Asia in Review Archive
Date of AiR edition
8 September 2020
Singapore: Prime Minister on Covid-19 and the future of Singapore
(nd) In a parliamentary speech on Wednesday Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasized the great strength and resilience of the Singaporians, with the public service, political leadership, businesses and the public having worked together. Mr. Lee was also self-critical about the country’s response to Covid-19, which “was not without shortcomings”, but in line with the “best available scientific advice” at the time. [Channel News Asia]
“The irony is the more successful we are in keeping cases low, the more people wonder whether all these painful measures are necessary,” he said, mentioning the recent resurge in Europe. Inter alia, the dense situation of communal living of migrant workers, posing a high infection risk. With reference to the threat of a possible future “Disease X”, Mr Lee said Singapore must “rethink and reinvent” to continue to be successful in a post-COVID-19 world, in areas like social safety nets, foreign workers and politics.
1 September 2020
Singapore: Authorities tighten regulations on employing foreign professionals
(lm) In light of slacker labor market conditions owing to COVID-19, authorities in Singapore seek to assuage domestic political concerns over soaring unemployment in the Asian financial center. Last week, the government tightened criteria for hiring foreign professionals by lifting the minimum qualifying salaries for Employment Pass (EP) holders by 15 per cent to S$4,500 ($3,293) a month and double that for more experienced candidates aged in their forties. In addition, the government for the first time also introduced a sector-specific higher qualifying salary of at least S$5,000 a month for those working in finance. For mid-skilled foreigners on S Passes, the qualifying salary will be raised from $2,400 to $2,500, with the salary criteria for older and more experienced S Pass holders raised accordingly. [Financial Times]
The new regulations come as global companies are considering Singapore as their new regional base, after Beijing introduced national security legislation for Hong Kong. Still, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said the new rules won’t affect Singapore’s status as an “open and connected” business hub. [The Straits Times 1] [South China Morning Post]
1 September 2020
Indo-Pacific: U.S. pushes to formalize the Quad
(ls) On the sidelines of the annual U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said that the U.S. was aiming to “formalize” military, economic and development cooperation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “Quad”, the strategic forum of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia. Though cautioning visions of an Indo-Pacific NATO, Biegun emphasized that the format shall remain open for other countries to join but “align in a more structured manner”. [Japan Times] [Hindustan Times]
India is expected to extend an invitation to Australia to participate in the annual Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, which has been delayed this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The exercise has been conducted by the U.S. and India since 1992. Japan has been included in 2015. In 2007, India and Singapore joined as well, but refrained from further participation over apparent concerns of antagonizing China. [South China Morning Post]
18 August 2020
Malaysia-Singapore relations: Joint border opened
(dql) For the first time in five months, Malaysia and Singapore on Monday opened their border, allowing now limited crossings for workers with permits to enter their country of employment for at least 90 days, and short trips for essential business. via the two land gateways connecting the neighbors as well as by air. The border opening is vital move to bring both pandemic-hit economies back to health. [Nikkei Asian Review]
4 August 2020
Singapore: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlines Rules of Prudence
(cm) With the general elections and the ensuing cabinet reshuffling having ended, the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong moved forward on Saturday, sending out the Rules of Prudence to People’s Action Party (PAP) lawmakers. The letter, which is traditionally sent out by the PM to PAP members of parliament after every general election, conveys the regulations of PAP lawmakers, such as general standards and social media behavior.
In his letter, the Prime Minister told the lawmakers to expect “sharper questioning and debate in Parliament”, as the number of opposition MPs has increased and a Leader of the Opposition has been formally designated. Resulting from the general election, two non-constituency MPs from the Progressing Singapore Party, and 10 elected MPs from the Workers’ Party now hold a seat in parliament.
This could potentially bring further space for democracy in Singapore. The Prime Minister has emphasized all MPs to voice their concerns during the upcoming “opening of Parliament in August 2020” for the President’s Address and Budget Debate. [Channel News Asia] [AiR No. 29, July/2020, 3]
28 July 2020
Singaporean pleads guilty to spying for China in the US
(ls) A Singaporean citizen pleaded guilty last week in Washington to charges of operating illegally as a foreign agent for the Chinese government and obtaining non-public information from the United States. The man with the name Jun Wei Yeo, also known as Dickson Yeo, studied at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. According to court documents, he had worked under the direction and control of Chinese intelligence over the past four to five years. [South China Morning Post]
28 July 2020
Singapore: Post-election Cabinet reshuffle
(ls) After a modest election victory for the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) on 10 July, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has moved to reshuffling his Cabinet. Lee’s probable successor, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, has retained his post, remains the only Deputy Prime Minister and has assumed additional responsibilities as coordinating minister for economic affairs. Several other senior heavyweights remain part of the Cabinet, among them Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam. [South China Morning Post]
While some ministers changed portfolios, two junior ministers were promoted to full ministers. Of the overall 20 full ministers, two belong to the Malay and five to the Indian communities of Singapore. Only three are women. [Prime Minister’s Office] [Straits Times]
New additions to the sub-Cabinet ministerial administration illustrate the government’s intention to improve its public communication. Among them is the former head of the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA),Tan Kiat How, who will head the government’s feedback unit “Reach”, and the former Facebook and LinkedIn executive Alvin Tan who joins the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth in order to facilitate engagement with young Singaporeans. [Channel News Asia]
21 July 2020
Singapore: Results of 2020 General Election Stirs Singapore
(cm) After last week’s general elections and a comfortable majority for the ever ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), the sudden decrease of 8.6 percent of its votes in comparison with the 2015 elections raises questions. Among the reasons offered as an explanation for the drop in popularity is the belief that younger voters may have reacted to the harsh restrictions of fake news law on Facebook but also the change to online campaigning itself. The Worker’s Party (WP) for instance is said to have gained online attention and support due to their successful social media campaigning. It remains to be seen whether the result will eventually strengthen those in the government that are in favour of more democracy or those in of favour of even more control. [Today Online] [Channel News Asia] [AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]
14 July 2020
Singapore: PAP wins election but falls short of its aims
(ls/cm) Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has comfortably won the General Elections held last week. The PAP will take 83 of the 93 elected seats in parliament. However, the party gained only 61.2 percent of the popular vote. This is 8.6 percent less than in the 2015 election. The oppositional Worker’s Party (WP) was able to gain support, winning about 50.5 percent of the popular vote in the constituencies in which the party contested, which is a plus of more than 10 percent as compared to 2015. The WP retained its six seats and added four more. [Election results: Straits Times]
Most spectacularly, the PAP lost the group representation constituency (GRC) of Sengkang, where a young WP team was able to prevail against three incumbents. In addition, Lee’s designated successor, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, obtained only 53.41 percent of the popular vote in his constituency, which makes the PAP’s leadership transition appear in less appealing light. What is more, the PAP’s call for a strong vote of confidence in its handling of Covid-19 was not answered by the voters. Comprehensive analyses: [South China Morning Post] [Channel News Asia]
7 July 2020
Singapore: POFMA’s growing correction issues: Opposition party and statement on migrant workers
(cm) Since Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was signed into law last October, the government has not hesitated to issue correction orders, especially since campaigning got underway for the General Election next week. Last Thursday, the People’s Voice Party’s (PV) was asked to correct a video posted on Facebook and YouTube in which party chief Lim Tean had claimed that every year, foreigners were given free education from the Singapore government. The PV party was quick to comply and marked the video as inaccurate. Last month, self-exiled dissident Alex Tan’s Facebook page was blocked due to his criticisms of the nation’s government. [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2] [SCMP]
Moreover, the government has recently extended its orders also to larger organizations and movements, such as the Online Citizen Asia (TOC) and New Naratif, Channel News Asia (CNA), and even the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS). As of two days ago, all four have posted Facebook videos, recordings and an article regarding the upcoming General Elections. A specific concern of the government was with the chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party, who stated that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) discouraged testing on migrant workers, further claiming employers who brought migrant workers for testing would lose work pass privileges, and the advice was given without advice from medical professionals.
The Government of Singapore swiftly published clarifications on their official website, stating the influx of migrant workers at Changi General Hospital were not deemed ill. As the main focus and priority were unwell and high-risk patients, MOM advised to not conduct testing on migrant workers who were seen as ‘well’. Though Singapore’s prompt response is no surprise as they were recently in the spotlight for their inhumane living conditions for migrant workers. [AiR No. 16, April/2020, 3] [Government of Singapore] [Straits Times]
7 July 2020
Singapore’s Reliance on Technology for Covid-19 Precautions
(cm) As the Singaporean government eases COVID-19 restrictions, workers are taking precaution by using QR codes to enter public facilities, and digital maps to view crowded areas. Singapore has initiated their token device to the elderly, who are highly vulnerable to contracting an infection, and may not use smartphones. [South China Morning Post] [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]
30 June 2020
Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful
(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]
Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]
The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]
30 June 2020
Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute
(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]
30 June 2020
At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute
(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.
ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.
On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].
The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”.
There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling.
For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.
The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.
The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1].
The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]
30 June 2020
Singapore: Opposition parties release manifestos with PM’s brother joining one of them
(cm/ls) After Singapore’s Parliament was dissolved last Tuesday, opposition parties have released their manifestos. The Worker’s Party (WP) and the Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) particularly conveyed their manifestos against plans and policies of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). The opposition parties advocate against an increased tax plan, for a national minimum wage and the abolition of retirement age.
Meanwhile, Lee Hsien Yang, brother of current PM Lee Hsien Loong, has become a member of the PSP. He stated, “I think sometimes we need to speak truth to power,” and said that his decision to join the opposition party was due to the PAP Government serving mainly the elites of society. The Lee family has seen several splits and feuds over the last years since the passing of the brothers’ father and former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in 2015. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2]
23 June 2020
Singapore heads towards election under pandemic conditions
(cm/lm) Singapore’s parliament has been dissolved, paving the way for a general election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a televised address to the nation on Tuesday. In his widely anticipated announcement, the Prime Minister said he had met President Halimah Yacob earlier in the day and had advised her to dissolve parliament and issue the Writ of Election. According to the Elections Department, Singaporean voters will head to the polls on July 10, after the minimum nine-day official campaigning period – with no mass rallies – and a “Cooling Off Day” on the eve of the election. Nomination Day will be next Tuesday (June 30), the first day of official campaigning. [SCMP] [The Straits Times]
Groups of regional lawmakers and opposition parties meanwhile are questioning if the General Elections should be held off. Opposition parties expressed concern of COVID-19 disadvantages on restrictive campaigns and the voter’s risk of health. The Elections Department (ED) recently announced more constituency political broadcast and virtual campaigning, there will be no live speeches, physical rallies, and gathering of supporters. [Straits Times 1] [Bloomberg]
However, this does not hinder parties from moving forward. As the Reform Party and Progress Singapore Party revealed their candidates on a group video call last week, and the new Red Dot United Party, along with the People’s Voice Party is aiming to contest Jurong GRC. [Channel News Asia 1] [Channel News Asia 2] [Straits Times 2]
23 June 2020
Malaysia-Singapore relations: Ongoing discussions on cross-border travel
(cm) The foreign ministries in Singapore and Malaysia are closely discussing safety measures and precautions for official travellers, short term businesses, and citizens who regularly commute between these countries. Ismail Sabri, Malaysia’s Senior Minister, stated on Friday that Singapore and Brunei are seen as green zones by the Malaysian Health Ministry. Therefore provisionally, Malaysia may no longer require 14-day quarantine or mandatory Covid-19 screening for Singapore and also Brunei citizens who enter Malaysia. Additionally, this would be reciprocated to Malaysians who enter Singapore and/or Brunei. However, public health protocols and safety of citizens are still ongoing negotiations between the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. [Today Online]
16 June 2020
Singapore’s tracing device for Covid-19 sparks concern
(cm) Singapore is preparing to hand out tracing devices to the public to control the spread of Covid-19. These TraceTogether Tokens have, however, come under criticism for worries of data protection. In a petition started at the beginning of June, more than 40,000 people were against the wearable device. [South China Morning Post]
Foreign Affairs Minister and head of the Smart Nation Initiative, Vivian Balakrishnan, emphasized that individuals who were not infected by Covid-19 would have their information deleted after 25 days. As of now, the device will not be mandatory, but it is speculated that it might become so if there are not enough users. [Bangkok Post]
16 June 2020
Singapore: Tackling fake news during the upcoming elections
(cm/ls) Facebook’s head of public policy in Singapore stated that the company intends to monitor any “false or misleading” content before the upcoming general elections. The company said that there were a number of Facebook accounts that displayed inauthentic behaviors. Facebook’s spokesperson also said that the company had concerns “over foreign-led efforts to manipulate public debate in another country.” [Today Online].
Though Singapore’s ministers must suspend their POFMA activities during an election and would therefore be unable to issue orders under the country’s Protection against Online Falsehoods and Misinformation Act (POFMA) between the issuance of the Writ of Election and the closure of the polls, an order was published in the Government Gazette according to which permanent secretaries will be authorized to exercise POFMA functions during this period. [Straits Times]
In recent months, POFMA directions have been addressed to government critics, including Alex Tan who operates the States Times Review. [Asia in Review No. 23, June/2020, 2]
The Elections Department of Singapore (ELD) also announced new measures for paid internet advertising. An individual who paid for an ad, the ad’s publisher, and information about the period for which it will appear online shall be published on the ELD website. [Channel News Asia 1]
Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), has stepped down to give way to his successor. It is speculated whether this and other replacements of senior civil servants means that they are preparing themselves to compete in the upcoming elections. [Channel News Asia 2] [Straits Times]
It is not yet clear when the elections, which must take place before 14 April 2021, will be held. Though further corona-related restrictions have been lifted, Covid-19 cases have been rising. This could disrupt the preparation for the general election. The Singapore Democratic Party urged to double the period between this issuance of the Writ of Election and Nomination Day [Channel News Asia 3].
