Asia in Review Archive


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8 October 2019

Singapore: The 28 Most Important Issues Facing the city state

(jk) Independent online platform New Naratif asked its readers what they think about the current state of Singapore and the most important issues facing the country today. Its about 450 responses paint a basic picture of Singaporean woes today. Leaving aside the relatively small sample size and the narrow pool of New Naratif readers, the answers paint an interesting picture of what will likely dominate the upcoming elections. [New Naratif]

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]

1 October 2019

South China Sea: Statements at UNGA and related developments

(ls/td) At the United Nations General Assembly, Vietnam voiced its concerns over the recent developments in the South China Sea, including incidents that Vietnam considered infringements of the country’s sovereignty. Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said that relevant states should exercise restraint and refrain from conducting unilateral acts. [Bloomberg]

At the same time, the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin Jr. referred to a Code of Conduct (CoC) to cover disputed waters of the South China Sea which is targeted for signing in 2022 by ASEAN member states and China, as “a manual for living with a hegemon, or the care and feeding of a dragon in your living room. (…) even a good [CoC] is still a Chinese code of conduct.” At the same time, Locsin praised a “rock-solid relationship” between the US and the Philippines. [PhilStar]

Meanwhile, Singapore and the United States formally renewed an agreement of 1990, renewed once in 2005, that grants U.S. forces access to Singapore’s naval and air bases. It now runs until 2035. Despite a strong military relationship, the two countries do not refer to each other as “allies”. Neither do defense officials refer to U.S. facilities in Singapore as American bases. [South China Morning Post]

24 September 2019

First Singapore-India-Thailand trilateral maritime exercises (SITMEX) in Andaman Sea 

(jk) An inaugural trilateral exercise of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN),the Royal Thailand Navy (RTN) and the Indian Navy (IN) took place at Port Blair, an Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal, last week. The exercise seeks to improve maritime inter-relationships amongst the three navies and contribute to the overall maritime security in the region. [Devdiscourse]

24 September 2019

PM Lee and President Trump renew key defence pact on US use of Singapore air and naval bases

(jk) When the two leaders met in New York on Monday, they renewed a defence pact which allowing American forces to use Singapore’s air and naval bases. The renewal added another 15 years and extended the timeline to 2035. [Straits Times]

10 September 2019

Better protection for abused, neglected children after changes to Children and Young Persons Act passed

(td) Amendments to the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA) were passed in Parliament to better protect children who may be neglected or abused by their caregivers. The Act aims to provide greater support to youth offenders to reintegrate into society.  The Parliament also raised the age limit for what is considered a young person from 16 to 18. This would allow the authorities to intervene in cases of abuse involving older children and the definition of emotional injury has also been sharpened, so that there is clarity on when stakeholders like the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), social service agencies and the court can and should intervene, and when they should not.

Another change to the CYPA is the new Enhanced Care and Protection Order. It allows MSF and designated caregivers to children who are in out-of-home care to make day-to-day as well as more substantive decisions such as overseas travel. (Channel News Asia) (The New Paper)

10 September 2019

Singapore: PM sues Chief Editor of Singaporean News Outlet over “false statements”

(jk) The chief editor of the Singaporean news outlet “The Online Citizen” has received a notification that he will be sued over and article allegedly containing “false” statements about a recent controversy regarding the family house of the PM, once owned by his father. The editor had previously been asked to apologise and remove the article and Facebook post, but has chosen not to oblige. 

The article and the post on Facebook alleged that today’s PM Lee misled his father in order to achieve that the house will not be demolished, as was Lee Kuan Yew’s wish. The PM’s lawyers state that the article has “gravely injured” his character and reputation. [The Independent Singapore]

10 September 2019

Singapore: Electoral Boundaries Review Committee is set up, indicating election preparations

(jk) The set-up of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee is seen as a formal step towards a general election. Singapore must hold its next election before April 2021, but according to observers an earlier date is more likely. In no previous instance, it has taken more than six months from the set-up of the committee to the actual elections. Government sources according to the South China Morning Post state that a “December election is now very likely”. [South China Morning Post]

3 September 2019

Singapore: Law Ministry plans to legalize conditional fee agreements

(td) Singapore’s Ministry of Law plans to allow conditional fee agreements, an additional payment option where a lawyer is paid only when the claim is successful. The country’s law currently prohibits conditional fee agreements. The new agreements will be considered for international and domestic arbitration proceedings, including mediation, as well as certain prescribed proceedings in the Singapore International Commercial Court. In addition to the lawyer’s standard legal fees, a payment under the fee agreements may include a success-fee. Existing traditional payment methods will continue to be in place alongside the proposed agreements, involving fixed fees or arrangements where clients are billed by the hour. [Straits Times] [Ministry of Law]

3 September 2019

Singapore: Religious Harmony Act to be amended

(ls) Singapore is introducing changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. The Act, in force since 1992, allows the government to issue restraining orders against preachers who engage in conduct or speech that undermines religious harmony, and fine and jail those who breach such orders. The yet unspecified changes shall adapt the Act to the social media age. In June, Singapore enacted the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, addressing “fake news” on the internet. [Straits Times]

Channel News Asia has compiled some background information about the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. [Channel News Asia]

Date of AiR edition

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16 July 2019

Singapore detains Arakan Army supporters as violence escalates again in Myanmar’s Rakhine state

(ls/kj) Singapore authorities have arrested a group of Myanmar nationals accused of rallying support for the Arakan Army and armed violence against the Myanmar government. The Arakan Army is an insurgent group fighting for greater autonomy in Rakhine and Chin states. Myanmar has designated it a terrorist organization. “They should not import their domestic political issues from their countries into Singapore,” Singapore’s home ministry said. [Reuters 1]

This case is not the first of its kind, as Singapore has taken action against foreign nationals for armed violence in the past. In 2015, 27 Bangladeshi construction workers who were radicalised and planned to take up arms abroad were arrested under the Internal Security Act. [South China Morning Post] A year after, eight Bangladeshi workers organising terror attacks in Bangladesh were either charged in court or deported. [Today]

Meanwhile, it appears that Myanmar’s military is waging a new war against the Arakan Army in Rakhine. Residents told Reuters reporters that soldiers fired weapons indiscriminately, killing and wounding civilians, and tortured detainees. According to observers, the military has deployed five Light Infantry Divisions which have a reputation for brutal counter-insurgency campaigns against the nation’s many ethnic armed groups. In January, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had called on the armed forces to “crush” the rebels. [Reuters 2]

16 July 2019

Singapore rejects claims that Malaysian prisoners are targeted for execution

(kj) Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has denied accusations that prisoners from Malaysia are being targeted for execution. In one particular case, the Singapore’s president decided not to exercise the clemency power, having been advised by the Cabinet in accordance to Article 22P of the Constitution. Article 22P articulates the rules on granting pardon. [Today] [The Straits Times]

The MHA’s statement is made in response to Malaysian news reports that highlighted Singapore’s rejection of many clemency petitions for Malaysian drug criminals. In these reports, a key advisor to human rights group, Lawyers for Liberty, claimed that Singapore seems to be arranging for an “execution binge” in light of its exceptional and appalling number of clemency rejections. [Malay Mail] [Free Malaysia Today]

2 July 2019

Asian Development Bank to open office in Singapore

(cl) According to Singapore’s Ministry of Finance, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) will open an office in Singapore in the second half of this year to support the expansion of its private sector operations. [Straits Times] On Friday, it announced that the office would be “lean and focused” outfit with 12 staff, including from ADB’s Private Sector Operations Department and Office of Public-Private Partnership. This agreement to establish the new office was signed by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and ADB president Takehiko Nakao on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. [Channel News Asia]

