Asia in Review Archive 2021

Malaysia

Date of AiR edition

News summary

30 March 2021

Malaysia: Implemention of voting age reform delayed

(dql) The Malaysian Election Commission has decided to delay until September 2022 the implementation of ‘Undi 18’, which refers to the movement that led to the constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, passed by the parliament in Summer 2019. The Commission cited the Movement Control Order (MCO) for its decision, adding the need to “re-evaluate various constraints and issues that affect the planning and initial preparations of the EC.” The MCO is widely referred to as ‘lockdown’ order, promulgated by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and providing restrictions on movements and gatherings. [The Malaysian Reserve]

In response, some 100 young protesters from various youth groups marched towards the Parliament to protest the Election Commission’s decision, arguing that it would bar them from a possible snap election in this year. An NGO, meanwhile, announced to sue the government over its “failure” to gazette the 2019 constitutional amendment and to bring Undi 18 into effect. [Malay Mail] [Free Malaysia Today]

30 March 2021

Malaysia: UMNO top recipient of 1MDB proceeds among 26 political parties

(dql) Malaysia’s prosecution has revealed that – among 26 political parties which received proceeds from the 700 million USD 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal – the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) received the highest amount of more than 120 million USD, with the total amount for all parties at over 131 million USD. [Malay Mail]

30 March 2021

Malaysia: UMNO quits support for National Alliance coalition, demands PAS to do the same

(dql) At its annual general meeting, held past weekend, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) adopted a resolution to cut ties with Perikatan Nasional (PN), the ruling National Alliance coalition led by the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) which UMNO has been nominally supporting. Referring to demands of factions within the UMNO for snap elections prior to the end of the Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s January Covid-19 Emergency Decree in August, the party’s president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi sent a warning towards PN calling the resolution a mandate bestowed on him “to withdraw at any time if they (PN) do not indicate willingness to call for elections soon.” [Malay Mail 1] [Malay Mail 2]

Zahid, furthermore, called on Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) – second largest party in the PN – to withdraw its support for the PN, accusing the Islamist party of violating the UMNO/PAS Muafakat Nasional (MN) agreement by joining the PN when it was formed in February 2020. Both parties concluded the MN in 2019 to build a coalition against the then ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. [The Straits Time 1]

In response, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang called for cooperation between all three parties anf offered to continue to be the peacemaker in the row between UMNO and Bersatu. [The Straits Times 2]

 

30 March 2021

Malaysia pays Singapore compensation for terminated rail network project

(dql) Malaysia has compensated Singapore nearly 103 million SGD for costs incurred by the termination of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project.

In 2016, the two countries signed the HSR agreement. At Kuala Lumpur’s request, construction of the rail network was later suspended from September 2018 to 31 December last year. With both sides failing to agree on changes to the project, the agreement lapsed on 31 December, with Singapore’s Minister of Transport announcing the agreement’s termination the next day. [Yahoo News]

23 March 2021

North Korea severs diplomatic ties with Malaysia over extradition of national to US 

(nm) North Korea severed diplomatic ties with Malaysia last week after Malaysia’s highest court agreed to extradite a North Korean national to the United States, the first extradition of a North Korean to the US facing criminal trial. The extradition is seen as part of Washington’s bid to curb activities by North Korean businessmen and diplomats in conflict with UN sanctions that seek to restrain North Korea’s access to foreign currency which has been used to finance the country’s nuclear programme.   

Mun Chol-myong, who was arrested in Malaysia in 2019 after moving there in 2008, is accused of money laundering through front companies and violating international sanctions by helping ship prohibited luxury items from Singapore to Pyongyang, in violation of UN sanctions. Mun had rejected the accusations in his affidavit and claimed the extradition was “politically motivated” as his case got caught in diplomatic rivalry between Pyongyang and Washington. The court rejected his argumentation. 

Following the court’s decision, North Korea warned the US will “pay a due price” and denounced the country as the “backstage manipulator and main culprit of this incident.” Pyongyang further called its relations with Washington “the most hostile one on this planet,” adding the two countries have been practically at war for over 70 years. 

North Korea and Malaysia have since both expelled the respective ambassadors from their capitals. 

The fall out came just a day after North Korea had stated it would not respond to efforts by the new US administration to establish a channel of communication in order to negotiate the denuclearization of the North Korean peninsula. Washington and Pyongyang have been caught in deadlock ever since negotiations ended abruptly in 2019. 

Malaysian and North Korean relations have similarly suffered setbacks in recent years after Kim’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017 using the internationally banned VX nerve agent. Although Malaysian officials have never officially accused Pyongyang of involvement, prosecutors made clear that they suspected a connection throughout the trial. North Korea has denied any involvement. [The Diplomat] [The New York Times, $] [Yonhap]

The New York Times also recently uncovered how one ship circumvents international sanctions and continues to illicitly import oil to North Korea. You can read the major takeaways of the investigation [here]. 

23 March 2021

Myanmar: Rising death toll and more international efforts to pressure the military

(nd) Lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) have urged the largest foreign-owned oil and gas companies to suspend business ties with the military regime, saying the money earned will be used to reinforce human rights violations. Per month, Myanmar receives earnings of about US$75 million to US$90 million from oil and gas sales, paid through state-owned company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). In an effort to cut the junta off these supplies, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the Burmese government in exile representing the NLD, sent a notice to France’s Total SE, Malaysia’s Petronas, Thailand’s PTT and South Korea’s POSCO, criticizing them for their failure to condemn the coup, and urging them to suspend their tax payments. [Irrawaddy 1]

Also, CRPH is negotiating with Karen National Union (KNU), Restoration Council of Shan State and Kachin Independent Army (KIA) to form a federal army to protect the protesters. They have cleared all ethnic armed groups from the terror list. In light of the growing violence, so far peaceful protesters started to use self-constructed weapons, such as molotov cocktails, and built barricades from tires, bricks or bamboo. [FAZ in German]

Meanwhile, the efforts of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) spreads virally, with a “social punishment” campaign against the families of senior members of the regime. On social media, protesters identified names, addresses and other personal information on relatives of the military generals, and urged people to shun and shame the individuals, and to boycott their businesses. [Frontier Myanmar 1

