Asia in Review Archive (2017)


Date of AiR edition

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29 December 2017

Malaysia: A changing political landscape awaiting next year´s elections

Malaysia – having been governed by UMNO-led coalitions since its independence in 1957 – approaches its crossroads with next year’s elections once more. In the previous two elections in 2008 and 2013 the UMNO-led coalition had lost its two-thirds and absolute majority respectively. Since then things went worse for the major Malay party in country´s polity dominated by religion and ethnicity as the ever shaping cleavages. Corruption and cronyism charges peaked with the 1 MDB scandal centered at UMNO President and Prime Minister Razak over US$800 having been vanished from a state-owned fund. While Razak´s intra party position seems nevertheless secured the UMNO has split again due to a breakaway of the Parti Pribumi Bersatu, short Bersatu, with former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin in its ranks. Most notably, Bersatu has entered into an unexpected alliance with the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition which is effectively led by the jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathirs former deputy and then arch enemy.

Meanwhile, not only UMNO’s stakes are declining but support has also dropped for its more Islamic major oppositional contender PAS which, as an Islamist party is in constant tension with the secular Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) within the PH. UMNO’s strategic response in this situation is a further shift towards political Islam and an even firmer stance on Malay supremacy which might even lead to another unexpected confluence of former arch rivals, UMNO and PAS which would split the oppositional coalition as much as the reconciliation of Mahathir and Anwar expresses UMNO’s recent split. A third trend for next year’s elections is the growing dissatisfaction among many Malaysians with both camps and, thus, with the established political caste as such. Besides many of the youth, also many Malay are disappointed by UMNO which is not any more able to safeguard Malay interests as it did before amidst unemployment, low wages and fear for the future [East Asia Forum] [Malay Mail].

As an expression of the political climate´s overall volatility the Royal Malaysian Police just questioned 92 year old former Prime Minister Mahathir over his remarks at a“Love Malaysia, End Kleptocracy” rally on Oct 14 where he had called Prime Minister Najib a “descendant of Bugis pirates” allegedly insulting the seafaring ethnic group of the Bugis. The police investigates charges of sedition, intimidation and incitement of hatred via multimedia [Channel News Asia] [Free Malaysia Today].

22 December 2017

Terrorism in Southeast Asia: Fight against IS continues

Philippine Armed Forces this week have warned against continued recruitment activities of the remnants of the terrorist group despite the end of the Marawi battle. Against the background of this claim the Philippine Congress has approval the extension martial law over Mindanao until 31. December 2018 [Task and Purpose] [NPR]. In a related development, Philippine and Australian marines jointly conducted a counter-terror warfare training [SBS News].

Meanwhile, Malaysian security and counterterrorism authorities have voiced concerns over the threat of militants returning from Syria and the Philippines. Since 2013, several hundred Malaysians have travelled to Syria to the join the IS there whereas around thirty joined forces with the pro-IS Maute group in Marawi earlier this year. Although an IS attack in Malaysia is unlikely, lone wolf attacks and recruitment activities will continue [Global Risk Insights].

15 December 2017

Good odds for Najib – despite 1MDB

On the surface, it looks like it could be difficult times for PM Najib with the national election coming up next year. He has just been through, or still is in the middle of, a huge money laundering scandal known as 1MDB and one of his main political rivals, Mahathir Mohammad, is garnering strengths and may even lead the opposing coalition to Najib’s UMNO as PM in case it does indeed win the elections [East Asia Forum].

Notwithstanding, the current PM has a huge chance of re-election. The scandal around him has lost political traction and he could score points with being hosted by both the US and major European state leaders as well as with his domestic tactics – as one theory has it, he has struck a deal with the Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS) which has refused to join the opposition and at the same time directly compete with Mahathir’s party for Malay seats, which will be crucial to an overall majority in Malaysia’s first past the post electoral system.

8 December 2017

Mandatory death sentence for drug crimes to be abolished

Malaysia’s lower house of Parliament last week passed an amendment to end the country’s mandatory death sentencing of drug traffickers. The new law would allow judges the discretion to either impose the death penalty or sentence a convicted person to life imprisonment and not less than 15 strokes of the cane. Previously, anyone found guilty of trafficking over a certain amount of dangerous drugs was punished mandatorily with the death penalty [Channel News Asia].

1 December 2017

Are Najib and Anwar friends again?

