the anti-fake news law is good because on social media you find a lot of wrong views coming out and they affect the thinking of the people.” He affirmed that the government needed to “curb somewhat the use of fake news, but we have to do that without also curbing the real news.” [CNA] [MSN]

8 October 2019

Fake news in SEA: Singapore’s fake news law comes into effect, Malaysia’s does not

(jk) Last week, Singapore’s fake news law – the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), took effect. The new law provides for criminal sanctions for individuals, including jail time of up to 10 years, and fines of up to S$1 million for technology companies.

Under the new law, any government minister can decide whether to act against a piece of falsehood on the internet, and can order it to be taken down or ask for corrections to be put up alongside it. Ministers can also order technology companies to block accounts that are spreading alleged untruths.

Critics such as The Asia Internet Coalition described the law as the “most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date”. It gives the “Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false.” [Asia Times]

To critics that have pointed to a potentially long and most importantly costly procedure of appeal, the government has said that it will cost “as little as S$200” and take “as fast as nine days” for anyone to challenge a minister’s decision. Under the subsidiary laws to the act, court fees for the first three days of the appeal hearing will be waived. However, according to the Straits Times, the minister also decides whether an appeal against his or her decision will be accepted.

Companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter may be required to ascertain the identity of those who want to put up any paid political content in Singapore, like advertisements seeking to influence the outcome of elections. These companies may also be required to disclose to the public the paid political content. They have been given a temporary exception from the law in order to give them time to implement the technical measures required to comply with the law. [The Straits Times]

As reported last week, Thailand will open its first anti-fake news centre next month, tasked to  combat unverified news on social media platforms. [Asia in Review, No. 40, October/2019, 1] Thailand and Singapore are far from the only Southeast Asian countries that have prioritised a government approach to dealing with real or alleged fake news – Southeast Asia has in fact become somewhat of a “world’s laboratory” on this particular issue, argues CPG’s Lasse Schuldt. [Voice of Asia]

Lastly, Malaysia’s ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) government continues its attempts to prevent the former government’s fake news law to be enacted. PH wants to repeal the act after it was rushed through parliament by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government just before they lost the national elections last year. This is PH’s second attempt to repeal the law after its repeal was blocked the first time around by the upper house. [The Straits Times]

8 October 2019

Malaysia: 18-year-old allowed to contest in by-elections

(td/jk) For the first time, an 18 year old candidate will be allowed to contest in by-elections, starting with a parliamentary by-election in Johor in November. This is seen as bringing a breath of fresh air in youth representation and will be the first such instance since the federal constitution has been changed to lower the age of eligible candidates earlier this year.  [New Straits Times] [The Star]

1 October 2019

Mahatir calls for global support in Rohingya refugee crisis

(ls) At the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized the U.N. for its “deafening silence” on the Rohingya crisis. He pointed to Myanmar’s failure to punish the perpetrators of the genocidal acts and said that it was unrealistic to expect Rohingya people to return to Myanmar without the guarantee of a safe environment for repatriation and without offering them full citizenship. “It is clear that the Myanmar government is unwilling to take any action to resolve the crisis”, Mahatir said.

He called on the United Nations member states to support Bangladesh which is hosting more than one million Rohingya refugees. Though ASEAN countries pursue a policy of non-interference with internal affairs, Mahatir has repeatedly referred to Myanmar’s military campaign against the Rohingya as a genocide and called for criminal prosecution. [MalayMail]

Myanmar, for its part, insisted that it wants Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled to neighboring Bangladesh repatriated to their former homes so they can live in a “more conducive environment” than the one they left, according to Myanmar’s minister for the office of the state counsellor in his nation’s address at the United Nations General Assembly. [Straits Times]

17 September 2019

Malaysia and Turkey aim to boost bilateral trade to US$5b over next five years

(td) Malaysia and Turkey are working on widening the trade relationship in areas such as defense, technology, food and services, as well as electronics, with the aim of boosting bilateral trade to US$5 billion in the next five years from the current US$2.38 billion. Turkey also plans to look into barter trade with Malaysia to help reduce its palm oil inventory and also through the purchase of other commodities. [Malay Mail]