Four employees of a private bank were detained for allegedly inciting people to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM). [Irrawaddy 2] Due to the ongoing strikes, companies struggle to pay salaries amid closed banks. [Nikkei Asia 1] With an ongoing strike, the military has fired officials from the Foreign Ministry and has pressured banks to reopen in an effort to avoid an economic collapse. [Frontier Myanmar 2]

With the junta using more excessive force, the death toll rose to over 250 and reports of at least 5 cases of torture in detention have surfaced. Internet shutdowns let information spread slowly. Protesters erected barricades in the streets, which were set on fire making Yangon look like a battle zone. [Asia Times 1] In an effort to intimidate citizens, security forces randomly opened fire in residential areas and at individual residences. Shortages of food and drinking water continued, hinting at a looming humanitarian crisis. Adding to internet blackouts, phone services were cut off in some areas. Protesters reported they refrain from forming groups, which are randomly attacked and shot at by the police.

The military continued to target journalists and closed down the last independent newspaper, The Standard Time Daily, following 7Day News, The Voice, Eleven Myanmar, and the Myanmar Times. Private media outlets have been operating in the country since 2013, after the lifting of the ban on independent media since 1962.  [Radio Free Asia 1] Police also continued to raid homes in search of protesters; over 2,000 people have been arrested. [Radio Free Asia 2] To mark the one-month anniversary of the protests, activists organized a car convoy, others lit candles, joined by Buddhist monks. Reportedly, members of the security forces were attacked and died, as well as two policemen during protests. After security forces have occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses in 13 states and regions, Unicef, Unesco, and private humanitarian group Save the Children, issued a statement condemning the occupation of education facilities as a serious violation of children’s rights. [South China Morning Post 1]

Following the attack on Chinese businesses on Sunday, an unsigned editorial, published on the website of state-run CGTN network, suggested that China might be “forced into taking more drastic action” in Myanmar if its interests are not more firmly safeguarded. The editorial added, “China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression. If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests.” China is deeply involved in Myanmar’s economy and shares a 2,200-kilometer border, which is of interest for Chinese infrastructure projects giving it a corridor to the Indian Ocean. [The Diplomat 1] Inter alia, China is extracting minerals in Myanmar, whose shipments have delayed significantly, making a global price rise likely. China controls 80% of the world’s rare earth mineral supplies. [Asia Times 2]

According to experts, the systematic crackdown on the Rohingyas executed by the military since 2017 is just postponed and likely to restart, possibly turning protests into a “prolonged crisis”. Recently hired Canadian-Israeli lobbyist for the junta, Ari Ben-Menashe, said the military want to repatriate Rohingyas. [Voice of America]

Sam Rainsy, exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Indonesian lawmaker Fadli Zon, Philippine Senator Kiko Pangilinan, former Singapore Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya signed a statement urging all ASEAN nations to unite in sanctions against Myanmar and to end impunity. The politicians criticized the “impotence” of ASEAN amid the human rights abuses, and suggested to suspend Myanmar’s membership in the regional bloc. [Benar News]

In some of the strongest comments yet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged the violence to stop immediately and to press current chairman of ASEAN, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, to call an urgent meeting. [Reuters] Following Indonesia and Malaysia’s joint push for an urgent high-level meeting of ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will visit Brunei, before going to Malaysia and Indonesia. [Channel News Asia]

The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 11 individuals linked to the coup in Myanmar. The EU already had an arms embargo on Myanmar, and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018. Stronger measures are expected in a move to target the businesses run by the military, mainly through two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp. [Nikkei Asia 2]

According to Thai media, the Royal Thai Army had supplied 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar army units on Myanmar’s eastern border allegedly on the orders of the Thai government. The commander of the task force denied it and said it was regular trade. Residents told a Reuters reporter the crossing was not a normal trade route. The allegedly supplied army units were cut off by forces of the Karen National Union (KNU), who have pledged allegiance to the protest movement. [Bangkok Post]

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with violating an anti-corruption law, with a possible prison sentence of 15 years, adding to four previous charges with other offences. [South China Morning Post 2]

The influential, Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana), a government-appointed body of Buddhist abbots, urged the military to end violence against protesters. It was submitted to the Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture. The statement mentioned the CDM, which would greatly benefit from support by Mahana. As a rather conservative organization, the clear cut with the military is significant, according to analysts. It might unleash monastic opposition, which has historic precedents. [The Diplomat 2]

Ousted lawmakers of NLD are exploring if the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate crimes against humanity committed by the military since the coup. Following the toughening crackdown, hundred have fled Myanmar to bordering Thailand, which has prepared for a big influx of refugees, as well as to India. [South China Morning Post 3]

23 March 2021

Malaysia: Prime Minister to announce new stimulus

(nd) Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced an economic stimulus package valued RM20 billion (US$4.8 billion) to mitigate Covid-19 repercussions. It is the sixth such package since the start of the pandemic. The 20 strategic initiatives aim to boost economic growth, support business and extend targeted assistance. As of Wednesday, Malaysia reported a total of 327,253 Covid-19 cases and 1,220 deaths. More than 300,000 Malaysians have been inoculated so far. [Channel News Asia]

23 March 2021

Malaysia: Palm oil plantation withdraws lawsuit

(nd) Sime Darby Plantation has announced it had withdrawn a lawsuit against the head of anti-trafficking NGO Liberty Shared, after Malaysia’s Securities Commission stopped investigations in the world’s largest sustainable palm oil producer. The lawsuit aimed to obtain information about a complaint to the Securities Commission by Liberty Shared into the company’s sustainability disclosures.

Palm oil is used in a large number of commodity products, but has faced global scrutiny for its environmental repercussions and labor rights abuses. December last year, the US banned palm oil imports from Sime Darby over allegations of forced labor. [Reuters]

 

23 March 2021

Malaysia: Muhyiddin to focus on providing stability

(nd) While expressing his understanding that people are fed up with constant politicking in the country, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin pledged to concentrate on providing political stability and ensure the smooth government operation amid the pandemic. He added, “when the time is right, we will return the mandate to the people”. He said Perikatan Nasional government was formed out of an unfortunate political crisis, therefore his role was to create a conducive environment to facilitate cooperation. Malaysia was facing three big challenges: The pandemic health crisis, economic fallout, and political instability. Stability, he pointed out, was crucial to obtain foreign investor support to revive the economy. [Malay Mail]

16 March 2021

SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020

(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)

Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.