A surprise visit from the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has analysts abuzz over a possible shake-up in Malaysian politics. Both sides immediately dismissed suggestions of an entente, but the cordial demeanour of the warring leaders in photographs widely circulated on social media, as well as the timing – just months ahead of general elections – has spurred commentators to suggest there was a deeper meaning to the visits. It remains to be seen if there are overarching common interests between Anwar and Najib for them to set aside their deep animosity and bring about yet another shake up in the country’s politics. The two were the brightest young stars in UMNO until Anwar’s sacking in 1998 split the once united Malay political elite. UMNO and its allies have ruled the majority Malay and Muslim country uninterrupted since 1957 [South China Morning Post].

1 December 2017

Independence of the Malaysian Bar and Bar Council under threat

A number of proposed amendments to the Malaysian Legal Profession Act 1976 (LPA) may have the effect of undermining the independence of the Malaysian bar and the Bar Council, argues Hakimi Abdul Jabar. The amendments would allow the government to appoint two members to sit on the Bar Council, would empower the minister in charge of legal affairs in Malaysia to determine the electoral rules and regulations of the Malaysian bar, and would change the quorum for general meetings of Malaysian Bar, allegedly making it more difficult to independently manage its own affairs [Asia Times].

1 December 2017

Cyber security and cyber crime on the legislative agenda

Vietnam’s parliament has begun debate on a cybersecurity bill that would echo the law in neighboring China by requiring technology companies, such as Google and Facebook, to store certain data on servers within the country. The bill would also force companies to hand over data to law enforcement and provide technical assistance to unlock data, maintain records on data breaches and anti-government content, and gain government approval to transfer data abroad [Bloomberg]. Earlier this week, a blogger was found guilty of spreading anti-state propaganda for producing videos and writing about protests over a chemical spill that devastated the coast of central Vietnam last year. In June, a court sentenced another blogger to 10 years in prison for blogging about the fish kill connected with the spill [New York Times]. However, a real crackdown on internet freedom might be difficult to implement. Vietnam has one of the highest rates of social-media usage among countries with comparable per capita incomes. There are about 52 million Facebook active accounts for a population of about 96 million. Google and YouTube also are very popular. Therefore, Dien Luong argues that the bill currently being discussed may backfire [New York Times]. In Malaysia, the government is keen on exploring the possibility of becoming a member to the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, also known as the Budapest Convention. The convention, drawn up by the Council of Europe in 2001, aims at providing for domestic criminal procedural law powers, necessary for the investigation and prosecution of cybercrimes. It is open for ratification for all countries worldwide. In Asia, only Japan has signed and ratified the convention so far [New Straits Times].

24 November 2017

Electoral Process in Malaysia

With the general elections coming up before August next year, this ISEAS piece provides some interesting background information on the electoral process in Malaysia and its effect on the political system. One major finding of the paper refers to the institutionally entrenched advantages of the incumbent party in the electoral contest which has facilitated the dominance of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) [ISEAS].

3 November 2017

Data breach puts personal details of almost entire population at risk

The personal details of some 46.2 million mobile number subscribers in Malaysia are at stake in what is believed to be one of the largest data breaches ever seen in the country. From home addresses and identity card numbers to SIM card information, the private details of almost the entire population may have fallen into the wrong hands [The Straits Times].

3 November 2017

Sultan of Johor bans Islamic preachers from lecturing

A decree from Johor Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar has banned two Islamic preachers from giving religious talks. Previously, Singapore had banned both men from entering the Republic over the “exclusivist” nature of their messages. The case is just another illustration of the Sultan’s continued efforts to curb religious fundamentalism. Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, however, said the two clerics should still be allowed to preach, exposing current rifts within the country [The Straits Times].

28 October 2017

General election 2018

Malaysian general elections have to be held before August 2018, but it is up to the PM to decide whether he wants to call an election before that. This strategic advantage adds to the woes of the opposition which is having difficulties standing united against the ruling party, in particular on crucial issues regarding the economy and Malay-Muslim issues [Channel News Asia].

6 October 2017

Asia’s Maritime Order

The Philippines will begin important upgrades to its primary outpost in the disputed Spratly group in the South China Sea. The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Modernization Program will finance the paving of an airstrip on the largest Philippine holding in the Spratly group, where China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have claims (The Diplomat). Regarding the exploration of oil and gas resources within disputed areas, China reemphasized its commitment to a lifting of a moratorium and a joint commercial development of the petroleum blocks (Manila Bulletin). At the same time, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte voiced rare praise for the United States, calling it an important security ally, and dismissing historic grievances and his slew of past tirades against Washington as “water under the bridge” (South China Morning Post). Australia, in the meanwhile, needs to shift the focus of military presence from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, if it wants to succeed in coping with emerging security challenges in Asia-Pacific and protect its direct strategic interests (The Australian).

