Asia in Review Archive (2018)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

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4 December 2018

Malaysia: New Public Service Act to separate civil servants and political administration

(ls) The Malaysian government will introduce the Public Service Act which will pave the way for a separation of power between civil servants and the political administration. The bill is likely to be tabled in the next parliament session in March 2019. “We want civil servants to be apolitical and at the same time strive to achieve the goals of the new government,” said the director-general of the Public Service Department. [Straits Times]

4 December 2018

Malaysia: Key party of Barisan Nasional coalition calls for dissolution

(ls) The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) wants Barisan Nasional, the former ruling coalition, to be dissolved to “form an effective alliance”. Together with Umno and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), MCA formed the Alliance party in 1957. In 1973, the Alliance was renamed Barisan Nasional, with other parties joining in the coalition too. MCA is the second-largest component party in Barisan, after Umno. The coalition, which had ruled the country since independence, lost power to Pakatan Harapan at the 14th General Election on May 9. [Straits Times]

4 December 2018

Two further ex-ministers to be charged for corruption in Malaysia

(ls) The spate of charging former Malaysian leaders for corruption continues, with two former ministers – former education minister Mahdzir Khalid and former federal territories minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor – to be charged within the coming days and weeks according to Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) sources. Since the 9 May elections and the defeat of the ruling Barisan Nasional of ex-prime minister Najib Razak, several corruption investigations have been started, including against Najib and his wife. [Straits Times]

27 November 2018

Pakistan/Malaysia vow to help each other tackle national debts

(ls) Pakistan and Malaysia have pledged to help each other tackle rising levels of national debt during Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, first visit to Kuala Lumpur since coming to office in August. The move by the two Muslim-majority nations follows concerns over growing levels of Chinese-linked sovereign debt. On coming to office Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad cancelled some US$22 billion worth of Chinese projects, while Khan asked Beijing for significant shifts in the infrastructure projects agreed to as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). [South China Morning Post]

20 November 2018

Malaysia to remove death penalty?

(ls) Malaysia’s de facto Law Minister Liew Vui Keong told parliament that the Cabinet has agreed to scrap the death penalty, including for murder. He said that “all 32 death penalty offences found in eight of our laws” would be abolished. If approved by Parliament, capital punishment will be replaced with a minimum of 30 years in jail. The planned move has been controversial in conservative Malaysia, with an online poll last month showing 82 per cent of 22,000 netizens opposing it. [Straits Times]

The legislation could be introduced in parliament before the house finishes its current sitting in the middle of next month. Abolition of the death penalty was part of the election campaign of the coalition that took power in May. A moratorium on all executions – Malaysia hangs those found guilty of capital crimes – is already in force. About 44 percent of death row inmates in Malaysia are foreign nationals; the largest group is from Nigeria, followed by Indonesia and Iran. [Al Jazeera]

30 October 2018

Thai-Malay border discussions

(jk) Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his Malaysian counterpart PM Mahathir discussed the problems facing Thailand’s southern border provinces and agreed on greater cooperation last week. The 15-year-old separatist conflict has so far claimed more than 7,000 lives. Thailand and Malaysia have each named their own facilitators for the talks, both of whom are high-ranking security officials. [SCMP]

Malaysia’s facilitator served as national police chief and earlier as head of the Police Special Branch (SB), Malaysia’s leading internal security and intelligence agency which also monitors Patani-Malay separatist exiles living in Malaysia. Thailand appointed an army general who previously served as southern region army commander.

While a spokesperson for the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front (BRN) declared readiness for sincere and authentic negotiations with Bangkok, the group also warned that any attempt without considering the BRN’s proposals would mean “there will be no peace or security” in the border provinces. The BRN will only accept the work of facilitators on any side if its proposals and wishes for a way forward are respected. [ATimes]

23 October 2018

Malaysia: UMNO president charged with corruption crimes

(ls) Malaysia’s former ruling party UMNO faced yet another blow to its leadership as its president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was charged in court with criminal breach of trust, abuse of power, and money laundering. Former premier Najib Razak, his wife and party supreme council member Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim are already under investigation. Zahid became president earlier this year after Najib stepped down due to the party’s performance in the elections. In addition, insiders report the party is in disarray and has split into factions. [South China Morning Post] [Straits Times 1]

UMNO leaders appear at odds over which of three paths to take – going it on its own, formally forming an allegiance with fellow opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) or finding a way to partner parties from the present government. With Zahid most likely taking a leave from his office as party president, the party will first of all need to find a new top leadership. [Straits Times 2]

23 October 2018

Anwar Ibrahim, accomplishing next step, is sworn in as Member of Parliament

(ls) Former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as a federal lawmaker two days after a clear victory in the Port Dickson by-election, clearing another hurdle in his path to becoming Malaysia’s eighth prime minister as part of a succession plan agreed upon by the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. [Straits Times]

23 October 2018

Threats by radical groups in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines

(ls) The decades-old and still ongoing conflict between the Royal Thai Armed Forces and Thai Malay secessionists in the deep south of Thailand represents a growing national security threat for Malaysian authorities, as many firearms from southern Thailand’s black markets find their way to Malaysians aligned with the Islamic State (ISIS). Whereas gun control legislation is strict in Malaysia, it is more lenient north of the border. Meanwhile, though ISIS has so far struggled to get a foothold in southern Thailand, observers continue to worry about possible Malaysian ISIS sympathizers who might radicalize Thai Malay insurgents across the border. [The Diplomat]

In the Philippines, the resurgence of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), takes more shape. Analysts warn that poverty and military operations, which displaced large numbers of civilians, push many into the arms of the group. The resurgence comes at a time when pro-Islamic State militants are deepening their presence on Mindanao, increasing the security threat in southern Philippines. [Channel News Asia]

16 October 2018

Malaysia: Anwar Ibrahim elected to parliament in by-election

(jk) This past weekend constituted another step in the return of Anwar Ibrahim to active politics. Anwar decisively won the Port Dickson by-election on Saturday, triggered when the incumbent MP, a member of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), stepped down to make way for Anwar’s bid. With a voter turnout of just below 60%, Anwar outperformed his closest challenger decisively and won the popular vote with 71.3% support [Channel News Asia].

Before the general election, the party heads of Pakatan Harapan had agreed that in 2020 Mahathir would step down to make way for Anwar as premier. So far, PM Mahathir has signaled that he will stand by the agreement. Anwar’s election as an MP was both an important formality as it is required that Malaysia’s PM is a member of parliament, but it was also an important measure of his support.

So far, Anwar has stated that he does not have an eye on a position within the cabinet at this stage. [Strait Times] For a brief overview of Anwar’s career in Malaysian politics see [Strait Times II]

16 October 2018

Malaysia: Abolition of the death penalty?

(jk) Last week, the Cabinet put in motion a discussion on the end of the death penalty in Malaysia. If parliament approves its abolishment, it will serve as a reprieve for over 1,250 prisoners currently on death row. The death sentence may be replaced with a minimum of 30 years in jail.

Currently, a convicted offender under Dangerous Drug Act 1952 is subjected to the mandatory death sentence. In addition, there are 17 other criminal offences that bear the same sentence, including for instance waging war against the King, terrorism, murder, possessing and using firearms as well as rape leading to death and rape of minors. [New Straits Times]

16 October 2018

Malaysia defies China’s extradition request

(dql) Malaysia released 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims from detention and sent them to Turkey, ignoring Beijing’s request for their extradition. The men were imprisoned over charges of illegal entry to Malaysia after they broke out of a prison in Thailand in November 2018. The move, fiercely opposed by China, comes after Prime Minister Mahathir cancelled Chinese-funded infrastructure projects in Malaysia worth 22 billion USD in late August and reflects Mahathir’s more independent stance towards China. [Reuters] [Asia Times]

16 October 2018

Can ASEAN benefit from the US-China Trade War?

(jk) The ongoing trade war between China and the US could lead to long term economic shifts in Asia. Some producers have already shifted their production to countries outside of mainland China, in order to be able to keep exporting to the US without being hit by new tariffs. Possible beneficiaries of these shift are a number of ASEAN countries that can offer low cost production and a tariff-free export to the US market. [SCMP]

Economic cooperation flourishes despite political tensions, too. Some mainland Chinese electronic companies have shifted production to Taiwan to avoid country of origin based tariffs. Vietnam has become China’s biggest trading partner within ASEAN. In June 2018, China- Vietnam economic turnover hit $11.2 billion. Much more than the $9.3 billion between China and Malaysia, which previously held the title of China’s largest ASEAN trade partner. [Business Inquirer] China is already the largest trading partner with every ASEAN country and despite some readjustments, the Belt and Road initiative will likely see numbers grow.