2 July 2019

Singapore: Gay pride rally and calls for abolition of criminalization

(ls) This weekend, Singapore joined dozens of other cities around the world in celebrating gay pride. But it is the only one where gay sex is criminalized, though the law is not enforced. Previous legal challenges to overturn the ban have failed. Shortly after last year’s landmark Indian court ruling, a Singaporean DJ filed a new court challenge against the colonial-era law. [Reuters] Another parade took place in Manila. The Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte had recently said that in his younger days he “cured” himself of homosexuality with the help of “beautiful women”. [The Nation]

11 June 2019

Singapore primary source of foreign direct investment in India

(ls) Singapore is the top source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in India. In the last Indian financial year, the country received FDI inflows from Singapore valued at US$16.23 billion. The city state was followed by Mauritius (US$8.08 billion), the Netherlands (US$3.87 billion), the United States (US$3.14 billion) and Japan (US$2.97 billion). The rise of Singapore as an FDI source can partly be attributed to tax treaty amendments that India signed in recent years with Singapore and others like Mauritius that have brought tax parity, providing a level playing field. [Straits Times]

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 Prime Minister’s post on the 1978 Vietnam-Cambodia issue upsets both countries

(cl) On May 31st, Prime Minister Lee posted on Facebook that the then-five Association of Southeast Nation members previously came together to oppose “Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge”. In a 2011 speech, former deputy prime minister said that Singapore had to respond to the “invasion of a smaller county by a larger neighbour” or it would have undermined the credibility of Singapore’s foreign policy and had serious implications for its security, adding that this would create an undesirable precedent for small nations. [Straits Times]

However, Cambodia and Vietnam have objected to PM Lee’s remarks. Cambodia Defence Minister General told media that his comments were “unacceptable”, and Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Mr Lee’s remarks did not “objectively reflect the historical truth”. Cambodia’s Prime Minister further accused PM Lee of supporting genocide. [Reuters] In response, Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement last Friday that Singapore is committed to building on its good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia. It added that last Friday, Singapore’s Foreign Minister spoke with Vietnamese and Cambodian Prime Ministers, who agreed that notwithstanding the serious differences, they have taken a path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship. [Channel News Asia]

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

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]

28 May 2019

Singaporean court stays execution of drug courier, but laws to remain “tough”

(cl) A day before he was scheduled to hang on Friday, a Malaysian drug mule on death row for importing heroin in 2017 got a temporary reprieve after the Court of Appeal granted him a stay of execution. During the hearing, his lawyers raised questions about the “lack of transparency” of the clemency process. In response, the prosecution submitted affidavits to set the sequence of events. [Straits Times]

Prior to the hearing, legal advocacy group Lawyers for Liberty accused the Singapore government of bulldozing through procedures to hang the Malaysian, who was found to merely be a drug courier and not a mastermind in illicit substances. The group added that the one-week notice of his execution is “oppressive and unjust”. [The Star] The Law Minister of Malaysia has further denied allegations accusing it of interfering with the court’s decision. [Asia One]

The last case concerning the execution of a Malaysian on similar charges of carrying drugs into Singapore occurred in October 2018. [Malay Mail] Recently, on 27 May, a Nigerian man on death row was cleared of importing close to 2kg of ice. [Channel News Asia] Regardless, the Minister of Law has warned that while there are strong coordinated efforts internationally for Singapore to change the government’s position on drugs, there remains a need for such “tough laws”. [Straits Times 2]

4 December 2018

Heng Swee Keat – Singapore’s likely next prime minister

(ls) Last week, a reorganization within Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) took place when finance minister Heng Swee Keat was given a key position within the party’s top decision-making body and declared “first among equals” – a move that put him in place to be the likely successor once Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong steps aside (see last week’s AiR). Heng is widely seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ – especially given that one of Singapore’s most immediate challenges is keeping its open economy in good shape in the face of rising protectionism and trade disputes between global powers. [Reuters]

However, questions remain whether he will tighten political controls, be able to unify the party elite after a tight leadership contest and even whether he is healthy enough for the job after a stroke in 2016. The election is due by April 2021, but it is widely expected the vote will be brought forward – possibly as soon as next year – and that Heng will take over from Lee soon after. The [South China Morning Post] has gathered opinions on Heng’s position within the PAP and possible future developments.

27 November 2018

Singapore: Finance Minister set to become next Prime Minister

(dql) Singapore’s Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was elected the ruling People’s Action Party’s first assistant secretary, making him the top member of the party’s central executive committee and paving the way for him to become the country’s fourth Prime Minister after Lee Kuan Yew (1954-1992), Hog Chok Tong (1992-2004), and Lee Hsien Loong (since 2004). The next general election will be held latest April 2021. Since 1959 the People’s Action Party has won all general elections, mostly either by supermajority or even by 100% of the seats.

Heng, who began his career in the Singapore Police Force, has been in parliament since 2011 and was Minister for Education from 2011 to 2015 before assuming the post as Finance Minister. [South China Morning Post]

20 November 2018

Quad meeting in Singapore

(jk) One year ago, in November, the Quad has been revived. Since then it has had three meetings but it is yet to take a more concrete shape or amount to more than a senior officials level dialogue of its members India, Japan, the US and Australia. But rather than seeming closer, the three allies and its strategic partner India seem to be less unified than at the last meeting which came right after the resolution of the Doklam stand-off between China and India.

This time, India is seen to hedge its bets a little more and is re-balancing ties with China carefully, rather than taking a clear side and despite a maybe ambitious aim to provide an alternative model to China’s authoritarian rule and state-directed lending for infrastructure projects, it moves along slowly [SCMP] [FirstPost].

Nonetheless, other observers are much more bullish about the Quad’s future, pointing out that it was agreed to meet again in due course, as well as some common language in the subsequent statements that was not mentioning China directly, but apparently not more than a thinly veiled reference. [The Print] Also, an interview with the Indian Navy Chief of Naval Staff referenced below in this issue of AiR gives bullish observers hope.

Meanwhile, Japanese and Australian Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Scott Morrison during a meeting last Friday agreed to deepen defense cooperation to counter China’s growing influence in the region. In a joint statement released after the talks both leaders also expressed serious concerned about the situation in the South China Sea while remaining “strongly opposed to any actions that could increase tensions within the region.” [Nikkei Asian Review]

20 November 2018

33rd ASEAN Summit in Singapore

(ls) The 33rd ASEAN Summit came to a close last Thursday, marking the end of Singapore’s chairmanship, officially handing over the chairmanship to Thailand. CPG, in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, will host the international conference “Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2019” on 3-4 December in Bangkok. More information on the [CPG Website].

The summit saw leaders of all 10 ASEAN member states and leaders of key partner nations from outside the region including United States Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The summit was overshadowed by the ongoing “trade war” between the US and China. In his opening remarks to the summit, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “the international order is at a turning point. The existing free, open and rules-based multilateral system which has underpinned ASEAN’s growth and stability, has come under stress. Countries, including major powers, are resorting to unilateral actions and bilateral deals, and even explicitly repudiating multilateral approaches and institutions.” [ASEAN Post]

In the face of such challenges, Lee outlined three targets he hoped ASEAN would achieve in the next decade: Deeper economic integration, enhanced unity so as to more effectively engage its major partners, and populations equipped with skills needed for new jobs in the digital economy. [Straits Times 1]

In the parallel ASEAN-China summit, both sides vowed to strengthen efforts to meet the joint target of US$1 trillion in trade volume and US$150 billion in investment by 2020. ASEAN and China also announced a roadmap titled “ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership Vision 2030”. Regarding the South China Sea, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that China is expecting the Code of Conduct consultation to be finished soon. [CGTN]

At the ASEAN-US summit, Lee he noted that ASEAN was looking forward to improve trade between the two in the coming years. Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining international law in the South China Sea.