23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]

16 March 2021

Malaysia: Emergency ordinance against “fake news” on Covid-19 

(nd) An emergency ordinance was published Thursday, which criminalizes “fake news” about the country’s state of emergency and coronavirus pandemic. Critics called it a “shut-up order against all Malaysians” and that it is used to punish criticism of unelected Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government. Violators of the ordinance face three years in prison or a maximum penalty of 100,000 ringgit (U.S. $24,345), or both. Since it was an emergency ordinance, parliament was not involved in its creation. Prime Minister Najib Razak adopted a similar law against fake news, which was abolished a year later by the incoming government. 

The ordinance is one of many steps in limiting freedom of expression by the administration of Muhyiddin, who is highly criticized for suspending parliament after the king imposed a state of emergency on January 12 on Muhyiddin’s advice. [Benar News]

16 March 2021

Malaysia: Court to rule on use of religious words

(nd) Malaysia’s high court decided that Christians are allowed to use the word “Allah”, Baitullah (God’s house), Kaabah (the building at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which is the direction of prayer for Muslims around the world) and solat (pray) in religious publications for educational purposes. In this landmark ruling, the judges deemed a 1986 directive by the home ministry to ban the use of the four words by Christians was an “illegality” and “irrationality”. Additionally, Christian communities in Malaysia have been using especially “Allah” for generations in the practice of their faith. The case was brought by a Malaysian Christian from Sarawak, whose CDs were seized at Kuala Lumpur Airport, featuring the above-mentioned terms. [Channel News Asia]

According to analysts, the ruling is unlikely to settle the ongoing issue, which will rather be a subject of social and political tension, and potentially be challenging for the ruling coalition of Perikatan Nasional if its Muslim coalition parties Umno and PAS pull away their support. Among conservative Islamist groups, the key concern is that the use of Malay words by Christians would confuse Muslims and aid the conversions of rural Muslims. It is illegal to convert from Islam to another religion in Malaysia. The government has already appealed the decision. [South China Morning Post]

9 March 2021

Malaysia, Saudia Arabia sign MoU ambush

China is the biggest consumer of Taiwan’s pineapples with 91% of Taiwan’s total exports of fruit valuing at 1.5 billion NTD. Observers believe that Beijing’s suspension aims to hit the high public approval ratings Tsai currently enjoys due to her world-class effective pandemic response. [Focus Taiwan][Reuters][SupChina][Taiwan News]

Since Taiwan’s pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen has assumed office in 2016, Beijing has cut off diplomatic channels and has been ramping up its pressure on the island, including regularly sending fighter jets and bombers near Taiwan or into its air defense identification zone. In January, China staged military exercises near Taiwan on almost daily basis. [Daily Mail

 

9 March 2021

Malaysian court to allow judicial review by rights groups

(nd) Following last week’s deportation of Myanmar nationals in military ships [See also AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1], a Malaysian court granted international human rights groups the permission to challenge the move. The judgment is major, given the country’s law banning immigration decisions to be questioned in court. The legal bid was brought by rights groups Amnesty International and Asylum Access, who claimed that among the deported were asylum seekers and children. The latest court decision also puts on hold the deportation of another 114 Myanmar nationals until the end of the judicial review. The decision is unlikely to bring back the detained but enables rights groups to challenge similar cases in the future. The deportation was criticized internationally and potentially amounts to contempt of court. Malaysia hosts more than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar, which is in turmoil following a coupon February 1. [Reuters]

9 March 2021

Malaysia: UMNO to leave coalition for next election

(nd) The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) announced to leave the ruling coalition in the next election, forcing struggling Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to look for new partners and possibly delaying polls. UMNO is the biggest party in the ruling coalition and said to remain in the alliance until parliament is dissolved. The announcement did not come as a surprise, although not everyone at UMNO is in support of it, possibly following the two MPs defecting to Bersatu recently. A possible scenario according to analysts now is wooing MPs to switch sides, especially from the coalition’s third largest partner, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

Muhyiddin was criticized for his push to the King to declare a state of emergency and suspending parliament, seen as an effort to cling to power. [Benar News]

9 March 2021

Malaysia: Cabinet to postpone parliamentary sitting

(nd) The cabinet advised the King last Wednesday that parliament sittings would be postponed until August 1, citing the danger of infection for elderly lawmakers. Last week, the palace said the house could sit during the state emergency. On January 12, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin suspended parliament after the King declared the state of emergency, which was criticized by the opposition as a move to cling to power. Muhyiddin had lost the support of two lawmakers earlier, eradicating his razor-thin majority. Therefore, analysts said the reconvened parliament was likely to see a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin, who was likely to prevent and postpone a reconvention. Last week, two lawmakers surprisingly announced their support for Muhyiddin. [Benar News]

2 March 2021

Malaysia: Local Islamic Law on gay sex deemed unconstitutional

(nd) A Muslim man won a lawsuit he filed after being arrested for attempting gay sex. Same-sex acts are illegal in Malaysia. The country has a dual-track legal system, with Islamic criminal and family laws applicable to Muslims running alongside civil laws.

The law in question was an Islamic ban on sex “against the order of nature”. The court unanimously ruled the Islamic provision used in state Selangor was unconstitutional and state authorities had no power to enact the law.

While the ruling leaves intact a federal statute criminalizing same-sex relations – Section 377, a British colonial-era law, – with punishments up to 20 years in jail, LGBT+ advocates, nevertheless, hope the landmark decision to be the start of greater acceptance of gay rights, while stating that Islamic laws have been increasingly used to target the country’s gay community. [CNN]

2 March 2021

Malaysia: King to decide parliament can sit during emergency

(nd) According to a decision by the King interpreting the emergency ordinance, the Malaysian parliament can sit during the ongoing emergency rule. The latest decision is a setback for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was criticized for using the emergency rule to avoid a vote of no confidence on his administration. According to many lawmakers, Muhyiddin lost his razor-thin majority in December last year, when he lost the support of two lawmakers. Once parliament is resumed, a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin is highly likely.