17 September 2019

South China Sea: New arrangements between Philippines/Malaysia and China

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said his that Xi Jinping has offered Manila a controlling stake in a joint energy venture in the South China Sea if it sets aside the 2016 international arbitral award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration which did not recognize the Chinese claims. Under this condition, China would agree to be the junior partner in a joint venture to develop gas deposits at the Reed Bank, located within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said that a preliminary agreement between China and the Philippines would avoid stating which country was entitled to the gas. [Reuters 1]

If the arrangement is realized, the decision will also be of relevance for Malaysia and Vietnam, who are in similar disputes with China over the extension of their EEZs. Malaysia, for its part, has agreed to set up a joint dialogue mechanism with China for the disputed parts of the South China Sea. In July, China and Malaysia already resumed construction on a train project in northern Malaysia, which is part of China’s Belt and Road plan. [Reuters 2]

17 September 2019

Malaysia: Sabah and Sarawak demand better status

(ls) On the occasion of Malaysia’s National Holiday (16 September), the states of Sabah and Sarawak have renewed their demands for an elevation of their economic development and legal status. When the Pakatan Harapan government lead by Mahathir Mohamad swept to power in May 2018, it promised to restore autonomy to these territories. However, there has been little movement in this regard. An attempt earlier this year to amend the constitution and restore its original wording specifying Sabah and Sarawak as equal partners failed, with East Malaysian lawmakers criticizing the amendment as being an empty gesture. The discrepancies in terms of economic development between East and West Malaysia are substantial. East Malaysians often accuse West Malaysians of privilege and ignorance when it comes to Sabah and Sarawak. [South China Morning Post]

17 September 2019

Malaysia: UMNO and PAS join forces to challenge Pakatan Harapan

(ls/td) Malaysia’s two biggest Malay Muslim parties agreed on a political cooperation pact that they hope will unite the majority community against the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. The chiefs of former rivals UMNO and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) signed a “National Cooperation” charter outlining the formal terms of their pact, which has won them three by-elections as an informal arrangement over the past year. It stresses the primacy of Islam and the Malays. The alliance ends more than 40 years of enmity between UMNO and opposition stalwart PAS. But it has also sparked fears of racial polarization. [Straits Times]

While non-Malays accuse the government of favoring Malay voters, Malays question whether it can continue to safeguard their privileges, which are enshrined in the constitution. Malays receive affirmative-action privileges – such as housing discounts and preferential access to education and business – that are meant to correct income inequalities. However, observers also say the policies have bred resentment and stifled competitiveness. [South China Morning Post]

3 September 2019

Malaysia: Corruption trial against former prime minister Najib has started

(ls/td) Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak’s corruption trial involving illegal transfers from the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) into his personal bank accounts started on Wednesday with the prosecution saying that he had abused his powers to enrich himself. The former prime minister is facing 21 counts of money laundering and four counts of abuse of power for receiving illegal transfers. The United States Department of Justice has alleged that more than US$4.5 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB and about US$700 million of that ended up in Najib’s personal bank accounts. [Straits Times]

Date of AiR edition

News summary

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16 July 2019 

Malaysia ceases sand exports to Singapore 

(kj) Malaysia has ceased its export of sand to Singapore, effectively disrupting Singapore’s land expansion goals. The disruption is relatively significant, given that Malaysia has been one of Singapore’s main sources of sand. To date, Malaysia has sold approximately £277m in sand to Singapore, which makes up for close to 97 per cent of Singapore’s supply of sand. Due to the ban, Singapore will have to rely on other countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh. However, supplies in these countries are potentially limited. [The Telegraph]

The sand export ban, officials claimed, is a result of Mr Mahathir’s environmental concerns as well as his dissatisfaction over Singapore growing at the expense of Malaysia’s resources. This ban is yet another example of tensions over territory and resources ever since Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965. [Reuters]

This row is also part of a larger trend of sand export bans to Singapore by Cambodia and Indonesia in past years. These countries similarly cite environmental considerations. [Quartz] Despite the ban, sand remains extracted at a high rate in Indonesia, placing low-lying islands at risk of disappearing.

