Friday, 8 December 2017

An unflattering portrait of Malaysian politics

PM Najib Razak has stirred racial divisions and cynically divided rivals ahead of elections opponents hope will turn on his alleged massive corruption


As political parties begin to mobilize ahead of general elections which must be held by August 2018, Malaysia’s long-serving Prime Minister Najib Razak is arguably in his strongest political position in years.

While opposition parties continue to rally on an anti-graft platform centered on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund multi-billion dollar money laundering scandal, Najib appears increasingly confident he has ridden out the storm.

That was seen in Najib and his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s surprise visit last month to jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in hospital after he underwent surgery for a shoulder injury. It was the first time in Malaysia’s history that a sitting prime minister visited a prisoner.

Detained since 2015, Anwar is serving a five-year jail term after being found guilty of sodomy, a criminal offense in Muslim-majority Malaysia, on charges widely seen as politically motivated. Pictures of the political rivals circulated widely on social media, showing the premier grinning ear-to-ear amid rumors of his underlying motives.

While Najib likely intended to portray himself as being compassionate and above political animosities, some interpreted the visit as an “enforced” courtesy call. Indeed, while the bedridden opposition politician appeared cordial, his pictured family members were visibly uncomfortable.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Singapore on edge as Islamic State circles

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has warned it's not a matter of "if" but "when" the wealthy city-state is targeted by international terrorists


While international linked terror attacks have hit various Southeast Asian nations, Singapore has so far been immune. But as Islamic State (IS) makes deeper inroads into the region, the city state is now on its highest terror threat alert level in years.

Transnational terror groups are believed to see the island nation as a symbolic target for its status as a global financial center with close strategic ties with the United States. It participates in international coalitions against terrorism and hosts several Western targets, including embassies and military installations.

Singapore has honed its counterterrorism strategy in recent years, setting up specialist forces and emergency response teams while doubling down on efforts to sensitize the public and foster community vigilance. Authorities also stage preparedness exercises and elaborate drills simulating attacks on high-profile targets.

The sense of vulnerability, long part of the island state’s national psyche due to various geostrategic anxieties and proximity to hotbeds of Islamic militancy, has not been lost on top officials.

Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has noted on several occasions in the past year that Singapore operates on the expectation of “when” rather than “if” a terror attack will occur.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Malaysia’s ‘Arabization’ owes to ties with Saudi regime

Prime Minister Najib Razak has taken cues and cash from Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to push the Southeast Asian nation in a more Islamist direction


The deepening politicization of conservative Islam and concerns over the erosion of traditional religious practices and culture in Malaysia have brought the traditionally moderate multicultural nation’s ties to Saudi Arabia under new scrutiny.

Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, noted during a September visit deepening involvement of religious authorities in policy decisions, developments she said were influenced by “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula” that was “at odds with local forms of practice.”

The rapporteur’s statement alludes to the long reach of Saudi cultural influence made possible by decades of oil-financed proselytization via mosques and madrassas that promote Wahhabism, a puritanical interpretation of Islam, and the growing role of Saudi-trained Islamic scholars recruited into Malaysia’s civil service and religious establishment.

Wider public support for an interpretation of Islam and Muslim identity influenced by Saudi-sponsored ultra-conservatism has grown under the tenure of Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose office funds an Islamic bureaucracy promoting an exclusivist interpretation of the faith through various religious organizations.

This drift toward Islamism and its stranglehold on Sunni religious discourse has complicated communal relations in the country and galvanized pushback from Malaysia’s constitutional monarchs, who last month issued a rare statement expressing their collective concern over rising ethno-religious polarization.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Malaysia Airlines’ recovery shadowed by politics

Buffeted by two of global aviation's recent worst disasters, the renationalized carrier's foreign-led restructuring has been hit by alleged political meddling



Buffeted by two of global aviation’s worst disasters in recent history, Malaysia Airlines’ (MAS) plans for a turnaround were never going to be easy. Alleged political meddling in the state-held airline is complicating matters, with the recent resignation of two foreign chief executives raising even wider questions.

In August 2014, Khazanah Nasional, Berhad a Malaysian state investment fund that previously owned 69% of the carrier, became its sole stakeholder in a US$430 million bailout.

Earlier that year, MAS lost two aircraft, the still unresolved disappearance of Flight MH370 and the shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, sending its finances into a downward spiral.

The national carrier was delisted from the country’s stock market, effectively renationalizing the carrier, and aggressively restructured. Khazanah unveiled a five-year recovery plan, dubbed as “rebuilding a national icon”, to reverse massive losses and return to profitability in three years. The plan set a target date of March 2019 for a new initial public offering.

Two foreign chief executives were hired in short succession to professionalize management and in hope that international expertise could restore its fortunes. MAS has cut 6,000 jobs since Khazanah’s takeover while various unprofitable long-haul routes to North and South America have been discontinued.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Malaysia’s sultans back in political swing

Sidelined since the 1990s, traditional rulers are reasserting their royal authority against rising ethno-religious polarization stirred by divisive politicians


Last month, Malaysia’s constitutional monarchs issued a rare statement expressing their collective concern over rising ethno-religious polarization. A string of religious controversies, which the sultans branded as “excessive actions”, have called the country’s traditionally moderate brand of Islam into question.

Monarchical activism, dormant since being sidelined politically in the early 1990s, is rising again to push back against religious institutions that have steadily expanded their jurisdiction in favor of a narrow interpretation of Islam and Muslim identity.

In October, Malaysian authorities cancelled two annual beer festivals following political objections raised by leaders of the hardline Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), signaling an increased sensitivity towards activities regarded by some as insulting to Islam.

Then, a self-service laundromat in the southern state of Johor caused a social media uproar when it attempted to ban non-Muslims for ‘hygienic’ concerns, prompting a scathing rebuke from Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar in defense of moderation and racial harmony.

