Asia in Review Archive


Date of AiR edition

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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.