16 July 2019 

Malaysia: Sedition Act in use again

(ls) Despite repeated promises by the Mahathir administration to repeal the controversial Sedition Act, a Muslim preacher has become the first to be jailed under the law since the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition came to power last year. The public prosecutor even appealed for a stiffer sentence. The convict is a member of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the largest party in PH. A moratorium on further investigations under the Sedition Act was put in place by the Cabinet in October last year, but it lasted only two months. According to observers, the Sedition Act is being used by PH to calm growing anxiety among the majority Malay community. [Straits Times]

2 July 2019 

Malaysia to probe “sensitive” disappearances of pastor, Muslim activist

(cl) Malaysia’s Home Minister has announced that a former High Court judge will lead a task force to probe the findings by Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), which concluded that the police’s intelligence department was directly involved in the alleged enforced disappearances of a Christian pastor and a Muslim man suspected of spreading Shi’ite beliefs in the country. [The Star]

However, the appointment of certain members in the task force has been controversial given the inclusion of an official from the police’s integrity department, which had failed to act on Suhakam’s findings or the families’ complaints over police conduct. [Malay Mail]

The issue involving their disappearances is sensitive in Malaysia amid claims that they were abducted by the authorities. The incident also raised concerns about rising religious intolerance in Malaysia as Islamic authorities in the country ban the conversion of Malaysian Muslims to Christians or Shi’ism. [Aljazeera]

The previous Barisan Nasional government had stonewalled queries by family members on their whereabouts, or whether the government had a hand in their disappearances. The Pakatan Harapan government’s special task force was formed by the Cabinet last month following a verdict by Suhakam that the Special Branch police was likely behind the two men’s disappearances, though the police had previously denied involvement in their abductions. [Straits Times]

2 July 2019 

Malaysia pledges to decriminalise drug addiction in landmark move

(cl) Malaysia’s health minister has pledged to decriminalise drug addiction and drug possession for personal use, in a move it calls “a game-changer policy”. According to the ministry, this move would be a critical next step towards “achieving a rational drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration”. [Aljazeera] The minister also cited evidence that showed decriminalisation of drug addiction had not led to an increase in drug use and drug-related offences, and had instead led to reduced costs in the criminal justice system. Currently, most of the 70,000 inmates held in Malaysian prisons are drug addicts. [The Star]

The measure is considered to be unprecedented, as punishment for non-drug trafficking offences in Malaysia can range from imprisonment, whipping and fines, depending on the type and amount of drugs possessed and degree of offence. [Washington Post]

 

2 July 2019 

Malaysia: MACC clears Economic Affairs Minister as Umno’s ex-deputy PM faces new graft charges

(cl/ls) The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has cleared the Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali of any wrongdoing following allegations that he was behind questionable money transfers. Investigations found that the alleged transfer from an engineering giant into a bank account bearing the same name as the minister did not exist, and this was just one among the three cases of non-existent accounts and transactions implicating the minister. [Malay Mail]

The investigations also found that there was no so-called Deutsche Bank account in the minister’s name that was allegedly opened in 2012. [Today] The allegations were part of the sex video implicating the minister earlier this month, with the former deputy minister’s aide, who confessed to being in the video, accusing him of corruption. [The Star]

Meanwhile, Malaysia’ former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi faces seven additional corruption charges involving USD3.12 million that he allegedly received in kickbacks from the operator of the foreign visa system while he was the home minister. [South China Morning Post] On Friday, he appeared in court in connection with another 33 charges related to the same case. [Channel News Asia]

In an apparently related development, Umno has been planning to amend its party rules in a bid to oust leaders who are facing court charges. The move to make the changes raised speculation that the party wanted to oust the president, Zahid, who was on leave from his position, and block tainted former president Najib from again taking up a top post. However, plans to change the rules have now been stopped in fear of a major split in the party. [Today] Only a few days later, Zahid announced his return from garden leave to resume the office of Umno president. [Malaysiakini]

11 June 2019 

Mahathir floats idea of a new currency based on gold, rather than on current “manipulative” currency system

(jk) Malaysian PM Mahathir has floated the idea of parts of Asia beginning to trade on the basis of a new currency based on a classical gold standard at an international conference on the future of Asia in Tokyo. He stated that the current tie to the US dollar is too open to manipulation and while the proposed currency would not be used domestically, it would reduce overall dependence on the US Dollar due to its use in regional trade. [Malay Mail] Whether or not such a proposal will gain any traction however, is primarily a political, rather than an economic question.