“This is not the Johor we want,” said the monarch, demanding that the laundry mat’s owner end the discriminatory practice. “This is not a Taliban state and as the head of Islam in Johor, I find this action to be totally unacceptable as this is extremist in nature.”

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Najib bids to buy another Malaysian election

Expansionary new budget offers tax relief, welfare benefits and cash handouts in schemes critics view as veiled pre-poll vote-buying


Malaysian premier Najib Razak recently unveiled an expansionary national budget for 2018, a politically strategic spending plan to lower middle income earner taxes and increase welfare benefits broadly ahead of general elections that must be held by next August.

Najib promised to maintain fiscal prudence despite a 7.5% year on year budgetary rise during a parliamentary address that emphasized bread and butter issues linked to rising living costs. The national leader referred to the plan in a three-hour speech as “the mother of all budgets.”

“The (people) must benefit from our economic policies,” the national leader said. “We must make sure that levels of income and the quality of life for Malaysians is improving.”

The ramped up spending is consistent with Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization’s (UMNO) past electoral tactics, where hand-outs and cash transfers are dished out to win over voters in the run-up to polls.

Government critics and opposition politicians say the spending is tantamount to vote-buying, which combined with other complaints of tainted electoral rolls, truncated campaign seasons, aggressive gerrymandering and unequal access to media unfairly tilts the electoral playing field in favor of UMNO.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Lee-Trump visit underscores Singapore’s balancing act

At the same time as he has been trying to repair relations with China, Singapore's PM has tried to reaffirm bilateral cooperation with the US


Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong held talks with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office this week to reaffirm bilateral cooperation amid considerable anxieties about US commitments to free-trade multilateralism and long-standing alliances across Asia.

Lee, the fourth Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House, is on a six-day working visit to Washington at the invitation of the president. Both countries share a “deep and multi-faceted relationship” based on a “basic strategic congruence of views about the world and the region,” Lee said during a television interview with CNBC.

The US administration’s emphasis on creating job opportunities for Americans has not been lost on the Singaporean delegation, nor the other Southeast Asian leaders who have visited Washington under Trump’s tenure.

The two leaders oversaw a deal between Singapore Airlines and Boeing for the national carrier to buy 39 new planes, worth US$13.8 billion. Fulfilling that order will create 70,000 jobs in the US, according to Trump, who said the US-Singapore relationship was “now is at its highest point” and that his country was “fortunate to have such a wonderful and loyal partner”.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Malaysia gives Pyongyang a pass on Kim Jong-nam murder

Ongoing trial of two women accused of killing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother will ultimately not convict the assassination's true plotters


The trial of two women charged with assassinating the North Korean leader’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam has raised as many questions as proceedings have so far answered about a bizarre crime few independent observers doubt Pyongyang ordered and executed.

Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, 28, are charged with murdering Kim Jong-nam at the Kuala Lumpur International airport in February by smearing his face with a highly toxic VX nerve agent. Four suspects on the lam mentioned in the prosecution’s charge sheet are presumed to be North Koreans who have fled the country.

Raja Subramaniam, a Malaysian government chemist, has testified he found around 1.4 times the lethal dosage of VX nerve agent on the victim’s body and detected the substance on the clothes both women wore on the day of the attack. Experts have been confounded at how the women managed to handle the chemical without causing harm to themselves.

Four North Koreans are widely believed to have arranged and coordinated the hit, including the recruitment, handling and providing the chemical components of nerve agent to the two accused women. VX is a controlled substance banned by international treaties and classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.

Read the full story at the 
Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Alibaba, Amazon duel for SEAsia’s online shoppers

Global titan competition is intensifying for a region projected as the next high-growth frontier for online retailers


Competition for Southeast Asia’s fast growing e-commerce market is intensifying, as industry titans Alibaba and Amazon launch new ventures and acquisitions in a region projected to be the next high-growth frontier for online retailers.

US-based Amazon and Chinese-run Alibaba, both formidable in their home markets with an estimated 60% and 80% share of online shopping respectively, are now vying for market supremacy in a region of over 600 million consumers.

Amazon’s entry into Southeast Asia in July saw the launch of its ‘Prime Now’ service in Singapore, an app available in the country’s iTunes and Google Play stores that promises free two-hour delivery for customers across the city-state who place orders above S$40 (US$29).

Previously, Singaporeans were only able to order select items on Amazon’s website, with most products subject to high international shipping fees. Many saw Amazon’s venture into Singapore as a bold initiative: unlike other countries where it previously launched express delivery services, the e-commerce giant lacked a retail and logistics presence in the island nation.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Islamic intolerance rising in pre-election Malaysia

An uptick in religious controversies coincides with premier Najib Razak's bid to rally Muslim majority voters ahead of new polls


A string of racial and religious incidents in Malaysia has brought concerns of rising Islamic conservatism to the fore, widening the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims as the government plays on identity issues ahead of what is expected to be a jarring and contentious election season.

Two annual beer festivals were recently cancelled following political objections raised by leaders of the hardline Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which claimed it has a “social responsibility” to oppose alcohol festivals and that the events would turn Kuala Lumpur into “the largest vice center in Asia.”

The ‘Better Beer Fest’, an annual craft beer showcase held without incident since 2012, was cancelled weeks before it was scheduled to take place. Police maintain their decision to bar the event was due to threats of a militant attack, though organizers believe authorities intervened due to political pressure.

An annual Oktoberfest celebration held at the 1 Utama Shopping Center in Selangor, a wealthy opposition-held state with a large upper-middle class non-Muslim population, was forced to cancel hours before the event was set to start. The cancellation, also due to alleged security reasons, resulted in financial losses of more than US$70,000 for the organizers.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.