During the ASEAN-Russia summit, which was also attended by Russian president Vladimir Putin, a new agreement between ASEAN and the Eurasian Economic Commission was signed. It is expected to contribute to trade, investment and economic expansion between Southeast Asian countries and member states of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Russia is among five member states of the EAEU, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. [Straits Times 2]

As regards the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was advanced to the final stages of negotiation, it was announced at the summit that it would be finalized in 2019. [ASEAN Post] The RCEP free trade talks involve the ten ASEAN nations as well as partner countries such as Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. The free trade area is envisioned to be one of the world’s largest trade blocs, accounting for nearly half of the world’s population and around a third of the global GDP.

The incoming ASEAN Chair Thailand meanwhile proposed to host the first ASEAN Summit of 2019 in June instead of April, as the government appears to be concerned about a possible delay of the next general election which is tentatively scheduled for 24 February. It would be the first time that such arrangement would be made. [The Nation]

13 November 2018

33rd ASEAN Summit in Singapore

(jk) Singapore is hosting the 33rd ASEAN Summit this week where it will also hand over the chairmanship to Thailand for 2019.  Leaders will also hold the 21st ASEAN Plus Three Summit and 13th East Asia Summit. [Channel News I] US President Donald Trump will not attend the summit but send Vice President Pence instead, who will also represent President Trump at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Papua New Guinea.

Expected to join are Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The summit in Singapore will coinciding with his first ever state visit to Singapore and Putin will also meet Indonesian leader Joko Widodo at the summit’s side-lines. [Jakarta Post]

Singapore’s FM has ahead of the summit stated that Singapore has achieved much more over the past year than it had anticipated. He cited as major examples that progress has been made both on the issue of the South China Sea – in form of the single draft negotiating text of the Code of Conduct signed at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August, as well as on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations. [Channel News II]

RCEP is covering 3.6 billion people and a GDP of about $25 trillion, which is more than that of the United States and is the most ambitious trade deal ever negotiated by developing countries. [Brookings] It includes all ten ASEAN members, its ‘plus-three’ members China, Japan and South Korea, as well as India, New Zealand and Australia. It could become hugely beneficial to the region it covers, although it has still some way to go to be finalised. It remains to be seen whether substantial progress can be made at the current summit.

In a latest development, China’s Premier Li Keqiang on Tuesday expressed his hope that the negotiations with the Southeast Asian nations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea will be completed within three years, arriving at a final deal. [Xinhua]

The next ASEAN summit in Thailand has been announced for 22 -23 June 2019. This breaks with the traditional date of the first summit being held in April/May, but gives the government in Thailand enough time to hold widely expected general elections before the summit.

6 November 2018

Political succession in Singapore

(jk) Next week, the People’s Action Party (PAP) will meet for its conference and the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) election. The election of new leaders from the PAP’s fourth-generation (4G) to its CEC  will be closely watched for clearer signs of who will  become Singapore’s next Prime Minister. [SCMP]

In both previous leadership transitions — to Goh Chok Tong after Lee Kuan Yew, and then to Lee Hsien Loong after that — both men had already been identified as the next Prime Minister before they assumed higher positions in the PAP CEC during the party conference. This time, the party’s internal elections are seen by many as much more than a formality since leadership succession details area far from clear at this stage. PM Lee has previously stated that he will step down when he turns 70 in 2022.



30 October 2018

China: Xi Jinping demands war preparedness of Southern Theatre Command following first joint China-ASEAN maritime exercises

(dql/jk) During his visit to the Southern Theatre Command which is in charge for the South China Sea and Taiwan, President Xi Jinping in a speech urged the Command to “strengthen its mission … and to concentrate all energies to advance the work on preparing for war.” The Command “must take all complex situations into consideration and perfectionalize all contingency plans”. [Xinhua, in Chinese][South China Morning Post]

Xi‘s speech came shortly after China and ASEAN states held their first joint maritime exercises last week in an effort to ease regional tensions linked to rival claims in the South China Sea. While Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar sent observers, Singapore – the co-organiser of the event-, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei deployed ships to participate in the exercises. 

Eight warships with 1,200 military personnel set sail from China’s southern Guangdong province. A focus of the ongoing drill is maritime safety, as well as search and rescue operations featuring the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). [ATimes]

In addition to the maritime drill off China, armed forces from the PLA, Malaysia and Thailand were also conducting a 10-day drill in areas off Port Dickson in Malaysia. The exercises are an extension of the annual joint exercises between China and Malaysia that began in 2014. [The Nation]

23 October 2018

Singapore pursuing free trade with E.U. and U.K.

(ls) The European Union and Singapore last Friday signed the E.U.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, expected to come into force next year, which will boost services, improve market access, and see tariffs between both parties eliminated in five years. In 2017, bilateral trade grew to US$98.4 billion, making up slightly more than 10 per cent of Singapore’s total trade. Singapore is the EU’s largest trading partner in the ASEAN region. [South China Morning Post]

In addition, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his country is ready to strike a trade deal with the U.K., which would come into effect at the end of any Brexit transition period. Britain remains in the EU-Singapore deal for the time being, but it seems likely that come March, when it leaves the E.U., it will have to begin its own negotiations. Such new U.K.-Singapore agreement is likely to contain similar terms as the E.U.-Singapore agreement. [Politico]

4 September 2018

Malaysia cancels Chinese-backed projects, turning again to Singapore

(ls) In Malaysia, it appears that the golden era for Chinese investments, which peaked under former prime minister Najib Razak, seems to be coming to an end. Since Prime Minister Mohamad Mahatir’s five-day official visit to China last month, the 93-year-old Malaysian leader has caused anxiety to Chinese investors by several announcements.

First, Mahathir appears to be firm on permanently cancelling two major deals with China, the US$20 billion East Coast Rail Link and two natural gas pipelines worth US$2.3 billion, even though he continued to suggest they may be deferred. The rail link and pipeline project were both awarded without tender to Chinese companies in November 2016 after direct negotiations between Beijing and Najib’s government. [South China Morning Post 1]

Moreover, the fate of the giant Forest City project, a $100 billion Malaysian township, has been thrown into doubt after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad refused to let foreigners buy apartments or live in them long-term. In Malaysian political discourse, Forest City is frequently referred to as a gigantic Chinatown of 700,000 residents. Observers hold that targeting the developer may be part of Mahathir’s broader plan to redefine Malaysia’s relationship with Beijing. More pragmatically, however, the move might just be an attempt to increase Malaysia’s bargaining power in the negotiation for compensation for the cancelled projects mentioned above.  [The Economic Times] [The Straits Times 1]

At the same time, Malaysia and Singapore are likely to reach a decision soon on both the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) and the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS). In May, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said his newly elected government wanted to scrap the 350km rail line between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, originally planned to be completed in 2026. But negotiations appear to have advanced into a more favorable direction. [The Straits Times 2]

However, another sensitive topic between Malaysia and Singapore remains the price the city state pays for fresh water under a 1962 agreement. The agreement stipulates that Singapore can draw up to 250 million gallons of water from the Johor River in Malaysia, close to 60 per cent of its needs, at a fixed price. Malaysia in turn is allowed to buy back treated water at a subsidized rate. The current Mahatir government wishes the prices to be reviewed while Singapore insists on them being fixed by the legally binding agreement. [South China Morning Post 2]

21 August 2018

“Crazy Rich Asians”: Why it gets Singapore wrong

(ls) Crazy Rich Asians, the film adaptation of Singaporean author Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel released this week in cinemas in the United States. It is lauded as a progressive film that addresses the role of Asians in America, and it received an impressively high rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, Kirsten Han writes that the film’s depiction of Singapore is startlingly flawed. For instance, she criticizes that the all-East Asian cast is a misrepresentation of Singapore at the most basic level, obscuring Malay, Indian, Eurasian, and more populations who make the country culturally rich, and that the film perpetuates the existing Chinese dominance in mainstream media and pop culture. Moreover, she argues that promoting an image of Singapore as a megarich hub of excess papers over the urgent struggles that people face on the ground. [Vox]

14 August 2018

Singapore: Opposition announces plans to join forces

(jk) Seven opposition parties announced plans in late July to form a new coalition with a respected former parliamentarian and former presidential candidate as its leader. The opposition is looking across the causeway and with the fall of Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, they have garnered renewed energy to take on the People’s Action Party (PAP), which is now the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia.

