Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

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]