16 June 2020
Singapore: International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to open branch in Singapore
(cm) Last Thursday, the President of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), Paik Jin-Hyun, signed an agreement with Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K. Shanmugam, for Singapore to be a venue for ITLOS hearings. The seat of the tribunal is in Hamburg, Germany. Singapore would thus be the first external branch where ITLOS could exercise its functions. [Channel News Asia]
9 June 2020
Singapore: Disabling order issued over Facebook page
(cm/lm) Facebook on Monday issued a statement saying that the regulations of Singapore’s anti-fake news were severe and would oppress the freedom of speech. The announcement came after Singaporean Minister for Communications and Information Iswaran had directed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Office to order the social media platform to block Singapore users’ access to the National Times Singapore (NTS). Operated by anti-government activist and dissident Alex Tan, the Facebook page on May 15 had published a post claiming “that every criticism of the government had been outlawed under disinformation law.” After the page did not comply with a correction direction, which required the NTS to place warnings on the page to state its falsehoods, the disabling order was issued.[Bangkok Post], [Channel NewsAsia]
9 June 2020
Singapore reveals measures for voting during COVID-19, as July poll speculation increases
(lm) Singapore’s Elections Department (ELD) on Monday unveiled a set of measures that will be put in place to ensure that the country’s upcoming general election does not compromise public health. The department’s announcement followed requests by opposition parties in recent weeks for clearer guidelines for the safe conduct of the polls during the COVID-19 pandemic. The special measures set out on Monday will complement the contingency plans written into a new law the government passed in May for elections amid the coronavirus outbreak. [Asia in Review, No. 18, May/2020, 1] [The Straits Times]
The announcement comes on the heels of rumours that Premier Minister Lee Hsien Loong may call a general election in July, soon after circuit breaker measures currently in place are further eased. [SCMP]
2 June 2020
Singapore and Malaysia aim to improve living standards of migrant workers
(ls) Singapore is cautiously reopening its economy as Covid-19 is still spreading. Pupils have been allowed back to school, though not all every day, and about three quarters of the economy has resumed activities. Daily new cases are still in the hundreds. The overall number of infections stands at 35,000, with about 93 per cent of these among the country’s low-wage migrant worker population. [South China Morning Post]
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced on Monday that the government will build new foreign worker dormitories with “better standards” for up to 100,000 workers. Some of these will be temporary structures or former schools and vacant factories to provide quick relief from current overcrowded conditions. Wong said that some of the new dormitory sites would be quite near residential areas, “so all of us have to do our part to reject the ‘not in my backyard’ mindset.” [Today Online]
However, conditions under the new arrangements will remain tight. The living space per resident at new quick-build dormitories will be lifted to at least 6 square meters (not including shared facilities) from currently at least 4.5 square meters per resident (including shared facilities). The maximum number of beds per room would be ten. Currently, there are no limits on the maximum number of beds allowed per room. In practice, dormitories typically have about 12 to 16 beds in each room. [Channel News Asia]
Meanwhile, in Malaysia, the Human Resources Ministry has told employers to make arrangements and provide proper accommodation for foreign workers in all sectors within three months according to the Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities (Amendment) Act. Prior to the amendment, the Act only covered accommodation and housing for workers in plantations that were more than 8 hectares and in the mining sector. [Straits Times]
2 June 2020
Singapore: Four months imprisonment for Covid-19 fake news
(ls) In Singapore, a man has been sentenced to four months imprisonment over a Facebook post in which he falsely claimed food outlets would close and urged people to stock up due to Covid-19 restrictions. Last month, a man who broke quarantine was fined $1,000. Another man who breached an order to stay home to eat pork rib soup was jailed for six weeks. [Reuters]
26 May 2020
Singapore: Death sentence via Zoom call
(jk) A Malaysian man convicted of drug-trafficking has been sentenced to death in Singapore via a Zoom video-call. While the court hearings in the case including presentation of legal arguments were already complete, the Zoom call was used by the judge to deliver the sentence. The decision to proceed in this way was made due to Singapore’s ongoing “circuit breaker” measures amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but human rights groups – in addition to general opposition to the death penalty – raised the question whether such “rush” to hand down the sentence was appropriate. This is the first such case in Asia, and the second one globally after a man in Nigeria was sentenced to death remotely recently in a murder case. [LA Times] [The Guardian]
19 May 2020
Singapore: Historian receives POFMA correction order over statement on POFMA
(hg) Historian Thum Ping Tjin has been asked to publish a correction to a video in which he claimed that Singapore’s fake news law renders all criticism of the Government illegal. The ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Office’ has issued a correction order to him and declared that “[c]ontrary to what Mr Thum suggests, people are free to criticise and disagree with the Government”.
The responsible Law Ministry noted that the video itself will remain fully accessible to the public, “[t]hus, members of the public will be in a position to view the video, read the correction notice and clarifications, and come to their own conclusions”. In his video, the historian had questioned Pofma’s rationale alleging that it was supposed to silence critics and claiming that it is so sweeping that “even if one bit is found to be wrong or misleading, the whole statement can be considered false”.
The Government, however, considers it as untrue that an entire statement will be automatically considered false, because a part of it is false, and also reiterates that Pofma does not apply to opinions. [Strait Times]
5 May 2020
Finalization of Malaysia-Singapore rapid train deal postponed
(ls) The rail-link project that would link Malaysia’s Johor with Singapore has been delayed due to limited negotiations in recent weeks because of corona-related movement restrictions. The deal shall now be signed until the end of July. The project was suspended last year after Malaysia’s then-government under prime minister Mahatir said it wanted to review major deals. Since then, the project costs have been cut. [Reuters]
5 May 2020
Singapore: Parliament passes Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Act
(ls) Singapore is getting prepared to conduct the next general elections under special arrangements due to the expected continuation of the Covid-19 outbreak. On Monday, parliament passed the Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Act, which allows voters who are subject to movement control orders to vote and excuses some others for not voting. Special polling stations will be set up for those serving their Stay-Home-Notices at designated facilities. The general election must be held by 14 April 2021. [Straits Times]
To what extent political parties will be able to campaign ahead of the election remains to be seen. Limited possibilities for public political campaigns have, for instance, provoked strong criticism against the Polish government, which is going ahead with presidential elections this week. A similar problem is expected in this November’s U.S. presidential election. Limitations on campaigns are expected to benefit incumbent office-holders as opposition candidates will have difficulty to get their messages across.
28 April 2020
Singapore: First prison sentence for breaching stay home notice
(jk) A Singaporean has been sentenced to six weeks in jail over breaching his Covid-19 related stay home notice which demanded him to stay home for 14 days after returning from abroad. He was the first individual since the Corona crisis begun to be sentenced to jail for exposing others to the risk of infection under the Infectious Disease Act in Singapore. Currently, five more cases are pending. [South China Morning Post] One case involves a Singaporean charged with violating his quarantine order half an hour before his isolation period ended. [Channel News Asia]
Another man has been charged with spreading false information on Covid-19 measures on his Facebook account. He claimed to have “intel” that Singapore would “proceed with more measures”, including the closure of supermarkets soon, suggesting people should go and stock up on food. The police said “[m]embers of the public should refer to official sources for information and avoid spreading unsubstantiated information or false rumours, as these may cause fear and public alarm”. The charge carries a penalty of for up to three years in prison and a fine not exceeding S$10,000. [The Online Citizen]
28 April 2020
Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia extend lockdown measures
(jk) Due to ongoing concern about the spread of the Covid 19, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) in Thailand decided in a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister to extend the Emergency Decree for another month after it expires at the end of this week. [Bangkok Post]
Malaysia and Singapore have also extended their lockdowns, until May 12 and June 1 respectively, while Vietnam eased restrictions slightly (see below).
21 April 2020
Singapore: Neglected workers’ dormitories have become Covid-19 clusters
(ls) After initially being praised for its Covid-19 management, Singapore has seen sharply rising numbers of infections throughout the last week. These are largely tied to clusters in migrant workers’ dormitories. The development has raised the awareness for the crammed conditions and sub-standard hygiene in the respective facilities on the outskirts of the city. Most of the workers sleep on bunk beds, with 12 to 20 people in one room with limited ventilation. Hundreds of men share communal toilets and showering facilities. [South China Morning Post]
Singapore’s migrant workers, who are largely from India and Bangladesh, are an essential part of the work force. They usually pay large sums in agency fees to work in the city state and are often reluctant to complain for fear of being deported. [The Guardian]
31 March 2020
Singapore: High Court rejects challenges to gay sex ban
(jk) A court in Singapore dismissed several challenges against a Singapore law, taken over from British colonial times, criminalising gay sex. It ruled that the law did not violate articles of the constitution, which was alleged, regarding equality and freedom of speech.
While the law is rarely enforced, LGBT activist state such law is in contradiction to the values of a modern and forward looking culture. The judge however argued that despite the law not being enforced, it still reflects widely held “public sentiments and beliefs”. [The Guardian]
24 March 2020
Singapore and Australia sign new bilateral agreements
(ps) Singapore and Australia have signed a digital economy pact as well as ten agreements to boost bilateral cooperation in a time where both countries are suffering under the coronavirus outbreak. The Singaporean and Australian prime ministers witnessed the signing via video conferencing after a face-to-face meeting in Canberra got cancelled in consideration of the current situation. Both leaders said their digital economy pact aims to set a benchmark for international trade rules in a digital world. [Straits Times]
17 March 2020
Singapore takes step towards elections
(hg/ps/jk) Although Prime Minister Lee has until April next year to dissolve Parliament and trigger the start of general elections after the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee released its recommendations on the number and boundaries of the country’s single-member and multi-seat constituencies, earlier elections are possible.
Based on the experience that the release of new electoral boundaries indicates general elections within months some analysts say an election could be held as early as next month. In previous elections, the timing between the release of the electoral boundaries and the dissolution of Parliament has ranged from one day to one month and 26 days. The election must be held within three months from the date Parliament is dissolved.
Two possible scenarios according to constitutional scholar Eugene Tan are April or June with the Islamic fasting month Eid starting on April 24 – around 14 per cent of the Singaporeans are Muslim – and the development of the corona virus setting two important conditions for the timing. [South China Morning Post]
According to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the date of the general election will depend on how Singapore continues to cope with the coronavirus outbreak. Singapore is facing extended challenges as the outbreak will likely last at least this year, possibly even longer he added in a Facebook post.
According to a professor from the National University of Singapore an early election would be advantageous for the ruling party as they received praise for their handling of the virus outbreak. [The Straits Times]
3 March 2020
Interview: Singapore’s Fake News Law Shows How Not to Address Disinformation Online
(jk) Singapore’s Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) gave the government significant leverage over social media platforms and users to issue corrections or remove posts it finds to contain falsehoods. This interview digs deeper into the issue with Cherian George, a Singaporean academic and Professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication who works on media freedom, censorship and hate speech. [World Politics Review]
25 February 2020
POFMA: Singapore High Court judge decides that claimants have to prove the truth of their statements
(ls) In another High Court decision that deals with the enforcement of Singapore’s controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), a judge held that a claimant who opposes a governmental correction order must prove the truth of his statement. In a prior decision, a different High Court judge had decided that the burden should fall on the government to prove a statement is false. The new decision is based on the reasoning that false statements are not protected speech under Article 14 of Singapore’s Constitution. [Straits Times]
Meanwhile, Facebook has complied with a POFMA order to block the page of a website which frequently publishes critical content about the Singaporean government. However, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We believe orders like this are disproportionate and contradict the government’s claim that [the law] would not be used as a censorship tool. (…) We’re deeply concerned about the precedent this sets for the stifling of freedom of expression in Singapore.” [South China Morning Post]
18 February 2020
Singapore: POFMA appeal rejected and first Facebook page block ordered
(jk) After the Singaporean Democratic Party (SDP) has been ordered to correct two Facebook posts and one article under the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in December 2019 [Asia in Review No. 51, December/2019, 3], and filed an appeal against the order [Asia in Review, No. 3, January/2020, 3], this first court challenge against POFMA has failed.
Singapore’s High Court ruled that statements made by SDP on employment statistics were indeed false and therefore, the order was issued lawfully. The SDP is considering an appeal against the decision and pointed in a statement that POFMA should only be used in “clear cut cases of falsehood”, not when interpretation of statistical data is involved as was the case here. [The South China Morning Post 1]
In another POFMA-related development, the government has for the first time issued a notice for Facebook to be ordered to disable access for users to the States Times Review’s (STR) Facebook page. Allegedly, STR’s Facebook page has repeatedly posted falsehoods and has not complied with any previous POFMA directions, which is why the “disabling provision” of POFMA is now being used. [The South China Morning Post 2]
11 February 2020
Singapore and the U.S. will engage in cross-border data transfer
(fs) The Monetary Authority of Singapore and the U.S. Treasury revealed plans in a joint statement for data transfer by financial firms without the need for data localization, meaning that access to the data would not be limited within the territorial borders. This is subject to the condition that financial regulators have access to data needed for regulatory and supervisory purposes.