To be sure, their way to win the elections that will be held by January 2021 is beyond far. Not a single one of the seven parties have won a parliamentary seat in the past decade. The Workers’ Party (WP), the only opposition party with a presence in Parliament, and the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), another relatively successful opposition party, are not part of the proposed alliance. What to some observers looks like a fresh effort to tackle PAP primacy, looks to others more like a last-ditch effort to keep fighting a very nearly lost cause. [Today Online]

24 July 2018

Singapore: Cyber-Attacks to be investigated with motives remaining unclear

(jk) In Singapore, a huge cyber-attack resulted in the infiltration of the databases of SingHealth, a group of healthcare institutions. Personal data of 1.5 million, including the outpatient prescriptions of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and a few other ministers, were stolen.

The cyber-attack happened at the end of June, was officially confirmed two weeks ago and was labelled a deliberate, well-planned and targeted cyber-attack. So far, authorities believe that this was not the work of average hackers, but rather a potentially government-backed cyber-attack. It is not clear however what exactly the motives were behind the attacks and a committee will be established to investigate. So far, speculations evolve around the idea that the health data was collected for blackmail at a later stage [Today Online]. According to the government, Singapore deals with thousands of cyber-attacks every single day [South China Morning Post].

3 June 2018

Malaysia scraps Singapore rail link project. More to come?

(jk) The new Malaysian PM has announced that under his government, the previously planned highs-speed rail link that was supposed to link Malaysia and Singapore will not go ahead as planned. Mahathir told reporters last week that the project is not beneficial to Malaysia and has a too heavy price tag.

The move could signal a shift in Malaysia’s position towards other big infrastructure projects as well, in particular towards the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, of which former PM Najib was a great proponent. China’s state-run tabloid, the Global Times has already reacted to the announcement by issuing a warning that Malaysia would be the one who had to pay the price if they were not to honour contracts. [Global Times]

PM Mahathir in the meantime has signalled that he wants to renegotiate some deals made with Chine before he was elected. [The Straits Times 1] It is difficult to foresee at this stage how far these renegotiations may go. It is possible that we will see cosmetic changes with most of the current projects remaining more or less untouched.

Huge Chinese investments were made into Malaysia amidst the 1MDB crisis which eventually toppled former PM Najib. 1MBD was created in order to promote economic development, but its debt skyrocketed in 2014 before it was rescued by a Chinese SOE of the energy sector. Shortly after, Malaysia increased approval of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure projects which are now viewed with mounting suspicion. A number of projects has been given to Chinese firms without even considering other international offers, such as the East Coast Rail link, associated with huge construction cost. The new PM is not done looking into infrastructure projects. In the meantime, the noose around the neck of Najib is tightening with Malaysia and Singapore operating together to investigate the scandal. In addition, at least 6 nations are investigating in the matter, including the United States and Switzerland. [The Straits Times 2]

27 May 2018

India-Indonesia relations before Modi’s visit

(ls) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will begin a five-day visit on Tuesday, 29 May, to Indonesia and Singapore, two of India’s strategically key partners in the region, with an aim to deepen defence ties, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. India and Indonesia are likely to sign a pact on defence cooperation as a similar agreement inked years ago had expired. In Singapore, Modi will hold bilateral talks with his Singaporean counterpart and deliver the key note address at the Shangri-la dialogue. The US, Australia and several other leading powers favor a greater role by India in the Indo-Pacific region. [The Economic Times]

According to an analysis by Harsh V. Pant, the rapidly evolving regional strategic realities are forcing India and Indonesia to coordinate their policies ever more closely and after years of neglect. Jakarta has been recognizing the role that New Delhi can play in structuring a favourable balance of power in the region. Joint naval exercises and patrols, and regular port calls by their respective navies, have become a regular feature of the India-Indonesia relationship in recent years. India has also become a major source of military hardware for Jakarta. [Observer Research Foundation]

20 May 2018

Singapore: New anti-terror law takes effect

(ls) A new law that gives the police special powers during terrorist attacks, including widely banning journalists and members of the public from reporting on the scene, took effect in Singapore on Wednesday. The law gives the police the power to block all communications on-site, ranging from photographs to videos, text and audio messages, for up to a month if authorities feel security operations could be compromised. Singapore would be the host of a possible meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Yong Un. [South China Morning Post]

29 April 2018

Singapore: Prime minister succession still undecided

(ls) A cabinet reshuffle by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong kept three ministers viewed as top contenders for succession into the office of prime minister in the race. Chan Chun Sing was moved from his role as chief of the government-linked trade union congress to be the new minister of trade and industry. Heng Swee Keat, the current finance minister, was given additional charge over the National Research Foundation. And Ong Ye Kung was given full control over the education ministry, which was previously led by two ministers. However, Lee retained his current deputies Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Teo Chee Hean, thus keeping the race for succession open. Lee’s move departs from a long-standing practice in the People’s Action Party (PAP) for new leaders to be named early and to have a long lead time before they come into power. [South China Morning Post]

All three of the touted successors are ethnically Chinese men who went to the same high school (Raffles) and studied in British universities under government scholarships which contractually binds high-performing students to return to Singapore to work in the government. Prime Minister Lee has previously said he does not think any of his four children will enter politics. The protracted process has already caused a rare disagreement between the current and former prime ministers, and raised questions about whether there is enough time to groom a capable successor. [Reuters]

15 April 2018

Boao Forum for Asia: Asia to lead world growth

(hg) Asia has maintained stable growth and is expected to lead the world in economic development amid moderate recovery of major economies, said the “Asian Competitiveness Annual Report 2018,” a Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) report, released last week. [Xinhua]
Founded in 2001, the Boao Forum for Asia is a non-profit NGO that is modelled on the World Economic Forum in Davos. It hosts high-level forums for leaders from government, business and academia in Asia and beyond to share their vision on the most pressing issues in Asia and the world at large. Located in Bo’ao, Hainan, its Secretariat is based in Beijing which had also been instrumental to its foundation. [Boao Forum]

The 17th annual Boao Forum for Asia just concluded having elected former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as its new chairman. [Ban Ki Moon Foundation]

This year´s forum was significant as  a window onto Chinese President Xi Jinping’s economic plans for the next five years which would normally have been announced in more detail earlier in the year at the Communist Party’s forum which has this year been occupied though by the major constitutional reform Xi had initiated. [Forbes]

Noteworthy among the speeches at this year´s BFA was also Singapore´s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speech in which the Singaporean leader also referred to to current US trade policy: “A trade war between China and the US is still far from inevitable. But if one does happen, it will undermine the multilateral trading system which has underpinned global prosperity. Countries big and small will be affected.” His full speech can be found at the [The Straits Times]

15 April 2018

Trans-Pacific Partnership: No renegotiations if US wants to join CPTPP

 (hg) Members of the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – formed by Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam – have jointly opposed any re-negotiations to accommodate the US should the country decide to participate in the trade deal. This notwithstanding several ministers including those representing Japan and Australia, welcomed President Donald Trump directing officials to explore the possibility of returning to the CPTPP. Japan´s Finance Minister said he expected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Trump to discuss the trade deal at their summit meeting next week. Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s minister in charge of TPP, said it would be difficult however to change the deal, calling it a “balanced one, like fine glassware”. Similar, Australia Trade Minister stated: “We welcome the US coming back to the table, but I don’t see any wholesale appetite for any material renegotiation of the TPP-11.” [New Straits Times]

15 April 2018

Britain sends second and third warship to Asia Pacific to monitor North Korea

((hg) The UK has deployed a third navy warship to the Asia-Pacific, HMS Albion, that will join HMS Sutherland to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea, as well as take part in joint training and exercises with regional allies, namely Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. Later in the year, HMS Argyll will also be deployed to take part in an exercise with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. Overall, the British naval deployment “demonstrates our unwavering commitment to our international responsibilities and to maintaining peace, security and prosperity in the region” said the British Ministry of Defense. [Independent]

15 April 2018

Singapore: On a tiny city-state´s remarkable military force

(hg) Singapore stands out, not only economically but also militarily as Ben Brimelow thoroughly analyses.