Recent analyses suggest, however, that they will not be successfully tabled. Over the weekend, two lawmakers expressed their support for Muhyiddin. 

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, in which the King is head but largely assumes ceremonial functions.  [Benar News 1] [Benar News 2]

2 March 2021

Malaysia: Burmese detainees deported despite court ban

Despite a last-minute court order to postpone to ship’s departure, Malaysia still deported more than 1,000 Myanmar detainees. The US and UN had criticized the plan, and rights groups said there were asylum seekers among the detainees. The temporary motion brought by activists was affirmed hours before the scheduled deportation. There was no comment given, also not why the number of 1,086 deported was lower than the 1,200 detainees earlier. Rights groups argued that minor groups facing prosecution in Myanmar were among the detainees. The UN refugee agency was not granted access to the migrants and could not determine their status. Malaysia had expressed “serious concern” over the coup, but was later criticized for accepting the offer from the Myanmar junta to send warships to repatriate the detainees, which would present the military favorably. [Asia Times]

A group of international rights stated on Friday that at least two of the deported children had been separated from their asylum-seeking families in Malaysia, along with 17 other unaccompanied children. [Malay Mail]

Human Rights Watch urged the government to immediately investigate in the deportation and order the Immigration Department to grant the UNHCR access to people in detention. [Human Rights Watch]

23 February 2021

Malaysia: Burmese ships to deport Burmese migrants

(nd) Despite UN-voiced and international concerns, three Burmese military ships over the weekend arrived in Malaysia to pick up 1,200 asylum seekers and others from Myanmar.  Nearly 100 of them are from the Myanmar Muslim, Kachin and Chin communities, traditionally coming to Malaysia fleeing from persecution. Rights groups therefore urged not to deport the asylum seekers. Malaysia does not formally recognize refugees. With regards to the Rohingyas, Malaysia vowed not to deport those registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). So far, UNHCR has not been allowed to interview the detainees for their status. Malaysia was also criticized to be cooperating with the junta leaders and thereby legitimizing them. The ships were scheduled to leave for Myanmar on Tuesday. [Nikkei Asia] Before their departure, a Malaysian court has ordered their temporary stay until Wednesday 10 am to hear Amnesty International and Asylum Access’s application for judicial review of the deportation. [Rappler]

 

23 February 2021

ASEAN member states tighten grip on cyberspace

(nd) The Thai government issued a warning not to break the law using the audio social media app Clubhouse. The Digital Minister said authorities were watching Clubhouse users and political groups if information was distorted and laws potentially violated. The app quickly developed into a discussion platform about the monarchy, despite the topic raised by student protesters still a fierce taboo, and whose criticism is punished harshly. Many Thai users registered following Japan-based critic of the Thai palace, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and joined the app. He gained more than 70,000 followers in his first five days on the app. His Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, was shutdown in August 2020, only to reopen and attract 300,000 followers the next day. The government’s crackdown on protesters has regularly included charges under cybercrime laws, mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The app gathered popularity quickly and was blocked earlier this month in China after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored in China, including about Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s national security law.

Last Wednesday, Indonesian authorities announced the app had to register as an Electronic System Operator (PSE) to seek permission to operate, and could be banned if it fails to comply with local laws. Indonesia has previously banned Reddit, Vimeo, and many pornography sites. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week signed a sub-decree to enable the creation of the country’s long-planned National Internet Gateway (NIG), a Chinese-style firewall, which possibly gives authorities even more powers to crackdown on online free-speech. All internet traffic will be routed through a single portal managed by a government-appointed regulator. All internet traffic metadata shall be stored for 12 months and can be assessed by the authorities.

A telecommunications law from 2015 already gave significant powers to request user traffic data from internet service providers to the authorities, and the criminal code and the “fake news” legislation were used to crack down on government critics. All these efforts, however were reactive and put in after a post, despite blockages of websites, that could be circumvented via VPNs. The NIG enables a preventive action, mounting up to censorship.

Since Cambodia is unlikely to provide a national alternative to the popular social media platform Facebook, the authorities will have to force the platforms to abide by its rules. By having a single gateway for all traffic, Cambodia might have significant leverage over the social media website, being able to threat to shut them off. Such a tactic worked well for Vietnam.

Indeed, the timing is suspect. The NIG is expected to be launched next year, which in mid-2022 will see local elections, and general elections in 2023. The ruling party dissolved its only opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017. Leaders are in exile and mostly hindered from returning to the country, not even to face charges in ongoing court proceedings. [Asia Times]

In Thailand, analysts commented that the Thai cyberspace has become highly politicized after the coup, with the addition of legal tools to enable a broad and deep surveillance.

The Computer Crimes Act was enacted in 2007. Already in 2015, a “cyber warfare” unit was founded with the military, and the Technology Crime Suppression Division with the Royal Thai Police. The Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established in 2016. According a WikiLeaks documents, the military unit was setup with the help of an online surveillance firm and installed broad tools to collect data. The military was accused in 2016 of buying decryption technology to monitor private communication on social media. A 2017 report claimed hackers worked for the government between 2016 and 2017 to block media sites, WikiLeaks and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention. A new cybersecurity agency and hacker training center were setup in 2018, further enabling control of online content. In 2019, a “anti-fake news center” was opened in Bangkok, employing 40 full-time staff to monitor and forward discussion in possible violation of the Computer Crimes Act to the Technology Crime Suppression Division. Officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry can request computer data from service providers without a warrant. According to a Comparitech survey on privacy protection published by the end of 2019, Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the world.