At the same time, at the plenary session of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings hosted by Indonesia, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged global central bankers and finance ministers on Friday to guard against growing risks amidst the trade war. In a clearly less optimistic tone, he referred to concerns the trade row could upend global supply chains, and in turn, result in decreasing international trade and investment. [SCMP]

9 October 2018

Mahatir: Affirmative action for Malays will be continued in Malaysia

(ls) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said his country will continue with its decades-old affirmative action policy that favours ethnic Malays. Mahatir said that it is still necessary to bridge the economic gap between the community and other races in the country. Malaysia introduced the national economic policy in 1971, after it experienced deadly racial riots in 1969 that were fuelled by the economic gap between the Chinese and the Malays. It grants Malays preference over affordable housing, university scholarships and government contracts. Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali and prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim have recently said that the policy should be reviewed. [Straits Times]

9 October 2018

Wife of former Malaysian premier Najib Razak arrested and charged in 1MDB corruption scandal

(ls) Rosmah Mansor, the wife of former prime minister Najib Razak, was charged with 17 counts of money laundering and tax evasion. She was arrested and released on bail. Like her husband, who faces multiple counts of money laundering, breach of trust, corruption and abuse of power, Rosmah pleaded not guilty. American investigators accuse Najib of having diverted $731 million from the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, known as 1MDB, into his personal bank account. [New York Times]

Earlier this year, when the Malaysian police searched homes and offices linked to Najib, they seized 284 designer handbags – many still in their boxes or filled with millions in cash, designer watches or jewellery. The Pakatan Harapan government has promised voters a strong anti-corruption stance, and the recent spate of arrests have served to bolster public faith in the new administration. Opposition politicians, however, insist these charges were politically motivated and designed to silence detractors. [South China Morning Post]

9 October 2018

Mahatir: Malaysia does not support Suu Kyi anymore

(ls) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that his country will no longer lend its support to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi over her handling of the Rohingya crisis. “She did not want to say anything against the action taken by the (Myanmar) military against the Rohingya. So, we made (it) quite clear that we don’t really support her any more,” he said on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. There have been calls to revoke the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991, while Canada has stripped Suu Kyi of her honorary citizenship. [Straits Times]

2 October 2018

Belt and Road projects under scrutiny in Pakistan

(ls) Pakistan’s new government under Prime Minister Imran Khan is reconsidering several projects signed under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. A rail megaproject linking the Pakistani coastal metropolis of Karachi to the northwestern city of Peshawar is the subject of current review. Pakistan’s new government wants to review all BRI contracts. Officials say there are concerns the deals were badly negotiated, too expensive or overly favored China. However, they remained committed to Chinese investment, but wanted to push harder on price and affordability. The cooling of enthusiasm for China’s investments mirrors the unease of incoming governments in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Maldives, where new administrations have come to power wary of Chinese deals struck by their predecessors. [Reuters]

China has pledged US$57 billion to build power stations, major highways, new railways and high capacity ports along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road plan to further tie China to Eurasia. The sustainability of Chinese projects has come under fresh scrutiny in recent months, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in July warned that any potential International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for Pakistan’s troubled economy should not be used to pay off Chinese lenders. [Straits Times]

25 September 2018

Mahatir firm on gay-marriage ban – Anwar agrees

(ls) Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that Malaysia cannot accept same-sex marriage or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. Malaysia describes oral and anal sex as against the order of nature. Relevant statutes, which go back to British colonial rule, stipulate jail for up to 20 years, caning and fines for offenders, although enforcement of the law is rare. A similar law has recently been declared unconstitutional in India by the Supreme Court. [Reuters]

Anwar Ibrahim, who is likely to replace Mahatir as prime minister within the next years and who once was himself imprisoned on sodomy charges, said he shared Mahathir’s view, but reiterated that colonial-era sodomy laws need review. Anwar said Islam, and many other religions, do not sanction same-sex marriages. But the law on sodomy needed to be amended since it can be open to abuse, as someone could be accused without any proper evidence, such as in his own case. [Straits Times] [New Straits Times]

25 September 2018

Malaysian ex-premier Najib arrested/released again, as UMNO disintegrates

(ls) Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak was arrested again and will be charged over allegations that substantial amounts linked to the state investment fund 1MDB ended up in his personal bank accounts. He was granted bail. The charges combine 25 graft and money-laundering counts involving RM2.6 billion (US$628 million). Najib had already been arrested not long after the election and hit with seven charges related to other 1MDB corruption claims. However, the new charges are substantially more severe. [AFP] [Straits Times 1]

When reports about the bank transfers surfaced in 2015, they represented a turning point in the 1MDB scandal and dramatically raised pressure on Najib and his inner circle. The attorney-general later cleared Najib of any wrongdoing, saying the money was a personal donation from the Saudi royal family. Najib dismissed critics in government, jailed political opponents and introduced legislation such as the fake-news law that were aimed at silencing criticism to his rule. [South China Morning Post 1]

In a separate development, the former ruling party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) continues to disintegrate. Two former ministers have resigned from the party: Former foreign minister Anifah Aman as well as former minister of international trade and industry Mustapa Mohamed. Anifah said he would support the current government’s moves to restore Sabah and Sarawak as equal partners in the federation as announced by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mohamed has quit UMNO after 40 years of membership, sparking rumors that he will join the ranks of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) ruling coalition. [Straits Times 2] [Straits Times 3]

The South China Morning Post speculates whether the end is near for UMNO. So far, five members of parliament have resigned from the party and now sit as independents. Rumors have it that some of them may have been tempted to switch allegiances by Prime Minister Mahathir who appears to be unsatisfied with his current cabinet. UMNO is the largest party of the Barisan Nasional coalition that had ruled Malaysia for six decades. [South China Morning Post 2]

18 September 2018

Repeal of Malaysian anti-fake news act blocked in Senate

(ls) Malaysia’s opposition-led Senate blocked an effort to repeal the anti-fake news Act. In August, the Pakatan Harapan-dominated lower house of parliament repealed the Act. But Barisan Nasional (BN) Senate leaders and members of the right-wing Islamist party, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, blocked the repeal’s enactment. The bill will go back to the lower house for another vote. Under Article 68(2) of the Federal Constitution, Senators can merely delay the passing of an Act and not block it entirely. However, it can only be brought to the Senate after a year from the date of the Act’s first passing. [Channel News Asia] [The Star]

18 September 2018

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim: Getting set for power handover from Mahatir?

(ls) Anwar Ibrahim will contest for a seat in Malaysia’s parliament, as a party MP resigned to make way for the senior leader just months after the Pakatan Harapan coalition won the May general election. Anwar returned to public life after years of incarceration. He needs a seat in parliament to legitimize his position as the coalition’s prime minister-in-waiting until Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad steps down. Anwar will run for the People’s Justice Party (PKR) in a by-election for the seat of Port Dickson in the south-western state of Negri Sembilan. Port Dickson has been a constituency that was won by the PKR in the last three terms. [Reuters] [Straits Times]

Anwar’s political comeback is part of an agreement with his onetime archenemy, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who sent him to jail. For the general election, Anwar and Mahathir joined hands under the Pakatan Harapan banner, unseating former Prime Minister Najib Razak and achieving the country’s first transfer of power since independence in 1957. Under the deal, Mahathir is to hand over power to Anwar in two years, though the timing has yet to be clarified. [Nikkei Asian Review]

18 September 2018

Status of Malaysia’ Sabah and Sarawak to be upgraded?

(ls) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced that the status of Sabah and Sarawak, both located on the island of Borneo, as equal partners in the nation will be restored under the new federal government, once the review on the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) has been completed. According to that agreement, the regions of Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore, and the Federation of Malaya merged as equal partners. Two years later, Singapore exited. And in 1976, the constitution was amended to downgrade Sabah and Sarawak as the 12th and 13th state of Malaysia. [The Straits Times 1]

However, Pakatan Harapan needs to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament before the ruling coalition can make amendments to the Federal Constitution. The coalition currently has 125 out of 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat. The support of 148 MPs is for amending constitution. Elaborating on the scope of such an amendment, Mahatir said, “either we have more Sabahans and Sarawakians working in the peninsula and in the federal government or else we will need to have some of the decision-making transferred to Sabah and Sarawak.” [The Straits Times 2]

11 September 2018

Update: Charges against Malaysian Finance Minister dropped because of “fresh evidence”

(ls) As AiR reported last week, corruption charges against Malaysia’s Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng were dropped by the public prosecutor leading the Penang High Court to acquit him. After a public outcry and demand for transparency, the deputy public prosecutor defended his decision to close the case after fresh, though publicly unspecified, evidence surfaced during the trial. Opposition politicians and civil society groups questioned the “selective non-prosecution” and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission declared that it was “shocked”. [The Straits Times]

4 September 2018

Corruption prosecutions’ selectiveness? The case of the Malaysian Finance Minister

(ls) A Malaysian court case illustrates possible political implications and continuing selectiveness of corruption prosecutions. While investigations against former prime minister Najib Razak, his wife and close allies continue to be driven forward, the Penang High Court acquitted current Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng and a businesswoman from corruption charges related to the sale of a bungalow lot. The decision was made after the Attorney-General’s chambers withdrew its charges brought against him in 2016. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), under its newly appointed chief Datuk Seri Mohd Shukri Abdullsays, said it was “shocked” over the court decision. [The Straits Times]

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]

28 August 2018

Prosecution of Malaysian LGBT community in the spotlight

(ls) In Muslim-majority Malaysia, where sexual activities between people of the same sex are punishable under federal and several state laws, recent crackdowns on homosexual people demonstrate the newly elected government’s firm position under Prime Minister Mohamad Mahatir.

Earlier this month, the government minister for religious affairs ordered the removal of portraits of two LGBT rights activist from a display of photographs of Malaysians at a public festival, citing the government’s policy of “not promoting LGBT rights.” Over the weekend, a night club in Kuala Lumpur popular with the LGBT community was raided by the police. Government minister Khalid Samad later released a statement saying “hopefully this initiative can mitigate the LGBT culture from spreading into our society.” Moreover, a court convicted two women for same-sex relations, violating a state Shariah law that criminalizes sex between women and sentenced each to six strokes of the cane and a fine. Public anger against LGBT people was on display when a transgender woman was beaten up by a group of assailants last week with sticks and plastic pipes in Seremban, a town south of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. [The Guardian] [Reuters]

The incidents demonstrate that initial widespread euphoria among rights activists after the election of Mahatir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition needs to be qualified. As Human Rights Watch points out, the criminalization of sexual relations between women may indeed violate Malaysia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). [Human Rights Watch]

28 August 2018

Hunger strike over SOSMA ends in Malaysia

(ls) A total of 118 detainees held under the Malaysian Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) 2012 ended a three-day hunger strike on Sunday. The detainees’ goal was to urge the government to abolish the Act. The government announced that the law was still being reviewed and a special committee was formed for the purpose. The Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of legal affairs, however, described SOSMA as a form of tyranny. In its election campaign and again after taking office, the Pakatan Harapan coalition of Mohamad Mahatir promised the removal and relaxation of certain security legislation, including SOSMA. [The Straits Times] [New Straits Times]

28 August 2018

Senate’s consent reminds of current Malaysian House-Senate divide

(ls) For the first time in history, Malaysia’ two houses of parliament are controlled by different political alliances. Whereas the Lower House is led by an absolute Pakatan Harapan (PH) majority, Prime Minister Mahatir’s coalition occupies only six of the seventy Senate seats, compared to 33 held by Barisan Nasional, the previously undisputed powerholder for decades.