With a population of only 5 million, Singapore is the world´s 4th richest country in terms of GDP enabling a defense budget usually hovering around three to four % of its GDP, though it has gone as high as 5% in the past. This year’s military budget, $14.76 billion, makes up 18% of the city state´s annual budget.

The concept of a strong military has been ingrained in Singapore since it gained independence from Malaysia in 1965 and incraesingyl realized since then

While the army is small in absolute numbers, with only 72,000 active personnel, it is highly trained and equipped with some of the best material available. With a high-level determination, professionalization and technical integration, Singapore commands one the world´s most stunning military forces with the best air force and navy in Southeast Asia. [Business Insider]

8 April 2018

Singapore: Police warns against using Singapore as a platform for foreign politics

(thn) Due to Malaysia’s upcoming general election the Singaporean police issued a warning against the importing of politics from other countries into Singapore. The reason were calls encouraging Malaysians living in Singapore to support political activities in the lead-up to the general election. This included the call by a coalition of Malaysian NGOs seeking to reform the country’s electoral system. The police said in a statement that foreigners, who live or work in Singapore or visit the country should not use Singapore as a platform for any political activities. Non-Singaporeans will not be granted permits for any political assemblies. [The Straits Times]

8 April 2018

International Court of Justice to hear Malaysia-Singapore island case

(ls) The International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced that it will hear arguments “concerning the revision of the judgment of 23 May 2008 in the case concerning sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh” between Malaysia and Singapore, starting on 11 June. Malaysia lodged its case in February 2017, calling for the court to overturn its 2008 ruling granting Singapore sovereignty over the rocky islet. The Malaysian government said that new documents had been discovered in British archives backing its territorial claim. The island is in a strategically important position, 14 kilometres off Johor on the eastern approach to the Singapore Strait from the South China Sea. [South China Morning Post]

1 April 2018

Anti-fake news legislation: Rushed drafting in Malaysia – comprehensive deliberation in Singapore

(ls) Malaysia’s government on Monday proposed new legislation to outlaw fake news with a maximum 10-year jail term for offenders. The bill defines fake news as “any news, information, data and reports which is, or are, wholly or partly false whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” It covers all mediums and extends to foreigners outside Malaysia as long as Malaysia or its citizens are affected. [South China Morning Post]

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) criticized the bill, saying it can be used to exert government control over the media. Suhakam chairman Tan Sri Razali Ismail said the definition of fake news in the bill was unclear as it did not offer a distinction between news generated by malicious intent or otherwise. Moreover, Razali criticized that the bill is being rushed through parliament before the upcoming elections. [The Straits Times 1]

Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, James Gomez, said “the bill combines the worst of the cheap propaganda coming from the West and the repressive laws and policies in the East. With both Singapore and the Philippines considering their own ‘fake news’ legislation, we call on all countries in the region to refrain from following this dangerous trend.” [Business Insider]

In Singapore, extensive public hearings have taken place over a similar piece of legislation on deliberate online falsehoods. In a comprehensive article, containing also videos from the hearing, the Straits Times reports the major points of contention. A must-read (and watch) for everybody interested in anti-fake news legislation! [The Straits Times 2]

1 April 2018

Singapore revokes all work permits of North Koreans

(ls) Singapore has revoked all work permits held by North Korean citizens in the country, according to its latest implementation report to the United Nations Security Council. The Republic will also not grant new work permits to North Koreans. The measures are part of the implementation of Resolution 2397 of the UN Security Council which was adopted in response to North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile on 28 November that year. [The Straits Times]

25 March 2018

Singapore’s fake news and media blackout legislation, Cambridge Analytica in Malaysia?

(jk) A parliamentary committee in Singapore has questioned tech firm representatives on the feasibility of legislations against fake news and micro-influencing amid growing concerns over national security. Unsurprisingly, the companies do not recommend harsh legislation as especially Singapore already has a number of laws on hate-speech and defamation. Singapore, at the same time, does not rank highly in international press-freedom rankings as it is and tough laws could worsen the situation. The tech firms advocate more support for vigorous and independent journalism as counter-measure against fake new [SCMP 1].

Increasing concerns of an over-reaching state and curtailed press-freedom was a controversial law that has been passed overwhelmingly by the parliament in Singapore this week. The “media blackout law” allows the government to block electronic communication and any kind of video or live recording in the case of a “serious incident”. Critics have pointed out that a “serious incident” is only very vaguely defined in the law [SCMP 2].

In Malaysia, speculation is rife since footage has emerged showing Cambridge Analytica (CA) executives naming Malaysia as an example for successfully influencing elections in 2003. PM Najib has rejected the allegations. CA is currently under investigation for having used illegal means to influence elections in a number of countries [SCMP 3].

18 February 2018

The Singapore – Sri Lanka FTA revisited

(hg) The January concluded FTA between Sri Lanka and Singapore underlines the latter´s search for trade and investment partners beyond South East and East Asia, and the recognition of Sri Lanka’s potential as a trading hub in the fast-growing Indian Ocean region. This FTA signed by Sri Lanka since 2005 among only a handful it has concluded altogether is also the most comprehensive covering goods, services, investments, trade facilitation, intellectual property rights and government procurement. Given that Singapore is one of the world’s most open economies with 99 per cent of all imported goods entering duty-free market access to Singapore was no problem for Sri Lanka even before the agreement which will now eliminate tariffs on 80 per cent of goods over 15 years, a relatively long adjustment period. Besides, Singapore, who will be the 2018 ASEAN chair, should support Sri Lanka’s eventual participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which promises to be the world’s largest free trade agreement: the 16 participating countries represent 31 per cent of global GDP, and among their numbers are the 10 ASEAN nations, China, India and Japan. See for a thorough analysis of the context and consequences of the FTA Ganeshan Wignaraja and Divya Hundlani. [East Asia Forum] 

18 February 2018

Security in Southeast Asia: Increased cooperation since Marawi

(ls) After years of lukewarm security cooperation between Southeast countries, last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by Islamic State-aligned militants proved to be a game-changer, argues Michael Hart in the Asian Correspondent. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of coordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. In mid-November last year, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established, and last month, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand signed up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the “Our Eyes” initiative. [Asian Correspondent]

18 February 2018

Asia: Enhancing military defense capabilities

(hg) Heightened geopolitical threats for peace in Asia have been identified as offering significantly growing opportunities by Lockheed Martin according to its executive vice president. [CNBC]

The Pentagon has just released the National Defense Strategy and a Nuclear Posture Review, the Defense Department is preparing now to issue another key document, another Ballistic Missile Defense Review, the first one after 2010. According to an unnamed defense official the document “will take a much harder look at Iran, North Korea and China”, adding: “Each of those countries has made huge strides both in range and lethality since [the 2010] assessment, and the Pentagon’s thinking about the threat, and planning for it, […]”. [Asia Times 1]