Although not legally binding, the two countries intend to promote and implement policies in order to achieve various goals: to ensure the ability of cross-border electronic data transferals, to oppose restrictions against where data can be stored and processed assuming regulators have access, to facilitate detection of cross-border money laundering and terrorist financing patterns and the chance to remedy lack of data access before being required to use local facilities. [The Straits Times]
4 February 2020
Fake News: A different Corona Virus Battle
(jk/fs) With the news heavily dominated by the Corona Virus outbreak this past week, a number of Southeast Asian governments have tried to reign in on rumours and fake news related to the virus by using their respective “fake news legislations”.
In Malaysia, the health minister went as far as saying that the spread of fake news had become more critical than the issue of the virus within the country. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) on Wednesday conducted four separate raids that resulted the arrest of four suspected for posting and distributing false reports about the outbreak. They and two more suspects arrested earlier in the week, were subsequently detained under Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act for sharing offensive and menacing content. If found guilty, they could face imprisonment of up to one year. [Channel News Asia] [South China Morning Post]
Singapore has issued several correction directions in the past week over false claims concerning the situation in Singapore, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Office said. One addressee was AB-TC City News, wrongly claiming the infection of five Singaporeans who had not been to China. Another one was the Facebook page of The States Times newspaper, objected to for reporting that the city-state had run out of masks. Another correction notice was issued over personal Facebook posts of citizens claiming the virus had been discovered at an MRT station and that it was closed for disinfection.
The authorities also announced a lifting of POFMA temporary exemptions of general correction directions for major search engines and social media platforms due to the evolving situation of the Wuhan virus. These “can be issued to prescribed Internet intermediaries, telecoms and broadcast licensees, or newspapers, to get them to communicate a correction notice to all users in Singapore – not just the ones who access the falsehood – when a false statement has been conveyed and it is in the public interest to correct it.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong supported the extensive use of the law and told reporters “Some of it, we know, is malicious and deliberate – people who are making up stories, people who are deliberately fomenting fear, uncertainty and doubt”. [The Straits Times]
In Thailand, the digital economy minister said that two were charged with violating the computer crimes act – which carries up to five years in prison – for false separate social media posts about the virus thus far. He said the ministry’s Anti-Fake News Center collaborated with the police in the arrest. [Khaosod English]
28 January 2020
Singapore: Latest POFMA enforcement sparks resistance from Malaysian NGO
(ls/fs) Singapore’s enforcement of its new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) continues to meet resistance. Last week, the government ordered local access to a website to be blocked for failing to comply with a correction directive issued under the online falsehoods law. The operator of the site is the Malaysia-based human rights organization Lawyers for Liberty. The article that triggered the Singaporean government to issue a correction directive under POFMA dealt with judicial executions in Singapore and claimed that officers used unlawful and brutal methods. As Lawyers for Liberty did not comply with the correction directive, Singapore’s Minister of Communications and Information on Thursday ordered industry regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to issue the access blocking orders. [ZDNet]
In response, Lawyers for Liberty has filed a lawsuit against Singaporean Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Malaysia’s High Court. The group argues that the law is a violation of fundamental human rights and cannot be enforced in Malaysia as it goes against domestic public policy. Moreover, the organization has maintained that its allegations stem from credible sources, including prison guards that have worked for or are currently working for the prison system in Singapore. [South China Morning Post]
Lawyers for Liberty announced on their website that, since the Singaporean government’s intervention, the organization’s website has experienced a “great increase” in traffic coming mainly from Singapore: “This shows that banning websites or information is always counter-productive. The Singapore government should instead have responded with facts and rational arguments.” [Lawyers for Liberty]
In a post on its government website “Factually”, Singapore’s government presents its side of the story. [Singapore Government]
21 January 2020
Singapore: First steps in SDP’s POFMA appeal
(fs) The appeal process against the corrections of two Facebook posts of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) due to the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) [Asia in Review No. 51, December/2019, 3][Asia in Review No. 1, January/2020] started off with a setback for the appellant. The SDP’s application to hear the argument in an open court, where the public and media can attend, was turned down by the judge as a public hearing warrants a “special reason” which is not apparent in this case. [The Straits Times 1]
The SDP secretary-general, who represented SDP in court, expressed his discontent about the judge’s decision, calling it “very disappointing” and referred to the “immense public interest” in the case which should be reason enough for the case to be heard in an open court. [Channel News Asia]
The SDP’s appeal bases on the assertion that in the case at hand, the party only gave “reasonable interpretation” of data which was made publicly available made by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), and therefore POFMA’s requirement of “obvious, deliberate falsehood” is not met. [The Straits Times 2] [The Online Citizen]
21 January 2020
ISEAS State of the Region Survey 2020
(jk) The ASEAN Studies Center at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore has published its second survey of SEA focussing on the region’s perceptions and opinions on political and economic issues.
Its results show that deteriorating views of the U.S. under the Trump presidency continue by and large, but at the same time, the region is increasingly anxious about Chinese engagement and influence. Most survey respondents see China as the most influential economic and strategic power, but were they forced to choose, “a majority of the total respondents (53.6%) will cast their lot with the US. However, when the respondents are broken down into their nationality, the majority of respondents from seven ASEAN member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand) favour China over the US.”
While the region’s confidence in the US as a strategic partner and provider of security is low overall, Japan continues to be most trusted and preferred as a strategic partner (~30%). [ISEAS]
14 January 2020
Singapore’s first terrorism financing charge case
(tk) Even though Singapore has itself not been a direct victim of successful terrorist incidents involving the Islamic State, it has engaged in a series of actions to counter terrorism over the years. To respond to terrorism on the financing front, it passed the Terrorism Suppression of Financing Act in 2002. Now, a Singaporean national who had been accused of providing money to a person in Turkey for the publication of ISIS propaganda has stood trial. This was the first charge of its kind under the named Act. [The Diplomat]
7 January 2020
Singapore: Opposition party reacts to POFMA correction directions
(jk/fs) After the Singaporean Democratic Party (SDP) has been ordered to correct two Facebook posts and one article under the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in December 2019 [Asia in Review No. 51, December/2019, 3], it defends the statements made as “true and correct”.
A SDP spokesman announced that the party will file an application to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to alter or retract the correction direction the ministry had issued back in December. The SDP accuses the MOM of deliberately presenting the SDP’s posts as false and the government in general to stymie political debate through the use of POFMA. The government said it was a coincidence that the first few cases of POFMA were all political in nature and targeted opposition figures. [South China Morning Post]
According to a ministry spokesman SDP published specific falsehoods, and standing by its position triggers a POFMA-process to follow. In the event of MOM rejecting the application, SDP’s next move would be to file an appeal to the High Court. [The Online Citizen] [The Straits Times]
31 December 2019
Singapore: Opposition leader criticizes biased use of POFMA
(fs) The leader of the oppositional People’s Voice party Lim Tean accused the government of mostly targeting opposition parties by the new Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in anticipation of the upcoming elections “to silence its opponents and chill public discussion of unpopular government policies.”
The accusation was made in a Facebook post, following a directive he received from the government relating to a prior post he made on the social media website, condemning the education policy under the ruling People’s Action Party. The directive ordered Lim Tean to change the post due to it being “false and misleading”.
Since the installation of POFMA nearly three months ago, opposition party figures have been targets in three of four cases of correction directives for matters of “public interest”. According to the law’s definition, “public interest” also includes preventing influencing the outcome presidential or parliamentary elections. [Nikkei Asian Review]
Such a definition bears an enormous political risk for political opponents as the ruling party is now in a position to direct corrections concerning statements made by political enemies ahead of upcoming elections to eliminate these in order to maintain itself in power.
It seems that the criticism against Singapore’s government of POFMA does not break off, with the bespoken incident following last week’s open letter of Singapore’s High Commissioner Foo Chi Hsia harshly defending the act against British newspaper The Economist’s evaluation. [Asia in Review No. 52, December/2019, 4]
24 December 2019
Singapore High Commissioner responds to POFMA-critic UK article
(fs) After British newspaper The Economist published an article criticizing Singapore’s new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) and calling it “part of the government’s criticism-suppressing arsenal” [The Economist], Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Foo Chi Hsia issued an open letter to refute the accusations.
In the letter, she defends the controversial law as a necessary step for Singapore being “a small English-speaking, multiracial, multi-religious city-state open to the world, more vulnerable than most to this threat”. At the same time, she describes passing POFMA as the result of observing the “cost of doing nothing in Britain and elsewhere” and the state’s “decision to act”, not denying the law’s purpose of “meeting own context and needs” and “defending own interests”. [The Online Citizen]
17 December 2019
Singapore: Next POFMA enforcement actions
(lf) The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has been ordered by the Singaporean government to correct a Facebook post. This is the third use of the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which allows the government to order corrections of posts deemed misleading or incorrect. POFMA raises concerns about limiting free speech. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters] [see also Asia in Review, No. 50, December 2019, 2]
10 December 2019
Singapore: Google suspends political advertisements due to “fake news”-related legislation
(ls) Google has stopped accepting political advertisements in Singapore months before a widely expected election. The internet company said that it complies with Singapore’s new Code of Practice for Transparency of Online Political Advertisements, which has been enacted along the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) earlier this year. The decision led the small Singapore Democratic Party to complain that this closes down a major channel through which opposition parties could compete with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Facebook, however, is still accepting political advertisements in Singapore after implementing new rules under the “fake news” laws in September. [Reuters]
CPG’s Lasse Schuldt describes how Southeast Asian governments have been stepping up their efforts to actively manage the truth by combatting false information. Among the main tools are correction orders and state-run “fake news centers” that monitor and “rectify” alleged falsehoods online. In addition, government discourse employs increasingly belligerent language to denounce the perceived threats. Schuldt argues that the protection of the truth is becoming an increasingly accepted ground for restricting free speech. [Verfassungsblog]
3 December 2019
Singapore orders Facebook to comply with fake news law
(jk) The Singaporean government has for the first time since the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) Act came into forced Facebook to issue a correction notice alongside a post that violates POFMA.
The post on the States Times Review Facebook page included several falsehoods, for example the assertion that Singapore’s Home and Law Minister had ordered the arrest of a person behind a separate Facebook post. The page is run by a man based Australia who is known to be critical of the government in Singapore and has previously run as an opposition candidate there.
This is the second time the law has been used involving Facebook, though the first time last week, the complaint was accepted by the author who agreed he had made some mistakes and altered the post. This time, the author refused to take down the post or alter it.
Facebook, facing fines for non-compliance with POFMA has added a label to the post that can be seen only if accessed from Singapore, stating that it was legally required to say that the post is determined by the Singapore government to contain false information at the bottom. [BBC]
12 November 2019
EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement to enter into force this month
(ls) Singapore and the European Union announced last week that the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement will take effect on 21 November, about seven years after its conclusion. The city state thereby becomes the first Southeast Asian nation to activate a free-trade deal with the EU. The related Investment Protection Agreement, however, is still pending ratification by national parliaments in the EU after the European Court of Justice held that this was a necessary step. The proceedings in the ECJ were also the reason for the delayed entry into force of the FTA. [South China Morning Post]
Key elements of the Free Trade Agreements have been gathered on the European Commission’s website. [European Commission]
Earlier this year, also Vietnam and the EU signed a Free Trade Agreement and an Investment Protection Agreement. Both agreements are waiting for ratification.
5 November 2019
Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues
(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.
Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]
The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to
Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]
5 November 2019
RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020
(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.
All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]
Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.
This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]
5 November 2019
Singapore: Discussion on academic freedom amid cancellation of Yale-NUS course
(jk) Earlier in September, Singapore’s Yale-NUS collage cancelled a course on dissent only two weeks before it was scheduled to start, sparking a wider discussion on academic freedom in Singapore. One if the reasons for the cancellation, Yale-NUS said was that students could have been at risk of breaking the law. [Bangkok Post]
Reflecting on attitudes towards activism and dissent in Singapore more broadly, is the Chief Editor of [New Narratif], a platform often in the government’s focus with regards to online dissent and critical perspectives on Singaporean leadership.
22 October 2019
Maritime terrorism in Asia: An assessment
(ls) A paper published by the Observer Research Foundation evaluates the possibility of an increase in maritime terrorist violence in Asia. Based on an analysis of recent incidents, it argues that the vulnerability of high seas shipping to criminal acts of violence and the weak and inconsistent nature of maritime governance raises the possibility of a terrorist strike in the Asian littorals. [ORF]
22 October 2019
Singapore and China sign defence agreement to scale up army and navy exercises and to establish regular dialogue
(jk) Singapore is hedging its bets and continues to strive for cooperation with both the US and China. In a recent move, Singapore and China signed a defence agreement increasing bilateral military exercises, mutual logistics support and establish regular dialogues between their defence ministers. The Singaporean Defence Minister signed the agreement in Beijing after it had been agreed to in principle at the Shangri-La dialogue earlier this year. [Channel News Asia 1]
Just prior to the defence minister’s trip to the PRC, Singapore’s PM designate Heng Swee Keat and other 4th Generation leaders just visited China last week for a series of high-level talks. [Channel News Asia 2]
22 October 2019
Singaporean jailed for financing terrorism after sending funds to Islamist preacher
(jk) A Singaporean man was sentenced to just over two years in jail for financing terrorism after he sent some US$850 to a radical Islamic preacher. He was arrested earlier last year under Singapore’s Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial for up to two years, as he was “radicalised” and intended to “undertake armed violence in Syria”, according to a court statement. [Channel News Asia]
8 October 2019
Singapore: The 28 Most Important Issues Facing the city state
(jk) Independent online platform New Naratif asked its readers what they think about the current state of Singapore and the most important issues facing the country today. Its about 450 responses paint a basic picture of Singaporean woes today. Leaving aside the relatively small sample size and the narrow pool of New Naratif readers, the answers paint an interesting picture of what will likely dominate the upcoming elections. [New Naratif]
8 October 2019
Fake news in SEA: Singapore’s fake news law comes into effect, Malaysia’s does not
(jk) Last week, Singapore’s fake news law – the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), took effect. The new law provides for criminal sanctions for individuals, including jail time of up to 10 years, and fines of up to S$1 million for technology companies.