11 June 2019 

Singapore, Australia to explore new areas of collaboration

(cl/jk) Singapore and Australia are deepening bilateral ties and exploring new areas of collaboration, such as in the digital economy, Prime Minister Lee and his Australian counterpart said on Friday. Mr Lee said they exchanged views on regional and global issues, adding that Australian and Singapore see “eye-to-eye” on many issues. [Channel News Asia] Both leaders also shared their hopes for negotiations on potentially the world’s largest trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to be completed by the end of the year. Negotiations for the RCEP, which involves 16 Asia-Pacific countries, have been ongoing since 2012 and Mr Lee said in November last year that there have been “significant breakthroughs”. The RCEP aims to lower trade barriers and secure improved market access for businesses in the region. [Straits Times]

PM Lee further stated that Singapore, which is currently evaluating its laws to strengthen responses against foreign interference in domestic politics, could learn from Australia. The latter had, in 2018, passed laws including a ban on foreigners making political donations after a New South Wales senator accepted money from foreign donors that had links with the Chinese government, and contradicted his party’s position by defending China’s position on the South China Sea. [Today] Previously, during maritime and airspace disputes between Singapore and Malaysia, the government noticed a spike in online comments, which it noted sought to create “an artificial impression to netizens of the opposition to Singapore’s position at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties”. In response, Senior Minister of State for Law stated, in a parliamentary debate, that Singapore would look at laws to tackle hostile information campaigns by countering the spread of false information by foreign actors and expose clandestine foreign-interference campaigns before they happen. [Today 2]

Singapore and Australia have elevated their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016 and work closely on defence and security. They are expected to sign a defence treaty this year to finalise an arrangement to jointly develop more military training.

11 June 2019 

Singapore, Australia to explore new areas of collaboration

(cl/jk) Singapore and Australia are deepening bilateral ties and exploring new areas of collaboration, such as in the digital economy, Prime Minister Lee and his Australian counterpart said on Friday. Mr Lee said they exchanged views on regional and global issues, adding that Australian and Singapore see “eye-to-eye” on many issues. [Channel News Asia] Both leaders also shared their hopes for negotiations on potentially the world’s largest trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to be completed by the end of the year. Negotiations for the RCEP, which involves 16 Asia-Pacific countries, have been ongoing since 2012 and Mr Lee said in November last year that there have been “significant breakthroughs”. The RCEP aims to lower trade barriers and secure improved market access for businesses in the region. [Straits Times]

PM Lee further stated that Singapore, which is currently evaluating its laws to strengthen responses against foreign interference in domestic politics, could learn from Australia. The latter had, in 2018, passed laws including a ban on foreigners making political donations after a New South Wales senator accepted money from foreign donors that had links with the Chinese government, and contradicted his party’s position by defending China’s position on the South China Sea. [Today] Previously, during maritime and airspace disputes between Singapore and Malaysia, the government noticed a spike in online comments, which it noted sought to create “an artificial impression to netizens of the opposition to Singapore’s position at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties”. In response, Senior Minister of State for Law stated, in a parliamentary debate, that Singapore would look at laws to tackle hostile information campaigns by countering the spread of false information by foreign actors and expose clandestine foreign-interference campaigns before they happen. [Today 2]

Singapore and Australia have elevated their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016 and work closely on defence and security. They are expected to sign a defence treaty this year to finalise an arrangement to jointly develop more military training.

11 June 2019 

 Malaysia: Speculations surrounding political interference in appointments of key posts

(cl/jk) According to critical observers, recent instances of political interference in key appointments of a state-led enterprise and an anti-corruption commission in Malaysia have raised suspicions that the Pakatan Harapan government is not standing by its election manifesto to do away with putting political appointees in key posts.