While defense spending has actually slowed down in 2017 for Asia as a whole, IHS Jane’s

expects the region to be “the driving force behind long term growth in global defense spending” in its recent assessment. [CNBC]

Global defense spending in 2018 is expected to reach the highest levels recorded since the end of the Cold War according to the annual Jane’s Defence Budgets Report. [The National Interest]

Japan has just approved the countries ever largest annual defense budget in December last year and China and India will also spend significantly [CNBC] while Russian defense spending continued to decrease in 2017, and is now 10 percent lower than in 2015. [The National Interest]

All in all, requests for advanced military systems are clearly on the rise across the entire greater region covered by AiR, made up by South, Southeast and East Asia. [Asia Times 2]

Between 2007 and 2016, according to SIPRI defense data, China had the biggest increase in military spending of 118%, followed by Russia with 87%, and India with 54%. Germany, ranking sixth had an increase of 6.8% followed by France with an increase of 2.2%. In 2015, the US spent about 36% of the total global military spending that year. In 2016, the USA spent 611 billion USD followed by China with 215 followed by Russia with 69.2, Saudi Arabia with 63.7, India with 55.9, France with 55.7, the UK with 48.3, Japan with 46.1, Germany with 41.1, South Korea is 36.8, Italy with 27.9 and Australia with 24.6 billion USD. [The Times of India]

Notably, India´s defense budget broke into the world’s top five now, replacing the UK for the first time and signaling a shift in the military balance between the two countries with India allocating more capabilities to develop its regional ambitions than the UK with the remnants of its global ambitions. [India Post] India´s rival China, however, affords the world’s second-largest defense budget after the US and remains far ahead with three times India’s defense budget. China’s real defense spending increased by nearly 25 per cent in 2016-17, whereas India’s rose by just 2.4 per cent. Since 2000, China has built more submarines, destroyers, frigates and corvettes than Japan, South Korea and India combined. Saudi Arabia, with a defense spending of USD 76.7 billion, came in third to complete the world’s top five behind the US, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and India last year. [India Post]

In 2016, European Union countries transferred US$2.1 billion worth of weapons to Indo-Pacific nations, nearly the same as the United States ($2.3 billion). Russia was the macro-region’s largest supplier with $3.4 billion worth of arms, while China ranked fourth with $1.2 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. [Asia Times 1]

Meanwhile US Pacific Command Commander Admiral Harry B Harris announced for the U.S. – Indian relations that “[d]efence sales are at an all-time high”. [The New Indian Express]

Singapore’s defense minister just reaffirmed this assessment in his recent Total Defense Day message commemorating the fall of Singapore in 1942 that independence would depend on strong military defense capabilities. [Channel News Asia]

In Bangladesh, military modernization is a long-term objective. Regarding the Air Force  Raihan Al-Beruni points to the need to develop an area denial strategy that he argues is lacking and urges the fast development of a reflected strategy assuming that the Chinese-made J-31 and the Russian Su-57 will dominate the Asian market in the near future. [Dhaka Tribune] 

11 February 2018

Singapore’s mystifying political succession

(ls) Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said he would step down by the age of 70, which is now four years away. Three fourth-generation (“4G”) leaders are said to be on the shortlist to take over: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 56, and two 48-year-olds, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung. In the New Mandala, Cherian George writes that the uncertainty is testing people’s faith in a political brand associated with surprise-free long-term planning. In his article, he analyzes in particular how the People’s Action Party has sidelined Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. [New Mandala]

11 February 2018

Counter-Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Philippines and Singapore

(ls/ek) The Philippines have vowed to crush the ‘weakened’ Abu Sayyaf terror group in the south of the country. Military operations will continue against the Islamic State-inspired militants, officials said Monday, claiming the enemy’s strength has been weakened with over 350 members killed since last year. In May 2017, Abu Sayyaf and other Islamist groups attacked Marawi City in a bid to establish an Islamic province there. The five-month war displaced more than 350,000 civilians and killed some 1,100 individuals. [Asian Correspondent 1]

In a 10-5 decision, the Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday approved a one-year extension of President Rodrigo Duterte’s martial law decree covering Mindanao, home to a population of 20 million people. Opponents argued that extended martial law violated a constitutional provision limiting the initial period to 60 days. However, the Supreme Court said the constitution was “silent” on how many times Congress may extend martial law. Martial law is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, after dictator Ferdinand Marcos used military rule to hold on to power a generation ago. [The Straits Times 1]

Meanwhile, the largest Moro rebel group in Mindanao has called on legislators to approve a law creating an autonomous area, the new Bangsamoro region, to prevent violent further Islamic extremism. A senator from Mindanao who chairs the Senate subcommittee on the issue said they are hoping to approve the measure before Congress goes on break by the end of March. President Rodrigo Duterte urged the bill to be passed, which he said seeks to address the historical injustices committed against the Moro people. [Asian Correspondent 2]

Meanwhile, Singapore will boost its security spending to tackle terror threats in 2018. Terror and defense have always been important issues for Singapore’s government. In the last few years, Singapore spent a up to 30 percent of the state budget on defense. About 65,000 public cameras have been installed throughout the city state. The police also trained specialist teams, who would be the first to respond in the event of attacks. [The Straits Times 2]

4 February 2018

Appreciating Singapore’s Sri Lankan heritage

(hg) Another recovery of historic ties between an important ASEAN state and a South Asian power is displayed by a recent piece in the Straits Times highlighting the inspiration some Southeast Asian states received from Sri Lanka in the early days of their post-colonial emergence including Singapore. Among the Sri Lankans that came there in the early 1900s with many active in the fields of civil service, law, medicine, education, and engineering was also the late Mr S. Rajaratnam, who was Singapore’s first foreign minister, whereas Singapore’s present Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is also a descent from Sri Lankan immigrants of whom, most were however not from the dominating Sinhalese population but Tamils from Jaffna. [The Straits Times]

4 February 2018

Six ASEAN countries form “Our Eyes” intelligence network

(ls) Six Southeast Asian nations launched an intelligence pact on Thursday aimed at combating Islamist militants and improving cooperation on security threats, overcoming what analysts described as a high level of distrust. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei – all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – have signed up to the “Our Eyes” pact according to which senior defence officials will meet every two weeks to swap information on militant groups and develop a common database of violent extremists. [South China Morning Post]

26 January 2018

Indian – Southeast Asian/ASEAN links

(hg) On occasion of the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stressed the deep cultural links between India and SEA, referring to the Buddhist religion and the Hindu Ramayana epos. [The Hindu]

Notably, Indian Prime Minister Modi combined the Summit with inviting all ten ASEAN leaders as his ‘chief guests’ to the 68th Indian national day parade to even stronger foster the Indian – SEA ties vis-à-vis the expansion of Chinese influence in the region. [Financial Times]

Particularly noteworthy in this context is an article of Singapore´s Prime MinisterLee Hsien Loong in the Times of India on this occasion. Lee is resounding Indian External Affairs Minister Swaraj by noting the “more than 2,000 years” of bi-regional relations that he traces up to the present time that he describes as being marked by “major global trends […] reshaping the strategic outlook” that are “presenting both challenges and opportunities” and give a “new impetus to ASEAN’s cooperation with key partners like India”. Without mentioning China explicitly, his stress of the common interests in peace and security in the region and an “open, balanced and inclusive regional architecture”, which he expressively also relates to the sea lanes, the Singaporean Prime Minister has issued a significant statement at a time India at which Modi´s India presented itself on the global stage in Davos as well. [Business Times]

26 January 2018

Sri Lanka caught in great power politics

(hg) With Japan and India seeking to deepen their influence in Sri Lanka, the poor country which has become an integral part of the Chinese ‘maritime silk road’, seems to be caught between the need for foreign investment and the risk to be taken away by great power competition. [AiR 3/1/2018] [The Diplomat 1] [The Diplomat 2]