Under the new law, any government minister can decide whether to act against a piece of falsehood on the internet, and can order it to be taken down or ask for corrections to be put up alongside it. Ministers can also order technology companies to block accounts that are spreading alleged untruths.
Critics such as The Asia Internet Coalition described the law as the “most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date”. It gives the “Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false.” [Asia Times]
To critics that have pointed to a potentially long and most importantly costly procedure of appeal, the government has said that it will cost “as little as S$200” and take “as fast as nine days” for anyone to challenge a minister’s decision. Under the subsidiary laws to the act, court fees for the first three days of the appeal hearing will be waived. However, according to the Straits Times, the minister also decides whether an appeal against his or her decision will be accepted.
Companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter may be required to ascertain the identity of those who want to put up any paid political content in Singapore, like advertisements seeking to influence the outcome of elections. These companies may also be required to disclose to the public the paid political content. They have been given a temporary exception from the law in order to give them time to implement the technical measures required to comply with the law. [The Straits Times]
As reported last week, Thailand will open its first anti-fake news centre next month, tasked to combat unverified news on social media platforms. [Asia in Review, No. 40, October/2019, 1] Thailand and Singapore are far from the only Southeast Asian countries that have prioritised a government approach to dealing with real or alleged fake news – Southeast Asia has in fact become somewhat of a “world’s laboratory” on this particular issue, argues CPG’s Lasse Schuldt. [Voice of Asia]
Lastly, Malaysia’s ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) government continues its attempts to prevent the former government’s fake news law to be enacted. PH wants to repeal the act after it was rushed through parliament by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government just before they lost the national elections last year. This is PH’s second attempt to repeal the law after its repeal was blocked the first time around by the upper house. [The Straits Times]
1 October 2019
South China Sea: Statements at UNGA and related developments
(ls/td) At the United Nations General Assembly, Vietnam voiced its concerns over the recent developments in the South China Sea, including incidents that Vietnam considered infringements of the country’s sovereignty. Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said that relevant states should exercise restraint and refrain from conducting unilateral acts. [Bloomberg]
At the same time, the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin Jr. referred to a Code of Conduct (CoC) to cover disputed waters of the South China Sea which is targeted for signing in 2022 by ASEAN member states and China, as “a manual for living with a hegemon, or the care and feeding of a dragon in your living room. (…) even a good [CoC] is still a Chinese code of conduct.” At the same time, Locsin praised a “rock-solid relationship” between the US and the Philippines. [PhilStar]
Meanwhile, Singapore and the United States formally renewed an agreement of 1990, renewed once in 2005, that grants U.S. forces access to Singapore’s naval and air bases. It now runs until 2035. Despite a strong military relationship, the two countries do not refer to each other as “allies”. Neither do defense officials refer to U.S. facilities in Singapore as American bases. [South China Morning Post]
24 September 2019
First Singapore-India-Thailand trilateral maritime exercises (SITMEX) in Andaman Sea
(jk) An inaugural trilateral exercise of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN),the Royal Thailand Navy (RTN) and the Indian Navy (IN) took place at Port Blair, an Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal, last week. The exercise seeks to improve maritime inter-relationships amongst the three navies and contribute to the overall maritime security in the region. [Devdiscourse]
24 September 2019
PM Lee and President Trump renew key defence pact on US use of Singapore air and naval bases
(jk) When the two leaders met in New York on Monday, they renewed a defence pact which allowing American forces to use Singapore’s air and naval bases. The renewal added another 15 years and extended the timeline to 2035. [Straits Times]
10 September 2019
Better protection for abused, neglected children after changes to Children and Young Persons Act passed
(td) Amendments to the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA) were passed in Parliament to better protect children who may be neglected or abused by their caregivers. The Act aims to provide greater support to youth offenders to reintegrate into society. The Parliament also raised the age limit for what is considered a young person from 16 to 18. This would allow the authorities to intervene in cases of abuse involving older children and the definition of emotional injury has also been sharpened, so that there is clarity on when stakeholders like the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), social service agencies and the court can and should intervene, and when they should not.
Another change to the CYPA is the new Enhanced Care and Protection Order. It allows MSF and designated caregivers to children who are in out-of-home care to make day-to-day as well as more substantive decisions such as overseas travel. (Channel News Asia) (The New Paper)
10 September 2019
Singapore: PM sues Chief Editor of Singaporean News Outlet over “false statements”
(jk) The chief editor of the Singaporean news outlet “The Online Citizen” has received a notification that he will be sued over and article allegedly containing “false” statements about a recent controversy regarding the family house of the PM, once owned by his father. The editor had previously been asked to apologise and remove the article and Facebook post, but has chosen not to oblige.
The article and the post on Facebook alleged that today’s PM Lee misled his father in order to achieve that the house will not be demolished, as was Lee Kuan Yew’s wish. The PM’s lawyers state that the article has “gravely injured” his character and reputation. [The Independent Singapore]
10 September 2019
Singapore: Electoral Boundaries Review Committee is set up, indicating election preparations
(jk) The set-up of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee is seen as a formal step towards a general election. Singapore must hold its next election before April 2021, but according to observers an earlier date is more likely. In no previous instance, it has taken more than six months from the set-up of the committee to the actual elections. Government sources according to the South China Morning Post state that a “December election is now very likely”. [South China Morning Post]
3 September 2019
Singapore: Law Ministry plans to legalize conditional fee agreements
(td) Singapore’s Ministry of Law plans to allow conditional fee agreements, an additional payment option where a lawyer is paid only when the claim is successful. The country’s law currently prohibits conditional fee agreements. The new agreements will be considered for international and domestic arbitration proceedings, including mediation, as well as certain prescribed proceedings in the Singapore International Commercial Court. In addition to the lawyer’s standard legal fees, a payment under the fee agreements may include a success-fee. Existing traditional payment methods will continue to be in place alongside the proposed agreements, involving fixed fees or arrangements where clients are billed by the hour. [Straits Times] [Ministry of Law]
3 September 2019
Singapore: Religious Harmony Act to be amended
(ls) Singapore is introducing changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. The Act, in force since 1992, allows the government to issue restraining orders against preachers who engage in conduct or speech that undermines religious harmony, and fine and jail those who breach such orders. The yet unspecified changes shall adapt the Act to the social media age. In June, Singapore enacted the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, addressing “fake news” on the internet. [Straits Times]
Channel News Asia has compiled some background information about the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. [Channel News Asia]
Date of AiR edition
16 July 2019
Singapore detains Arakan Army supporters as violence escalates again in Myanmar’s Rakhine state
(ls/kj) Singapore authorities have arrested a group of Myanmar nationals accused of rallying support for the Arakan Army and armed violence against the Myanmar government. The Arakan Army is an insurgent group fighting for greater autonomy in Rakhine and Chin states. Myanmar has designated it a terrorist organization. “They should not import their domestic political issues from their countries into Singapore,” Singapore’s home ministry said. [Reuters 1]
This case is not the first of its kind, as Singapore has taken action against foreign nationals for armed violence in the past. In 2015, 27 Bangladeshi construction workers who were radicalised and planned to take up arms abroad were arrested under the Internal Security Act. [South China Morning Post] A year after, eight Bangladeshi workers organising terror attacks in Bangladesh were either charged in court or deported. [Today]
Meanwhile, it appears that Myanmar’s military is waging a new war against the Arakan Army in Rakhine. Residents told Reuters reporters that soldiers fired weapons indiscriminately, killing and wounding civilians, and tortured detainees. According to observers, the military has deployed five Light Infantry Divisions which have a reputation for brutal counter-insurgency campaigns against the nation’s many ethnic armed groups. In January, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had called on the armed forces to “crush” the rebels. [Reuters 2]
16 July 2019
Singapore rejects claims that Malaysian prisoners are targeted for execution
(kj) Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has denied accusations that prisoners from Malaysia are being targeted for execution. In one particular case, the Singapore’s president decided not to exercise the clemency power, having been advised by the Cabinet in accordance to Article 22P of the Constitution. Article 22P articulates the rules on granting pardon. [Today] [The Straits Times]
The MHA’s statement is made in response to Malaysian news reports that highlighted Singapore’s rejection of many clemency petitions for Malaysian drug criminals. In these reports, a key advisor to human rights group, Lawyers for Liberty, claimed that Singapore seems to be arranging for an “execution binge” in light of its exceptional and appalling number of clemency rejections. [Malay Mail] [Free Malaysia Today]
2 July 2019
Asian Development Bank to open office in Singapore
(cl) According to Singapore’s Ministry of Finance, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) will open an office in Singapore in the second half of this year to support the expansion of its private sector operations. [Straits Times] On Friday, it announced that the office would be “lean and focused” outfit with 12 staff, including from ADB’s Private Sector Operations Department and Office of Public-Private Partnership. This agreement to establish the new office was signed by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and ADB president Takehiko Nakao on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. [Channel News Asia]
2 July 2019
Singapore: Gay pride rally and calls for abolition of criminalization
(ls) This weekend, Singapore joined dozens of other cities around the world in celebrating gay pride. But it is the only one where gay sex is criminalized, though the law is not enforced. Previous legal challenges to overturn the ban have failed. Shortly after last year’s landmark Indian court ruling, a Singaporean DJ filed a new court challenge against the colonial-era law. [Reuters] Another parade took place in Manila. The Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte had recently said that in his younger days he “cured” himself of homosexuality with the help of “beautiful women”. [The Nation]
11 June 2019
Singapore primary source of foreign direct investment in India
(ls) Singapore is the top source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in India. In the last Indian financial year, the country received FDI inflows from Singapore valued at US$16.23 billion. The city state was followed by Mauritius (US$8.08 billion), the Netherlands (US$3.87 billion), the United States (US$3.14 billion) and Japan (US$2.97 billion). The rise of Singapore as an FDI source can partly be attributed to tax treaty amendments that India signed in recent years with Singapore and others like Mauritius that have brought tax parity, providing a level playing field. [Straits Times]
11 June 2019
Singapore, Australia to explore new areas of collaboration
(cl/jk) Singapore and Australia are deepening bilateral ties and exploring new areas of collaboration, such as in the digital economy, Prime Minister Lee and his Australian counterpart said on Friday. Mr Lee said they exchanged views on regional and global issues, adding that Australian and Singapore see “eye-to-eye” on many issues. [Channel News Asia] Both leaders also shared their hopes for negotiations on potentially the world’s largest trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to be completed by the end of the year. Negotiations for the RCEP, which involves 16 Asia-Pacific countries, have been ongoing since 2012 and Mr Lee said in November last year that there have been “significant breakthroughs”. The RCEP aims to lower trade barriers and secure improved market access for businesses in the region. [Straits Times]
PM Lee further stated that Singapore, which is currently evaluating its laws to strengthen responses against foreign interference in domestic politics, could learn from Australia. The latter had, in 2018, passed laws including a ban on foreigners making political donations after a New South Wales senator accepted money from foreign donors that had links with the Chinese government, and contradicted his party’s position by defending China’s position on the South China Sea. [Today] Previously, during maritime and airspace disputes between Singapore and Malaysia, the government noticed a spike in online comments, which it noted sought to create “an artificial impression to netizens of the opposition to Singapore’s position at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties”. In response, Senior Minister of State for Law stated, in a parliamentary debate, that Singapore would look at laws to tackle hostile information campaigns by countering the spread of false information by foreign actors and expose clandestine foreign-interference campaigns before they happen. [Today 2]
Singapore and Australia have elevated their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016 and work closely on defence and security. They are expected to sign a defence treaty this year to finalise an arrangement to jointly develop more military training.