While the board of directors of one of Malaysia’s biggest companies, Telekom Malaysia, said that its nominee for the permanent chief executive position, which has been vacant since last year’s general election, was accepted by the Ministry of Finance, PM Mahathir revealed on Wednesday that the nominee would not be elevated. [Free Malaysia Today] This is despite the Finance Minister, who supposedly has the final say in such key decisions, revealing that he had not been informed of the rejection of said nominee. Stakeholders lament Malaysia’s lack of policy clarity amid frequent interventions in government-linked companies (GLC) by the Pakatan Harapan administration since Mahathir returned to power last year. [The Malay Mail]

On another note, PM Mahathir’s move to bypass the Cabinet and appoint an ex-member of a political party as the new Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) chief that we mentioned last week, has been questioned by said party’s leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who is slated to succeed PM Mahathir as prime minister. Besides raising questions on whether the appointment contravenes the MACC Act, an MP from the Democratic Action Party stated that PM Mahathir’s unilateral decision went against his election pledge to ensure a check-and-balance of such appointments by the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Appointments. [New Straits Times] Civil society group Bersih 2.0 added that her appointment made power of abuse inevitable, noting that former prime minister Najib Razak had used the same power to appoint his allies into key positions to escape the scrutiny of 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. [Free Malaysia Today] In response, Mahathir said that he did not want to be bound by the Cabinet in making this decision, adding that he consulted “others”, whom he did not identify, about her character before making the appointment. [South China Morning Post]

4 June 2019 

hangri-La Dialogue from the host’s view: discussions on the Sino-United States relationship and the importance of investing in defence capabilities for smaller countries

(cl/jk) During the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore on Saturday, Defence Ministers from China, Malaysia, Britain and the US discussed three main security challenges for the region: the US-China relationship; instability on the Korean peninsula and the threat of nuclear weapons; and the “clear and present” danger of terrorism and returning foreign fighters. [South China Morning Post]

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee pointed to the worrying trend in the Sino-United States relationship, with attitudes on both sides hardening towards the other party, identifying the mutual lack of strategic trust as the fundamental problem between the US and China. He added that while it would be up to the countries’ political leaders to avoid a conflict which would inflict serious damage across the globe, it is hard as leaders on both sides are facing powerful domestic pressures. [Straits Times]

On another note, Singapore’s Defence Minister emphasised that smaller countries in the region like Singapore have to invest in their own defence capabilities even as they try to resolve disputes through peaceful means because the cost of any potential conflict is prohibitively high. [Channel News Asia] On Friday, Singapore’s Defence Minister and US Acting Defence Secretary had welcomed the renewal of the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding for the US Use of Facilities in Singapore, as they reaffirmed the excellent and longstanding bilateral defence relations. [ASEAN Breaking News]

Singapore and China have in the meantime agreed to a “substantial programme” to deepen military ties after a meeting between the two countries’ defence chiefs. Among the proposed enhancements to existing defence cooperation agreement is a second bilateral naval drill to be held next year, after the countries held a similar drill in 2015. [The Diplomat]

These exercises are significant given few other Southeast Asian countries, especially those maintaining strong security ties with the US, such as Singapore, engage with the People’s Liberation Army Navy on a bilateral basis. [Asia One] According to one point of view, “such military-to-military outreach is part of China’s diplomatic efforts as it seeks to counter suspicion about its intentions and the pressure it is facing from a strain in ties with the US.” [South China Morning Post]

4 June 2019 

Singapore, Malaysia added to US watchlist on currency practices

(cl) Singapore was added to a watch list for currency manipulation by the United States, which said the city-state made estimated net foreign exchange purchases of at least US$17 billion in 2018, equivalent to 4.6% of gross domestic product. The US report says Singapore should undertake reforms that will lower its high saving rate and boost low domestic consumption, while striving to ensure that its real exchange rate is in line with economic fundamentals, in order to help narrow its large and persistent external surpluses. [Straits Times]

In response, Singapore’s central bank has said on Wednesday that it does not engage in currency manipulation. It said Singapore’s monetary policy framework “has always been aimed at ensuring medium-term price stability”. Singapore Deputy Prime Minister has also remarked that it will be unsustainable for Singapore to manipulate its exchange rate as holding it deliberately low will cause hyperinflation, while keeping it artificially high will result in severe deflation [Channel News Asia]