Adding to its recently expressed interest in infrastructure investment, Japan also plans to increase its naval security aid to Sri Lanka and Djibouti in support for the joint Japan-U.S. “free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy” which is not just countering the emergence of a Chinese sphere of influence abstractly but representing a new willingness to actively move very close to core areas of Chinese interest and investment. [The Japan News]

Besides, Sri Lanka’s increasing geopolitical importance has also been reflected currently by the visit of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to witness the signing of the Sri Lanka-Singapore free trade agreement. [Channel News Asia]

The agreement, which is the first modern and comprehensive FTA for the South Asian nation after an attempt to reach an agreement in 2004 failed. [Today Online]

Adding to the overall picture, also Indonesian President Widodo has just visited the island to discuss matters of bilateral investment cooperation. [Daily Mirror] 

29 December 2017

Singapore: Political succession

Singapore’s next general elections are not scheduled until January 2021. Notwithstanding, many observers make the point that current PM Lee Hsien Long is leaving it late to indicate who would be to follow in his footsteps. 2018 will likely be the year to clarify this with a major cabinet reshuffle coming up. The reshuffle will indicate who will be relevant in Singapore’s political future and a particular importance is given to the position of Deputy PM. Both the current PM and his predecessor have served as Deputy PM before they took over as PM.

22 December 2017

Singapore: Limited space for political rights and external funding for right defenders

A newly released Human Rights Watch report gives a detailed account on the limited space for the freedom of speech, media and assembly strictly confined by overly broad criminal laws, oppressive regulations, and the weaponization of civil lawsuits imposing serious damages on parties. The underlying strategy to “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” is directed against individuals who are critical of the government or the judiciary, or speak critically about issues regarded as being divisive such as religion and race. At the same, a government order issued in late 2016, prohibits foreign or multinational companies to support events at Speakers’ Corner without a police permit having led to the rejection of the applications of 10 multinational companies that applied to support the 2017 Pink Dot celebration of LGBT pride. The new report documents how various regulatory restrictions are used to limit discussion of political or “sensitive” issues in plays, films, and on the internet. The government frequently conditions licenses for public performances of politically themed plays on censorship of the script. It effectively prohibits all positive portrayals of LGBT lives on television, radio, or in film. In 2015, the government banned the showing of a promotional video for the annual LGBT Pink Dot celebration, even though the video simply featured a countdown and then the words “Pink Dot” and the date of the event [Human Rights Watch].

15 December 2017

Human Rights Watch Report

HRW has published a new report [Human Rights Watch: full report] on political freedoms and human rights in Singapore. The report, rather tellingly unveiled at its launch in Kuala Lumpur, criticises the city-state’s op-pressiveness and that it is afraid of allowing its citizens free speech and freedom of assembly. This, the report goes, does not match up with the country’s claim to be modern, democratic and business-friendly [Online Citizen].

8 December 2017

Governing the city-state, beyond Lee Kuan Yew

In an extract from his book “Singapore, Incom-plete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Ar-rested Political Development”, Cherian George traces back Lee Kuan Yew’s “exit management” after stepping down as Prime Minster of Singa-pore in 1991. George describes LKY’s continued involvement in Singaporean politics and the Peo-ple’s Action Party (PAP), and focuses on two particular policy innovations that proved costly for the PAP, and for which, according to George, the party is still paying a price: the elected presi-dency and the ministerial pay formula. The cen-tral question nowadays according to George is how much room to give to the ideas and legacy of Lee Kuan Yew in contemporary Singapore

1 December 2017

Restrictions on free speech exposed

Prosecutors in Singapore have charged an activist with holding unauthorized public assemblies, which human rights groups have criticized as an excessive restriction on free speech. The activist was accused of organizing three small gatherings over the past year. He did not receive a police permit for the gatherings, which is a violation of the city-state’s Public Order Act. Singapore has strict limits on speech and unauthorized public assembly, even for small and peaceful political gatherings [New York Times]. A civil society association that criticized the decision demanded that events that do not threaten the safety and well-being of any person, damage any property or cause disruption to ordinary affairs should not be made difficult to organize.

1 December 2017

Transregional cooperation: Vietnam-Australia, Singapore-India, and the “Asian NATO”

The Vietnam National Assembly backs the upgrade of the Vietnam-Australia relationship to a strategic partnership. Australia is among Vietnam’s largest providers of non-refundable official development assistance. The National Assembly’s Chairwoman also “noted with joy”  the effective collaboration in national defence-security and the fight against crimes and illegal migration [Vietnam News].

India and Singapore on Wednesday signed an agreement to deepen cooperation in maritime security and called for ensuring freedom of navigation in critical sea lanes in the backdrop of China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. The two sides also signed the revised Defence Cooperation Agreement to further strengthen the longstanding defence relationship between the Singapore Armed Forces and the Indian Armed Forces. Moreover, Singapore’s proposal to expand the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea to all ADMM (Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting)-Plus countries as well as to establish guidelines for air encounters between military aircraft was discussed too [Livemint].

Moreover, the US, Japan, Australia and India announced this month they had agreed to create a coalition that would patrol and exert influence on waterways from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific to the East and South China Seas. The grouping of the four countries – known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad – was first suggested by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007, but the idea was dropped after Beijing protested. It made a sudden comeback when senior officials from the four nations met in Manila on November 11 – on the sidelines of regional summits during US President Donald Trump’s maiden tour to East Asia [South China Morning Post].

17 November 2017

Cybersecurity on domestic and ASEAN agenda

The Singaporean government will finetune several provisions in the country’s upcoming cybersecurity bill in response to public feedback. According to the bill, the duties of critical information infrastructure (CII) providers in securing systems under their responsibility will be formalized. Breaches of these duties will result in fines of up to S$100,000 or imprisonment of up to two years, or both. A major point of criticism in feedback process was that CIIs were not clearly defined [ZDNet]. As Singapore will take over the ASEAN chair next year, the country wants to pursue the strengthening of cyber security also on the regional level [The Straits Times].

10 November 2017

Migrant worker’s plight

Singapore has in 2010 decided to open two casinos to attract tourism and create jobs and further investment opportunities. Since then, in addition to the tourists, more and more of the city’s relatively poor migrant workers feel drawn to the casinos, often gambling away much of what they earn [South China Morning Post]. In addition, migrant workers in Singapore as well as other ASEAN countries continue to suffer from inadequate protection with the nearly 7 million migrant workers across South East Asia regularly facing extortion, unacceptable housing and living conditions, the withholding of passports and an unfavourable remittance market [East Asia Forum].

28 October 2017

ASEAN Defense Ministers Meetings

The ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting- Plus have taken place in Manial this week. Whilst the agenda was expectedly broad, there was a clear focus on terrorism [The Diplomat]. Singapore, as next ASEAN chair, has vowed to keep the fight of violent extremism exemplified by the recent Marawi siege on top of the agenda [The Strait Times 1]. The terrorist threat is magnified by potentially radical fighters who return to their home countries from fighting in the Middle East as ISIS there is nearly defeated and keeps losing ground [The Strait Times 2]. The South China Sea was also on the agenda. There was agreement to keep working on a common Code of Conduct as well as a general openness by China, the US and Japan to commence naval exercises with ASEAN and to improve communications and work out a protocol for unplanned encounters at sea to reduce risk of conflict [Today Online and Bloomberg]. The full joint declaration can be found here [Singapore MINDEF].