In the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces the state’s system of surveillance is even more sophisticated, collecting DNA-samples for a DNA databank to fight insurgencies. In 2020, phone numbers were registered using a facial recognition system, and failure to register cut the individual off service. Phones have been used to set off bombs. Later, it was announced that the 8,200 security cameras in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and be run with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, similar to the system in China. The UN criticized this development in 2020. [The Diplomat]

 

23 February 2021

Malaysia: News portal fined over user comment

(nd) The news portal Malaysiakini, one of the few independent news outlets in Malaysia providing a platform for the opposition, was found guilty of contempt of court due to comments posted by readers, deemed offensive to the judiciary. The Court panel found Malaysiakini was fully responsible for publishing the readers’ comments that “undermined the system of justice in the country” and fined the portal 500,000 ringgit ($123,762). Malaysiakini argued they cannot be held responsible for user comments, and they removed the post immediately. The case was heard by the highest court, making an appeal unlikely.

The US and other missions in a joint statement raised concerns over the decision, stating that media freedom is a “fundamental importance to the security, prosperity and wellbeing of all societies”. Rights groups joined the criticism. According to them, freedom of speech and freedom of the press meet further pressure after Prime Minister Yassin Muhyiddin took power last march.

The case was viewed as a test of state of media freedom in Malaysia. Media in Malaysia is highly regulated and dominated by state-controlled groups, rendering Malaysiakini a platform for opposition and government criticism. The decision might have broader consequences for social media platforms Facebook and Twitter. [Reuters]

23 February 2021

Malaysia: Wife of Najib faces corruption charges

(nd) The wife of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, Rosmah Mansor, is charged with corruption linked to a 1.25 billion ringgit ($310 million) solar energy project. She will have to defend against three charges of soliciting bribes and receiving $6.5 million ($1.6 million) between 2016 and 2017 in a project to provide solar energy panels to schools on Borneo island. In the first of several corruption trials, Najib was found guilty in July 2019 for his involvement in the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund scandal and sentenced to 12 years in prison, with the appeal currently pending. Rosmah will also be charged with respect to 1MDB in a future trial. [The Diplomat]

16 February 2021

ASEAN-EU strategic partnership

(nd) The new ASEAN–EU Strategic Partnership, announced in December 2020, not only eradicated the donor–recipient dynamic, but the EU might need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has declared it “no longer a luxury but a necessity”.

Issues of cooperation include the economy, ASEAN integration, COVID-19 responses, sustainable development, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity. But on terms of strategy, they still differ. While both agree on principles like a rule-based international order, multilateralism and free trade, a commitment to human rights and democracy is not a prerequisite for ASEAN.

The EU arguably has pushed more for a strategic partnership than ASEAN did. Still, the EU is a major development partner and ASEAN’s largest donor. For that, the EU might have to focus more on influencing ASEAN norms and values, to shape the partnership according to EU’s terms. It remains unclear whether the EU can reach its goal, to enhance EU security and its defense profile in the Asia Pacific, be granted membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.

The EU has to first ensure coherence in the bloc’s responses towards ASEAN, and avoid the implication of some members’ unilateral Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies. Also, coherence is needed in relations to the member states of ASEAN. In specific issues, the EU has adopted different stances on member states, such as Cambodia on trade privileges, to Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The situation in Myanmar, which both have so far only commented on, can have implications on the future of the strategic partnership. In 2009, FTA negotiations with ASEAN were stalled due to insecurity of how to deal with Myanmar’s human rights record.

Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas. [East Asia Forum]

 

16 February 2021

ASEAN to have less trust in China

(nd) China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy appears to be unsuccessful, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a poll conducted from mid-November to January with 1,032 people across ASEAN, 44.2% said China provided the majority of help to the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, and despite proactive efforts to secure vaccine deals in the region, 61.5% of respondents said they would choose the US over China in the ongoing US-China rivalry, a rise of 7.9% in support for the US compared to last year. While new possibilities were associated with the incoming Biden administration, many grow increasingly wary of Chinese influence in the region. China was named as most influential economic power in the region by 76.3% of respondents, 72.3% of which voiced concerns thereof. Of 49.1% who named China as the most influential political and strategic power in the region, 88.6% indicated being worried about this influence.

China was also low in terms of trust among global powers: Additionally, some 63% responded to have “little confidence” or “no confidence” that China will “do the right thing” for the global community, rising more than 10% in comparison to last year. Analysts commented, this trust deficit is upward trending. Its economic and military power combined is viewed as a possible threat to sovereign interests. [Nikkei Asia]

16 February 2021

Malaysia: Detention of Myanmar national announced

(nd) After the military regime in Myanmar offered to take back citizens detained, Malaysia announced to deport 1,200 Myanmar nationals. Malaysia regards them as illegal migrants since it does not formally recognize refugees. There was no comment made whether refugees are among the detainees, but past groups have included members of the Chin, Kachin and the Muslim Rohingya communities. More than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar are in Malaysia, according to UN refugee agency UNHCR. Myanmar views Rohingyas as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Myanmar will send navy ships on February 21. This is the first time Myanmar’s navy had offered to help repatriate its citizens, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based Alliance of Chin Refugees, who also said refugees are in danger of persecution if sent back.

The Myanmar army in 2007 launched operation against Rohingya Muslims, forcing around 730,000 to neighboring Bangladesh, which was referring to by the UN as “genocidal intent”. [Malaymail]

 

16 February 2021

Malaysia: Muhyiddin to launch National Unity Policy

(nd) Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin launched the National Unity Policy, a 10-year blueprint to unite the multiethnic and -religious nation. He states his goal for the country to become more inclusive, tolerant and also “patriotic”, and therefore shaped out three key objectives and urged all members of society to support the plan. The first is national integration based on constitutional values, the second is forming a “national identity” shaped by “patriotism, compassion, tolerance, respect and collective responsibility”, and the third is valuing and practicing unity.

National integration has been a key objective for various administrations, since the May 13 riots in 1969, an incident of Sino-Malay lethal violence in the aftermath of the general election, that lead to a two-year state of emergency and the implementation of New Economic Policy, favoring ethnic Malay over other races.