4 June 2019 

Malaysia’s anti-corruption chief quits

(cl) Malaysia’s Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief commissioner has resigned, just over a year into his two-year tenure, and his request to have his contract shortened has been consented to by the Malaysian King. [Straits Times] He has been replaced by a prominent female lawyer who is a member of one of the parties under the country’s governing alliance Pakatan Harapan, and is the executive director for Lawyers for Liberty. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, this appointment was among the new and important measures taken in line with the process to reform government institutions. [The Star] When asked why he decided to resign, the former chief commissioner said he believes he has completed the task given by the government when he took on the position in 2018. [Malay Mail]

4 June 2019 

Malaysia welcomes Huawei and rebukes US strategy to avoid it

(jk) Malaysia has become the first country in Southeast Asia to rebuke the United States’ position on Huawei and while other countries were avoiding the use of Huawei PM Mahathir said Malaysia had no intention of shunning the Chinese company and would use it “as much as possible”. [The Star]

4 June 2019 

Malaysia gets tough on illegal plastic waste imports

(cl) According to Malaysia’s Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change, containers full of contaminated, non-homogenous, low quality, non-recyclable plastic waste are entering the country, contravening local and international laws. [Aljazeera]

Since July last year, the government has cracked down on illegal imports of plastic waste, and shut down unlicensed plastic recycling factories operated by Chinese nationals, which began mushrooming in Malaysia after Beijing banned plastic waste imports. [CNBC] Only last week, the police charged a small firm’s directors for 15 offences regarding the illegal dumping of waste, in a chemical dumping case that hospitalised over 1,000 people earlier this year. 

To further reduce harm to the environment and public health caused by improper disposal of waste, the Department of Environment announced last week that it has drafted a specific legislation mandating consumers to send certain unwanted electronic items to places licensed to handle e-waste. [The Star] The Minister further announced that higher penalties will be imposed on importers who illegally import polluting garbage. [CNN]

28 May 2019 

Malaysia and China committed to strengthening ties, says Mahathir, fuelling discontent amongst opposition parties in Malaysia

(cl) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has stressed that his Pakatan Harapan government is committed to strengthening ties with China, following the “meteoric” growth in trade and investment between the two countries in recent years. He paid tribute to the efforts of the Malaysia-China Friendship Association in elevating the friendship between both countries, recalling that the partnership between both countries had remained constant through the years despite leadership changes as both nations strived to be good neighbours and had adhered to the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. [The Star]

Mahathir also said that Malaysia had given its support to China’s Belt and Road Initiative as it saw the benefits as being mutually shared and distributed, adding that Malaysia saw the project as a continuation of the ancient trade between both countries. [ASEAN Breaking News] He expects that there will be more opportunities for cooperation between the two countries in the areas of tourism, science and technology as well as cultural exchanges. [Xinhua Net]

However, this has fuelled discontent amongst opposition parties, who allege that the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party is in control of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, causing the PH government to “go against Malay interests”. [Straits Times]

28 May 2019 

Malaysian officials go undercover to spy on non-fasting Muslims

(cl) Malaysian officials are disguising themselves as cooks and waiters in food outlets as part of a scheme to catch Muslims who do not fast during Ramadan. While Muslims in multi-ethnic Malaysia have traditionally followed a tolerant form of Islam, critics say conservative attitudes have been gaining ground in recent years. [New Straits Times] If Muslims are seen ordering food during the daytime, the officers will secretly take pictures of them and contact the local religious affairs department for further action. [Fox News]

In Johor, Muslims who skip fasting can be punished with up to 6 months in jail or a fine of up to approximately USD$240, or both. Sisters in Islam, a group promoting the rights of Muslim women in Malaysia, said the scheme was “shameful, and gives a wrong impression of Islam in the eyes of fellow Muslims and people from other faiths”. [Kuwait Times]

19 March 2019 

Malaysia: Umno MPs switch sides, bringing Pakatan Harapan closer to two-thirds majority

(ls) Eight former Sabah Umno leaders have been officially accepted into Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), one of the four member parties of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance. The group comprises four federal MPs, two senators and two Sabah assemblymen. Together with 10 more seats from its two Sabah allied parties, PH now has 139 federal MPs, which is just nine short of the 148 MPs needed to form a two-thirds supermajority which would enable the government to amend the federal Constitution. Prime Minister Mahatir has said that he wants to limit the tenure of the Prime Minister and chief ministers to two terms. [Straits Times]