Nonetheless, the Upper House approved the new government’s sales and services tax (SST) bills, which were a signature PH project and which had been approved by the Lower House already. According to the Federal Constitution’s article 68(1), so called money bills (f.ex. those involving taxation) do not require the Senate’s approval. For other bills, however, Lower and Upper House need to find compromises. [The Straits Times] [Federal Constitution of Malaysia]

28 August 2018

Malaysia’s cancellation of projects a setback for China’s One Belt One Road?

(ls) Malaysia’s newly elected government decided last week to cancel two China-financed mega projects, the US$20 billion East Coast Rail Link and two gas pipeline projects worth US$2.3 billion. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said his country could not afford the projects and they were not needed at the moment. As Wang Xiangwei writes in the South China Morning Post, the cancellation is another setback for China’s One Belt One Road project, probably bringing about a comprehensive review of the strategy with the goal of recalibrating its ambitious investment plans. [South China Morning Post]

21 August 2018

Malaysia: Parliament repeals fake news law as PH is in office for 100 days

(ls) Malaysia was the Southeast Asia’s first country to have introduced an anti-fake news act, and it has now become the world’s first to have repealed it again. The law was enacted in April this year by previous prime minister Najib Razak, and was widely criticized at the time as an assault on free speech and a tool to cover up scandals such as the 1MDB embezzlement case. Rights groups celebrated the repeal. Nonetheless, Malaysia still has strict sedition laws and other acts restricting press freedom, such as the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. Lawmakers in Cambodia, the Philippines and Singapore are still considering the introduction of anti-fake-news legislation. [The Guardian] [The Straits Times 1]

In a related development, the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government announced to introduce a freedom of information act. However, before a draft will be produced, the government wants to conduct an in-depth study to ensure that the law would not contravene any existing laws. In addition, the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010, the Official Secrets Act 1972 and the Witness Protection Act 2009 are to be reviewed as well. [The Straits Times 2]

As the PH coalition’s first 100 days in office have passed, the assessment of Prime Minister Mahatir’s delivery on campaign promises appears to be mixed. The South China Morning Post found that only few promises have been kept. These included abolishing the goods and services tax (GST) and stabilizing the price of petrol. Even Mahatir himself admitted already that the PH alliance may have overpromised during the campaign on the assumption that it would not gain power. Nonetheless, nationwide approval rates remain high, as the new government’s crackdown on corruption is particularly popular throughout the country. [South China Morning Post] [The Diplomat]

From a human rights perspective, Amnesty International said that credit must be given for the repeal of the Anti-Fake News Act, the promise to review the use of the death penalty and the release or acquittal of several government critics. Nonetheless, Amnesty pointed also to PH’s promises to address human rights issues related to the Sedition Act and the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA), as well as the situation of LGBTI people in Malaysia. [Amnesty International]

21 August 2018

China-Malaysia relations in the spotlight as Mahatir visits Beijing

(ls) Malaysia wants to improve its business and economic relations with China, said Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, as he visited Beijing. Regarding the large debts Malaysia owes China, he largely put the responsibility for these claims on his predecessor Najib Razak. Part of Mahatir’s agenda for the trip was to renegotiate the terms of over US$20 billion of Beijing-backed projects. As observers have noted, Mahathir was more direct in his criticism of China before the election, but that “economic realities” may have come into play now he is in power. [Bernama] [South China Morning Post]

Apart from renegotiating infrastructure deals and trade issues, the two countries’ strategic ties and the South China Sea dispute have been discussed in meetings with Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Mahathir seeks to reposition Malaysia internationally, which may also have implications for ASEAN’s global role. He is engaging the Chinese, and there are indications of a revival of his Look East policy of the 1980s and 1990s in which Japan played a major role with investment and technology transfer. [The Diplomat]

14 August 2018

Malaysia: Saudi-backed anti-terrorism centre shut down; New charges against Najib

(jk) Just over a year ago, during a visit of Saudi-Arabia’s King Salman to Malaysia, him and former PM Najib Razak had declared to open the King Salman Centre for International Peace in Malaysia as a centre that operates to promote peace and research Islamic terrorism in the region. It was built to invite scholars from Saudi-Arabia to Malaysia but has raised concerns that under PM Najib’s reign, the conservative interpretation of Islam in Saudi-Arabia would gain strength and popularity in Malaysia. [SCMP 1]

Under Najib, ties between the two countries have grown closer and Najib maintains to this day that funds gone into his personal accounts which are treated as part of the ongoing 1MDB scandal were “donations” from Saudi-Arabia. He has also deployed Malaysian troops to the Gulf Kingdom, which according to the current Malaysian Defence Minister may also be withdrawn in the near future. [Al Jazeera]

In related news and as the legal case against the former PM deepens, Najib will now also be charged for money-laundering. He continues to plead not guilty and remains free on bail for the time being. [SCMP 2]

14 August 2018

Malaysia: More power to the Parliament

(jk) Malaysian PM Mahathir has announced plans to put both the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the National Audit Department under parliamentary oversight, rather than under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) oversight as is currently the case.

The agencies are to be overseen by parliamentary committees to reduce the abuse of power that is possible under current arrangements in which the PM can demote, promote or sack staff relevant to the agencies work. Some of the changes need new laws or even constitutional amendments however, therefore the changes will not occur immediately but “as soon as possible”. [Malay Mail]

14 August 2018

US-Southeast Asia Naval Exercises

(jk) The US Navy and Marine Corps are currently conducting the 24th annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) which includes a series of bilateral exercises with several ASEAN states as well as Bangladesh. This year’s CARAT started with Thai-US Navy exercises back in June and is currently continuing with both Malaysia [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command 1] and Indonesia [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command 2]. Similar training will also occur with Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines. [Stars and Stripes]

Much of the training is taking place in the South China Sea and includes all claimant states but China and Taiwan.

7 August 2018

Malaysia: Anwar Ibrahim clearing hurdles on his (long) way to PM

(jk) Former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) “adviser” Anwar Ibrahim has submitted his nomination papers to contest for the presidency post in the upcoming party polls and won the presidency of PKR uncontested. This is another important step if Malaysia is serious about its plan to implement Anwar as Mahathir’s successor.

He will still need to run in a by-election and be elected a member of parliament before he can be appointed premier in place of PM Mahathir Mohamad in about two years’ time, as agreed with the ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH). So far, there is little reason to believe the arrangement will change, but it is still very early on of course [The Strait Times].

24 July 2018

Malaysia: Plans to reduce voting age from 21 to 18

(jk) According to the youngest ever Malaysian cabinet member – the 25 year old Youth and Sports Minister, Malaysia is looking to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18 before the next elections due in 2023. The move would increase the electorate by over 3.5 million voters [The Straits Times].

17 July 2018

Malaysia: Parliament sworn in as government’s direction remains open

(ls) A little over two months after Malaysia’s general elections that resulted in the landslide victory of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance under former and new Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad, the parliament has been sworn in. The historic sitting saw Mahathir’s returning to Parliament as premier. Ninety of the 222 lawmakers who took their oaths were first-time MPs, the highest number since Parliament first convened in 1959. The formerly governing coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) has been reduced to three parties from 14, with only 51 MPs. It forms the largest opposition bloc. Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) holds 18 seats. [The Straits Times]

Former PM Najib Razak was sworn-in as an opposition MP for the first time in his political career. Najib had been briefly detained and then released on bail last week in connection with the ongoing 1MDB investigations. Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), which is leading the investigation into 1MDB, froze more than 400 bank accounts, a move which Najib described as a violation of his personal freedoms. [Reuters]

Despite the euphoria surrounding PH’s and Mahatir’s victory in May, it remains open whether the government is actually steering toward more liberal politics. One incident exemplifying the still strong influence of conservative Muslim groups occured when the government failed to defend a minister’s interim aide who abruptly quit his position after facing online attacks from conservative Muslim commentators over his past gay rights advocacy. Malaysia’s largest voting bloc – rural, Malay Muslims – remains deeply conservative and largely unsympathetic towards several human rights issues. [South China Morning Post]

10 July 2018

Southeast Asia’s presence at RIMPAC largest since the naval drills began in 1971

(jk) The US-led Rim of the Pacific exercises (RIMPAC) in 2018 involves 25 countries, 25,000 military personnel, as well as over 50 warships and 200 aircraft [RIMPAC]. It was designed to enhance interoperability among navies and consists of activities ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to counter-piracy training and more complex warfighting exercises including air defence or anti-submarine warfare.

While the biggest news about this year’s RIMPAC was undoubtedly the disinvitation of China over its behaviour in the South China Sea, it is also important to point out that 2018 sees a record of seven Southeast Asian countries participate. Vietnam participates for the first time in the exercises amid growing military to military relations with the US. The Philippines and Malaysia have both for the first time send warships to participate. The three missing ASEAN countries are under sanctions by the US and therefore limited in terms of military cooperation (Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar) [CNN]. All ten ASEAN members are also expected to participate in a maritime exercise with China later in 2018 as publicised by Singapore’s defence ministry last year [South China Morning Post].

10 July 2018

Malaysia will not deport controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik to India

(am) The Malaysian Prime Minister has made it clear that controversial Indian Islamic preacher Zakir Naik who is wanted in his home country on charges related to terror activities and hate speech will not be deported to India. Zakir Naik had fled from India in 2016 to Malaysia where he was granted permanent residency. India is trying to negotiate with Malaysia to deport him back as both countries have an extradition treaty. [News 18]

News 18





10 July 2018

Malaysia: Ex-PM Najib’s arrested, then granted bail

(jk) Last Tuesday, ex-PM Najib was arrested by anti-graft officials over suspicious money transfers into his bank account from the 1MDB state investment fund. He pleaded not guilty to this and other charges against him and continues to claim his innocence. All charges have now been transferred to the High Court in Kuala Lumpur where he was granted bail at a fourth of the amount prosecutors asked for (around 250.000 USD) [South China Morning Post].