11 June 2019
Singapore Prime Minister’s post on the 1978 Vietnam-Cambodia issue upsets both countries
(cl) On May 31st, Prime Minister Lee posted on Facebook that the then-five Association of Southeast Nation members previously came together to oppose “Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge”. In a 2011 speech, former deputy prime minister said that Singapore had to respond to the “invasion of a smaller county by a larger neighbour” or it would have undermined the credibility of Singapore’s foreign policy and had serious implications for its security, adding that this would create an undesirable precedent for small nations. [Straits Times]
However, Cambodia and Vietnam have objected to PM Lee’s remarks. Cambodia Defence Minister General told media that his comments were “unacceptable”, and Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Mr Lee’s remarks did not “objectively reflect the historical truth”. Cambodia’s Prime Minister further accused PM Lee of supporting genocide. [Reuters] In response, Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement last Friday that Singapore is committed to building on its good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia. It added that last Friday, Singapore’s Foreign Minister spoke with Vietnamese and Cambodian Prime Ministers, who agreed that notwithstanding the serious differences, they have taken a path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship. [Channel News Asia]
4 June 2019
Singapore, Malaysia added to US watchlist on currency practices
(cl) Singapore was added to a watch list for currency manipulation by the United States, which said the city-state made estimated net foreign exchange purchases of at least US$17 billion in 2018, equivalent to 4.6% of gross domestic product. The US report says Singapore should undertake reforms that will lower its high saving rate and boost low domestic consumption, while striving to ensure that its real exchange rate is in line with economic fundamentals, in order to help narrow its large and persistent external surpluses. [Straits Times]
In response, Singapore’s central bank has said on Wednesday that it does not engage in currency manipulation. It said Singapore’s monetary policy framework “has always been aimed at ensuring medium-term price stability”. Singapore Deputy Prime Minister has also remarked that it will be unsustainable for Singapore to manipulate its exchange rate as holding it deliberately low will cause hyperinflation, while keeping it artificially high will result in severe deflation [Channel News Asia]
4 June 2019
hangri-La Dialogue from the host’s view: discussions on the Sino-United States relationship and the importance of investing in defence capabilities for smaller countries
(cl/jk) During the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore on Saturday, Defence Ministers from China, Malaysia, Britain and the US discussed three main security challenges for the region: the US-China relationship; instability on the Korean peninsula and the threat of nuclear weapons; and the “clear and present” danger of terrorism and returning foreign fighters. [South China Morning Post]
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee pointed to the worrying trend in the Sino-United States relationship, with attitudes on both sides hardening towards the other party, identifying the mutual lack of strategic trust as the fundamental problem between the US and China. He added that while it would be up to the countries’ political leaders to avoid a conflict which would inflict serious damage across the globe, it is hard as leaders on both sides are facing powerful domestic pressures. [Straits Times]
On another note, Singapore’s Defence Minister emphasised that smaller countries in the region like Singapore have to invest in their own defence capabilities even as they try to resolve disputes through peaceful means because the cost of any potential conflict is prohibitively high. [Channel News Asia] On Friday, Singapore’s Defence Minister and US Acting Defence Secretary had welcomed the renewal of the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding for the US Use of Facilities in Singapore, as they reaffirmed the excellent and longstanding bilateral defence relations. [ASEAN Breaking News]
Singapore and China have in the meantime agreed to a “substantial programme” to deepen military ties after a meeting between the two countries’ defence chiefs. Among the proposed enhancements to existing defence cooperation agreement is a second bilateral naval drill to be held next year, after the countries held a similar drill in 2015. [The Diplomat]
These exercises are significant given few other Southeast Asian countries, especially those maintaining strong security ties with the US, such as Singapore, engage with the People’s Liberation Army Navy on a bilateral basis. [Asia One] According to one point of view, “such military-to-military outreach is part of China’s diplomatic efforts as it seeks to counter suspicion about its intentions and the pressure it is facing from a strain in ties with the US.” [South China Morning Post]
28 May 2019
Singaporean court stays execution of drug courier, but laws to remain “tough”
(cl) A day before he was scheduled to hang on Friday, a Malaysian drug mule on death row for importing heroin in 2017 got a temporary reprieve after the Court of Appeal granted him a stay of execution. During the hearing, his lawyers raised questions about the “lack of transparency” of the clemency process. In response, the prosecution submitted affidavits to set the sequence of events. [Straits Times]
Prior to the hearing, legal advocacy group Lawyers for Liberty accused the Singapore government of bulldozing through procedures to hang the Malaysian, who was found to merely be a drug courier and not a mastermind in illicit substances. The group added that the one-week notice of his execution is “oppressive and unjust”. [The Star] The Law Minister of Malaysia has further denied allegations accusing it of interfering with the court’s decision. [Asia One]
The last case concerning the execution of a Malaysian on similar charges of carrying drugs into Singapore occurred in October 2018. [Malay Mail] Recently, on 27 May, a Nigerian man on death row was cleared of importing close to 2kg of ice. [Channel News Asia] Regardless, the Minister of Law has warned that while there are strong coordinated efforts internationally for Singapore to change the government’s position on drugs, there remains a need for such “tough laws”. [Straits Times 2]
4 December 2018
Heng Swee Keat – Singapore’s likely next prime minister
(ls) Last week, a reorganization within Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) took place when finance minister Heng Swee Keat was given a key position within the party’s top decision-making body and declared “first among equals” – a move that put him in place to be the likely successor once Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong steps aside (see last week’s AiR). Heng is widely seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ – especially given that one of Singapore’s most immediate challenges is keeping its open economy in good shape in the face of rising protectionism and trade disputes between global powers. [Reuters]
However, questions remain whether he will tighten political controls, be able to unify the party elite after a tight leadership contest and even whether he is healthy enough for the job after a stroke in 2016. The election is due by April 2021, but it is widely expected the vote will be brought forward – possibly as soon as next year – and that Heng will take over from Lee soon after. The [South China Morning Post] has gathered opinions on Heng’s position within the PAP and possible future developments.
27 November 2018
Singapore: Finance Minister set to become next Prime Minister
(dql) Singapore’s Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was elected the ruling People’s Action Party’s first assistant secretary, making him the top member of the party’s central executive committee and paving the way for him to become the country’s fourth Prime Minister after Lee Kuan Yew (1954-1992), Hog Chok Tong (1992-2004), and Lee Hsien Loong (since 2004). The next general election will be held latest April 2021. Since 1959 the People’s Action Party has won all general elections, mostly either by supermajority or even by 100% of the seats.
Heng, who began his career in the Singapore Police Force, has been in parliament since 2011 and was Minister for Education from 2011 to 2015 before assuming the post as Finance Minister. [South China Morning Post]
20 November 2018
Quad meeting in Singapore
(jk) One year ago, in November, the Quad has been revived. Since then it has had three meetings but it is yet to take a more concrete shape or amount to more than a senior officials level dialogue of its members India, Japan, the US and Australia. But rather than seeming closer, the three allies and its strategic partner India seem to be less unified than at the last meeting which came right after the resolution of the Doklam stand-off between China and India.
This time, India is seen to hedge its bets a little more and is re-balancing ties with China carefully, rather than taking a clear side and despite a maybe ambitious aim to provide an alternative model to China’s authoritarian rule and state-directed lending for infrastructure projects, it moves along slowly [SCMP] [FirstPost].
Nonetheless, other observers are much more bullish about the Quad’s future, pointing out that it was agreed to meet again in due course, as well as some common language in the subsequent statements that was not mentioning China directly, but apparently not more than a thinly veiled reference. [The Print] Also, an interview with the Indian Navy Chief of Naval Staff referenced below in this issue of AiR gives bullish observers hope.
Meanwhile, Japanese and Australian Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Scott Morrison during a meeting last Friday agreed to deepen defense cooperation to counter China’s growing influence in the region. In a joint statement released after the talks both leaders also expressed serious concerned about the situation in the South China Sea while remaining “strongly opposed to any actions that could increase tensions within the region.” [Nikkei Asian Review]
20 November 2018
33rd ASEAN Summit in Singapore
(ls) The 33rd ASEAN Summit came to a close last Thursday, marking the end of Singapore’s chairmanship, officially handing over the chairmanship to Thailand. CPG, in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, will host the international conference “Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2019” on 3-4 December in Bangkok. More information on the [CPG Website].
The summit saw leaders of all 10 ASEAN member states and leaders of key partner nations from outside the region including United States Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The summit was overshadowed by the ongoing “trade war” between the US and China. In his opening remarks to the summit, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “the international order is at a turning point. The existing free, open and rules-based multilateral system which has underpinned ASEAN’s growth and stability, has come under stress. Countries, including major powers, are resorting to unilateral actions and bilateral deals, and even explicitly repudiating multilateral approaches and institutions.” [ASEAN Post]
In the face of such challenges, Lee outlined three targets he hoped ASEAN would achieve in the next decade: Deeper economic integration, enhanced unity so as to more effectively engage its major partners, and populations equipped with skills needed for new jobs in the digital economy. [Straits Times 1]
In the parallel ASEAN-China summit, both sides vowed to strengthen efforts to meet the joint target of US$1 trillion in trade volume and US$150 billion in investment by 2020. ASEAN and China also announced a roadmap titled “ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership Vision 2030”. Regarding the South China Sea, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that China is expecting the Code of Conduct consultation to be finished soon. [CGTN]
At the ASEAN-US summit, Lee he noted that ASEAN was looking forward to improve trade between the two in the coming years. Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining international law in the South China Sea.
During the ASEAN-Russia summit, which was also attended by Russian president Vladimir Putin, a new agreement between ASEAN and the Eurasian Economic Commission was signed. It is expected to contribute to trade, investment and economic expansion between Southeast Asian countries and member states of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Russia is among five member states of the EAEU, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. [Straits Times 2]
As regards the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was advanced to the final stages of negotiation, it was announced at the summit that it would be finalized in 2019. [ASEAN Post] The RCEP free trade talks involve the ten ASEAN nations as well as partner countries such as Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. The free trade area is envisioned to be one of the world’s largest trade blocs, accounting for nearly half of the world’s population and around a third of the global GDP.
The incoming ASEAN Chair Thailand meanwhile proposed to host the first ASEAN Summit of 2019 in June instead of April, as the government appears to be concerned about a possible delay of the next general election which is tentatively scheduled for 24 February. It would be the first time that such arrangement would be made. [The Nation]
13 November 2018
33rd ASEAN Summit in Singapore
(jk) Singapore is hosting the 33rd ASEAN Summit this week where it will also hand over the chairmanship to Thailand for 2019. Leaders will also hold the 21st ASEAN Plus Three Summit and 13th East Asia Summit. [Channel News I] US President Donald Trump will not attend the summit but send Vice President Pence instead, who will also represent President Trump at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Papua New Guinea.
Expected to join are Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The summit in Singapore will coinciding with his first ever state visit to Singapore and Putin will also meet Indonesian leader Joko Widodo at the summit’s side-lines. [Jakarta Post]
Singapore’s FM has ahead of the summit stated that Singapore has achieved much more over the past year than it had anticipated. He cited as major examples that progress has been made both on the issue of the South China Sea – in form of the single draft negotiating text of the Code of Conduct signed at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August, as well as on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations. [Channel News II]
RCEP is covering 3.6 billion people and a GDP of about $25 trillion, which is more than that of the United States and is the most ambitious trade deal ever negotiated by developing countries. [Brookings] It includes all ten ASEAN members, its ‘plus-three’ members China, Japan and South Korea, as well as India, New Zealand and Australia. It could become hugely beneficial to the region it covers, although it has still some way to go to be finalised. It remains to be seen whether substantial progress can be made at the current summit.
In a latest development, China’s Premier Li Keqiang on Tuesday expressed his hope that the negotiations with the Southeast Asian nations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea will be completed within three years, arriving at a final deal. [Xinhua]
The next ASEAN summit in Thailand has been announced for 22 -23 June 2019. This breaks with the traditional date of the first summit being held in April/May, but gives the government in Thailand enough time to hold widely expected general elections before the summit.
6 November 2018
Political succession in Singapore
(jk) Next week, the People’s Action Party (PAP) will meet for its conference and the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) election. The election of new leaders from the PAP’s fourth-generation (4G) to its CEC will be closely watched for clearer signs of who will become Singapore’s next Prime Minister. [SCMP]
In both previous leadership transitions — to Goh Chok Tong after Lee Kuan Yew, and then to Lee Hsien Loong after that — both men had already been identified as the next Prime Minister before they assumed higher positions in the PAP CEC during the party conference. This time, the party’s internal elections are seen by many as much more than a formality since leadership succession details area far from clear at this stage. PM Lee has previously stated that he will step down when he turns 70 in 2022.
30 October 2018
China: Xi Jinping demands war preparedness of Southern Theatre Command following first joint China-ASEAN maritime exercises
(dql/jk) During his visit to the Southern Theatre Command which is in charge for the South China Sea and Taiwan, President Xi Jinping in a speech urged the Command to “strengthen its mission … and to concentrate all energies to advance the work on preparing for war.” The Command “must take all complex situations into consideration and perfectionalize all contingency plans”. [Xinhua, in Chinese][South China Morning Post]
Xi‘s speech came shortly after China and ASEAN states held their first joint maritime exercises last week in an effort to ease regional tensions linked to rival claims in the South China Sea. While Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar sent observers, Singapore – the co-organiser of the event-, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei deployed ships to participate in the exercises.
Eight warships with 1,200 military personnel set sail from China’s southern Guangdong province. A focus of the ongoing drill is maritime safety, as well as search and rescue operations featuring the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). [ATimes]
In addition to the maritime drill off China, armed forces from the PLA, Malaysia and Thailand were also conducting a 10-day drill in areas off Port Dickson in Malaysia. The exercises are an extension of the annual joint exercises between China and Malaysia that began in 2014. [The Nation]
23 October 2018
Singapore pursuing free trade with E.U. and U.K.
(ls) The European Union and Singapore last Friday signed the E.U.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, expected to come into force next year, which will boost services, improve market access, and see tariffs between both parties eliminated in five years. In 2017, bilateral trade grew to US$98.4 billion, making up slightly more than 10 per cent of Singapore’s total trade. Singapore is the EU’s largest trading partner in the ASEAN region. [South China Morning Post]
In addition, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his country is ready to strike a trade deal with the U.K., which would come into effect at the end of any Brexit transition period. Britain remains in the EU-Singapore deal for the time being, but it seems likely that come March, when it leaves the E.U., it will have to begin its own negotiations. Such new U.K.-Singapore agreement is likely to contain similar terms as the E.U.-Singapore agreement. [Politico]
4 September 2018
Malaysia cancels Chinese-backed projects, turning again to Singapore
(ls) In Malaysia, it appears that the golden era for Chinese investments, which peaked under former prime minister Najib Razak, seems to be coming to an end. Since Prime Minister Mohamad Mahatir’s five-day official visit to China last month, the 93-year-old Malaysian leader has caused anxiety to Chinese investors by several announcements.