Muhyiddin himself is a controversial figure, facing challenges from all political sides since taking office March last year. His latest move to convince the Agong to declare the Emergency rule has been labeled by critics as an intention to avoid a parliamentary vote to possibly oust him. [Malaymail]

 

16 February 2021

Malaysian deported from Singapore over terrorist charges

(py) A Malaysian man was arrested in Singapore under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in July 2020 after investigations revealed that he was a supporter of the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Though he was repatriated to Malaysia in August 2020, it remains unclear why the Singaporean authority has just announced his expulsion this week. As of now, he is accused of possessing items related to terrorist acts, and the intention to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS. His Singaporean wife was also radicalized after her marriage and is currently receiving religious counseling. [Benar News]

Late last year, Singapore announced the deportation of another Malaysian national following his radicalization, who was cleared by Malay police upon return. The threat posed by terrorism is decreasing in Malaysia. While last year, Malaysia had arrested seven individuals and successfully charged four, in 2019 72 IS-linked suspects were arrested, and 119 in 2018. Still, security analysts highlighted that amid the pandemic, ISIS was stepping up recruitment in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

 

9 February 2021

Japan-ADB cooperation agreement on ASEAN energy projects 

(dql) In a move to strengthen its footprint in Southeast Asia against China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has reached an agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under which both sides will cooperate on clean energy projects in the frame of the Cleaner Energy Future Initiative for ASEAN (CEFIA), covering areas of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and other technologies for low carbon energy transition.

Established in 2019, the CEFIA seeks to accelerate the deployment of sustainable energy and low carbon technologies in Southeast Asia. [Modern Diplomacy]

9 February 2021

Malaysia: Former Head of Felda sentenced for bribery

(nd) Former politician and chairman of the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda), Mohd Isa Abdul Samad, was sentenced to six years in prison on bribery charges. As head of Felda, he approved a hotel purchase in Sarawak in 2004 without board directory approval and accepted nine bribes amounting to more than 3 million ringgit. Due to the public nature of the offense and his betrayal of public trust, he was fined five times the amount he accepted in bribes. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak made Isa chairman of Felda in 2010. The judge of his case was the one who last year convicted Najib in connection with the 1MDB state fund to a 12-year prison sentence and a fine.

Felda is a state agency set up in 1956 tasked to eliminate poverty among rural ethnic Malay farmers by distributing farmland. Between 1957 and 1990, Felda resettled 112,635 families. [Benarnews]

9 February 2021

ASEAN, Indonesia to intervene in Myanmar

(nd) Following a bilateral meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced to talk to current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei, to convene a special meeting on the coup in Myanmar.

 While ASEAN disposes of a Human Rights Declaration and the Charter calls for the strengthening of democracy, good governance and rule of law, at its core understanding lie the overarching principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Since democracy as such is no prerequisite for the membership in the bloc, its backsliding does not warrant for a response. Such is mimicked in the statement by ASEAN chair Brunei, “noting” the commitment to democracy and the rule of law but calling for a dialogue and the return to normalcy. The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia referred to the principle of non-intervention and labelled the coup an internal matter. Vietnam called for a stabilization and Malaysia for a discussion to ‘avoid adverse consequences’ of the coup. Indonesia voiced the strongest opposition, referring to uphold the ASEAN charter and use legal mechanisms to resolve the issue. Given the intentionally non-enforceable commitments to democracy in the charter, forging a common stance seems difficult.

Historically though, Indonesia assumed the position of a role model for Myanmar, which according to analysts warrants for a heightened responsibility now. Indonesia itself successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. A significant role within Myanmar’s transition to democracy was assumed by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s first directly elected president. Besides assisting Myanmar with minority conflicts, drafting of laws and education on democratic institution, the presence of himself and former military allies who turned into democratic reformers were the most obvious message sent. In contrast to current president Widodo, whose agenda is focused on domestic issues, SBY was looking for an international statesman position with a democracy-infused diplomatic agenda. Therefore, some suggested SBY to function as Indonesia’s envoy to Myanmar to advocate credibly for military reforms. 

Any intervention in Myanmar is shadowed by a fear of Myanmar gravitating further to China if pressured too much. As well as the muted bloc’s response carries the fear of further coups and authoritarian takeovers in the region. [Reuters] [Benarnews] [East Asia Forum]

2 February 2021

Malaysia, China to tighten relations 

(nd) While the economic cooperation between China and Malaysia is largely seen as successful, Malaysia is likely to be pulled under tougher Chinese influence. China remains a mayor infrastructure investor and presents a possibility to help the heavily contracted economy amid the ongoing pandemic. With regards to Covid-19, China offered to place Malaysia on its vaccine priority list.

In light of this support, a declaration following Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit stated both countries’ opposition to hegemony and maritime big power presence, but supporting multilateralism, which was a clear allusion to US security policy in the South China Sea. This Chinese pull came amid an unreliable US during the presidency of former president Donald Trump. While Malaysia, as other ASEAN members, is reluctant to being positioned between the US and China, the support China can give amongst instable politics is more than the US is offering currently. [Nikkei Asia]

26 January 2021

Malaysia: Vietnamese fishermen arrested

(nd) Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) has arrested 16 Vietnamese fishermen off Terengganu state. The fishermen were using fake registration numbers. Among other states, Malaysia and Vietnam have claims to the South China Sea that overlap. Recently, tension rose in the disputed waters due to Chinese military action. [Reuters]

26 January 2021

Malaysia: Increasing repression of LGBT

(dql) Human Rights Watch, in a thorough paper on LGBT rights in Malaysia denounced attempt to strengthen criminal penalties against LGBT in Malaysia as a latest action against LGBT in a series of moves under Prime Minister Muhyididin Yassin’s Perikitan Nasional government. Prior, the deputy minister for religious affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department proposed to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act (Act 355) to establish harsher sentences for same-sex conduct than the current maximum Sharia sentence permitted under federal law. Moreover, the deputy minister also proposed asa new Sharia offense to change one’s gender and to produce or share social media content deemed obscene and indecent, including images of non-normative gender expression.

Besides, the federal penal code state Sharia laws, which are enforced by state Islamic Religious Departments and tried in Sharia courts, are applicable to Muslims in Malaysia. At current, all 13 states and the federal territory criminalize same-sex relations and gender nonconformity already. Moreover, section 377 of the federal penal code punishes any form of anal or oral sex with up to 20 years in prison and mandatory caning.