 

19 March 2019 

Malaysia to limit the use of the death penalty

(ls) The Malaysian government announced that it will seek to scrap the mandatory death penalty for 11 offences, including for committing acts of terrorism. The other offences cover murder, hostage-taking, organized crime, offences against the constitutional monarch and the use of firearms. The plan is to replace the mandatory death penalty with the death penalty on the court’s discretion. As of October last year, there were 1,279 people on death row in Malaysia, the majority of them for drug trafficking offences, which are not covered by the current plans. [Straits Times]

At the same time, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) criticized the government’s delay to abolishing the death penalty, the repeal of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 and the Sedition Act 1948. Suhakam said it was also disappointed by the government’s failure to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. [Free Malaysia Today]

 

19 March 2019 

Malaysian court releases Indonesian woman charged with killing Kim Jong-nam – Vietnamese suspect stays in custody

(ls) In an unexpected decision, a Malaysian court has dropped the case against one of two women charged with the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017. The Indonesian national Siti Aisyah was released from custody and flew home to Indonesia after the decision. Prosecutors, who had withdrawn the charges, did not give any reason for the retreat in their case against Siti. However, the court rejected her lawyer’s request for a full acquittal, as it said that the trial had already established a prima facie case and she could be recalled if fresh evidence emerged. [The Guardian]

Malaysia’s attorney-general on Thursday rejected Vietnam’s request to free the second suspect, the Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, and a court set April 1 for her trial to resume. Vietnam’s foreign ministry said it regretted the Malaysian court’s decision not to immediately free Huong. Indonesia’s government said Siti’s release was the result of its continual high-level lobbying. [Reuters]

The women were accused of smearing the toxic nerve agent VX on his face as he waited to board a flight to Macau. He died within 20 minutes. Defense lawyers have maintained the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents. Kim Jong Nam was living in exile in Macau before the killing, having fled his homeland after his half-brother Kim Jong Un became North Korea’s leader in 2011 following their father’s death.

 

19 March 2019 

Singapore and Malaysia set to resolve maritime boundary dispute

(ls) Singapore and Malaysia on Thursday said they had resolved to begin negotiations over a disputed maritime boundary, an issue that put the neighbors’ relations under pressure in recent months. Singapore’s Vivian Balakrishnan and his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah said both nations had agreed to suspend the implementation of their overlapping port limits for now. Moreover, no government vessels will anchor in the area, commercial activities will be suspended and no new ones authorized. The two countries are also at odds over two other issues, which are the price Singapore pays Malaysia for fresh water, and the city state’s management of a small section of Malaysian airspace. [South China Morning Post]

 

19 March 2019 

U.S. bank Goldman Sachs facing criminal charges related to 1MDB scandal in Malaysia

(ls) A Malaysian court set a new pretrial hearing date for the criminal case against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. relating to the state investment fund 1MDB. The June 24 hearing will give prosecutors more time to serve summons against two of three Goldman Sachs units at the center of the allegations. At a hearing in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, only the U.S. firm’s Singapore unit was a respondent. [Bloomberg]

Three units of the U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs and two former employees face criminal charges in Malaysia relating to their role in raising $6.5 billion for the scandal-plagued state investment fund 1MDB. Malaysia alleges that Goldman misled investors in three bond sales it arranged for 1MDB while knowing the money raised would be misappropriated. The charges under the Capital Markets and Services Act 2007 carry fines for businesses and jail terms of up to 10 years and fines for individuals. [Washington Post]

19 March 2019 

EU phases out palm oil, sparking criticism from Malaysia

(ls) The European Commission on Wednesday concluded that palm oil should be phased out from transport fuel due to environmental concerns, sparking a backlash from Malaysia, a top producer of the vegetable oil. The Commission said that 45 percent of the expansion of palm oil production since 2008 led to destruction of forests, wetlands or peatlands, resulting in more greenhouse gases. That compared to 8 percent for soybeans and 1 percent for sunflowers and rapeseed. Malaysia’s primary industries minister Teresa Kok criticized the decision, saying it’s based “on the politics of protectionism” and warning of retaliatory actions against European exports should the law be adopted. [CNBC]