First, Mahathir appears to be firm on permanently cancelling two major deals with China, the US$20 billion East Coast Rail Link and two natural gas pipelines worth US$2.3 billion, even though he continued to suggest they may be deferred. The rail link and pipeline project were both awarded without tender to Chinese companies in November 2016 after direct negotiations between Beijing and Najib’s government. [South China Morning Post 1]
Moreover, the fate of the giant Forest City project, a $100 billion Malaysian township, has been thrown into doubt after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad refused to let foreigners buy apartments or live in them long-term. In Malaysian political discourse, Forest City is frequently referred to as a gigantic Chinatown of 700,000 residents. Observers hold that targeting the developer may be part of Mahathir’s broader plan to redefine Malaysia’s relationship with Beijing. More pragmatically, however, the move might just be an attempt to increase Malaysia’s bargaining power in the negotiation for compensation for the cancelled projects mentioned above. [The Economic Times] [The Straits Times 1]
At the same time, Malaysia and Singapore are likely to reach a decision soon on both the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) and the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS). In May, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said his newly elected government wanted to scrap the 350km rail line between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, originally planned to be completed in 2026. But negotiations appear to have advanced into a more favorable direction. [The Straits Times 2]
However, another sensitive topic between Malaysia and Singapore remains the price the city state pays for fresh water under a 1962 agreement. The agreement stipulates that Singapore can draw up to 250 million gallons of water from the Johor River in Malaysia, close to 60 per cent of its needs, at a fixed price. Malaysia in turn is allowed to buy back treated water at a subsidized rate. The current Mahatir government wishes the prices to be reviewed while Singapore insists on them being fixed by the legally binding agreement. [South China Morning Post 2]
21 August 2018
“Crazy Rich Asians”: Why it gets Singapore wrong
(ls) Crazy Rich Asians, the film adaptation of Singaporean author Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel released this week in cinemas in the United States. It is lauded as a progressive film that addresses the role of Asians in America, and it received an impressively high rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, Kirsten Han writes that the film’s depiction of Singapore is startlingly flawed. For instance, she criticizes that the all-East Asian cast is a misrepresentation of Singapore at the most basic level, obscuring Malay, Indian, Eurasian, and more populations who make the country culturally rich, and that the film perpetuates the existing Chinese dominance in mainstream media and pop culture. Moreover, she argues that promoting an image of Singapore as a megarich hub of excess papers over the urgent struggles that people face on the ground. [Vox]
14 August 2018
Singapore: Opposition announces plans to join forces
(jk) Seven opposition parties announced plans in late July to form a new coalition with a respected former parliamentarian and former presidential candidate as its leader. The opposition is looking across the causeway and with the fall of Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, they have garnered renewed energy to take on the People’s Action Party (PAP), which is now the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia.
To be sure, their way to win the elections that will be held by January 2021 is beyond far. Not a single one of the seven parties have won a parliamentary seat in the past decade. The Workers’ Party (WP), the only opposition party with a presence in Parliament, and the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), another relatively successful opposition party, are not part of the proposed alliance. What to some observers looks like a fresh effort to tackle PAP primacy, looks to others more like a last-ditch effort to keep fighting a very nearly lost cause. [Today Online]
24 July 2018
Singapore: Cyber-Attacks to be investigated with motives remaining unclear
(jk) In Singapore, a huge cyber-attack resulted in the infiltration of the databases of SingHealth, a group of healthcare institutions. Personal data of 1.5 million, including the outpatient prescriptions of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and a few other ministers, were stolen.
The cyber-attack happened at the end of June, was officially confirmed two weeks ago and was labelled a deliberate, well-planned and targeted cyber-attack. So far, authorities believe that this was not the work of average hackers, but rather a potentially government-backed cyber-attack. It is not clear however what exactly the motives were behind the attacks and a committee will be established to investigate. So far, speculations evolve around the idea that the health data was collected for blackmail at a later stage [Today Online]. According to the government, Singapore deals with thousands of cyber-attacks every single day [South China Morning Post].
3 June 2018
Malaysia scraps Singapore rail link project. More to come?
(jk) The new Malaysian PM has announced that under his government, the previously planned highs-speed rail link that was supposed to link Malaysia and Singapore will not go ahead as planned. Mahathir told reporters last week that the project is not beneficial to Malaysia and has a too heavy price tag.
The move could signal a shift in Malaysia’s position towards other big infrastructure projects as well, in particular towards the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, of which former PM Najib was a great proponent. China’s state-run tabloid, the Global Times has already reacted to the announcement by issuing a warning that Malaysia would be the one who had to pay the price if they were not to honour contracts. [Global Times]
PM Mahathir in the meantime has signalled that he wants to renegotiate some deals made with Chine before he was elected. [The Straits Times 1] It is difficult to foresee at this stage how far these renegotiations may go. It is possible that we will see cosmetic changes with most of the current projects remaining more or less untouched.
Huge Chinese investments were made into Malaysia amidst the 1MDB crisis which eventually toppled former PM Najib. 1MBD was created in order to promote economic development, but its debt skyrocketed in 2014 before it was rescued by a Chinese SOE of the energy sector. Shortly after, Malaysia increased approval of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure projects which are now viewed with mounting suspicion. A number of projects has been given to Chinese firms without even considering other international offers, such as the East Coast Rail link, associated with huge construction cost. The new PM is not done looking into infrastructure projects. In the meantime, the noose around the neck of Najib is tightening with Malaysia and Singapore operating together to investigate the scandal. In addition, at least 6 nations are investigating in the matter, including the United States and Switzerland. [The Straits Times 2]
27 May 2018
India-Indonesia relations before Modi’s visit
(ls) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will begin a five-day visit on Tuesday, 29 May, to Indonesia and Singapore, two of India’s strategically key partners in the region, with an aim to deepen defence ties, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. India and Indonesia are likely to sign a pact on defence cooperation as a similar agreement inked years ago had expired. In Singapore, Modi will hold bilateral talks with his Singaporean counterpart and deliver the key note address at the Shangri-la dialogue. The US, Australia and several other leading powers favor a greater role by India in the Indo-Pacific region. [The Economic Times]
According to an analysis by Harsh V. Pant, the rapidly evolving regional strategic realities are forcing India and Indonesia to coordinate their policies ever more closely and after years of neglect. Jakarta has been recognizing the role that New Delhi can play in structuring a favourable balance of power in the region. Joint naval exercises and patrols, and regular port calls by their respective navies, have become a regular feature of the India-Indonesia relationship in recent years. India has also become a major source of military hardware for Jakarta. [Observer Research Foundation]
20 May 2018
Singapore: New anti-terror law takes effect
(ls) A new law that gives the police special powers during terrorist attacks, including widely banning journalists and members of the public from reporting on the scene, took effect in Singapore on Wednesday. The law gives the police the power to block all communications on-site, ranging from photographs to videos, text and audio messages, for up to a month if authorities feel security operations could be compromised. Singapore would be the host of a possible meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Yong Un. [South China Morning Post]
29 April 2018
Singapore: Prime minister succession still undecided
(ls) A cabinet reshuffle by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong kept three ministers viewed as top contenders for succession into the office of prime minister in the race. Chan Chun Sing was moved from his role as chief of the government-linked trade union congress to be the new minister of trade and industry. Heng Swee Keat, the current finance minister, was given additional charge over the National Research Foundation. And Ong Ye Kung was given full control over the education ministry, which was previously led by two ministers. However, Lee retained his current deputies Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Teo Chee Hean, thus keeping the race for succession open. Lee’s move departs from a long-standing practice in the People’s Action Party (PAP) for new leaders to be named early and to have a long lead time before they come into power. [South China Morning Post]
All three of the touted successors are ethnically Chinese men who went to the same high school (Raffles) and studied in British universities under government scholarships which contractually binds high-performing students to return to Singapore to work in the government. Prime Minister Lee has previously said he does not think any of his four children will enter politics. The protracted process has already caused a rare disagreement between the current and former prime ministers, and raised questions about whether there is enough time to groom a capable successor. [Reuters]
15 April 2018
Boao Forum for Asia: Asia to lead world growth
(hg) Asia has maintained stable growth and is expected to lead the world in economic development amid moderate recovery of major economies, said the “Asian Competitiveness Annual Report 2018,” a Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) report, released last week. [Xinhua]
Founded in 2001, the Boao Forum for Asia is a non-profit NGO that is modelled on the World Economic Forum in Davos. It hosts high-level forums for leaders from government, business and academia in Asia and beyond to share their vision on the most pressing issues in Asia and the world at large. Located in Bo’ao, Hainan, its Secretariat is based in Beijing which had also been instrumental to its foundation. [Boao Forum]
The 17th annual Boao Forum for Asia just concluded having elected former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as its new chairman. [Ban Ki Moon Foundation]
This year´s forum was significant as a window onto Chinese President Xi Jinping’s economic plans for the next five years which would normally have been announced in more detail earlier in the year at the Communist Party’s forum which has this year been occupied though by the major constitutional reform Xi had initiated. [Forbes]
Noteworthy among the speeches at this year´s BFA was also Singapore´s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speech in which the Singaporean leader also referred to to current US trade policy: “A trade war between China and the US is still far from inevitable. But if one does happen, it will undermine the multilateral trading system which has underpinned global prosperity. Countries big and small will be affected.” His full speech can be found at the [The Straits Times]
15 April 2018
Trans-Pacific Partnership: No renegotiations if US wants to join CPTPP
(hg) Members of the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – formed by Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam – have jointly opposed any re-negotiations to accommodate the US should the country decide to participate in the trade deal. This notwithstanding several ministers including those representing Japan and Australia, welcomed President Donald Trump directing officials to explore the possibility of returning to the CPTPP. Japan´s Finance Minister said he expected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Trump to discuss the trade deal at their summit meeting next week. Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s minister in charge of TPP, said it would be difficult however to change the deal, calling it a “balanced one, like fine glassware”. Similar, Australia Trade Minister stated: “We welcome the US coming back to the table, but I don’t see any wholesale appetite for any material renegotiation of the TPP-11.” [New Straits Times]
15 April 2018
Britain sends second and third warship to Asia Pacific to monitor North Korea
((hg) The UK has deployed a third navy warship to the Asia-Pacific, HMS Albion, that will join HMS Sutherland to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea, as well as take part in joint training and exercises with regional allies, namely Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. Later in the year, HMS Argyll will also be deployed to take part in an exercise with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. Overall, the British naval deployment “demonstrates our unwavering commitment to our international responsibilities and to maintaining peace, security and prosperity in the region” said the British Ministry of Defense. [Independent]
15 April 2018
Singapore: On a tiny city-state´s remarkable military force
(hg) Singapore stands out, not only economically but also militarily as Ben Brimelow thoroughly analyses.
With a population of only 5 million, Singapore is the world´s 4th richest country in terms of GDP enabling a defense budget usually hovering around three to four % of its GDP, though it has gone as high as 5% in the past. This year’s military budget, $14.76 billion, makes up 18% of the city state´s annual budget.
The concept of a strong military has been ingrained in Singapore since it gained independence from Malaysia in 1965 and incraesingyl realized since then
While the army is small in absolute numbers, with only 72,000 active personnel, it is highly trained and equipped with some of the best material available. With a high-level determination, professionalization and technical integration, Singapore commands one the world´s most stunning military forces with the best air force and navy in Southeast Asia. [Business Insider]
8 April 2018
Singapore: Police warns against using Singapore as a platform for foreign politics
(thn) Due to Malaysia’s upcoming general election the Singaporean police issued a warning against the importing of politics from other countries into Singapore. The reason were calls encouraging Malaysians living in Singapore to support political activities in the lead-up to the general election. This included the call by a coalition of Malaysian NGOs seeking to reform the country’s electoral system. The police said in a statement that foreigners, who live or work in Singapore or visit the country should not use Singapore as a platform for any political activities. Non-Singaporeans will not be granted permits for any political assemblies. [The Straits Times]
8 April 2018
International Court of Justice to hear Malaysia-Singapore island case
(ls) The International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced that it will hear arguments “concerning the revision of the judgment of 23 May 2008 in the case concerning sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh” between Malaysia and Singapore, starting on 11 June. Malaysia lodged its case in February 2017, calling for the court to overturn its 2008 ruling granting Singapore sovereignty over the rocky islet. The Malaysian government said that new documents had been discovered in British archives backing its territorial claim. The island is in a strategically important position, 14 kilometres off Johor on the eastern approach to the Singapore Strait from the South China Sea. [South China Morning Post]
1 April 2018
Anti-fake news legislation: Rushed drafting in Malaysia – comprehensive deliberation in Singapore
(ls) Malaysia’s government on Monday proposed new legislation to outlaw fake news with a maximum 10-year jail term for offenders. The bill defines fake news as “any news, information, data and reports which is, or are, wholly or partly false whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” It covers all mediums and extends to foreigners outside Malaysia as long as Malaysia or its citizens are affected. [South China Morning Post]
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) criticized the bill, saying it can be used to exert government control over the media. Suhakam chairman Tan Sri Razali Ismail said the definition of fake news in the bill was unclear as it did not offer a distinction between news generated by malicious intent or otherwise. Moreover, Razali criticized that the bill is being rushed through parliament before the upcoming elections. [The Straits Times 1]
Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, James Gomez, said “the bill combines the worst of the cheap propaganda coming from the West and the repressive laws and policies in the East. With both Singapore and the Philippines considering their own ‘fake news’ legislation, we call on all countries in the region to refrain from following this dangerous trend.” [Business Insider]
In Singapore, extensive public hearings have taken place over a similar piece of legislation on deliberate online falsehoods. In a comprehensive article, containing also videos from the hearing, the Straits Times reports the major points of contention. A must-read (and watch) for everybody interested in anti-fake news legislation! [The Straits Times 2]
1 April 2018
Singapore revokes all work permits of North Koreans
(ls) Singapore has revoked all work permits held by North Korean citizens in the country, according to its latest implementation report to the United Nations Security Council. The Republic will also not grant new work permits to North Koreans. The measures are part of the implementation of Resolution 2397 of the UN Security Council which was adopted in response to North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile on 28 November that year. [The Straits Times]
25 March 2018
Singapore’s fake news and media blackout legislation, Cambridge Analytica in Malaysia?