Concerning Sharia courts, Act 355, adopted in 1965 to safeguard Malaysia’s – then – secular character, limited the sentences that can be imposed by Sharia courts to the imposition of maximum sentences of one year in prison and a fine of up to RM 1,000 (US$250). The act was amended in 1984, however, increasing the maximum sentence to three years in prison, fines of up to RM 5,000 (US$1,240), and caning of up to six strokes.

Before 2018, Malaysian courts rarely imposed caning sentences, which are a form of torture under international law, for same-sex conduct which slowly changed since then with a 2018 case against two women accused of attempted same-sex relations and a 2019 case where, the Selangor Sharia court sentenced five men to fines, imprisonment, and caning.

The latest Selangor case, however, led to a constitutional challenge which is pending before the Federal Court. [Human Rights Watch]

26 January 2021

Malaysia: Opposition leader files lawsuit against suspension of parliament

(nd) Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim filed a lawsuit against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the federal government at the High Court, Malaysia’s apex court. The motion is contesting Muhyiddin’s advice to King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah to approve Rule 14 of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 2021, which suspends parliament during the emergency period.

The King declared a state of emergency early January, which lasts until August 1, in order to contain the spread of Covid-19. Critics said the emergency was not necessary to fight the pandemic but a move by Muhyiddin to cover up his crumbling parliamentary majority and cling to power. A previous request by Muhyiddin to the King to declare a state of emergency was dismissed late last year. Following the King’s declaration, Muhyiddin stated that parliamentary sittings and elections are suspended during the emergency.

Malaysia has reported a total of 186,849 Covid-19 cases so far, 41,076 of those considered active, and 689 fatalities. [Channel News Asia]

26 January 2021

ASEAN human rights hit by pandemic

(nd) According to deputy Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, human rights took a hit amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlighted inequalities and vulnerability. Malaysia for instance excluded their 3,5 million migrants and refugees from government aid programs. For a lack of governmental support in Myanmar, some of the overlooked people relied on armed rebel groups for aid instead. In Singapore and partly in Thailand, the virus transmission was blamed on migrants, creating an anti-immigrant sentiment.

Apart from economic differences and hardships, the pandemic allowed to “reinforce” existing policies to target dissidents under the umbrella of health protection, as seen with protesters in Thailand. According to US-based rights advocacy group Amnesty International, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers and neighborhood leaders to shoot “troublemakers” protesting during community quarantine, furthering the “climate of impunity”, which was set off by his infamous drug on war, resulting in increased killings of activists. In this militaristic atmosphere, police officers were found to have committed abused enforcing stay-at-home orders. [Voice of America]

19 January 2021

Indonesia, Malaysia to cooperate on palm oil promotion

(nd) In light of international criticism against palm oil and the circumstances of its production, the world’s largest producers, Indonesia and Malaysia, are planning to join forces to run an advocacy campaign in Europe. Therefore, they have engaged through the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC), in a request to hire an advocacy firm to change the negative perception of the product.

Producers are accused of destroying biodiversity rich rainforest and mistreatment of migrant workers. In the EU, the discussions around the European Green Deal could result in restrictions for the use of palm oil, a commodity used in various products ranging from lipstick and pizza to biodiesel. In 2019 the EU decided to phase out palm oil by 2030 due to deforestation concerns, with companies having launched “palm oil-free” products. While the exports to India and China are much higher, the sentiment in Europe is important for the global reputation of the commodity.

This is the first time the two countries are working together against the threats to their good. [Reuters]

19 January 2021

China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia 

(nd) After Chinese company Sinovac announced a 78% efficacy rate during its trials of CoronaVac, Brazilian scientists reported a significantly lower rate of 50,4 %, casting doubt on China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold for advised use is 50%. Indonesia’s own trials found an efficacy of 63,3%, with Indonesia’s food and drug agency to be the first in the world to approve use of the Sinovac vaccinations. Despite the high numbers and the prominent vaccination of President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian population is rather reluctant to receive a shot due to concerns over safety and efficacy. [Asia Times]

Thailand and the Philippines have also already purchased doses of CoronaVac, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticizing Western vaccination makers for their unscrupulous prices. Vaccinations produced by Moderna and Pfizer-Biontech have shown efficacy rates of about 95%, but are more expensive and have to be transported and stored in costly freezers. Besides the price and its availability, buying Chinese vaccinations will potentially bring more general benefits, with China having already announced it will look kindly on purchasers of its products. [Asia Times]

Despite China being the country’s closest ally and economic patron, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last year to only purchase WHO-approved vaccines, which to date doesn’t include any of the at least four vaccinations produced by China, which prompted observers to state that it will take the country until at least mid-2022 to be able to vaccinate more than 60% of its population. The Chinese government and state media downplayed the efficacy results, but they still raised already existing public doubt over the reliability of Chinese vaccinations, and the more general notion of unsafe and hasty production of vaccinations against Covid-19 generally. Yet, early this week Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accepted a donation of one million Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, contradicting previous pledges. Hun Sen argued amid a Thai Covid-19 case surge, he cannot afford to wait, and referred to the rollout of the vaccine in China, Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. [Nikkei Asia]

During his visit to the Philippines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, US$1.34 billion in loan pledges for infrastructure projects and US$77 million (500 million yuan) in grants. Philippine Foreign Minister Locsin, however, also made reference to the South China Sea dispute. According to observers, in light of the incoming Biden administration, the donation and investment in infrastructure was an effort to present itself as a partner to revive heavy-hit economies in the regions. [South China Morning Post]

19 January 2021

China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” 

(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043. 

The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership. 

Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”

As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]

For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017. 

 

19 January 2021

Malaysia: Opposition decisively challenging the state of emergency

(nd) Following the declaration state of emergency last week, Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim announced to submit an appeal to King Al-Sultan Abdullah to end its imposition. The emergency will suspend parliament until August, giving time and broad executive power to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s who hold a razor-thin majority in parliament, which was shaken several times in the last quarter of 2020 until the recent withdrawal of support by lawmakers eliminated his slight majority. In a letter to federal lawmakers, Anwar voiced an accusation that PM Muhyiddin misled the King and emphasized, the provisions under existing laws were sufficient to contain the spread of the pandemic. While the Prime Minister claims that the latest Covid-19 figures were pushing Malaysia’s health care system to the breaking point, opposition parties and non-government groups raised alarms for abuse of powers, foreshadowing a crackdown on government critics. Referencing investigations last year against opposing journalists, rights workers and lawmakers, they stated that freedom of speech shrank constantly since Muhyiddin has taken office.