28 October 2017

ASEAN countries: In between major powers

Further intensifying Vietnamese-Indian relations, the deputy foreign ministers of both countries met in Hanoi for strategic consultations on political and security issues. This meeting follows a number of high level visits and exchange in the recent past [Viet Nam News]. In the meantime, Singapore is hedging between the US and China. After a recent visit to China, Singapore’s PM is currently on a visit to Washington upon invitation by President Trump. Whilst business has unsurprisingly been the focal point of the trip, Singapore is trying to position itself neutral, cooperating with both China and the US [Asia Times]. Similarly, the Philippines – after hosting US Secretary of Defense for a routine visit at the sidelines of the ADMM [NPR] – are making headway in diversifying their defense co-operations. New deals have been inked with both Russia [PhilStar 1] and China [PhilStar2].

28 October 2017

Cambodia facing mixed reaction from the international community

Amid Cambodia’s democratic crisis, Singapore’s foreign minister has visited Phnom Penh this week seeking to improve bilateral (economic) ties [Khmer Times], while  some western countries reconsider their ties with Cambodia, such as Sweden [Channel News], Australia [ABC], or the US [Radio Free Asia].

13 October 2017

Race-based politics or meritocratic democracy?

The recent uncontested presidential poll in Singapore remains controversial as the ruling PAP seems to have determined the outcome. Ensuring the win of an ethnic minority Malay candidate was according to the government crucial in guaranteeing racial harmony in the city state. Critics view exactly this, however, as diametrically opposed to the meritocratic democracy they cherish and see a risk of a return of race-based politics.

29 September 2017

US grant asylum to Singaporean

US authorities have decided that a convicted Singaporean man is derserving of asylum in the US as his conviction serves a “nefarious purpose”.

29 September 2017

China and Southeast Asia ever closer: Different intensity and levels of cooperation – similar trend?

Cambodia: Amidst a global power struggle between two major powers in a multipolar world, Cambodia is hedging its bet but is leaning closer and closer to China. China is “backing up” Cambodian elites in power, invests heavily in the country and will further benefit from a “declining west” (Khmer Times). PRC investments are seen to meet the country’s needs more than other international banks and organisations and political realities in Cambodia today favour an embrace of China (ISEAS).

Malaysia: Malaysia-China ties have been deeping in recent years, they include arms-sales, investment, information-sharing and other diplomatic engagements. While some MPs in Malyasia are critical of this, the contrast between the treatment PM Najib experiences in China compared to his rather informal visit to the White House recently, is striking (Free Malaysia Today). Kuala Lumpur has also just deported 29 Uighurs who will now face prosecution in China (The Strait Times).

Singapore: As ties between Singapore and China seem to be warming up again and with the Singaporean PM’s visit to China last week, some analysts see the end or at least suspension of the military training arrangement between Singapore and Taiwan called “Starlight Project”. The decade old cooperation has long been bothering China but is important to Singapore which has only very limited airspace (SCMP 1). Other analysts point to remaining differences likely to dominate the PRC-SP relationship, in particular the South China Sea (SCMP 2).


22 September 2017

Lessons from the presidential election

Now that Singapore’s new president who was elected after changes to the election system is in office, what issues have emerged from the pro-cess? Elgin Toh examines three major topics: the reserved election, the walkover and its effect go-ing forward, and the lead time in making the leg-islative changes [The Straits Times]. And Bhavan Jaipragas argues that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s decision to reserve the election for a Malay candidate may threaten his following even among those who support the Lion City’s first woman president [South China Morning Post].

15 September 2017

Current ASEAN dynamics

Is ASEAN conspicuously absent at almost all currently decisive discursive fronts or is it still a factor and point of reference in Asian debates on regional order? One issue in this respect is a new outreach and interest of South Korea towards ASEAN amidst the tense situation on the Korean peninsula (The Diplomat). Pertaining to ASEAN integration, Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry argues in favor of a genuine interest to forge new paths to economic integration after Trump has killed the TPP while the Chairman of Malaysia’s ASEAN Business Advisory Council sees the growing Chinese influence in various ASEAN countries potentially changing the script for ASEAN’s further integration (Straits Times). Highlighting the case of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand he sees their links to economically active sub regions in China and its One Belt, One Road initiative as having the potential to divide the ASEAN integration agenda (The Edge Financial Daily).


15 September 2017

Terrorism: IS wants Muslim militants to avoid Syria and go to the Philippines/Returnees share horrible experiences about life under the IS and in Singapore there are increased worries about radicalization.

The Islamic State, after losing ground in Syria and Iraq, is switching its attention to the Philippines encouraging potential fighters to join the battle for Marawi, reinforcing serious worries that Asia is ISIS’s new focus (The Week). In Indonesia, returnees who spent some years living in Syria under the IS publicly shared some of their experiences and what caused them to return (Benar). In Singapore, officials lament that radicalization now happens faster than ever (Channel News).


15 September 2017

On the legal profession in Asia: Entrance barriers in India, professional strain in Singapore

Increasing demands on time and performance of young lawyers as well as stiffer competition lead many to leave the profession after a few years an issue raised by Singapore´s Chief Justice for the second consecutive year (Straits Times). Differently, in India, it is access to the legal profession which is one of the major problems for young lawyers. Here, the law field continues to be a bastion of a few privileged and powerful families in particular those whose members are in the legal profession since generations. Also, low payment for junior lawyers makes it more challenging for people with a less financially fortunate background (The Times of India).

11 August 2017

Next generation target in Singapore family feud

PM Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew has to face po-tential contempt of court proceedings initiated by the Attorney-General’s Chambers after he had posted an allegedly critical Facebook post last month. He stated that Singapore had a litigious and pliant court system and linked to a 2010 NYT op-ed regarding the use of lawsuits as a censorship tool.

11 August 2017

Halimah Yacob announces bid to be Singa-pore’s next President

Halimah Yacob, former Speaker of Parliament, has confirmed that she will run in the upcoming Presidential Elections in Singapore in September. The position is this time reserved for a Malay candidate.

11 August 2017

LKY School professor Huang Jing banned, has PR cancelled, for being agent of influence for foreign country

Dr Huang Jing, former Director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation and Lee Foundation Pro-fessor on US-China relations at the LKY School of Public Policy has been permanently banned from Singapore as allegations arose that he is an “agent of influence of a foreign country”. Dr Huang claims that he is not convoluting with any foreign government or intelligence agency.

27 July 2017

Singapore’s value to the United States lies in its location: US ambassador nominee KT McFarland

US Ambassador Nominee presents three reasons for the importance of Singapore to the US in her confirmation hearing statement.

21 July 2017

Singapore´s Foreign Policy: Vivian Balakrishnan outlines the core principles

Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has laid out five principles of Singapore’s foreign policy focusing around sovereignty, independence and advancing the city states own interest whilst cooperating with other countries.

7 July 2017

Singapore is firmly in the jihadist cross-hairs

Singapore faces internal and external threats from radicalised terrorists and is not excluded from the global trend of rising terrorist incidents. Singa-pore could face serious challenges if extremists of a particular religious group manage to penetrate Singaporean society for it would pose great risks of upsetting its racial and religious balance.

7 July 2017

U.N. survey finds cybersecurity gaps every-where except Singapore

The U.N. International Telecommunication Union (ITU) released a survey stating significant gaps between countries in their capacities and strategies to deal with cybercrime. Whilst some fifty percent of observed countries have yet to even adopted a relevant national security strategy, Singapore scored highest in terms of its readiness and capabilities to defend itself against cybercrime.

7 July 2017

Why Singapore will survive its latest political scandal

Chirag Agarwal, former Singaporean diplomat, writes that Singapore’s recent political turmoil will not bring down the PM or threaten political stability in the city-state, but rather blow over and be proof yet again for how swiftly and effectively Singaporeans deal with scandals that only distract from the real job of governing the country well.

22 June 2017

Lee Family Spat: Many Concerned about Fallout

People worry about Singapore’s reputation, but some say claims of abuse must be addressed.