(jk) A parliamentary committee in Singapore has questioned tech firm representatives on the feasibility of legislations against fake news and micro-influencing amid growing concerns over national security. Unsurprisingly, the companies do not recommend harsh legislation as especially Singapore already has a number of laws on hate-speech and defamation. Singapore, at the same time, does not rank highly in international press-freedom rankings as it is and tough laws could worsen the situation. The tech firms advocate more support for vigorous and independent journalism as counter-measure against fake new [SCMP 1].
Increasing concerns of an over-reaching state and curtailed press-freedom was a controversial law that has been passed overwhelmingly by the parliament in Singapore this week. The “media blackout law” allows the government to block electronic communication and any kind of video or live recording in the case of a “serious incident”. Critics have pointed out that a “serious incident” is only very vaguely defined in the law [SCMP 2].
In Malaysia, speculation is rife since footage has emerged showing Cambridge Analytica (CA) executives naming Malaysia as an example for successfully influencing elections in 2003. PM Najib has rejected the allegations. CA is currently under investigation for having used illegal means to influence elections in a number of countries [SCMP 3].
18 February 2018
The Singapore – Sri Lanka FTA revisited
(hg) The January concluded FTA between Sri Lanka and Singapore underlines the latter´s search for trade and investment partners beyond South East and East Asia, and the recognition of Sri Lanka’s potential as a trading hub in the fast-growing Indian Ocean region. This FTA signed by Sri Lanka since 2005 among only a handful it has concluded altogether is also the most comprehensive covering goods, services, investments, trade facilitation, intellectual property rights and government procurement. Given that Singapore is one of the world’s most open economies with 99 per cent of all imported goods entering duty-free market access to Singapore was no problem for Sri Lanka even before the agreement which will now eliminate tariffs on 80 per cent of goods over 15 years, a relatively long adjustment period. Besides, Singapore, who will be the 2018 ASEAN chair, should support Sri Lanka’s eventual participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which promises to be the world’s largest free trade agreement: the 16 participating countries represent 31 per cent of global GDP, and among their numbers are the 10 ASEAN nations, China, India and Japan. See for a thorough analysis of the context and consequences of the FTA Ganeshan Wignaraja and Divya Hundlani. [East Asia Forum]
18 February 2018
Security in Southeast Asia: Increased cooperation since Marawi
(ls) After years of lukewarm security cooperation between Southeast countries, last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by Islamic State-aligned militants proved to be a game-changer, argues Michael Hart in the Asian Correspondent. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of coordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. In mid-November last year, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established, and last month, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand signed up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the “Our Eyes” initiative. [Asian Correspondent]
18 February 2018
Asia: Enhancing military defense capabilities
(hg) Heightened geopolitical threats for peace in Asia have been identified as offering significantly growing opportunities by Lockheed Martin according to its executive vice president. [CNBC]
The Pentagon has just released the National Defense Strategy and a Nuclear Posture Review, the Defense Department is preparing now to issue another key document, another Ballistic Missile Defense Review, the first one after 2010. According to an unnamed defense official the document “will take a much harder look at Iran, North Korea and China”, adding: “Each of those countries has made huge strides both in range and lethality since [the 2010] assessment, and the Pentagon’s thinking about the threat, and planning for it, […]”. [Asia Times 1]
While defense spending has actually slowed down in 2017 for Asia as a whole, IHS Jane’s
expects the region to be “the driving force behind long term growth in global defense spending” in its recent assessment. [CNBC]
Global defense spending in 2018 is expected to reach the highest levels recorded since the end of the Cold War according to the annual Jane’s Defence Budgets Report. [The National Interest]
Japan has just approved the countries ever largest annual defense budget in December last year and China and India will also spend significantly [CNBC] while Russian defense spending continued to decrease in 2017, and is now 10 percent lower than in 2015. [The National Interest]
All in all, requests for advanced military systems are clearly on the rise across the entire greater region covered by AiR, made up by South, Southeast and East Asia. [Asia Times 2]
Between 2007 and 2016, according to SIPRI defense data, China had the biggest increase in military spending of 118%, followed by Russia with 87%, and India with 54%. Germany, ranking sixth had an increase of 6.8% followed by France with an increase of 2.2%. In 2015, the US spent about 36% of the total global military spending that year. In 2016, the USA spent 611 billion USD followed by China with 215 followed by Russia with 69.2, Saudi Arabia with 63.7, India with 55.9, France with 55.7, the UK with 48.3, Japan with 46.1, Germany with 41.1, South Korea is 36.8, Italy with 27.9 and Australia with 24.6 billion USD. [The Times of India]
Notably, India´s defense budget broke into the world’s top five now, replacing the UK for the first time and signaling a shift in the military balance between the two countries with India allocating more capabilities to develop its regional ambitions than the UK with the remnants of its global ambitions. [India Post] India´s rival China, however, affords the world’s second-largest defense budget after the US and remains far ahead with three times India’s defense budget. China’s real defense spending increased by nearly 25 per cent in 2016-17, whereas India’s rose by just 2.4 per cent. Since 2000, China has built more submarines, destroyers, frigates and corvettes than Japan, South Korea and India combined. Saudi Arabia, with a defense spending of USD 76.7 billion, came in third to complete the world’s top five behind the US, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and India last year. [India Post]
In 2016, European Union countries transferred US$2.1 billion worth of weapons to Indo-Pacific nations, nearly the same as the United States ($2.3 billion). Russia was the macro-region’s largest supplier with $3.4 billion worth of arms, while China ranked fourth with $1.2 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. [Asia Times 1]
Meanwhile US Pacific Command Commander Admiral Harry B Harris announced for the U.S. – Indian relations that “[d]efence sales are at an all-time high”. [The New Indian Express]
Singapore’s defense minister just reaffirmed this assessment in his recent Total Defense Day message commemorating the fall of Singapore in 1942 that independence would depend on strong military defense capabilities. [Channel News Asia]
In Bangladesh, military modernization is a long-term objective. Regarding the Air Force Raihan Al-Beruni points to the need to develop an area denial strategy that he argues is lacking and urges the fast development of a reflected strategy assuming that the Chinese-made J-31 and the Russian Su-57 will dominate the Asian market in the near future. [Dhaka Tribune]
11 February 2018
Singapore’s mystifying political succession
(ls) Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said he would step down by the age of 70, which is now four years away. Three fourth-generation (“4G”) leaders are said to be on the shortlist to take over: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 56, and two 48-year-olds, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung. In the New Mandala, Cherian George writes that the uncertainty is testing people’s faith in a political brand associated with surprise-free long-term planning. In his article, he analyzes in particular how the People’s Action Party has sidelined Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. [New Mandala]
11 February 2018
Counter-Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Philippines and Singapore
(ls/ek) The Philippines have vowed to crush the ‘weakened’ Abu Sayyaf terror group in the south of the country. Military operations will continue against the Islamic State-inspired militants, officials said Monday, claiming the enemy’s strength has been weakened with over 350 members killed since last year. In May 2017, Abu Sayyaf and other Islamist groups attacked Marawi City in a bid to establish an Islamic province there. The five-month war displaced more than 350,000 civilians and killed some 1,100 individuals. [Asian Correspondent 1]
In a 10-5 decision, the Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday approved a one-year extension of President Rodrigo Duterte’s martial law decree covering Mindanao, home to a population of 20 million people. Opponents argued that extended martial law violated a constitutional provision limiting the initial period to 60 days. However, the Supreme Court said the constitution was “silent” on how many times Congress may extend martial law. Martial law is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, after dictator Ferdinand Marcos used military rule to hold on to power a generation ago. [The Straits Times 1]
Meanwhile, the largest Moro rebel group in Mindanao has called on legislators to approve a law creating an autonomous area, the new Bangsamoro region, to prevent violent further Islamic extremism. A senator from Mindanao who chairs the Senate subcommittee on the issue said they are hoping to approve the measure before Congress goes on break by the end of March. President Rodrigo Duterte urged the bill to be passed, which he said seeks to address the historical injustices committed against the Moro people. [Asian Correspondent 2]
Meanwhile, Singapore will boost its security spending to tackle terror threats in 2018. Terror and defense have always been important issues for Singapore’s government. In the last few years, Singapore spent a up to 30 percent of the state budget on defense. About 65,000 public cameras have been installed throughout the city state. The police also trained specialist teams, who would be the first to respond in the event of attacks. [The Straits Times 2]
4 February 2018
Appreciating Singapore’s Sri Lankan heritage
(hg) Another recovery of historic ties between an important ASEAN state and a South Asian power is displayed by a recent piece in the Straits Times highlighting the inspiration some Southeast Asian states received from Sri Lanka in the early days of their post-colonial emergence including Singapore. Among the Sri Lankans that came there in the early 1900s with many active in the fields of civil service, law, medicine, education, and engineering was also the late Mr S. Rajaratnam, who was Singapore’s first foreign minister, whereas Singapore’s present Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is also a descent from Sri Lankan immigrants of whom, most were however not from the dominating Sinhalese population but Tamils from Jaffna. [The Straits Times]
4 February 2018
Six ASEAN countries form “Our Eyes” intelligence network
(ls) Six Southeast Asian nations launched an intelligence pact on Thursday aimed at combating Islamist militants and improving cooperation on security threats, overcoming what analysts described as a high level of distrust. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei – all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – have signed up to the “Our Eyes” pact according to which senior defence officials will meet every two weeks to swap information on militant groups and develop a common database of violent extremists. [South China Morning Post]
26 January 2018
Indian – Southeast Asian/ASEAN links
(hg) On occasion of the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stressed the deep cultural links between India and SEA, referring to the Buddhist religion and the Hindu Ramayana epos. [The Hindu]
Notably, Indian Prime Minister Modi combined the Summit with inviting all ten ASEAN leaders as his ‘chief guests’ to the 68th Indian national day parade to even stronger foster the Indian – SEA ties vis-à-vis the expansion of Chinese influence in the region. [Financial Times]
Particularly noteworthy in this context is an article of Singapore´s Prime MinisterLee Hsien Loong in the Times of India on this occasion. Lee is resounding Indian External Affairs Minister Swaraj by noting the “more than 2,000 years” of bi-regional relations that he traces up to the present time that he describes as being marked by “major global trends […] reshaping the strategic outlook” that are “presenting both challenges and opportunities” and give a “new impetus to ASEAN’s cooperation with key partners like India”. Without mentioning China explicitly, his stress of the common interests in peace and security in the region and an “open, balanced and inclusive regional architecture”, which he expressively also relates to the sea lanes, the Singaporean Prime Minister has issued a significant statement at a time India at which Modi´s India presented itself on the global stage in Davos as well. [Business Times]
26 January 2018
Sri Lanka caught in great power politics
(hg) With Japan and India seeking to deepen their influence in Sri Lanka, the poor country which has become an integral part of the Chinese ‘maritime silk road’, seems to be caught between the need for foreign investment and the risk to be taken away by great power competition. [AiR 3/1/2018] [The Diplomat 1] [The Diplomat 2]
Adding to its recently expressed interest in infrastructure investment, Japan also plans to increase its naval security aid to Sri Lanka and Djibouti in support for the joint Japan-U.S. “free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy” which is not just countering the emergence of a Chinese sphere of influence abstractly but representing a new willingness to actively move very close to core areas of Chinese interest and investment. [The Japan News]
Besides, Sri Lanka’s increasing geopolitical importance has also been reflected currently by the visit of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to witness the signing of the Sri Lanka-Singapore free trade agreement. [Channel News Asia]
The agreement, which is the first modern and comprehensive FTA for the South Asian nation after an attempt to reach an agreement in 2004 failed. [Today Online]
Adding to the overall picture, also Indonesian President Widodo has just visited the island to discuss matters of bilateral investment cooperation. [Daily Mirror]
29 December 2017
Singapore: Political succession
Singapore’s next general elections are not scheduled until January 2021. Notwithstanding, many observers make the point that current PM Lee Hsien Long is leaving it late to indicate who would be to follow in his footsteps. 2018 will likely be the year to clarify this with a major cabinet reshuffle coming up. The reshuffle will indicate who will be relevant in Singapore’s political future and a particular importance is given to the position of Deputy PM. Both the current PM and his predecessor have served as Deputy PM before they took over as PM.