When he arrived at the court, he was met by crowds both of supporters and critics who want to see Najib go to jail. His supporters have set up a fund to collect money for his bail which they claim he can ill-afford now with most of his accounts frozen and properties seized [The Star, The Straits Times 1]. Indeed, around half the amount was collected publicly with donations from in and outside of Malaysia and with Najib paying the second instalment on Monday his bail has now been settled [The Straits Times 2].

The trial is set for next year. Najib faces three counts of criminal breach of trust and abuse of power charges. The former charges carry jail sentences of no less than two years and up to 20 years, with possible caning and fines. Under Malaysian law, however, men aged 50 years and above are exempt from caning. For abuse of power, he could be jailed up to 20 years and fined no less than five times the bribe value [The Straits Times 3].

10 July 2018

Malaysia’s new cabinet, PM plans Beijing trip

(jk) Last week, we reported on the administrative changes in Malaysia’s government and how some agencies have begun operating as entities independent of the Prime Minister’s Department and instead report directly to Parliament [AiR 1/7/2018].

The new Mahathir cabinet which is a significant milestone after Pakatan Harapan won the elections unexpectedly, consists of 24 ministries and two ministers in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of religion and law. It includes the first female deputy PM as well as the highest number of female ministers in any Malaysian cabinet to date [Khmer Times].

When the new Parliament convenes for the first time on July 16, UMNO president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is widely expected to lead the opposition [The Straits Times].

PM Mahathir in the meantime is planning to visit Beijing soon after suspending China-led infrastructure projects worth more than 20bn USD [South China Morning Post].

3 July 2018

Indonesia and Malaysia build alliance in palm oil dispute with EU

(ls) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has visited Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Istana Bogor in West Java. Both countries face similar challenges, such as the plan by the European Union to phase out the use of palm oil in transport fuels from 2030. Indonesia and Malaysia are two of the world’s largest producers and exporters of palm oil. The bilateral trade between the two countries last year was US$17.2 billion, making Malaysia the seventh-largest trading partner of Indonesia and its third-largest among ASEAN member-states, after Singapore and Thailand. [The Straits Times]

3 July 2018

Malaysia: Administrative and police restructuring; new UMNO chief

(ls) The new Malaysian government has made major changes to the organization of administrative and police authorities. A number of agencies have begun operating as entities independent of the Prime Minister’s Department and will instead report directly to Parliament. They include the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the National Audit Department, the Public Service Commission, the Education Service Commission and the Judicial Appointments Commission. Meanwhile, the Attorney-General’s Chambers is still under the Prime Minister’s Department, but its prosecuting functions have been placed under the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Whether the restructuring will increase accountability remains to be seen. [The Straits Times 1]

The police force will be reorganized, with three elite teams likely to be abolished. The units likely to be removed are the Special Task Force for Anti-vice, Gaming and Gangsterism (Stagg), the Special Task Force on Organized Crime (Stafoc) and the Special Tactical Intelligence Narcotics Group (Sting). They had previously faced allegations of corruption and malfeasance. [The Straits Times 2]

Meanwhile, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 65, was elected president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party of former PM Najib Razak that was defeated in May’s general elections. Zahid was deputy party head under Najib. [South China Morning Post] Zahid faces major challenges as a taskforce investigating the multi-billion dollar scandal at the 1MDB state fund froze UMNO bank accounts. [Reuters] Zahid himself was questioned by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) over the alleged abuse of funds of a foundation which is owned by his family. It was not clear whether the MACC also touched on the frozen accounts. [The Star]

26 June 2018

Mahathir Interview: China is a good neighbour – but not all Chinese projects and behaviours are good

(jk) As reported previously on AiR, Mahathir has ordered a review of a number of Chinese infrastructure projects that were negotiated under the premiership of his predecessor. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, he has now laid out that he is not at all “anti-China”, but that he does not welcome Chinese projects that involve giving all contracts to China, borrowing huge sums of money from China, and using only Chinese workers, material and imported goods. If arrangements like this are made, Malaysia stands little to gain and much to lose as seen in recent examples of Chinese projects in Sri Lanka (the Hambantota Port facility) and increasingly Pakistan.

With regards to the South China Sea, Mahathir argued that Malaysia has every intention of retaining the islands it has long claimed as its own, even in the face of new assertions from China. Generally speaking, he has argued for a de-escalation of tensions and a removal of war ships by all parties from the area. Instead, the waters should be safeguarded by small boats (from all concerned countries) that are capable to fight off pirates, but not capable to fight a war in the South China Sea (full interview: South China Morning Post).

26 June 2018

Malaysia: Multiple Charges against former PM Najib likely

(jk) PM Mahathir has told [Reuters] that investigators have an “almost perfect case” against the former PM and that multiple charges, including embezzlement, stealing government money, losing government money, using government money to bribe and others will be brought against him. He added that he expected Malaysia to make its first arrest in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) case within months and “hopefully” start a trial by the end of the year.

Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, who has also made headlines recently with an unusual amount of wealth and luxury goods, is also implicated in the investigations.

Najib, who also gave an interview for the first time since his defeat in May, stuck to his version of the story: his advisers and the management and board of 1MDB, had wrongly kept the alleged embezzlement of funds a secret from him. As for the money in his personal account, the US$681 million transferred were a donation from Saudi Arabia, and his wife’s handbags were largely gifts to his wife and daughter [South China Morning Post 1]. Najib’s account has been immediately dismissed by Mahathir and other leading forces in Malaysia’s ruling coalition [South China Morning Post 2].

17 June 2018

Mahatir: Opting for Japan, less for China?

(ls) Malaysia’s prime minister Mahatir was on a working trip to Tokyo which also involved a meeting with Japanese premier Shinzo Abe. The visit was also seen as a sign of Malaysia’s move away from China, which contentiously pumped billions of dollars into the scandal-tainted previous Najib Razak administration. Japan is Malaysia’s largest foreign direct investment contributor at $13 billion last year. But also ties with China peaked in the last few years after Beijing stepped in with a $2.3 billion deal to buy 1MDB assets. This was followed by several infrastructure projects which were won by Chinese state-linked firms. [Reuters]

While in Tokyo, Mahatir said when the “Look East Policy” was first formulated when he was prime minister back in the 1980s, it was not just about drawing investments from Japan or coming to study in this country, but also about “acquiring the Japanese work ethics, the Japanese sense of shame whenever they fail to deliver what they have promised to deliver”. [Bernama]

However, Mahathir also announced that he will review Malaysia’s membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TP-11), the multilateral trade deal that was brokered under Japan’s leadership, after the United States withdrew from the original Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Mahatir warned that weaker economies like Malaysia were at a disadvantage under the current terms. Nevertheless, in the unlikely event of a Malaysian pull-out of TPP-11, the treaty would remain in force as long as at least six countries have ratified it. [The Straits Times]

17 June 2018

Malaysia: Continued clean-up by new government as Barisan Nasional is on the verge of collapse

(ls) Post-election developments in Malaysia continue to unfold at breath-taking speed. After several senior public servants have left their posts since the former government lost power, Malaysia’s top two judges will resign as well.  Chief Justice Raus Sharif and Court of Appeal president Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin are to step down on July 31. The judges had their terms extended last year despite exceeding the legal retirement age of 66 for their posts, in a move that sparked protests from now-Prime Minister Mahathir, then in the opposition, and the legal community. [The Straits Times 1]

Evidence of corruption and financial malfeasance by former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak helped the new PM Mahathir’s opposition alliance win national elections on May 9. As it becomes clear now, the country is in far worse financial shape than previously assumed. The national debt, stated at $170 billion by Najib’s administration, has been reassessed, along with other government liabilities, at $250 billion. That is 80 percent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product. [The New York Times 1]

The Malaysian government meanwhile intends to seek restitution from Goldman Sachs, as it moves to resolve the huge 1MDB scandal that led to the disappearance of billions of dollars and helped put the country deeply in debt. Goldman Sachs helped the 1MDB fund raise $6.5 billion in 2012 and 2013 through bond sales. Investigators say $2.5 billion of that money was then diverted to senior officials for their personal gain. The bank, which earned $600 million in fees for its work selling the bonds, said it was unaware of any wrongdoing. [The New York Times 2]

At the same time, the former government coalition and now opposition Barisan Nasional (BN) appears to be on the verge of being disbanded. Four Sarawak BN parties announced their exit from the coalition. Their departure has left BN seriously weakened, with just four parties remaining from the original 13 just before the general election. BN and its predecessor Alliance Party ruled Malaysia for 61 years since independence. [The Straits Times 2]

The four defecting parties have formed the Gabungan Parti Sarawak coalition (GPS). They said they would continue to be in the opposition in parliament, but also indicated that they would “cooperate and collaborate” with the federal government on national interest and state rights. If they side with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition of Prime Minister Mahatir, that would create a two-thirds majority that would allow PH to change the Federal Constitution. [The Star]

10 June 2018

Malaysia: A non-Malay Attorney General and other post-election developments

(ls) Malaysia’s newly elected government has appointed a new Attorney General. The lawyer Tommy Thomas is the first person from outside Malaysia’s Malay majority to hold the powerful position in more than half a century. His main job will be to lead the investigations in the 1MDB scandal in which former prime minster Najib Razak and his wife are among the main suspects. Thomas’s predecessor, Mohamed Apandi Ali, in 2016 cleared Najib of any wrongdoing in the 1MDB case which was now re-opened by the new prime minister Mahatir Mohamad. This week, Najib’s wife was questioned by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. [Associated Press]