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).

29 September 2017

Malaysia disassociates itself from ASEAN statement on Myanmar

Tensions between Malaysia and fellow ASEAN states have deepened over the bloc’s handling of the Rohingya Muslim crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Malaysian Foreign Minister let it be known that the Malaysian government was angry because the ASEAN statement made no mention of the word “Rohingya”. The word “Rohingya” is controversial in Myanmar, whose government has refused to grant citizenship to members of this minority group. The Buddhist majority refers to Rohingya pejoratively as “Bengalis,” because of their physical similarities with people from neighboring Bangladesh and to imply they are undocumented immigrants.


22 September 2017

Uncertainty about the reasons of government’s ban on the use of the word “Allah”

A Sabah church asked the courts to order the government to disclose documents showing why it had banned non-Muslims from using the Arabic word “Allah” in 1986, but the government objected by saying such documents were classified as “official secrets”. The church argues that the disclosure would allow the courts to determine if the government had imposed a reasonable restriction on the local Christians’ constitutional rights.

15 September 2017

Government plans to publish the names of companies with no women on their boards next year

According to Malaysia’s prime minister, public-listed companies (PLC) which do not have any women on their boards of directors will be named and shamed from next year. Affected companies also have to fear that they would not be awarded government contracts any longer. This is expected to help the country reach its target of having 30 per cent women directors in the private sector.

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

Does the West rebalance towards once distrusted leaders?  

Western, especially US, interests in increasing security cooperation with Southeast Asian governments seem to pave the way for a rapprochement with ASEAN leaders who were accused of corruption or human rights violations not long ago. Examples are the recent visit of Malaysian PM’s Najib visit in Washington amid investigations of the US Justice Department into his finances now highlighting US-Malaysian efforts to fight terrorism (Strait Times) and Philippines’ Duterte as an even more unsavoury, yet not less important ally due to his country’s geopolitical role within Asia’s emerging new security order (East Asia Forum).

7 September 2017

Does the country need to re-examine its identity around its 60th anniversary?

Always been haunted by the quest for national identity since the issue has become highly sensitive over the past decade with the nation grappling with a Malay-Muslim majority largely determined to maintain the status quo, and minorities equally determined to assert their rights while the question of political Islam and corruption allegations split the Malay votes.

7 September 2017

Anti-piracy patrols adrift in terror-targeted waterway

Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have started joint patrols against pirates terrorizing shipping in the deep water Sibutu Passage between Malaysia and the Philippines, but limited resources and legal obstacles are already rocking the boat. The Sibutu Passage has emerged as Asia’s most dangerous waterway as Islamic terror groups target seaborne trade.

31 August 2017

Malaysia-China ties: A rosy look

In an interview on Malaysian-Chinese relations China’s Ambassador to Malaysia gives his views on the country’s bilateral ties highlighting the crucial economic relations with China being Malaysia’s most important trading partner and China heavily investing in recent years in Malaysia as one of the first country’s having embraced OBOR in the region.

18 August 2017

Malaysia: Moderation under threat as Malaysia faces Islamic tide

With an ongoing violent radicalization and influx of violent extremism of Islamic provenance in the region, the Islamic mainstream gets steadily more conservative in two of Southeast Asia’s biggest Islam nations: Indonesia and Malaysia. The article gives a thorough overview of the situation in Malaysia with looming elections as an amplifier of Islamization.

11 August 2017

Malaysia debates Mahathir’s ‘Malayness’

Public accusations against former Malaysian Prime Minister and current opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad of having an Indian father, has triggered discussions on strategies of political parties in the struggle for power and the role racial and religious issues will play therein, a year ahead of the next general elections in August 2018.

4 August 2017

Malaysia: Chinese money pouring into the country could help Najib with votes

China is investing billions in a US$7.2 billion redevelopment that will see Malacca, long the haunt of Chinese traders, become a new deep sea port. It is also providing funds for infrastructure projects down the eastern seaboard of Malaysia, key heartland areas for Prime Minister Najib Razak ahead of an election that could be held this year.

4 August 2017

Two articles on the rights of stateless Rohingya children and illegitimate children in Malaysia

While the Malaysian government will not give special privileges to children of Rohingya refugees born in Malaysia, Malaysia’s Court of Appeal ruled that Muslim children conceived out of wedlock can take their father’s name, a decision that has sparked a debate over whether the country’s civil court can set aside a fatwa.