11 March 2019 

Malaysia: Malaysia joins International Criminal Court (ICC)

(jk) On Monday last week, Malaysia ratified the Rome Statute and with that, joined the International Criminal Court (ICC), becoming its 124th state party. The ICC is a permanent international court focusing on serious human rights crimes such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide. The court has jurisdiction in cases in which states that have ratified the Rome Statue – or voluntarily accept the court’s jurisdiction – are unable or unwilling to pursue a case. [ICC]

Among the ASEAN member states, Cambodia was the first to ratify the Rome Statute in 2002, before the Philippines ratified the Statute in 2011. With Malaysia joining, three Southeast Asian nations will be party to the statue, however, the Philippines have declared their intention to withdraw over the court’s reactions to President Duterte’s war on drugs. The Philippines are due to withdraw next week, most likely taking the number of Southeast Asian member states back to two. [Verfassungsblog]

ASEAN member states have long quibbled over sovereignty issues with regards to the court, which is supposed to work under the principle of complementarity to domestic justice, but does have the power to investigate without an explicit referral by a state party and is difficult to reconcile with ASEAN’s strict policy preference of non-interference.

Malaysia has a number of reasons for joining the ICC, including concerns over the yet to be resolved Rohingya refugee crisis or Malaysia’s position as a force in the international system. PM Mahathir’s ambitions for Malaysia to make a mark and play a more active role in ASEAN, as well as his image as a reformer of traditional Malay politics play a role domestically. [The Interpreter, ABS-CBN] The accession marks the ICC’s first new member state since 2016 and provides a welcomed counter-narrative to the trend of ICC withdrawals. Especially in Asia, where the court has very little clout, this is significant.

In related news, the [SCMP] has published an interview with the Malaysian PM on a wide range of issues, including great power politics as well as domestic issues with regards to his predecessor in particular.

4 March 2019 

Malaysia: Pakatan Harapan loses seat in by-election as ethnic politics take center stage again

(ls) Malaysia’s ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) lost a state constituency in Selangor in a by-election on Saturday. It had won the parliamentary seat in last year’s landslide election victory, but a by-election had to be called following the death of the lawmaker in January. The constituency was taken back by Barisan Nasional, the party of former prime minister Najib Razak. The loss is seen as a sign of waning popularity of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s alliance. One reason may be fear among ethnic Malays that affirmative-action policies favoring them in business, education and housing could be taken away. [Reuters]

Mahathir leads a coalition government with a broad range of ethnic representation. It is far less Malay-dominant than was its predecessor. People of Chinese and Indian descent hold key Cabinet portfolios. Former PM Najib Razak seeks to recast himself as a guardian of Malay rights. More than 60 per cent of the population of 32 million belongs to the Bumiputera, the “sons of the soil”, who are ethnic Malays and natives of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo. [The Nation]

PH’s loss was also credited to Barisan Nasional’s cooperation strategy between the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). Commenting on the result, Mahatir said that such cooperation would most likely not work in a general election: “They can work together for by-elections, because a win or a loss is not important,” he said. “But for the general election, they cannot work together. If they do, PAS will be left with nothing.” [Straits Times]

The evidence of ethnic politics is also illustrated by the fate of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a political party that shared governmental power with Barisan Nasional for 62 years. Umno’s turn toward PAS has left them with a problem: looming irrelevance. With Umno concentrating on its Malay vote bank, the MCA’s shrinking share of the Chinese vote has rendered it of little value to the coalition. Umno leaders have even suggested that the MCA “just leave” the coalition. [South China Morning Post]

4 March 2019 

Rohingya people found on Malaysian beach

(ls) 34 Rohingya people were found on a beach in Malaysia on Friday. It was the first of the Muslim minority group to have arrived in the country by sea for almost a year. It was suspected that they had been ferried into Malaysian waters from neighbouring Thailand by people smugglers. Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favourite destination for Rohingya, where they are a source of labour in low-paying industries such as agriculture and construction. [Straits Times]