Prior to Thomas’s appointment, which was consented by the King, there have been concerns from Malay and Muslim groups he would be unable to up-hold Islam’s status in Malaysia, given his assertions that the country is a secular state. Responding to these concerns, PM Mahathir and Deputy PM Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said that the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government will continue to safeguard Islam. Thomas’ appointment followed PH’s pick of an ethnic Chinese, Lim Guan Eng, as Finance Minister – a post which was continuously held by ethnic Malays since 1974. Malaysian politics have traditionally been characterized by issues related to ethnic representation. According to Malaysia’s federal constitution, Islam is the official religion, with freedom for other religions. [The Straits Times]

In an informative interview with the South China Morning Post, Anwar Ibrahim, who is likely to take over the office of prime minister from Mahatir in two years, has talked about foreign policy, the hours spent in prison, the need to accommodate dissenting voices in the coalition for the sake of unity, and why moving with caution on dismantling race-based policies is the wiser option. [South China Morning Post]

In the Washington Post, Josh Rogin argues that Malaysia after the election presents an opportunity for the United States to score a rare victory over China in Asia. Mahathir has either paused or canceled several major Chinese-funded investment projects amid allegations of kickbacks to Najib and predatory deal terms. Beijing was heavily invested in Najib, and, as Rogin writes, the Malaysian people resent it. [The Washington 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]

3 June 2018

Malaysia drops challenge to ICJ ruling on Pedra Branca

(am) Malaysia has dropped two cases to revise and interpret a judgment of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) from 2008 judgment, which awarded sovereignty of Pedra Branca to Singapore. [Channel News Asia]

3 June 2018

Malaysian PM Mahathir claims fraud in general election vote count

(am) Newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad alleged that the recent elections were hampered by significant fraud, claiming that some candidates members of his – eventually victorious – Pakatan Harapan party alliance lost due to a large number of spoilt votes.

“There were candidates who had been declared winners, but all of a sudden other ballot boxes were brought in, which caused the candidates to eventually lose. [Channel News Asia]

3 June 2018

Malaysia´s King and Mahathir different opinions on new Attorney-General?

(hg) The new Malaysian government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad faces its first challenge over the appointment of a new Attorney-General. The crucial position is especially important against the background of the ongoing investigations against former Prime Minister Najib. Prime Minister Mahathir had fired Attorney-General Tan Sri Mohamad Apandi Ali based on serious complaints against him and replaced him provisionary by the Solicitor-General with immediate effect. [The Star]

After the Prime Minister has suggested a candidate for the position, there seem to be diverging opinions between the government and the Malaysian King who should be appointed as the new Attorney-General. The King has not endorsed Mahathir´s candidate but instead suggested four other names to the Prime Minister. [The Star]

The issue will now be deliberated among the Malay Rulers who periodically elect the King from among themselves on June 5. [Malaysian Digest]

According to Article 145 (1) of the Federal Constitution “the Yang di-Pertuan Agong [King] shall, on the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint a person qualified to be a Federal Court judge to be the Attorney-General for the Federation. Article 145 (5) states however that “[…] the Attorney-General shall hold office during the pleasure of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and may at any time resign his office and, unless he is a member of the Cabinet, shall receive such remuneration as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong may determine”. [Malaysian Digest]

27 May 2018

Malaysia: New Cabinet defines policies as anti-corruption crackdown intensifies

(ls/am) Malaysia’s new Cabinet held its first meeting on Wednesday. The 14-member Cabinet decided that each minister will take a 10 per cent salary cut and that nine agencies will be dissolved, mostly bodies that played political roles for the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) administration. Among them are the government’s propaganda unit called Special Affairs Department (Jasa), the National Council of Professors that groups academicians, the Federal Village Development and Security Committee and the Malaysian External Intelligence Organisation. [The Straits Times 1]

The Malaysian Home Ministry will review seven laws relating to national security that are no longer suitable in today’s landscape, said the new Home Minister. These laws are the: Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Sedition Act 1948, Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (POCA), Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA), Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015 (POTA), and the mandatory death sentence for certain crimes. [Channel News Asia] A serious reform regarding these laws would be a remarkable step as they have been an important pillar of the latently repressive state, having ensured regime stability for decades.

The Straits Times has summarized the new government’s key reform policies ranging from economic, tax, healthcare and corporate reforms to reducing foreign labor. [The Straits Times 2]

Meanwhile, Anwar Ibrahim, who is expected to replace 92-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in a year or two, said Malaysia must assure the nation’s largest racial group that its security would be upheld. Previously Anwar had called for affirmative action policies that favor ethnic Malays to be dismantled. In 1971, two years after race riots that left hundreds dead, the Prime Minister Abdul Razak initiated Malaysia’s New Economic Policy, giving ethnic Malays cheaper housing and quotas for college scholarships, government contracts and shares of listed companies. It sought to raise the share of national wealth for Malays and indigenous groups known as Bumiputera, or “sons of the soil,” who currently account for about 70 percent of the population. [Bloomberg]

In ongoing anti-corruption investigations against the previous government, Malaysian police has seized money amounting to 114 million ringgit (US$28.6 million) in an apartment linked to ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak. Najib’s party UMNO said that the money was campaign contributions and party funding left over after the election, about to be transferred to the party’s new leadership. UMNO has long been known for its ‘cash politics’, as the party has built its support among ethnic Malays through a system of patronage. [South China Morning Post 1]

The 1MDB scandal is clearly dominating the agenda of the new government, after it campaigned on alleged wrongdoing at the fund in the election. Ex-PM Najib appeared at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) headquarters on Thursday for six hours of questioning related to 1MDB. A Malaysian task force investigating the fund met with officials from the US Department of Justice and the FBI to discuss the focus and direction of probes. [South China Morning Post 2]

20 May 2018

Malaysian politics after the elections: Anwar released from prison – Full-scale investigations into 1MDB scandal

(ls) Last week’s general election in Malaysia and the historic victory of the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) led by former and new Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad continues to dominate the news. Analysts point out that, for the first time in the nation’s history, the people did not vote along the lines of race and religion. Rather, the majority of all Malaysians – including rural voters – wanted change. [The Star 1]

On Wednesday, Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister and new coalition partner of his former nemesis Mahatir, was released from prison after about three years of imprisonment on sodomy charges that were seen as manipulated by political rivals, including by ex-PM Najib Razak. Pakatan Harapan incorporated Anwar into its top leadership just a day after he was pardoned by the King. The new alliance between Anwar and Mahatir, materializing since late last year, was a surprise for many as Anwar had also been imprisoned between 1999 and 2004 on corruption and sodomy charges that were publicly supported by then and new PM Mahatir. [The New York Times 1] [The Straits Times 1]

The election dramatically reversed Anwar’s fortunes, from prisoner to presumptive successor. “Give me a few months, I should be back as an MP. It is the correct thing to do,” said Anwar, a day after he walked free from custody. It also imperilled ex-PM Najib, who Anwar said now faces an “arduous” legal battle – without the protection of high office. [South China Morning Post 1] Referring to the likely power handover from Mahatir to Anwar, Mahatir said that “[in] an initial stage, maybe lasting one or two years, I will be prime minister (…) I will play a role in the background even when I step down.” [South China Morning Post 2]

New Prime Minister Mahathir announced his government’s pro-business and anti-corruption agenda in a televised address to the nation. He barred ex-PM Najib from leaving the country in the wake of the election over allegations that Najib oversaw the embezzlement of billions from the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. In searches of Najib’s homes and offices since Wednesday, police confiscated cash and jewellery. However, Mahathir said that he did not order the raids, but he supposed that the police had enough reasons to conduct them. [South China Morning Post 3] [The Star 2]

Other officials accused of covering up the corruption scandal stepped down or were placed on leave. Among them was the Attorney General, Mohamed Apandi Ali, who had cleared Najib of any wrongdoing in connection with 1MDB. The secretary general of the Malaysian Treasury and chairman of 1MDB, was also relieved of his duties. And the head of the anti-corruption commission (MACC), Dzulkifli Ahmad, also offered his resignation. [The New York Times 2]

MACC, then headed by Abu Kassim, began investigations into the allegations of graft and financial mismanagement at 1MDB and the transfer of 2.6 billion ringgit (S$647.09 million) to Najib’s bank accounts in 2015. In mid-2016, the Barisan Nasional government named Dzulkifli as the new MACC chief, replacing Abu Kassim who announced his early retirement. [The Straits Times 2]

Meredith Weiss, in the New Mandala, points to the difficult task of extricating party from state which is a complicated task not only by long-time habituation, but also by ownership patterns. Whereas the election may have dispossessed United Malays Nationalist Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) of their grip on government, this is not the case as regards their holding companies, which still control major media and other key assets. [New Mandala]

13 May 2018

Malaysia: Mahatir back in power after historic defeat of UMNO

(ls) In Wednesday’s Malaysian general election, the governing party UMNO/Barisan Nasional has lost power for the first time since Malaysia became independent more than 60 years ago. The big winner was former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (92) who had teamed up with his political opponents to form the Pakatan Harapan coalition. Mahathir was sworn in on Thursday as the new prime minister — the world’s oldest elected head of government — promising to fight corruption, prosecute ex-PM Najib Razak for corruption and unite the diverse nation of 31 million people. [The New York Times]

Pakatan Harapan (PH) won 113 of the 222 parliament seats, providing an absolute majority for Mahatir’s coalition. PH was particularly successful in peninsular Malaysia and the Kuala Lumpur metropolitan area. In separate state elections, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) had to concede key states to PH. Whereas BN was able to retain Perlis and Pahang, Mahatir’s PH wrested the Johor, Melaka and Negeri Sembilan state assemblies from BN. PH also retained Penang and Selangor. BN further lost Terengganu to Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). Full results and statistics are offered by the [The Straits Times 1].