27 July 2017

Politicians declaring assets: Malaysia can look to Indonesia

A Malaysian civil society coalition has suggested to tighten the screws on politician’s asset declarations. Whilst there are some mechanisms in place in Malaysia, the proponents suggest to look to Indonesia as an example for a tighter asset declaration legal framework [The Star].

27 July 2017

Hundreds of thousands could be arrested in crackdown on Malaysia’s undocumented migrants

Malaysian authorities have arrested over 3,300 undocumented workers and 84 employers in the country’s latest crackdown. Activists are concerned about possible abuses of workers’ rights, while labor shortages continue to plague business owners [CNBC].

27 July 2017

Malaysia: Bangladeshi human rights activist detained

Malaysian authorities detained a leading Bangladeshi human rights organizer as he arrived in Kuala Lumpur to speak at a conference on the death penalty. Amnesty International has condemned Adilur Rahman Khan’s detention, and called for his immediate release [Amnesty International]

27 July 2017

Malaysia: Ministry bans ‘Despacito’ over sexually-charged lyrics

Malaysia’s government moved to ban the hit Latin pop song Despacito from being aired on public radio and television following complaints of sexually-charged lyrics [Asian Correspondent].

27 July 2017

Indo-Malay Security Cooperation

In the context of a bilateral meeting between Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Indonesia President Joko Widodo, the military chiefs of the two countries announced their agreement to deepen security cooperation in the area of counterterrorism [The Diplomat].

21 July 2017

An election like none other – is it time for change in Malaysia?

In Malaysia, the next general election will be held at a still undecided date before August 2018. However, this election will bring several “firsts”: A new coalition, a new logo, a new atmosphere of economic malaise and a new wave of young voters mean there are virtually no points of reference for it [South China Morning Post].

21 July 2017

Human Trafficking in Malaysia: Malaysian rights group calls for crackdown

A Malaysian rights group lamented the lack of action taken by Malaysian authorities to crack down on human trafficking following the discovery of death camps at the Thai-Malaysian border in 2015 [South China Morning Post].

21 July 2017

Malaysian Federal State Kelantan amends Sharia law to allow public caning

The Malaysian state of Kelantan on Wednesday (Jul 12) overhauled its Islamic laws to allow caning in public, prompting criticism that the move was against the constitution [Daily Mail].

18 July 2017

Father of modern Malaysia backs jailed former deputy in attempt to oust PM

In the wake of a massive corruption scandal shaking Malaysia and PM Najib, former PM Mahathir announced that he is backing his former protégé and jailed opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, to become prime minister. Ibrahim was sacked by Mahathir himself as deputy, and imprisoned on sodomy charges [The Guardian].

18 July 2017

The end of political ideology in Malaysia?

Party ideology with strong values, which formerly constituted the backbone of political parties in Malaysia, is fading away. Nowadays, ideologies are represented by parties only in name, marked by personality politics where politicians jump from one camp to another based on the behavior of a leader [The Strait Times].

18 July 2017

Azalina: Do not politicise judges’ appointments

In a statement on Tuesday, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department said that the appointments of two additional judges to the Federal Court are in accordance with the Federal Constitution [The Star Online].

16 July 2017

Malaysia debates Mahathir’s ‘Malayness’

Public accusations against former Malaysian Prime Minister and current opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad of having an Indian father, has triggered discussions on strategies of political parties in the struggle for power and the role racial and religious issues will play therein, a year ahead of the next general elections in August 2018 [The Strait Times].

7 July 2017

Malaysian election this year or next: Guessing game goes on

Although the parliamentary term is due to expire only in August next year, analysts have been predicting that Malaysia’s Prime Minister Razak Najib would want to cement his hold on power with an early election [The Straits Times].

7 July 2017

Sex crimes court in session

Malaysia’s new special court for child sexual crimes has convened for the first time and five cases were brought before it [The Star Online].

30 June 2017

Malaysia must wake up to its human trafficking problem

There are multiple human trafficking schemes seen in Malaysia. Corruption, inadequate training of enforcement officers, and limited awareness of trafficking dynamics all contribute to the lack of enforcement of Malaysia’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Ac (New Mandala).

30 June 2017

Child sexual crime court launched

The Prime Minister of Malaysia Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak inaugurated a special court to handle sexual crimes against children. It is the first such court in Southeast Asia [Daily Express].