22 December 2017
Singapore: Limited space for political rights and external funding for right defenders
A newly released Human Rights Watch report gives a detailed account on the limited space for the freedom of speech, media and assembly strictly confined by overly broad criminal laws, oppressive regulations, and the weaponization of civil lawsuits imposing serious damages on parties. The underlying strategy to “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” is directed against individuals who are critical of the government or the judiciary, or speak critically about issues regarded as being divisive such as religion and race. At the same, a government order issued in late 2016, prohibits foreign or multinational companies to support events at Speakers’ Corner without a police permit having led to the rejection of the applications of 10 multinational companies that applied to support the 2017 Pink Dot celebration of LGBT pride. The new report documents how various regulatory restrictions are used to limit discussion of political or “sensitive” issues in plays, films, and on the internet. The government frequently conditions licenses for public performances of politically themed plays on censorship of the script. It effectively prohibits all positive portrayals of LGBT lives on television, radio, or in film. In 2015, the government banned the showing of a promotional video for the annual LGBT Pink Dot celebration, even though the video simply featured a countdown and then the words “Pink Dot” and the date of the event [Human Rights Watch].
15 December 2017
Human Rights Watch Report
HRW has published a new report [Human Rights Watch: full report] on political freedoms and human rights in Singapore. The report, rather tellingly unveiled at its launch in Kuala Lumpur, criticises the city-state’s op-pressiveness and that it is afraid of allowing its citizens free speech and freedom of assembly. This, the report goes, does not match up with the country’s claim to be modern, democratic and business-friendly [Online Citizen].
8 December 2017
Governing the city-state, beyond Lee Kuan Yew
In an extract from his book “Singapore, Incom-plete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Ar-rested Political Development”, Cherian George traces back Lee Kuan Yew’s “exit management” after stepping down as Prime Minster of Singa-pore in 1991. George describes LKY’s continued involvement in Singaporean politics and the Peo-ple’s Action Party (PAP), and focuses on two particular policy innovations that proved costly for the PAP, and for which, according to George, the party is still paying a price: the elected presi-dency and the ministerial pay formula. The cen-tral question nowadays according to George is how much room to give to the ideas and legacy of Lee Kuan Yew in contemporary Singapore
1 December 2017
Restrictions on free speech exposed
Prosecutors in Singapore have charged an activist with holding unauthorized public assemblies, which human rights groups have criticized as an excessive restriction on free speech. The activist was accused of organizing three small gatherings over the past year. He did not receive a police permit for the gatherings, which is a violation of the city-state’s Public Order Act. Singapore has strict limits on speech and unauthorized public assembly, even for small and peaceful political gatherings [New York Times]. A civil society association that criticized the decision demanded that events that do not threaten the safety and well-being of any person, damage any property or cause disruption to ordinary affairs should not be made difficult to organize.
1 December 2017
Transregional cooperation: Vietnam-Australia, Singapore-India, and the “Asian NATO”
The Vietnam National Assembly backs the upgrade of the Vietnam-Australia relationship to a strategic partnership. Australia is among Vietnam’s largest providers of non-refundable official development assistance. The National Assembly’s Chairwoman also “noted with joy” the effective collaboration in national defence-security and the fight against crimes and illegal migration [Vietnam News].
India and Singapore on Wednesday signed an agreement to deepen cooperation in maritime security and called for ensuring freedom of navigation in critical sea lanes in the backdrop of China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. The two sides also signed the revised Defence Cooperation Agreement to further strengthen the longstanding defence relationship between the Singapore Armed Forces and the Indian Armed Forces. Moreover, Singapore’s proposal to expand the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea to all ADMM (Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting)-Plus countries as well as to establish guidelines for air encounters between military aircraft was discussed too [Livemint].
Moreover, the US, Japan, Australia and India announced this month they had agreed to create a coalition that would patrol and exert influence on waterways from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific to the East and South China Seas. The grouping of the four countries – known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad – was first suggested by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007, but the idea was dropped after Beijing protested. It made a sudden comeback when senior officials from the four nations met in Manila on November 11 – on the sidelines of regional summits during US President Donald Trump’s maiden tour to East Asia [South China Morning Post].
17 November 2017
Cybersecurity on domestic and ASEAN agenda
The Singaporean government will finetune several provisions in the country’s upcoming cybersecurity bill in response to public feedback. According to the bill, the duties of critical information infrastructure (CII) providers in securing systems under their responsibility will be formalized. Breaches of these duties will result in fines of up to S$100,000 or imprisonment of up to two years, or both. A major point of criticism in feedback process was that CIIs were not clearly defined [ZDNet]. As Singapore will take over the ASEAN chair next year, the country wants to pursue the strengthening of cyber security also on the regional level [The Straits Times].
10 November 2017
Migrant worker’s plight
Singapore has in 2010 decided to open two casinos to attract tourism and create jobs and further investment opportunities. Since then, in addition to the tourists, more and more of the city’s relatively poor migrant workers feel drawn to the casinos, often gambling away much of what they earn [South China Morning Post]. In addition, migrant workers in Singapore as well as other ASEAN countries continue to suffer from inadequate protection with the nearly 7 million migrant workers across South East Asia regularly facing extortion, unacceptable housing and living conditions, the withholding of passports and an unfavourable remittance market [East Asia Forum].
28 October 2017
ASEAN Defense Ministers Meetings
The ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting- Plus have taken place in Manial this week. Whilst the agenda was expectedly broad, there was a clear focus on terrorism [The Diplomat]. Singapore, as next ASEAN chair, has vowed to keep the fight of violent extremism exemplified by the recent Marawi siege on top of the agenda [The Strait Times 1]. The terrorist threat is magnified by potentially radical fighters who return to their home countries from fighting in the Middle East as ISIS there is nearly defeated and keeps losing ground [The Strait Times 2]. The South China Sea was also on the agenda. There was agreement to keep working on a common Code of Conduct as well as a general openness by China, the US and Japan to commence naval exercises with ASEAN and to improve communications and work out a protocol for unplanned encounters at sea to reduce risk of conflict [Today Online and Bloomberg]. The full joint declaration can be found here [Singapore MINDEF].
28 October 2017
ASEAN countries: In between major powers
Further intensifying Vietnamese-Indian relations, the deputy foreign ministers of both countries met in Hanoi for strategic consultations on political and security issues. This meeting follows a number of high level visits and exchange in the recent past [Viet Nam News]. In the meantime, Singapore is hedging between the US and China. After a recent visit to China, Singapore’s PM is currently on a visit to Washington upon invitation by President Trump. Whilst business has unsurprisingly been the focal point of the trip, Singapore is trying to position itself neutral, cooperating with both China and the US [Asia Times]. Similarly, the Philippines – after hosting US Secretary of Defense for a routine visit at the sidelines of the ADMM [NPR] – are making headway in diversifying their defense co-operations. New deals have been inked with both Russia [PhilStar 1] and China [PhilStar2].
28 October 2017
Cambodia facing mixed reaction from the international community
Amid Cambodia’s democratic crisis, Singapore’s foreign minister has visited Phnom Penh this week seeking to improve bilateral (economic) ties [Khmer Times], while some western countries reconsider their ties with Cambodia, such as Sweden [Channel News], Australia [ABC], or the US [Radio Free Asia].
13 October 2017
Race-based politics or meritocratic democracy?
The recent uncontested presidential poll in Singapore remains controversial as the ruling PAP seems to have determined the outcome. Ensuring the win of an ethnic minority Malay candidate was according to the government crucial in guaranteeing racial harmony in the city state. Critics view exactly this, however, as diametrically opposed to the meritocratic democracy they cherish and see a risk of a return of race-based politics.
29 September 2017
US grant asylum to Singaporean
US authorities have decided that a convicted Singaporean man is derserving of asylum in the US as his conviction serves a “nefarious purpose”.
29 September 2017
China and Southeast Asia ever closer: Different intensity and levels of cooperation – similar trend?
Cambodia: Amidst a global power struggle between two major powers in a multipolar world, Cambodia is hedging its bet but is leaning closer and closer to China. China is “backing up” Cambodian elites in power, invests heavily in the country and will further benefit from a “declining west” (Khmer Times). PRC investments are seen to meet the country’s needs more than other international banks and organisations and political realities in Cambodia today favour an embrace of China (ISEAS).
Malaysia: Malaysia-China ties have been deeping in recent years, they include arms-sales, investment, information-sharing and other diplomatic engagements. While some MPs in Malyasia are critical of this, the contrast between the treatment PM Najib experiences in China compared to his rather informal visit to the White House recently, is striking (Free Malaysia Today). Kuala Lumpur has also just deported 29 Uighurs who will now face prosecution in China (The Strait Times).
Singapore: As ties between Singapore and China seem to be warming up again and with the Singaporean PM’s visit to China last week, some analysts see the end or at least suspension of the military training arrangement between Singapore and Taiwan called “Starlight Project”. The decade old cooperation has long been bothering China but is important to Singapore which has only very limited airspace (SCMP 1). Other analysts point to remaining differences likely to dominate the PRC-SP relationship, in particular the South China Sea (SCMP 2).
22 September 2017
Lessons from the presidential election
Now that Singapore’s new president who was elected after changes to the election system is in office, what issues have emerged from the pro-cess? Elgin Toh examines three major topics: the reserved election, the walkover and its effect go-ing forward, and the lead time in making the leg-islative changes [The Straits Times]. And Bhavan Jaipragas argues that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s decision to reserve the election for a Malay candidate may threaten his following even among those who support the Lion City’s first woman president [South China Morning Post].
15 September 2017
Current ASEAN dynamics
Is ASEAN conspicuously absent at almost all currently decisive discursive fronts or is it still a factor and point of reference in Asian debates on regional order? One issue in this respect is a new outreach and interest of South Korea towards ASEAN amidst the tense situation on the Korean peninsula (The Diplomat). Pertaining to ASEAN integration, Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry argues in favor of a genuine interest to forge new paths to economic integration after Trump has killed the TPP while the Chairman of Malaysia’s ASEAN Business Advisory Council sees the growing Chinese influence in various ASEAN countries potentially changing the script for ASEAN’s further integration (Straits Times). Highlighting the case of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand he sees their links to economically active sub regions in China and its One Belt, One Road initiative as having the potential to divide the ASEAN integration agenda (The Edge Financial Daily).
15 September 2017
Terrorism: IS wants Muslim militants to avoid Syria and go to the Philippines/Returnees share horrible experiences about life under the IS and in Singapore there are increased worries about radicalization.
The Islamic State, after losing ground in Syria and Iraq, is switching its attention to the Philippines encouraging potential fighters to join the battle for Marawi, reinforcing serious worries that Asia is ISIS’s new focus (The Week). In Indonesia, returnees who spent some years living in Syria under the IS publicly shared some of their experiences and what caused them to return (Benar). In Singapore, officials lament that radicalization now happens faster than ever (Channel News).
15 September 2017
On the legal profession in Asia: Entrance barriers in India, professional strain in Singapore
Increasing demands on time and performance of young lawyers as well as stiffer competition lead many to leave the profession after a few years an issue raised by Singapore´s Chief Justice for the second consecutive year (Straits Times). Differently, in India, it is access to the legal profession which is one of the major problems for young lawyers. Here, the law field continues to be a bastion of a few privileged and powerful families in particular those whose members are in the legal profession since generations. Also, low payment for junior lawyers makes it more challenging for people with a less financially fortunate background (The Times of India).
11 August 2017
Next generation target in Singapore family feud
PM Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew has to face po-tential contempt of court proceedings initiated by the Attorney-General’s Chambers after he had posted an allegedly critical Facebook post last month. He stated that Singapore had a litigious and pliant court system and linked to a 2010 NYT op-ed regarding the use of lawsuits as a censorship tool.
11 August 2017
Halimah Yacob announces bid to be Singa-pore’s next President
Halimah Yacob, former Speaker of Parliament, has confirmed that she will run in the upcoming Presidential Elections in Singapore in September. The position is this time reserved for a Malay candidate.
11 August 2017
LKY School professor Huang Jing banned, has PR cancelled, for being agent of influence for foreign country
Dr Huang Jing, former Director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation and Lee Foundation Pro-fessor on US-China relations at the LKY School of Public Policy has been permanently banned from Singapore as allegations arose that he is an “agent of influence of a foreign country”. Dr Huang claims that he is not convoluting with any foreign government or intelligence agency.
27 July 2017
Singapore’s value to the United States lies in its location: US ambassador nominee KT McFarland
US Ambassador Nominee presents three reasons for the importance of Singapore to the US in her confirmation hearing statement.
21 July 2017
Singapore´s Foreign Policy: Vivian Balakrishnan outlines the core principles
Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has laid out five principles of Singapore’s foreign policy focusing around sovereignty, independence and advancing the city states own interest whilst cooperating with other countries.
7 July 2017
Singapore is firmly in the jihadist cross-hairs
Singapore faces internal and external threats from radicalised terrorists and is not excluded from the global trend of rising terrorist incidents. Singa-pore could face serious challenges if extremists of a particular religious group manage to penetrate Singaporean society for it would pose great risks of upsetting its racial and religious balance.
7 July 2017
U.N. survey finds cybersecurity gaps every-where except Singapore
The U.N. International Telecommunication Union (ITU) released a survey stating significant gaps between countries in their capacities and strategies to deal with cybercrime. Whilst some fifty percent of observed countries have yet to even adopted a relevant national security strategy, Singapore scored highest in terms of its readiness and capabilities to defend itself against cybercrime.
7 July 2017
Why Singapore will survive its latest political scandal
Chirag Agarwal, former Singaporean diplomat, writes that Singapore’s recent political turmoil will not bring down the PM or threaten political stability in the city-state, but rather blow over and be proof yet again for how swiftly and effectively Singaporeans deal with scandals that only distract from the real job of governing the country well.
22 June 2017
Lee Family Spat: Many Concerned about Fallout
People worry about Singapore’s reputation, but some say claims of abuse must be addressed.