Mahathir vowed to replace a number of ministers: “The heads of certain departments must fall. We find that some people are aiding and abetting the former prime minister who was described by the world as ‘kleptocrat’,” he told a press conference. [The Straits Times 2]

The election marks the return to power of Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister. Mohamad Mahatir already held the office for more than two decades between 1981 and 2003. During that time, he sacked dissenting judges, censored inconvenient journalists, and dismissed various human rights issues. In the South China Morning Post, Tashny Sukumaran provides an intriguing portrait of Mahatir, his changing relations to Anwar Ibrahim and his insatiable hunger for power. [South China Morning Post]

6 May 2018

Malaysia: Latest developments before the General Election on 9 May

(ls) Malaysia’s general election is only a few days away. Whereas Prime Minister Najib Razak and his main challenger, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, are in full campaign mode, opposition politician Tian Chua filed a suit against the Election Commission (EC) for barring him from defending his parliamentary seat of Batu in Kuala Lumpur. Chua, who held the Batu seat for two terms from 2008, was disqualified because of a RM2,000 (S$675) fine imposed on the politician in March for insulting a police officer. Malaysian law disqualifies a Member of Parliament from public office if he or she is sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than one year or is fined not less than RM2,000. [The Straits Times 1]

Illustrating the shake-up of Malaysian politics, former finance minister Daim Zainuddin made a surprise appearance at an opposition rally, rather than at one organized by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. Daim was in the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – who is now an opposition leader – and he was also Umno’s treasurer. [The Straits Times 2]

Meanwhile, Kuala Lumpur police are investigating Mahatir under the new Anti-Fake News Act after complaints over Mahathir’s claim that his chartered plane was sabotaged. [South China Morning Post] On a side note, the first person charged and convicted under the new law has been reported to be a 46-year-old Danish national of Yemeni descent. The man was arrested after he allegedly made “false and damning claims” in relation to the murder of a Palestinian lecturer in Kuala Lumpur in April. [Business Insider]

BN is facing its toughest election yet. But, as a Reuters report argues, the chances of incumbent PM Najib losing are seen as slim, in large part because of rural areas that faithfully vote for BN. Votes in sparsely populated areas carry more weight than votes in cities. For example: Igan on Borneo, with just 19,592 voters, is the country’s smallest constituency in terms of electorate size. By contrast, Bangi, an urban constituency in Selangor state held by the opposition, is the biggest with 178,790 voters. Both elect one lawmaker. [Reuters]

And, in terms of religion, Hew Wai Weng argues in the New Mandala, that Malaysia’s 14th general election is not so much a contest between Malays and non-Malays, Muslims and non-Muslims, Islamists and secularists, but more about various competitions of ideas among Muslims of different backgrounds. [New Mandala]

29 April 2018

Malaysia: Will the upcoming general elections take place under fair conditions?

(ls) The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) will not be allowed to monitor the country’s general election on May 9. The Election Commission informed Suhakam that its application to monitor the election was denied. [The Straits Times 1] In past parliamentary elections, there have frequently been allegations of irregularities and voter fraud.

Meanwhile, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), the political party of Mahathir Mohamad who is the major opponent of incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak, can operate as usual for now after it was granted a stay by the Kuala Lumpur High Court, against a temporary deregistration order by the Registrar of Societies (ROS). The party had been ordered to suspend its activities due to a failure to submit documents and details on its annual general meeting as requested by the registrar. [The Straits Times 2]

Earlier this month, AiR also reported about the gerrymandering exercised by the Election Commission ahead of the elections. Pin Lean Lau criticizes the role of the Commission and the fact that its actions are protected against judicial review. With references to constitutional and socio-legal backgrounds, she holds that the EC, tasked with the responsibility of maintaining fair and equitable elections, has proven itself to be a toothless tiger, working in the shadows of the ruling party. [Verfassungsblog]

In the New Mandala, Danesh Prakash Chacko argues that the redelineation exercises of 2016 to 2018 further erode Malaysia’s democratic institutions, emoralizing voters, preserving the urban-rural divide along racial lines, and suggesting the impossibility of change. At the same time, however, he holds that the redelineation process itself may not be as significant to the election’s outcome as some argue. [New Mandala]

29 April 2018

Malaysia as an “epicenter of international intrigue”?

(ls) A Palestinian lecturer suspected by Israeli intelligence services as a technology expert for the military wing of the Gaza-based Hamas movement was shot dead in Kuala Lumpur. Israel has officially distanced itself from allegations that it was responsible for the act. Malaysia has long served as a way station for extremists and is known as a transit hub for illicit goods. Moreover, the New York Times describes the country as an epicenter of international intrigue, pointing also to the killing of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of Kim Jong-un, by two women last year. [The New York Times]

In the most recent case, Hamas acknowledged that the lecturer was one of its members. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said it was likely that he was killed as part of an internal Palestinian dispute. However, he also said that the lecturer was “no saint”. [South China Morning Post]

22 April 2018

Malaysia: Party dissidents ask court to suspend governing party UMNO ahead of elections

(hg) Sixteen dissident members of United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – Malaysia´s dominating governing party since independence in 1957 – asked a court on 20 April to order suspension of all activities for allegedly breaching the party’s statutes.

The move comes after two former Malaysian cabinet ministers raised the question if UMNO could take part in the upcoming May 9 general election, as the party had twice postponed its internal party polls – way beyond a three-year period imposed by the party´s statutes. In fact, UMNO held its last internal votes in October 2013. After the responsible Registrar of Society (ROS) had accepted the delay last year ordering to hold polls until Thursday, April 19, 2018, the ROS last month gave UMNO another deadline. This time, the RoS allowed the governing party to postpone its polls again by one more year to April 19, 2019. Allegedly, UMNO had postponed its internal elections in the past few years as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib faced severe allegations in context of what seems to be a major corruption scandal.

The issue is even more sensitive as the ROS last month temporarily suspended opposition Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) for failing to abide by its constitution on a matter the registrar would not disclose. PPBM is led by former Prime Minister and ex-UMNO leader Tun Mahathir Mohamad who is challenging UMNO President and Prime Minister, Najib Razak in coalition with jailed Anwar Ibrahim. [The Straits Times]

Only one day after the 16 UMNO dissidents applied for judicial review, arguing they had been deprived of their right to choose the party leadership, they have been dismissed with immediate effect by the party. [Free Malaysia Today]

15 April 2018

Malaysia´s new ‘fake news’ law

(hg) Malaysia has a new fake-news law – a month ahead of upcoming general elections with the Prime Minister under public criticism over very serious allegations of massive corruption.

The act, passed by Malaysia’s parliament earlier this month, received royal assent on April 9 and was promulgated on April 11. It makes publishing fake news punishable by up to six years in jail and covers reports published in Malaysia or by foreign nationals overseas, as long as news relate to  Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen, while the central term “fake news” is broadly defined: “fake news includes 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”. [Quartz]





15 April 2018

Malaysia’s GE 14: Concerns 

(jk) Malaysia’s 14th General Elections face concerns over due procedure. Initial outcry over the election day – a weekday –,  which sparked fears of low voter turn-out, have since been alleviated as election day has been declared a public holiday [South China Morning Post].

In the meantime, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) expressed concern over the conduct of the Election Commission and fairness of the upcoming polls. According to its statement, there is declining confidence in the EC, partly due to the recent gerrymandering. There is also worry about the media failing to provide fair coverage and increases in hate speech ahead of the elections. The commission said it will be monitoring the upcoming polls, but also stressed constrains due to limited resources [Suhakam].

15 April 2018

Malaysian general elections set for May – will it be dirty?

(hg) The general election are set for May 9 by the Elections Commissionand will prove to be one of the toughest tests for the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition ever since 1957 independence and UMNO´s 61-year grip on power. Accused by the opposition that he will play dirty, Prime Minister Najib Razak is strongly weakened due to the overall economic costs and a multi-billion dollar scandal including $681m deposited into his personal bank account. [Al Jazeera]

Former UMNO leader and two decades long Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad –aged 92 – who now joins the opposition said the elections will be the dirtiest in the country’s history due to cheating by the “monster” prime minister. Dr Mahathir – Dr. M – is the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition which is not expected to be able to probably beat UMNO he used to lead.

Mahathir, who was himself accused of being an authoritarian leader when in office, faces now his new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia/Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Beratsu), temporarily disbanded due to registration formalities. [The Straits Times]

Current UMNO leader Najib, 64, became Prime Minister in 2009 to lead the BN coalition in its worst national elections in 2013 where it secured its lowest number of parliamentary seats to experience its first-ever loss of the popular vote.

In 2014, Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir´s former Deputy Prime Minister who became his arch-enemy and major challenger of UMNO domination over Malaysian politics, has been jailed for sodomy again. Anwar, 70, effectively leads the People’s Justice Party from behind bars and is scheduled to be released June 8.