For Malaysia, it was the first imposition of an emergency in over 50 years, and the second time parliament has been suspended since independence from Britain in 1957. [Voice of America] [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, former member of Pakatan Harapan, Datuk Seri Khairuddin Abu Hassan, initiated a lawsuit against PM Muhyiddin Yassin and his government questioning whether a prime minister who no longer has the majority in the House can still advise the King to proclaim an Emergency State and still can suspend the Parliament’s sittings. Khairuddin is known to have been politically affiliated with former Prime Minsiter and opposition heavy weight Mahathir Mohamad. [Malay Mail]

12 January 2021

Malaysia, US to put Mahatir on extremist list

(nd) Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was named one of the “Top 20 Most Dangerous Extremists Around the World” and “considered a huge threat to international security” by the US-based Counter Extremism Project (CEP). Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was named as the most dangerous extremist on the list, ahead of Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, self-proclaimed “caliph” of terrorist group Islamic State. 

Mahatir entered the list due to his remarks in October 2020 on the terrorist attack on a French teacher for showing the caricatures of the Prophet, and labelled anti-Semitic and a critic of the West. Former US government officials founded CEP in 2014 with their mission lying in “fighting global extremism”, and a particular focus on disrupting ISIS. [South China Morning Post]

 

12 January 2021

Malaysia: Looming split of Umno and Bersatu

(nd) The United Malays National Organisation (Umno), central ally of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the country’s largest political party, will be discussing cutting ties with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) by the end of January, which could force snap elections. Since Umno provides the largest number of MPs to Muhyiddin’s razor-thin majority, it has a strong bargaining position towards the Prime Minister. The plan to ultimately leave Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition, however, is not fully supported by the Supreme Council members. Analysts see the announcement of this as a way to push Muhyiddin to provide more government position to Umno members, as well as potentially dropping ongoing charges against several Umno leaders, since they are backing his new government, while Pakatan Harapan leaders are plotting to oust Muhyiddin. [South China Morning Post]

 

12 January 2021

Malaysia: Party applications rejected

(nd) An application to register a new political party, the Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) led by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has been rejected by the Registrar of Society (ROS) due to formal reasons. Likewise, the application by the Malaysia United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) led by former Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman was rejected. [Channel Asia News]

12 January 2021

Malaysia: Declaration of emergency state  

(nd) Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah consented to the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s declaration of a nationwide state of emergency to fight a recent spike in COvid-19 cases overwhelming hospitals. It will last until August or as long as it takes to regain control. Malaysia’s daily cases per million are now among the highest in the region, with a seven-day average of 74.66 per million as of Sunday.

Critics labelled it as a move by an unstable government to cling to power, since the emergency avoids the looming snap elections amid tries to challenge the government by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Muhyiddin tried and failed to convince the king for a similar declaration of emergency in October during the most recent challenge by Anwar. Also, United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which disposes of the largest seat number in Muhyiddin’s coalition, urged him to call a general election by the end of March, threatening to withdraw their support. Since the emergency move will grant the authorities significantly more powers, its declaration prompted concerns over civil liberties.

Ever since March 2020, Malaysia has seen political turmoil after the collapse of Mahathir Mohammed’s administration, which brought Muhyiddin to power without an election. [Asia Times] [Nikkei Asia]

5 January 2021

ASEAN countries, US to seek last minute deals

(nd) Only weeks before the official end of the Trump administration, countries across Southeast Asia seem to pursue last minute security and economic agreements with the US in light of president Donald Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. During the Trump presidency, trade with the US increased despite of his relative lack of interest in the region, while the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is widely associated with a stricter emphasis on human rights and democratic values. In early December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment during a visit, with an announcement of additional $18 million worth of military equipment and training.

For Indonesia’s planned sovereign wealth fund, the US International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion as one of the first countries to sign up, with an aimed estimated total of about $15 billion from around the world. The US also extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, possibly with an eye on cooperation against Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea. Due to its geographic position, the region will play a pivotal role in geopolitics in the coming years, to stand strong against Chinese aggression and growing influence, but still, in the region, democratic governance is deteriorating, and left unaddressed.

Economically, the region has benefitted from the Trump administration, with ASEAN having received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, with exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia on the rise since 2017. Additionally, US-based power company AES announced to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam, which also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. This was seen as a reaction to mitigate the trade imbalance, still US accused Vietnam of currency manipulation after. [Nikkei Asia]

5 January 2021

Malaysia, Singapore to terminate multibillion-dollar high-speed rail project

(nd) Malaysia and Singapore announced they would terminate a 2016 plan to build a US$25 billion high-speed rail project. Demanded changes by the Malay side were not agreed upon. The Malaysian government will have to pay a fee for the cancellation of the contract, reportedly more than S$100 million (US$75 million).

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance, who unexpectedly won the general election in 2018, asked for a commencement extension to re-evaluate costs and the project’s merits, referring to the huge national debt. Following the PH’s oust by a political coup in March, Prime Minister Yassin Muhyiddin’s administration tried to renegotiate, including a realignment of the rail link to connect it to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), to avoid the feared divert in traffic to Singapore’s more established Changi Airport.

The original plan was to reduce travel time from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore to 90 minutes for the 350km distance. The pandemic and expected decrease in travel also for business purposes might have made the project less economically interesting. [South China Morning Post]

 

5 January 2021

Malaysia, US to ban import of Malaysian palm oil

(nd) For the second time, the US moved to ban the import of Malaysian palm oil, this time against Sime Darby Plantation, one of the world’s biggest producers.

Activists long claimed bad working conditions on the plantations and the destruction of rainforests to make way for plantations. In the current case, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said there was evidence that workers face abuses including sexual and physical violence, withholding of wages and restrictions on movement. In October, the US banned imports from Malaysian palm oil producer FGV Holdings, also on accounts of alleged labor law violations. [Asia Times]