Asia in Review Archive (2019)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

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

Web links

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]