Mahathir, who first put Anwar in prison for sodomy almost two decades ago, is now allied with Anwar in a bid to oust Najib together forming an opposition coalition named Pakatan Harapan/Pact of Hope. The deal is to put forward Mahathir to serve as Prime Minister until Anwar is eligible, which would need a royal pardon and to win a parliamentary seat at the next occasion. [The Washington Post]

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]

8 April 2018

“Fake news” vs. freedom of expression and free elections in Southeast Asia

(ls/thn) As expected, Malaysia’s parliament has approved the law prohibiting fake news. As AiR reported last week, it is the first measure of its kind in the world and would allow for up to six years in prison for publishing or circulating misleading information – this means „any news, information, data and reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form of capable suggesting words or ideas.“ This also concerns fake news generated outside the country, as long as Malaysia or Malaysians are affected. [The New York Times 1]

“This law is not intended to restrict freedom of speech but to restrict the dissemination of fake news,” said de facto law minister Azalina Othman Said. Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said that “the Malaysian government has no monopoly on the truth, but it is attempting to be the arbiter of what can and can’t be said and written.” [The Straits Times 1]

In an intriguing piece, Alwyn Lau examines the new fake news legislation from a Zizekian perspective, holding that the fight against fake news may prove fatal to reality itself as the social world cannot survive without its fictions. Against the background of the fact that most observers suspect that the primary motif behind the law to be the suppression of news critical of the ruling regime, he writes that, ironically, in order to protect its own lies, the government employs a law about ensuring only the truth is disseminated. [New Mandala]

Certainly, the Malaysian law needs to be seen in a wider Asian context. Reuters has compiled a factbox about actions by Asian governments to crack down on fake news. [Reuters]

The Indonesian Communications Minister threatened to shut down Facebook and other social media platforms if there is any evidence that the personal data of citizens is being harvested or if the platforms fail to crack down on “fake news” during upcoming elections. [The Straits Times 2]

In Myanmar, civil society groups on Thursday criticized Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, arguing that he mischaracterized his company’s effectiveness at detecting and quashing messages encouraging violence in the country. Facebook has become a major channel for the spread of hate speech and propaganda in Myanmar that has encouraged and obfuscated ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim Rohingya, according to human rights groups. [The New York Times 2]

Moreover, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica allegedly helped put the Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte into office, according to media reports and information pulled from the firm’s website. The company said on their website that in the run up to the 2016 election its client, Duterte, was perceived as kind and honourable, but that the firm rebranded him as a strong, no-nonsense man of action to win. [South China Morning Post]

8 April 2018

Malaysia: Election within 60 days as Mahatir’s party is temporarily dissolved

(ls) Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Friday announced the dissolution of parliament, paving way for the widely-anticipated 14th General Election likely to be held in early May. Najib’s five-year term officially ends on June 24, but the prime minister can dissolve parliament any time before the end of his term with the king’s assent and call an election that needs to take place within 60 days after the dissolution. The Election Commission is expected to announce the dates for nomination and polling by next week. [Asian Correspondent]

On Thursday, former premier Mahathir Mohamad’s new political party was ordered to be temporarily dissolved because of missing paperwork. The Registrar of Societies said in a letter that Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia had failed to meet a 30-day deadline to hand over paperwork proving the party had complied with registration requirements. The party can appeal against the ruling or reverse the order if it provides the required documents within 30 days. [South China Morning Post]

In the New Mandala, Clive Kessler describes how democratic transition under electoral democracy is not easily achieved in Malaysia. He holds that, while it is not easy for an opposition to win an election in Malaysia, it is far harder for them, even having done so, to assume power and rule. He writes that an opposition must not only win but win decisively, in a compelling manner, so that the outgoing ruling bloc will really leave office. [New Mandala]

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

Malaysia: Gerrymandering ahead of general elections

(ls) Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government on Wednesday pushed through controversial changes to the country’s constituency boundaries. Najib told parliament the changes were necessary because of significant demographic changes in the country of 32 million people since the last boundary alteration in 2003. Opposition lawmakers immediately slammed the move as an attempt to steal a general election expected to be held within weeks. [South China Morning Post]

The changes will affect 98 out of 165 parliamentary seats in Peninsular Malaysia. Only seats in Perlis and Putrajaya will not see any changes. Johor, Selangor and Perak states are the most affected, with 19, 18 and 16 parliamentary seats respectively seeing changes of some kind. If the new boundaries had been used in the 2013 general election, Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition would have won 93 seats (instead of 85) while the opposition would have taken 72 seats (instead of 80). [The Straits Times 1]

Selangor government’s filed an immediate appeal against the Election Commission’s redelineation exercise to the Court of Appeal. However, the court held that it had no jurisdiction to decide the case, although the Selangor government had the locus standi to initiate the judicial review and were right in questioning the redelineation process. [The Straits Times 2]

Against this background, Luke Hunt examines in the Diplomat how the Malaysian election campaign starts to get nasty, describing how it is marked by a government plagued by allegations of corruption, the increasingly fierce fight between Najib and his nemesis Mahatir Mohamad as well as Anwar Ibrahim, and traditional ethnic and religious rivalries. [The Diplomat]

In the New Mandala, Anthony Milner analyzes how the election campaign is characterized by Malay ethnic demands, Islamic aspirations and royal assertiveness, which each in its particular way challenges the liberal, secular structure that many saw being established with the 1957 constitution. Milner holds that accommodating these claims will be a major challenge for the next government. [New Mandala]

25 March 2018

Malaysia/ Thailand border: Planned wall a political matter

(thn) Last week, it was announced that Thailand and Malaysia agreed on a plan for a border wall in Songkla. Though stated as efforts to strengthen security operations and fight transnational crime, according to ASEAN today, it is based on more of a „political calculation“, with an eye on elections that will eventually be held in Thailand. Critics are questioning the impact of the wall, particularly on smuggling efforts. There are already walls along the border but these are ineffective. Often, smugglers and traffickers cut holes in the fences and break holes in the walls. Moreover, the Thai PM is seen to use the wall in order to demonstrate progress and actions he is taking on the issue in the south [ASEAN today, The Straits Times].

18 March 2018

Malaysia: Dissolution of parliament in late March and elections in April or May

(thn) Malaysia’s parliament will be dissolved in late March between the 28th and 30th, and general elections must be held by August according to Reuters. Sources say that the election date could be set for the end of April or early May. The term of the current government ends on June 24. The parliament is scheduled to sit until April 5. [Reuters]

Both government and opposition leaders have been criss-crossing the country to prepare for the upcoming polls. As analysts say Prime Minister Najib Razak was confident of an election victory, he is expected to table new electoral maps next week which would favour his ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN). [The Straits Times] As mentioned in last week’s AiR, parliament had earlier been expected to debate a proposed law to curb fake news, but the draft bill is not fully completed yet.

In the upcoming elections in Malaysia, but also in Indonesia, political Islam is likely to be a major factor. A number of candidates are aligning with fundamentalist parties in order to win over conservative voters. Critics fear that the increased influence of radical groups could hit democratic freedoms and polarize society. [CNBC]

18 March 2018

Japan: Strengthening bilateral security cooperation against China

(dql/thn) During his six-day visit to Japan, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena met Prime Minister Abe on Wednesday. The two leaders agreed on promoting bilateral cooperation on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region and advancing bilateral defense exchanges, with Japan pledging to provide assistance in capacity building for maritime law enforcement to Sri Lanka. Abe and Sirisena also agreed on cooperation in upgrading the Indian Ocean country’s infrastructure, such as port facilities in Colombo, to boost connectivity in the region.

The agreements signals Japan’s efforts to bolster its “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” in which Sri Lanka is viewed central in the wake of China’s growing maritime presence in Indian Ocean as the country is located near major sea lanes. [The Mainichi]

At the same time, Japan is strengthening its military and diplomatic presence in Southeast Asia by sending an extra defence attaché to its embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Japan has already sent two military officers to embassies in the Philippines and Vietnam last year. The appointment in Kuala Lumpur was confirmed by a spokesman for the ministry. However, he declined to explain Japan’s act. The appointments are being seen as another move by Tokyo to counter Bejing’s military  assertiveness. This concern is shared by some governments in Southeast Asia. [South China Morning Post]

11 March 2018

Malaysia’s King voices support for law against fake news which PM Najib is keen on prior to election campaign

(jk/thn) After a Sabah minister expressed his support for a proposed law against fake news as reported in last week’s AiR, Malaysia’s King Sultan Muhammad V said that he „greatly supported“ the government’s efforts in order to fight against „the spread of fake news and lies on social media“. He emphasized the significant influence social media has on society by shaping its values and culture and that „no one should politicise or trivialise the issue of national security.“ In January, the Government announced that a special committee had been formed to look into laws to curb fake news. Opposition lawmakers questioned the necessity for such a law, arguing that the government already had broad powers and many other laws which can deal with these issues. Fears are growing that PM Najib is seeking to use potential laws in this field to guide the discussion in the upcoming election campaign where the opposition is likely to focus on his role in the 1MDB scandal [The Straits Times, Reuters].

11 March 2018

Malaysia: General Elections Countdown

(jk) Since its formation in 1973, today’s ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) won all general elections held in Malaysia. Before that, the same coalition, already under the leadership of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), won under a different name, taking the electoral success to 13 general elections since independence in 1957. The upcoming election will be the 14th, with the most likely outcome to be another win for BN.

The predictability of the outcomes has in part to do the institutionally entrenched advantages of the incumbent party in the electoral contest, including gerrymandering [SEA Globe], which has facilitated the dominance of the UMNO’s ruling coalition. Malaysia’s economic development and relative social stability under BN leadership has also played a decisive role [ISEAS].

Notwithstanding, this year’s election could become a closer contested one than possibly any previous general election. With UMNO leader and PM Najib having survived, although not unscarred, the massive 1MDB corruption scandal and a fracturing of his ruling coalition, partly as a result thereof, BN is facing a stronger opposition under the leadership of former PM Mahathir who at 92 years of age pledges he would not seek to fulfil a full term as PM should he win the election. The fact that he runs despite not even wanting to serve a full term speaks volumes for the lack of trusted and popular politicians in the opposition, however. The electorate is unsatisfied with Najib, but as of yet, the opposition cannot be sure ignite enough spark in many voters who sit on the fence to bring down the ruling coalition for the first time in history [Asia Times; World Politics Review].

In an effort to change exactly that, the opposition is seen to try and rejuvenate itself with more and more new faces in their ranks, including the leader of Malaysia’s biggest pro-democracy group Bersih [Channel News Asia; South China Morning Post]. Nonetheless, should the upset take place, it is rumoured that Mahathir would become PM until his foe-turned-ally Anwar Ibrahim is released from prison and pardoned so that he can take over. To steer away from ‘old’ politics, in addition to the younger blood, they have also included eye-catching proposals in their manifesto, such as the removal of an unpopular goods and service tax as well as a two-term limitation for a prime minister.

4 March 2018

Malaysia: Legislation against fake news being mulled

(thn) Sabah minister Teo Chee Kang belongs to the supporters of the proposed law against fake news. He believes curbing the spread of fake news will protect social media users but also ensure social harmony among individuals. Behind the demand is amongst other cases an unfortunate Malaysian citizen who was accused of being a foreign worker and therefore labelled a phantom voter in the previous polls. He suffered harassment after a man had taken a photo of his identity card and posted it on social media with accusing him of being a phantom voter. [Free Malaysia Today]

4 March 2018

Malaysia: Luxury yacht linked to 1MDB scandal seized in Indonesia

(ls) Indonesia on Wednesday seized a luxury yacht on the island of Bali sought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) as part of a multi-billion dollar corruption investigation linked to Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). 1MDB is at the center of money-laundering probes in at least six countries, including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is at the center of the scandal as he set up the fund in 2009 and previously served as chairman of its advisory board. [Reuters] The 1MDB scandal overshadows this year’s general election, in which Najib Razak will face a fierce contest with former 92-year old Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad.

25 February 2018

Malaysia: Amnesty International denounces guilty verdict against government critic

(lh) Amnesty International Malaysia raised doubts and deep concerns about the Ipoh Sessions Court’s decision punishing graphic designer Fahmi Reza to a one month’s jail and a fine of RM 30,000 for publishing a clown sketch of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak online, calling it another crackdown on dissenting voices by governmental powers. According to the Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia, it was “absurd” to sentence Fahmi with prison and a fine over a “cartoon drawing”, urging the authorities of Malaysia to end their practice of persecuting government critics and human rights activists. [Malay Mail]

25 February 2018

Philippine claim on Sabah may undermine regional security efforts

(ls/lh) A recent proposal in the Philippines’ Consultative Committee on constitutional reform to include the Malaysian state of Sabah within a federal system may, though unlikely to be realized, risk unsettling Malaysia-Philippine bilateral relations, argues Alexander Mcleod. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman criticized the proposal, reiterating that Malaysia does not recognize the Philippines’ claim. Sabah is recognized under international law as part of Malaysia since it was formed in 1963. The committee’s proposals, however, resonate with members of the southern Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a strong advocate of federalism. MNLF champions an independent ‘Bangsamoro Republik’ – covering Sabah, Sarawak, Mindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan and Palawan. [Global Risk Insights]

President Duterte has vowed in recent weeks and months to provide more autonomy for the southern parts of the country, which are his political strongholds. Whether the Philippines are indeed ready for the adoption of a federal system, however, remains doubtful. Even Duterte himself, speaking in December last year, said “the problem is the Filipinos are not ready for a federal type.” [The Philippine Star] The plans for constitutional reform have often been described as a mere political campaign to please Duterte’s supporters in Mindanao, his home.

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s counter-terrorism police have detained ten people – seven Filipinos and three Malaysians – suspected of helping terrorists enter the southern Philippines from Sabah. The smuggling of militant Islamic State (IS) fighters aims at facilitating efforts in conducting military trainings to set up an IS cell in the southern Philippines. [Channel News Asia]

18 February 2018

Malaysia: Uighurs, human rights and geopolitics

(hg) China has asked Malaysia to deport 11 ethnic Uygur Muslims who escaped with some others a Thai immigration detention center and fled to Malaysia. In November last year, a group of 25 Uygurs escaped their detention in southern Thailand only to be eventually re-detained in Malaysia.
The Uighurs are from the Chinese province in Xinjiang which has emerged into a highly repressive area in which even moderates are targeted in Beijing´s attempt to secure control.
Malaysia is now considering China’s request to extradite the Uighurs while the United States expressed concerns and Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Malaysia not to deport them as they “face credible threats of imprisonment and torture”. Beijing on the other side, accuses separatist extremists among the Uygur minority of plotting attacks on China’s Han majority in the restive far western region of Xinjiang. In 2017, Malaysia has deported 29 Uygurs suspected to be involved with Islamic militants after Thailand had deported more than 100 back to China two years ago. [South China Morning Post]

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]

11 February 2018

Malaysia: Mahatir would be Prime Minister for two years at most

(ls) Former Malaysian prime minister and now opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad says he will be Prime Minister for two years at most should Pakatan Harapan, an alliance of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Mahathir’s pro-Malay Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the Chinese-centric Democratic Action Party and moderate Islamic party Parti Amanah Negara win the 14th general election. As AiR reported earlier this year, if Mahatir becomes prime minister, he intends to eventually hand over the role to his former deputy and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. However, the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) is still very deeply entrenched throughout the federation, making Mahatir’s victory unlikely. [The Straits Times]

4 February 2018

Malaysia election’s date still not fixed as PM Najib waits for “inspiration”

(ls) Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he was waiting for inspiration to decide the right time to call a general election, with less than six months remaining until the end of his five-year term. “I’m waiting for some sort of spark, or what the Malays call ‘ilham’,” he said. Najib has until 24 June to call for elections, failing which parliament dis-solves automatically. Polls must be held within 60 days from the date of dissolution. [Channel News Asia] In recent weeks, AiR has reported regularly about the unprecedented challenge that Najib faces in this year’s election from his former mentor and ex-premier, Mahathir Mohamad.

Meanwhile, youth activists dissatisfied with the two competing political coalitions – the ruling Barisan Nasional and opposition Pakatan Harapan – have formed the #UndiRosak (spoilt vote) movement. The movement wants the people to show their protest and anger towards how there is no proper choice for them to even vote. Zan Azlee notes that, when it comes to the ruling party, many feel that corruption, cronyism and the old faces who have created the broken system are not fit to govern the country and need to go. However, he considers that abstaining from voting is not the right way to go. [Asian Correspondent]

4 February 2018

Malaysia: Federal Court decides that religious conversions must be agreed by both parents

(ls) The Federal Court of Malaysia said in a landmark decision on Monday that both parents must consent to the re-ligious conversion of a minor, ruling unanimously in favor of a Hindu woman, Ms. Indira Gandhi, whose ex-husband converted their three children to Islam without telling her. The wider implication of the decision is that civil courts can hear matters related to Islamic affairs even if there is a contradictory Shariah court decision. The case has been closely followed by large Chinese and Indian minorities who fear their rights are increasingly being trampled by Islamic jurisprudence. [The New York Times]

Subsequently, Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Tuesday that the Government may consider amending legislation to bring it in line with the ruling. The call for the Malaysian government to amend the relevant law to prevent unilateral conversion of children has received strong support from moderates, lawyers and politicians. [The Straits Times] The extensive media reporting about the case demonstrates the sensitivity of the topic in majority-Muslim Malaysia

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

Malaysia: Mahatir and Najib in campaign mode

(ls) Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (92) would become the world’s oldest person to be voted prime minister if he won Malaysia’s upcoming general election. With the next election due by August, Mahathir has entered the campaign mode and is reworking his image. He presents himself no longer as an autocratic prime minis-ter who ruled Malaysia for over two decades, but rather as the opposition’s kind elder statesman. However, it re-mains doubtful whether the younger generation will be excited by a man who is almost a century old. [Reuters]

Current Prime Minister Najib Razak, on a visit to neighboring Singapore, distanced himself in foreign policy matters from Mahatir, his former mentor turned nemesis. With clear references to his predecessor, Najib said he did not want Malaysian-Singaporean ties to return to the “era of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric”, adding that the fraught relationship of yesteryear was “an era we want to forget”. This demonstrates how the election cam-paign is becoming increasingly visible on all levels of Malaysian politics. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, a discussion has erupted about whether civil servants should be punished for supporting Malaysia’s opposition. Education Minister Mahdzir Khalid warned teachers and ministry officers from such actions. He said they were barred from joining any opposition party or criticizing the government. [Asian Correspondent]

19 January 2018

Malaysia: Updates on the new special court for human trafficking

(ls) Malaysia is creating a special court to tackle rising numbers of human-trafficking cases. The court is expected to be set up as early as May in the central state of Selangor, with a dedicated judge to hear cases. That pilot project will then be gradually rolled out in other parts of the country. Malaysia relies heavily on foreign domestic workers as well as laborers from countries including Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal for jobs shunned by locals including work on plantations and in construction. [South China Morning Post]

19 January 2018

Terrorist arbitrage in Southeast Asia

Quinton Temby describes how transnational terrorists engage in a type of triangular arbitrage in Southeast Asia to exploit the geopolitical differences between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. He argues that, instead of being motivated by profits, the terrorists seek to marshal scarce resources for attacks against their ideological enemies, and rely on the failure of the three major states to cooperate as well as on their knowledge of the different costs of mobilising resources across the fragmented archipelagic geography of maritime Southeast Asia. [New Mandala]

12 January 2018

Malaysia: Mahatir and Anwar making post-election plans already

(ls) It is official: Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (92) would become the country’s seventh premier if the opposition parties win this year’s parliamentary election. However, he would vacate the post for jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (70) once Anwar became eligible to be appointed prime minister [The Straits Times 1].
Anwar, who is currently still behind bars for a sodomy conviction back in 2015, will be released on 8 June this year. The date of the Malaysian parliamentary election is likely before or shortly after that, as it must take place before 24 August. However, Anwar cannot run for political office for five years after his release, unless the Malaysian King pardons him [The Straits Times 2].

5 January 2018

Malaysia: Election campaigns are about to begin – What are the main clashpoints?

The upcoming election campaign in Malaysia will see the country’s long-time autocratic ruler, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, recast as the man who just might bring an end to six decades of one-party rule in the country, argues the Globe and Mail. At the age of 92, he reinvented himself as a democracy-minded opposition leader. Now, it is Mahathir who complains about the authoritarianism of those in power. His primary target is his long-time protégé, Prime Minister Najib Razak [The Globe and Mail].Though the fierce battle for power between Mahathir and Najib will be the undoubted headline act this election year, the feud between Mahathir and the country’s hereditary Malay monarchs – stretching back to his strongman rule from 1981 to 2003 and reignited last year – will be another development to watch, reports Bhavan Jaipragas [South China Morning Post].Another pressing issue regarding the upcoming elections in Malaysia (though no date has been fixed yet) is the battle for the Malay Muslim vote, in particular the fortunes of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). Though the allegiance of conservative voters between the Islamist party and the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) may not provide immediate benefits for PAS, Wan Saiful Wan Jan of ISEAS argues that the long-term outlook may be bright [The Straits Times].